When he finished the song, he placed an arm across her shoulders and pulled her close to his side.
"Let's take a walk," he suggested. "You look a bit flushed."
"Do I?" she asked breathlessly. "Is that why I feel I might faint at any moment?"
Draco chuckled as they walked the length of the hall.
"Really? Hermione Granger, pride of Gryffindor, defender of the Boy Who Lived, savior of the Sorcerer's Stone, brought down by a lowly Slytherin?"
"Not lowly," she denied. "Never that."
"You once thought I was lower than a sewer rat."
"You took great pains to act like one!" she countered. He grimaced.
"I was pretty bad, wasn't I?"
"You were very bad," she admitted.
"But you love me when I'm bad."
"I love you all the time. But especially when you're good."
He led her up the first flight of stairs that would take them to his garden.
"I'm seldom good."
"You're good when you're with me," she said decisively.
The conversation disturbed him, so he stopped talking and they entered the frozen garden. The snow fell around them like confetti and clung to Hermione's hair. It stuck on their eyelashes as they walked to the center of the garden. Most of the bushes were leafless and sparkled like crystal with a bright sheen of ice. Snow coated the remainder of the plants like a blanket and lay on the bench in a deep, pristine pile.
"It's so beautiful," she said in delight. Draco walked forward and plucked a twig from a nearby rosebush. He tugged out his wand and tapped the twig with it while he whispered an incantation. The twig suddenly sprouted leaves and the tip swelled into a thick bud before it burst into bloom as a perfect, red rose. He grinned and presented it to her with a formal bow.
She looked up at him and tears shone in her eyes.
"You must stop making me cry," she whispered.
"I don't want you to cry."
She took the rose he offered and smiled softly.
"Tears of joy are not so bad."
She put her arms around his neck and kissed him. Draco tasted snow crystals on her icy lips and suddenly felt elated. He picked her up and spun her in a dizzying circle. She threw her head back and laughed in abandon.
Draco thrilled to hear it. He had been utterly miserable for the past four days, a nadir reached after a long descent from his shocked amazement at discovering she loved him. He had pondered her words for a long, long time and had been even more astonished to find that she expected no acknowledgement of her love. She had simply given it to him and let him do with it what he would.
Of course, he had immediately screwed up and used it against her in a moment of frustration. He hadn't blamed her for never wanting to see him again. He still couldn't believe she was here now, looking at him like he was worthy of her love. He sighed.
"We should go. Just tell me I'll see you tomorrow. And not from a distance as you run away from me."
She smiled and touched his cheek gently.
"No more running," she said.
They left the garden and walked down the stairs. Draco stopped near the bottom when light suddenly filled the stairwell. He blinked for a moment until his eyes adjusted. Even before his vision cleared he had a horrible sinking feeling. It was validated by the sight that met his eyes.
A large group of Slytherins were arrayed at the bottom of the stairs. Montague. Nott. Crabbe and Goyle. Pucey. Pansy Parkinson, of course. And Blaise Zabini.
Draco gripped Hermione's hand tightly and descended one step in front of her, as if to shield her from their malice.
"Well, well. Draco Malfoy consorting with a mudblood," said Montague coldly. "Sinking a bit low to find a piece of ass, aren't you Draco?"
The others snickered, although both Crabbe and Goyle hushed the instant Draco's icy stare touched them.
"What do you want?" Draco demanded. He was heartily glad his wand was still gripped in his right hand. He felt Hermione move slightly behind him. Her hand was suddenly damp with sweat. Or perhaps it was his own.
"Now, Draco," said Blaise. "We're your friends. We're her to make sure you don't do anything stupid. Although, from the look of things we may be too late, eh? You don't actually care about the nasty little mudblood, do you? You're just making her think you do before you crush her little heart into dust, right?"
Blaise wasn't the worst of them. He was offering Draco a way out, however slim. Giving him a chance. Montague chuckled coldly.
"Your father's going to have ruddy heart failure over this, Malfoy. You're like to kill him. Think of your poor mum."
Hermione stepped out to stand beside Draco. In her left hand, she held the rose. And her wand.
"Leave him alone," she said flatly.
"Shut up, mudblood," Montague hissed venomously. "This ain't about you. We'll deal with you, later."
"Yes," Pansy snarled and stepped forward. "We'll teach you to crawl back to the mud where you belong! Draco is a pureblood! How dare you taint him with your filth?! You think you're better than we are because you can read a spell book and brew a potion. Which did you use to snare Draco?"
Hermione smiled at her coldly.
"Just because you would resort to potions and spells to trap a man doesn't give you the right to apply your lack of morals to me. Draco's will is his own, as are his choices."
She released his hand and stepped away from him. In the process, she gave him a quick glance of understanding to let him know that she would accept his decision, even if he chose to cast her down and rejoin the Slytherin ranks. Like Blaise, she offered him a way out. She was setting him free. His jaw tightened.
"What's it going to be, Malfoy?" Montague taunted.
Pansy suddenly shrieked in rage and leveled her wand at Hermione, perhaps fearing Draco's response.
"Crucio!" she screamed. Draco did not hear Hermione speak, but she flicked her wand in Pansy's direction and the jet of light from Pansy's wand reflected back and enveloped the Slytherin girl. She shrieked again, in pain this time, and fell to the floor.
"Expelliarmus!" Hermione said and Pansy's wand skittered across the stone floor out of reach. Hermione turned to the others. "Who's next?"
The Slytherins shifted uncomfortably and Crabbe and Goyle edged backward toward the stairs.
"Think you can Obliviate them all?" he asked her. His voice carried in the close quarters.
"No," Hermione replied. "But I can get Montague." She took two steps down. Taking the battle to them. Draco felt a sudden shock of pride. His brave Gryffindor.
"Get lost, Montague. Nott. Pucey. This is none of your affair," Draco said tiredly. He didn't want to fight them. He wanted them to go away.
"Your affair concerns us all when you lower yourself to trifle with a damned mudblood!" Nott yelled. "You're a fucking Malfoy! Act like one!"
Draco felt a stirring of rage.
"What the hell would you know about being a Malfoy, Nott? You know nothing about us except what my pure and perfect family allows you to see on rare occasions! I'm sure I could tell you stories about the Malfoys that would curl even your hair, Montague." He walked slowly down the steps to stand next to Hermione.
"We all have some nasty little skeletons in our closets, don't we, Pucey? In fact, I have a suspicion that our lovely family histories made us perfect for Slytherin in the first place. They say ambition is the primary trait. I say it is ambition to escape the bloody chains foisted on us by our precious pureblood families. We all have to act a certain way, speak a certain way, and think a certain way. We don't dare rock the bloody boat, do we? We don't dare step a toe out of line and bring shame to the family name, do we?"
Montague's face flamed. Draco pressed on angrily.
"I know the chains you perfect purebloods wear. Montague. You're a bloody brute, just like your father. He nearly beat your mother to death last year and I'm sure he's taken his fists to you a time or two, eh?"
"That's a bloody lie!" Montague roared and raised his wand at Draco threateningly. Hermione raised hers in response and Montague paled.
"Is it?" Draco asked. "And you, Nott. Your father spends so much time sucking up to my father that I do believe I see him more than you."
Nott's eyes glittered.
"And Pucey—your family is scrambling so hard to regain the glory of their Death Eater days when they could torture people for fun… Who do they torture now, Pucey? Cruelty doesn't just go away, does it?"
"Shut up, Malfoy," Blaise said warningly.
"And little Pansy. We know all about the skeletons in your family closet, don't we?"
Pansy, still on the floor, pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her arms.
"Stop it, Draco," Blaise said.
"You lot came to me, remember?"
"This is not about us!" Montague yelled.
"Of course it is," Draco said with a short laugh. "Every one of you is here to serve your own interests. One of your numbers has turned traitor. You don't want to have to explain that. One of your friends has gone against the Slytherin credo! How will you ever hold your head up? They might think… bloody hell! They might think it could happen to you! How would you ever overcome the shame?"
Montague's jaw worked. He fairly itched to use his wand.
"What do you expect us to do, then?" he snarled. "Embrace your little mudblood girlfriend? Invite her to the common room for tea?"
Nott laughed unpleasantly.
"Not bloody likely," Pucey snarled.
"I don't expect you to do anything," Draco said. "Except think for yourselves, for once. We'll be out of this school in two years. Do you plan to be puppets of your families forever? Will you always let them think for you?" He took another step down. "Maybe our families will be there for us and maybe they won't. It might be more important that we're there for each other. In that way, I think the Gryffindors have it a bit easier than we do. They care about each other and they aren't afraid to show it."
Montague sneered. "Yes, let's all lope about arm in arm the way the Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs do. Maybe we don't care about each other. You sure as hell don't care about us!"
Draco took another step toward Montague. He stood directly before him and Montague's wand brushed Draco's robe.
"Actually, I do care about you, David. You've always had my back on the Quidditch team and I think you're a fabulous Chaser. You could go pro after school."
Montague goggled at him like he'd grown two heads. Draco walked past him into the midst of his old friends.
"Crabbe, Goyle. You've always been there beside me, no matter the odds. I know I've made you do horrid things and never actually thanked you for any of it. I want you to know that I appreciate you both. You've been bloody good friends to me."
Crabbe and Goyle both flushed and looked at each other sheepishly. Draco turned to Blaise.
"Zabini. Hell, everyone likes you. Girls from all four houses follow you around and the blokes think you're all right. So do I, actually."
Draco turned his back and went to Nott. He grabbed him by the shoulders.
"Theo, you've always done your own thing. You never go along with the crowd and usually seem to be two steps ahead of the rest of us. I'm not even sure what you're doing here, since you're the least likely to follow a mob. I figure you'll leave Hogwarts and we'll never see you again. You'll go to bloody Bermuda or Cartagena or Singapore, I suppose. I'll rather miss seeing you at my house during the summer."
Nott looked away.
Draco moved on to Pansy. He knelt beside her and touched her arm gently.
"Pansy. I never meant to hurt you. I took you for granted and used you and I can only say I'm sorry. I don't blame you if you hate me."
She raised her head and looked at him miserably.
"I could never hate you," she mumbled. "I wish I could. It would be easier." She buried her head again and Draco got to his feet. He walked back up the steps to Hermione.
"Pucey, I wish I could say I care about you, too, but I've always thought you were an obnoxious git and I know you despise me, so let's just leave it at that, eh?"
Blaise actually laughed. Pucey glared, but said nothing. Draco sighed.
"I've said my piece. You can all do what you will. I've made my decision, even though I know the consequences. You are my friends and you can make this road more difficult for me, or you can stand beside me and maybe, just maybe, make it a bit easier. It's up to you."
With that he took Hermione's hand, led her through the Slytherin crowd and away. None of them followed.
Harry's robe was on fire. He patted out the flames and glared at Malfoy, who sat with Hermione's head cradled on his shoulder. She recited from a scroll in her hands that described complicated ingredients for a potion they would be concocting for Snape's class. Harry, Ron, and Draco ignored her, as usual. Malfoy's wand rested loosely under his hand, but he was six feet away. Surely, he couldn't have set Harry's robe on fire from that distance. Harry turned his gaze to Ron, who still wore the rather dazed grin he'd been carrying on his face for a week. Next to him sat Pansy Parkinson, who had astonishingly announced her undying love for him and kissed him in front of everyone after Herbology a week ago, and now spent every waking moment clinging to Ron's hand.
Bizarre though it was, it had squelched Ron's constant haranguing of Hermione in regards to Draco. Harry still wasn't comfortable with that relationship, but it was obvious Malfoy was passionately in love with her. The Slytherins had, strangely, banded together in a united front on the morning Draco appeared with Hermione in tow. Gossip had abounded, of course, but it was in covert whispers only. No one wanted to mess with an enraged crowd of Slytherins, backed by Harry Potter, who had no comment on the relationship. The general consensus was that Draco was using Hermione and would unveil his secret plot in due time. Harry never entirely discounted the theory and kept his eyes on Malfoy at all times.
Draco didn't help matters by snidely referring to "the plot" as often as possible.
"Going to the library to see Hermione," he would say. "Got to keep her twisted around my little finger so she'll be blind to my machinations, you know." Or: "There's Hermione. Look how happy she is. All according to The Plan, of course."
Harry poked the cinders that smoldered on his robe with the end of his wand and shot a sideways glance at Draco, who looked up from nibbling at Hermione's ear long enough to give Harry a conspiratorial wink.
Bloody git. Harry sighed in frustration. It was damned uncomfortable hanging around with Ron and Hermione these days, now that their Slytherin pets were in constant attendance. Maybe Harry should find himself a Slytherin. He looked over at the Slytherin group lounging by the lake nearby. Millicent Bulstrode? Harry shuddered. The most eye-catching one in the group was Blaise Zabini, and he was definitely not Harry's type. Harry looked back to the lake and saw an attractive girl walk by. She smiled coyly and waved at him.
He rubbed his eyes for a moment. Bloody hell, it was Ginny Weasley! When did she grow up and turn into that… that… woman? Harry cleared his throat.
"Going for a walk," he said casually. The others made noncommittal noises and Harry knew he'd be sorely missed.
"Wait up, Ginny!" he called.
Who needed a Slytherin?