I am not going to bore you all with excuses. Suffice it to say that, while life has certainly been busy, it's my own fault that I haven't made my stories higher priority than other crap that is legitly not as important (though, there definitely was a lot of junk going on that was more important; sorry, guys!). So, bring on the torches and pitchforks if you must—you might actually scare me into updating faster! Haha :) This chapter has a component that I found particularly difficult to imagine and write about. I finally found something that I think works, but I hope that it's not too out-there.

I just started a new semester of school yesterday, so I'll be busy a lot, but I'm hoping that being busy will actually work in my favor. They say that if you need something done, you should give it to a busy person, because they'll find a way to fit it in. Let's hope that works for me! And encouragement (reviews, PMs, etc. ;) is always welcome and appreciated!

Anyway, after far too long, here is the next chapter.

Draco dressed very carefully that Saturday morning. He didn't want to look like a slob who had just rolled out of bed, but he also didn't want to appear to be trying too hard to impress McGonagall (which he certainly was doing, but that was beside the point…).

He and Hermione walked down to breakfast together, and she chatted to him aimlessly about the plans the school had for after lunch. Draco was nervous about his session with his House concerning prejudice, but he had time to worry about that after presenting their paper to McGonagall. Not only did Draco need her to be willing to read their paper with an open mind, but he had something specific and slightly personal to confess to the Headmistress, and he didn't want to sound like an idiot doing it.

Hermione gave Draco a peck on the cheek before sitting down at the Gryffindor table, directing him up to the teacher's table at the top of the Hall. Draco walked with his shoulders back and his head up. 'If I was a dog, though,' he thought, 'I'd have my tail between my legs.' After mentally shaking himself, he thought, 'I think I'm going insane.'

He reached the Headmistress and said, "Professor McGonagall, Miss Granger and I have finished our proposal paper for the seventh-year special project. If it is acceptable to you, I would like to give it to you now."

Surprisingly, McGonagall had a small, amused smile on her lips at Draco's formal tone. "Yes, that will do nicely, Mr. Malfoy, thank you." She reached out a hand and took the scroll that her young charge proffered. When he didn't leave immediately, McGonagall said, "Perhaps, Mr. Malfoy, you'd like to step out and discuss the proposal paper?"

Looking slightly relieved that he wouldn't have to discuss his personal matter in front of the other professors, Draco nodded his head and followed McGonagall into the side room that usually held the unsorted first years at the beginning of each fall term. McGonagall directed Draco to a chair, which he took once she herself had been seated.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Malfoy?"

He cleared his throat slightly, looking at his shoes for a moment, leaning over his legs with clasped hands and a bent back. "I wanted to…to thank you, Professor, for giving me the Head Boy position." At this, he looked up at his mentor with contrition and gratitude shining in his eyes. "I have done very little in my life that would lead to me deserving this position, but you gave me the opportunity anyway, and I want you to know that I'm grateful. Hermione has been wonderful as well—she's an incredibly forgiving person—and I…." He trailed off, unused to confessing such personal things.

"Yes, Mr. Malfoy?"

He looked up again, the lights in his eyes displaying his fierce determination. "I will not let you down, nor will I betray the trust that you both have placed in me. This session with the Slytherins today…it's essential, and it's a great opportunity for all of us to understand more fully how alike we all are, instead of imagining how different each of us can be. I…I just want you to know that I won't fail you." Draco was blushing slightly at all he had revealed; he was normally a very private person, and baring his soul to a teacher was quite out-of-character for him. However, he recognized the necessity of it, and, once again steeling his resolve, he looked up into McGonagall's eyes, surprised to see warmth and approval radiating out to him.

"I know you will not fail, Mr. Malfoy." She stood to leave but turned back to face him when she reached the door. "But you should know, Draco, that it is ourselves whom we must not disappoint in life. Everything else will fall into place on its own." Without waiting for a reply, she went back to the Hall to finish her breakfast. Draco took a few minutes to compose himself before doing the same.

-o0O0o-

That afternoon, Hermione and the Gryffindor Prefects had every Lion lined up alongside the lake. Slytherin House had taken the Room of Requirement, the Hufflepuffs were set up in the Great Hall, and Ravenclaw had (of course) lodged up in the library. It was officially time for Hogwarts students to get over those ridiculous notions that school House determined whether a person was good or evil, smart or ignorant, of worth or lower than dirt. Hermione had a fierce determination in her heart and was holding her head high as she surveyed her classmates. This year would be the end of House prejudice if it killed her.

And her plan for the Gryffindors was brilliant, if she did say so herself.

'And it took me for bloody ever to get everything set up, so it better go over right,' she thought almost angrily. She had foregone several hours' worth of sleep and study time in order to do right by her Lions, and if it didn't end up teaching them anything, she thought she might just lay down in the mud and cry.

"Okay, everybody, listen up!" Hermione's voice boomed across the grounds because of the Sonorus charm she had cast upon herself. "The Prefects are each going to randomly select some of you to join their group. The idea is to learn something, so I don't want to hear any whinging about not being in the same group as your friends. You won't even remember that they are your friends once we start, anyway! Okay, Prefects, go ahead and pick your groups."

Ginny, who was the White Group leader, chose thirteen other students of varying years to complete her group. The Black Group, lead by Jacob, a fifth year Prefect, consisted of nineteen Lions. Amy, the other fifth year, had twenty-five fellow Browns, Colin Creevey was leading the other sixteen Greys, Parvati had a small group of six (including herself) Pinks, and Ron was the leader of the Orange Group, which totaled nineteen Gryffindors. Hermione gave Ron a disapproving look when she saw that Harry was part of his group. 'What did I just say about not knowing who your friends were during this exercise?' She shook her head before addressing the group again.

"Okay, so this is how it's going to work. Each group has wristbands in varying shades of your group's color. The darker the shade, the more dedicated to your group's dogma that individual is. However, that does not necessarily dictate whether you actually believe in it—it just indicates that you follow the dogma to that certain degree. There are three different levels of legitimate commitment that are not visible: dedicated, neutral, and averse. There is no set number of each type in each group; you'll have to figure that out for yourselves. When it's time to start, each person will take a wristband, a notepad, and an inkless quill. Your job is to interact with each other—your actions will be dictated by the wrist bands, so I don't want anyone judging their classmates after this exercise is over—and note on your notepad who you think actually believes that they are superior or inferior. At the end, we'll take a few examples and see if you have been able to guess correctly. And after that, I have a short…lesson, I guess you could say." At the groaning and muttering among the Gryffindors, Hermione frowned and said, "It'll be less than five minutes, good grief! You're not going to die from one extra, teeny-tiny lesson!" She huffed and then said, "Alright, everyone put on a wrist band. After half an hour or so, I'll call for you to remove them."

The Gryffindors moved to do as the Head Girl had instructed. As each one put on a wristband, they found themselves forgetting who their friends were, but remembering everyone's names. Each student felt a sort of…detachment…from their classmates.

Except…. Suddenly, they began to feel a pull to those who wore the same color wristband. These individuals were…not family, per se, but equals.

Soon, Hermione could see divisions in the groups. Some did not seem to care about the wristband colors, and they wandered around, engaging (or trying to engage) everyone in conversation. Others stoutly refused to do anything other than exactly what their wristband was enticing them to do. Hermione had put minor tracking spells on the bands that forced the Gryffindor to obey the societal structure despite the fact that they did not believe in it. She specifically wanted to point out these individuals to the group after the exercise.

Hermione was unsurprised to see that those eleven Gryffindors (four Pink, one Grey, one Black, two Brown, one Orange, and two White) were indistinguishable—outside her clever tracking spells—from the others of their group. The activity was progressing exactly as Hermione had wanted it to, and she was ecstatic!

The White Group represented the quintessential Gryffindor—brave do-gooders who did not judge based on to what group someone belonged…unless it was Pink (or Slytherin, Hermione added to herself). Ginny was one of the two in the White Group who did not actually believe in that philosophy. The wristband Ginny wore allowed her to be non-judgmental even when it came to the Pink Group. The fourth year boy that had the other White exception band only pretended to be magnanimous—he "disliked" all the groups other than his own color without letting on so.

The Orange Group did not consider the imagined hierarchy of any real importance. Their philosophy was that, if someone did not want to be their friend, it was that individual's loss. A poor second-year girl, who wore the Orange exception band, pretended that the shunning didn't bother her, but she was (imaginarily, of course) deeply hurt by every rejection. Hermione determined to do something nice for her sometime to make it up to her.

Amy's Brown Group, which was by far the largest, gave respect to the "upper class" (in this case, the Pinks and Greys) but did not feel any particular loyalty to them. There were two exceptions in this group, as well. One actually accepted and respected the hierarchy instead of merely pretending to do so, and the other openly rejected it, attempting to befriend anyone.

The other fifth year Prefect, Jacob, had the one exception band in the Black Group. This had been the hardest group for Hermione to organize. The bands had to prevent the person approaching a Pink individual unless it was about school or business—the spellwork had been particularly difficult, and Hermione had consulted Flitwick for days before finally getting it to work correctly. Jacob's band was the only one that allowed him to approach anyone. Coincidentally, his wristband also made him a particularly charismatic individual, and most of the time, others accepted him regardless of their own status.

Colin's Grey Group was rather tricky to develop, as well. They had to be the suck-up types to the Pink Group, because their own status depended on the Pinks accepting them. They also had to have a certain amount of inherent animosity for the White Group without the compulsion to seek the Whites out. Greys would defend themselves and the Pinks if there were to be a confrontation, but they never sought to start a fight. One of the other sixth years was wearing the Grey exception band. She would automatically say something derogatory to someone in the White Group who happened to be near simply to convince her fellows that she was indeed "dedicated" to their group.

Parvati had two fifth years, a third year, and two second years in her Pink Group. They were the peak of the social structure Hermione had created. They were "taught" by their wristbands that they were inherently superior to the others, and they had strict rules on with whom they were permitted to interact. Only Parvati and one of the second years actually "believed" in the structure, though. The others were compelled through a simulated fear to act as though they felt themselves to be of more value than their peers.

After half an hour, during which Hermione was glad to see mistaken assumptions being made by nearly every one of her Gryffindors (not that she wanted them to fail—she just needed to make a point), she re-cast her Sonorus charm. "Alright, everyone, it's time to take the wristband's off. Find your Prefect, hand them your wristband, and then find a seat. And hang onto your notepads, because you'll need them in a minute."

When the wristbands began to be removed, sheepish, uncomfortable, and thoughtful looks emerged all through the group. As soon as everyone was seated, Hermione called Ron and Parvati up to direct the discussion.

Parvati, looking uncomfortable with her role during the exercise, said, "Alright, so who of the Pinks were just pretending, and who was serious?"

A fourth-year boy raised his hand. When Ron called on him, he stood and said, "It's a trick question; they were all serious." There was a murmur of assent, and the seventh-year Prefects looked to Hermione.

Smiling, she said, "You're wrong. Actually, only two of them were serious. The other four were pretending." Hermione looked at Parvati and said, "I'm sorry that it was so uncomfortable for you, Parvati." She turned back to the group and indicated Parvati and the second-year, saying, "These two were the only ones who 'believed' they were better than everyone else. The other four acted the way they did out of a sort of simulated fear."

The mutterings continued. They moved through each of the groups, always surprised at who had been the actors and who had actually been convinced that they were right. Hermione was happy to see the second-year girl's friends comforting her when they found out she had actually felt the rejection she received during the activity. After the last of the actors had been revealed, Ron and Parvati joined their classmates and Hermione stood to address the Gryffindors once more.

Taking a deep breath, she said, "I want you to know that the ideas for today's exercise didn't come from me, exactly. I interviewed several different Slytherins from first, third, fifth, and seventh year, and I tried to mimic the hierarchy that had developed in Salazar Slytherin's House over the centuries. Other than the White Group—which indeed was supposed to symbolize our own House, as you guessed—every Group was based on a perceived group of people within Slytherin.

"Draco Malfoy was considered the head of Slytherin's upper-class. Pansy Parkinson filled that roll for the lower upper-class. Vincent Crabbe and Greg Goyle of the lower middle-class…. I could go on and on. The point is that Slytherin House has always had a penchant for dividing even its own students by a perceived merit that never had anything to do with morals, abilities, or personality. From the time of Salazar Slytherin up until right now, Slytherins have been judged within their own Houses, by their own classmates, based on the 'purity' of their bloodlines and the contents of their Gringotts vaults. And, while I mourn the fact, I would have to say that it is in part due to the prejudice of Gryffindor House against the Snakes."

This was obviously not accepted well. There was an outburst of "Traitor!" and "How can you blame us for their problems?" Hermione cringed but then shouted, silencing the students in front of her. "I am not saying that anyone here is particularly to blame. I think the issues started when the school was still under the direct control of the Founders. If Gryffindors had been less competitive"—here she gave Ron and Harry a significant look—"or had been less straight-forward and brash"—her gaze swept over the whole group, knowing that the Gryffindor passion existed in most of those gathered in front of her—"we may have been able to end the rivalry before it started.

"As a House, we purport to be unbiased, to be defenders, to be brave and loyal. But being loyal to an age-old grudge is not something we should boast about. There are many, many good people who have been part of Slytherin House. And there are many Gryffindors, current and past, who have done evil, whether intentionally or not. We have the ability to do good and to do ill regardless of our House affiliation. We have those abilities because we are human.

"The values by which we identify members of our Houses are not the only ones we possess. In most cases, we are placed where we are because of the things we value most." Hermione took a breath to calm her nerves; her next point was the pinnacle, and she didn't want to fudge it. "Most of us were raised by parents who taught us that anything worth gaining in life must be earned, fought for. We were raised to believe that family and friendship are the most important things we can have in this life, and that we should fight to get and keep them. So, naturally, we value bravery in seeking out and protecting those things.

"Ravenclaws learned from a young age that knowledge is the key to success in any area of life; without knowing about something, you cannot obtain, maintain, or improve upon it. And so they value study and learning—in personal matters as well as academic—above most other pursuits.

"Hufflepuffs have been raised to understand that friendship and love are rare, and that they can easily be lost because of tragedy, stupidity, ignorance, or misunderstanding. Therefore, they aim to always demonstrate that they treasure their friends and family, making loyalty chief among their valued attributes.

"Slytherins, in many cases, were raised to know that success is only obtained when you have done something to earn it. They are taught to persuade—or yes, perhaps manipulate—others, devise intricate plans and strategies, and be patient until they see the results. When these things are taught alongside other important morals—equality and acceptance, integrity, and humility—a cunning mind is a great blessing. If you are taught to be cunning but not how to be kind and honest, much evil can be the result. The same goes for each of the other Houses' main qualities. Slytherin simply got its bad reputation because Salazar, from the beginning, shunned those he deemed 'unworthy.' That prejudice was passed down through his House members for centuries because they looked up to the man who had been their Founder."

Something occurred to Hermione then that she hadn't planned on sharing, but she now felt that it needed to be said.

"The same happened when Tom Riddle began his decent into the Dark Arts, eventually becoming Lord Voldemort."

The group seemed to hold its breath, waiting on pins and needles for Hermione to continue. She looked at her captive audience and said, "He was an intelligent, charismatic, handsome young man who knew how to manipulate and persuade, but who was never taught love, nor honesty, nor humility. When he, who had been such a model student, began to move to the Dark, others followed because they had looked up to him.

"We. Can. Not judge Slytherin House in its entirety by the actions of some of its members. If we did judge them all to be Salazars and Voldemorts, then we should all be Peter Petigrews. No, we cannot pass judgment on anyone based on another's actions. It is unfair, and it will not be an accurate representation of the individual.

"One last thing, and then I will let you all head out. I have a challenge for you. I want you each, over the next two months, to befriend a Slytherin. I don't care who—male, female, your age, older, younger, it doesn't matter—but I want to see each of you reaching out to the Snakes over the next eight weeks. We have a lot of damage to repair—centuries' worth of it—so we had better start now.

"Alright, off with you. I know you all have homework to get done, and you have a new assignment, as well, so hop to!" The younger years hurried back to the common room, eager to do as the Head Girl had asked. The others, aware that she had no power over how they managed their time, went off to their various pursuits. Hermione's friends and the Prefects gathered around her to discuss whether the day had been successful.

Hermione bit her lip as she looked around at her friends. "So?"

Ginny's face broke into a huge smile. "You were brilliant, 'Mione!"

Patting her back, Harry said, "Absolutely fantastic! That activity thing was perfect. I think you really got through to them."

"And your speech was bloody brilliant!" Ron scooped Hermione into a hug.

Parvati was next to speak. "When did you have time to do all that, Hermione?"

Harry, giving her a shrewd look, said, "Not third year all over again," his tone accusing.

Hermione shook her head, laughing and smiling knowingly. "Just some good, old-fashioned Pepper-Up Potion and a few sleep-deprived nights." She sighed and said, "And maybe a little less studying than there should have been." Her face looked guilty.

Colin laughed and said, "I think you can afford it, Hermione."

The group, all still talking excitedly about Hermione's brilliance and the insights the exercise had given them, trouped back up to the castle. They had some time to relax before they would be heading down to dinner, and Hermione was anxious to ask Draco about his success with the Slytherins.

So, was the activity too confusing? I hope not. You can't imagine how difficult this chapter was, both to conceive and to write. And I'm beginning to realize that I messed up big time by not making a more detailed outline before starting on this story :( At least I know for the future, right? :D