Love, Sludge,
and Dungarees

Part 2

Draco's life had been a series of bad days since the war. Unless of course you counted the worst days, which came in a lovely string of their own. The first of those worst days, he had always thought, started with the day Hermione Granger had moved next door.

Well. That was something else he liked to think. Know-it-all Granger had actually been there first—by about three hours. By some sick twist of fate, he and Granger had managed to rent a flat at the same place and the same time without even imagining such a thing were possible. (He did like to imagine that he had signed the lease first, though.)

Mutual warfare was of course declared—though of course, they had been at a petty war with one another almost half their lives. It was not difficult to think of things that would upset her: anything that would interfere with her precious brain time, and whatever so-called 'scholarly work' she happened to be sweating over.

The best solution was noise. Noise created by a lot of people. A lot of noisy people meant a large party. That day was another worst day: the day he decided to throw a party, and reality, instead, gave him a harsh slap across the face.

People were still scared. His friends were still scared. They knew whose house the Dark Lord had invaded in that final year.

So, in true Slytherin style, everyone turned up so fashionably late that they did not turn up at all. He had comforted himself—and, all right, amused himself as well—by enchanting various bits of furniture to sound vaguely like people. He was not the best wizard. The armchair kept complimenting his shirt buttons (he was wearing a pullover), and the lamp insisted on challenging him to riddle contests throughout the night; but the other furniture behaved more or less appropriately, though their voices were a little musty. He drowned them out, anyway, with the wireless. Even more satisfyingly, at a particularly late hour, he took his tea kettle and a nearby soup ladle, and began banging the latter against the former in what he supposed was a rather rhythmic beat—at the very least, it went along with the song on the wireless, whose volume he had cranked up as loud as it could go without damaging his sensitive ears.

When all was said and done, though, he was still by himself in his miserable flat, the flat which shared a wall with a woman who hated him.

If he was being honest—which he rarely was, but still—she was probably the woman, the one whose hostile attitude toward him affected him most. He could imagine a mob of blurred faces turned angrily toward him, shouting shrilly, but he could pick her face out of the crowd almost without looking.

Granger had always been smarter than him, favored more by the staff, and eventually more well-liked by the students. She had always been better than him at everything—everything but Quidditch, and look how far that had got him after Hogwarts!

He had always been jealous of her, yes, but also—begrudgingly—admiring. He had sought Potter's approval that first day, but really, he later thought, he should have sought Granger's. Even from a purely Slytherin standpoint, befriending her would have been beneficial, in the long run. Potter may have had an innate power in his name, but Granger had earned hers. Everybody knew that.

They just didn't like to admit it, he least of all. She was still bossy and annoying. And you could probably hide things in her hair without her noticing.

Such as an entire hippogriff.

(That would serve her right for being cleverer than him, he thought comfortingly. Hippogriffs were nasty things. They deserved one another. Sort of.)

Several months after the pretend-party incident—which had nearly got him evicted, thank you very much—things had died down.

Things, meaning the outright animosity between him and his neighbor had reduced to a simmering loathing. Things, which he wished included his string of worst days, but didn't—those seemed to have got a second wind.

On the latest worst day, he had been sacked. Rude to the customers, his employer had said.

Draco had promptly redefined the meaning of the word rude in the man's face, and had just barely escaped a restraining order. (A little not-so-secret: it would have been worth it.)

Even with the satisfaction of nearly getting sacked again from a job he no longer had, he was not in a good mood as he stood in the lift—his lift, to the left—to get to his flat, holding an awkward box of trivial belongings. As if to spite him, the lift crawled upward at a flobberworm's pace, possibly moving backward, there was no way to tell. He shifted the box in his arms, searching in it for his wand. Beneath a spare bit of parchment, just by the box of Auntie Elderberry's Excellent Owl Treats—there! Draco grasped his wand. He adjusted the box again so that he could get a firmer grip upon the handle. The lift reached the second floor. Muzak screeched at him cheerily from the speakers. He pointed his wand at the grimy buttons by the lift door, hissed a speed-increasing spell, and BANG! The lift shot up at the very same moment he lost his grip on the box, and it toppled to the floor, projectile-vomiting its contents over every conceivable surface.

Draco was fairly certain his hand-picked selection of words was loud enough to hear all the way in Wiltshire. It wasn't his mother who came running to give him a piece of her mind, though. When the lift doors slammed open, muzak simultaneously wailing and gasping for breath, Draco sitting in the midst of the rubble, it was Granger who stood in the lift entrance.

"Your place is on the right," he wanted to snarl at her, but found he couldn't. All he felt capable of doing was locating the nearest wall, so that he might acquaint his head with it repeatedly. First he had been sacked, next his box had been literally sickened by his belongings, and now Granger was going to lecture him on the improper use of several verbs he'd gladly like to repeat to her.

Instead, she said, "Er... I'm going to... Hey."

He must have looked pretty pathetic, because the next thing he knew, Granger had stooped down, and was gathering his belongings into her skirt. Normally, he'd have found an occasion for making fun of the skirt—it was long, grey, and pleated, something his grandmother wouldn't have been caught in, and she was already dead—but he was rather flabbergasted at what he was seeing, and didn't think to. Mostly, he watched the way the fabric of the skirt draped over her legs, swaying each time she bent forward. (Her stockings, he noticed, ended at her knee.) Her curly hair sprang about like a mass of springs whenever she moved.

When she had gathered most of the items, she got to her feet—a little wobbly, but she kept her balance—and waited. Draco made a grab for the last few things and shoved them into the mutinous box; then, wordlessly, they padded down the corridor toward his flat. Once he got the door open, there were a few beats of awkwardness, in which neither of them seemed to know what to do; Draco moved closer to the doorframe to let her pass at the same time she stepped back to allow him more room with the box.

At length, Draco ended up placing the box slightly just inside his flat, and Granger crouched in the doorway and emptied her skirt into the box, quite gently, and not without a bit of magic. Almost too soon, she straightened again, not meeting his eye, but not avoiding it, meaning to return to her own flat.

Draco caught her arm as she left. Her skin was soft—though what had he been expecting, scales? (Possibly.)


"Yes?" She did not struggle to escape from his grasp, and it was a bit too long before he let her go.

"—Thank you."

And that was that. That was all. Just a little exchange of kindness and unfamiliar words.

At least, that was what he'd always liked to think. He never did look at her quite the same after that—though he did look at her a lot more often.

Malfoy told her everything. They hadn't moved much, and yet they seemed so much closer than Hermione remembered them being. She glanced briefly down at her hands, and saw them positioned to move her forward, to push her into some kind of motion that had yet to concretely form. Malfoy seemed only partially aware of himself, as well. If she could have drawn a straight line out from one of her fingertips, it would have intersected with one of his. She imagined multiple fingertips with multiple lines, reaching, crossing, weaving, an entire network of touch without actually touching. She could feel it. From his words, Malfoy could feel it too, even if he didn't picture it quite the same.

Before she knew it, Malfoy was leaning forward. Her heart pounded wildly—what to do, what to do? Malfoy was—he—

Malfoy had noticed her, after all. Hermione struggled to grasp this, what it meant. She wasn't sure. Her own feelings were muddled, jumbled: triumph, fear, happiness, regret. She wanted to jump into their midst and sort them into categories that would make sense to her.

"Granger, I..." He sounded frustrated.

She was going to pass out. Hermione was not the sort of woman who fainted, but her heart was beating so fast, like a little bird's, there couldn't possibly be enough blood flowing into her brain to keep her conscious.

"...I rather care about you, all right?"

Later, Hermione would recall that several things then happened at once. One, Malfoy tried to kiss her. Two, this excited and terrified her so much that she stumbled backward in her confliction. Three, a goblin's root peeped out of the ground near the first Galleon.

Her terrified side taking over, Hermione scrambled toward the goblin's root, slipping and sliding as though she were making her way across a wet floor, and leaving a very affronted Malfoy behind. He even made a small choking sound as she fled.

She thought the escape would make her feel better, but it only made her feel worse. She should not have left. She should have let Malfoy kiss her, because that was what she really wanted, deep down. Or not so deep. Maybe it had been brimming at the surface this entire time, waiting for the walls of her resistance to truckle to its power.

Just as she had the gnarled brown root swinging from her hand, she nearly dropped it again.

She rather cared about Malfoy, too.

In fact, she was pretty sure she had gone and fallen in love with him. She was aghast. All that observing, all that interest—all of that had led to this! Perhaps she cared for him too much, too soon, maybe even more than he cared for her, but she couldn't deny how she felt. Because she had never felt this way before, had never fallen in love with anyone.

Merlin, what was she doing? Why hadn't she let him kiss her? She wanted it so badly, why had she stopped it? She wanted to kiss him, and comfort him every time he dropped things in the lift, and talk about the merits of certain potions ingredients above others, and let him know that he was a better person than he thought he was.

With all this in mind and heart, Hermione whirled round.

Malfoy was gone; the hillock was empty. She didn't even notice the frog until it had hopped almost completely past her, and even then, she only paid it any heed because she was growing desperate, and she rarely ever discounted anything.

But sure enough, there was a little patch of silvery-yellow on top of the frog's green and brown head, and its eyes were strangely grey if you saw them at the right angle.

Aghast, Hermione attempted to pick it up.

The frog, wanting none of that, hopped away.

"It's me, you dolt!" she shouted after it—him. The frog continued to hop, each spiteful leap increasing the distance between them, though Hermione ran as fast as she could to try and catch up. It was difficult, navigating around rocks and pools of water, and more than enough fallen logs to repair ten mirrors. Apparently, being a frog gave you an advantage at that sort of thing, and made you relatively fearless, too—even if you were normally a coward.

A coward who confessed his feelings to the woman who bravely ran away. Right.

She carried on, curls bouncing, sweating under her dungarees.

It was only a few seconds after she realized Malfoy had disappeared that she discovered she was falling.

And really, how difficult is it to notice a fifteen-foot-deep pit open up in the ground right in front of you?

Apparently, very.

The good news was that she found Malfoy in the bottom of the pit—and by found, she meant that she almost landed on him and squashed him into jelly as she bounced otherwise harmlessly to the ground. Malfoy had the good sense to hop out of the way.

The bad news—besides the fact that Malfoy was still a frog, and still appeared to be upset with her—was that, even though she had her wand, it didn't seem to work. The bog and its surrounding environs were magic, yes, but Hermione had always considered it to be plant magic. That was what she always came here for, wading across an endless stretch of marshy growth. The only animals she had ever encountered had been non-magical, and though she knew they must be there, somewhere, the fact that they lurked invisibly made it seem as though they did not exist at all, and lessened any sense of danger. How far she had come since the war! How far, how fallen—and how stupid she felt for underestimating her surroundings! Though of all the times she had been here, never once had anything particularly threatening occurred; now, she had saved Malfoy from drowning; seen—or almost seen—him change species, which was probably a result of him touching something he shouldn't have; and had got them both stuck in a lovely, dank hole impervious to magic.

Oh, and she was also in love with a frog. She mustn't forget that. She mustn't forget that she barely knew him, even after seven years of schooling, several years of loathing, plus today, which seemed to count as several more. Frog though he may have been, every time she looked at him now, huddled by a shallow puddle, her heart gave a distinct thump. Just one, just enough to remind her that perhaps she was insane, and that she liked it that way.

Hermione supposed that being insane was supposed to help you pass the time, but her mind was sharper than ever in that pit, and it did nothing to dull the agonizingly slow existence she had discovered there. Her thoughts became racing internal monologues; she constructed plans and theories about how she might escape, and then spent thrice as long meticulously disproving them. She looked at Malfoy a lot and, she noticed, she did sigh a lot, too.

The last of the afternoon sun eventually faded into the twilight of evening. Though the sky above her still seemed somewhat light, that light no longer fell into the pit after her. Shadows seemed to drown her. For a while, she feared irrationally that Malfoy had left her there, that he had somehow managed to escape without indicating this to her—she couldn't see him, after all, so how could she know? Lumos didn't work here. Hermione wasn't frightened of the dark, but the loneliness of a solitary adventure was not something she was used to.

Hermione swallowed, gritted her teeth, and raised her chin. This misadventure was not about to get the better of her, no matter what happened. (Though, truth be told, she felt much better after she stretched out her leg, and her foot poked something that gave a disgruntled croak.)

Late in the night, Hermione woke to a small point of light in front of her eyes. She had managed to fall asleep at some point she could not recall—the pit was warm, at least. At first, she was groggy and befuddled. Then, the light flitted away from her, and she saw—though she had to blink several times—many more little lights, floating in the air like dreams. Fireflies! Hermione was amazed. She had seen them so very few times, and never in England. It was only the middle of spring, not nearly estival enough for them to survive. Yet survive they seemed to be doing. Perhaps they were a magical sub-species that had yet to go extinct. She looked up. There were none above; they were all in the pit with her, all of them captured in a glass jar. She reached out a hand to wake Malfoy, and then remembered he wasn't human anymore.

He was beside her, though, she noticed with a start. The fireflies' glow revealed a vaguely frog-shaped bump nestled into the folds of her dungarees at her knee. Hermione's heart gave a little start to see this. Not necessarily from affection, though she couldn't deny that was there. It was mostly pity. She was warm, but was he? He was probably having a terrible night, and it was sure to be killing his pride to have to curl up against her, especially because he was so upset with her. (With good reason, she thought.)

Well. If his pride was already at a low point, she was just going to have to add insult to injury. It was for his own good, after all. Ignoring his sleepy ribbit of protest, Hermione cupped the frog in her hands and held him cradled over her lap. He bounced about between her palms for a bit, attempting to escape, but Hermione held him fast. He felt somewhere between sticky and slimy against her skin, and Hermione could feel his heart beat against her, slow but erratic.

"Calm down!" she hissed. "You'll only hurt yourself."

Malfoy appeared to understand her, because he stopped his hopping at once, and merely shuffled about a bit. When Hermione opened her hands slightly to check on him, he made no move to leave, so she opened them up wider. He stayed, though all that shuffling had made it so his back was turned sulkily to her.

One of the fireflies strayed closer to them, turning lazy loops.

"It's so lovely," Hermione murmured. "These are quite rare, Malfoy, surely even you—"

Before she could finish her sentence, Malfoy-the-frog's tongue shot out, and the firefly was no more. Hermione turned her hand so that she could look at Malfoy. His eyes were wide with horror and disbelief. If possible, he had turned even greener.

Hermione laughed, and then bit her lip. "You had better hope those aren't poisonous to frogs. They are to some vertebrates, you know." At the expression on his face, she hastily added, "I'm sure you'll be fine, though. You're still technically human." (She hoped.) "I don't think they're harmful to us."

That was probably because humans never ate fireflies. There were many things you just didn't do in the name of science.

At length, the fireflies began to wink out one by one, and Malfoy burrowed into the front pocket of Hermione's dungarees.

She had never known frogs could snore.

When Hermione woke the next morning, she felt terribly stiff. She had not curled onto the ground to sleep, but rather had remained with her back ramrod straight against the wall of the pit, her legs out together in front of her. She stretched, rubbed at her neck. Leaves had fallen into her hair again. Her mouth felt dry, but she didn't fancy drinking out of the dirty puddle. By the greyness of the sky above her, and the chill mist that pricked at her skin, she determined that it was quite early; the sun might not even be properly up yet.

Yawning, she put a hand to her pocket—the one Malfoy was in.

Except that Malfoy wasn't in it.

She searched her other pockets, shaking at all the fabric of her dungarees, but she felt no frog-shaped lumps anywhere. Eyes on her feet to make certain she didn't step on him, she stood up, then looked around the pit. She couldn't find him.

"This isn't funny, Malfoy," she warned.

She scoured every inch, but Malfoy simply wasn't there. He had left her after all. But how?

In spite of the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she was still determined. If he had found a way to escape, then so could she. She would not allow herself to be outsmarted by a frog. She had already established to herself that she was going to maintain at least some shred of dignity in this whole affair.

Pacing, she began to think. Objects could fall into the pit well enough, but the pit was too deep for anything to climb out of it. You couldn't magic your way out, because the pit seemed to cancel out any spells. It had to be possible to leave, though, because the fireflies had been able to fly away without any difficultly. She had felt, last night, that they were all contained within a glass jar, but if that was the case, the jar had no lid. There was nothing to prevent her from leaving, so long as she could get to the top of the pit. She couldn't merely Apparate out; she would have to climb. Could she do it, though? She visualized herself carving hand- and footholds into the earthen walls, scrambling up them, and getting stuck halfway up. Either that, or she would get far, and then fall. The fall wouldn't kill her—it hadn't before, hadn't even hurt her—but she wasn't about to starve to death at the bottom of a hole because she was too physically uncoordinated to climb out.

Perhaps, though, the entire pit wasn't magic-canceling. Perhaps that barrier ended a certain ways up, and once she climbed that high, she would be able to use magic to get the rest of the way out. But at what point would this occur? How would she know?

Suddenly, Hermione heard a splash, and then felt her leg sinking slightly. She had paced right on into the puddle she had spotted earlier. Only, the puddle was a lot deeper than she'd thought, for water was lapping at her ankle.

Hermione stopped. Could it be? Quickly, she withdrew her foot from the puddle, crouched down on its banks, and stuck her hand into the water. It came up just below her elbow. Her boot, however, had only been immersed to the ankle. She returned her foot to the puddle in order to confirm this, putting all her weight onto it. Sure enough, she sunk down only to her ankle. When she bounced on her one leg, the bottom of her boot did not hit against the bottom of the puddle; rather, it felt as though she were kicking off from something almost gelatinous in texture—something that wasn't hard or solid, and yet acted as though it were.

The magic in her boots was working. There was not a point where the magic-inhibitor merely stopped; rather, there was a chink in its armor, and Hermione had found it.

Full of triumph, Hermione got both feet into the puddle, and Apparated herself to the ground outside of the pit with a loud crack!

The sound startled her a bit, partly because she hadn't been one hundred percent positive it would work, and partly because it had been so quiet for the several hours. And it was partly for these reasons, and partly because the crack! still rang in her ears that she didn't hear the croaking at first. It may have even been because she had got used to the sound while deep in the pit.

When she did notice it, however, it was nearly as loud as her Apparition had been. Slowly, slowly, Hermione looked around, and finally found herself faced with an entire pool full of frogs just a few steps into the marsh.

And it was full, this pool. Hundreds of frogs seemed to be shouting at her all at once as they stared up at her with wide eyes. In fact, she could hardly see the water, and half only assumed it must be there. Frogs were piled around each other, on top of each other, squirming and being tossed about like living waves. It was as though every frog in the surrounding marsh had been Summoned to this particular place, whether they wanted to be or not. During several shocked minutes, Hermione observed them; not one left, though they seemed to be trying, and all croaked and ribbited at her piteously. It was like the pit, she realized. They were stuck!

Her heart lurched. She knew that Malfoy must be there somewhere amidst the roiling mass of frogs.

Hermione called his name, again and again. She tried to look at all the frogs, but it was simply an impossible feat. They moved constantly, or were covered up to their eyes by water, mud, or other frogs. There was no way for her find the little green and brown frog with a silvery patch on its head and sometimes-grey eyes. If Malfoy were trying to get to her, she wouldn't be able to tell, because he would only be one struggling frog amongst hundreds. Hermione tried looking into their eyes—the ones she could see—but they were all the normal colors, and all seemed to plead for her help. And it wasn't as if he could call attention to himself by making noise—all of the frogs were already cacophonous together.

Hermione tried a determined "Accio Draco Malfoy!" but, as she expected, that didn't work, either.

"I don't know what to do," she groaned aloud.

"Ribbit," replied the frog closest to her.

"Ribbit ribbit," confirmed another.

"Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit," insisted the next.

The frogs continued to ribbit at her unhelpfully. At this rate, she was never going to find Malfoy, never going to figure out the counter-curse, never going to apologize for running away, never going to confess how she actually felt.

"Ribbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit ribbit," said a frog. "Ribbit ribbit. Rrrrrriiiiiibbit ribbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit ribbit. Rrrrrriiiiiibbit ribbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit... Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit."

The frog annoyed her. She was sure it was only one frog making all of that noise—noise which made it difficult to think. Quick to think of solutions, ha! She couldn't even figure out how to find a frog when it was staring her in the face.

"Rrrrrriiiiiibbit ribbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit ribbit. Ribbit ribbit ribbit ribbit. Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit ribbit ribbit. Ribbit."

"Just be quiet!" Hermione snapped. This frog was the only one she could hear now. It was so much more obnoxious than the others, so much more—

"Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit."

Hermione sat bolt upright.

"Ribbit rrrrrriiiiiibbit ribbit ribbit. Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit ribbit ribbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit... Rrrrrriiiiiibbit rrrrrrriiiiibbit. Ribbit."

Unless she was mistaken, normal frogs didn't ribbit in Morse Code. They didn't say things like, Pick me. They probably wouldn't say things like, Choose me, either. And they definitely never, ever said—Hermione gulped—Love me.

"Keep talking!" Hermione cried, a bit flushed. "I can hear you!"

"Honestly Granger, if you don't hurry up," the disembodied voice of frog-Malfoy ribbited in relief.

"Where are you?"


She quickly surveyed the left side of the frog heap, and for a moment, she saw him. Then he disappeared again.

"Get where I can see you," she said.

"I am trying!" There was a pause, then he ribbited again.

In spite of the situation, Hermione put her hands on her hips. "That had better not have been directed at me," she snapped. "And anyway, you spelled it wrong."

With a throaty croak of rage, Malfoy leapt three feet into the air—and Hermione saw him. This was so high, in fact, that several of the frogs below him gawped with interest and perhaps a bit of admiration. Hermione seized her chance—literally. As Malfoy began to plummet back down to earth, she snatched him away to safety. He gave a sound of protest as she unceremoniously stuffed him into his nest in the pocket of her dungarees. Any reunion would have to wait. Hermione had frogs to save.

With the last frog hopping gratefully away into the marsh, Hermione sat back on her heels and wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her hand. Catching four hundred and twenty-seven frogs had been a lot more difficult than she'd supposed, especially when most of them hadn't seemed to understand that she was trying to help them. More than once, she had tripped and fallen—though thankfully, not onto anyone—in her pursuit of a particular hostage. She never, ever wanted to touch, see, or hear that many frogs again. Malfoy could have helped her, of course, had she chosen to change him back, and he chosen to dirty his hands and work. She had checked all the other frogs for enchantments, reversing any she found, and sending several house pets and one confused man to refuge. Even with Malfoy's help, these tasks would have taken over an hour—though cutting the time in half, she had to admit.

Even so, Hermione had studiously ignored his Morse Code ribbitings, carrying on by herself. She had thought of what she would say to him for hours and hours, going over it in her head, but actually telling him, speaking the words out loud... She didn't think she could face it just yet. That was selfish of her, she knew. But there was such a large part of her that had always striven toward perfection; she was afraid that if she looked Malfoy in the eye and opened her mouth, something stupid and grotesque would tumble out before she could stop it, or even take it back. When you wrote something—an essay, a letter, a memo—you could always read it over before anyone else saw it, correcting misspellings, improper grammar, and unclear, imperfect thoughts. In writing, you could craft something. Speaking was different. You could not erase or cross out intangible words—not without a Memory Charm, and she abhorred those almost over the Unforgivables.

Hermione needed the right words, and she needed to be ready to say them. She couldn't go about it lightly. She had hated this man for over seven years, beginning before he was any kind of man at all—including the brief sojourn he had spent as a ferret. She felt she ought to at least be able to explain herself.

Oh dear. She was going to have to do a lot of explaining in the future, wasn't she?

The sun beat down upon her, and she closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, she felt stronger.

"All right," she whispered to herself. "All right."

Delicately, she took Malfoy from her pocket and placed him on the ground in front of her. He didn't hop away, which was something.

It only took a simple counter-curse, and Malfoy the young man was there again, fully-clothed and crouched on all fours as he had been only a week ago. Like last time, their noses were almost touching. Neither of them scrambled back, but Malfoy withdrew coldly before Hermione could speak.

"Took you long enough," he said. "I'd like to leave now."

She stood. "Yes, we can—"

He stopped her. "No. Not 'we.' I'm going. Oh. Here..." He dug in his pocket, then tossed something to her.

She scrambled to catch it, only just managing. Her hand-eye coordination had never been exemplary. When she saw what he had thrown at her, she furrowed her brow.

"That's the last thing, isn't it?" he said tonelessly. "The elf-ear mushroom. I found it last night. You know. When I was stuck as a frog. You were sleeping. You were sleeping when I got Summoned into that cesspool, too." Only then did his voice take on a note of accusation.

"Malfoy, I'm sorry."

"Well, good for you. I'm going." He turned from her.

"Don't you dare leave!" she shouted at him. Even to her own ears, she sounded shrill. "I've still got something to say!"

"Isn't that a miracle." He didn't turn around.

"Malfoy, I—bleuahhh."

Hermione clapped her hands over her mouth. That was all that had come out! Bleuahhh! It was her absolute worst nightmare. She had never told a man she loved him before, and now that she had finally got the courage, it seemed she didn't have the words.

But her monosyllabic 'confession,' it seemed, was something Malfoy could not resist. Looking at her over his shoulder, his brow arched, he asked, "Bleuahhh? Really, Granger? That's your big, profound, parting thought?"

"No! It most certainly is not!" Hermione could feel her cheeks burning—no, her whole face, her entire body. She was on fire, and it wasn't all because of passion. She was absolutely humiliated. This was supposed to be her grand moment. She considered running away again, but the Gryffindor in her revolted against this—one cowardly moment was enough.

She tried again. "It's just that I'm—It's just that I—bleuahhh—oh, bother that! I love you, you stupid prat!"

She was pleased to note that Malfoy's cheeks went scarlet, too.

"So... So there," she finished lamely, crossing her arms. "I thought you ought to know. Before you left. Now—go, if you want."

Hermione was pretty sure that this was all the opposite of perfect. Firstly, her word choice was less than ideal. Secondly, she would have preferred not to choose such words while they were both wearing dungarees and covered in sludge. Malfoy's jaw was touched with a fine-colored stubble, and part of his hair was so slicked up with mud that it looked like a duck tail; and she thought there were probably things nesting on top of her own head.

Thirdly, it was a little funny when somebody kissed you, and his lips tasted rather froggy.

But at least that meant, as you kissed him back, that he didn't really mind the first two things at all. Because it also meant that he loved you, too.