AN: I'm not going to make any excuses since I'm sure none of you care. I do hope the chapter is satisfying enough to make up for at least some of the wait.
Fingers, gentle but firm, brushed back Hermione's hair the way her mother had done when she was ill as a child.
"Lovely hair," someone said, sounding very far away. Another voice, higher-pitched, giggled. "What?"
"You is always being fond of hair, mistress," the squeaky voice said. "I remember when master Draco was born you couldn't stop touching his curls. And when you first met master Lucius…" The fingers on Hermione's head stopped. "Oh! Mistress, I is sorry, I did not-"
"It's all right, Nurse." The fingers began again, smoothing Hermione's hair back and lulling her back to sleep.
It could have been mere moments, it could have been an hour, before a harsh voice broke into Hermione's dreams. "You have to understand this, Cissy."
"She's burning up. She's in no condition to go anywhere."
"She can't stay here. She'll recover on her own, possibly even before she wakes." There was a moment of silence and then the harsh voice added, "If her absence is discovered and she is found here, Draco will be in danger."
A heavy sigh. "Fine. Nurse? Dress her."
The air around Hermione shifted and suddenly she was wrapped in heavy fabric instead of the smooth sheets.
"How do you plan on getting her back into the school?"
Hermione's eyes snapped open. The voice made warmth pool in her belly and had her every nerve on edge.
"Draco!" the woman's voice snapped while Hermione searched the dark room for him.
"Like this," a man's voice said. "Imperio."
Everything blurred after that. There was green fire and a bed and a potion slipped down her throat. And through it all his voice echoing in her mind. "Will she be all right?"
Parvati and Lavender giggled all the way out the door. When it closed Hermione's eyes snapped open. She'd been in and out of sleep for hours, hoping she could stay in bed until this ache to find Draco abated. She curled into a tight ball, hugging herself against the almost physical pain. She could still feel him: the way his hands caressed her skin like she was a precious gift; his kisses on her lips, her neck, her breasts; the way he'd filled her up and drove her over the edge. She wanted more than memories though, she wanted him.
Once again she almost rose, this time making it to a sitting position on the end of the bed. She gripped the mattress tight and screwed her eyes shut, willing this to stop. They'd both be better off if they let the infection peter quietly out. She thought of him, locked away in the dungeons trying to keep away, and mentally slapped herself. The book had made it clear that a secondary infection wasn't as strong as a primary. Draco had probably recovered by now and would spend all day in the prefects' bath, scrubbing his skin raw to get her mudblood filth off him.
She fell back on the bed with a moan, covering her face with her hands. She should not be thinking about Draco naked right now. And, while she was at it, she should stop calling him "Draco." He was Malfoy again, her rival and antagonist. The sooner she got back to thinking of him as the enemy the better. She went through all the times he'd hurt her, hoping to douse the attraction she felt, but it wasn't long before she got to the slap in third year. The feel of his skin mingled with her dream of two days ago. She writhed on the bed and moisture pooled between her legs. She screamed in frustration and jumped up. She needed to get out. If she was doing something it would distract her from Dra- Malfoy.
She stood on shaky legs. The robes she'd woken up in straightened immediately, the wrinkles disappearing. It was a sign of high quality and she wondered if they belonged to some other girl Draco had bedded. Jealousy flared in her and she quickly stamped it down. Malfoy was not hers. They'd spent one feverish afternoon and evening together and that was all.
She considered taking the robes off but immediately thought better of it. Getting undressed would not help her current mental state one bit and the robes did smell faintly of him. It was enough to drive her mad but also enough to comfort her, just a little.
All at once she decided it was time to leave the room. Sitting there with nothing to do but think of him and how she couldn't go to him was only making things worse. She grabbed her school bag and Perilous Plants from the bag she used for her Head Girl duties, and headed down to the library. She snuck quickly through the common room, thankful that breakfast had already begun, leaving the room nearly empty. Even though her stomach was rumbling, eager for food after a day-long fast, she kept to the upper floors of the castle, heading straight for the library. There was a little alcove at the back, tucked between the Divination and Muggle History sections that she usually kept away from. It was a great study spot but the lack of regular foot traffic made it a little too easy to lose track of the time. Twice while sitting there, she'd found herself studying all night with no idea how the time had flown. This made the alcove undesirable in most cases but perfect for today.
She squeezed into the tiny space and set to work. NEWTs were fast approaching and she'd already lost a day of studying. Potions was first. Snape had put a great deal of emphasis on transformative potions this term, mentioning more than once that they had appeared on the NEWTs every year he'd been teaching. Hermione knew the Polyjuice Potion backwards and forwards and had spent a good deal of time researching the Wolfsbane Potion since realizing what Lupin was, and so ignored those, planning to go over them the night before her Potions NEWT for a quick refresher. She pulled out her notes on glamour potions instead. They were deceptively simple, most using all the same ingredients but with slight variations that determined the use of the potion.
While she read the notes she let her mind drift back to the day she'd written them, going over everything she could remember in case she'd forgotten to write anything down. The top of her notes was an exact copy of the board. Below that were her notes on the lecture and she went quickly through them, remembering Snape's deep voice illustrating the most popular variations.
"You'd think Snape might actually try out a few of these potions," Ron had whispered.
Snape's wrath was immediate, stripping ten points from Gryffindor for Ron's cheek and another ten for each giggle he heard, even those coming from Slytherin students. Hermione ignored all this, her quill flying across her notebook.
"Granger," Malfoy whispered while Snape reprimanded her friends. "I suppose you've been waiting all your life for this lesson. Though I doubt the measurements are the same for trolls."
The nearby Slytherins had laughed, losing more points for Gryffindor.
Hermione closed her eyes, remembering Draco's smile as he laughed and the way a gentler, kinder version of that smile had felt pressed into the curve of her neck last night.
"Argh!" she cried, slamming her Potions notes shut.
She tried History of Magic next. It wasn't a class she shared with Malfoy so there was no way he could intrude on her memories. She lasted an hour before one of Malfoy's ancestor's showed up, slaying a dragon and effectively putting an end to Grawl the Consumer's reign of terror. (Fearsome as the giant was, he wasn't much without his pet dragon.) The combination of a Malfoy and a dragon was too much and Hermione was forced to abandon the subject.
By then it was nearly noon and she was in desperate need of some food. She packed up her things but left them where they were. She wouldn't be gone long and leaving her books behind would decrease the likelihood she'd allow herself to be waylaid. Once again she avoided the Great Hall and snuck down to the dungeons. She was too scattered to talk to any of the kitchen elves about wages or actual clothes and as a result was treated to a huge meal. She staggered out over an hour later, absolutely stuffed. The climb up to the library had never seemed longer with her brain hazy from food and fever. She almost didn't notice someone calling her name.
"What? Oh! Luna!" Hermione stopped in the hallway, her eyes darting up and down it, watching for a certain someone.
"I've been calling you," Luna said, brow furrowed in worry. "Did you fall in the lake recently?"
"What?" Hermione asked, genuinely confused.
"I know a lot of people went swimming to escape the recent heat," Luna said conversationally, walking down the hall. Hermione followed. "I warned them not to. There are brain leeches in magical bodies of water. They suck up all your brain power."
"I didn't swim in the lake, Luna," Hermione said, deciding it wasn't worth it to debate the existence of magical brain leeches. Where had Luna even gotten that from? They sounded like something out of Muggle science fiction.
"Are you headed up to see Harry and Ron?" Luna asked.
"They're still in the hospital wing?" Hermione asked, surprised. No one had even used any magic and if the boy who fell ten stories could walk away without a scratch - and Hermione could attest to that fact - then certainly the others should be fine.
"Are you sure you didn't fall in the lake?" Luna asked. She was walking backwards, her head tilted to the side as she considered Hermione carefully.
Hermione shook herself. She'd gotten momentarily lost in memories of Malfoy's skin, shining with sweat.
"Positive," Hermione said. "Why are the boys still in the hospital wing?"
"Madam Pomfrey says that they've come to depend on her to heal them and a little extra pain and suffering will teach them not to fight."
Hermione couldn't argue with this logic. Healing the Muggle way would certainly teach them all to keep their tempers in check a bit more. It hadn't occurred to Hermione that the Slytherins would be enduring the same punishment and for a moment after entering the hospital wing she was frozen in the doorway, searching to see if Malfoy was visiting as well. He wasn't and she let out a sigh of relief, rushing to catch up with Luna. They each took seats between Ron and Harry's beds, their backs to the Slytherin side of the room. Rain beat gently against the high windows, providing a peaceful background noise for the patients. Hermione hadn't even realized the recent heat wave had ended, not that she was surprised. She hadn't though of much in the last couple days except Draco Malfoy.
"Can you believe this?" Ron demanded. "It's torture is what it is!"
"Muggles do it all the time," Hermione said.
"Only because they don't know any better! She won't even give us anything for the pain except to sleep!"
"Quit your whining, Weasley," Blaise Zabini snapped. "She already said she'd heal us all before classes on Monday."
"Mind your business, Zabini, or I'll give you another black eye."
"And how do you plan on doing that from all the way over there? You can't even walk."
"You just wait until I can, you-"
"Stop it!" Hermione yelled, her temper snapping. "Do you even remember yesterday or why you're still in here? You're supposed to be learning not to fight! Are you honestly so childish that you can't just let it go already? It's been seven years! Is house pride really so important?" When she finished Hermione stood, hands on hips, in the middle of the ward. All eyes were trained on her and, if she wasn't mistaken, several of those watching her were cowering.
"Thank you, Miss Granger," Madam Pomfrey said. She stood in the doorway of her office, hands folded demurely and held to her chest. "I could not agree more, though I do question your method."
Hermione blushed to her hairline and sank into her seat. Some small measure of tension had eased with her outburst, though it wasn't nearly enough to give her any relief. She still wanted to run from the room and search the castle for Draco. If it wasn't possibly the most embarrassing medical problem known to man, she might have asked Madam Pomfrey, who was now making her rounds, for help, but with the ward full of Quidditch players who would overhear everything it just wasn't an option. She took a deep breath and forced a smile.
Ron was still sulking and somehow Luna had scooted her chair closer to Harry. He held his hand atop the blankets, but his eyes were fixed on Hermione. She squirmed under his studying gaze. If he asked what was wrong she didn't know what she'd say. Under normal circumstances she could come up with a lie, say NEWTs or some impertinent fourth years had gotten under her skin, but today she was near her wits' end. There was every chance she'd blurt out the truth. "I had sex with Draco Malfoy last night and I feel like I might actually die if I don't do it again soon" was not going to go over well.
"Hermione," Harry said softly, "what's-"
The door swung open and Hermione's head whipped around. She couldn't say how she knew it was him, only that she did. Draco's eyes met hers instantly. For a moment he looked like a deer in headlights before coming back to himself and letting his gaze roam lasciviously up her form. Hermione dug her nails into her knees and tried to focus on the pain rather than the burning desire to run up to him and kiss him senseless. Clearly the fever had run its course where he was concerned. There was nothing left there but his usual disdain for her. She looked away and felt tears form in her eyes. She wasn't sorry she'd lost him - she'd never had him after all - she was only frustrated she couldn't sleep with him again and a little bit sorry he looked like he was going to be using last night against her. Two could play that game - she clutched her stomach against a sudden, wracking pain - but not now.
"I have to go," she said. "I- I left my books in the library."
"Hermione," Harry called but she ignored him. Malfoy had left the door to go to his friends, leaving the way clear for Hermione to escape.
Draco watched Granger flee, pleasure at making her run warring with despair. He wanted her to stay. He wanted to watch her struggle to keep away from him. He considered calling out to her or loudly making a comment she couldn't ignore, but Snape's earlier words of warning came quickly back to him.
"I am not blind to the feud between yourself and Potter," Snape had said that morning after calling Draco into his office.
Draco rolled his eyes behind the man's back. It had been Snape who instigated the feud. Lucius Malfoy wanted his son to befriend Harry Potter, even after their first two meetings, but Draco knew enough, even at eleven, to see his godfather hated the boy. With his father so far away and his godfather always at Hogwarts, it was easy for Draco to choose which one he would please.
"I can imagine all the ways this particular turn of events might be used to injure Miss Granger's pride," Snape went on, "but I sincerely hope I do not need to tell you how utterly base such behavior would be. Your father set an example among the Dark Lord's forces, refusing to single women out the way others would. I expect his son to show the same respect."
Draco hesitated at that, not sure how to take it. "She's a mudblood," he said. It had been his mantra every time his thoughts drifted back to yesterday. Regardless of what he might have felt while under the fever's influence or any lingering echoes of those feelings now, that immutable fact remained.
Something in Snape's eyes darkened at that. "You know how I feel about that word, Draco. Regardless, she is a young woman whose upbringing is far different than your own - and I do not mean because of her Muggle parents. She no doubt has different expectations in regards to such intimacies."
Of course. That. The conversation, already deeply unsettling, grew more uncomfortable.
"Her emotional reactions to yesterday will no doubt be different from yours."
"She wasn't a virgin," Draco cut in abruptly, deciding to stop Snape right there.
Two bright spots appeared on Snape's cheeks. "Well," he said slowly, shaking off his surprise, "that's … not quite what I meant but it does, perhaps, make things-"
"I was though." He met Snape's gaze defiantly, daring the man to make some comment.
"I'm sorry," was what Snape finally said.
Draco scoffed. "I'm not some girl," he sneered, "it was about time anyway. Though I admit I'd prefer someone better than that-"
Snape held up a hand. "Don't. And that is exactly what I meant so you can stow the attitude." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "If you need to talk I suppose you will have to come to me," he said with some resignation. "But do try not to be an idiot. She might still be ill and the last thing she needs is you making this harder. Women, especially Gryffindor women, hold long grudges. If you hurt her now, she'll destroy you later."
Draco had brushed most of this off at the time, too disturbed by the whole mess to really listen. This had been all her fault. If she'd just worn her gloves, if she hadn't bloody scratched him, if she hadn't been bouncing around so he just couldn't help but hex her… He deserved some revenge.
"You're staring again," Blaise said.
Draco looked down at his friend and found him smiling smugly up at him. "Don't start," Draco warned.
"What? Suddenly you're back to your normal prick self?"
For a moment Draco considered telling Blaise everything. A glance around the ward told him that was a bad idea, there was no way he could tell Blaise all that had happened without it being overheard and he wasn't keen on spreading the word of his embarrassing ordeal.
"Shut up," was all he said as he fell into the chair beside Blaise's bed.
"Uh oh. Trouble so soon? She realize you really are everything you appear? Usually you manage to keep up the deeper-than-a-puddle façade for a few weeks at least."
Blaise gave Draco a measuring look. "All right," he said slowly. "Pomfrey's letting us out tomorrow. I don't know what you were planning but I think we should have team study sessions so we can practice and study for NEWTs more efficiently. If you spread word around the dungeons we might get the others to join in. They're desperate for a win and heaven knows Vince and Greg could use the help."
Draco nodded. He'd forgotten the make up match - they didn't have a date yet, of course - as well as NEWTs and the impending end to his education. He'd forgotten everything and thought only of her. It had to be the same for her now. He smirked, imagining the little mudblood consumed with thoughts of him.
Seeing the look on his face Blaise said sternly, "Whatever it is, if it's not about winning the match, I don't want to know."
"Old man," Draco griped.
"Wise old man."
"Wise, boring old man. What's wrong with a little plotting?"
"Nothing. Except I know that look and it's the one you get when you're thinking about Potter and his friends. Considering the last few days you're probably thinking of getting back at Granger for whatever it is you won't talk about and I do not want to be a part of that. So run along, find her, and commit this atrocity before I get out of here. That way my Gryffindor can't blame me."
Draco shook his head in what was only mostly mock shame. "She's got you on a tight leash."
Rather than respond, Blaise dismissed Draco with a wave of her hand. Had he been anyone else Draco would have sworn revenge but, as his friend, Blaise could get away with more than most.
On his way out Draco threw a smile in Potter's direction. The Gryffindor nearly jumped up but restrained himself as the door to Madam Pomfrey's office clicked open. Draco chuckled as the Weasel, glaring daggers at him, leaned over to ask Potter what was up. Draco almost wished he could stay and hear that conversation, but he did want to find Granger. If he was lucky she'd see him in a crowded corridor and be unable to keep her hands off him. She'd run up to him and kiss him without so much as a "hello." The fantasy was supposed to end with him pushing her off and crushing her in front of the crowd but he somehow got bogged down in the kiss.
The door to the hospital wing shut heavily behind him, the sound shocking him back to himself. It was the fever, surely, that had made her seem like a good kisser. She probably slobbered like a dog. He shuddered and went to the window at the end of the hall to consider where she might have gone. Fate, it seemed, was on his side. Just like Hermione had seen him flying out this same window the day before, Draco caught sight of a dark figure racing through the rain towards the distant forest. He was certain, without knowing why, that it was Granger, running scared. If she thought he was going to give her space, make this easy for her, she had another thing coming.
He ran down the winding staircases, shooting an "accio cloak" over his shoulder once he reached the ground floor. The cloak, charmed to keep out the wet and cold, came flying up from the Slytherin dungeons just before he burst out the doors. The grass was slick, forcing him to slow down or fall on his arse like an idiot. The rain, while still light, was growing steadily heavier. Storm clouds were gathering overhead, turning the grey day black. He caught sight of Granger entering the forest just as it came into view and picked up his pace. He'd sworn in second year never to enter that forest again but told himself now that Granger wouldn't go too deep and that the promise of retribution was worth a bit of a scare. Perhaps he could even give her one.
The darkness amid the trees was almost palpable. Only ten steps into the forest Draco could see his breath misting before him. The falling rain echoed oddly through the trees, that combined with the closeness of the trees left him feeling at once claustrophobic and alone in a vast space.
Granger's location did not immediately reveal itself. She was nowhere to be seen and he couldn't hear her through the rain. He cursed under his breath and tried to remember if he knew any tracking spells. None came to mind but he did spot a muddy footprint while he wracked his brain.
"Come out, come out wherever you are," he murmured. He pulled the hood of his cloak up and set off through the undergrowth, not bothering to keep quiet. The rain was pouring down by the time he found her, standing atop a rocky mound inside the tree line and overlooking one of the lake's outcroppings.
"Please," she said when he came to the edge of the rocks, "I told you, I can't think when you're around."
He almost stopped, almost took Snape's advice to back off and leave her be, but then it hit him that she looked like a half-drowned alley cat swept ashore by the waves and he was filled with cruel mirth. "And why is that?" he asked jovially, coming up behind her.
Her robes were soaked and water dripped from her hair in a waterfall down her back. Her arms were wrapped tight around her middle and as his footsteps neared she curled in on herself, as if bracing for a physical blow. Her profile was stretched taut in pain.
"You know," she said quietly. "You know."
It was suddenly stifling under Draco's cloak. His hand, without his prompting surely, touched her back just below the fall of her hair. He watched as a shudder ran through her and her head fell back.
"Please," she said, eyes closed and face lifted to the heavens. He wasn't sure if she was talking to him or some deity.
His hand twisted in the hair that had fallen back to surround it. The image of her the night before passed before him: naked, skin shining in the dim light, her voice crying out in release. He could give her that release again. It would be a mercy, really; he knew what this felt like. She would thank him in the end and she was begging for it after all.
"Please go," she said and the fire in him chilled. Even the magicked cloak couldn't keep him warm now. Cold anger replaced arousal and was swept away just as quickly by an emotion he didn't dare name. Not willing to ponder it, he instead gave into it fully. He opened his cloak and pulled Granger to his chest, wrapping her in the charmed fabric and his arms. She crumbled when he touched her and the only thing keeping them upright was his own strength. Heat poured off her through the sodden fabric. She was burning up.
Only twice in the following hours did she try to turn. He held her tight each time. When she changed tactics and moved against him, using her bum to tease his crotch, it took all his willpower to hold her tighter, nearly suffocating her to keep her still.
It must be the infection, he thought when her sobs petered out and he was certain she finally slept. He must still be affected to be doing this. He lifted her into his arms, cradling her against his chest as he made his way back through the dark and muddy woods to the castle.