Written for Hawthorn & Vine's Reverse Challenge 2014

Prompt: An Apology by chola4dramione (you can view the artwork on H&V's website)
Warnings:
language, secondary character death, mentions of suicide

Special thanks to my beta, Naeryna, and my britpicker, Rumaan!

Disclaimer: In its use of intellectual property and characters belonging to JK Rowling, Warner Bros, Bloomsbury Publishing, et cetera, this work is intended to be transformative commentary on the original. No profit is being made from this work.


When I was just a bag of bones,
I ran away from home
Uh oh, I've got nowhere to go

- Far Less, from Surprise Funeral (for the Charmed)


Hogwarts, June 12, 2003

The silence of the room was hardly an uncomfortable one, especially when compared to the multitude of non-conversations that she had endured over the past eighteen months, but it was not necessarily what she had been hoping for. Although, Hermione had to admit that she wasn't sure what her expectations had been in the first place. She had received the vague missive a week earlier, a request for her presence, and it had piqued her interest. It would be a much needed break in her routine and so she had owled back her positive response immediately. Motives and purposes of the sender had occupied her thoughts as she counted down the days to the meeting. But try as she might, she could not think of a valid reason for her summons. Another sip of tea passed her lips, coating her tongue with the slight bitterness of the hot drink, and she surveyed her surroundings.

Across the small dining table sat an older woman, clothed in dark green velvet and a stern expression. In the space between them there was a simple spread of fruit and scones with jam and clotted cream. Neither woman had partaken of them yet. When offered, Hermione had declined, her interest in the subject of the meeting overriding her hunger. At her negative reply, her hostess had left both plates empty. Instead she had proceeded to pour the prepared refreshment, first Hermione's cup and then her own, following social protocol to the letter.

After twenty minutes, two cups a piece, and no effort on Hermione's part to restart the stilted conversation, the woman turned her sharp eyes on her guest. "I suppose, Mrs. Weasley, that you are wondering why I have called you here."

Hermione nearly dropped her cup, but managed to maintain control enough to place it on its saucer with minimal clattering. "Please," she began, but her voice was weak, barely audible. Clearing her throat, she tried again. "If you please, Professor, I'd prefer it if you would call me by my given name."

After a moment's hesitation, the other woman inclined her head. "Of course, Hermione. But then I must insist that you address me likewise."

Hermione shook her head, a small, wry movement, and hoped she had hidden her previous discomfort well enough. "Oh yes, of course… Minerva."

"It's a relief, actually. You've been addressing me incorrectly for years now. My own star pupil being unable to remember my change in title has been quite a disappointment." Her words were reproving, but her strict countenance slipped and a slight smile curved her thin lips. "Professor, indeed."

"I am very sorry to have caused you such distress," Hermione replied, but a grin started to spread across her face as well, "Minerva."

"All right, enough of this frivolity." The Hogwarts Headmistress straightened her shoulders, squaring her body to face her former student fully. "I hear you are no longer employed with the Ministry."

Her lips parted in shock and it took a few long seconds to gather her wits. Less than a fortnight had passed since she had filed her notice of resignation with her department head. Not wanting to lose the valuable asset he had in her, her superior had given her an additional twenty-four hours to think over her decision. Her resolution being firm and final, Mr. Jones had finally consented to send her paperwork through the proper channels. But no formal announcement had been made. Calculations ran through her head at a brisk pace and they all pointed to the same conclusion.

"It is not yet official, but yes, that is correct." Curiosity nagged at the young witch. "Who told you?"

"The source of my information has no bearing on this discussion," McGonagall replied with a wave of her hand. "I was curious as to what your immediate plans were."

"Honestly, I haven't made any." Hermione's gaze dropped to the gold edging of her cup. She ran a fingertip across it, circling around and around the cooling brew, gathering the courage to face her reality, to speak it aloud. "I just… I just know that he wouldn't have wanted me to…" She sucked in a gulp of air, fighting the burn that began to creep up her throat, and stiffened her spine. "It was time for a change."

A weathered hand slid over the tabletop and patted her on the forearm. "Good." The old witch pulled away, folding her hands primly in her lap. "In that case, I have a proposal for you. Hogwarts currently has two positions open. I have been authorized by the Board to offer you your pick of either, if you are interested."

"You mean that I could return to Hogwarts?" Hermione nearly squealed, her eyes lit with excitement. "As a teacher?"

The headmistress' lips pursed as though caught halfway between amusement and annoyance. "Yes. Though I must caution you not to take this matter lightly."

"Of course not, Prof – I mean, Minerva." Hermione cleared her throat. "So what positions are available?"

"Muggle Studies and," McGonagall paused. "Defence Against the Dark Arts."

"I see."

"Yes. I recommended you as the next Professor of Muggle Studies. Your marks in school and family background make you the ideal candidate. The Board agreed, but also recognized your all-round talent and experience in the fight against Voldemort. That is why they have asked that you consider taking over the Defence curriculum." She paused, waiting for Hermione to look her full in the face. "But before you make a decision, I must inform you that the position is believed to be jinxed. The Board will not be held liable for any injury to your person or property, should you choose to accept."

"I understand," Hermione answered, her chin lifted in stubborn defiance. "I suppose it's good that I have nothing left to lose."

"Very well." She spoke in clipped syllables. "I expect you to arrive a week prior to the new term. Is that clear, Professor?"

"Crystal, Headmistress." Hermione held out her plate. "I believe I'll take that scone now."

"And Hermione," – Her hostess nodded as she placed the cake with a slow, steady hand – "if you are pleased with the outcome of our negotiations, you may want to thank Mrs. Potter."


Hogwarts, September 1, 2003

In a hum of organized activity, Hermione prepared to welcome a new year of students to her beloved school. It was barely half past eight in the morning and she had a schedule that she was determined to keep. She had written up the lesson plans for her first month in advance and they sat in neat, coloured-coded piles on her desk, along with several reference books from her personal collection. She checked and then double-checked that the content was in order and ready for tomorrow. When she was thoroughly satisfied, the teacher marked the item off of her to-do list.

She looked around the room and properly took it in for the first time since arriving back at Hogwarts. Hermione expelled a deep sigh, blowing a wayward strand of hair out of her face. It seemed her predecessor had been in a hurry to leave and had left the space in disarray; it was also apparent that Filch had been too busy harassing students to tend to his rightful duties.

Hermione had been aware of the situation, of course. After the Headmistress's disclaimer concerning the job, she had searched for information on the man she was replacing. Professor Ralph Coulson had met a grisly end a few months ago at the hand of his jilted lover, Sophia Thompson. She had been actively stalking him for years and when he realized that she had found him at Hogwarts, he had fled the safety of the castle. His body had been found just inside the forest, hand-in-hand with his murderer. The woman had taken her own life as well.

But all that had been easy to ignore when she had her head buried in research texts for her own curriculum.

Pushing her sleeves up to her elbows, Hermione grabbed her wand and got back to work. A broom and feather duster were spelled to clean around the classroom while she made her rounds, checking chairs, desks, and books for needed repairs. It took the better part of an hour to fix all the things that had been neglected, but she felt very accomplished when the task was finished.

That feeling lasted until she checked on what her magical helpers had managed to get done.

The floor was nicely swept and the deep red wood of the bookcases was no longer hidden under a layer of dust, but the darker edges of the room had been left completely untouched. As if afraid, neither tool could be coaxed to remove the cobwebs in the corners. She tried to remedy the situation by increasing the light, but the grimy windows just would not submit to her Scourgify Spell.

"Honestly," she muttered to herself, before retrieving the necessities to do the rest by hand.

It was nearly lunch by the time the room looked serviceable again. With an empty and growling stomach, Hermione checked the last of the jobs from her list, pleased with her efforts. She closed up the classroom, tucking the key into the pocket of her blue jeans, and decided that a meal would be the next item on her day's agenda. On the way to the Great Hall, she stopped into the ladies' room to freshen up and gasped when she caught her reflection in the mirror.

She looked a fright.

Dust covered her from head to toe. The fine particles had settled on hair, giving the bushy mass a salt and pepper colouring which aged her ten years instantly. Sticky remnants of cobwebs hung haphazardly over her clothes, and the fine threads were enmeshed in her curls. Her face was liberally streaked with sweat, which had unfortunately mixed with the dust, causing her to look like a street urchin extra from the set of Oliver Twist. She couldn't have possibly looked worse if she had taken a hike through the Forbidden Forest after trudging through the bowels of the Chamber of Secrets.

But she was starving and lunch was nearly over. So in spite of her desperation for a good bath, Hermione quickly cast a Cleaning Charm over herself and was on her way.

The thoughts of ham sandwiches and pumpkin juice filled her head, distracting her mind as her feet found the path to her destination on their own. She rounded the final corner, her stomach aching and her mouth salivating, and fell backwards abruptly. In her haste, she had not been mindful of her surroundings and a collision was the result. The witch found herself on her backside with one ankle twisted awkwardly underneath her. As she scrambled to make sense of what had just happened, a thought rang through her mind like a warning bell.

The object of her obstruction had been firm, though lacking the inflexibility of a solid surface, and surprisingly… warm.

"I apologize, Professor Granger," a familiar voice spoke with cool disdain. A man stood over her, his posture casual – hands in pockets, head cocked slightly to the side, and the line of his shoulders relaxed – and yet, it was intimidating. His grey eyes surveyed her sprawled form and they narrowed when they observed her left hand. "Or is it Weasley now?"

Hermione's face blanched, the blood pooled in her pounding heart. It clenched uncomfortably, memories making the organ unable to perform its proper function. Breath stilled as her lungs strained to draw air. It took only a couple brief seconds for the pain to catch up, a physical manifestation of her emotional turmoil, and she could feel it engulfing her being in spite of her best efforts. It had been a long time since she had given in to her emotions, the protective walls she'd built were high and strong. But shock was something that one could hardly prepare for and even the best defences had a weak point. The grip on her wand tightened and she willed the tears away.

Hovering over her was none other than Draco Malfoy and his words stabbed at her cruelly, the same as they had in the past.

The witch scrambled to her feet, wincing as her injured limb adjusted to her weight. Hermione fought the urge to take a step backwards or raise her wand. She did not want to show him any weakness. "What are you doing here, Malfoy?" Hermione asked, ignoring his query altogether.

"Answering a question with a question?" he replied with a cluck of his tongue. And here I was, trying to be civil."

"Well, you can take your 'civility' and shove it," she returned fiercely. "I demand an answer."

He crossed his arms stubbornly. "So do I."

When Hermione refused to comply and just widened her stance to one more suited to a duel than a conversation, he let out a heavy sigh and rolled his eyes.

"Merlin's balls, Granger. I'm here for the same reason as you are. Grooming the next generation of witches and wizards of our fair country," he said mockingly.

"Wha – ?"

"I've answered your question," he interrupted, his expression shifting from frustration to challenge. Draco stepped forward. He was now an arm's length away – close enough to stress their height difference without encroaching on her personal space – and she could feel his breath in the subtle movement of the air on her skin. "Now answer mine."

Hermione bristled, the pain in her chest burning away as anger took over. Knuckles whitened around smooth vine wood and the air in the dank hallway hummed in resonance with the magic flowing in her veins. Spells, varying in degrees of unpleasantness, came racing from her brain to the tip of her tongue, begging to be let loose. But just as she decided to give in, Draco raised his hands and backed off.

"I apologize," he said with an inflection she couldn't quite place. Something close to pity, laced with no small measure of curiosity, took the place of the aloofness that had been present during his first statement and the change rankled her.

"How dare you!" she growled. Stepping forward, she shoved a finger roughly into his chest. "After everything, after all I've been through and everything you've done... After I spoke up for you when very few would, after what he did for your family, you have the nerve to speak about him so flippantly? And as if that wasn't enough, you apologize as if you weren't aware of exactly what you were doing…" She sucked in a deep, agonizing breath, her eyes aflame with hatred for the man before her. "How dare you!"

She watched as his lips tightened into a grimace and he turned away from her piercing stare. Only the sounds of her stuttering breath and his slow exhales filled the long moment of silence that followed. Hermione turned on her heel and retraced her earlier steps, ignoring her hunger.

And only when she was back in the refuge of her classroom with the room spelled shut did she let herself cry.

She hated Draco Malfoy and she would never forgive him.


The half hour Hermione spent locked away felt interminably long and it was a great relief when her tears finally stopped.

Being back at Hogwarts had calmed her considerably. The nightmares that had plagued her sleep now occurred with a waning frequency. And as the nightly terrors ceased, so did her erratic outbursts of emotion. She wasn't sure if it was the separation from her home – the belongings, the memories, and the scent of him that lingered – that did it or if it was the magic of the old castle welcoming her back. Either way, she was grateful. Because even though she didn't want to forget, could never forget, she was ready for a little peace to let her heart heal, even just a bit. She was done crying.

At least that was what she had thought before the run-in with her childhood nemesis.

Hermione slammed the door behind her as she left the classroom, speeding off in the direction of Headmistress McGonagall's office. Halfway there she almost ran over Neville, who had been the Professor of Herbology for the past three years. But she was on her guard after her confrontation earlier in the day and so she managed to dodge the collision at the last second.

"McGonagall wanted to see you," he called after her.

She didn't stop to talk, merely threw an "On my way," over her shoulder before increasing the length and pace of her stride.

When she arrived at the final door to the Headmistress's chamber, she charged in without knocking. The length of the trip up – through the castle, past the gargoyles, and up the winding stairs – wore her patience thin and further fouled her mood. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Hermione knew she must be a monstrous sight with her frazzled hair, splotchy cheeks, and tear-reddened eyes, but she was past the point of caring about appearances. She had even less time to worry about social niceties like waiting for permission to enter a room, especially when the occupant also had business with her. She was on a mission.

Minerva sat behind her desk nursing a cup of tea, nonplussed by Hermione's dramatic entrance. She lowered the cup to its saucer slowly, her mouth twisted in an unamused smile. "I see you've met our new Muggle Studies teacher."

"So it's true then?" Hermione choked out, incredulous. "How in the bloody hell could Draco Malfoy be the Muggle Studies teacher? He's probably never been interested in a Muggle his entire life except to torture one."

"Language, Professor," the older woman reprimanded.

"Did the Board really approve his appointment? I can't think of anyone, literally anyone, more ill-suited to the position than him." Hermione began to pace as she continued to speak her unfiltered thoughts with resentment. "I suppose it's possible that his father paid for him to have the position, but to what end?"

"Professor."

"And why would he even want…? This is a publicity stunt, isn't it? Get the Malfoy family back in the good graces of wizarding society. Ha! As if anyone would fall for that."

"Professor."

"I refuse to work with him." The witch stopped her movement, but ignored her superior's attempts at interjection. Instead she braced her hands on the back of the visitor's chair, the thick fabric digging painfully under her nails, and leaned over it as she faced Minerva. "He's always been an insufferable little git, but today's nastiness was the last straw. Malfoy had the nerve, the gall, to speak of Ron. It was like he was… was baiting me or something! Probably wanted me to hex him so that he could get me fired. Well, the Board can have him or it can have me. I will not reside under the same roof as that horrible excuse for a human being. I – "

"Hermione, would you please stop?" Minerva raised her voice and her tone was severe. The young woman stilled her tongue and froze in place. "Far be it from me to stand up for a Slytherin over one from my own house, but you are out of line. And very, very misinformed." She looked over the wire rim of her glasses, her gaze a steely blue. "Mr. Malfoy has spent the past five years in Muggle London without any form of contact with our world, save for his probation officer."

Several seconds passed, the tick-tock of an antique clock audibly counting the time, and Hermione visibly deflated. Her legs weakened and her hands began to tremble as the adrenaline left her system. She walked around in a daze and collapsed into the large, well-cushioned chair. Resting her elbows on her knees, she released a sharp breath. "What? How is that possible? I thought – "

"I know. We had been led to believe that he was under house arrest at Malfoy Manor, the same sentence that his father received for his crimes. This morning I was informed that this had not been the case. The Ministry," – She emphasized the word, her disapproval showing through – "decided that Draco would be a good candidate for 'rehabilitation'. When we could not find someone for the Muggle Studies position, it was decided by the powers-that-be that it would be a good opportunity to test Mr. Malfoy's progress, to see if he was ready to rejoin society."

"So they're going to unleash him on the poor, unwitting children of Hogwarts?"

"I have my reservations as well, but he has been cooperative and civil." Minerva held up a hand to stave off Hermione's attempts at a rebuttal. "Your encounter with him earlier was a misunderstanding and frankly, I'm surprised that you haven't yet come to that conclusion yourself." Her expression softened slightly. "He wasn't at the Manor when Ron died, Hermione. He had no way of knowing the ramifications of his comments."

"But his parents – "

"Were not allowed to contact him in any way. No letters, no access to the Floo Network, no newspapers. Nothing. He was completely cut off until this morning. In fact, he still hasn't seen his parents. The Ministry won't approve a visit until he has proven himself."

"Okay," Hermione forced out breathlessly, ignoring the pain in her chest that felt suspiciously similar to guilt. "Okay."

She would not feel bad about her actions towards Malfoy, even if it was clear now that she had overreacted. And she would certainly not pity his circumstances, past or present. If the Ministry chose to use him as a pawn in some sort of experiment, he had no one to blame but himself. It certainly wasn't going to change how she viewed him. Besides, hadn't she just vowed to hate him forever?

But then she remembered speaking for him at his trial, how she had recounted his reluctance to identify Harry, Ron, and herself. Had she imagined the gratitude in his eyes then? Then she recalled a time even further back during which she had watched him slowly unravel under the weight of a terrible task. It was a task, Harry had told her, that Malfoy could not bring himself to complete. Could her imagination have conjured all that? Or was there perhaps some small seed of something redeemable in him?

With some reluctance, Hermione admitted that she had let her still raw feelings on other matters cloud her judgment earlier. Now that she was calm, she was able to filter through their conversation logically. His words, his tone, and body language, all lined up with the information McGonagall gave her. If he really hadn't known about Ron, then it was indeed a misunderstanding.

During the few minutes she took to let the information sink in and allow her emotions to stabilize, Minerva brewed a fresh pot of tea. Taking the proffered cup, Hermione steadied herself and started again. "Please forgive my outburst, Professor."

"Minerva."

"Oh yes. Of course." She fidgeted, embarrassed by both the slip of the tongue and her earlier ranting. "Um, I ran into Neville on my way here. He said that you wanted to see me. Was it about this or…"

"Something else?" the older woman provided. "There is another related issue I had wanted to discuss. My reservations, to be precise."

"Reservations?" Hermione queried. Then her eyes lit up in understanding. "Oh! About Malfoy's teaching ability?"

"Yes. If you were amenable, I had planned on having you observe his class when you had a free schedule. As you are the only Muggle-born teacher at Hogwarts, you seemed an apt choice. But in light of the unpleasantness between the two of you earlier – "

"No, please," – The young teacher brushed it off – "I can handle it."

"I will not tolerate unprofessional behavior in front of the students," the Headmistress warned her. "If you are accepting this duty with any underlying motives, I suggest that you rethink your decision."

Hermione looked down at her hands, pausing to collect her thoughts. Even after the Cleaning Charm and a thorough washing, they were dirty. Dark lines filled the creases of her knuckles where the dust and sweat had settled deep in her pores. Her nails were chipped, dingy from what had collected underneath, and her palms were stained by the ink from her quill.

No one has clean hands anymore, her brain reminded her.

After a deep exhale, she straightened her spine and carefully replied, "I do have my reasons, but I don't believe they will be a problem. If he has changed, really changed," – Her brown eyes lifted resolutely – "I want to see it for myself. I want to know that Ron's sacrifice was not in vain. Then maybe…"

"Maybe?"

The words threatened to choke her, stuck painfully in her throat. But she forced them out anyway, a harsh whisper that shattered her heart.

"Maybe I can finally move on."


Towel-clad, Hermione sat in front of the mirrored dressing table and combed the tangles from her hair. The hot bath had been heavenly, soaking the soreness out of her work-worn muscles. It had taken a couple washings and some dedicated scrubbing to remove all the grime, but the effort was well worth it. She felt like a new person.

Cleanliness was only skin deep though and no amount of water could wash away her restless thoughts. Tonight was going to be difficult. As a girl, she had often thought about what it would be like to become a Hogwarts teacher, of how it would feel to nurture the minds of tomorrow, to help them attain self-sufficiency and go forth into the world with confidence. Secretly, it had always been a fantasy of hers. But after the war, she had cast it aside for the more practical matters of helping to rebuild a broken society. Now she was being handed the chance to fulfill that dream. She should be happy, ecstatic even, and proud of her accomplishment. And honestly, she was. But she was also incredibly anxious. Tonight would mark a new beginning in her life and she wasn't sure she was ready.

The clock chimed out the hour, startling her, and the comb dropped out of her grip. As it clattered on the floor, Hermione stretched out her stiff fingers. She'd been mindlessly working on her hair for twenty minutes.

"I don't have time for this," she spat harshly into the emptiness.

The closet was still open – none of her cloaks had seemed nice enough for the occasion – so she marched over, grabbed an outfit at random, and not-so-calmly slid the door shut. She rounded the corner of her bed, intent on grabbing her underwear from the dresser. But in a matter of seconds, she had stubbed her left big toe, tripped over the shoes she had forgotten she'd set out, and sent everything on top of the dresser flying as she tried desperately, futilely, to keep herself upright.

"Bloody hell, that hurt," she groaned, gasping; her fall had made breathing difficult.

Hermione lay prone for a few moments, resting with her head tucked into the crook of her elbow to regain her equilibrium. Then she slowly rolled to her side and sat up. Something sharp prodded the palm of her hand, enough to hurt but not to pierce. Nestled in the shattered glass next to her was a picture of her, Harry, and Ron, taken when they were all still students.

Ginny had given it to her the day she left for Hogwarts.

ooOoo

"Have you made a decision yet?"

"No." Hermione shook her head as she rummaged through her trunk. "I'm still thinking it over."

"What's there to think about?" Ginny asked. "Do you mean to tell me that you, of all people, don't know your own mind?"

Hermione left the questions unanswered and went back to unpacking.

"You and Harry and Ron had such adventures here. It's left a mark on the old castle; I can feel it." Ginny's voice softened. "I can feel his magic in the walls, in the air here, if I focus hard enough."

"Do you think he would mind?"

"Yes," the redhead replied with no hesitation. "But he's not here anymore, so it doesn't matter. Wherever he is now, you won't be there for a long time. He'll have enough time to get over it." Then she grinned and tears filled her eyes. "But if he hasn't, you can just kick him in the arse."

Ginny sat down on the bed and patted the spot next to her. When Hermione joined her, the younger woman wrapped an arm around her waist. "It's okay, you know. To move on? You've been mourning long enough."

Hermione couldn't speak. She laid her head on her friend's shoulder instead.

"You're back at Hogwarts, Hermione. It knows who you are, regardless of what name you choose to go by."

Ginny left a while later, leaving a picture behind on Hermione's dresser.

ooOoo

Students were starting to fill the long tables of the Great Hall by the time Hermione arrived. She stopped just inside the doors to collect herself, smoothing down the wrinkles her haste had left in her robes. The cheery chaos of the scene, the reacquainting of old friends and excitement for a new year, made her lateness go unnoticed as she wound her way through the crowd to the rest of the teachers. A few of the teachers – Slughorn, Flitwick, and Madame Pince - nodded at her in acknowledgment, but most were deep in conversation and hardly noticed her. Malfoy sat at the far end and though his expression – the set of his lips and the angle of his eyebrows tranquil – was carefully neutral, she was unnerved by something in his eyes. Hermione returned the nods with a wave, doing her best to ignore the newest teacher, before turning towards the friendly face that was waving her over to the other side.

"Hermione!" Neville greeted. "Your seat is beside mine."

"Thank you," she replied. After she was settled, Hermione leaned towards him and whispered, "So, have I missed anything?"

"No, don't worry. The first-years are still on their way."

"Oh." Nervous, she shook her head and forced a small smile. "Well, that's good then, I suppose. How much longer do you think they'll be?"

"Not much longer. Just before you came in, the Head Girl informed McGonagall that the boats had made it to the shore." He chuckled lightly. "Professor Pennington does not care for dawdling."

"Is she the new Keeper of Keys and Grounds?"

"Yeah, she – " Neville pointed to the doors. "Oh, it looks like they're here."

The majority of the students were already in their seats, but the Heads and Prefects made one last round at their respective tables to silence those still talking.

The Sorting Ceremony came and went. It was much like the others she had witnessed during her years as a student, full of enthusiasm and applause. All of the Houses welcomed their newest House-mates happily, though Hermione was surprised by the decided lack of new Slytherins. Their table looked downright deserted when compared to Gryffindor's.

"Welcome to Hogwarts." The Headmistress spoke and a respectful hush fell over the hall. "I hope that we can all have a productive year. First-years will be escorted to your dormitories directly after the banquet by your House Prefects. They will answer any questions or concerns you may have.

"Now, I know all of you are hungry, so I'll be brief. We have two new teachers joining us this year: the Professor for Muggle Studies, Draco Malfoy."

The crowd, so warm when receiving the first-years, descended into an uncomfortable hush. Little mouths hung open in disbelief while the older students wore frowns and tight grimaces, arms crossed defensively over their chests. Then the whispers began.

A weight dropped into the pit of Hermione's stomach at his reception, cold and heavy, and she watched Malfoy rise from his chair. He stood, stiff and formal, and inclined his head so slightly that she wasn't sure she actually saw it. Then he returned to his seat and she immediately felt sick. She was sure now that she would see the disapproval written on their faces and the accusations in their eyes, just like there had been for Malfoy, when her name was announced. It would be her moment of truth next and she wasn't ready for it.

"And the Professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts…"

Hermione wiped her clammy hands off on the folds of her robe and prepared to stand. Neville was whispering something to her, had been for some time, but she couldn't make out his words. Static hummed against her eardrums, drowning out everything but Minerva's voice. It was disorientating. She felt lost. She needed an anchor, something or someone, to steady her.

"Hermione Granger."

She stood too quickly and the blood rushed to her head. Dizzy, Hermione fumbled around for a moment before she gripped the table. For a split second, she caught Malfoy's eyes, clear and keen, and the world seemed to shift back upright. She hated him and he hated her, and at least in that aspect of her life, all was as she expected it to be. Then, it as if nothing strange had happened – the students were clapping and those closest to her were offering their congratulations. Hermione pasted on a feeble attempt at a smile and sat down as quickly as she could without drawing any more attention to herself.

But she could still feel his gaze on her.

"There are a few other issues that need to be addressed," the Headmistress pronounced over the clamour. When the talking ceased, she continued. "Please remember that in addition to the items on the Banned List, which Mr. Filch has so graciously provided, there are no Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes's products allowed on school grounds. Also, the Forbidden Forest is off-limits to all students." Then with a wave of her wand, the platters of food and pitchers of drink appeared on the tables. "Let us feast."

Hermione piled some food onto her plate, though she wasn't really hungry. Neville, at her right elbow, continued to chatter away. She did her best to pay attention and contribute to the conversation, but her heart wasn't in it.

No one had faulted her for her choice. In fact, it seemed that there were few who even noticed it. Hermione absently twisted the gold band on her finger. Perhaps in the morning she would be able to see her decision for the victory that it was. But for now, her nerves were raw. It had been a long day, an emotional roller coaster. She was ready for a good night's sleep.

And Hermione was afraid that what she saw in Draco's grey eyes wasn't hatred.

But what disturbed Hermione even more was that she knew that if he gave her any reason to believe he'd changed, even the tiniest scrap of evidence, she would forgive him. Avoidance was impossible; her decision to oversee his classes had seen to that. It was just a matter of time before her heart, that damned compassionate thing, would give in.

Time was all that she had left.