"Long, Long, Long"
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or places mentioned in this story that are in any way connected with the Harry Potter series; they are owned by J.K. Rowling.
PART ONE: AN UNEXPECTED ROMANCE
Hermione slowly walked up the cold, dark stairwell. It was not as she had remembered. The light from her candle played across the stone walls that seemed to slowly close in around her as she ascended to the top of the tower. Hermione hadn't remembered the sheer coldness of the place; her memories of it were always filled with warmth.
The top of the stairs came into view several feet from her. The gray light flooded in from the large broken windows. She stepped up the final step and the chilly breeze from outside blew out the candle. Hermione didn't care; it was light enough naturally, though the day was overcast.
She started towards the windows but changed her mind mid-step. She knew what the view would be, and decided she would rather dwell on the more pleasant memories of this place. Old memories that remained forever etched in her young mind.
It was the Christmas feast, and the Great Hall was filled with cheerful faces and laughter. Looking around, Hermione didn't see one sad or angry student--a rarity, even in normal times. Smiling to herself, Hermione waved over her two best friends as they entered the Hall.
"Where have you been?" She asked, examining their red faces and snow-covered robes.
"Snowball fight," Ron explained simply, "Harry and me against Seamus and Dean."
Harry smiled. "We looked for you earlier to see if you wanted to join us, but you weren't in the dormitories or the common room."
"Oh, I was in the library," said Hermione, pulling out her wand and performing a simple drying charm on her two friends.
"Oh, thanks, Hermione," said Ron as the snow disappeared from his robes. He looked up expectantly towards the head table. "Is this feast going to start anytime soon?" he wondered in annoyance.
As if on cue, Dumbledore stood up and silence fell. "I wish a very happy Christmas to all of you! It is often that this time of year brings about joy for us all, but I ask you to enjoy it especially this year. It is in our times of happiness that we are brought together, and unity, though always important, must be particularly cherished in the coming months. I ask you to create, renew, and keep as many friendships as you can during the rest of this term, as hard as that may seem. They will be well beyond worth the effort before long. And now, enjoy the feast!"
The tables immediately filled with trays of the most wonderful foods of the holidays--roasts of all different kinds, gravies, potatoes, everything that one could think of for the best holiday dinner. Dumbledore's somewhat foreboding message was instantly lost as the students happily ate the meal.
The headmaster sat down and smiled, despite his troubled thoughts. Though many of the people around him didn't know it, a war was steadily approaching, and had been for some time. Dumbledore allowed himself to glance over at Harry Potter, who was enjoying the feast with his classmates. The headmaster let out a heavy breath and glanced down at his plate.
Hermione was one of only two people in the entire hall that didn't immediately start feasting. Her Christmas cheer had just been dampened, though Dumbledore hadn't said anything new or very surprising. She wondered why his speech made her anxious, and after a moment figured she was simply reading too much into his words. Upon glancing up at the Headmaster, however, and noticing the worried look in his eyes, despite his smile, she realized that perhaps she was right to worry. His quick glance over at Harry, who didn't notice, was enough for her to realize that she was right--Dumbledore was very concerned about something.
Suddenly, Hermione didn't feel particularly hungry, though the food on the table looked delicious. She looked across the room to see if anyone else had really heard what Dumbledore said and found herself disappointed. Was she the only one who had noticed? She started to feel queasy and felt a sudden need to leave the Great Hall.
"Harry, Ron," she said, trying to get their attention, "I'm not feeling very well, I'll see you later."
"Are you okay, Hermione?" Harry asked, looking concerned.
She smiled at him, "I'll be fine. Enjoy the feast." She stood up, grabbing her bag, and left as inconspicuously as possible. She didn't think students were supposed to leave during a feast, but she knew that if she didn't get somewhere quiet enough to think, she would have this strange feeling in her stomach all night.
She made it out of the Great Hall without anyone saying anything and immediately headed for her favorite place in the castle. "Lumos," she muttered as she reached the familiar tapestry on the fourth floor. It was of a beautiful unicorn, but the colors had faded with time so that the image was not as amazing as Hermione imagined it must once have been. She tapped the tapestry three times with her wand and stood back. After a moment, the tapestry suddenly moved, rolling itself up and revealing a hidden archway. Hermione's wand lit up the dark passageway and when she had climbed the first several steps, she heard the tapestry unroll itself behind her.
She stepped slowly up the steps, hearing the sound of her shoes against the stone break the thick silence. Hermione loved this tower, so much so that she had never told anyone about it, not even Harry and Ron. It was her secret area, where she escaped to think about things in silence, or merely to look out one of the large windows at the top to see the stars or the beautiful grounds of Hogwarts. It was undoubtedly Hermione's favorite place in the entire castle, and she visited it often.
She prepared for the sudden cold that she would feel as she neared the top, but for some reason, it didn't come. She frowned and quickened her step, wondering why the usual draft from the outside was absent.
She reached the top to find a fair-sized fire completely under control in the center of the small circular room. On the opposite side, leaning on the window sill and looking out the window, was another student.
Hermione stared at the person, wondering what someone else was doing in the secret tower she thought only she knew of. "Nox," she whispered, realizing that her wand's light was not needed with the fire blazing so close. The student whirled around, startled at her voice. Hermione stared. "Malfoy?" she asked incredulously.
Across the room, Draco Malfoy looked just as shocked as Hermione did.
"What are you doing here?" The two asked of one another simultaneously. Draco smirked. Hermione stood in the archway awkwardly. Draco spoke first, "Why aren't you at the feast, Granger? Where are your little friends, Potter and Weasley?"
Hermione glared at him. "I wasn't hungry."
Draco raised his eyebrows. He seriously doubted that was why she was there.
Hermione looked at him expectantly. When Draco said nothing, she asked, "Well? Why are you here?"
Draco didn't speak for a moment, wondering how to respond. He thought of the letter his father had sent him earlier that day, telling him about Voldemort's plans, and how everything was going perfectly. The thought crossed his mind of speaking his thoughts aloud, but he suddenly realized who had asked him the question. "That doesn't concern you," he said coldly.
Anger boiled up in Hermione. Not because she really cared about why he was up in her secret tower, but because he always spoke to her as if she were his inferior, which she found laughable but also highly irritating. "You're right. It doesn't. And to tell you the truth, I don't much care." She turned away from him, staring out at the stars reflected in the ice-cold lake. She imagined that their conversation was over, and that, if she was lucky, Malfoy might leave, but she found herself sorely mistaken.
"I don't suppose you're going to leave or do anything kind like that, now would you?" said Draco, watching her.
Hermione turned around quickly. "No, actually, I'm not, Malfoy. So either leave yourself or be quiet so I might be able to think."
"About what?" Draco wondered aloud.
She looked at him as though he were insane. "That doesn't concern you," she said icily, imitating his former answer.
Draco smiled to himself. Something about him deeply irritated her, and always had. He found it amusing to watch her get angry so easily. "Now, now Granger," he said mockingly, "I don't much care for your tone. Not having a pleasant evening, are we?"
Hermione felt herself dangerously near to cursing Malfoy, and took a deep breath. She thought briefly of leaving just to get away from him, but she was too stubborn to give in so easily. "I think that's an understatement, Malfoy, and I fear the evening's only getting worse as this conversation continues, so please be quiet before I feel the need to hex you."
"Don't bother with threats, Granger, you don't have it in you follow through with them."
Hermione stepped forward and pointed her wand at Draco's chest. "What makes you think so? I've done it before."
Draco smirked. "Are you really going to duel me, Granger?"
The idea appealed to Hermione, and, as hers was the only wand raised, she would definitely have an advantage. But school rules prohibited dueling, and she couldn't imagine how horrible her punishment would be for attacking Malfoy in a deserted tower and just leaving him there. She lowered her wand and stepped back.
"I thought not," said Draco.
"Yes, imagine what your dear old dad would say if his son lost a fight to a muggle-born. Really, I'm doing you a favor," retorted Hermione.
Draco reacted so fast that Hermione barely saw him move. Before she knew it, his wand was several inches from her chest, his features fixed in an angry glare. He opened his mouth to speak, but a slight tapping sound interrupted his thoughts.
The two students turned, startled, towards the window, where they saw the outline of a hovering owl, a roll of parchment neatly strapped to its leg. Draco's face darkened at the sight of the owl, though Hermione didn't know why, and he dropped his wand to his side and stepped over to the window. Twisting the ancient latch, Draco opened the window and the bird landed gracefully on the stone sill, holding out its message patiently. Draco untied the letter and the owl disappeared back into the night.
Draco absent-mindedly closed the window and unrolled the parchment, seemingly having forgotten Hermione's presence. Hermione used his distraction to her advantage, turning to the window and letting her eyes travel freely over the glistening grounds.
A few minutes passed in silence, and Hermione's thoughts were elsewhere when she heard a crumpling sound behind her. She turned and saw Draco pitch his balled-up letter at the fire, then turn back to the window, running a hand through his hair in thought. The parchment had missed the fire, but only by a little, and the heat was slowly burning the edges of it. Curiosity got the better of Hermione and she whispered, "Accio!"
The crumpled letter flew into her hand, and to her relief, Draco hadn't heard her. She cast a quick glance in his direction and started quietly unfolding the parchment. The neatly-written message inside read:
I am assuming you got my earlier owl. The meeting this afternoon was brief, but I received more information concerning the war. I know we talked earlier this year about what would happen if our side pulled everything together and it started within the school year, but I had my doubts that everything would be organized so quickly. Of course, it may still be several months, but know that it will be in the first half of the New Year, of that I am now sure.
I know this news will please you, but you cannot share what I have told you with anyone, even people you trust. I will keep you updated.
The letter was unsigned, but something told Hermione that it was most likely written by Lucius. The very thought of that man made her shiver, and the fact that he had avoided Azkaban made her blood boil. If anyone deserved that place, it was Lucius Malfoy.
Hermione refocused her thoughts on the letter, reading it over once again. The sound of Draco's voice made her jump several feet into the air.
"Granger, are you still…" Draco's voice trailed of as he turned around. Hermione looked guiltily up from the letter in her hands. "Is that…? Granger, do not read that!" He crossed the room in several strides, until he stood directly in front of Hermione, who looked a bit frightened.
Draco reached for the parchment, but Hermione instinctively kept a tight grip on it. Draco finally tugged it from her grasp and immediately dropped it into the magical flames. He turned and glared at Hermione, who stared back determinedly.
"Did you read it?" he asked.
Hermione considered lying, but she doubted Draco would believe her, and she wasn't really afraid of him, so she told the truth. "Yes," she said.
Instead of threatening her with his wand again, which was the reaction Hermione had expected, Draco just let out a frustrated breath and cursed to himself, turning away from her. A somewhat awkward silence hung over the two for moment while Hermione gathered up the courage to speak.
"Was that from your father?" she asked.
Draco glanced back at her then returned his gaze to the opposite window. "Why would I tell you?"
Hermione shrugged. It was a reasonable question. She had just learned something she clearly wasn't supposed to know, and if whoever sent the letter ever found out that Hermione had read it, chances were that Draco would be in serious trouble. But this was about more than poor little Draco, she argued with herself, this was about a war that was about to change everything. Surely any decent human being would realize that the importance of this reached far beyond a bit of scolding or punishment. She replied, "Because that letter was about the war, Malfoy. Do you realize what's going to happen when it starts? Do you realize that people in our class are going to die? Do you even have the faintest idea of what this news means? Obviously not, because if you did, you would have done something by now."
"What the hell do you expect me to do, Granger?" asked Draco, turning around and stepping towards her again. He laughed mirthlessly, saying, "And you're supposed to be so smart. What do you think would happen if I had showed someone that letter? Do you honestly believe that this can be prevented?"
"Yes! If you had taken that letter to Dumbledore, he would've done something! Don't make excuses, Malfoy; don't even try to pretend that you care about stopping the war. I don't know why I bother having this conversation with you; you're on Voldemort's side, always have been, you and your entire family. The letter was right, wasn't it? You're pleased with this news!" Hermione was half-shouting by the end of her little speech.
"What do you know?" Draco shouted back. Hermione said nothing. "I'm serious, Granger! What do you know? About this, about anything that you've said?" Still Hermione didn't reply. "Nothing, Granger. Nothing." He wasn't shouting anymore, but his voice was still harsh. After a moment's silence he returned his gaze to the window and said as politely as he could manage, "I would appreciate your not telling anyone about the letter."
Hermione considered leaving, but didn't actually move. "One of us should tell Dumbledore. If it's not going to be you, then--"
Draco let out another exasperated breath, then interrupted her, saying, "Look, do whatever you want, Granger. I wouldn't expect any more."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked coldly. Draco shook his head but said nothing aloud. Hermione was fighting an internal war with herself, debating whether she should leave and tell Dumbledore or stay until Draco convinced her to do otherwise. "Unless you can give me any reason not to tell him," said Hermione slowly, "I'm going to tell the headmaster."
It was now Draco's turn for an internal war. Anything he could say that might convince her to keep quiet would divulge something else she wasn't supposed to know, yet if she told Dumbledore…Draco didn't even want to imagine what type of chaos would ensue. Dumbledore would probably tell the Ministry to keep an eye on any suspected Death Eaters, the Ministry would let slip the possibility of a war to the Daily Prophet, the magical world would read the news and panic, any surprise the Dark side had would disappear. If the Death Eaters ever found out that it was Draco that slipped up, which they undoubtedly would, his death was inevitable. He couldn't let Hermione tell Dumbledore. "That letter wasn't the first I've gotten. Throughout the school year I've been getting them, always with some small, vague pieces of news. They often contradict one another and rarely do they prove to hold any truth. This one, undoubtedly, is no different." Draco paused to examine her face, watching for any sign that might show him she was backing down, or at least that she understood. She just waited expectantly, so he continued, "If you were to tell Dumbledore, soon everyone would hear about what was happening, or really what may be happening, and would panic. That wouldn't solve anything. It would, if anything, make things easier for the Dark Lord."
Hermione wondered briefly what his last statement really meant; was he for or against Voldemort? She had thought seconds ago that he was a strong supporter, always had been, but then why would he be talking her out of making life easier for the Dark side? Hermione decided to shelve these thoughts for the moment and think about what she should do. Draco's words were reasonable…maybe going to Dumbledore with a vague idea and absolutely no evidence to support it would not be the best choice. She decided to let it go for the time being, but didn't want Draco to think she was just going to let the matter drop. "I won't tell Dumbledore," she said after a long silence in which Draco had waited in anticipation, "but I'm not going to forget the letter." Draco's features showed immense relief, but he waited for her to follow up on the second part of her sentence. She didn't. She turned and left without saying another word, leaving Draco to feel slightly apprehensive as to what might happen in the weeks to come.
"Feel better, Hermione?" Harry asked, looking at her in concern as she entered the common room.
No, not really, she thought, but smiled and said, "Yes, a little."
Harry smiled back. "Good. Too bad you missed the feast, though."
"Yeah, it was great," added Ron.
Hermione nodded distractedly, not really hearing what her friends were saying. "I think I'll just head up to bed. I'm not really up for doing anything else tonight."
"Alright, 'night Hermione."
"Goodnight." Hermione headed up the stairs to the girls' dormitories. She opened the door and was relieved to find that no one else was there yet. Looking at her watch, she realized it was still only nine o'clock, and as it was Christmas, many people wouldn't even think of bed for another hour or so.
Hermione walked over to the windowsill near her bed and sat, looking out at the lower parts of the castle, and beyond that, the forbidden forest. She rested her head against the cold glass and found her eyes traveling involuntarily to a small tower down below. A faint light shined out through the dusty windows, and she thought for a moment that she saw someone briefly framed in the doorway of the tower. The faint light disappeared--Hermione was pretty sure it had been a wand light--and she couldn't see into the tower anymore.
Hermione's thoughts drifted to the letter from Lucius. The bits of it she could remember word for word replayed themselves over and over in her mind. Thinking about it was going to drive her insane, but she couldn't help it. It wouldn't leave her alone.
She had made it sound like she had a plan that she wasn't revealing when she left the tower, but in reality, she no idea what she was going to do about any of this. She could waste her time following Draco around, waiting until he got another letter and then find some way to steal it before he destroyed it…not a promising solution, and their was always the possibility that Draco would notice her following him around and hex her or something. There really wasn't any reasonable way to follow up on what she had learned so far.
Frustrated, Hermione got ready for bed and fell asleep trying to convince herself that Draco was right; the letter was probably wrong, and she could forget about it.
Draco put out the magical fire with his wand, watching the flames dim and then disappear altogether. He stood motionless in the center of the room for a moment, thinking and wondering about what would really happen. Would there ever really be a war? Obviously Lucius thought so, but he had been wrong in the past. Would Hermione ever talk to Dumbledore? Would she ever do anything about what she had learned? If only she would just forget about it…
Draco kicked the stone wall behind him in frustration with himself. Of course! he thought, I just should've modified her memory! She'd have forgotten the letter, talking to Dumbledore, the war, everything! Draco was angrier with himself than he ever remembered being. At least he hadn't told her too much, but the idea that there was an easy way out of this and he hadn't thought of it made him furious.
Well, perhaps it wouldn't have been that easy. Hermione probably would have cursed him before he said the first syllable of the spell. All the same, he'd had a chance, and he'd missed it.
"Lumos," Draco whispered, walking to the doorway. He paused to look at the long string of stairs beneath him, and then started down them.