Friday — October 23th, 1998.

Patrol with Rodger was a chore and a bore all mixed into one. Draco felt his skin crack and his eyes sink into his head. As it wasn't a matter of silence, rather, it was endless chatter. He spoke about his summer and how he'd pieced together his family's home and something about charity. It was a special sort of torture, the kind that Draco couldn't have even thought of if given a month and a million Galleons — no, the mundanity within which Rodger thrived was seemingly endless.

Like if Professor Binns had more to say about fewer things.

"And, of course, I'll be playing for Ravenclaw — the Team Captain, as you can imagine," he continued. "I expect you not to go easy on me, no, I bet you'll be eager to use the opportunity to show off one of your expensive brooms. Well, I can tell you, while they are fancy and new, you cannot buy tactics."

"Nor tact," Draco drawled so softly that Rodger paused. But he didn't seem to have processed it, as he continued, unaffected.

Draco remained affected.

By the time they finished their round, they arrived at the Fourth floor corridor that led to their dorm. Rodger split off for the room with such speed that Draco had to laugh. As if he were the one eager to escape. Good. It allowed Draco the chance to slip onto the balcony as he did most nights. He would have to go to Hogsmeade over the weekend to stock up, as he'd gone from two cigarettes a week to at least a pack.

It was an excuse to get outside and to be alone, along with the natural relief of the tobacco. It had been cured with restorative herbs and an agent that mitigated the off-scent that carried with the cigarettes. It was still there on his fingers and breath, but he spent far more on a better product. He could make shapes from the smoke if he was bored. He would often form little Quidditch players or dragons, silly things, but only when he'd had liquor along with the cigarettes.

He'd been so determined he'd not noticed the girl on the stone wall, her back against the building. Hermione, he realized with a low breath of relief. She was tucked against a small inner wall, an alcove that sat against the ornate window and a planter. Whatever plants had been here before had died, probably during the summer or the war, as there was far more to do for the grounds at large. It made sense a few flowers had died.

"Hermione?" He said, his voice light and gentle, so as to not scare her over the edge. She wasn't even close to the edge, of course, but she jumped at the strangest of things.

But she didn't turn. She had parchment in her lap and her fist balled up against her mouth.

Draco thought about going back inside, to avoid the situation whatever it may be.

Bravery wasn't his thing; it was hers.

"Sorry," she exhaled, breathy and thin. "I'll go, you can have this — sorry," she repeated as she slid from the wall.

"Why are you always crying?" He asked, his voice sharp.

Hermione brushed past him and he caught her elbow. He hadn't meant to but in the firelight her eyes sparked gold and his hand shot out. She didn't strain away. She pivoted and buried her face into his chest and sobbed, loudly, as if the fist against her mouth had been all that had kept her quiet. She cried into his shirt and was committed to the act as if she'd forgotten she was Hermione Granger and that he was Draco Malfoy.

It was just her, a girl crying, and him — just him.

The shock wore away and he thought of his mother. A strange thought, no doubt, but she cried often. He didn't have words for her, or for Hermione. He set a hand onto her shoulder, his right hand, to squeeze her shoulder. When she didn't flinch or shove him away he let the hand shift, beneath that awful bulk of her hair, so warm he might die from exposure to it, then across her shoulders. And he stood one arm around her, his chin on her head.

Perhaps she'd mistaken him for someone else, but he'd allow her this moment.

She clearly needed it.

As the shifts and sobs subsided she pulled back, not enough to be away from him but enough that her nose wasn't impaled into his chest. He hadn't minded, he was shell-shocked. He felt halfway into a dream, but his dreams were always awful. They were full of dead bodies and snakes, people being eaten by them, venom, vines, thorns. He looked down at her in the low light of the moon and saw red.

Red eyes, red cheeks, red lips where she'd chewed a split into the plush of them.

She'd taste of copper, were he a stupider man.

Yet he stood, impassive, borderline unaffected. At least as he looked at her. He tried to be neutral, to show no anger or sadness or anything, as if she'd asked him the time. He didn't know what else to do, she had flung herself at him in tears when he'd tried to check on her. Anything felt like the wrong thing to do.

"I'm sorry," she patted his shirt which was wet against his skin. Her fingertips paused on the spot as she sobered to him, to them, the wet mask of her tears impressed upon him.

"Did something happen?" He asked his tone even.

The parchment in her fist turned to a leaf in the wind as she gestured with it. "I asked Ron to come down, I've asked for weeks, and he keeps saying next week, next week, what's the rush — "

"Is there a rush?" Draco asked as if he were a therapist. Which was amusing to think on given how he'd benefit from a sit-down with anyone, to talk through how his hands weren't his hands and how he often felt like he wasn't in his body. That he was just a point of consciousness, being pushed forward by a meat wreck that shook when it was too warm or too cold. He reached down to catch a thick splay of her hair, to shove it from her face. It caught in her lips and lashes, comical and spattering, and she waved a hand to detangle herself.

To pull away from him.

"No," her voice was hot.

He'd said the wrong thing.

What was that, less than ten words?

A record. He was so good at setting records.

"If there's no rush then why are you upset that he keeps pushing back the dates?"

"Because," Hermione said, her voice heavy with intonation. She had a way of turning two syllables into four, even when her lip was split open and her face was bright red. "He should want to see me, shouldn't he. If we're dating. It isn't as if it's impossible for him to visit, to Apparate or come by, to come to see me, to come to check on me."

He preferred when she'd been face-deep in his chest and sobbing.

"It isn't so much to ask, is it? To want your boyfriend to come and see you? It's been almost two months since I've seen him, and it's so easy for him to visit."

Draco stood, his hands in his pockets as he turned over his wand and his cigarettes. He didn't want to weigh in, to defend Weasley or agree with Hermione. He didn't feel comfortable with her being Hermione, either, but she'd called him Draco in no uncertain terms and he felt it was strange to hold her at arm's length by name if she refused to do the same. And yet, he wished he had. He wished she had stormed inside and pouted and fussed.

"I don't know why I'm complaining to you," Hermione snorted, the flats of her hands rubbed against her face. She made a snotty sound as she exhaled, her head tipped back.

He watched her throat bob, teeth sharp against the inside of her cheek.

"Sorry to bother you," she said, her tone flat and childish as if she'd been made to apologize.

"I didn't say you were bothering me."

"You're just staring at me, not talking."

"I'm listening to you," Draco said, his voice level. "You seemed like you had things to say and I let you say them at your own pace."

Hermione glared at him as if she'd been tricked.

"Have you never had someone pay attention to you, to just listen to you when you speak?"

Hermione's mouth popped open but she closed it, the flat of her index finger against the cut on her lip. She tongued it as if to catch the blood. She worried her fingertip on the spot, over and over, as if it'd stop bleeding on its own.

Draco pulled out his wand and she stumbled back a step. He felt a rubber band snap from the soles of his feet to his heart as she stared at him, as if afraid of what he was about to do. "May I?" He gestured for her to come closer, his fingers extended for her chin. "You're going to end up swollen."

"Why do you care?"

"How else will I listen to you complain if your lips are swollen shut?" Draco smirked through white teeth, eyes dark in the shadows of the moon. He slipped his fingers beneath her chin and cast a small healing spell, one she must know. He watched her run the gamut, from the searing pain to gentle tingle. He tapped her chin up with the crook of his index finger then tapped her nose as he stepped back. It was something his father did to him whenever he'd get scrapes as a child, a gentle gesture than something to set you on edge.

His mother would kiss his wounds better, from scraped knees to bruised elbows. He thought that may not be ideal given any number of reasons, least of all her tear-stained cheeks.

Hermione's hand hovered by her face, still red in the dark. She dipped her head and made a beeline for the widespread glass doors.

"I'll be in Hogsmeade over the weekend."

She paused, though she didn't look back at him.

"Maybe I'll see you there."

And she left.

Draco lingered on the balcony, smoke shapes formed of Granians much like the ones his mother bred. They'd inherited them from his grandfather several years before when he'd died. Most of them had been tortured to death or used as fodder during the war. But the winged horses remained a step between mundane and magical. They didn't form specific shapes or patterns, just impressions. He didn't know why.

Anything to distract him from the strange feeling on his chest, where the wet patch began to dry.

Sunday — October 24th, 1998.

"I really want to go get lunch," Astoria whined, her hands interlocked on Draco's bicep.

"So get lunch."

"But you're taking your time, my love."

Draco felt a thick chill run down his spine. He squared his jaw and yanked his arm from her grasp.

She had sweet mittens on with a matched beanie and scarf. Her little pale face poked out amidst it like an adorable kitten and he wanted so badly to yank the beanie over her face altogether. She was sweet, of course. But she had this brattish edge to her, as if her sweetness could balance it out. She would whine at him if he lingered in the Library or try to draw him away from his homework with her own make-believe homework about anatomy.

And right now she had that defiant pout and lust-laden gaze as if she could use her gaze alone to disarm him.

"Aren't your friends off at the Three Broomsticks?"

"I can't go alone — "

"You should," Draco plucked a book from the shelf, a thick tome on cleaning spells for a modern witch. "I'm not hungry." He snapped it shut so loud that she jumped.

"But if I go alone, they'll ask about you…"

Draco looked at her with a deadpan distance behind his eyes. As if he didn't see her, as if she weren't there.

"They always say, oh, Draco's only using you, Draco doesn't care — "

"I don't."

"You do!"

Draco grabbed her face between the flats of his hands, gentle as he could manage. "What possible reason have you given me to care about you," he said, his voice as even as before. "Go."

He couldn't help but roll his eyes as she pulled back and broke into thick tears. She cried in such a way as to still be pretty, her face immobile while the tears flowed. It was like someone had turned the tap within her head and they gushed out. She said something, he didn't care to listen, and she left. He felt bad about it, more the situation at large. She was sweet and easy to be around, but so was a potted plant or a decorative vase. She was there or she wasn't, and she'd done as all girls do; she'd played sweet and easy until she thought she had him close enough to pull his strings.

And he'd cut the strings.

Love; what a joke.

He moved along the shelves, his fingers idle as he looked over the books. By the time Daphne got to him, he might feel bad. He'd be able to pretend he felt bad at least, and he'd apologize to her. But she had dogged along from the castle to Hogsmeade in spite of the fact he'd said he wanted to be alone. She had clung to him, nails in his calves and tears in her eyes. They weren't dating. They weren't anything. She was fine and easy, and one of dozens of other girls.

Girls he didn't want.

"I thought you might have it."

Draco leaned, his knee bent and his head tipped. He saw Granger with her giant halo of brown hair and red-tipped nose. She wore her winter wear early every year. She seemed to be cold all the time, which he found impossible given how hot she ran. He straightened his posture and dipped around the shelves. He kept a book of poetry flipped open as if he'd been in the midst of it.

"Yes, see, that author," she pointed to a ledger.

The staff at Quaesitum Vellum were older than Draco expected. They must be in their early hundreds with how their joints seemed frozen as they flipped each page. He was afraid they might die in the time it took for each page to settle or between breaths.

"Why I'm not sure…" the small woman with her fine grey hair in a tight bun said. She wore deep navy robes with silver trim like midnight woven into a garment. It seemed too formal to be a uniform — perhaps they were the owner. "The last book I saw of theirs… Was at least…"

To his surprise, Hermione listened with her full attention. She didn't fidget or fuss, she listened. It was perhaps the stillest and quiet he'd seen her outside of her patrols.

"I found it, 'Mione!"

Hermione turned to look at Draco, which struck him as odd. He'd not spoken. And then he was knocked, elbow to his shoulder. The hairs flared along the back of Draco's neck as he picked the clumsy gait and drawl of Weasley. Ronald, that is, the tallest one. So tall that his brains had been stretched thin. The flash of red hair and a long nose confirmed his morbid suspicion.

"Ah, sorry Malfoy," Weasley said, the least sorry he'd ever sounded in his miserable life.

Hermione lit up as Weasley approached, a thick book of old astronomy charts in hand. She accepted it with a wide smile as if it were Christmas.

Draco couldn't look away.

Was it miserable to compare the descent of Weasley's lips to Granger's of a body to the floor? He felt the same sick lurch in his stomach like he wanted to do something but it was too late to help. Instead, he stood, open poetry bookmarked with his thumb as he stared. He was at least collected enough to maintain polite horror, and so he stared, indifferent as if he were waiting for her to move out of the way.

Granger smiled at Draco past Weasley's bicep and he refused to return it.

He remained static, dead behind the eyes. He'd perfected the technique. He'd had plenty of practice. Not to mention the fact he didn't care. Of course, Weasley had shown up for her, she had sent him essays about school. Perhaps she had begged especially well in her last letter or Weasley had finally worked out the stakes.

They shifted so Granger could review the book her pet had brought her. Draco moved with mechanical precision, his hands were distant and his neck too warm. He didn't wait to speak to the shopkeeper, or to Granger. She hadn't tried to speak to him anyway. She'd looked straight through him. Of course. This was a series of moments, all these of course moments, the sort you looked at and pieced together. He tossed the Galleons onto the front desk with a slim level of attention.

"Oh, that book is only two Galleons," she picked up the fifteen or so he'd thrown onto the desk.

"Keep it," he dismissed with a wave of his hand. He tucked it beneath his arm and made a beeline for the door. He didn't even know what book he'd bought, not really. Poetry. It was poetry. But he hadn't read it. He wasn't likely to either. It had just been the sort of book he had thought would be interesting to be found with.

He was going to leave.

He was.

"Malfoy."

"Ron," Granger said, her voice sharp. Identical to how she had sounded in Diagon Alley, though he had the advantage of independence. He didn't have to worry about his mother or what might happen to her.

"Oh, I hadn't noticed you, Weasley," Draco waved a hand as if he'd caught a bad smell. "Though it explains the stench."

"Throwing money around still works wonders, hm?" Weasley sneered, a pale imitation of the looks that Draco passed with ease.

"Interesting," Draco said, not interested in the least. "Is that a crime to tip? I suppose you wouldn't know, you're normally the one receiving the handout."

"Having money doesn't mean shit if you're a Death Eater."

Draco smiled, the fine line of his teeth exposed while his eyes remained like a dagger poised to strike. His gaze slid from Weasley to Granger, who had puffed in the heat of the store. She looked mortified, though he couldn't place why. The store had fallen silent, however, and the patrons had all turned to stare at him.

"You should be locked up, you and your father — "

"You work for the Ministry, do you not?" Draco maintained his tone. "I imagine if you take issue with a ruling, you have the correct avenues to discuss that. Instead of public shaming," he waved a loose hand around the store.

Weasley had turned red to his ears.

"Actually, if we're in the spirit of dredging personal issues out," Draco said, his voice loud. The people in the store remained fixed on them out of morbid curiosity. "Send your girlfriend more letters. I don't want to have to comfort her in your absence any more than I have already."

Draco didn't watch for their reactions, didn't care to.

That hadn't come out as he'd meant it.

But he made his point.

When he got back to the Head Dorm, he skimmed through the poetry book and scrawled a note with Granger's name on it. He walked over to the small stacks of books she'd set up for Avery and Rodger, then to his ten-book high stack. He collected his share and kept the poetry book, too. He carted them all into his room and warded his bed, desperate to avoid the situation he'd left behind.

He shouldn't have said that.

He didn't care that much.

He really didn't.

Saturday — October 31st, 1998.

Draco didn't speak to Hermione again after that. Rather, she didn't speak to him. She gave little more than affirmative sounds when he asked her questions in Potions and she wasn't in the dorm lounge any longer. Her snacks vanished along with her decorative mugs, and at first he thought she might have moved out altogether. But he saw her between classes when she'd dip into and out of her dorm room. The books she had left for Avery and Rodger vanished. He didn't know if she'd taken them back or if she'd just not added more — he opted for a lack of new books to recommend.

He used the time to read the books she had left him. And he read them voraciously, without hesitation. They were fiction, which surprised him, and centered around ridiculous romances of the nineteenth century. All Muggle literature too, which struck him as strange, but he had read many Wizarding novels. He would ask her why she'd recommended books about balls and moors, of dark figures and sharp women, but she hadn't spoken to him.

He couldn't work out if it was his fault or Weasley's; he took on the blame, as it was easier to settle on.

Pumpkins had begun to decorate the tables until they became so large a First year had climbed inside one. They were warded and hovered so now they hung in the hallways with grim features carved into them. Peeves dropped them on several students. But they remained, floating and ominous. Candy and enchanted tiny bats floated around if one was quick enough to catch them. The bats were licorice and Draco caught them for the fun of it.

But Saturday morning he passed by Hermione, who was asleep on the couch.

He paused, confused.

She had a blanket and pillows. She was in her pajamas too, dressed for bed. As if she'd intended to sleep on the couch, by choice. As if she didn't have a room.

Avery appeared, her hair trussed up and a toothbrush loose in her mouth.

Rodger appeared after her, dressed for class despite it being a weekend.

Draco blinked.

Rodger sprinted for their shared dorm while Avery stood, her fake blonde hair yellower than before. "Morning Draco," she said, an easy smile on her lips.

"Did Rodger do a patrol of your room last night," Draco said, his tone dead.

Avery laughed like that was a joke but her red blush between the white foam and yellow hair said enough. She walked over to the center door which was used to access the other rooms. She spun the dial and walked through once she'd found her destination. All Draco could hear was the easy chatter of a girls' dorm on a Saturday morning.

But the screams and yelps sent Granger flying, her wand out and her eyes wild.

The door snapped behind Avery and Draco was left, confused and defenseless.

They stood across from one another, her gaze narrowed at him while her hand shook.

"Did you sleep on the couch?"

"I, yes, I suppose I did," Hermione turned as red as Avery had been.

"They kicked you out to shag." Draco rubbed his face. "I thought they hated one another."

"They do."

Draco felt he might commit several Unforgiveable Curses if left unattended.

"It's nice, I suppose, that they worked through it, but I worked so hard to fix their flitty patrol schedule, and Avery told me she was just shy, she didn't want to be around Rodger alone, you see," Hermione crumbled, her stance a different sort of defensive as she scrunched her hands by her face. "And they didn't tell me to leave, not exactly. I saw Rodger sneak in, and I couldn't stay in there, I mean, I should have told someone, but I had patrolled all night and re-written my History of Magic essay for Monday three times before then... They were chosen for a reason, and they're adults, and what, am I going to run around the school and check every bedroom every night, out to peep on — "

Draco closed the gap, more so they weren't shouting at one another. Or rather, she wasn't shouting at him.

"I don't want to spend my N.E.W.T.s. being the Prude Patrol, out to catch people and — I'm so tired, and I'm so sick of all the — everyone's so wrapped up in how they feel, you know, I just want to study and to do well, and it's okay to be upset or to like people, of course, that's okay, but I cannot be expected to police everyone else, every night, I refuse."

"Prude Patrol?" Draco echoed, a slant to his smile.

Hermione's lips quivered.

"No one's expecting you to catch everything that goes on in the school. That isn't your job."

"But it is! I'm Hermione Granger, I'm the Head Girl, I fought Voldemort, I can do everything, can't I!" She threw her hands up. "I have more patrols than twice a week, you know, I took on an extra set because one of the Prefects kept missing their nights, and I have to run a study group for Second years, the ones who didn't attend their full year last year, and they — they look at me like I can't do anything wrong, but I do everything wrong. Everything."

Draco thought he might cry on her behalf as she paced back and forth.

"And Ron! The bookstore, I meant to, oh, I meant to say I was sorry, he shouldn't have said that — "

"No," Draco waved his hands, to stop her. "Stop."

Her throat tensed as if she'd said something wrong.

"Stop taking on everything. Especially his mistakes."

"But I was there, I should have — "

"What?" Draco said, his brows raised. "I am a Death Eater, Hermione. I have the Dark Mark. I went to trial and I worked alongside my father to make things right. They decided to let me go. It's done."

"But you aren't…"

"I am," his throat tensed. "I'm a Death Eater."

"How can you say it like it doesn't mean anything?"

Draco was adept at expressions. He had learned how to stamp down his brows and flatten his lips. He knew how to be impassive and unaffected. But he couldn't, not right now, not as she stood there as a flurry of red and brown, as if she had any idea. He yanked his sleeve up, his left sleeve. The Dark Mark was faint but not gone.

"You didn't choose it though," she added as if that were an excuse. "You wouldn't have if you'd had a choice…"

"It's my skin, Hermione." He moved closer as if to impress it upon her. He dug his fingers into it, to emphasize the shape. "The worst part of it was the fact it didn't hurt when they carved it into me. I was so numb, you know. Cruciatus for minutes at a time, over and over. My father wasn't at home you see, I got back from school, they were waiting."

Hermione fussed with her blanket, which had tangled around her middle when she'd stood.

"Getting the Mark is usually a point of pride, of celebration. It means you've earned it, usually. They kill a Muggle, use the fresh blood as part of the ink." He thumbed the mark as if it'd wipe off. "Ash from the Muggle's bones, blood, snake venom, the Dark Lord's blood, it's a whole thing."

She stepped back and he let her.

"The Dark Lord was kind enough to forgo the Muggle death part. I didn't have to kill anyone — no, he used my mother's blood instead and the bones of our head House Elf, Schratz. He was dead when I got home, but the blood, they took it from her in front of me," he smiled but it cracked in seconds. "Took a minute of her, crying. I counted the seconds on my grandfather's clock — he'd had his heart immortalized into a clock, as a grim reminder of time's passage or something stupid like that."

Hermione detangled herself from the blanket, which revealed her cartoon pajamas. He wanted to shut up, to let her wake up and to be alone. But he couldn't. Those stupid wide eyes, that still way she paid attention as if she might be quizzed on this later.

"And I counted. Sixty seconds, of her screaming, of her pain. And I have this to remind me of those sixty seconds where I could have made a different choice, I could have done something about it."

"It's not your fault," Hermione said, her voice fiercer than he'd ever heard it. "You were a child."

"And you were a child when you fought against the Dark Lord, more than once," he tugged his sleeve back into place, a nasty look shot at the clock above the fireplace. It ticked so loudly as if it were in his skull. "My point is, you have enough problems on your own. Don't make others your problems into your own. Don't take the blame for them, either."

Hermione watched his clothed arm and he wished he'd not brought it up. He should have accepted her apology and shut up.

"Did you take those books?"

He felt his breath catch.

"Did you like them?"

"They were entertaining enough. Interesting use of language. Perhaps a little lovelorn, not what I'd expect from you, Granger."

Hermione smiled a weak smile, the lack of sleep clear now in her weary features.

"I mean it."

She woke when he said that, a mixture of confused and alert.

"You aren't responsible for everyone you meet. You don't owe anyone anything."

Her watery smile said that she didn't agree, but she didn't argue aloud.

"And if you need a bed, there are three spare ones in my dorm," he jerked his head. "Rodger split the room down the middle. It's like two rooms in one."

Hermione stared at the floor, her hand poised by her mouth. She began to gather her blankets, tears in her eyes. He let her cry, left her to her thoughts. He had said too much and pushed too far. He wanted to gobble the words back up and slap himself over the head. He would have accepted his father's cane across the temple, in all honesty. Anything to right his stupidity.

"Draco," she said, her voice thin. "Thank you."

"For?"

Hermione smiled, her head dropped. "Caring."