Taking the train to Hogwarts alone allowed for too much thinking. It was exactly what she had been afraid of – sitting alone, staring out of the window, thinking about how much things had changed. She had only realized how inconsequential such thinking was the last few months. Thinking about change, mulling it over, picking it apart like a questionable meatloaf at a questionable party – how much energy she'd wasted, how much sleep she'd lost, how much she worried over something that she could never, ever change.
She had itched to write to Harry, and she had, eventually. She'd started out with niceties like, Hello Harry, how are you? And Ron? Are you keeping up with your studies? Things are fine at home. Well, not fine, but okay. I've been watching over my dad –
And then she'd scratched it out, crumpled the parchment up in her two hands, and tossed it. She'd written drafts upon drafts of letters to both Harry and Ron, filling them up with lighthearted lies to balance out the few heavy truths she allowed herself to write down on paper. Things like, 'I've been watching this entertaining program on the telly about a group of teenagers getting themselves involved in all sorts of catastrophes' and 'I tried cooking dinner tonight for my dad and I almost succeeded in burning our kitchen down.' But she knew they'd see right through her.
She'd sent one letter in the two months she'd been at home:
Hello Harry and Ron,
How are you two? Everything is well at home, considering the circumstance. See you soon.
All my love,
All the while, the pair of them had sent more than enough letters in return. Ron had filled her in about all of the Quidditch matches and pranks at school in his clumsy, agitated writing, while Harry's had been more thought-out, careful, and subtle. Which was only reasonable, seeing as how he'd had more than enough experience in coping with the people he loved dying.
We miss you, Hermione, he'd written to her. I genuinely hope you are doing fine.
Thinking about going back gave her mixed feelings. At home, she'd been dying to come back. The emptiness of their house, packing away all of her mother's things, the emptiness in her father's eyes, the mirrored hollowness that she'd felt in her own, and the almost desperate alienation she found herself surrounded with. . . she wanted nothing more than to run back to Hogwarts and bury herself in schoolwork. She'd finished the work her professors had given her to keep up with the class in two weeks, and had even gone ahead, but somehow she could never escape the gaping hole her mother's death had left behind. Not only that, but she always felt foolish for trying.
Hermione was rereading one of the chapters in her Dark Arts textbook when she heard the door to her train compartment clumsily slide open, loudly banging against the side panel and surprising her.
Blinking, she found herself looking up at none other than Draco Malfoy.
He gave a look of disgust but said nothing to her, slamming the door shut and occupying the seat across from her.
She stared at him for a good minute before she spoke up, irritated. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Let's pretend for a second, Granger, that whatever I happen to do with my life is any of your business," he said, narrowing his eyes. "Oh look, second's up."
She rolled her eyes and strategically propped her book up so that she wouldn't have to look at her newest and only train companion. Hogwarts students were only allowed to go home in the middle of the term for special circumstances, and it just so turned out that it had to be her and Draco Malfoy. She would have grabbed her luggage and left, but the Hogwarts Express designated its train compartments when it wasn't being specifically used for the school. Mid-term, the Hogwarts Express had several other destinations and transported other civilians.
And so she glued her eyes to the pages of her book, and distracted herself from the presence of the single most repugnant boy sitting across from her.
"How did she die?"
One hundred and forty pages later, he had finally decided to treat her like a human being, and she didn't know whether she liked it or not. She wasn't born yesterday. Any interaction with Malfoy was bound to be an unpleasant one. Especially if his chosen topic was her recently deceased mother.
She hesitated at first, staring hard at the word she had paused at when he'd spoken up. In her mind she weighed the possible consequences of honesty, but she also knew that she had to talk about it sometime. She had to get used to it. She needed the practice.
"Cancer," she finally responded. She didn't put down her book. "Then a brain aneurysm."
Life was just painfully ironic that way. When it was clear the cancer was not going to kill her, the brain aneurysm did.
She expected to hear a snide remark about Muggle medicine and how primitive it was, but it never came. Instead all she heard was this: "Heavy." Nothing else, just "Heavy."
She was shocked, but it wasn't shock that sourly bubbled up her throat. Suddenly, yet again, she had to face her memories, and her regret. There was always a certain amount of blame that came with the death of somebody you loved: the conviction that you should have spent more time with them, that you should have gone home the first time they asked you to, that you shouldn't have been so selfish, or naïve in thinking that they would get better and everything would be okay. Because her mother had begun to get better, and things had been fine, until suddenly – they weren't. One day, she was there, and she was better, and the next she was dead.
And suddenly, she found herself to confessing the question that had kept her bitter, and angry: "What good is magic if you can't save the people you love from dying?"
She hadn't heard herself say it, but she did hear the silence after it. It was deafening and thick and suffocating. She was too afraid and humiliated to put down her book and look at him, but she knew, even through her three hundred page tome, she knew that he was looking. She just knew.
They walked along silently to Hogwarts with their trunks. It was spring now and the lawns were green and lush. For a moment, it made her forget and smile. And then she glanced his way, and they met eyes, and reality settled in on her and made her stumble in her step. When he finally quickened his pace and walked ahead, she was grateful.
She unpacked her belongings in her room, before brushing her hair and heading down to the great hall, where she knew everybody would be eating lunch. The paintings greeted her, the stairs creaked and groaned, the marble tiles squeaked under her feet, and she relished all of it. After her awkward train ride with Malfoy, she was glad if she never met silence again.
As she neared the great hall's doors, she caught Malfoy about to head in. He gave one glance at her, perfectly stoic, before walking in. She stood there a second, blinking, before she took a deep breath and followed.
As she walked in, she tried not to pay too much attention to the dozens of pairs of eyes that suddenly fixated on her, and the way their voices lowered down to unnerving, hushed tones. She found Harry, who then tapped Ron on the shoulder, who looked up to see her – relieved, and grateful, yet nervous and suddenly unsure. He gave Harry a look of uncertainty, which he ignored in favor of greeting her with a hug. The way he hugged her was cathartic: immediate, and strong, and firm. She even allowed herself to close her eyes for a brief second, and she imagined unraveling and telling him that she felt like a wreck. But she didn't have to, because she knew that he already knew.
Ron was next. His was clumsy but close and just as firm as Harry's. Ginny was next, and then they all sat down, trying to join in to other conversations, and found herself trying to renegotiate normalcy. She assured herself it would be easy, because it was all around her. All she had to do, like the last remaining puzzle piece, was just fit.
It was a few days later that Harry had finally gotten her alone. Ron loved her, but being Ron, he was ill-equipped to deal with personal issues and women, especially both at the same time. He certainly tried, but he always ended up saying the wrong things, which eventually convinced him to stop trying altogether. Hermione found that she wasn't too upset about that.
They were in the library, doing research for an essay for one of their classes. She was in the aisles, skimming her eyes through the worn spines, her fingers following fast behind, searching for a book. Harry stood next to her.
"Listen, Hermione," he said, quietly and seriously. "Are you. . . I mean, are you okay? Really okay, I mean?"
She didn't look at him. She subconsciously wondered whether "okay" meant "barely hanging on by a thread." "I'm fine, Harry."
He wasn't convinced. "Are you sure? Because we wrote to you and you never once responded, and. . . you could talk to me, you know."
She froze, and she looked at him. Here he was, telling her that he would be the shoulder to cry on, her sole confidant about the way her life had turned upside down – everything that she had ever wanted to hear, and everything she had thought she would jump at to accept. . . but could she? They had been there, at the funeral, right beside her. That day she had felt closer to them than she had ever felt before, but now she felt as if she had been left stranded on an island, watching them as they sailed away.
Where could she begin, anyway? And how could she ever talk to him – honestly and genuinely talk to him – without guarding herself, knowing his own tragic past with his parents? Because it was different, losing your parents when you barely knew them. But loss was loss, right?
"I know, Harry," she said to him. "Thanks."
He just nodded at her. She found her book, slid it out, and they walked back to their desk. There they eased back into normal topics of conversation – comfortable ones, nowhere close to death. Like quidditch, and professors, and coursework – things that were always familiar and never changed.
She kept expecting to find a letter from her father waiting for her on her bed, asking her how she was, and if she was all caught up with school. When her mother died, she had painted this picture in her head that she and her dad would stick closer than ever, because the only remaining piece of her that they had now was each other. She knew better now, although she tried not to, because she refused to believe that she had lost her father, too. As far as she knew, they had only buried one of her parents. She was still supposed to have a father, no matter how distant and depressed he had become.
After two weeks, she wrote to him. She asked him how he was doing and filled up her letter with empty descriptions of school. What she was really doing was fishing for a reaction, even so much as a: Hello darling, everything's shit, but I love you and I hope to see you soon. Hang in there. Love, Dad.
She told him she loved him and that everything was going to be okay. She knew that it wasn't her job – it was the parent's job – but if he wasn't going to do it, somebody had to.
She was worried about him. After the funeral, he had gone to work like nothing had happened, refusing the grievance vacation they offered him. He disappeared and said next to nothing to her, as if that day they'd laid her down in that coffin, he had jumped in there with her, and what she had now was an empty shell of the man she used to call her father. She liked to think that maybe he just needed some time. Like her, he just needed to renegotiate his place in reality.
"If you're thinking of jumping, there are protective charms around the tower. You'll end up floating in the air until a couple comes up here to shag and finds you."
She looked to her right and saw Malfoy, his Head Boy badge confidently gleaming in the moonlight, as if winking at her. She had paused her patrol at the Astronomy Tower to do a little bit of thinking, and now he had caught her slacking off on the job.
She rolled her eyes. "As if I couldn't come up with something more creative than jumping off the Astronomy Tower." She began to walk away, not so eager on ending her night with an encounter with Malfoy – except she suddenly turned around again. "Why were you on the train?"
She rationalized that he owed her this answer. She had answered his question on the train, and now it was his turn. After all, everybody knew why she had left, but nobody seemed to know why he had. And Hermione was not Hermione if she wasn't always interested in knowing things other people didn't.
He just looked at her. "My mother's ill," he said, his voice entirely even.
Despite herself, she asked another question. "Is it serious?"
"It could be." Then he paused. "You're right," he said. "Magic doesn't save people from dying at all. Fat lot it's good for, in reality."
She couldn't help but stare. It was a tense yet awkward moment because she knew that she was suddenly privy to information that possibly not very many people knew about Malfoy. She wondered if he had told her because he sympathized with her – because he could see himself in her position if things really did go awry – or because he pitied her. Either way, they were both coming to terms with the limitations of magic – something they had both worshiped and so eagerly put on a pedestal just when they had been so young.
She told herself to quit this strange conversation and walk away, but she felt a kind of budding connection that kept her feet planted where she was. When he came closer to her, she felt the reflex to turn and walk away, but it was dulled by her piqued intrigue and curiosity. It was weird what the recognition of a not-so-common bond did to two people. Maybe even magical.
"School suddenly seems so trivial," he said to her, like they were friends. Of course, his tone wasn't exactly friendly, but his statements were nowhere near derisive or poisonous.
"But it keeps your mind busy," she said. "It needs it. Your brain needs to know that there are other things happening, too, and that the world hasn't stopped." She didn't tell him that for her, it became a lifeboat: something to hold onto to keep from drowning. She had a feeling she didn't have to. When death was coming, there were places your mind escaped to, and you explored all of the possibilities of distance and not feeling.
"Maybe," he says, glancing at her. "But it feels like I'm just waiting. Uselessly, here, reading irrelevant ancient tomes, herding buffoons in uniforms, waiting for her to die at home."
"I'm sure your mother doesn't see it that way."
"No," he scoffed quietly. "Of course she doesn't."
She didn't know what to make of this new Draco Malfoy. Was he aware he was somewhat confiding in her? She was sure he did, but maybe it didn't matter. He knew she wouldn't tell. That day on the train, he knew that he had chosen the perfect confidant: the post-mortem version of someone who had been, in concept, in the same boat.
Then, suddenly, he turned and began to leave. The conversation was over, and she found herself silently exhaling. She suddenly felt very odd, watching the back of his blond head as he walked away.
"Oh, and by the way," he said, glancing back at her. "Five points from Gryffindor for slacking off on the job."
And then there it was, as unexpected as an anvil falling from the sky: normalcy.
"Isn't it a shame," mused Parvati, inspecting a pink beaded dress, "that there aren't snogging tutors?"
Hermione looked up for a brief second, catching Ginny and Lavender's reaction, before going back to distractedly looking through the jewelry. Going dress shopping wasn't her idea of a blast, but Ginny had been persistent about bringing her along, presumably to get her out of her funk. Ginny, bless her soul, was trying her best to pep things up for her, and Hermione, unable to say no, let her. First by letting her trim off two inches of her hair, and now by dress shopping.
"At first it sounded a bit mad," Ginny said, "but it's actually sort of brilliant."
"Think about it," said Parvati. "How many boys have we had slobber all over us in the name of teenage romance? It really is such an unnecessary and disgusting rite of passage." She made a face, sliding a dress back into the rack.
"Some people are just born great kissers," Lavender stated. "Others just have to practice."
"But you can't win, either way," said Ginny, trying on a necklace of blue pearls. "The blokes who are great snoggers always know it, and as a result, are the biggest pricks on the planet. It's the inexperienced and slobbery snoggers that are the nice ones."
Parvati and Lavender nodded in agreement, before giggling and starting a conversation on who they had snogged and how they fared on the Snog-O-Meter.
"Dean is an eight," Ginny said proudly. "But when we first met, he was a five, with a slob level of six." Then she turned to her. "What about you, Hermione? Who have you snogged?"
She felt all three pairs of eyes boring holes into her with anticipation. It was a great topic to get her mind off of her mother's death, for sure – but did it have to be humiliating, too?
"Let's just say I'm nobody to judge on kissing skills," she said cryptically, and Ginny rolled her eyes.
"Come on, I know you kissed Viktor Krum, at least!"
Hermione relented. "He was okay. Not too slobbery, but he was enthusiastic."
Parvati and Lavender squealed loudly, making the shopkeeper look over.
"You know who I wonder is a good kisser?" said Lavender. "Malfoy. I mean, he's got to be, right? Those lips?"
"I can't tell, he's either scowling or smirking all the time," Ginny scoffed.
"I agree with Lav," Parvati said, vigorously nodding. "I am dying to know. But I'd bet all my Galleons that he's an ace kisser. He sure doesn't look like a boy that would slobber." Her eyes glazed over and Hermione couldn't help but laugh.
"Malfoy's a reptile," Hermione remarked, shaking her head to herself, even though she had a niggling feeling that there might be a little bit more to him than the vile Malfoy they all knew and despised – at least when it came to his mother.
Lavender winked at her. "There are some of us who wouldn't mind kissing a few frogs if they sent a pair of diamond earrings our way every now and then," she said, modeling a pair of large sparkling earrings.
"Speaking of Malfoy," Ginny said, "he isn't up to his usual viciousness lately. Has anybody else noticed?"
"Ever since he went on that mysterious trip," agreed Parvati. "Maybe he found God," she giggled.
"I feel sorry for God," muttered Hermione, and the girls blew up in a fit of laughter. As she watched them, she knew that she was years from telling them anything about what she knew about Malfoy – years from telling anyone, as a matter of fact. It had become this strangely personal experience, one that she found herself replaying sometimes before bed. Had it happened? If it had, there was no proof of it anywhere. Yes, he no longer went out of his way to gouge her with his usual Mudblood remarks, but nothing had seemed to change.
At that, she found herself shaking her head. No, that was a lie. Everything had changed. She knew because she was still having a hard time catching up.
An hour later, she was out of the dress shop, waving goodbye to the laughing girls as she went on to meet Harry and Ron at the Three Broomsticks. The sky was an ominous and murky gray, and soon, she felt the rain pelting her. She cast a shielding charm and took a short cut to the Three Broomsticks in an effort to get there before dark.
The Three Broomsticks was always teeming with people. The minute she'd passed the shrunken heads at the door and walked in, she found herself removing her scarf, nearly feverish from all of the body heat contained in the room. It was loud, as always, and the place was sticky and sweet from butterbeer. She squeezed through people, looking for Harry and Ron, but after the third time of carefully scanning the room, she was positive they had forgotten. Sighing, she sat herself down and ordered a drink.
Three and a half firewhiskeys later, Hermione found herself stumbling out of the Three Broomsticks. She hadn't had much experience with alcohol, but she told herself she was doing better than expected. Maybe she'd inherited this from her mum. She knew, from stories and a few of her old university pictures, that her mum had been famous for pounding them back and not looking fazed at all. Nevertheless, she did feel very warm – comfortably warm, considering she had forgotten to re-cast her shielding charm when she'd walked out.
The old Hermione would have been incensed that Harry and Ron had forgotten, but this Hermione, the Hermione walking along in the dark, soaked from the rain, didn't seem to care. She imagined them having a good time somewhere, probably with Seamus and Dean and Neville, and she felt happy for them – to be so unworried and carefree and happy to be alive.
She was going through the shortcut alley, absentmindedly clutching her wand while walking in a vague haze, when her right foot slipped on a wet stone, and with the blistering sound of her skull hitting the hard ground, she was out.