Thursday, December 19, 1996

Hermione raised her steaming coffee mug. Some part of her mind hoped she was careful enough not to spill. Her eyes flicked between the maybe-too-full coffee nearing her face and the neatly printed book laid before her.

The Gryffindor table chattered around her. She couldn't help but smile at the sound of her friends' raucous voices. Ron and Harry had blathered on with her earlier and it had almost jump-started her mood more than the coffee. Now the boys were twenty minutes into their own heated debate, and she enjoyed hearing their voices all the same. It didn't matter that fifteen seconds in she'd decided the topic was pointless.

Things were improving, even though the time passed like molasses. No one spoke Draco's name. She could pretend for now that it meant nothing.

So much laid before her, but here she was, moving forward through it all! The passing thought brought a smile to her face.

Times were dark, but Draco had come to her, the boys were going to forgive her, she could nearly imagine herself hand-delivering Blaise to the Minister's office.

"That'll be the post," Neville's voice rang over the morning Gryffindor racket.

"Expecting anything good?" Harry asked.

Hermione set her book down, unable to focus as the words swam before her eyes. She was almost too awake. In a split second, she met Draco's eyes across the hall, and they shared a smile in greeting. Draco added a wink for good measure.

"What day is it? Thursday? The countdown begins – twenty-four hours until new gossip arrives!"

"I actually heard that Cho –"

"Twenty-four hours!"

Pavarti scrunched her nose at the interruption and turned her head. She would share elsewhere. Good gossip wasn't made for waiting, it seemed.

"It almost sounds like you're looking forward to it now, Dean."

"I've already got two galleons on what the headline's going to be," Dean grinned widely. "They keep it up like they have – I'll be on a new broom in no time."

A giggle bubbled at Hermione's lips as she found herself happy to share in a bit of Free Press bashing. Her own name hadn't tarred the Press headlines for a few weeks. That in itself was something to celebrate. Their articles were much more tolerable when filled with the mindless gossip and drivel Hermione usually expected. The beating heart of journalism was dead in Hogwarts' society. Had it ever lived?

"Except the other week –" Dean's eyes met Hermione's, and her laugh soured in an instant. "I was sure we'd be reading about Bulstrode's howler! I lost my shorts on that bet!" His laugh was heavy and strong, and Hermione found herself wishing she could be just as amused. "If you plan to have another torrid affair – feel free to send a tip my way, alright?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "So, what are you betting on this week, Dean?"

"I'm not that stupid! I'll tell you right after I collect my winnings tomorrow." He glanced around the table, flashing an audacious smile. "Any guesses?"

"Ten Steps to Snagging a Pureblood Heir – Greengrass Tells All."

"Sordid Secrets Shared: Up Close with Minerva McGonagall."

All around Dean, students continued throwing out their guesses. Wit drained from their offerings with each addition.

"Stylists Revolt, Snape's Anti-Conditioner Line Launches."

The dull roar lowered as the owls finally littered their answer across everyone's plates. Within moments, silence had spread over the room. There was little left to say.

"Well – shite."

Hermione broke her attention for only a second to give Dean an incredulous look. He twitched his shoulders in an unabashed shrug. The Free Press was the last thing on anyone's mind – fallen away with the thick thud of things once important. Instead the stark, tall letters of the Prophet's headline demanded rapt attention.

Dark Secret Uncovered in Hogwarts Murder Investigation

Any joviality remaining in the room extinguished in that moment. Every student had seen the words – and silence reigned yet again, ringing ominous around every table.

Hot lead roiled in Hermione's gut in that moment. She knew immediately what had been found, what secret had been uncovered. A fleeting glance toward the staff table found the headmaster missing this morning. Had he known? Was this his plan? Hermione couldn't help but feel that Dumbledore had anticipated this news for longer than she could fathom.

Bitter anger grew in her chest as she noticed the growing panic in the faces of her peers. For many, this seemed like incontrovertible proof; Theo killed Blaise. There were Death Eaters among them. Someone was next. And in this moment – their headmaster must be appreciating a plan well maintained. Dumbledore had wanted this – and here it was.

"Is anyone really going to believe he was the only one?"

"It can't be long until the aurors come and arrest every last one of them – like they should have months ago."

Hermione hid her flinch. Thoughtlessly, she looked at the exact person many people now dissected.

Draco's hid his eyes. His face angled straight down at the newspaper he held. Tension was clear across his body; forced flat shoulders, tight white knuckles, rock set jaw. She looked away. The feeling was mutual.

It didn't take long for the apologies to begin.

Hermione heard the first that evening. Legs warming under the golden heat of the common room fire, she had sat in silence, reveling in the presence of her two best friends. They'd spent a handful of minutes in terse whispers discussing the implications of the Prophet's report before the interruptions finally began and the exchange was lost. It wasn't a conversation they wanted overheard anyways.

"Hey – Harry," the voice rung. Hermione recognized the boy, but couldn't place a name. Sandy hair, pale skin, a few years younger than her. "I just, I'm sorry. With Theo – and the, the … what the Prophet said. I believe you."

Hermione continued to sit quietly and watch as Harry thanked the boy, patiently listening to his own half-baked theories of what happened behind closed doors. Two more Gryffindors came by within the hour. The bittersweet angst was nearly a taste on Hermione's own tongue, palpably radiating from Harry. To be vindicated – finally proven right. To show the world of the danger they faced. To be lost under the spotlight once again.

As Harry waded from half-hearted conversation to messy apology and back, Ron's sidelong glances grew more frequent.

"This didn't come up in all of those late night brainstorming sessions with his dorm-mate then?"

"Ron," her eyes flicked around the room.

"In none of the times you sat around discussing whether Nott was a killer did your Slytherin friend bring this up?"

The next question hung between them, tangible. Hermione hoped in vain that he would allow them both the cowardice of leaving it that way. There seemed little reason to start a fight.

Draco has one too?

Hermione could feel the air shift as Ron struggled to hold his tongue, especially given the growing attention Harry was attracting. Yet another conversation not to be overheard.

Longing to avoid the imminent fight, Hermione quietly excused herself from the commons. She couldn't be sure if Ron assumed her asbsence as an affirmative response. There were too many other things to be worried about in that moment.

The portrait shut quietly, and Hermione wished the sound would cover the steady thudding of her footsteps. Bleak silence crowded the dungeons. It swallowed the Slytherin common rooms. The quiet clack of Draco's shoes nearly reverberated in the endless quiet. Deep public scorn for the house had taken a clear toll – even in the privacy of student quarters.

Hermione thought of the Gryffindor commons she'd left not long ago. Younger years were up late, revising their notes, sprawled across couches. A few older students had taken camp by the fireplace, laughing quietly over a card game. Even in the earlier evening, the comraderie had been palpable. They reveled in the friendship, in the comfort of being home among one another.

Yet now, as she walked down through the Slytherin dorms, solitude was the watchword.

When they arrived, the eerie atmosphere cast an otherworldly feeling in the dorm. Hermione dropped her shoes alongside Draco's when they arrived, right beside his trunk. The other boys were surely sheltered behind their closed curtains, but their solemn presence made the room's quiet even worse. Hermione dropped her hiding charms as Draco peeled back the curtain's edge.

The two empty four posters stung to see. Life dwindled from this room everytime Hermione visited. She could remember the ruckus of Blaise, Theo, Greg – all thumping and shouting at once. She'd huddled under Draco's covers, hid behind his curtains, waited it out. Now she longed for the joviality and familiarity that, in retrospect, reminded her of the Gryffindor dorms.

She nearly trembled at the thought, remembering Draco's sober prediction only a week ago. Once it's done, I can never come back here.

Three Syltherins gone, maybe never to return. It's like some twisted play, Hermione thought to herself. Death of a Dormroom.

Draco was just as quiet as housemates. So unlike himself, he seemed to take deference to the silence. They settled alongside one another in his bed. The curtains were closed around them, and Hermione appreciated the shadow as she studied Draco's face. She noticed then how haggard he looked.

Hermione could only imagine that she looked just the same.

"How are things, here?"

The words had tumbled from her mouth without agreement from her mind. How stupid a question – how naïve a thought. Things were horrible, that answer was clear as crystal. Hermione nearly dropped her head to her hands, hiding into herself. The misstep hung ringing in the air as Draco hesitated to answer. Instead, she listened to her idiot question on a loop. Her emotions magnified in the night chill.

"Panic's going to set in soon." He responded flatly. "Not just Slytherin – the entire school."

"Do you," Hermione glanced down, her eyes lingering on his covered forearm for a split second. "Do all of you think the Aurors will come to the school and start checking for more?"

"I don't know. Things are devolving here, with the Ministry especially." Draco paused. "It seems, however, they might be too busy to do it before this term ends. Everyone is leaving the castle in less than two days, and they just announced that he's back. It'll be a madhouse at the DMLE from now on."

"And the Wizengamot. They'll have to admit it now, no more lying and hiding like children. Voldemort's back," Hermione noticed his disguised flinch, but forged on anyways, "and we won't do anything about it sitting around drinking scotch and holding parties."

Draco remained quiet, so Hermione continued talking.

"I can't believe this is what Dumbledore wants, I can't believe this is exactly what he planned. We're all just students, and he's practically sending Theo to Azkaban as a sacrifice. This whole castle is scared they might be next and he's probably up there – ugh, reveling in a job well done. Maybe he even asked the aurors to time it like this, right before we went on break."

"Is it really –"

Hermione sat up, her eyes widening.

"Wait – about Dumbledore. Do you remember – earlier in the term, I told you about Dumbledore being visited by Aurors, then another with Snape? It would have been just a day or two before Blaise left … and then Blaise and Snape had their own meeting right after that, really late that evening."

"What about it? I still don't see how meeting with a professor is suddenly a sign of anything."

"No – I mean if Theo's arrest was a plan by Dumbledore, making that first time Aurors came to the castle so public, not investigating Blaise's disappearence, all of it. Do you remember that meeting? Harry saw it. Maybe," Hermione paused, chewing her lip. "Maybe Dumbledore planned for Bliase to disappear."

"That's quite a jump, Hermione." Draco frowned slightly, eyeing her. "Since when are you so determined to nail Dumbledore?"

"And you said it yourself – someone with sway in the MLE was going for Theo purposefully, targeting him. I thought it at the time, but –"

"You think Dumbledore has been masterminding the public disreputation of the whole school, and ruining the lives of two students?"

Hermione stared him down. The only emotion on her face was the slight downturn of her mouth's corners.

"I don't want to – you know that. But I can't look at Dumbledore the way Harry does. He's not my mentor." She shook her head, looking away from him. "He admitted that Theo's arrest was in his best interest, that he wanted it to happen. Not that he believed Theo to be a murderer."

"And if he's not actually behind it – if Theo really did kill Blaise?"

"Are you saying he did?"

"I'm saying I don't know," his voice betrayed the honesty underneath. Draco had a hard time believing Theo was incapable of casting an Avada, but there was little reason for him to make such a bold, risky move. He had to have known how big the threat would be, had he decided to kill his roommate weeks into term.

It didn't make sense that the headmaster was orchestrating the whole plan, either. Blaise would need some kind of motive to up and disappear like that. Possibly he would need help from someone else in the castle. If he was so concerned about Theo's efforts to keep him in line and so dedicated to building a new life with Lisa, then why take the train back to Hogwarts? There would have been dozens of simpler methods.

A puzzle with missing pieces, that's all this was. Draco was certain that whoever had seen the original image was doing a pretty shite job with the hints.

Draco felt Hermione's eyes on him then. She must still assume he was hiding something, that he knew more than he revealed.

"It's a good thing we're trying to find out, then," he spoke again. It took effort to keep from tipping down the corners of his mouth.

Hermione's nose tipped up just slightly; it made Draco's chest ache in fondness. Watching her in the silence, he realized how tired she truly looked.

"I just," her voice came out weaker than a moment ago. Hermione's jaw sharpened as she held herself in, clenching her teeth. Draco waited as she took a deep breath before continuing, "Draco, I can't let Theo go to Azkaban for a crime he didn't commit. I can't just let it work that way."

Draco reached forward to grab her hand, connecting them. The skin of her hand was soft and warm as his thumb ran across it.

"I don't care if he's a Slytherin, or that he read my mind, or that he – that he has that mark, he's still practically a kid! If Blaise is out there, I'm going to find him. If Theo goes to Azkaban – I have to know he deserves it. I have to."

"We will," Draco whispered to her, pulling Hermione close. "We'll figure it out, Hermione." Draco longed for the certainty she felt, but not the pain. He doubted they would ever know if Theo had killed Blaise. Things were never quite to simple. If Blaise was never seen again, they could do little more than assume Theo was responsible. Proof didn't exist.

They adjusted on the bed, moving to recline more. Conversation moved on to Slughorn's party the following evening. Ideas flowed on who to speak with and what questions to ask, but both had differing thoughts on how time might best be spent. It took avid persuasion on Draco's part to keep Hermione from sitting up and developing a list of preplanned questions and followups. All the while, they passed back and forth theories on what might happen after tonight, what the Ministry was doing, and what their fellow students just might be scheming.

With the tension of words unsaid, Draco felt Hermione still against him. Conversation had lulled. Draco held her close as they lay there in the quiet. Hermione had tucked her chin snugly into his chest so his chin could rest easily in her hair. From the angle they rested, her face was hidden from view. Draco wondered if that had been done purposefully. Emotions always wrote clear across Hermione's face, as though carved with quill and ink.

"Do you still think you won't come back next term?" The words came clear but hushed against the fabric of his sweater.

The tension in her body made sense. He'd made himself clear – he didn't want to talk about these things. Could they not just focus elsewhere, worry about other people? Too many of his waking hours were spent dreading and analyzing whatever bleak future lay before him. Why must his time with Hermione be sucked down the same path?

"I don't know," Draco shifted his arms around her, keeping Hermione close against his chest. "Let's not worry about that right now."

"Have you written to your mother yet?" Her nose tucked closer into Draco's sternum. "About the hols, I mean."

Draco thought of the letter he'd written. It had been short, curt, clear. Explanations wanted to run like rivers of ink from his quill, but he'd refrained. If his mother wanted any explanations, she would ask for them when they met. For now, any extraneous detail was best kept to himself.

"Yes," he nodded against her head. "She'll likely have it by now. We'll have to see." Emotion bubbled in his chest, but Draco kept it from spilling into his words. There was no help for the situation now.

The air stilled as Draco waited for Hermione to speak again. She'd yet to relax against him. Draco fely hyperattuned to her lately. Every twitch of her brow, flex of her arm, it all meant something. He couldn't recall when it began. It seemed that one day he just started, and now everything she did was categorized and analyzed without thought. Never had he been so adapted to the presence another person.

"I know you don't want to talk about it – really," at that, he was tensing as well. "But just, with term so close to the end, and with us about to in effect go on the run together, can you just tell me what you were supposed to do? If it's going to come back and bite us in the arse – it's really better if I'm prepared for that. I can't prepare for something if I don't know what it is."

Phrases and clauses and words all came jammed into one lump of sound, falling quick from her lips.

Draco wondered if keeping the secret was worth her worry. Her point was valid, she'd willingly tied herself to whatever fate befell him once they left the castle walls.

As the words sat on his tongue, Draco mulled over the consequences of her knowing. More than anything this was a shift in the balance. He would be bringing her closer into the fold. She would become the first person in the castle besides himself and Snape to know what was planned. Just another sign of how serious this had become. Hermione had become his partner.

Could the pain that had haunted his nightmares and stalked his waking hours now be split with another?

"I had to – to kill someone in the castle." He paused, feeling the words leave beyond his lips. The lack of quaking and thunder almost surprised him. They passed weightless into the air, almost as though they'd never crushed his chest and stolen his breath. "Then I'd have to create this passage – in and out of the castle. I'd help others in, and I'd leave with them."

Draco waited as the air settled around them again. Hermione seemed to be turning the idea over in her mind before responding. He wondered what she'd imagined. Was she anticipating worse – better? It seemed unlikely she was correct in whatever wild guesses she'd developed.

He then realized he was calculating her reaction to the worst thing that had ever happened to him.

"How do you know that isn't exactly what Theo did?" Hermione shifted then, and he could see her face looking right into his own. Her brow was scrunched, her forehead wrinkled. "If that – that's what tasks are like, he could have been told to, to take care of Blaise."

Draco's chest was bruising under the sharp pressure of her elbow, he was sure, but he remained still as Hermione rearranged herself above him.

"No – no," he shook his head, tightening his arms around her back. "Hermione, it doesn't work like that. Theo was told to keep the Hogwarts in line, to watch over everything. He isn't –"

"Call me a coward, Draco, but the threat of murder tends to keep me in line," her lips went thin as she stared him down.

"Hermione," he bored his eyes steady into hers. "No, that's not what happened. If he – he did something to Blaise, it wasn't because he was told to. That's not how he was keeping everyone in line."

"How can –"

"And no, by the way." Draco furrowed his brow. He couldn't help shaking his head at her, stopping himself momentarily in complete disagreement. "The last thing you would do under threat of murder is get in line. Good Godric, witch, you'd move so far away from the line it'd go invisible."

"That's not important right now – okay." Hermione's mouth tipped downwards as she completely ignored his very valid point. "So, do you get to pick who? Because if it's just random, we could fake it, you know?"

"Let's not even try to go there, Hermione. I don't want –"

"But we could buy you some time!"

"It's not like that," Draco kept his voice hard. He bored his gaze into her.

"So, it's someone specific. That's okay, we can still hide them for a while, try to keep you safe."

"It's going to be quite obvious that I missed some steps tomorrow if they can't get into the castle."

"But the person you – you –"

"They're quite – visible. It's not going to work to just –"

"You don't know that," Hermione smiled at him, but he could tell it was forced. "Draco –"

"It's Dumbledore, Hermione. Okay? We can't fake this. We can't just buy time." Draco felt himself harden at the admission. He'd never wanted to say the words out loud, especially not to her. It had just seemed like the only way to stop her clawing at his skin, begging to help.

"Oh," the rhythm of her speech was gone. She'd stopped herself immediately, deflated. "Yes – um, yes."

Draco watched her reaction, her mind caught in unraveling some hidden meaning. Silence hung thick in the air. He suddenly wondered if he should have lied. Maybe allowing false hope was the kinder response.

"That is – that is quite visible."