By the end of the train ride, Hermione's thoughts were in turmoil. For a full hour, she had been able to lose herself in small talk; she had paid barely a thought to the disaster that was sure to strike the minute she stepped off the train. But now, with only fifteen precious minutes left until they pulled into the station, she was becoming frantic, and though she was trying to hide her discomfort from Malfoy, she knew how see-through her disguise really was. Busying herself with gathering the outer robes she had shed earlier, she tried fruitlessly to ignore both her nerves and the uncharacteristic slivers of sympathy and concern etched in the brow of her blond companion.

When the train finally screeched to a stop inside Kings Cross, Hermione couldn't help it; she squeaked. It wasn't loud enough to bother anyone in the other compartments, but it was enough to spur Malfoy into action. "Let me help you with your things," he offered quietly, gesturing to the small trunk she stored in the overhead. She wished he wouldn't look at her so intently; when those storm cloud eyes focused on hers, she always found it hard to breathe. Anxious to break his gaze, she nodded, and moved away to give him room to maneuver her trunk safely to the floor. With a graceful half-bow, he opened the door to the compartment and allowed her to precede him out into the narrow corridor. When she came face to face with Pansy Parkinson, she wished he would have let her manage her trunk herself.

"Well well, if it isn't the little Griswald girl," Pansy's smirk reminded her oddly of Malfoy's, and not for the first time, Hermione wondered if all Slytherins were required to take a course in smirking. "Looks like I can't call you a Mudblood bitch anymore, can I?" The Slytherin girl smiled at Hermione's fiery glare, and determined to stomp it out once and for all. "Guess we'll just have to make do with 'pureblood slut', then, won't we?" And then she laughed.

Hermione knew she shouldn't take this from the bint, but for the life of her, couldn't find anything to say. The corridor was now full of people, most of whom were distinctly interested in the tiny confrontation taking place near the back of the car. Their whispers and murmurs were sending pins and needles down her spine, but Pansy was obviously enjoying the attention, and placed one manicured hand on Hermione's shoulder; the brunette brushed it away with contempt. "Don't worry, Griswald. Draco'll be done with you soon enough." Whispering conspiratorially, she leaned in close, "Although I have heard that the son takes after the father, if you want to give him a go too."

Before Hermione could open her mouth to retaliate, a pleasant male voice interceded. "Pans, don't you have someone else to slime all over?" A warm hand fell on Hermione's shoulder and squeezed gently as Blaise stepped beside her, facing off with his fellow Slytherin. "Run along now and collect your cousin before he gets lost." Huffing, Pansy walked away, but not without one final glare at Hermione.

With the key players in the day's entertainment going their separate ways, the crowd that had formed around the last compartment thinned, and finally vanished. "Thank you, Zabini," Hermione said quietly, looking up into the Italians warm, friendly eyes. "I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but for some reason, I just couldn't…"

"Call me Blaise, petal. And that? Performance anxiety." He shrugged good-naturedly, happy to get a smile from the young woman. "Now, where's Malfoy? Shouldn't he have been out here defending your honor?"

"My honor most certainly doesn't need any defense!" Hermione said, coloring her voice with just a bit of humor as she pointed to her compartment. The door was shut. With a quizzical frown, Blaise slid open the ornate door, and joined Hermione in a brief bout of laughter. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by books and loose-leaf paper, Draco stared grumpily at the trunk with broken latches.

After gently ushering Hermione from the compartment, Draco let the door slide quietly closed, and heaved a sigh. Things had been downright pleasant between them for the majority of the train ride, but he knew that it wouldn't last. She was only a short time away from the greatest tribulation of her life; the transition wasn't going to be easy for her, and he feared that their newborn camaraderie would suffer the fallout. He was trying so hard to help her adjust, wouldn't it be ironic if that effort caused his own agenda to fail?

Shaking his head, he moved to pull the last trunk from the overhead, when he was stopped by the screeching noise of Pansy's laugh. Shit! Had he really let Hermione go out there alone? Just what kind of an idiot was he? And with a mighty tug, he pulled the trunk from its compartment. At the same instant, both fragile latches caught on the metal shelf, loosening them, and sending down a rain of notes and novels atop Draco's head. The trunk dislodged with such force that he fell to the ground. Surprised, he looked around at the mess that he had caused, and looked up just as he heard Blaise's low timbre. Then, the door opened.

Blaise and Hermione stared at him wide-eyed before bursting into laughter. His woman's quiet giggling and his best friend's deep chuckling only made his indignity that much harder to bear, and a flush rose to his pale cheeks. "Oh yes, how funny," he grumbled, and Hermione only laughed harder as he blew a loose lock of hair from over his eyes.

"Here," she offered, and moved to help him gather the books that littered the floor. "Maybe next time, you'll pay a little attention," she scolded lightly. His eyes shot quickly to her face, and he could see a sadness underlying the smile.

"Thank you." He stood, brushed off his robes, and when all the mess was tidied and shoved back into the traitorous trunk, again held the door back so Hermione could exit the compartment. When she was far enough ahead, Draco turned to Blaise. "What happened?"



"It's ok. I was there, even if you weren't." Draco huffed, causing Blaise to smile. "You need to take better care of your woman, if you want to keep her. She's likely to get herself in trouble."

"I can take care of my woman just fine," the youngest Malfoy replied, pulling the trunks behind him as he exited the train, eyes scanning the station to find Hermione. "You'd better hurry up, else you'll miss your Floo home."

"Miss my… Drake, how can I miss my Floo?" Blaise called, but Draco was already walking away, striding purposefully toward the petite brunette in front of him, who was nervously wringing her hands.

"Heard you had some trouble with Pansy," he mentioned casually as he stopped beside her. She turned to look at him, and quickly lowered her eyes to the concrete floor as if embarrassed.

"Yes… I'm just glad your friend Zabi- er, Blaise was there to help. She took me a little by surprise, I must admit, and if he hadn't stepped in, I might not have deterred her so easily. That vile woman." Draco was shocked (and more than a little impressed) at the venom in her voice.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there," Draco let go of the trunks, and raised one hand to her cheek, brushing it lightly with his fingertips. Startled, Hermione glanced up at him, and took the smallest step back. Admitting defeat, he let his hand drop to his side. The last thing he wanted to do was frighten her, but it was so hard to be close to her and not want to touch her.

"You shouldn't have to be there every time I find a little spot of trouble," she sighed, inwardly disappointed in herself for moving away, even the slightest, from that small bit of affection he offered her. "I should be able to defend myself," she murmured, watching her fellow students reunite with their families. It took everything she had not to scan the station for her own parents; she knew she wouldn't find them there. "Draco?"

Draco was so focused on her, on the way her lips trembled as she watched her classmates, the way her brow furrowed as she tried to keep the sadness from her eyes, he barely heard her when she spoke his name. "Yes?"

"Is it alright that I'm nervous?"

His heart broke for her. "Of course it is." She turned to look at him, and took a step closer. She opened her mouth to speak, but at that very moment, a house elf popped between them.

"Young Master Malfoy, Miss Griswald, you will come with Mugsy? Lola will take your bags," the wrinkly creature implored nervously. Hermione opened her mouth to object, but Draco interceded. "Of course." The little house elf scurried ahead of them, and the Gryffindor turned to the blond with a furious look on her face.

"House elves? You expect me to let HOUSE ELVES wait on me?" She demanded, shaking with conviction. "How dare you presume to-"

"They're in the service of my father, and I have no control over them," Draco shrugged. "They would have taken our bags anyway. Now come on, before he loses us."

House elves? Hermione thought with disdain. They expect me to use house elves? Well, lets see how the Malfoys feel when I introduce them to S.P.E.W. And without another word, she followed the youngest Malfoy across the station, her nerves and fear forgotten in waves of righteous fury.