AN: Alright, so let's skip the part when I say 'I'm sorry for being a huge jerk' and get on with the story, shall we?
Qualitative, My Dear Man.
The fire, with its green flames crackled loudly in the silent room.
They had retired to his newly-repaired study after dinner: Draco, Blaise and Theo. It was customary for them to do so.
The silence that shrouded them, however, was entirely new.
Not unwelcome – but certainly not normal. Draco supposed they were all thinking about what had happened at dinner. With Granger. Her confession – or explanation, whatever you wanted to call it. It appeared as though they had something in common after all – if her words were to be taken at face value. Their mutual distrust and hatred for the current minister would become a solid foundation for them, Draco was sure of it.
Draco's eyes shifted over to his stoic, bespectacled friends sitting furthest away, closest to the fire. And the thought entered his head once more: what was the true nature of Theo's relationship with Hermione?
Blaise chose that moment to open his mouth. "I think we should risk it."
Malfoy slid his gaze over to Blaise, sitting next to him on the couch and arched an eyebrow. That was a peculiar thing to say, considering the times they were navigating. Especially considering the nature of their involvement in things.
Blaise was silent though, apparently thinking that Draco should be able to derive his precise meaning from such vague words.
Theo, however, was the one to come to the rescue. Not taking his eyes from the flames, he offered, "He's talking about Hermione."
Hermione? They were on a first name basis, were they?
And although he could ponder that all night, the implications of what he said, rather than how he said it, caught on rather quickly.
Draco laughed abruptly, capturing the attention of both his friends. Blaise looked offended and angry, whereas Theo hardly seemed interested at all.
Downing the rest of his drink, Draco smiled at Blaise wolfishly. "She's gotten to you then? A few pretty words is all it takes for you to melt, is that it?"
Blaise scoffed. "Hardly. It just seems that she was rather sincere and honest about her feelings towards the Minister. I would think it would be in our best interests to have your soon-to-be wife on our side."
Draco focused once more on Theo. He assessed the man, before tipping his head towards him. "This is your doing," he warned. "You were the one to suggest it to begin with, now look what you've done."
Theo shrugged slightly. "I merely made a suggestion. I'm sure Blaise is fully capable of having his own opinions."
"Yeah," Blaise agreed. "Besides, wouldn't it be much better to have Granger get information for you, than your current informant?" He twirled the wine in his glass and frowned for a moment. "Although you have yet to tell us who that might be exactly."
Too right. Draco had no intention of telling them. That was one secret he wasn't too privy to share.
Blaise laughed after a moment, the tense look on Draco's face must have been amusing to him for some reason. "Cheer up mate. Granger will be required to keep the family secrets as soon as you're married." He clasped a hand over his chest dramatically. "She can't betray the Malfoy family by either word or deed."
A shudder ran through Draco at those words, and his eyes darted over to Theo whose shielded expression stirred something inside him. He narrowed his eyes and sat up abruptly.
Walking towards the door to his study, Draco felt a certain urgency build inside him.
Suspicion clawed at him. Doubt festered.
One, insidious thought lingered.
No. Theo wouldn't betray me.
But as he neared the door, he realized that he truly couldn't be sure of anything.
Blaise called out, half in disbelief and half in amusement, "Where are you off to, it's only half eleven!"
He received no answer.
Draco's steps echoed loudly through the manor as he made his way to the second floor – to Granger's room.
Because in Blaise's words, he understood the odd exchange he had seen between Granger and Theo.
She can't betray the Malfoy family by either word or deed.
Perhaps not by word or deed – but thoughts were entirely different.
Anyone as well versed in the Dark Arts as Theo and himself understood this simple fact. Blaise apparently did not know the truth behind his own words.
Draco, however understood perfectly well.
Finding Granger stashed away in one of the Dark Arts sections in his library earlier that evening had been unusual enough. But he suddenly felt the sick stab of betrayal as he realized that Theo had given her a book from that very section.
'This is the one you were looking for.'
Perhaps Granger didn't know it, but Theodore Nott had given her the key to establishing her way around the Vow – he was dead certain of it.
Harry rounded the corner to find McGonagall walking towards him down the narrow hall. The expression on her face did nothing to ease the tension running through him. The fear.
A cold draft made him shiver, goose bumps raising his flesh.
When McGonagall was close enough he asked, "How is he?" His voice was hoarse and low, but managed to reverberate through the small space regardless. He had abandoned his mission the moment he got news that there had been another compromised raid. One that Ron had gone on. One that had found him, bloodied and incoherent, seated atop a dead Death Eater. Of all people, it had been Neville Longbottom to have found him and got him back to safety. For that, Harry was indebted to his old classmate.
McGonagall, looking older and more tired than Harry had ever recalled seeing her, shook her head slowly, closing her eyes for a moment. "He will live, Mr. Potter. But at this point, I can't say that simply living is enough."
Harry frowned. He was used to the vague rambling and mystic sage advice that Dumbledore had given when he was still alive, but he was rather used to straight forward answers and unflinching truth when it came to McGonagall.
She seemed to sense his unease as she gestured lightly over her shoulder. "Mr. Weasley is fine – physically, at least. He has, however, found himself at his wits end, I believe," she frowned and shook her head lightly. "I know we may have decided that keeping him in the dark about certain matters regarding Miss Granger was the ideal situation, but I have come to see that it was a mistake. Arrogance on our part."
An argument was on the tip of Harry's tongue before she beat him to it. Holding up an aged, pale hand, she continued. "It has affected him more than we know, and with your missions with Lupin, leading you further and further away from your friend, Mr. Potter, I think he may finally have found his breaking point. He is sick with worry over the both of you." She cast Harry a meaningful look. "He knows of your involvement with Miss Granger's marriage to Draco Malfoy, as I hinted at before. He does not however, understand your motivations. It may be time to let him in on the details, if for no other reason than to save him from himself."
Harry's throat convulsed slightly. He felt . . . selfish. Selfish and cruel and blinded by his own ambitions.
In his desire to end the war, he had made sacrifices – made concessions and did things that in any other time, he might have called unjust. And for what?
It was literally destroying those he cared about most – because of his decisions.
Hermione was in constant fear, surrounded by the people she had sworn to hate – and Ron, poor Ron, was in the dark about everything; left to clutch and grab at straws, supposing the situation to be even more terrible than it truly was.
Harry had thought he was doing his friends a favor, leaving them ignorant of the details of the larger plan. But he could see now, that he was dead wrong.
Dragging one hand down his face, and breathing deeply through his nose, Harry lamented what he was about to do, and what had already past.
McGonagall nodded her head briskly. "The times are tough, and are only going to get worse from here on out before we can hope for them to get better. But you should know that you don't have to do it all on your own. Mr. Weasley has long since proven that he can be trusted with sensitive information. He is nothing, if not loyal."
Harry nodded his head. "Yes, we all are – loyal to the cause."
A sardonic smile stole over McGonagall's features. "No Mr. Potter, I don't doubt that. But perhaps consider, that Mr. Weasley's loyalty lies first and foremost with you." She walked past Harry towards the staircase leading downstairs. "I think you would do well to ensure you don't lose that trust."
Harry watched her descend the stairs, then looked back down the hall to where Ron's door was.
Raising his hand, he only hesitated a moment before rapping against it three times. He got no response, but entered anyways.
The room was pitch black, but the light from the hall offered Harry a moment to see where he was. It also told him that Ron was awake, and had most probably been waiting for him. Shutting the door, the room was once again plunged into complete darkness.
Harry took a few steps forward, and felt for the bed before sitting on the edge. There was a rustling from the sheets, as he heard Ron move about slightly. He sighed heavily and laid his head in his palms.
"Ron – I," he whispered.
"—Viktor's gone, you know," Ron said instead, cutting him off.
Harry shook his head lightly. "Yeah."
There was a long pause.
"Got to tell Hermione," Ron said once more, nearly choking on the words.
Harry stiffened. His resolve firmly in place, he said, "I've got to tell you something, Ron. Something to do with Hermione."
Malfoy didn't even bother knocking before he opened the door to Hermione's bedchambers, although it seemed odd to him that she would leave it unlocked in the first place. Perhaps another show of trust? Malfoy frowned at the idea. Suspicion still clouded his mind.
Poised there in the doorway, he was prepared for a verbal barrage over his impromptu visit, only . . . it never came.
Cocking his head to the side, Malfoy approached the bed staged in the center of the room, much like his own. Frowning through the dim lighting of her bedside lamp, Malfoy leaned over the edge of the bed, eyes flickering over the assortment of parchment and books that littered the bedspread – pillows randomly situated throughout the massive pile.
And then the pile shifted slightly, and Malfoy drew back as Hermione's face emerged from beneath the comforter. Her hair was mussed and splayed across her features, the flickering light of the candles playing eerily across the soft angles of her face.
A small sigh escaped her lips as she situated herself slightly towards him.
Malfoy watched her for a long moment, wondering if she were playing a game. Her deep, even breathing continued.
Grabbing for a piece of parchment near her headboard, Malfoy glanced over her blunt, scribbled notes.
His eyebrows shot up. Possible counter-charms for the Medicious hex – all carefully plotted out and derived entirely from the information she got from Dark Arts materials.
Perhaps she was finally understanding the war she was fighting. Fight fire with fire, as the saying goes. A small grin stole across his features.
He knew the trouble the Medicious hex was causing. It was one of the Dark Lord's more interesting creations. He was particularly fond of using it on Muggles.
Setting it aside, Malfoy looked over the assortment of texts surrounding Granger, but the green one he saw Nott give her earlier was nowhere in sight. Cursing his luck, he unbuttoned his suit jacket and draped it over the headboard and rolled up his shirt sleeves.
He paused for a moment and considered what he was about to do, crawling onto his soon to be wife's bed while she slept. It was a preposterous situation (mainly because it was Hermione Granger that he was dealing with), and it occurred to him that it might be easier to simply wake her and ask for the book instead. But then she'd be able to dodge him – stall for time.
No, searching for the book while she slept was simply the easier of the two options. And besides that, he didn't want her to know he had been there to begin with.
Let her think he had no interest in her exchange with Theo.
Quietly, he knelt on the edge of her bed, leaned over her small form, and began to softly pat down the bedspread around her. Frowning when he was still unable to locate it, he froze, his breath caught in his chest.
"Draco," Hermione sighed lightly, rolling onto her back beneath him. She inhaled deeply and settled once more, her breathing going back to its previous state. Her lips twitched slightly.
Malfoy slowly exhaled the breath he had held when she murmured his name, crouched over her the way he was, he could only guess at what her reaction would have been had she actually awoken. And then, there was something else that stirred inside of him upon hearing her say his name that way – delicately, breathless and throaty.
He had been right, of course. Granger did dream of him. He hadn't been lying when he told her that he'd heard her saying his name in her sleep before. His lips twitched at the thought of peaking into her head as she slept, to see what she was really dreaming about – but he'd crossed enough boundaries for one day.
Soon perhaps, he'd take advantage of his Legilimens skills – but not tonight. Not when they seemed so close to actually coming to an understanding.
Trust . . . the word echoed in his head. Granger had planted it there.
He leaned closer to her, his face inches from her own, and considered the woman – free from scowls and frowns and biting looks.
And there, peeking out from under the pillow she was resting on, was the green book he was looking for.
Suddenly remembering why he was there – the reason for his pursuit of that particular book drew his lips into a deep frown.
If he was correct, Theodore's betrayal would be another blow that he wasn't sure he could stomach at the moment.
But he needed to know.
Reaching down, the book slipped easily from beneath Granger and it fell open in his hands to the page she must have been working on before she fell asleep. A piece of parchment was tucked in-between pages forty-nine and fifty, the chapter entitled: The Womping Willow.
Turning the book over in his hands, the title confused him for a moment. What in the hell had the Abridged History of Hogwarts been doing in the Dark Arts section of his library?
Relief coursed through him – intense and welcome, and he tucked the book back under her pillow. Standing beside her bed, his eyes wandered over to the parchment he had looked at previously. Hesitating only for a moment, he picked up one of the many quills lying on the table beside her bed and examined the parchment more closely.
The sound of the quill scratching against the parchment filled the air, mingling with Granger's soft snores.
Satisfied with his work, he returned the items. Casting one last look over the sleeping witch, he gathered his discarded jacket and left her room.
The moments ticked by; the anticipation still filled her lungs. Hermione cautiously opened one eye, and then the other.
Rising up onto her elbows, Hermione quickly glanced around the room but Malfoy was nowhere to be seen. Exhaling heavily, she collapsed back against the pile of pillows.
Lying there, prone and unable to see what Malfoy was doing, was probably the greatest test of her restraint yet. Being able to hear every rustle of his clothes, every sigh or sharp inhalation of breath – but not to be able to see . . .
Hermione shook her head slightly. Merlin's beard. And when she had felt the bed dip as he got on it, leaning over her so closely she could smell him? She groaned aloud.
But she had done what needed to be done. She had deceived him – she knew he'd come looking for the book. It wouldn't have taken him long.
Hermione reached under the edge of the bed, stretching her fingers until she snagged the edge of the shoe she had hidden there. Pulling her wand from her waistband, she murmured the transfiguration charm to return the shoe to its original form.
Bringing the small potions text in front of her face, she smiled tensely at the green cover – much the same size and shape of the text she left under her pillow as a decoy.
She knew there was a reason Theo had chosen that particular text to slip her the note. There were no casual coincidences when dealing with that man.
She just needed the time to figure out what was in the text that Malfoy didn't want her to see.
Her gaze shifted to the bedside table, and to the piece of parchment that she had been working over before he had arrived. Curiosity pulled at her.
In the margins of her notes, his elegant handwriting was sparse but to the point. Hermione's eyebrows shot up.
The Medicious hex was a foul, perverse bit of magic, capable of insurmountable cruelty – and therefore a favorite of the Dark Lord and his followers.
It was, academically speaking – a brilliant bit of sorcery, carefully crafted and incredibly temperamental. The slightest deviation from the intended incantation, or the wrong flourish of wand would alter the magic – leaving the intended victim with an incurable condition. A rupturing of the inner organs – slow, at first. But that was perhaps a small favor. Performed correctly, and the effect was a literal explosion – quick, but no doubt torturous. The Dark Lord's followers, the majority of the them being unskilled or untrained in the proper use of the spell, would give the victim a fighting chance. The Dark Lord, however, did not.
With the proper counter-spell, even the most advanced cases could be stopped – or so Hermione thought.
Draco Malfoy, the selfish, egotistical megalomaniac that she always made him out to be . . . had actually given her the cure.
He had made corrections and suggestions, scrawled in-between her notes and suppositions. Direct and to the point, without a hint of his usual mockery.
Hermione slumped back into her bed, letting the parchment lay across her chest.
She had been working relentlessly on the counter-spell for that ever since Colin Creevey's brother had literally exploded in front of her eyes – the boy had hung on for four excruciating days.
It would be so easy to be furious at that moment – to go and confront Malfoy about why he would have knowledge of the counter-spell, and not share it before that moment – but what good would that do?
She had it now — that was all that mattered.
Tomorrow was another day.
She had an appointment to keep – King's Cross, 8am sharp.
Theodore Nott would be waiting.
AN: Okay, so thanks for sticking with this for a year - you guys are pretty dang awesome. This chapter, if it feels kind of odd or jerky, it's because it's written a full year after the rest of the story - all of the plotting and scheming that I had previously been doing, kinda fell away from me, so it was incredibly difficult to try and get back into the swing of things. This chapter in particular was difficult from the start, but I'm as satisfied with it as I can be. As pre usual, it's not beta-read, so it's likely to have errors - forgive me in that. And let me know what you think. Things between Hermione and Draco are about to get a bit complicated, but I think it'll be interesting. Remember: this is a slow building romance. Stick with it. :)