The meeting fell flat after Hermione's rather melodramatic departure. No one really wanted to ask any more questions afterwards. Instead, they were eager to get outside and start gossiping about what Draco Malfoy could have said to the temperamental former Gryffindor to get her to leave in such a way. The gossip hunters were annoyed that he had managed to slip away. Not that they had much hope of getting the mercurial Malfoy to tell them anything.
Neville found himself besieged with people wanting him to spill what he may have overheard. But he proved to be the loyal friend he'd always been and maintained that he'd overheard absolutely nothing, as he'd been intent on the answers McGonagall was giving. The crowd dispersed, feeling disappointed to have missed out on such juicy gossip. Several unkind comments were hissed about Neville and his lamentable memory but he bore them unfazed, like the self-assured man he'd grown to be.
Harry waited until it was much quieter before approaching Neville. "Okay, what devastation will be awaiting me when I catch up with Hermione?"
"I'm not quite sure what it was exactly that made Hermione ditch the meeting like that. Malfoy was being his usual obnoxious self and was obviously riling her up using sexual innuendo. But I've no idea why she acted that way. I've seen her deal with outright nasty sexual harassment from leery old wizards so this should have been a piece of cake for her."
Harry and Ron looked at each other, puzzled. Hermione wasn't at all miss-ish. She'd grown up with two male best friends and been on the run with them for nearly a year. She knew the way boys minds worked, and if Malfoy was acting like a teenager who just discovered he had hormones then she should've brushed it off. She had already been through that once with the pair of them.
Ginny, who'd watched the conversation, looked at them both and rolled her eyes. They were so clueless when it came to the emotions of their female best friend. "I've got this, so don't worry about it," she said.
Hermione's flat was dark when Ginny walked out through the Floo connection but she didn't bother looking around Hermione's flat, as she knew she'd find her in her bedroom. That was Hermione's inner sanctum. And she was right; she found her huddled on the floor in front of her wardrobe, crying her eyes out, which worried the redhead immensely. Hermione only cried on rare occasions when something was seriously wrong.
"Hermione, honey, what's wrong?" she asked, sinking onto the floor next to her and putting her arm around her friend's shoulders.
Hermione tried to swallow the sobs and speak but was unable to. She was crying so hard that she was shaking. Ginny had never seen her in such a state.
"Hey, what's happened?" she asked again, getting more anxious now.
The older witch visibly pulled herself together, managing to stop crying. "I don't know why I let him affect me like this."
Hermione nodded. "He was being his usual hideous self and I let him get to me."
"What exactly did he say?"
"He was being a prat, deliberately embarrassing me by offering to let me, and I quote, 'test out the merchandise' and things like that."
"You've dealt with much worse than that," Ginny pointed out.
"I know. That's why I don't know why I reacted so strongly to it. It was just stupid innuendo, nothing malicious or nasty."
Ginny didn't really have much to say to that. She could feel that there was something more than Hermione was currently telling her, but she knew better than to push her to reveal it. If her friend wanted her to know then she would tell her in her own time. They sat in silence for a long while.
Hermione put her head on Ginny's shoulder and heaved a big sigh. "Ginny?" she asked in a small voice, "Can I tell you something?"
"Of course, honey, you know you can tell me anything."
"Promise me you won't tell anyone?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die," she replied, smiling at the childish oath.
"I know why I reacted that way."
Hermione stopped, looking nervous and unsure about what she was about to reveal. Recognising that it appeared to be something momentous, Ginny kept quiet.
"During sixth year at Hogwarts, I developed feelings for Malfoy and I don't mean of the loathing kind."
The redhead jumped a little at the revelation, obviously in shock at hearing something so unlikely.
Hermione put her head in her hands. "I know. It's crazy, right? It was after Ron got together with Lavender and I was feeling left out and lonely. Harry kept going on about Malfoy being a Death Eater, which made me become aware of him more than I ever had before. So I started to watch him to check if Harry could be right and the next thing I know I'm starting to observe things about him that I hadn't before; how he'd gone from a confident, outgoing and boastful prat of a boy, to withdrawn and stressed. He seemed vulnerable all of a sudden and I found myself reacting to it. Before I knew it, I was dreaming about him and I'm not talking about the good kind of dreams where I relive punching his ferrety face," she said, blushing.
Ginny looked at her embarrassed friend and was in little doubt that she meant sexual dreams.
"Then tonight when he started going on about us being intimate like that, I was so embarrassed. I felt as if he'd tapped into my sixth-year memories," Hermione continued before falling silent, obviously worried about what Ginny's reaction would be.
Ginny didn't really know how to respond to this. She knew that whatever she said or did now would be crucial. It was fairly clear that her bushy-haired friend felt that she'd somehow betrayed Harry by having such feelings.
"Those feelings are nothing to be ashamed of, Hermione. Besides, it's not as if anyone other than me knows," she said.
"You don't think he knows Legilimency, do you? I know he's a good Occulmens," the brunette asked softly.
"I don't know. I mean, Snape is very skilled at both, but, Hermione, there's nothing to be upset or embarrassed about. Who didn't notice Malfoy in sixth year, well before he got all skinny and wraith like? He came back after the summer a different person to the little runt of fifth-year he'd been. He'd shot up about a foot, developed shoulders and muscles and became sexy."
"But it was Malfoy! And to make matters worse, he was a Death Eater!" Hermione said, upset.
"You didn't know that. None of us did, and since when did that mean someone couldn't be attractive? Your feelings were perfectly normal. It was just teenage hormones, nothing more."
"Why am I being so pathetic about this?"
"Because he was prick to you all through school, and so to have a short infatuation with him is disconcerting. It's nothing to get upset about. Besides, it was such a long time ago; you really shouldn't let it get to you anymore."
"You aren't angry with me?"
Ginny smiled, "I doubt even Ron or Harry would be upset with you. Sure, they would've been revolted back then but we're wiser now and know that those feelings mean nothing. It's just a combination of pheromones and hormones."
Hermione didn't know whether she should mention that whilst Malfoy had been whispering things in her ear during the meeting, she'd had started reliving some of her sixth-year fantasies. When he'd mentioned the library, she'd been horrified. She had dreamt of such a scenario back then and remembered it when he'd come out and said that.
"I'd just be mortified if he used Legilimency on me and found out about that time of my life," she said instead.
"I doubt he did because you know that he would have rubbed it in your face if he had invaded your memories."
"You're right. I'm completely over-reacting and now I'm angry at myself for being stupid and giving that ferret the reaction he wanted."
"He did look ridiculously pleased with himself afterwards. But at least you broke up that meeting. It was getting long and tedious."
"Everyone's laughing at me again, aren't they?"
Ginny thought about lying for a brief moment but realised that would just be detrimental in the long run. "A little bit. They were like a bunch of vultures afterwards, circling around Neville trying to get the gossip."
She groaned. "Do you think I'll ever stop being so impetuous?"
"Nah, it's what makes you Hermione. I love that you have all that passion even if it does come out in some insane ways sometimes."
Hermione rubbed her face, blew her nose and gave the redhead a fierce hug. "You're the best, Ginny. I don't know what I'd do without you. Harry and Ron are useless with these emotions and Luna's too dreamy."
Ginny started giggling. "Imagine if you'd told Luna. She'd blame it on the Wrackspurts or something."
She started laughing too, and soon both girls were in hysterics.
"Draco Malfoy, what is wrong with you?!" Daphne yelled as she stomped out of the Floo connection at Malfoy Manor.
Severus looked up from the latest potions journal he was perusing. "Good evening to you too, Miss Greengrass. If you could please stop screeching, it would be appreciated."
"Oh hello, sir," his former pupil said, a little disconcerted by her previous Head of House's presence. "Er… have you seen Draco?"
Daphne hated the prickling sensation she got around her former Potions Professor. It always felt as if he was reading her mind.
"I believe he may in the library. He came back about an hour ago, looking immensely pleased with himself."
"He won't be feeling so smug once I get my hands on him," she said fiercely, stalking out of the parlour, leaving her former Professor amused behind her.
Daphne slammed the door to Malfoy library open. "Draco Malfoy, get your scrawny arse out here now!"
Her irritating friend poked his head out from between some stacks. "Why, Daphne, what a delightful surprise," he drawled.
"Don't give me that, you utter prat. I told you to behave yourself for one evening and you couldn't even do that."
"I'm sorry - did I miss the part where you turned into my mother?"
She stamped her foot. "Draco, I begged you to be civil. You said you would try and then you cause a massive scene which will probably be reported in the Daily Prophet tomorrow."
"You missed the key part of that sentence, Daphne: I said I'd try. I did but failed. I can't help it - Granger is just too amusing when she gets angry. It's irresistible."
"You're a prat."
"Since when is that news?"
"Since you got paired up with Granger. Would it really kill you to try and show her that you're not such a bad person?"
"Why should I? Besides, she's become insufferable. She's hideously prejudiced and stuck in the past. I refuse to go chasing after her, begging her to think that I'm a human being and not evil incarnate."
"What kind of marriage are the pair of you going to have if you keep this up?"
"Hey, why am I the one getting all the shit? She's hardly Little Miss Perfect."
"No, but I didn't ask her. I asked you. I thought you could do this for me at least. She's Harry's best friend and now he's in a tizzy which is ruining my evening."
"I'm sorry to be such an inconvenience to your relationship," he said sarcastically.
"Just behave yourself! We're all going to Ginny's opening match of the season on Halloween which means you and Hermione will be in the same vicinity. If you pull a stunt like today again, I'll make sure you can't have little Malfoys."
"Potter's bad for you, Daph. You've become as melodramatic as his little bunch of Gryffindorks," he replied, completely unimpressed with her threat.
"Just do it for me, Draco. Can you manage that?"
"Will you leave me alone if I say that I'll be nice to the bushy-haired pain in the arse?"
"Okay, anything to get rid of you."
Daphne gave him a radiant smile. "Thank you. You never know, if she saw your nice side, she actually might start to like you back," she said, then quickly spun around and left the room before Draco could throw something heavy at her.
As she shut the door, she heard the thud as one of the books hit the precise place her head had been just a second ago. "Bloody meddling girl," she heard him grumble. "It's so much easier just to have minions. They respect you and don't answer back and don't make ridiculous claims about you liking vicious harpies."
She walked back towards the parlour, amused by Draco's overhead whinge and gave Severus and Narcissa an angelic smile as she left the Manor.
"Severus, what was that about?" Narcissa asked.
"Who knows? Those former students of mine are always having one crisis or another."
Narcissa pursed her lips; she knew her husband better than that. "Don't give me that, you know exactly what happened."
Severus smiled at her. "I may have picked through her mind when she came storming through here earlier."
"That's more like it. Now share!" Narcissa imperiously demanded.
"Yes, ma'am," Severus smiled at his beautiful wife. "It seems your troublesome son needled Miss Granger into making a scene at the meeting tonight. She stormed out in a huff and Daphne's upset with him because he promised he'd try to get on with that insufferable know-it-all."
"I don't know what the Sorting Hat was thinking to pair those two up. They'll kill each other."
"Ah, but think of the entertainment, my dear," Severus said.
Narcissa gave a very un-Black-like giggle. "It certainly won't be quiet around here," she said, giving her husband a kiss.
"That's disgusting. Enough with the public displays of affection. That's my mum you're violating, Severus."
"Oh hush, Draco," Narcissa said, blushing slightly at the look her sardonic son was giving her.
Ginny got back to the Burrow late that night. She was due back in Wales tomorrow so Harry and Ron were waiting up for her, as she knew they would be.
"How was Hermione?" Ron asked.
"She was okay, apart from feeling foolish for letting Malfoy get to her so much."
"Did she say why she got so upset?" Harry asked.
Ginny debated whether to tell them about Hermione's secret infatuation with Malfoy. It might help them push the pair together. She decided against it. Hermione had told her that in strictest confidence and she'd probably be mortified if she knew anyone but Ginny knew about it. Besides, she didn't believe for a moment that it had been as brief or as light hearted as Hermione claimed. In fact, she'd bet her Quidditch broom that it was the reason why Hermione got so worked up tonight - and in general - whenever Malfoy was mentioned.
Since her first date with Blaise, where he'd mentioned Malfoy's latent feelings for Hermione, Ginny couldn't help but look at their relationship in a whole new light. And Hermione's passionate response to Malfoy could easily be suppressed desire.
"She did but I can't tell you," she replied.
Both boys gave her scathing looks, "Come on, Gin, we might be able to help if we know," Ron pleaded.
"That's true but I'll also be betraying Hermione's confidence and I don't want to. She's going to feel betrayed enough when she finds out that the pair of you have been friends with Malfoy behind her back."
Ron banged his head on the table. "Will everyone stop reminding us about that? It's started to give me sleepless nights."
"And so it should. It's shameful the way that you've lied to someone who, to all extent and purposes, is your sister," she scolded.
Harry and Ron look guiltily down at the floor and she sighed. She was going to get nowhere with this and doubted they'd ever get the guts to confess to Hermione. Woe to them if she found out, though.
"Anyway, I thought you'd said Malfoy had changed," she said, changing the subject. "He appeared to be his usual prattish self tonight."
"I know, but then Hermione affects Draco the same way that he does her. They seem incapable of even being in the same room without fighting," Harry said.
"Well, I'm hoping the outing to my Quidditch game will help mend some bridges, and not only with Hermione and Malfoy. George looks like he needs help in coming to terms with Parkinson."
Ron sniggered, "Poor bugger. Fancy pulling her out of the Hat."
"At least she no longer resembles a pug," was all Ginny said before giving them both a kiss on the cheek and turning in for the night.
Hermione sheepishly knocked on Professor McGonagall's office. She had come to apologise for her behaviour the evening before. Her stern ex-Transfiguration professor waved her into the office and Hermione looked around; gone were the many fascinating and unusual artefacts that Dumbledore had kept along with Fawkes. Instead it was the organised, clean office that was to be expected from Minerva McGonagall. Hogwarts' Headmistress gestured for her to sit in one of the seats before her desk. Hermione hadn't felt this nervous since her school days. It was almost as if she had been sneaking around the castle after hours again.
"Professor, I'm so sorry about yesterday. I know I shouldn't let Draco Malfoy get to me, but I guess old habits die hard and it's difficult not to react."
McGonagall smiled at her favourite former pupil. "Hermione, I think you can call me Minerva. We did fight a war together. I forget how many times I tell you this each time I see you."
"It's sitting here in front of you back at Hogwarts. It's like I've been caught out for some misdemeanour and am waiting for your punishment."
"If you and Mr Malfoy had pulled that stunt here then undoubtedly the two of you would be facing a series of detentions and some severe house point deductions. But you didn't."
Hermione laughed at this. "I wanted to ask you some questions but wasn't keen on asking them in front of everyone last night."
"I thought you might have some for me especially after Hestia filled me in on your… er… conversation with her on Monday."
Hermione had the shame to blush. Her actions always seemed so much worse in front of McGonagall. It didn't help that she looked up to Headmistress, who'd always been something of a role model for her.
"I must admit, I was more than a little surprised when your name was paired with that of Draco Malfoy. I didn't think the Sorting Hat would match the two of you with your explosive history."
"Is there anyway that I can get out of marrying him?"
The older witch sighed. "I really wish there was but sadly the pairings are concrete according to the dictates laid down by Rowena Ravenclaw. The Sorting Hat has matched according to the most compatible personality, intelligence and traits. If you do refuse to marry Mr. Malfoy then the curse will be completed and Hogwarts will have to close."
Hermione felt torn. On the one hand, she didn't think she could go through with marrying the ferret but on the other, she didn't want to deprive generations of future children the joy of being educated at Hogwarts - even future Slytherins.
"I'm in such a quandary about this. I love Hogwarts and I don't want to deny anyone the ability to learn here but to be tied to Malfoy is something I'm not sure I can do."
"I don't want to force you to do something that goes against your conscience. I just ask that you think it over, Hermione."
"If it was anything other than Hogwarts I would outright refuse but this place is special. Is there no other way that we can break the curse?"
"I haven't found a way yet. I've had some of the best curse breakers on the case but we've had no luck."
"I've got Bill Weasley offering to help me out. Would you mind if I had a go at it?"
"Of course not. But as I said earlier: I was at first opposed to the idea but as I've read through Rowena's journal, the more I think she was on to something. I'm happy to lend them to you and Bill to see if you can come up with anything new."
Hermione smiled excitedly. "Oh, would you? That would be amazing. Her journals must be fascinating."
McGonagall smiled and nodded in agreement.
"I'm also curious as to the time-span for all the pairs to get married," Hermione said.
"That is something that the Ministry and I are still working on. So far, there doesn't appear to be a time limit in fulfilling the curse. We're trying to give you all enough time to get to know your future spouses in as little pressurised manner as possible," McGonagall replied.
Hermione nodded. At least this gave her some time to break the curse.
McGonagall was pleased to see the enthusiasm on her former pupil's face. It had been missing for a while now. "Maybe, instead of spending time looking into the curse, you could spend time trying to get to know Mr. Malfoy."
"I know everything I already want to know about that man," she scowled.
The Headmistress looked at her over her spectacles. "Are you sure? For example, has it never struck you as odd that you haven't once been called to Malfoy Manor to inspect the conditions of their house-elves?"
This was something that she had noticed, as she had anticipated sweeping back into Malfoy Manor in a much more regal manner than being dragged around by her hair by Bellatrix and freeing the poor house-elves there. If Dobby's treatment had been anything to go on, they were probably a mistreated, downtrodden lot. She'd been severely disappointed when the call to inspect the Manor had never come.
"I must admit, it's something that has crossed my mind a few times."
"That's because the first thing Mr. Malfoy did when he took up control of the Manor was free all of his elves and offer them fair pay and holidays."
"Really? Well that does surprise me. Especially with how Dobby was treated."
"You may want to consider the fact that the war had a profound affect on Mr. Malfoy and his Slytherin contemporaries. They were young, impressionable and brought up to think a certain way. But Draco Malfoy is not his father. The fact that he was such an unsuccessful Death Eater is ample proof of that."
Hermione really didn't want to think about that. She liked the status quo and liked to think that Malfoy had been such a rotten Death Eater because he was just a snivelling coward, not because he struggled with the reality of such a life. "I guess so," she said reluctantly.
McGonagall smiled at stubborn woman in front of her. She knew not to push Hermione too far but felt that she had given her something to think about.
"Well, it might be an idea to think a little more about that. I'll just go and retrieve the journals for you from Madam Pince."
Hermione sighed. She wished that this curse had never been revealed. She had been perfectly happy with her life until that letter from the Ministry arrived. Now, she knew all kinds of things that she wished she didn't. Harry was dating a Slytherin and people kept telling her to give Draco Malfoy a chance. She wasn't sure she could cope with this.