Disclaimer: Harry Potter & Co belong to JK Rowling. None of the characters or places mentioned belong to me, only the plot.
Had he known in advance the degree to which his life would change as a result of turning that corner, it is entirely possible that Draco would have spun around right then and headed straight back to the Slytherin common room.
But he had no idea what was in store for him; no concept of the grief, and ultimately the joy, that would come to pass as a result of taking that bend in the corridor, and the Slytherin common room was the last place in all of Hogwarts he wanted to be just then. Even Gryffindor Tower looked appealing in comparison. Well, actually, no. Given a choice between the two, he would return to his own kind before setting foot in Gryffindor territory. But given his hatred of that particular House, and theirs of him, that wasn't saying much. The party that Pansy had been busily organizing for the past month was now in full swing, and Draco wasn't feeling sociable. He had done his time, putting in an appearance as was expected of him- he was, after all, Head Boy, not to mention Slytherin Quidditch captain- but had slipped out the moment he had felt he was no longer the center of attention.
Which meant that he had spent considerably more time drinking bland punch and fending off Pansy's advances than he would have liked. Because he was the center of most Slytherins' attention. Especially now as Head Boy, but even before his seventh year he had always been something of a celebrity in Slytherin House, for his name, for his wealth, for his family's privileged position within the Dark Lord's innermost circle, for his skill at Quidditch- (although he had yet to beat Potter to the golden snitch, he had secured many a victory for Slytherin over the years against Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff)- and, among his female housemates, for his appearance.
He was, like his nemesis Harry Potter, built relatively small and light- a requirement in a good seeker- but his lean body had a wiry sort of strength all the same, and with his shock of silver hair and eerie, pale eyes, he certainly turned heads. He was not a bronzed god by any stretch of the imagination, but his looks were compelling, in their own way. And on those rare- exceedingly rare- occasions when he smiled...not smirked, which he did a dozen times a day, but actually smiled, which he had done perhaps a dozen times in all his years at Hogwarts- the effect was, simply put, dazzling.
He was not smiling now. He was very nearly snarling, as a matter of fact, as he brooded over Pansy's latest brazen attempts at seduction. Bad enough he was expected by his family to marry her shortly after graduation- her pedigree was, after all, impeccable- he would not consent to jumpstart the lifetime of suffering that he knew lay in store by attaching himself to her now. Their marriage would be an arranged one and although he would submit to it, he refused to lend it any false validation by actually dating her beforehand. The fact that he was under strict orders from his father to escort her to every school ball was bad enough. Spending time with her voluntarily was out of the question.
Ugh. Simpering, pug-faced little-
What was that?
He stopped for a moment, head cocked to one side, listening. From up ahead, around a bend in the corridor, came the sound of a door slamming open, then shut again- the potions lab?- and then footsteps- at least two pairs, racing away down the hall, accompanied by low sniggers and the occasional barely stifled guffaw. Crabbe and Goyle, perhaps? He hadn't seen them at the party, come to think of it.
He stayed where he was a moment longer, until the sounds had faded into nothing, grateful that he had missed them, whoever they were, especially if they were in fact Crabbe and Goyle. Though it was undeniably useful at times to have a pair of large and very devoted goons to do one's every bidding, hanging out with those two was not something Draco ever did for fun.
God, but they were stupid.
And what had they been doing in an empty classroom well after curfew, anyway? Committing petty acts of vandalism, probably, that he would inevitably have to cover up for them by blaming Peeves because they themselves were too dumb to think of shunting the blame onto anyone else. It had happened before. And whose classroom had the idiots decided to vandalize? Why, that of their very own Head of House, of course. Honestly, if this was how they got their kicks, why in the hell couldn't they target McGonagall, or that moron Trelawney?
Oh right, because they were stupid.
He shook his head in exasperation. What had he ever done to deserve to be saddled with such idiots for "friends"? There wasn't another member of Slytherin House who could come close to matching his intellect, and Draco, who harbored no false modesty on this or any other account, knew it. And since he was unwilling to approach the members of any other House, intelligent conversation was a luxury he had long ago given up hoping for. His best means of escape from his intellectually challenged Housemates was to sneak off to the library and lose himself in a good book every now and again. It was where he was headed at the moment, as a matter of fact, being reasonably sure, since it was after hours, that it would be deserted- which was just the way he liked it.
On this of all nights, he severely doubted that anyone was studying.
These were the thoughts that were running through his mind as he turned the corner and entered the stretch of corridor that housed the potions lab.
And stopped short, his eyes suddenly riveted on the classroom door.
What he saw next would, though he little guessed it at the time, change his life.
As he watched, the door, which had previously been shut by whoever he had heard exiting the room, swung open once more, and a girl half-stumbled, half-fell through it into the hallway.
Not just any girl, either.
The Head Girl.
As Draco watched, flabbergasted, she very nearly fell to the floor, but managed to catch hold of the door jamb and steady herself against it. She then very carefully edged around the doorway until her back was pressed to the stone wall of the corridor, leaning heavily against it.
She looked like hell. Her uniform was rumpled, her hair disheveled, a large bruise already beginning to form on one cheek, a bright trickle of blood escaping the corner of her mouth. Both her arms were wrapped tightly, protectively, about her midsection, and her breath was coming in shallow, ragged little gasps.
Draco stared for a long moment, as she stood there, propped against the wall, with her eyes closed. Then comprehension dawned in him, and a forcible "huh" of air was expelled from his lungs as he realized exactly what this meant.
Crabbe and Goyle- he was now sure it had been them- had just roughed up the Head Girl. Jesus Christ. They were ten times more stupid than he had ever given them credit for. They would be expelled for this! How the hell was he going to cover this up?
And come to think of it, did he even want to?
His first instinct was usually to protect his own- well, to protect himself and then his own- it always had been. But this- the idea of a pair of brutes the size of Crabbe and Goyle cornering and beating up a girl- even Granger- something about it repulsed him. It was just...low. Though golden boy Potter may not have believed it, Draco did follow a moral code of sorts, and hitting girls wasn't part of it. Playing rough at Quidditch was one thing; it was part of the game; girls who joined Quidditch teams knew what they were signing up for, but this- two behemoths like Crabbe and Goyle deliberately teaming up on a single, and rather petite, girl- it was plain wrong. No matter who she was.
But his reflections were cut short as Hermione's eyes flew open, startled. She had heard his exhalation a second ago. Staring at him down the length of corridor that separated them, she whispered something that could have been, "Oh, great. You." He wasn't entirely sure, though- her words were so soft.
Then her legs gave way and she slid down the wall to land hard, in a sitting position, at its base, visibly clamping down on a cry of pain. She dropped her head forward, but not before Draco saw a pair of tears streak down her cheeks.
He approached and crouched beside her.
"Sod...off. Malfoy." She didn't look up.
He had to fight the impulse to do exactly that- to leave the damned mudblood sitting there and go on his way, forget he'd ever seen this. He didn't need this complication in his life. This wasn't his problem.
Except that it was. She was Head Girl and he was Head Boy, and his very own goddamned pet goons were involved, and so this was his problem. Oh, yes.
"Granger," he repeated, in a tightly controlled voice, and then, when she finally, reluctantly, raised her eyes to meet his, "what happened?"
She said nothing, just glared at him. Or tried to, anyway. Her expression was too full of pain to be even remotely threatening.
He tried again. "Was it Crabbe and Goyle?" He already knew the answer to this- just wanted it confirmed.
She looked down and away. "Yes," she whispered.
A new and deeply disturbing thought occurred to him then, as he looked her over hard, noting her badly rumpled, and in places torn, clothing. "Granger, did they- they didn't-?"
"God, no!" she cried, catching his meaning, with a vehemence he had not expected. She turned back toward him, and her face was contorted with disgust. "I'd rather die!"
"Well, what in the bloody hell were you doing down here alone?!" he exploded, frustrated by everything about this situation, not least of all the conflicting feelings it was arousing within him. He wasn't supposed to be concerned about the mudblood, goddamn it all to hell! His only concern was supposed to be how to smooth this over and save the worthless hides of his two Housemates. He ought to be preparing to Obliviate the girl right now. And yet- he couldn't shake the feeling that Crabbe and Goyle had just gone too far this time. Too damn far by half. "You bloody well know this is unfriendly territory, Granger," he continued angrily.
"It's not like I came to pay a social call," she ground out. "I was patrolling."
"Patrolling," he echoed in disbelief. "By yourself? Where the hell is your partner? Where's Weasley?"
Every Friday and Saturday night the prefects took it in turns to patrol the halls of the school after curfew, and the Head Boy and Girl were not exempt from this less than popular duty. But always, a pair of prefects, usually from the same House and year, patrolled together. It was more than custom; it was a rule. Meant to prevent just such an occurrence as this. Why on earth had Granger been patrolling alone tonight?
"It's Valentine's Day," she whispered, bitterness unmistakable in her voice. "Ron decided he had better things to do."
For a moment, all Draco could do was stare at her, aghast. "But-" he finally managed, "but Weasley's meant to be one of your best friends. I wouldn't send Pansy patrolling on her own, and I don't even like-"
He caught himself abruptly, shutting his mouth with a snap. He had very nearly said too much.
"Why didn't Weasley find himself a replacement, then?" he asked a moment later, once he had composed himself.
"Everyone had plans tonight, Malfoy. Everyone." Hermione's tone was weary.
"Everyone but you," Draco corrected, unable to resist a little jab, even now.
There was that glare again.
"I don't notice any hot date on your arm," she snapped.
"I had my date in by curfew," Draco lied smoothly. "I'm just a gentleman that way."
At the word gentleman, Hermione gave a derisive snort- but the sound turned into a pained gasp and she folded herself over, head lowering to her updrawn knees, arms still wrapped tightly about herself, protectively hugging her body.
"Granger, where does it hurt?"
He sighed. "Come on, I'll get you to Pomfrey. I am Head Boy; I don't suppose I have a choice in the matter."
Her head flew up at this, and he was surprised to see the panic in her eyes. "Don't you dare, Malfoy!" she exclaimed. "I can't go there!"
"What the hell are you on about? Look at you, Granger, you're clearly hurt. Not that I care, but as Head Boy I have a duty-"
"Fuck you and your duty," she said, very clearly, and- he couldn't help it- his jaw literally dropped in astonishment. He had never dreamed she had such language in her. Not prissy little Granger. Good Lord, what next?
"I'm not going to the hospital wing," she repeated flatly. "Don't you get it, Malfoy? Patrolling alone is against the rules. I'd get in trouble for doing it, and Ron would get in worse trouble for letting me. And Harry would be furious with Ron, and...oh, it would be a mess! I could lose my badge for this, don't you see? I couldn't bear that! And...God, why am I telling you this?" Horror dawned on her features. "Why am I confiding in the one person who would love to see that happen?" More tears escaped her eyes and she dropped her head onto her knees again, muttering, "stupid, stupid, stupid..."
Draco thought fast. Here was the means to cover this whole ugly little incident up- she was offering it to him on a silver platter!
"Calm down, Granger," he said at length, "I won't turn you in against your will. After all, I have my own reasons for wanting this to stay quiet."
"You mean so you can protect those nightmares you call friends," she said, her voice muffled, head still down.
"Like you wouldn't do the same for Potter and Weasley," he retorted. "You just said a minute ago that you don't want Weasley to get in trouble over this- and in my opinion, he bloody well should get in trouble! This is his entire fault!"
"It's not his entire fault!" she cried. "He's not the one who- who- pulled me into an empty classroom and-" she trailed off, seemingly unable, or perhaps unwilling, to articulate what she had been through. "Anyway," she said a moment later, "it's different. I wouldn't protect Harry and Ron if they did something like this. Not even to you."
"Well, thanks, Granger," Draco drawled. "I'm touched." So saying, he got to his feet, then bent, caught her under the arms, and, without a further word, hauled her up as well. He had been about to go so far as to offer to walk her halfway back to Gryffindor Tower- an extraordinary concession for him to make, when you got right down to it- but what happened next caught him completely off-guard.
Apparently, yanking her up like that had caused further damage to her injuries, for she cried out again, as she had when she'd hit the floor earlier, and this time she didn't bother- or was not able- to stifle her cry. And then her legs buckled and she collapsed forward, right into him, her head crashing to his shoulder as she began to slide inexorably floorward once more.
"Shit, Granger," he exclaimed, and raised both arms, catching her about the waist, instinctively pulling her hard against him as a means of halting her fall. She cried out again, muffled this time by the fabric of his shirt. Realizing that there was no way she was going to stand on her own, he eased her slowly back down to the floor, laying her flat on her back, not consciously aware of the way in which he was cushioning her head with his hand, keeping it from the cold, hard flagstones.
"Granger," he muttered, bending close over her- her eyes were pressed tightly shut, her face taut with pain, her arms still wrapped about herself, even now- "what the fuck-?"
She opened her eyes, and took a moment to focus on him. Her breath was coming in rapid little pants, so shallow that he wondered if any air were actually reaching her lungs at all.
"Muh-Mal-foy," she gasped out, seemingly with great effort, "huh-hurts to b- bree-heathe."
"Shitshitshit," Draco muttered under his breath. "Oh, you fucking idiots, what did you do?" Returning his attention to Hermione, he slipped his hand gently out from beneath her head and caught her by the chin, compelling her to maintain eye contact. "Granger," he said, "Even though it goes against the best interests of my own House, I am going to suggest- strongly- that you reconsider going to the hospital wing. I can levitate you there. In case you haven't noticed, this is fucking serious."
Still, though apparently barely conscious, she shook her head to the best of her ability, what with his hand restraining her. "No," she whispered. "Malfoy. No."
"You're going to have to let me see the damage, then."
Her eyes widened as she realized what this entailed, and she hugged herself harder, her arms tightening about her ribcage, just below the swell of her breasts.
Draco felt his frustration returning. "What do you think, Granger, that you can wish this injury away? Someone has to look, and if you still refuse to see Pomfrey, then it's gotta be me."
She closed her eyes again, tears escaping their corners to streak down the sides of her face and lose themselves in the tumult of her hair.
"It has to be done," Draco said, as much to himself as to her, and gently but firmly pried her arms away from her body. Holding them pressed to the floor on either side of her, he asked, "can I trust you to keep your arms out of my way, or would you prefer I immobilized you?"
Her eyes opened again, fear and mistrust clearly evident in their dark depths. "Don't...you...dare," she managed between labored breaths.
He shrugged. "Have it your way, Granger, but keep still." So saying, he grasped the hem of her white blouse (Who the hell wore their uniform on a Saturday night? Patrolling or not- come on! Not surprising she was a dateless wonder on Valentine's Day) and pushed it up, revealing her slim body, revealing-
"Oh, Jesus Christ," he murmured sickly.
He had thought before that Crabbe and Goyle just might have gone too far this time- now, seeing the extent of the injury they had caused, he was sure of it. It occurred to him for the first time that she literally could have died- in fact, from the look of it, she still might. And what the fuck would happen to him if she died in his care? He had a brief, yet intense vision of himself carrying Granger's dead body into the infirmary, and the reaction that would provoke. No way in hell anyone would believe he had tried to help her. He would be blamed. He would be expelled. He would be sent to fucking Azkaban! It was not only Crabbe and Goyle's asses that were on the line, he realized; his own was, now, as well.
Oh, those two bastards would have hell to pay for this.
And come to think of it, so would Weasley.
Her entire ribcage was beginning to bruise; a massive, ugly, spreading blot against her fair skin, painful just to look at. Clearly she had multiple broken ribs; that accounted for her breathing difficulties as well. He could see one of the breaks- a jagged edge of bone pushing up against her skin. If one of those fragments should have punctured her lung....
He felt his stomach turn over.
He tore his eyes away from her battered body and raised them once again to her face. She was fighting unconsciousness, her eyes slipping nearly closed, then coming open again with a start, like a young child up way past her bedtime, fighting sleep.
"Granger," he said, leaning down so that their noses nearly touched, wanting to catch her attention, surprised at the unsteady quality of his own voice.
"Mal...foy." Oh, yeah, she was fighting. Fighting hard to stay awake, alert.
"This is gonna hurt. I have to find you something to hold on to." He looked about himself in mounting agitation- it wasn't desperation, it wasn't- or if it was, it was due entirely to the fact that if she died, he was well and truly fucked. It sure as hell wasn't that he was worried about a fucking mudblood- but before he could find anything to place in her hands, he felt her grip his wrist, hard.
"You," she whispered hoarsely. "Hold...onto you."
He blinked down at her in astonishment. So, apparently she was no longer thinking clearly.
"All right, then," he said, at a loss. "If that's what you want, Granger." He pulled his wrist free, then clasped her hand, twining his fingers tightly through hers. With his other hand, he fumbled for his wand and placed the tip of it lightly against the break he could see. What little breath she had caught in her throat, and her other hand- the one he wasn't holding- fisted in the material of her skirt.
"Count of three," he murmured. "One...two..." He never said "three", just quickly muttered the words of the healing spell. There was a crack, surprisingly loud in the deserted corridor, as the bone set itself. The protrusion vanished, leaving her skin smooth, though still badly bruised. When he looked once more to her face he saw that she had quietly blacked out, no doubt a result of the pain caused by setting her rib.
That was probably better for both of them, he decided. As long as he could get her to wake up again, when the time was right.
In the mean time, he had a lot more work to do. He passed his wand slowly back and forth over her body, having instructed it to alert him with a small shower of cool green sparks whenever it detected significant damage. In this way he discovered one more broken rib, and two cracked. Once those had been attended to, her breathing became a lot easier, though she did not regain consciousness.
The major damage now mended, be began the painstaking process of healing her extensive bruising. By the time he had finished and pulled her shirt back down, the bruises that covered her midsection had faded to the yellow of weeks-old injuries, and Draco was exhausted. He was pretty sure she would still have a dull ache to contend with, but as far as he was concerned, she could bloody well live with that. It could serve as a reminder of just how stupid she had been to patrol Slytherin territory alone. He deliberately left the bruise on her face, and her cut lip, alone as well. Let her heal them herself if she had the inclination- and the talent- to do so. He rather hoped that she would not.
He knew that she wanted to keep this incident from Potter and Weasley, but personally he thought they ought to know. Weasley didn't deserve to live in blissful ignorance of the damage his irresponsibility had caused. He ought to be forced to confront the fact that he had nearly cost one of his best friends her life. Abandoning his duties as a prefect was bad enough- Granger had expressed concern that she might lose her badge over this, but in Draco's opinion, it was Weasley who should lose his. Ever since fifth year, Draco had taken his own prefect duties very seriously. Sure, at times he used his status to his advantage and lorded it over the other students- what kind of Slytherin would he be if he didn't?- but shirk his duties? Never.
So, bad enough that Weasley had abandoned his duties as a prefect. But worse that he had abandoned his duties as a friend. This Draco just didn't understand. There it was again; that Slytherin instinct to protect one's own kicking in. Whatever else the other Houses might say about the Slytherins, no one could accuse them of not sticking together. Just look at Snape for an example of the fierce loyalty and protectiveness members of this particular House felt for one another. Draco smirked a little at the thought. Sure the other students bitched and moaned and called it blatant favoritism. Let them. The Slytherins had to stand united- what alternative was there when three fourths of the school- and that included the faculty- loathed them?
Draco would have gone out on a limb to protect just about any member of his House, and that went double for his fellow seventh years, whom he had known longest and best. Shit, that was what he was doing right now, was it not? Risking his own ass to heal Granger, so that the faculty would never know what (those fucking morons!) Crabbe and Goyle had done tonight. And the thing was, he didn't really even consider Crabbe and Goyle friends. Just...associates who came in handy sometimes. Come to think of it, he didn't really consider any of his Slytherin yearmates to be friends (a true friend would have to be able to keep up with him intellectually, and none of them could), but even so, as he had told Granger earlier, he would not have sent any one of them patrolling in enemy territory alone. So he simply couldn't imagine having a real friend- a friend one actually loved- and it did appear, even from his hostile outsider's perspective, that the members of the golden trio loved each other- and then being this careless with her. Sending her into danger- and if Weasley honestly hadn't seen the danger, then he was as stupid and blind as he was poor and ugly- just so that he could spend an evening snogging some little tart. It wasn't even as if Weasel-boy had a serious girlfriend. Draco would have made it his business to know if he had- more ammunition for his taunts.
He shook his head wearily. Gryffindors didn't make any sense to him. No sense at all.
But speaking of Gryffindors, there was now the question of what to do with this particular specimen. Taking her back to his own room was out of the question, of course. Being Head Boy, he did have a private room, but he would have to carry her right through the Slytherin common room to get there. The common room in which Pansy's Valentine party was no doubt still going full swing. Not that he would have consented to having a mudblood in his room anyway, come to think of it. No, his room was definitely not an option. And they had already determined that the hospital wing was not an option either.
All right, her room then? No, it was on the other end of the school and up about a hundred flights of stairs. Too bloody far; the risk of encountering someone along the way was too great. How the hell would he explain himself then? Could he wake her up and send her on her way, back to Gryffindor Tower alone? That way, even if she encountered an adult, she could simply, and truthfully, state that she was returning from her rounds- if they checked the roster, they would see that she was, indeed, signed up for tonight. They would also see that Weasley was signed up for tonight, and then he would get in trouble for shirking his duty, which, Draco thought vehemently, would be a good thing altogether.
But no...somehow he just couldn't reconcile himself to setting her loose in the school with her injuries so fresh. Having been the one to heal her, he couldn't help feeling a certain sense of responsibility for her now. He was sure it would wear off relatively quickly, but for tonight- just for tonight- he would not abandon her as her so-called friends had done. Especially since Crabbe and Goyle were still out there somewhere causing God only knew what kind of mischief. They could be anywhere on the school grounds. If she were to encounter them again....
It didn't bear thinking about.
So where the hell could he take her? They couldn't stay here in the middle of a drafty dungeon corridor. In fact, they had already been out here in the hallway, exposed, for far too long. It was just sheer luck that no one had come along- Crabbe and Goyle returning to the Slytherin dorms, Snape, Filch or his thrice-damned cat- he couldn't expect luck like that to hold out much longer. But what to do?
He had been sitting beside Hermione's still form, his head dropped forward into his hands, thinking hard. He raised his head now, and the first thing his eyes lit upon was the open doorway of the potions lab, the same doorway he had watched the Head Girl stumble through, not five feet away.
It would do, he decided. For one night, it would do. He would get her inside and shut the door after them, and the odds of them being found by anyone in there were slim. It wouldn't be comfortable, but it would be safe. Too bad the room of requirement was nearly as far away as Gryffindor Tower, he thought regretfully, as he gathered her into his arms and stood. It would only occur to him later- much later- that he had never even considered simply levitating her through the door. He'd been too busy brooding over the fact that a room which is supposed to provide whatever a person requires at a given time ought not to be stationary; if it were truly a room of requirement, it ought to be able to move about the school so that in a time of desperate need like this, it could have come to him. His mind thus engaged, he had simply picked her up as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
He carried her through the door into the dim, shadowy room beyond and with a muttered spell (the seventh years had been practicing wandless magic recently), caused the door to slam shut and lock behind them.