Disclaimer: All characters, settings and the whole Harry Potter universe belong to JK Rowling.
Summary: The war was over, and all Hermione Granger wanted was to go somewhere familiar, somewhere she could feel safe, so she went back to Hogwarts. As she sat on the train on her way back to finish her education, she noticed Draco Malfoy on the train as well. She knew why she was going back…she was going back to find comfort in somewhere familiar. Little did she know that he was going back because he had nowhere else to go.
Who could ever guess that what started as an exchange of a few words on a train, and a walk in the woods, would be the beginning of a friendship that would lead to something so much more, something more than love, something that was completely and absolutely familiar.
A Familiar Place
Anne M. Oliver
Part I: September
The smoke bellowed from the train, temporarily blocking her view. She looked outside the train window at the rolling countryside. It was familiar and yet new. A multitude of colours were before her eyes; patches of green and gold fields, rolling emerald hills, purple mountain peaks, cerulean blue streams and an expansive indigo sky. It was the perfect day to go back home, back to Hogwarts.
Her friends decided not to join her. After last year, both Harry Potter and Ron Weasley needed a sabbatical. They needed to get away from stress and structure. For her, structure was just what she needed. She needed to continue her studies. She needed something familiar, something recognizable, even something as ordinary as school. The Headmistress, Professor McGonagall invited everyone who missed their seventh year, therefore missing their graduation, to come back if they wished. The new class would consist of students like Dean Thomas, who was unable to attend school last year because he was unable to prove his bloodline. People like Luna Lovegood, who spent most of the year locked away in the Malfoy's dungeon, and who really should have been in her true seventh year, but preferred to do the accelerated eighth year program. People like Neville Longbottom, who though he was at school last year, spent most of it fighting, and people like Hermione Granger, who along with Harry, and Ron, helped to fight the Dark Lord to establish peace in their world once again.
This small group, called "eighth years", consisted of roughly 25 students, from all four-school houses. They would belong to no house, and would not stay in the dormitories. Instead, they would have a wing at the castle, with individual rooms. They would not only be attending classes, to help them pass their N.E.W.T.S., but they also were expected to do an internship, to be determined by the headmistress, after they arrived. They were traveling by the familiar Hogwarts express, but they were arriving to school exactly one week after it had already started.
Hermione realized that if this were her actual seventh year, she would have been Head girl. However, she must not worry over things she could not change. She should be thankful that she was given the opportunity to continue her education.
The summer flew by so fast. Her parents opted to stay in Australia. They were hurt and confused when Hermione lifted their memory charm. They thought coming home to England would be a painful reminder of what they had missed, and what they had almost lost. Hermione understood. She spent the whole summer saying goodbye to them. She knew she was an adult now, almost nineteen years old. She had to stand on her own two feet. She would miss them terribly, but she would see them at Christmas break. This was her world and it was where she belonged.
She had always loved learning. She loved reading. She loved everything that had to do with school. When she received the letter from the Headmistress, she didn't even think twice of what her response would be. She knew she would go back. She hadn't yet narrowed down what subject she would do for her internship. She thought she might like interning with Madam Pomfrey, or perhaps with the new Potions Master, whoever that turned out to be. Of course, the Headmistress had the final say.
She would also miss her friends, especially Ron, but coming back to Hogwarts was the right decision. She had heard from Neville that Draco Malfoy was returning this year, the only former Slytherin to do so, since most returning were Muggle-borns or half bloods. At first, she found the news horrifying, and then mystifying. She had heard from Mr. Weasley that the reason Draco was returning was that his father had been sent to Azkaban, as had his mother. Therefore, he had nowhere else to go. Mr. Weasley said that Mrs. Malfoy was only sentenced to one year, because Harry testified that she lied to Voldemort, when she told him that Harry was dead, which in essence, saved his life. Hermione knew there was a lot of healing to take place for the house of Slytherin. Most of the Death Eater's children were in that house, and since most of the Death Eaters were killed or sent to prison, it would be a long row to hoe for these students, not to mention, most of the other houses considered the students of Slytherin to be a mere step above actual Death Eaters. Draco Malfoy had even taken the Dark Mark during his sixth year at school.
School would probably be hard on Draco this year. People would probably call him names and be cruel to him. Nevertheless, he had made school hard for many people for many years, and he had called people names, and had been cruel to them. Hermione included, so she didn't feel the least bit sorry for him. He would get what he deserved.
She looked at her watch. It was still very early. The train left King's Cross Station at 8:00 am, instead of the usual 11:00 am. Hermione didn't know how she had managed to procure this compartment by herself. Granted, instead of the several hundred students who usually rode the train at the start of term, there were only a handful, but unlike the first day of school, the entire train was not at their disposal. Only a few cars were being used, so she felt lucky to have her solitude. It would not last long.
She sat looking out the window, thinking of all she, Harry, and Ron had gone through last year. Harry. She loved him like a brother. He was a part of her, as much as her own arm was a part of her. She prayed every night that he would finally find the peace and solace that he so desperately sought, and so desperately deserved. He needed a normal life. Ginny Weasley begged her parents to let her stay home from school this year. After the traumatic year that the family had had last year, they were happy to accommodate her. Mr. Weasley said the population at Hogwarts was down by 25 percent this year. Apparently, many families felt the same as the Weasleys felt. They wanted to keep their loved ones close, and away from any unknown threats, real or imaginary. Harry would be living with the Weasleys for a while. Harry and Ginny could finally be a normal young couple, free to date, hold hands, and just sit and talk, if they so pleased.
She would miss Ron even more then she missed Harry. They were officially dating all summer, even though she was in Australia with her parents. They professed their love for each other, after years of awkward dancing around the subject. If only he would have come with her. However, he always disliked school, so it was common sense for him not to come back. They decided to 'break up', whatever that meant, and remain friends. She would always love him. He was her first true love. It would be easier being apart from him if they weren't still dating. At least, that was what she told herself.
The staff at Hogwarts had undergone a big change as well, a new Headmistress, a new Defense Against the Darks Arts teacher, Bill Weasley, a new Potion's Master, since Professor Slughorn had retired again, a new Muggle Studies teacher, and a new Transfiguration teacher.
Hermione looked back out her window and placed her book on her lap. Yes, this was all so familiar. This was welcoming. She was going home.
Books and Trains:
Hermione turned her head when she heard the compartment door open. She saw a pair of highly, polished, black shoes enter first, and then looked up to see the person walking in those shoes. It was Draco Malfoy, in the flesh.
Should she speak to him? Should she say 'hello'? Should she just turn her head and ignore his existence? She decided to ignore him. He sat down opposite her, apparently ignoring her as well, as he took out a book from his bag and started to read. The apparent niceties such as "hello" and "good day" were foreign to him as well. Hermione crossed her legs and her foot began bobbing up and down, as she read her book. He crossed his legs and his foot accidentally knocked into hers. He didn't look up, for if he had he would have seen her glare, but he simply said, "Pardon", and continued to read.
Hermione wondered why he was like that. Why did he think he was so much better, so high above, everyone else? It was probably the same reason why he stood idly by while people were tortured and killed under his nose at his own house, Hermione included, during the war. She knew deep in her heart that he was just a scared kid, who really couldn't have done anything on his own against an army of Death Eaters, his own parents, and Lord Voldemort. Nevertheless, sometimes doing nothing was as much of a crime as committing the crime itself. She reminded herself that when they were captured and taken to Malfoy Manor, he never really confirmed to his family who they were, even when they asked him directly. His mother was the one who confirmed her identity. Still, she wasn't sure she could ever forgive him. She wasn't sure she wanted to forgive him.
Hermione was peeved, just knowing he was there. Why was Malfoy in her compartment? She should have shared with Neville and Luna when she had a chance. She put her book away, and stood to stuff her bag in the overhead compartment. She hiked the bag up, heaved the heavy load, and grunted. It really was heavy. She was shocked and appalled when Malfoy stood, took her bag from her, opened the overhead, and stuffed it in. Then he gave her a dirty look, and sat back down. Honestly. She didn't ask for his help. He didn't have to give her that kind of look.
"Thank you," she heard herself say.
'Whatever," he replied curtly.
They were all told to bring a packed lunch with them on the train, as there would be no food trolley. Hermione took out her food, and it smelled wonderful. Mrs. Weasley had packed it, and had given it to her when they saw her off this morning.
"What's that retched smell?" Malfoy asked.
"My lunch," she said, with a tone implying that he was indeed a moron.
He took that moment to unwrap his own lunch. It did smell even better than hers did. He conjured a plate, silverware, and a silk napkin from his lunch bag. Hermione rolled her eyes. She opened her butterbeer and he suddenly swore under his breath.
"What?" she found herself asking.
"The damn elf forgot to pack anything for me to drink," he stated, just realizing this when Hermione opened her butterbeer. Hermione reached in her bag, drew out another bottle, and offered it to him. He looked at her with hooded eyes, and she actually had to move the bottle back and forth in front of him, before he took her meaning. He took the bottle and grunted. She wasn't sure, but the grunt may have been a 'thank-you'.
They ate in complete silence. It was awkward. He must have felt it first, for he reached over to retrieve his book. Her book was in her bag in the overhead, and she wasn't about to try to fish it out now, not after all the trouble he went to putting it in there.
They continued to eat in peace, which was fine with Hermione. She sat eating, looked out the window, and wishing she had her book. She looked over at him, as he was still reading, and asked, "What are you reading?"
"Why are you talking to me?" he asked, annoyed.
"Sorry," she said, looking out the window again, "I'm just bored."
"Read your book," he spoke to her as if she was a two-year-old child, misbehaving.
"It's in my bag in the overhead compartment," she explained.
With anger, he put his book on his seat, stood up, retrieved her bag, and threw it on the seat next to her. He sat back down. She took out her book and began to read again.
"What are you reading?" he asked her after a moment.
"I asked you first, and five minutes ago," she scathed.
"I'm reading A Tale of Two Cities," Draco said, still not looking at her.
"I'm reading The Fellowship of the Ring," she answered back.
"I've read that one," he responded.
"I've read the one you're reading, too," she said, not to be out done.
"We should stop talking," he said unexpectedly.
"Why?" she asked, putting her book on her lap again. "We can talk, this isn't the Library."
"Someone might see," he responded.
"So what? Are you embarrassed to talk to me?" she asked, her feelings somewhat hurt. She should have known better. Of course he was embarrassed to be seen speaking with a 'mudblood'.
"I rather think it would be the other way around," he stated, placing his book on his lap.
"I'm not embarrassed," she told him.
"What would you say if someone saw us talking?" he asked with the raise of one eyebrow.
"That you're irritating, and what would you say?" she said flippantly, as she picked her book back up.
"That's what I would say about you, as well," he said without a trace of a smile.
"I would say that no one asked your opinion," she pointed out.
"I would point out that you just did, actually," he countered.
"Then perhaps we should stop talking," she recommended.
"Agreed, then that solves the aforementioned problem, of people seeing us talking," he decided, as he picked up his book and continued to read.
About an hour later, as Hermione was standing to put her bag back in the overhead, the train came to a sudden stop, throwing Hermione to the ground without warning. Draco thought for one second to help her up, but decided not to do so. She stood up, and placed her hand on her knee. She had a skirt on, and when the train lurched forward, she must have cut it on something on the floor, because it was bleeding.
"Oh, bother," she stated, rummaging through her bag for a kerchief or something, to stop the bleeding. Draco took out his handkerchief and threw it over to her, unceremoniously.
He didn't say anything, hoping she was smart enough to know what was implied. She looked up, but he was already reading his book again. She put the handkerchief on her knee, but she didn't even mutter a thank you in return. Let him assume she was thankful. After she wiped her knee, she knew he wouldn't want the handkerchief back, so she stuck it in her pocket.
Just then, Neville came in their compartment and said, "There's a collapsed bridge ahead, and even with magic it could take hours to clear. Since we aren't that far from Hogwarts, some of us thought we might hike through the woods the rest of the way, since we can't apparate to the school. Do you two want to join us?" Hermione thought it was very decent of Neville to include Malfoy, but she knew he would never want to "hike" anywhere.
"What about our things?" Hermione asked, seriously entertaining the idea to join them.
"They'll be retrieved later, I'm sure," Neville assure her, and then he saw her knee. "Blimey, Hermione, are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine," she smiled.
"Well, do you fancy a walk?" Neville asked.
"Does anyone know the way?" Hermione asked him back.
"We know the general way," Neville said. "I think we can find it."
"I'll meet you outside," Hermione decided. There was no way she was going to stay on that train with Malfoy for another minute.
Neville left, and Hermione took her satchel. She put her book within, and stuffed her wand and jumper in as well. She put her larger bag on the seat, hoping that Neville was correct, and that their bags and trunks would be retrieved later. She had one more butterbeer, which she also put in the bag, swung it over her shoulder, and started out the compartment. Before she left, she looked over at Malfoy, who was still reading, either unaware of what was going on, or beyond caring. Should she ask him to come? No, she decided if he wanted to come, he could come on his own.
A Fork in the Road:
"Are you staying here?" she asked from the hallway, having changed her mind about asking him to come. She waited the longest moment, and when he didn't answer, she decided to leave well enough alone. He acted as if he didn't hear her. She shouldn't have asked him. Just because they had previously had a strained conversation, didn't now mean that they were on speaking terms. She turned to leave, when she saw him out of the corner of her eye, pick up his satchel, stuff his book within, take off his jacket, wrap it around his waist, and push her out of the doorway, to walk down the long train corridor. Did that mean he was coming?
When Hermione got outside, she saw Neville, Luna, Dean, Michael Corner, Hannah Abbott, and Padma Patil. Draco was standing on the other side of the train tracks, away from the group.
The small group started down the steep embankment, toward the riverbed, when Dean asked, "Does anyone know the way?'
Neville said, "I'm pretty sure I do. I've walked these woods before, finding plants for Professor Sprout. We need to follow the river for a while, and then we'll find a visible path."
They all started walking along the riverbed. They crossed at a shallow part, walking on stones and logs to cross. Hermione almost slipped, and Michael Corner grabbed her elbow. She turned and smiled at him. When she was turning back around, she saw Malfoy walking on the other side of the river, in the same direction as the rest of them. No one must have thought it was strange, at least no one mentioned it.
They finally came upon the path leading toward the woods. Neville was in front, and the rest followed behind, single file. Hermione was at the end. Well, no, Draco was at the end, but he was not really walking the path. He kept crisscrossing the path, walking through the woods, sometimes beside them, sometimes in front, and sometimes behind. When he would stumble back toward the path, he would meander around, lagging far behind.
Soon, Hermione and Draco seemed to be farther away from the rest, Draco by choice, Hermione out of necessity. Her knee was hurting, and she was tired already, even though they had only been walking about 45 minutes. She also secretly wished the butterbeer in her satchel were a glass of water. Therefore, that was her excuse. What was Draco's excuse?
Soon, he was off in the woods again, only to come out ten minutes later in front of her, where he leaned against a tree. Hermione was glad to see someone finally, even if it was Malfoy. Had the others forgotten her? She sat down on a fallen tree and Malfoy said, "We're going the wrong way, you know."
She looked up at him and said, "The castle is north of here, we're traveling north."
"No, the castle is northeast of here, and we've already gone too far in the opposite direction," he explained.
"How do you know?" she asked him.
"I just do. I'm not a moron, like Longbottom," he said with spite.
"Neville is not a moron," she defended her friend.
"Yes, he really is, and so are all of you to follow him so blindly. I'm not going to follow him any longer," he stated, righting himself upright to stand away from the tree.
"If you know for a fact that we're going the wrong way, why haven't you said anything until now?" she reasoned.
He shrugged and said, "Who would listen to me?"
"I'm just saying…"
Hermione was cut off from finishing her statement by Draco saying, "Yes, you say a lot, don't you."
Just then, she heard Neville yelling her name. She heard Draco say under his breath, but loud enough for her to hear, "The moron's beckoning."
Neville ran up to her and said, "We were worried, we didn't know where you went."
"Neville," Hermione began, "are you sure we're going the right way?'
"Truthfully, no, but I think we are," he admitted.
Draco interrupted by saying, "Listen, Longbottom, we've gotten woefully off track. We should go straight, not left, and go over the hill, not around it." As if for emphasis, Draco pointed to a path that went straight, ignoring the path to the left, from which Neville had just come.
"No, we need to go left, come on, Hermione," Neville said, helping her up.
"Fine, but I'm going this way. I'll see you all in four hours when you finally reach the castle," Draco said with a fake yawn.
Hermione said quietly, "Neville, what do you really think we should do?"
"I think we should stick together, but if he wants to go traipsing in the woods by himself, then so be it. Come on." Neville seemed perturbed with Hermione's question.
She stood up, but said, "Maybe we should follow Malfoy."
"No," Neville said, shaking his head. "Really, Hermione, I know he has a point, because the castle is over those hills, but it's arduous and treacherous hike over the hill, where the other path is an easier walk. You can hardly handle the trail now; you wouldn't be able to handle a difficult trail."
Hermione loved Neville, and she would never purposely hurt him, but he underestimated her. She spent most of last year in the woods with Harry and Ron. They would hike many miles, everyday, and along more overgrown paths than these. She could handle it.
So there she stood, in the proverbial and literal fork in the road. Should she go the safe route, to the left, where the path was straight and narrow, and undoubtedly secure? Should she follow the majority, no matter where they went, even if the outcome was less certain? On the other hand, should she go straight, into the unknown, where the path was steep and rocky, where no one else dared to tread, following the one person who seemed sure of himself, but who surely would cause her more harm?
Hermione decided. "Neville, I'm going this way," and she pointed straight ahead of her, where by now Draco's blond head was so far in the distance that she was afraid she would never catch up with him.
She started walking up the straight path, when Neville ran beside her and said, "Please, Hermione, stay with us. I promised Harry and Ron I would look after you this year."
That admission surprised her. "Neville, that's sweet, but I'm more than capable of looking after myself and Ron and Harry knows that. I just have a hunch that this is the right way, and my hunches are usually right, so I'm sorry, Neville." With that said, she left her friend behind to enter the unknown.
She walked for about ten minutes and already she was regretting her decision. The path was steep, it was rocky, and Malfoy was nowhere in sight. While usually, that would be happy news, at that moment that thought filled her with dread. What had she done? Would it be too late to turn back and try to find the others? That was what she had decided to do, quickening her pace, back toward the direction she had just come, when she heard, "Aye, Granger, are you coming or not. I've been waiting forever!" It was Malfoy.