A/N: I loved hearing all your Snape theories! Some favorite Snape monikers (hashtags self and others-generated): #SexybeastSnape (cookie), #HolyfuckSnape and #magnificentbastardSnape (Deinokos), #StillDumbledoresmanSnape (SoullessChaos), #gayforJamesSnape (Wordcaster), #loveforNarcissaSnape (Anonymous Presence), and #holysweetmotherofDAMNSnape (AvoidedIsland). Now, as many of you have correctly noted, hell hath no fury like a Hermione scorned.

Ms. Granger Draw Your Wand: Part III

Light streamed from several windows in middle ring of the central, right-hand Tribute as Hermione stormed into the otherwise largely darkened Chamber of Secrets — and thank Merlin for that; she would have hated if Pansy or Draco had come across her in such a temper. This Tribute was for planning, not for residing, Riddle had told her when she'd briefly returned to the Chamber with Draco and Pansy in the early morning they'd moved in. She wondered if he was up planning his next move based upon the results of his "examination."

Without a moment's hesitation, she strode purposefully inside the Tribute, practically charging up the stairs to the second floor. Light streamed from beneath a single door that lined the entirety of the right-hand-side curved interior balcony. She flung it open, her fingers hovering near the duelling garb's release for her wand, again hidden in the bracer at her wrist.

The room in which she found herself was curved and quite long, empty save only a few chairs set up along its sides and three light-giving candelabras floating above down its length. Riddle's back was to her, unmistakable with his head of dark, neat hair, standing near the window immediately across from the door.

A massive, ethereal stag was at his side. Their heads were put together closely, as if they were conversing.

The sight of the two of them only served to fan the flames of her ire higher. Bloody Nora — they were reporting back on her!

Riddle turned toward her then, and what was so very clearly either Snape's or Harry's Patronus vanished. "Ms. Granger. I must say I didn't expect to see you here quite so soon."

"What the bloody hell was that?" she spat, so furious her voice was actually shaking.

Riddle leaned casually against the wall, surveying her calmly. "I understand you received my message," he said, ignoring her question. Then he tilted his head slightly, his gaze curious. "Is there a particular reason you're channelling Saoirse of Hogwarts?"

The fact that in her world this man had been the most powerful Dark Lord of the age couldn't have been farther from her mind. Hermione gripped her fists, so furious her hands were actually shaking. "Halloween rubbish," she bit out dismissively, "and perhaps you didn't hear me; what in the bloody hell was that?"

She could see he was visibly struggling to withhold a smile, which only served to infuriate her more. "Bella is going to really like you."

"Don't minimize what I'm saying with simplistic flattery," she retorted. "You ordered Snape to attack me!"

The smile dropped from his face, and he straightened. "This is a war, Ms. Granger. In a war, the side with the most liabilities loses. We've been nearly obliterated twice because of liabilities. I had to see how well you could hold up against the pressure of an actual interrogation, against the pressure of helplessly staring your own destruction in the face, because I assure you, make one wrong step here, and interrogation you will surely face. I had to see the greatest fears inside your heart, the truth of your soul, so I could know beyond a shadow of a doubt if you are with us or against us. And to do that, it had to feel real."

For a moment, Hermione simply gaped at him. "You could have just asked!" she exclaimed. "I already know exactly what it's like to actually be interrogated, by an - an absolutely insane woman who hated me and everything I stood for! I know exactly what curse is used if I don't answer they way they'd like, and I know what it's like to stare my own destruction square in the bloody face!" She sucked in a breath, trying desperately not to picture Bellatrix's crazed gaze boring into hers. "I have been successfully acting undetected under immense pressure for months, and as I'm sure you know, constantly pretending to be someone you aren't is exhausting," she said scathingly. "The last thing I need are additional 'exercises' to satisfy your curiosity, and if it happens again, so help me, I'll— I'll…"

Riddle stepped closer, his eyes probing hers intensely. "You'll what?"

She took a breath, straightening her shoulders, and met his dark gaze unwaveringly. "I believe in freeing these people and beings from this - this horrific oppression, but I don't have to believe in you. Everyone here may consider you their leader, but I have never followed you — I don't even know you! If you want that title and that respect from me, then it must be earned."

Something in him instantaneously seemed to shift, and his towering frame abruptly, inexplicably radiated indisputable authority. "I believe you're forgetting that respect runs two ways. Despite what you may or may not think of me, I am the commander of this resistance. That makes me, and me alone, fully responsible both for the lives that have been tragically lost and for the ones that might, just might, have a real chance to be saved." The sudden power in his rich, controlled voice demanded such respect that with a jolt, Hermione was abruptly reminded that this man had fought an all-powerful dark Albus Dumbledore on multiple occasions... and had not been vanquished entirely.

She fidgeted uncomfortably as Riddle began to circle her slowly, his perceptive expression as evaluative as an O.W.L. proctor during a practical exam. "You are one of the very few eyes I have above ground, and despite what I have seen from Snape, Peia, Harry and Draco, I have very little experience with you personally. Perhaps you can understand why my respect and trust of you must be earned just as much as yours of me."

Hermione couldn't help but let out a disbelieving laugh in spite of herself. "Excuse me if I have much more vital things to worry about than trying to earn your respect."

For a moment, he stopped walking. "Be that as it may, Ms. Granger," he said, his low voice, "You are earning it."

Her mouth opened and closed in surprise.

He resumed again his almost wolf-like pacing around her, and any flattery she may have derived from his previous statement disintegrated when she abruptly noticed that his wand was no longer hidden away wherever he kept it. Instead, it was between his fingers, where he was holding it loosely, but pointedly.

Hermione swiftly glanced up at his calculating expression, her fingers again reaching for the trigger to her own wand. "What are you doing?" she asked warily.

"You have demonstrated your intelligence, your courage, your compassion, your arresting talent for theatrics and your ability to keep your head under extreme duress, but I have not yet seen how well you handle yourself in a firefight," Riddle said matter-of-factly, as casually as if he were merely rattling off the results of her end-of-the-year academic evaluation.

His sharply analysing eyes snapped to her face. "After your experiences tonight and yet another display of your quite frankly impressively controlled temper, you're visibly tired. Try as you might to hide it, you're nervous. I'm making you uncomfortable. Your hands are still shaking, likely from anger and exhaustion, and your emotions are substantially heightened, as they would also be should you find yourself unexpectedly exposed and in need of defending yourself. The conditions matching such an extreme situation don't come along every day and I suspect you will demand I don't recreate them for you. This, therefore, is your final test. I want to see exactly what you have; Ms. Granger, draw your wand."

Her eyebrows flew up. "I don't have to prove anything to you!"

Riddle took a step back, and then another. "Playing the fool, I imagine it's been quite awhile since you've had the chance to properly duel anyone," he noted, continuing until he was standing at nearly the opposite end of the room's long length, as if giving her the space to decide. "Prove it to yourself."

She watched him walk away, trying to breathe as calmly as possible if only to make the most levelheaded decision she could.

Psychologically, she exactly knew what Riddle was trying to do to incite her hand - make her believe this was a test she wanted to take. At the same time, she thought with frustration, he was absolutely correct. She hadn't had the chance to practice duelling even once since she'd arrived in this world, and Merlin knew she needed to be able to defend herself more here than ever if she was discovered. Yes, once she'd wielded her wand in the Archive room, her eight years of training helping Harry fight Voldemort and his forces had come back to her almost immediately, and she had faced Snape and won - thank Merlin. But the stress leading up to it had been unbearable, and had kept her from recognising the boggart more quickly via its unrealistic omniscience.

Moreover, her hesitance to duel and disarm Snape the second she knew he suspected her was the reason she'd had to deal with Lily's boggart in the first place. Desperately duelling for self-defence on a battlefield or from the shadows, and willingly entering a purely one-on-one, face-to-face duel alone not with fledgeling members of Dumbledore's Army but with an older, more advanced wizard were two different things. If she had practiced for a similar situation, even with - or perhaps especially with - that snake Harry Evans in the Head common room, her stand-off with Snape would have much gone smoother, and quicker.

She wouldn't have hesitated in the very moment she couldn't afford to.

Riddle, damn him, was right — she needed to practice.

Despite her vexation, she also recognized Riddle's need to understand exactly who was traversing between his cause's most hidden place and the world above... especially when lives like Draco's and Pansy's and Peia's depended on the flawlessness of her performance.

Still, she couldn't deny it would feel viciously satisfying to shoot a curse straight at his cunning, unscrupulous head.

Why not be angry... and practical?

Hermione's fingers again inched toward her wand trigger. "It would wake up everyone in the Chamber," she said sharply, partially hoping to dissuade herself.

For the briefest of seconds, the right side of his lip tugged upward, though the half-smile disappeared just as quickly. "The Tributes are soundproofed. This one is otherwise empty; I can promise you that no one will hear but us."

Hermione didn't know whether or not that comforted her. She stared at him, her heart hammering as she fidgeted indecisively from one foot to the other. "Against you, I'll lose," she warned him.

Riddle shook his head. "That mentality is limiting and will get you nowhere," he said, the slightest hint of admonishment in his tone that made Hermione feel the same contriteness she did after a scolding by Universe A's Minerva McGonagall. "If I'd said that to myself every time I fought Dumbledore, I'd've been laying dead in a ditch outside the Phoenix fifteen years ago. What did I just tell you? Today it isn't about who wins or loses… It's about the practice."

For a moment, Hermione pursed her lips together tightly.

Then she sucked in a breath and triggered her wand.

"Geminio!" she shouted, firing a jet of red light at one of the chairs alongside the room.

As they began to furiously multiply, Riddle fired a simple disarming spell at her, probably out of pity; she nonverbally conjured a shield, but the sheer power behind his magic sent her rocketing backward off her feet regardless.

Great Godric, what have I gotten myself into?

As she slammed into the wall, Hermione flicked her wand, and the now-tens of chairs flew through the air between them. Riddle blasted through them as she expected, and when the wood splinted apart, Hermione took aim at the cloud of fragments. "Transfiguro terra duro!"

Immediately, they transfigured into a reinforced earthen wall between herself and Riddle, and she flung herself behind it, grateful for the much-needed cover; she was used to fighting in groups with the protection of forests and streets and buildings that had objects she could use to her advantage even against great odds… not singularly with a far superior dueller in an otherwise empty room.

For a blessed moment, stillness descended, and Hermione muffled her own heavy breaths to cover them. Then, the lights floating overhead suddenly dimmed dramatically, humidity and mist creeping eerily around the corners of the barricade. She gripped her wand, preparing to fire an immediate disarming charm, her every sense on full alert.

Suddenly, vines as thick as tree trunks exploded like spears from the dirt wall behind her.

She barely withheld a surprised shriek as they curled and twisted violently, more springy vines and tendrils multiplying rapidly until they towered above her like a giant, writhing forest.

"Confringo!" she cried, recognizing the devil's snare immediately.

As the burned patch of vines in front of her retreated, Hermione abruptly noticed a spectre floating toward her from the darkened ceiling above.

She choked on her breath.

It was a Dementor.

In her distraction, the vines surged back around her, snatching at her arms and legs. She irately shot another wave of fire at them, then looked back up at the creature hastily as its massive black form swooped down toward her. It couldn't have been real - she didn't feel the drain on her emotions — and she guessed Riddle must have wanted to see her ability to perform a Patronus Charm.

She didn't hesitate, snatching on to the first happy memory she could think of: Laying on her grandmum's ratty old blanket with her parents on one of the most beautiful beaches in the northeast, eating her favorite biscuits.

"Expecto patronum!" she shouted, and intensely bright light burst from her wand—

As the devil's snare overtook her completely.

Hermione didn't even have the satisfaction of seeing the otter form appear to drive off the wraith, so tightly were the vines curled around her eyes and face and arms and neck. She cursed, hesitated for a split second, then hoped to high hell Riddle had fortified this room for duelling and casted a strong protection charm on herself. "Confringo totalus!"

The entire jungle of vines exploded into flames. To her, the inferno was a mere tickle, but standing in the middle of a raging fire was thoroughly unnerving, and she couldn't get out of it fast enough. As the fire raged higher, she had no choice but to fling herself out from behind the now-partially demolished dirt wall, gasping.

Riddle was waiting for her the moment she did.

She barely had time to dodge a jet of yellow light that left her right spaulder smoking, but the duelling garb held firm, and for once she was grateful for the almost disgusting amount of Lily Evans' money she'd spent on it. Swiftly, she returned his curse with a Flipendo Jinx, which he easily slapped aside with a Protego charm before it could do the slightest bit of damage.

The spells between them began to fly so fast Hermione could hardly draw in a breath before she countered his and flung another, Riddle's a befuddling mix of jinxes and charms and distraction spells foreign even to her that conjured and hurled objects at her from all sides, while hers were a 100% defensive mix of shield charms and missed attempts to slow, distract and disarm him. She strongly suspected he was going easy on her - of course he was, he had the power and skill of Lord bloody Voldemort - but even so, she soon felt herself flagging. Riddle, meanwhile, hardly appeared to have broken a sweat.

She rallied herself to make a final attempt to disarm him before she herself collapsed from exhaustion through the only option she could see that could possibly upend the rhythm into which they'd fallen.

Simultaneously, she and Riddle fired at each other, and Hermione flung almost all her energy into hurling one of the most powerful offensive spells she knew. "EXPULSO!"

Unlike her other hexes that he'd batted away as easily as swatting a fly, Riddle had no choice but to take a split second to shield himself. Instead of also defending herself from his jinx as she normally would have, Hermione immediately followed up her attack with a disarming spell and then a stupefying spell in rapid succession.

She never saw if they met their intended target.

Without time to react to his strike, his potent jet of blue light easily ploughed into her shoulder, sending her hurtling through the air.

Her entire world instantly went black.

Hermione's eyes opened swiftly, and she sat up with a gasp.

Tom Riddle was crouching beside her, his wand held loosely between his fingers; she quickly recognized the effects of being rennervated. Though the fire and vines and dirt - any signs of the destruction around them, really - were gone, she was still panting heavily, so she must not have been unconscious long.

"Did…" she gasped, looking at him questioningly, "Did I…?"

"Knock me out?" His lip quirked upward slightly. "No. But you did manage to snag this... temporarily." With a twist of his fingers, he held up his wand. "Of course, with a hint of wandless magic I could have very easily taken it back."

Hermione stared down at it, then at him. Her heart was still racing, the left side of her face was smarting even more and she wondered if she'd landed on it, but above it all, one thought was clear:

Merlin… it felt good to use the full extent of her magic again.

She actually laughed, once, relieved to be breathless and not because she was being chased or attacked or under suspicion for espionage. Riddle smiled slightly and handed her a small flask of water; she accepted it gratefully.

"You noticed the duelling pattern I set and changed your strategy. Very good," he said with an assessing tone; it wasn't difficult to imagine him standing at the front of a classroom delivering a prepared final evaluation to a student in the same voice. "Though obviously in a life or death situation, you'd want to avoid being hit at all."

"Well, I was… rather hoping I wouldn't be… split apart," she wheezed wryly, gulping down some water.

"You were prudent to wait for a spell where you wouldn't be. I'll admit I underestimated you, but I noticed you favour a limited number of basic defensive spells," he noted. "The Stunning Spell and Disarming Charm at the forefront."

"I learnt — using — ostentatious magic in a fight gets you killed," she said, still catching her breath. "Why use a sixth-level jinx when a Stupefying Charm eliminates your opponents far more easily?"

"Because depending on who you're fighting, it won't eliminate them for very long."

"By which time, I would have already moved elsewhere, ideally," she pointed out, pulling her knees to her chest. "And the Expelliarmus Spell can be very powerful. It was the spell Harry Potter used when he—"

Her breath caught as she realized what she was saying, and she stopped speaking abruptly.

Riddle surveyed her sharply, his eyebrows raising slightly. "When he… what?"

She hesitated. "When he… destroyed the dark lord we'd been fighting since we were young."

He frowned, walking over to the sill of the window nearest him and sitting on it. "Exactly who was this dark lord?" he asked, scrutinizing her closely. "Based on your and Draco's avoidance of saying the name I assume it's someone I know well, though I won't presume to postulate which of my acquaintances here might have an alternate personality pernicious enough to seek that kind of notoriety in your world."

"It.. erm…" Hermione quickly averted her gaze from his searching one and indecisively gnawed the inside of her lip. Despite all Riddle did seem to know about her world, Draco had clearly chosen not to tell him this. Why not? Certainly with the death of his wife, he'd seemed to have given up any pursuit of power within the Sovereignty and the Dark Arts. Could any harm possibly come from him knowing?

Suddenly, Riddle spoke, his normally eloquent voice toneless. "It was me, wasn't it?"

Hermione looked toward him swiftly, but he was staring out the window. After a moment, his dark eyes met hers, and she was surprised to see something pained deep within them. "Dumbledore was the pillar of good in your world, Draco said, and most Slytherins and Purebloods were the villains," he said flatly. "Given the many parallels of which I've been made aware, I can extrapolate."

She swallowed hard, unable to believe she was having a conversation like this with the alter ego of the man who had viciously killed hundreds of people in her universe. How would she have reacted if someone had told her that in another dimension, Hermione Granger was a mass murderer?

"He didn't… go by Tom Riddle anymore, but Lord - Voldemort," she said quietly. "Obviously, that world and the experiences he'd had in it were very, very different from this one."

The uncharacteristic slump to Riddle's shoulders made the unnaturally youthful man appear, for the first time, closer to his true age. He tightly gripped the sill of the window on either side of him and dropped his head, staring at the ground. "How long did it go on?" he asked, his voice hoarse.

Hermione sighed softly, her heart wrenching for him. "A long time," she said, as gently as she could. "We fought him for seven and a half years. And that was after his return. He first rose to power in the eighties, was temporarily defeated, and then came back years later."

Riddle looked back up at her. "And your side won," he stated, obviously already informed of it by Draco.

"The day I was brought here."

Like the flip of a switch, the heaviness in his eyes shifted to calculating. "How?"

Hermione hesitated. She didn't know how common knowledge of the true existence of the mythical Deathly Hallows was here, and if it wasn't, she certainly didn't want to open a can of worms by divulging the fact that the often-destructive objects were real.

"Confusion over mastery of a wand," she said vaguely after a moment.

His gaze sharpened. "The Elder Wand?"

"You know of it?" she asked cautiously.

"In my time at the Department of Mysteries, I learned the truth of a great many things most believe to be myths." He paused, as if considering whether or not to divulge the contents of the words clearly on the tip of his lips. "Dumbledore possesses it here."

She sighed heavily. "I was afraid of that. He did in my world as well, while he was alive."

His looked at her swiftly. "My other—" he began, then seemed to think better of it and said, "This… Voldemort. He succeeded in killing Dumbledore?"

Hermione knew where his mind had jumped — if his alternative self had found a way to destroy Dumbledore, perhaps they could use a similar tactic here. She shook her head regretfully. "No. Hence the subsequent confusion over the wand's mastery."

Disappointment flashed through Riddle's gaze. He echoed her muted sigh, his posture a far cry from the powerful man who had stood before her mere minutes earlier. For several seconds, he didn't speak, but then he asked quietly, "What about a — woman? You say this man had different life experiences than me. Was there a woman?" he repeated, somewhat desperately. "Or a — a brother?"

Hermione shook her head sadly. "Voldemort's mother died when he was very young. He was raised an orphan. He — never had a brother," she said, understanding in her eyes as she remembered one of the very first articles she'd read about Riddle's whole family — that his mother and father, who had seemed to be happily married, and 10-year-old brother Oliver had been killed in the war when he was a teenager. "And… well, I suppose there was… Bellatrix Lestrage—" She couldn't stop herself from spitting out the name, but if Riddle noticed the hatred in her voice, which he surely must have, he didn't ask. "But she was more of a worshiper. Voldemort didn't care for anyone but himself. As far as I know, he never met…"

She stopped suddenly, afraid she'd overstepped the bounds of the conversation. But when Riddle's intense gaze abruptly shot to hers, the expression in them simultaneously struck and sharp, she softly finished hesitantly, "Sinistra Lowe."

Immediately, a dark shadow crossed the handsome man's oft-composed face. His jaw clenched, and he looked away from her, a muted, haunted gleam in his eyes that Hermione wished she didn't recognize as well as she did.

It was the look of a human being who'd been ripped apart by war.

After a moment, he blinked rapidly and the expression vanished. He looked back at her, and the gaze he set upon her own was much more examining than it had been before. Though she had nothing to hide, Hermione raised her Occlumency blinders slightly; the idea that anyone might even unintentionally look straight into her soul unnerved her.

"You seem to know quite a lot about me for someone who's only been here a short while," he said evenly.

"I didn't, until a few days ago. Your arrival caught me off guard," Hermione admitted. "I had to do research."

Riddle smiled limply at that. "Research," he echoed with a humourless snort. "Didn't they slander both our names and blot us out from the history books?"

"I found what they missed." She paused, then said quietly, "I'm so sorry. About your wife. I can't even begin to imagine the courage and resolve she must have had to stand up to all those people, and do and say what everyone else was so afraid to."

His dark eyes abruptly glistened. For a moment, he curiously seemed to look through her rather than at her, and Hermione suspected that the person in Riddle's vision then was someone much more dear to him than Hermione or anyone else was. After several seconds, he said roughly, "More than I can ever hope to possess."

He cleared his throat, and his distant gaze returned to her face. He stood briskly.

"That'll be all for tonight," he said, his tone again strictly professional. "Your reflexes are quick, your Corporeal Patronus is particularly impressive, even to me, and your defensive duelling skills are far superior to the vast majority of wizards twice your age. In the coming days, I suggest we begin to work on your offense. As you might have noticed, the single offensive risk you took tied you that duel. The Disarming Charm may have gotten you by in your world, but you're going to need something a bit stronger to couple it with in ours."

Hermione nodded and stood as well, her powerfully curious drive eager at the prospect of working one-on-one with as genius a wizard as Tom Riddle on her duelling as well as her Occlumency — usually it'd been Harry who'd received extra tutelage, not her, not that she'd ever begrudged him for it. "That'd be brilliant. Now that this frivolous party planning idiocy is over, I should be able to get away here more."

Riddle's lips quirked upward slightly at the unveiled disgust in her voice. "Ah yes, the at times excessive and oftentimes unending flamboyance of the Hogwarts social scene. I remember the insanity of it well." He gestured toward the door. "If you'd like to avoid any additional excitement, you're welcome to stay in one of the rooms here, given the hour. I believe you'll find Coniunctis Viribus particularly accomodating."

With connected strength, she translated with an uncertain frown. At her furrowed brow, Riddle clarified, "The Tribute at the end of the row, on the left. You'll find your friends there."

It was hard to believe how angry she'd been when she'd stormed into this room not thirty minutes earlier. Extremely justified as she'd been, the ill will she'd felt toward him had mostly been drained... which was perhaps no stronger testament to the manipulative power of Tom Riddle's disarming personality, since her lessened grudge certainly did not extend to the foul, slippery bastards that were Harry Evans and Severus Snape.

"This was it," Hermione said sharply, turning back around as she neared the door. "I won't stand for any more 'tests.' "

He met her gaze evenly. "No more, Ms. Granger. You have my word."

She was surprised when she felt compelled to stop once more, her hand on the frame of the door. "I told Draco about Voldemort — about my world," she said, looking back at him. His gaze met hers, the expression in it firmly shuttered. "If it makes you feel any better, he assured me immediately you're nothing like him. Nothing at all. I trust his judgment more than anything, and now that I've been able to speak to you more, I've been able to see for myself… It really is true," she said sincerely.

Riddle's searching eyes probed hers deeply for a moment before he nodded, the motion so slight it was hardly noticeable. "Thank you, Hermione," he said quietly. "It does."

When Hermione tiredly entered the last Tribute on the left of the Chamber, she was still shaking slightly - It'd been hours and hours since she'd eaten, and the Halloween Feast seemed like it'd happened a lifetime ago, not a little more than a quarter of a day.

Unsteadily, she stumbled into the dark kitchen. It automatically sensed her arrival, and a few candles spluttered to life, revealing, among other things, a wrapped loaf of half-eaten quick bread on the counter. A large slice of it was in her hands in a flash, as was milk she found in a charmed cooler box beside stove. She sank to the floor beside the sink as she consumed both gratefully, sighing in relief as the nourishment steadied her hands.

Emotions and people swirled in her mind — Ginevra and the other, darker versions of her old friends and classmates, Harry, James Potter, Lily, Snape, Riddle, Sinistra… Draco.

Instinctively, her gaze lifted to the upper, residential floors of the Tribute. Warm light spilled from a single, partially-open door on the second floor.

She wondered if it was his.

She wondered how he was.

If his nightmares had lessened.

If things with his father had finally gone well.

She should have asked Riddle about Lucius, she belatedly realized in disappointed frustration, but the conservatives' leader had ended their conversation so definitively she wasn't sure he would have wanted to talk about anything else rather than be left alone with his thoughts.

As she continued to stare up at the door, something burned in her stomach that she couldn't quite define. Aside from her decisions to stay with Harry when Ron had left, to Obliviate her parents' every memory of their only daughter, and to largely abandon her quest to return to the world of her birth and instead help with this one...

Hermione had never felt so conflicted, so cowardly in her life.

A part of her wanted so badly to simply go and see if it was indeed him. Another part of her wanted to leave the Tribute and sleep elsewhere and never speak to him again, was terrified to let anything but a minor association with him continue.

Lily's words — or, Boggart Lily's — echoed hollowly in her mind:

You know as much as I do your emotional weakness for that boy is exactly what got you into this mess! Compromising your cover to save his life…

Because of you, he is dead.

The comments were cruel, but what was worse was that they were brutally honest… because they were actually her own fears.

If she was ever caught, surely how much she valued Draco above anyone else here would be discovered. Surely he would be the first to be killed or tortured even more than he'd already been, and Hermione couldn't bear the thought of it. No, it was too big a risk. For her, for him — for everyone.

The dread, the cold emptiness she'd felt when she'd thought he was dead settled back into her chest.

But she had promised, something warm and equally determined inside her argued. She had sworn to him, given him her solemn word that she would support him exactly the way he selflessly promised her to do the same. With his smiling eyes and his easy sense of humour, it was so easy to forget how much cruelty and pain he'd experienced, even though she'd seen it herself first-hand. And if his own father still didn't remember him… If he kept the truth of every horrific thing he'd gone through from Pansy, as he seemed to want to…

Who else did he have?

In her heart, she knew the answer. And she knew what she had to do.

Nodding once to herself, she resolutely climbed to her feet.

She would be there for him.

No matter her feelings, no matter her fears, she wouldn't, couldn't break her word to him. She respected him and valued their friendship far too much to do that.

Removing the scabbard and sword from her side — she was getting a bit tired of it clanging against her leg — she quietly climbed the stairs to the Tribute's upper floors, hoping that it was him and not Pansy, as much as she wanted to see the much-changed Slytherin girl as well. Between Riddle's duel and Snape's 'interrogation', Hermione could only imagine how she appeared — dirty and dishevelled, like she really had just walked off a battlefield somewhere. She reached up, attempting to tame the many stray wisps of hair she could feel had fallen from the bun and now curled wildly around her face. Her efforts were met with little success, and she winced as she brushed her aching cheek.

Quickly giving up the effort, she all too soon found herself standing right outside the single lit room, the thinly opened door revealing only half an unoccupied bed and dresser. Hermione took a deep breath, nodded once more to herself, and knocked quietly.

"Yes," Draco's voice responded, sounding surprised.

Her heart jumped. Before she could lose her nerve, she pushed open the door the rest of the way.

The Slytherin was sitting in an armchair beside the window writing in a notebook on his lap, wearing green tracksuit bottoms so dark they almost looked black and a long-sleeved grey shirt. Even in the low light of the candelabra beside the chair, he looked so incredibly happy, he was practically glowing — the healthiest, most relaxed Hermione had ever seen him.

Whatever he was working on, he finished scribbling a sentence and looked up.

His grey eyes widened as soon as he saw her, his lips parting slightly; clearly, it hadn't been she he'd expected. After a moment, he blinked and hastily set the book and pen aside. A warm smile touched his eyes, and he stood, for a moment gripping the side of the chair before his hand quickly went for a cane she'd never seen before that was leaning against it. Once he'd steadied himself, he offered her another small smile. "Hi," he said, inexplicably sounding a bit apprehensive.

Unexpectedly, tears burned at her eyes, and she clutched the scabbard tightly in her hand. In the safety of his accepting and understanding presence, after this entire hellish night and week and month the only thing she wanted to do was collapse with relief and exhaustion right then and there.

But no — she couldn't.

Here, without her, Draco had clearly finally found some much-deserved and long-awaited peace. And now here she'd come, ready to unload a truck full of the burdens and worries from which he seemed to have managed to escape?

How selfish, how awful of a friend was she?

"I... I don't know why I'm here," she stammered, and turned quickly before she could completely fall apart.

"Hermione!" she heard him exclaim quietly as she fled out the door, clearly trying not to wake Pansy.

She blinked back tears, her face burning. What was it about Draco that made her so prone to breaking down in front of him? Even traveling with Harry Potter during the war, she'd hardly shown him her emotions — she'd always gone off and cried alone, and she'd been alright with that. But this — this was different. This was the very opposite of being alone, and she couldn't do this. She didn't bloody well know how to do this!

"Hermione, wait—"

Before she'd taken two steps down the stairs, a warm hand grabbed her wrist.

That was all it took.

Before she could think better of it or stop herself, she spun around, climbed the two stairs back up to the landing on which Draco stood and flung her arms around his waist in a tight hug.

He stiffened immediately, and she abruptly realized what she'd done.

"Oh, goddess, I'm sorry!" she whispered in horror. "I forgot you don't like sudden—"

Before she could fully step away, Draco gently pulled her back to him. "No," he said quietly. "You're fine, Hermione."

His warm arms enveloped her, and she willingly fell into the essence of the only person in this entire world she knew she could trust. She inhaled the scent of him, lemon poppy-seed bread mixed with a musky smell that reminded her of pine, and it calmed her… everything about him calmed her.

"Hermione… what is it?" he asked softly. "What's happened?"

Ginevra's murderous expression and Lily Evans' cruel eyes and Snape's mocking enjoyment of her frantic panic flashed before her in the darkness. A sob welled up in her chest, and she choked it back. "Please don't say anything," she whispered, holding him more tightly. "I can't — I don't—"

"I understand. Not a word," Draco murmured before she could finish.

Her shoulders sagged, and she closed her eyes and sank back against him. He tightened his embrace, pulling her close to him and leaning his head down against the top of hers. She felt him breathing lightly into her hair, stroking it back very gently, and, slowly, she felt her composure begin to regain itself. Warmth, and blissful, rejuvenating energy buzzed through her.

She was alright. Right here, right now… she really was.

And so was he.

It was all alright.

Hermione didn't know how long they stood there until she felt halfway normal again, rather than an uncertain, emotional time bomb. Taking a deep breath, she carefully untangled herself from him. "Thanks, Draco," she said quietly, staring down at her boots, half-illuminated by the faint light spilling from his room.

Slowly, Draco ran his fingers down her arm and then tentatively took her hand between the both of his, bringing it up from her side. For as quickly as she'd calmed, her heart began to race as she followed the motion. Her fingers tingled powerfully, and for a moment, she was at once terrified and electrified that he was going to kiss them. But he simply pulled her hand close to his chest. His grey eyes searched hers, and even in the faint light of the hallway, she could tell they were deeply concerned. "Is it anything I can help with?"

Hermione smiled weakly, tightening her fingers around his. "You just did," she said softly. "More than you could ever know."

After a moment, he hesitantly mirrored her smile. "I'm glad." His gaze moved from her eyes, scanning the rest of her face. Then it stopped abruptly. He frowned, reaching for her cheek until his thumb just grazed the throbbing expanse that Boggart Lily and her duel with Riddle had assaulted.

She winced and swiftly flinched away from his touch, pulling from his grasp.

"What happened there?" he asked quietly, his voice taut.

"It's nothing." She quickly swiped her fingers beneath her eyes, shaking her head. "I'm fine. Really."

"Hermione, it's hurting you. It isn't nothing." Draco hesitated, then tentatively took her hand again, squeezing it encouragingly. "Come on. I've got some bruise cream if you'd like to use it."

Hermione considered for a moment and then nodded tiredly. The first aid materials she usually kept with her were still with Harry in her bag of Wheezes, and she had no idea where the Chamber's infirmary was, though she felt certain Tom Riddle in all his thoroughness would have included one. As she followed Draco back into the room, closing the door so they wouldn't have to constantly lower their voices, the cane he was using suddenly reminded her of Universe A's Lucius Malfoy… and the main reason she'd told herself she wanted to come see him in the first place.

She tightened her grip on his hand a bit, pulling him to a stop. "Draco, how's your father?"

He turned back toward her, trying — and failing — to hide a radiant smile that suddenly threatened to burst across his face.

And Hermione knew.

True joy overwhelmed the tiredness in her chest, and tears sprung to her eyes for a different reason entirely. "Oh, Draco, that's wonderful!" she exclaimed softly, flinging her arms around him again and hugging him tightly. "When I saw you, right when I came in, you looked so happy, and I'd hoped that… I'm so very glad for you!"

Draco let out a small laugh, hugging her back. "I'm glad too," he murmured, sounding slightly tired. "I can't even — I don't know how to explain it. So much of this seems… unreal."

Hermione pulled back from him, gazing at him keenly. "Does he remember everything?"

His smile faded slightly, and he rubbed the back of his neck. "No, unfortunately not. Just triggered memories. In today's case, my mother; me. His own family... many of his friends." He sighed. "Who knows what'll trigger the end of the prophecy." After a moment, he brightened again. "But Riddle seems to think that with this large a breakthrough, it's only a matter of time before the rest comes back as well. It's why I was up so late tonight; we've spent most of it catching up. There was…" He paused, a poignant mixture of joviality and pain flashing through his eyes, "…so much to say."

For a moment, acute homesickness for the parents she might never see again stabbed at her chest, and though Hermione's lips quirked upward, they did so sadly. "I imagine there was." But her smile soon widened, his excitement contagious, and her delight for his regained family was worth the pain of her aching cheek. "It sounds like it went really well."

Draco nodded, his eyes sparkling. "Better than I could have ever imagined."

"Of course! I knew it would be," she said happily.

They grinned broadly at each other — it was such a relief to smile, really smile, like this again — until Draco touched her shoulder gently. "That's quite a formidable bruise you're wearing," he said lightly, though his voice held concern. "Why don't I get you that cream. I'll tell you more about my father later." He hesitated, suddenly looking uncertain. "You can… meet him tomorrow, if you'd like?"

The snarling, malevolent face of Universe A's Lucius Malfoy flashed through Hermione's mind. Quickly, she forced herself to recall the minute encounter she'd had with this world's more soft-spoken iteration of him, and reminded herself that he had fathered the genuinely wonderful man standing in front of her.

Both thoughts reassured her.

"Is that even a question?" she replied. "Of course! I'd like nothing better."

The hesitance in Draco's eyes stretched to a wide grin that crinkled their sides. "Wonderful." After a second, he squeezed her shoulder lightly and turned, crossing to the dresser. Pulling out a drawer, he rifled through it and soon emerged with a small jar. "Aha!"

He held it up, smiling wryly, his gaze distant. "Can you believe, I nicked this from the Room of Requirements that day you… got me out of there for good."

Her eyebrows lifted in surprise. "I can't believe you still have it."

"Well, thanks to you I haven't needed it since." After a moment, he blinked, shaking his head. "That all seems so long ago now. That day… everything else."

Hermione studied him for a moment, still amazed and very grateful for how much stronger and more rested and well he appeared than he'd been even a week before. "I'm glad," she said earnestly. "I wish I knew of a way to help you never have to think about any of it again."

Draco looked back her and smiled. "You are helping. This —" he gestured at his surroundings as he returned to her side, "—this is all helping. Oh no you don't," he added quickly as she reached for the jar. He shoved his finger across the room. "You can just take yourself over to that couch and let me be the Healer for once."

Hermione couldn't help but laugh. "O-oh, look who's gotten bossy," she said teasingly.

"Ah, but I deliver 'ze request in 'ze most charming and gentlemanly way possible," he replied with a disarming smile in a ridiculous French accent, sweeping an imaginary top hat off his head and dipping low into a theatrical bow that kept her laughing. When he straightened, he held his other hand out toward the couch. "Milady, if you would be ever so kind."

"Very smooth," she said between chuckles, more than happy to sink down onto the comfortably padded wicker sofa. She dropped the sword and scabbard on the floor beside her, and gestured at Draco's cane. "Don't you look dapper. Fancy new accessory, Slytherin colours…"

To her surprise, faint colour sprung to his pale cheeks, and he looked down at the slender, polished support unassumingly. "I'm hoping it won't be forever, actually. Aunt Bella's a registered Mediwitch; Riddle hopes she might be able to do something for it…" Strangely, his speech dithered then. "…if she… comes here," he finished slowly.

Hermione's breath caught, even though she logically knew Bellatrix Black could not be the same as Bellatrix Lestrange — Merlin, look at the difference between Voldemort and Tom Riddle.

"She's coming… to the Chamber?" she asked uncomfortably.

"Perhaps. Not for a good while at least, if she is," Draco said vaguely, and quickly sat beside her with his knees to hers. "Now, this, I believe is the moment of truth we've all been waiting for," he proclaimed.

Her eyes shot to his devious ones questioningly, and she hated the anxious energy that suddenly exploded through her stomach.

"The time has come," he said dramatically, "to see if you, Hermione Granger, can be half as brilliant a patient for me as I have unfailingly managed to be these two long months for you."

Her eyebrows flew up, and she spluttered indignantly. "I rather think the time has come to see if you, Draco Malfoy, managed to pick up half the mad healing skills I imparted on you," she retorted.

"Who's to say I didn't have mad healing skills already?" he countered, then smiled in amusement. "Anyway, I'm fairly certain it doesn't take an Arithmancer to know how to properly apply bruise cream. Here, let's have a look at it." As she turned her aching cheek toward him, he whistled softly, shaking his head. "Did you hit first, or did they?"

Hermione sighed, not at all keen to relive it. "They did," she said heavily. After a moment, she added matter-of-factly, "But then I stabbed them."

Draco's cream-covered fingers halted abruptly halfway to her face. At his visible astonishment, Hermione said hastily, "Not like — I mean I — it's a long story, very much not worth repeating. But I didn't get in trouble and no one died, I promise."

"Somehow, I strangely find myself not at all comforted by that reassurance," he said, only halfway facetious. He hesitated, his shoulders tensing slightly. "Based on that I take it the…" his jaw clenched, and he finished woodenly, "-the Haunt was… delightful."

His sudden behaviour wasn't lost on her, and a powerful surge of hatred toward Ginevra and every other one of her abhorrently brutal classmates gripped her. "Heinous," she spat.

Remarkably, Draco's tension vanished almost as soon as it came.

"I have a feeling they'd take that as a compliment. Probably put it on next year's invitation," he said mildly. "The Heinous Haunt… you can't deny it has a certain ring to it."

"Thank Merlin by then I will be long gone… from Hogwarts," Hermione felt compelled to add, a bit awkwardly, in case he might have interpreted it any other way.

Luckily, he didn't see to notice. He again reached for her face, then hesitated. "Can I…?" When she nodded, he gently placed his other hand beneath her chin, lifting it slightly, and gently dabbed the healing salve on the bruise, which, from the amount he had on his fingers, must have been sizable. "Dressed like Saoirse?"

Before she could help it, a broad grin burst across her face that was almost childlike in its enthusiasm, and she winced again when the left side of her face protested. "Yes."

"Oops- sorry. Shouldn't have made you smile." Draco's gaze was concentrated closely on the side of her face as he smoothed the cream across her cheek. Unlike the few times Ron or Harry had earnestly but awkwardly tried to help with any injuries she might have incurred on the road — she'd quickly taken over her own medical treatment afterward — Draco's touch was so light and nimble, she was astonished that she didn't actually register any pain… only the cool relief of the medicine sinking into her skin.

After a moment, he smiled. "It suits you, you know. You as Saoirse."

Hermione frowned, her brows narrowing uncertainly. "She was a… dark witch."

"Here, she was," he said. "I imagine she was someone quite worth admiring in your world."

Warm contentment bubbled inside her, and after one of the longest days she'd experienced here, Hermione marvelled that she actually felt… she actually felt happy. She wanted to tell him so much more about Saoirse — her hero, her idol, her real story and how much she admired her — but all she could manage to say was, "She really was."

Draco sat back and pushed back his sleeve slightly, thankfully unaware of the emotions rushing through her as he rubbed the extra bit of cream on his fingers onto the inside of his wrist. "Hermione, who did that to you?" he asked seriously.

Her buoyancy faded slightly. "I did… sort of." His subsequent glance was sharp and questioning, and she said tiredly, "Please, Draco, I don't want to talk about it."

She really, really didn't.

Draco gazed at her for a moment, visible worry in his eyes. Then he nodded reluctantly with the characteristic understanding for which she had had become so indescribably grateful. "Alright."

He looked down, twisting back on the salve jar's cap. Perhaps it was because of her brush off of his genuine concern that Hermione suddenly wished she could tell him how grateful she was for how much he cared… even if she didn't always know how to show it. Hesitantly, she reached out, resting her hand on top of his. "Draco, thank you," she said. "For everything you've just done."

He looked up at her in surprise, his gaze gentle. "Hermione, compared to what you've done for me, that was nothing."

"It isn't to me. I don't have anyone else here, Draco, and it — you — Well, it means a lot." With a start, she realized her hand was still on his, and she quickly pulled it away awkwardly. "Merlin, my foremost intent in visiting you tonight was to find out about your father, not to invade your personal space on multiple occasions," she laughed nervously. "Sorry about that."

"You are welcome to invade my personal space any time you like," he said with a small smile.

"Be careful what you offer," she replied playfully, the ease with which the flirtation slipped from her lips clearly indicating that months of playing vixen My were rubbing off on her. "I might just take you up on it."

For a moment, Draco simply stared at her, then cleared his throat and looked down. "I hope you do," he said quietly.

Hermione froze.

After a moment, he visibly took a breath and met her gaze hesitantly, his eyes simmering with the same tender, unnamed intensity they so often did.

Her heart began to race.

She wanted to look away, knew she should look away, but she couldn't.

She could hardly even breathe.

Slowly, as if afraid she might bolt if he moved any faster, Draco reached up and gently traced his fingers along the uninjured side of her face. The sensation was electric; her breath hitched, and her eyes closed briefly beneath his touch. His hand gently moved to cradle her cheek, and she sucked in a short, shallow breath, her face automatically nestling into the warmth of his palm.

"Hermione," he murmured.

She shouldn't do this. She couldn't afford to do this.

But she wanted to.

Dear goddess… she wanted to more than she ever had with anyone else before.

Something began to tremble deep within the centre of her being.

Draco lowered his head toward hers, until their foreheads lightly touched.

"Hermione," he whispered again, his voice hoarse. "Please… Tell me… this is alright."

The trembling moved upward through her abdomen and began to burn fiercely in her chest. His face was so close to hers…

Suddenly, Lily's words cut through her mind like a cold knife.

Because of you… your precious little House-Wizard is dead.

They're all dead.

"No," Hermione choked out. Swiftly, she pulled away from him, and leapt to her feet. "I can't." She backed away from him quickly. "I can't do this, Draco." Her entire body had begun to shake, and she wrapped her arms around herself to try and stop it and turned completely, tears blurring her eyes. "I - I shouldn't have - encouraged it like I did just now. I'm sorry." In a whisper, she repeated, "I'm so sorry," and fled toward the door.

Dread and horror seeped deep in her bones that she had lost his friendship forever.


Suddenly, Draco's hand had grasped her arm. "Hermione, please - please wait!"

Immediately, she shook him off. "Draco, this — this thing between us — I don't know what it is, but it can't work!"

He stood cautiously a few feet from her, his hand held out slightly in the same non-threatening stance he'd used when he'd first met his father. "Why not?" he asked carefully.

"Because there can't be a 'this!'" Hermione burst out. "Not now, not ever in this — this hellish place!"

The hurt that exploded in his eyes hurt her, but she couldn't stop the stream of words from flowing from her mouth."I can't afford to lose my focus! I could be discovered any day, Draco, any day. If I am — if I did — I just — I can't - I can't bear to think—"

She choked back a sob and covered her face, desperately trying to vocalise the jumble of terrified, confused emotions in her mind. No matter which thread of thought she tried to follow, though, one thing was common to all. She looked back at him, his face a blur, and unsteadily croaked, "I don't want to lose you."

The minute she said the words aloud, another wave of emotion threatened to overwhelm her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, swiftly sucking in a breath, and then another, willing herself to pull it together. She had to. She had to. She couldn't afford to be this vulnerable. She couldn't —

Suddenly, a hand that was not hers gently touched her shoulder. When she stiffened, Draco murmured, "It's alright, Hermione… It's alright."

She felt his hands hesitantly slide down either side of her shoulders. When she didn't push him away, he slowly guided her against him. For a moment, Hermione resisted the urge to be near him, but then she willingly turned into his shoulder, allowing herself to again accept the comfort of his embrace as he soothingly rubbed a hand up and down her arm.

"You'll never lose me," he said quietly, his voice muffled slightly against her head. "Never."

Logically, it wasn't true — It was a war; either she or he could be killed at any moment, just like she could at any moment potentially be ripped back to her own universe by whatever forces had sent her here as well. Despite this, Hermione felt, to her immense relief, her uncontrollable trembling begin to slow, the almost irrational amount of terror in her heart begin to fade.

In a rush, she suddenly understood what this was, the immense schism she felt when it came to Draco Malfoy: Being around him incited such powerful feelings her rational mind almost didn't know how to handle, of happiness, of peace, of — of longing and care and also anger and even hatred at how he'd been treated that yes, he could be construed as a dangerous emotional weakness. But he was also the one thing beside herself that, in the midst of any chaos, any darkness… could neutralize the fear and worry within her, and help her access an unspeakably profound, life-giving calm.

Almost instantly, the realization lessened the remaining turmoil she felt.

It didn't make the situation any easier. But at least a lack of understanding wouldn't make her feel inexplicably at war with herself.

"Hermione," Draco said slowly when her breathing had calmed completely, "I'd like to ask you something."

Hermione pulled away slightly and wiped at her eyes, for the first time in her life incredibly grateful for the virtually indestructible — and absurdly expensive — magical makeup My owned. Then she looked up at him questioningly. "What?"

In his soft gaze, she saw the same profound uncertainty she was certain was also in her own. "Whatever you answer, I promise it won't hurt my feelings," he said quickly. "I won't let it hurt our friendship. All I ask is that you be completely honest."

When Hermione nodded nervously, her brow furrowing slightly, Draco took a small, shaky breath.

"If this... all went away," he said haltingly, "If the Sovereignty was just — gone — and there was no war, and we were all free to live our lives however we pleased… D'you think we — us — would have a chance?"

Her lips parted in surprise, and her eyes widened slightly. But then she gathered herself and studied him — really studied him. The understanding intelligence of his grey eyes, the warmth of his smile, the smooth wave of blond that partially blocked one of many horrific scars that to Hermione only showed how terribly brave and strong he was to endure what he had and still have the ability to laugh.

And help her find her laughter, too.

When she replied after several moments, her voice held only truth. "Yes," she whispered.

Briefly, Draco closed his eyes and nodded. Then he offered her the smallest of sad smiles. "So do I."

He took another breath and glanced down, taking her hand in his. "I know how much is on your shoulders, Hermione. I don't want this… I don't want whatever you and I feel to cause you any additional stress. But I — Perhaps this isn't true for you, but being around you makes me feel stronger… not weaker."

Hermione blinked rapidly, swiping her thumb once beneath her eyes, and shook her head. "No, it's — it's the same. For me as well."

Draco nodded, looking more emboldened. "So how can we… how can we keep this without making it one more thing you have to worry about?"

She became contemplatively silent. "I don't… To be honest, I don't really know. I've never done this before," she admitted. "All I... All I can tell you is how I feel right now, and right now there's just so much to think about, with the resistance, and the prophecy, and as My… I barely have time to even sleep as it is." She shook her head. "I'm just — I'm not ready, and I don't… want you to expect things I can't give."

He nodded again, his eyes locked inescapably on her. "Of course, I — I understand. More than you might expect," he added quietly. "But Hermione, you should know, I—" For a moment, he hesitated, and then said, "I'm just… happy to be with you. However we're together. Whenever we're together."

Hermione smiled softly. "I feel the same," she said, causing him to briefly mirror her muted smile. She again frowned pensively. "With Riddle here… things have suddenly begun changing awfully quickly. I'm going to start training with him, and perhaps once I do, I'll… feel like I have a better grasp on how I can… handle everything above ground. But I can't promise you — I don't know when that'll be."

His grey eyes had become equally thoughtful, before they returned to her. "You know, if it makes it any easier, we don't have to define this," he said. "Might I suggest we just… go on with whatever each of us have to do… and when we are together, we'll just take it as it comes, do whatever we're comfortable doing, and talk about anything if we aren't, whenever we come to it?"

Relief and gladness almost overwhelming in their immensity coursed through her. Hermione smiled waveringly, and nodded. "That, I could do," she said, almost unable to believe the words she was speaking as they left her mouth.

For a moment, he simply stared at her. Then the corner of his eyes crinkled warmly. "Then we will."

A part of her suddenly wanted to cry... but instead, inexplicably, a small, happy laugh bubbled through the defences of her weary mind and escaped her lips. "Yeah. We will."

As his smile widened, she hesitated, then curled her fingers around his hand gratefully. "Thank you for being a profoundly wonderful human being, Draco," she said quietly.

Gently, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tentatively placed a light kiss on her temple. "Coming from the most selfless, marvelous witch to grace not one but two dimensions, I suspect that's amongst the highest praise I'll ever be given."

Hermione sighed deeply, her eyes closing, and leaned against his side. With anyone else, the sudden increase of minor physical affection would have been deeply unnerving and unwanted; with Draco, it just felt natural. "I'm so tired," she breathed.

She felt Draco twist slightly, as if he was turning to look at something — perhaps a clock. "You're not going back to the Head dorms this late, are you? Merlin knows the level of depravity running around the castle at this hour of Halloween night." He paused. "Then again, I suppose you could always stab them if they caused you any trouble…"

Hermione laughed and lightly nudged his shoulder. "Oh, stop it."

He smiled mischievously. "Never."

The sudden sparkle to his eyes was a lovely sight, but after a second she shook her head, going back to his original question. "No, there's so many rooms here, I just thought I'd take one of them. Anyway, we've a—" she pursed her lips tightly together suddenly, remembering Snape, "-a meeting here at ten."

Draco nodded, though she noticed his brow knit slightly at her reaction. "I'd heard. We've such a mixed bag of people coming together on this, Hermione, I have a feeling tomorrow's going to be… very interesting indeed."

She frowned at his choice of words. "Have you heard about Snape?"

"Riddle told me today. He said he'd let you know as well?"

She snorted slightly. "Oh, right. He'd 'let me know.' Commendable creativity, that one has." She thought again of the unexpected, positively angering hoops Riddle had made her leap through that night, and shook her head. "Well, I'd much rather it all were less interesting than more at this point. Merlin knows I could do with some dull in my life right now." Reluctantly, she pulled away from him. "Speaking of which, I'd better go before I fall asleep on you standing up."

His lips twitched in amusement. "I'm flattered to know you find me so stimulating."

"Yes, you do seem to have a curiously sedative effect," Hermione teased, remembering the night after the Hangar explosion when she'd again fallen asleep to the comforting sound of his voice. She picked up the sword and scabbard where she'd left them near the couch, then offered him a shy smile. "I'm glad you stopped me from… running away."

Draco returned her smile with one of his own. "I'm glad you let me."

They stood in place and stared at each other uncertainly, as if unsure of how to proceed. Then he leaned forward, brushing some fallen curls behind her ear. Her heart quickened, unsure of its own desires, and when he haltingly paused, his gaze carefully assessing hers, she stared back at him, wide-eyed and frozen.

After a moment, he seemed to come to a decision, and he turned his head, briefly pressing his lips to her uninjured cheek in a gentle kiss. "Sleep well, Hermione."

She closed her eyes in relief, savouring the safety of his closeness… and the slowness.

In a universe swiftly expanding so dangerously and erratically it frightened her, where the powerful thread of dissent vibrating just beneath the seeming calm of the Sovereignty had rendered her entire world a gigantic pressure cooker waiting to explode… anything faster would have been too much.

Minutes later, in the empty bedroom beside his, Hermione's tired fingers fumbled as she shed her armor and makeup, a glance in the mirror over the sink revealing the discolored remnants of the faded bruise and lines of exhaustion etched around her eyes.

But, for the first time in as long as she could remember, she fell asleep swiftly with a contented smile on her face.

A/N: A few of you have noted that you wish Draco would get back his 'edge,' but I just thought I'd point out that in this story at least, Draco's Universe B character is rather genuine and doesn't really have a 'bad boy' persona to regain. His development in transiting from someone who's been horribly oppressed and relegated to a rather useless (in his mind) position to a full recovery from that with a rich contribution to make is certainly a major character arc for him throughout the story, though, so you can expect to see that continue in the future.