Chapter Thirty Four – Morning Visit

Ron was waiting for her, as expected. She sighed, wanting nothing more than to go and collapse on her bed and stare aimlessly at the ceiling. The stress of the past few days was taking its toll.

"We need to talk," Ron said, confirming her suspicions.

"Where do you want to go?" she asked in resignation.

"Astronomy Tower?"

The haunt of stargazing lovers and hopeful romantics? She thought not.

"If you don't mind, I've climbed enough stairs today to put me halfway up the Eiger. I'd prefer a lower elevation."

He sighed, but nodded.

"The Charms classroom? It's empty. And maybe I can show you that bubble charm that Fred and George invented."

She acquiesced and they went downstairs in uncomfortable silence. Once in the classroom, she quickly went to the windows and stared out at the growing darkness. She wondered how long it would be before Draco awakened. As if her thoughts had broached the subject, Ron blurted, "What's between you and Malfoy?"

"What do you mean?" she asked evasively. She didn't want to talk about Draco at all, especially when she hadn't even sorted out her own mind when it came to the perplexing Slytherin.

"You know what I mean. You were bloody well frantic to rush off and save him. I've hardly seen you at all since you brought him here. Damn it, you were ready to leap off Gryffindor Tower on Harry's broom to go after him! What the hell is going on?"

"There is nothing 'going on,' as you put it. It's just that I've seen a different side of Malfoy in the past few days and he's… I don't know… redeemed himself. I'm certainly not going to let him be tortured if I can stop it."

Her excuse sounded a trifle lame even to her own ears. She had been ready to ride Harry's broom off the Tower. She would have gone through the forest alone, if need be. The thought of Greyback marring Draco's beautiful flesh—she shuddered. If she had seen that in the Scrying pool, she probably would have run straight into the forest without waiting for Harry or bothering with a broom. The knowledge made her sigh and lean her forehead against the glass.

Damn it. Maybe there wasn't anything 'going on' between her and Malfoy. But it was possible that she wanted there to be. She longed to be beside him right now, sitting with him and brushing his hair back from his forehead—whether silver or black. She wanted to be there when his devastating grey eyes opened, to see if they would light up with that same sensual glow she remembered…

"Can you even hear me?" Ron demanded and she realized he'd asked her a question. Probably more than once. She pushed herself away from the window and cleared her throat.

"I'm sorry. Did you say something?"

He glared daggers at her. "Were you just thinking about Malfoy?" he snapped. She couldn't stop herself from flushing guiltily. Ron shook his head in disgust and threw up his hands. "Why do I even try?"

He spun and stormed out. For a moment, she started after him, but what could she say? She sighed and walked over to Professor Flitwick's desk. She spied a quill and absently cast Wingardium Leviosa on it. The quill rose into the air and she sighed, remembering Ron's first attempt at the spell. She grinned. He had been painfully inept. And pretty cute with his hangdog expression.

Then, he and Harry had saved her from the troll—their first adventure. There had been so many after that. Quirrell and Tom Riddle and Sirius. Riding Thestrals. Battling Death Eaters. They had done so much together it usually seemed like the three of them against the world. She wondered why Ron had never made a move on her despite numerous chances. She had thought it was simple shyness, but now she wondered. She thought maybe Ron had taken for granted that he had plenty of time—that she would always be nearby, waiting until he was ready. Maybe she would have been. Until Draco.

She cancelled the spell and the feather fluttered back to the desk. She sighed. Maybe she owed Ron a chance. After all, they had been through several kinds of hell in the past six years, and she had despised Malfoy for every minute of those years until… what? Six days ago? Would she really trade six years for six days?

She went out and was nearly bowled over by Tonks. When they righted themselves, Tonks said, "Sorry."

"Where are you off to in such a hurry?" Hermione asked.

"Fetching McGonagall. We're not quite sure what to do with Greyback and Moody is threatening to rip him limb from limb. Frankly, I'm tempted to look the other way and let him go to it, but Remus…"

Hermione nodded.

"And Wormtail?"

"Still caged. We dare not let him out. Besides, we're not quite sure how to open Malfoy's lock. It seems to be cleverly spelled. Wormtail is lucky Greyback didn't kill Draco or he might have been boxed forever."

Hermione shrugged. "He played the rat for twelve years. It shouldn't hurt him to be caged for a decade or two."

Tonks raised a brow at the venom in her voice, but Hermione didn't care. Peter Pettigrew had much to answer for.

"Moody wants to torture him into giving up You-Know-Who's whereabouts."

"Moody needs to stop acting on pure emotion and think for a moment. Voldemort would never allow that. I'm sure he has Wormtail's mind thoroughly booby-trapped in case of that eventuality. Where are they being kept?"

"In the Hufflepuff dungeon. The dungeons really were prisons before Hogwarts became a school. It was a simple matter to return them to their original state. Fenrir is raving mad. We'll have to do something with him before the next full moon. I'm not sure his current cage will hold him once he changes."

Hermione chilled at the thought of Greyback in full werewolf mode running the halls of Hogwarts.

"There must be a way to contain him. I'll look into it. What happened to Scrimgeour?"

Tonks giggled.

"According to Jack, the Weasley twins arranged a veritable war on the second floor, complete with screaming women, clashing swords, explosions, and cries for help. Of course, by the time they got up there, the twins and their magic had gone—and so had Harry Potter. Scrimgeour was fit to burst and he vowed to conduct a full investigation into McGonagall's 'fitness to remain Headmistress at Hogwarts.'"

"Oh no!"

Tonks waved off her concern.

"Let him investigate. Who else is better qualified? He can bluster all he wants, but I don't think he'll find anyone that will even touch the position. Not with You-Know-Who out there, and after what happened to Dumbledore." Tonks started suddenly. "Oh my, I was fetching her, wasn't I? Better go! Catch you later, 'Mione!"

Tonks resumed her flight up the stairs and Hermione followed at a more leisurely pace. She entered the Gryffindor common room to find Ron missing and Harry and Ginny on the couch engaged in a passionate snog.

They broke off somewhat sheepishly when they noticed her, but she waved at them absently as she continued toward the stairs.

"Don't mind me. Just passing through. Carry on."

She escaped to her room and sat on the window seat. The moon had begun to rise with one edge blurred. In seven days, Lupin would be locked away under the calming influence of the Wolfsbane Potion and Greyback would be tearing at the bars of his cell with inhuman strength. Hermione should be in the library looking for a solution, but she was simply too tired at the moment.

Instead, she went to bed and awoke in the early hours of morning, before dawn had begun to paint the sky. She sat up and glanced across the room. Ginny's hair spilled over her pillow and her breathing was deep and even.

Hermione dressed quietly and padded down the stairs. She was surprised to find Harry sprawled casually on the sofa. She gasped for a moment—between the pose and the hair—still platinum blonde—she had actually thought him to be Draco.

"What are you doing up?" she asked when her heart had stilled.

"Waiting for you," he replied. "Shall we go?"

"Where?"

"To see Malfoy, of course. That's where you're headed, isn't it?"

"Is it that obvious?"

Harry shrugged. "It doesn't matter." He stood up and shook out his Invisibility Cloak. "We should only need this if Madam Pomfrey is wandering about, which is unlikely at this hour."

The halls were dead silent, as were their trainer-clad footsteps as they descended to the hospital ward. They entered and sat on the bed next to Malfoy's. Hermione watched Draco's chest rise and fall evenly.

"Why didn't they use Fawkes on Bill Weasley?" she asked Harry.

"Maybe they did."

Hermione nodded, realizing they had never learned the details.

"What did you tell Ginny? About the Horcruxes?"

"Nothing. I found a way to silence her questions."

Hermione giggled. "I remember. That won't work forever, you know."

"I know, but hopefully we'll be done with them soon and I can tell her everything." Harry paused and then said, "You know, Malfoy asked if I had ever thought of you… as a girlfriend."

Hermione turned to look at him in surprise. "You two were talking about me? What brought on that subject?"

"We were talking about Ron, actually."

"And what did you say? To Malfoy's question."

"I said no. That you thought of me more as a brother."

Hermione looked at him curiously. She had never really stopped to analyze her feelings for Harry. Now that she tried to put words to it… he wasn't really a brother to her at all. He was… just Harry. If she admitted it to herself, she probably loved him more than any other person she knew. Not in a brotherly fashion, but deeper, somehow. Not in a romantic fashion, either. To her, Harry seemed almost untouchable. Pure and untainted. She didn't think any woman would ever be his match. Not even Ginny Weasley, although Hermione wished her well at the attempt.

"He told me I should kiss you and dispense with those brotherly feelings."

Hermione nearly choked.

"And what did you say?"

Harry looked at the floor.

"You'll probably hate me for it… but I laughed."

"Thank God," she said in relief and laughed, also. His eyes snapped to hers.

"You're not upset by that?"

"Of course not. I care for you more than any brother, I'm sure, but I have absolutely no desire to ever complicate our relationship to that degree. It's difficult enough having Ron to deal with."

"And we're back to Ron."

She sighed. "Yes, Ron. Do you think I've been unfair to him? Perhaps I owe him a chance…"

"I think you're looking at it the wrong way."

"What do you mean?"

"What do you think a relationship with Ron would be like? Have you ever envisioned it beyond the hand-holding, snogging stage?"

She shook her head. "Not really. I imagine it would be placid and predictable. He's so much like Mr. Weasley. He might protest and start a row when he's upset, but in the end I know he would give in to whatever I desired… Damn it, I would run him over like a stampeding rhino and then hate him for it."

"Like Mrs. Weasley does to Mr. Weasley?" Harry asked.

"Yes. At times she is more like his mother than his wife. I know they love each other, but sometimes I just want to shake Mr. Weasley and ask why he doesn't stand up to her." Hermione sighed. "I don't want to be a termagant."

"You need someone who knows their own mind."

Hermione looked at him wryly and nodded.

"Ron never seems to know what he wants until it begins to slip out of his grasp. Even then, I think he wants it only reflexively."

She looked over at Draco's sleeping form and immediately recognized the contrast. Malfoy always seemed to know what he wanted and went after it with single-minded determination. He would never bow to the will of another. He had done so once, with Voldemort, and rebelled against it so violently it drove him into collusion with his worst enemies.

She looked at Harry and her eyes widened in surprise as his hair suddenly darkened and resumed its natural shade. He grinned wryly and ran a hand through his black locks.

"I felt that. He said it would last twelve hours. I'm somewhat sorry to see it go."

She shook her head. "I'm not. Frankly, it was disconcerting." She turned back to Draco to see his hair shining in a beam of moonlight, restored to its silvery perfection. "Not that he was any less handsome with black hair."

"Of course not," Harry said with a snort. "The git would likely be gorgeous even if he were bald as an egg."

"Glad you recognize that, Potter," Draco said dryly. "Do you Gryffindors ever shut up? It's damned hard to get any sleep with you two prattling on."

Hermione was at his bedside in an instant. Her fingers gently touched his shoulders and she looked into his half-lidded eyes. The maddening smirk was on his lips and she smiled, realizing she had missed even that. She wondered how long he had been awake.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

"Like I've been mauled by a psychotic werewolf and awakened from a beautiful dream by annoying chatter. I recognize the Hogwarts hospital ward, having been sent here numerous times by… why that would be you, Potter… but what are you two doing here?"

"We came to check on you," Hermione explained.

"And the reason that couldn't wait until morning is…?"

"Madam Pomfrey."

"Ah. I'm sure it had nothing to do with your propensity for sneaking about at odd hours."

"We have to stay in practice," Harry explained. "Can't have our sneaking skills rusting, now can we?"

Malfoy's lips twitched. "I suppose not."

"Besides, I wanted to ask you a question."

"Hence, the real reason for your visit."

"Of course. You don't think I'm concerned about your health?"

"You have been hugging me rather a lot, lately. I thought your heart might have grown a bit fonder than warranted."

"Will you two knock it off?" Hermione snapped, cutting off Harry's retort.

"Fine. Malfoy, you said you found the house where Regulus was killed because you 'remembered the tale.' Was there more to that tale?" Harry asked.

Draco sat up gingerly and Hermione quickly lifted his pillows to provide better comfort. His silver eyes watched her in amusement.

"Thank you, Granger. You'll make someone an excellent concubine."

She glared at him and stiffly returned to sit next to Harry, who grinned at her sardonically. Had she actually been fantasizing about the maddening creature? At least Malfoy always managed to bring her back to crushing reality with a few choice words.

"What do you want to know?" Draco asked.

"Who killed Regulus Black?"

"According to my mother, three Death Eaters were sent to do him in. Magnus Bole, Adan Pucey… and Severus Snape. Only Snape returned. Regulus apparently killed Bole and Pucey."

Harry nodded. "Interesting that Snape was the only surviving witness."

"Isn't it, though? I suppose it's possible that he and Regulus had a small chat about Horcruxes prior to the coup de grace."

"Which would explain how Snape knew about them." Harry stood up. "I was just curious. We should let you rest."

"Potter?"

Harry turned back.

"The letter from my parents… Did you catch the part about Hogwarts not being safe?" Draco asked. Hermione's gaze flew to Harry. Draco had let him read the letter? Harry nodded. Draco's eyes closed. "You need to consider that. And ask why Wormtail and Fenrir Greyback were in the forest, so nearby. Put Granger on the task. I'm sure she hasn't been in the library in the past twenty minutes. She's likely going into withdrawal."

"Is it absolutely necessary to talk about me as though I'm not in the room?"

Draco grinned widely.

Harry sighed and started out. Hermione stood up and leaned over Draco. She waited until his eyes opened a crack.

"You're bloody infuriating when you want to be." She pressed her lips softly against his. "But, I'm very glad you're here."

She followed Harry out.