The next morning, Draco sat blankly in McGonagall's office, eyes bleary and bloodshot and body exhausted and rigid, as he waited for the Headmistress to arrive. He wanted to hex the twinkle right out of portrait-Dumbledore's eyes, since every time he looked up, the dead headmaster was staring kindly at him as if he hadn't once attempted to assassinate the old man. It was unnerving, and just plain odd, since if Draco was the one peering out of a portrait at himself, he would be sneering and shooting daggers from his painted eyes, not regarding him as if he were a dear old friend. At least Snape's portrait had the decency to pretend to be snoozing.
Finally he heard the door behind him creak open, and McGonagall's robes swept along the floor as she entered. "Good morning, Mr. Malfoy."
He didn't respond, barely looking up when she sat down behind her desk. Suddenly a silver tin was shoved under his nose. "Have a biscuit."
The thought of eating made his stomach twist, but he grabbed a biscuit from the tin anyway. "I'm sure you're wondering why I asked you here. Yesterday the house elf you freed -"
"Libby's dead, I know," Draco said flatly, studying the biscuit in his hand. If he'd looked up, he would have seen McGonagall's eyes widen just a bit.
"Can you think of anyone who would want her dead?" she asked softly.
The words came out laced in bitterness. "It was my father."
"Your father?" she repeated. "What makes you so sure?"
"It doesn't matter," he muttered. "Nobody can prove it."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Mr. Malfoy," McGonagall replied. "So please, elaborate."
He looked up at the headmistress for the first time. "He killed her because she knew things about him, and things he's done since he's been released. And because she wasn't forced to follow his orders anymore, she became a liability." Draco then felt a horrible feeling come over him. Until now, he hadn't thought of the fact that if he hadn't freed Libby, she would still be alive. She'd still be abused and mistreated, but at least she would be alive.
"But surely you realize that your father couldn't have just walked into the Hogwarts kitchens and cursed her," McGonagall said.
"He's been using one of his elves to do his dirty work," Draco said darkly.
"Another elf?" McGonagall asked. Draco nodded, and she added, "What do you mean by 'dirty work'?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Draco said, "but suffice it to say, my father has already used a few Unforgiveables upon his release."
"I'm afraid you must elaborate, Mr. Malfoy," she said. "These are very serious accusations."
"Obviously," Draco sneered, "but it doesn't matter! The only proof died last night."
She ignored this. "Which Unforgivable Curses has he used? And on whom?"
"It doesn't matter," Draco repeated.
"Was it you?"
Draco scowled and made a motion to get up, but a flick of McGonagall's wand forced him back into his seat. He flashed his angry eyes upon the headmistress, and she pursed her thin lips into a line. "Mr. Malfoy -"
"He used the Imperius Curse, all right?" Draco suddenly blurted. "It's none of your business."
"Oh, I very much disagree! I'd say it's very much my business when a student of mine is being cursed and elves are killed in Hogwarts kitchens!"
"And what can you do about it?" Draco challenged. "He's always found a way to slither out of Azkaban and get away with every terrible thing he's ever done-"
"Your memories, Mr. Malfoy - those will make all the difference," McGonagall said gently. "If you will give me your memories of Libby and of being cursed, I will immediately contact the head of the Auror office and -"
This time Draco managed to stand up without magical interference, and he ignored McGonagall as she called after him while he stomped out of her office. Somewhere inside of him, he knew he should do as she suggested, and hand over his memories, but the though of doing so still made his skin crawl and anger spike. He could see it all now - he would be ridiculed, his most private and embarrassing mistakes revealed, and Lucius would merely scoff as his legal counsel kept him out of Azkaban. Who would believe such a bizarre, far fetched story? And anyway, memories were altered and fabricated all the time. That's probably what everyone would assume Draco did, for the sake of saving his relationship.
He marched in the direction of Hermione's dorm, having no intention of going to class today, or being seen by anyone at all. He found Astoria a few feet away from the chicken hag's portrait, apparently waiting to speak to him, but he merely snapped, "I don't want to talk to you," as he slammed the portrait closed behind him. He didn't care that her eyes welled up with tears as she ran away, and he tried not to care that he could feel Hermione at the edge of his mind, hurting and wrestling with her emotions as she tried to focus in class a few corridors away.
He couldn't bear the thought of drinking again. The brief numb that it allowed wasn't worth the self-loathing that washed over him when the memories of Lucius doing the same reared their ugly heads. So instead, he decided to sit and stew in his anger and pain in his room, wishing his father hadn't altered the wards at Malfoy Manor so that he could no longer enter, because all he wanted to do was find his father and beat him to a pulp.
"Hermione," Harry said gently. "Stop torturing yourself."
Hermione drew in a sharp breath and looked down into her plate before turning to Harry. She'd just been staring at Astoria across the Hall for longer than she'd intended to, which was for any length of time at all, and she instantly began silently berating herself for being such an apparent glutton for punishment. She sighed and picked at her food with her fork.
"I sort of... broke up with Draco last night," she said quietly, so only Harry and Ginny could hear. Ginny leaned past Harry to look at Hermione, but neither of them quite knew what to say for a moment.
"Sorry. How did Malfoy take it?" Harry finally asked.
"Not well," Hermione said, shaking her head. "He'a angrier than ever."
"Don't let him get to you," Ginny said. "You need to do what's best for you. And only you know what that is right now."
"I'm not sure if I do," Hermione admitted. "I'm not sure of anything right now."
"Then," Harry said, "best to get some distance until you are."
Hermione shrugged. "I suppose."
Suddenly, Hermione clutched her left arm and felt as if her scar was about to burst open; pain seared across the jagged, faded word etched in her skin and anger that wasn't hers exploded inside of her mind. Then there was a bang and everyone in the Hall jumped nearly a foot into the air. It seemed to have come from the corridor to the right of the Great Hall, and McGonagall quickly rose from her seat at the staff table and hurried towards the sound, followed by Slughorn and a few other teachers. Harry got up too, more out of habit of rushing towards the sound of trouble than anything, and Hermione and Ginny followed him, Hermione gripping her arm tightly still.
Voices began shouting and there was another bang as she entered the corridor, and her breath hitched at what she saw. At the the top of the staircase was Draco and Seamus, apparently in the midst of a particularly nasty looking fistfight, and the teachers immediately began howling at the two boys to cease, but Draco swung a fist and hit Seamus squarely in the nose, and Seamus tried to retaliate but missed, neither of them looking as if they planned to stop pummeling each other any time soon.
"Draco!" Hermione half-screeched, and a few things happened at the same time: Draco froze and looked down at her, McGonagall cast a Body Bind Hex towards the boys, and then Seamus' fist connected with Draco's jaw, sending him off balance and causing him to tumble down the long staircase.
Seamus got hit with both of McGonagall's hexes and instantly became rigid and hit the floor, but nobody was looking at him - all eyes were fixed on Draco as he flopped down the stairs like a ragdoll until McGonagall quickly pointed her wand at him and he levitated safely into the air. Hermione's hands were over her mouth, and the sight of Draco's bloody face made her stomach twist when McGonagall lowered him gently to the base of the staircase. He quickly dropped on his knees as soon as she released him, and Slughorn bustled up the stairs to retrieve Seamus.
"What in Merlin's name is this about?" the headmistress demanded, her tone as severe as her face.
Draco said nothing. Instead he glared at Hermione through one swollen eye and one black eye as he struggled to breathe and clutched his side, and the pain in Hermione's scar reached its pinnacle.
Slughorn wobbled down the stairs with a freshly unhexed Seamus in tow, and when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he grabbed Draco by the back of his shirt as well.
"In my office, now," McGonagall said slightly shrilly, and when Slughorn dragged the boys past Hermione, Draco shot Hermione one last scathing look, as if it was all her fault.
"What d'you suppose happened?" Harry ventured to Hermione as the corridor began to empty.
She shook her head, rubbing her arm as the pain finally faded to a bearable hum. Then Ginny spoke. "One of them probably said something to finally make the other one snap. Seamus has been wanting to deck Malfoy ever since the incident with Dean in Hogsmeade."
Hermione frowned. The pain in her arm may have mostly subsided, but Draco's anger was still pulsing in her brain.
After refusing to say a word to McGonagall about what started the fight, Draco sat in the hospital wing after getting patched up and cleaned up by Madam Pomfrey, wishing he could go find somebody else to fight. It felt good to slam his fist into Seamus' obnoxious face and release some of the rage that was boiling inside.
It had started when Draco passed Seamus in the corridor, being forced to go to lunch by his naggingly inconvenient hunger, and heard Seamus mutter something that sounded like "filthy Death Eater" under his breath. Draco had actually smiled as he stopped dead in his tracks and turned around to face Seamus. They'd stared at each other for a moment before Draco pushed him, and in a matter of seconds, they shot hexes and were throwing punches.
In a strange way, the pain felt good. Seamus was a poor enough fighter that Draco could have easily avoided being hit by him entirely, but he'd chosen to let him a few times. Except for the last time - that punch had connected due to Draco's split second distraction in the form of Hermione's voice. And he definitely hadn't planned on falling down the stairs - he would feel the effects of that for awhile to come - but the odd thrill of releasing his anger on someone, and the relief of feeling something besides the dull, pulsating ache in his heart that he'd felt from the second Lucius' curse was lifted, was weirdly exhilarating. Of course, it hadn't lasted long, and now he was back to the emotional state he'd been trying so desperately to escape.
Vaguely, he wondered how many fights he could get in before he was expelled. Speaking of, how many days of classes could he miss before being expelled? Did he even care if he was expelled?
Before he could decide on an answer to this, a sound from the doorway caught his attention. He looked up, hoping to see Hermione as well as hoping not to see her, and found Astoria instead. He was equally annoyed and relieved, but mostly confused as to why she was there.
"What do you want?" he snapped as she walked inside, looking uncertain.
"Just wanted to make sure you weren't dead," she said, matching his irritable tone.
"Why should you care?" he spat.
She stopped in front of the bed he was perched on and crossed her arms. "I wouldn't if you weren't my child's father."
Draco snorted. "At least you're honest."
"I take it Granger's dumped you," Astoria ventured, feeling the usual sense of a desire to hurt Draco ever since the lifting of his curse.
Draco's eyes flashed as he turned them on her. "That's none of your business."
"So yes," she said. "Pity."
Draco's anger was about to spike again, so he said nothing and imagined punching somebody again as one of his fists tightened. "I'd reckon you're better off, though," Astoria continued. "Nobody in our House has been able to understand why you decided to take up with a mud-"
Draco shot to his feet and the terrifying glint in his eye stopped her short of completing the slur. "Don't say a word about her."
Astoria backed away, turning her eyes to her feet as Draco stormed out of the hospital wing. She cursed at herself as she left a few moments later, knowing that she'd just managed to make things even worse between herself and Draco.
At dinner, Hermione watched nervously as Draco glared at many faces from his table in the Great Hall. Today, he chose to sit with Pansy and Blaise instead of with her for the first time since term began. First he and Seamus stared at one another with mutual loathing (as well as shared black eyes), and then he spent a few moments burning a hole through the back of Astoria's head before glancing at Hermione. She looked away quickly, not wanting to see the hurt lurking behind his eyes.
It was a Friday night, and Hermione was toying with the idea of spending the weekend at her parents' house before we realized she couldn't do that without Draco going with her, to avoid another round of horrifying physical pain like that of last night. She tried to imagine what life would be like if they stayed apart but lived together out of necessity, and it was such an unpleasant thought she barely heard Ginny's voice saying, "Is that Ron?"
Hermione turned her head towards the Hall's entrance, and sure enough, there was Ron, beaming and looking utterly happy as Ginny and Harry quickly scrambled away from the table to run at him and greet him with huge hugs. Neville, Luna and Seamus did the same, leaving Hermione as the last to get up. When she did, she glanced at Draco once more, and was unsurprised to find an angry scowl on his face.
Soon she found herself enveloped in a tight but brief hug from Ron, and when he pulled away she asked breathlessly, "This is such a surprise - what are you doing here?"
"I got the weekend off of training," Ron smiled. "I'm gonna spend tonight and tomorrow here and go home Sunday before I have to be back in London. How are you?"
"Oh, good," Hermione lied in a slightly too-high pitched voice.
"I'm surprised you don't have a ferret hanging on you," Ron said, enhancing Hermione's discomfort.
Harry glanced at Hermione and took Ron'a arm as he said, "Er, why don't you come have some dinner."
"I am pretty hungry," Ron grinned, and Hermione sighed, momentarily saved of the dreadful prospect of telling Ron about the Draco-Astoria debacle.
But even Ron wasn't so thick as to not realize something was wrong. Between the dark circles under Hermione's eyes and the fact that Draco was brooding at a different table across the hall with several fellow Slytherins, he took a break from chatting about his Auror training and turned to Hermione.
"What's going on with you and Malfoy?"
Hermione swallowed a mouthful of water and muttered, "We're just taking a break is all."
"A break?" he repeated. "Why? What did he do? And why does he have a black eye?"
"Ron," she said weakly, "I really don't want to talk about it."
"Ron!" Ginny hissed. "Leave it. She doesn't want to talk about it."
Ron scowled and looked over at Draco, who returned his scathing look before getting up and storming out of the Hall. Hermione sighed and took another drink from her goblet, noting how Ron's timing always seemed to be utterly rotten.
Draco seethed as he wandered aimlessly out of the Great Hall, his feet taking him out of the castle's front doors for no real reason. He sucked in a lungful of cool autumn air and tried to purge from his mind the image of Hermione throwing herself into the Weasel's arms, but it was no use. Of course the Weasel would appear now, it was just impeccable timing on his part. As if there wasn't enough to annoy and enrage Draco at the moment.
Because it was only fitting that this should happen next, Draco soon heard footsteps behind him and turned to find the Golden Trio plus a Weaselette marching out of the castle, all of them chatting animatedly except for Hermione, who paled at the sight of Draco.
He couldn't help himself. "Get yourself kicked out of the Auror program already, have you, Weasel?"
Ron's face hardened and Hermione tensed, knowing what was probably going to happen next. "I'm on a break, you prat."
"Pity," Draco sneered. "And here I was hoping the Ministry had come to its senses."
"What's your problem?" Ron spat, and Harry tried in vain to keep him from advancing towards Draco. Hermione turned pleading eyes to Draco, also in vain. "Just because Hermione dumped you -"
"Ron -" Hermione said with wide eyes, but nobody heard her because Draco's fist pounded into Ron's face at that very moment. Ron staggered back before ramming himself into Draco, and they fell to the ground in a blur of flaming red and pale blonde hair.
Harry's eyes rolled just slightly as he jumped into the fight and dragged Ron away, and Hermione went to Draco and dropped down to her knees beside him, reaching out to hold him back as he tried to swing again at Ron while Harry was pulling him away.
"Draco - Draco, stop," she urged.
Draco's eyes snapped to her, and she could have sworn that they instantly became moist when they met hers. She had her hands wrapped around one of his, and his nose was bleeding for the second time that day, but she felt his rage still at her touch.
"Bloody psycho!" Ron bellowed, but Harry and Ginny were dragging him back into the castle and silence quickly fell upon Draco and Hermione.
She didn't let go of his hand until his eyes hardened suddenly and he yanked it away. "Better go with your little friends. Don't want to miss the Weasel's visit."
"Oh, Draco, would you just stop?" she asked in exasperation. "You can't walk around the school punching whoever you fancy to whenever you like -"
"What do you care?" he snapped. "It's not your problem what I do, so why are you even here?"
"Because I love you!" she suddenly blurted. "I love you, and all I said was that we should have a break! Not that I was done with you forever!"
He seemed torn between scoffing and crying. "If you love me, then stick by me!"
"I... I want to, but -"
"Exactly," Draco muttered, using his sleeve to wipe the blood from his face. "You can't. So either choose to stay with me or choose not to. Don't pretend that we can be anything in between."
Hermione stared at him, unable to form any words with her tongue, and she gasped in surprise when he suddenly pressed his lips to hers. It was a bruising, brutal kiss, and inside of it lay all of the conflict and the pain between them as well as the love and desire, though this time, his touch didn't bring forth images of Astoria in Hermione's mind. She was the furthest thing from both of their minds.
Draco's aching and injured hands moved through her hair while hers touched his cheeks almost timidly, and when the kiss ended, it was Draco who pulled away. He looked into her confused brown eyes and said, "I love you too. And I need you right now."
Hermione recognized the look in his eyes, the slight squinting and grimace that told her it wasn't easy for him to say these things.
"... I know," she finally said.
"So choose," Draco said before getting to his feet. Hermione watched him walk away, knowing he was right, and knowing that she could probably not stay away from him for long anyway.
Still, there was a long road in front of her. She stood up out of the grass and re-entered the castle, noticing that for the first time that day, her scar wasn't hurting.
By nine o'clock that night, Hermione was sitting in the Gryffindor common room, trying to read a book, and was about to hex Ron into next year.
"Why won't you just tell me?" Ron whined.
She sighed and glanced at Ginny across the room, then said, "Because I don't want to."
"Come on, Hermione, we're best friends."
"Yes, but I know you, and I know that I won't hear the end of it if I tell you why Draco and I are taking a break."
Ginny gave Hermione a look that she knew meant he's going to find out one way or another eventually. "So it must be bad then," Ron said darkly.
Hermione sighed. "Of course it's bad. People don't break up because of good things."
"You know what I mean!"
Hermione pursed her lips and turned to Ron on the couch they were sharing. "You have to promise you won't go do something stupid if I tell you, like go beat him up again, or -"
"He hit me first!"
"Just promise me, okay?" Hermione said impatiently.
"Fine, but -"
"His father Imperio'd him to get a pureblood girl pregnant with a Malfoy heir. And he did. Happy?"
Ron's eyes were as blank and befuddled as she'd anticipated they would be. "Are you joking?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Ginny, please hex him if he asks me that again."
"But - who did he - you know -"
"Astoria Greengrass," Hermione answered calmly.
"Really? Not Pansy Parkinson?"
Hermione stared at Ron. "Really. The curse was not specific as to who, as long as it was someone pureblood. And Pansy wouldn't have let him. I wish he had tried to go after her. Things wouldn't have been the way they are now."
Ron's eyes were bulging from his sockets. "But how can you be so calm about this? How long was this going on? I'll kill him!"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "No, you won't. And it went on for a month, not that it matters. He was under the Imperius Curse. He was horrified when he realized what he'd done."
"Why didn't he fight the curse? Harry has! We all did, or at least learned how to in fourth year!"
"Because, Ron, there was an elf following him around recasting the curse whenever he started to fight it," she said, as if bored. "Look, you wanted to know, and I told you. So drop it."
"Drop it?" Ron repeated in disbelief. "Are you serious? How am I supposed to drop it?"
"Generally," Harry interjected as he sat down in a chair opposite them, "you stop talking and let the conversation move on."
"But - but what about Lucius Malfoy? If he really did this, why isn't he in Azkaban? I wouldn't be surprised if Draco made the whole thing up, bloody ferret that he is -"
"He didn't make it up," Hermione said in a severe tone. "You forget that I can sort of read his mind at all times now. I think I'd know, don't you?"
"So why isn't his dad in Azkaban?"
"It's complicated, Ron, but with any luck, he will be there soon," Hermione said. "Now if you don't mind, I'm quite done talking about it."
Ron opened his mouth to protest, but stern looks from Harry and Ginny forced him quiet.
A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed before Ron piped up again. "Astoria Greengrass?"
Hermione immediately slammed her book shut and stood up, heading for the portrait hole. "I'm going to bed."
She heard Ron's protests but she ignored him and didn't think twice about the portrait closing behind her. She drew in a breath and headed for her dorm, idly hoping she could get some decent sleep tonight. Tomorrow she and Neville had to spend the morning with their prefects, some of whom were severely slacking on their duties, and hammer out a new schedule for them, all of which would probably take the whole morning. She barely heard herself mutter the password to her dorm and stepped inside, jolted back into reality by the sight of Draco fast asleep on the couch in their common room.
She crept to the couch and knelt beside it, intending to gently wake Draco up so that he could move to his bed, but she decided to let him be. He seemed peaceful, deceptively so, and she couldn't help but brush back the wayward blonde hairs from his forehead as she watched him.
She thought for a moment about peeking inside of his head, but quickly decided against it. She knew that whatever he was dreaming, it couldn't be as peaceful as his face suggested, and she didn't want to see anything she wasn't forced to see by their bond and his tendency to unknowingly project his thoughts. So she withdrew her hand slowly, and rose to her feet as soundlessly as possible before retreating to her room. The sound of her door closing awoke Draco, and he sat up groggily and looked to her door in disappointment, having no idea of the tender moment he'd just slept through.