Chapter Forty Four – Draco's Surprise

They opened the front doors as quietly as possible, to find Harry and Ginny waiting for them in the Front Hall.

"All right, where the hell have you been?" Harry snapped angrily.

"Collecting Death Eaters," Draco said mildly. "Since we were running low."

Hermione maneuvered the levitated Dolohov and Goyle into the Hufflepuff dungeon. Neither moved as Malfoy had unceremoniously Stunned them the moment they had started struggling in their bonds. Hermione was concerned about Draco's current state of mind—he seemed to have reverted back to his traditional icy demeanor.

They locked the Death Eaters into empty cells. Greyback watched them pass in silence.

"We brought you some new playmates, Fenrir," Draco said companionably.

"You'll pay for crossing the Dark Lord, Malfoy," Greyback muttered ominously.

Draco sneered. "Spoken like a loyal Death Eater," he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

"I am loyal!" Fenrir snarled.

"You're loyal only to your own twisted ends and everyone knows it!"

"Then it's lucky my objective coincides with the Dark Lord's, doesn't it?"

"Lucky. Too bad you're stuck in a cage instead of out there living your glorious life, eh?"

"Not for long, Malfoy. Not for long." Fenrir showed his teeth in a horrific grin.

Hermione paused at that and noticed Draco did the same. The werewolf sounded too confident. She made a note to tell Lupin about it in the morning.

They filed out of the dungeon. Hermione touched her face, which itched where the mud was starting to dry.

"Are you going to tell me where you've been?" Harry asked impatiently and Hermione giggled when she looked at the others.

"Mud wrestling?" she suggested. Ron looked worse than any of them. His arms were brown up to the elbows and much of his clothing was completely covered. Draco wore all black, but his legs had a coating of brown, as well as one arm and most of his cloak. He had mud in his hair, which had to be driving him crazy. He kept picking at it fastidiously. Hermione's hair was so caked she felt like she wore dreadlocks.

"Granger can explain," Draco said shortly. "I'm for a bath and then bed. See you tomorrow."

With that, he stalked for the stairs and disappeared.

"Good idea," said Neville, knocking a drying clod from one arm. He followed Malfoy, likely heading for the Prefect's bath. Hermione sighed and reluctantly went back outside. Harry accompanied her, trailed by Ron and Ginny.

"I'm not sure what to do with the body," she said. Mulciber's corpse lay at the base of the steps. "I suppose I should wake McGonagall."

Harry gaped. "Is he—?"

"Dead. Malfoy killed him," Ron said abruptly. He tugged a bit of mud from his hair. "He fought a Cruciatus Curse to do it. I've never seen anything like it. He still would have been too late, though. If Hermione hadn't fallen, Mulciber would have killed her. I hate to think what Malfoy would have done, then."

"What do you mean?" Hermoine asked.

"It was amazing," Ron said. "I never would have believed it, but Malfoy… he wasn't even fighting. He was just trying to get to you. If Mulciber had killed you, I think Malfoy would have taken them all out without a second thought. You should have seen his face when he thought you were dead."

Hermione suddenly felt like weeping. She remembered Draco's words at the grave site. Looks like I really am a killer. She needed to find him… talk to him.

"So, you just felt like going out and battling some Death Eaters?" Harry asked tightly, still fishing for information.

"No, we went to get this," Hermione said and opened the leather bag to show Harry the bracelet, remembering at the last moment not to touch it.

"The Ravenclaw bracelet!" Harry breathed. "Where was it?"

"I'd rather not say. The problem is Voldemort may figure out that we have it. Since the Death Eaters showed up, we weren't able to remove it very inconspicuously."

"What's so important about a bracelet?" Ginny asked. Harry exhaled heavily.

"Just tell her, Harry," Hermione snapped. "Our big secret isn't going to be a secret much longer. Besides, after we take care of this, there should only be one left."

She closed the bag and slung it over her shoulder.

"All right," Harry said. "Ginny, let's take a walk. I probably should have told you a long time ago…"

They moved off toward the lake. Hermione sighed tiredly.

"I'll go fetch McGonagall," Ron offered. "I won't tell her about the Horcrux—that should come from Harry. Cor, I can't really even tell her where we were… she'll freak."

"Just tell her we'll explain in the morning. Maybe we can think up a decent story, by then."

Ron nodded. "You'd better go find Malfoy."

She blinked at him in surprise. Ron shrugged.

"He's bitter enough without beating himself up over this scum." He nudged Mulciber's body with a toe. "Bill and Charlie told me stories about Mulciber. He helped kill my uncles. He would have killed us all and laughed about it, later. Frankly, Malfoy did us a favor."

Hermione threw her arms around Ron and impulsively kissed him on the cheek. Then, she stepped back and spat on the ground.

"Why do I always get that reaction from you?" Ron asked dryly. She laughed.

"It's not you—it's the dirt on your face."

Ron rubbed at it absently and grinned. She smiled.

"Thanks, Ron."

"Don't mention it."

Hermione turned and went inside. A bath was definitely the first order of business. A glance at her watch showed it to be nearly one in the morning. She went to her room and tucked the leather bag under her mattress. They would have to deal with the bracelet tomorrow.

A half-hour later, clean, dry, and wrapped in cozy flannel pajamas and dressing gown, she made her way down to the Slytherin common room.

Draco was already asleep, sprawled across his bed as if he'd thrown himself there. Thankfully, he wore dark silk boxers, since he hadn't even bothered to draw back the covers. She listened to his breathing for a moment and admired his lithe form stretched out over his blankets. She should probably let him sleep, but she felt it couldn't wait until tomorrow. She sat down next to him and reached out to touch his soft hair. It was still slightly damp from his bath.

His silver eyes snapped open and his wand appeared in his hand at the same instant. The wariness disappeared from his gaze when he groaned.

"Granger. Did you come to torture me?"

"No. I came to thank you for saving my life."

He blinked at her for a moment, as if trying to wake up.

"I didn't save you—your incredible Gryffindor luck did that."

She shook her head in denial. "You think Mulciber wouldn't have tried again in the next moment?"

Draco rolled over and braced his head on a cocked elbow to look at her curiously.

"I didn't have to kill him. The Chosen One wouldn't have killed him," he said bitterly.

"Will you stop comparing yourself to Harry?" she snapped.

"Why? Because I'll never measure up?" he demanded sharply.

She buried her face in her hands in frustration. Why did she always seem to end up arguing with him?

"Look, I just want you to know I don't think any less of you for killing him."

"Why not?"

Why not? He expected reasons? How could she explain how she felt? How could she admit to being glad someone like Mulciber would never be able to hurt anyone again? How could she describe her sheer elation that Draco cared enough for her to kill without hesitation? How could she tell him that waking up from a Confundus to find him holding her with almost intense anxiety had been incredible? How could she possibly rationalize the knowledge that she would forgive him just about anything?

"Because I… I…" She was suddenly tongue-tied and felt her hands twist together fretfully. "I should go. I'm sorry I woke you."

She got to her feet, but his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.

"Come here," he said with a sigh. "I never see you at a loss for words except when you're with me. Why is that?"

"Because you make me nervous," she admitted. His thumb caressed her wrist gently as she sat back down, affirming her words.

"I'm too tired to make you nervous right now," he said and let his head drop to the pillow. "I'll give it a go in the morning, all right?"

He tugged her wrist insistently and pulled her down to lay next to him. She curled next to him with an exhalation of tired surrender and slipped her arm over his waist. She lay her cheek against his chest and felt his face in her hair. He breathed deeply.

"Why do you always smell like apples?" he murmured.

She smiled softly. "Why do you always feel like heaven?" she whispered, so quietly she didn't think he heard her, but his arms tightened around her for a moment. Hermione sighed in contentment and drifted off to sleep.

A small sound woke Draco. He reached up under his pillow and grasped his wand silently. The sound came again—a faked cough.

"Malfoy? Are you awake?"

Draco groaned inwardly. It was Potter. He wondered what the hell would bring The Boy Who Annoyed down here at… whatever ludicrous time it was.

"I am now," Draco muttered.

"Is Hermione here?" Potter asked.

She most definitely was, wrapped around Draco like a cozy blanket.

"She's asleep," Malfoy said.

"I was asleep," she corrected groggily. Her lips brushed Draco's bare chest as she spoke, and sent a pleasant tingling through Draco's nerve endings.

"I need to talk to you, Hermione," Harry said briskly. "I'll… uh… wait out here."

His footsteps retreated.

"Remind me to change that damned password," Draco said as Hermione raised her hand to look at her watch.

"Good idea," she said. "It's barely eight a.m.—doesn't he ever sleep?"

Hermione rolled away from Draco and lit her wand dimly. She looked around for a moment in puzzlement.

"Oh. I didn't wear shoes." She got up and padded out, barefoot. Draco pondered going back to sleep, but curiosity made him sit up and light a lamp. He tugged some clothes on and walked out to the common room, which Potter had lit up like a damned stadium. Draco blinked against the brightness.

He stopped dead at the sight of Harry Potter and Hermione Granger wrapped in an intimate embrace. Potter's arms were tight around Hermione's waist and her hands held Harry—one of them was in Potter's dark hair… In an instant, all the hatred Draco had ever felt for Harry Potter returned in a rush. Draco felt such a blinding moment of pure rage that he actually raised his wand, thinking Potter would look quite a lot better with a set of moose antlers. He opened his mouth to tell Potter to get his bloody hands off of her—

Then Hermione's gaze met Draco's, full of such sympathetic remorse that Malfoy paused.

"Ron told Harry where we were last night," she said softly. Draco felt his anger dissipate as though burst like a bubble. It was replaced by a stunning revelation. He leaned against the doorway and stared at them like an idiot, wondering when the hell he had allowed himself to fall in love with Hermione Granger.

Potter was speaking, but Draco barely heard him as he staggered forward and sank into a padded chair.

"I'll kill him for this, Hermione. I've wanted to kill him before, for my parents, for Cedric, for Sirius—but this?" Potter's voice rose and he began pacing.

Draco needed a drink.

"Wasn't it enough that he killed them?" Harry yelled. "Did he have to turn my mum into… into…?" Potter buried his face in his hands with a sob and Hermione hurried forward to hug him again. She crooned to him soothingly. Malfoy watched in curious detachment, thinking back.

It could have been the morning he woke up in her house and went downstairs to find she had nervously cooked enough breakfast for a dozen people. That long ago? He smiled in bemusement at the memory.

"I want that Horcrux destroyed," Potter gritted. He stepped away from Hermione and dragged an arm across his eyes. "I want it destroyed now."

Hermione nodded soberly.

"I'll get it," she said softly. Harry bobbed his head abruptly and went out. Hermione watched him leave with a worried expression. She looked at Draco and her eyes widened. She hurried over to press a cool hand against his forehead.

"Are you all right?" she asked. "You look terribly pale—have you been taking your potions?"

Draco shakily took her hand and pressed a kiss against her knuckles.

"I'm fine," he murmured, although he felt far from fine. She sighed, as if realizing that nagging him would be futile.

"I'd better go get the bracelet before Harry decides to blast apart the girl's dorm to find it himself."

Draco brusquely yanked her down into his lap and kissed her, enjoying the way she melted into his arms after only an instant's hesitation. His kiss was gentle at first, and then bruising as he tried to convince himself that what he felt for her was simple lust and nothing more. She gripped his face with both hands and pushed herself away forcibly.

"Seriously—I have to get the Horcrux. I've seen him like this before—he has no patience. I'll meet you in the room where we destroyed the cup… that is, if you want to do this."

"I want to do this," he said and kissed her again. Hermione laughed against his mouth and pushed him away.

"Later," she promised. She hopped out of his lap and danced away before he could grab her. She walked around the Slytherin couch and started out.

"Hermione?" he called huskily. She gasped and stopped as if she'd hit a wall. He grinned wickedly at her transfixed expression.

"Never mind," he said lightly.

Her eyes narrowed in perplexed uncertainty, and then she shook her head and went out. Draco leaned back and propped his arms behind his head with a heavy sigh. What the hell was he going to do if life ever returned to normal? He couldn't possibly be in love with Hermione Granger. It was unthinkable.

He pictured his father's face at the news. God, Lucius would absolutely forbid their relationship… and then Draco would be forced to tell his own father to get stuffed.

Draco clenched his hands in his hair convulsively.

Bloody hell, he was turning into a Gryffindor!

Hermione walked through the maze that exited the Slytherin common room, feeling completely baffled. Her own name kept bouncing around her skull. What had possessed Draco to call her that? He had never done it before… not once. It was always "Granger." Always. She felt hot and cold at once, remembering it, and cursed herself for letting a single word from him affect her. Damn Draco Malfoy! Would she ever figure him out?

Harry was waiting for her impatiently in the Gryffindor common room. He watched her without comment until she returned with the bag containing the Horcrux.

"So… you and Malfoy…?"

Hermione face flamed and she realized it hadn't even occurred to her what it must have looked like for Harry to have found them together. In Draco's bed.

"How did you know where I was?" she asked sheepishly.

"Ginny told me you never made it to bed… I sort of guessed."

"We were only sleeping," she said defensively.

"Okay," Harry said mildly. She glared at him.

"Where is Ginny, anyway?"

"Breakfast. She was tired of listening to me yell at Ron."

"And where's Ron?"

"Probably in the Stone room, by now. He went to fetch all the supplies. Salt, candles, and so on."

"You shouldn't have yelled at Ron. It was my idea not to tell you. With good reason, I might add."

Harry scowled. "Don't you think I should know that my own mother is now an Inferius?"

"No, I do not. All it did was upset you."

"Yeah, well, I've been upset before. I've learned to deal with it. Are you planning to get dressed, or are we going to destroy this Horcrux with you in your pajamas?"

She nearly went down in her pajamas just to irritate him, but after a stubborn moment, she returned to her room and put some clothes on.

The bracelet Horcrux went the way of the cup, with little change except an audience. Neville, Ginny, and Luna had all come down to watch. Draco kept yawning, which put a less than sober face on the ceremony. Hermione was getting tired just watching him. They were, however, careful to make no mistakes.

Harry rubbed his hands together in satisfaction when they exited the circle, leaving the black and twisted ring of sapphire-studded metal where it lay.

"Fabulous. Another Horcrux down," Draco said. "I'm going back to bed."

They all followed Malfoy back to the third floor where they were nearly run down by the frantic Weasley twins.

"There you are!" George yelled.

"We've been looking everywhere for you!"

"What's happened?" Hermione asked.

"Dad got a message regarding Percy. They want to exchange him for Fenrir Greyback!"

"What? How does Voldemort know we have Greyback?" Harry asked.

"Well, the Ministry knows. And You-Know-Who is likely to have agents there."

"Regardless, we're not turning over Fenrir. We have a plan."

The twins started back downstairs, detailing the plan as they went. When they finished, Hermione reflected with admiration that it might actually work.