HERMIONE GRANGER slammed down her newspaper with enough force to wake the sleeping dragon the Hogwart's motto had long warned about. How had things come to this? How was she sitting here back at Hogwarts, while her supposed boyfriend ran around London changing girlfriends more often than he did his shirt?
Okay, so maybe using the term 'boyfriend' was pushing her luck a bit. Ron Weasley was more of a paramour, significant other, interested party.
It had been almost two months and it still hurt her to say that word. Two months since Ron had decided that she was no longer worth keeping around, that their relationship wouldn't survive the year she'd be at Hogwarts.
That he couldn't keep his trousers zipped for more than a few hours at a time.
Hermione hadn't wanted to accept it at first. Ron had dumped her unceremoniously on an unfairly beautiful summer's day at the Burrow, surrounded by golden light, swaying trees and the smell of jasmine and cut grass. Hermione had responded by telling him, in no uncertain terms, that the only way they'd be breaking up would be over her cold, dead body.
It had taken her walking in on him and Cho Chang (apparently the only thing even longer than her shimmering, waist-length hair, was Cho's ability to hold a grudge from Fifth Year), in a position Hermione would have thought physically impossible, for her to get the picture. Ron didn't want her. Ron didn't love her. That passionate kiss at the climax of the Battle of Hogwarts had been a momentary aberration. She had only been a distraction for him, something to take his mind off the fact that they might not live to see tomorrow. What a joke.
She. Hermione Granger. 'Greatest Witch of the Age'.
She felt more like the 'Greatest Idiot of the Age'. She was so angry that she could have bitten through her tongue in rage.
After she, Harry and the Weasleys came through the Battle virtually unscathed, Hermione and Ron spent a few blissful months together – all recorded by the media, who couldn't get enough of the passionate love of two members of the Golden Trio. 'A love that had transcended the worst war the Wizarding World had ever seen'.
At least, that's what it had looked like from the outside. Hermione might have been happy, might have enjoyed the sex, but Ron clearly hadn't.
When she and Harry told the Weasleys of their intention of returning to Hogwarts for the unofficial 'Eighth Year', Ron had wasted no time in letting Hermione know just how things were going to be: either they would have an 'open relationship', or they could go their separate ways. After Hermione had told him just what she thought of that preposterous idea, Ron had decided to let her know how he felt about things – implicitly and explicitly.
Hermione's eyes were still burning.
So here she was, boyfriend-less, unwanted, unattractive and surrounded by the gawking students of Hogwarts (and several professors, as well). It wasn't enough that her hero status and too frequent features in the newspapers meant that she was stared at and talked about in the hallways. Oh, no. Now, she also had to put up with the disgusting and, frankly, quite vulgar details of her equally-as-famous ex-boyfriend's love life.
And 'love life' was the polite term for what Ron was getting up to.
Tired and nauseated, Hermione let her head rest for a moment on her propped up elbow. Almost immediately, a buzz took up around her, the occupants of Ravenclaw's table conversing on what they'd just seen. Ron was gallivanting around town, sharing his bits indiscriminately with anyone with a vee (and not a pee - though if rumours were to be believed, he was an equal opportunity lover), while Hermione sat here, lonely and heartbroken.
Just when Hermione was about to snap and eviscerate anyone who so much as looked at her sideways, she felt a large, comforting hand touch her back. She turned to see Harry Potter, her best friend of almost a decade, watching her with pity in his green eyes.
"Give that to me, Hermione." He held out his other hand, the cuff of his shirt startlingly white against his tanned forearm.
"Yes, you were," Harry interrupted, motioning again for the newspaper. Torn between giving in and keeping a hold of it for just a while longer, Hermione looked once more at the photo before her. Ron and his blonde flavour-of-the-moment were all over each other outside a restaurant in Diagon Alley, not sparing the reader a single glance. And not just any restaurant, Hermione's favourite restaurant: La Barbe.
It's almost as if digging her heart out wasn't enough; Ron wanted to grind it through a wood chipper as well. It would definitely explain the searing pain radiating through her chest.
Without cause, the 'mystery blonde' (God, the Prophet was so predictable) turned her head slightly from where Ron was nibbling like a drunken fish at her neck and looked straight at Hermione. A nasty smirk twisted her lips, her blue eyes glinting knowingly. Heart lurching painfully against her abused ribcage, Hermione almost tore the paper in her hurried effort to close it.
Before she could draw in another pained breath, the paper was snatched away and set on fire.
"Harry!" Hermione shouted as she grabbed her glass, trying desperately to douse the burning paper with pumpkin juice. But Harry wasn't having any of it. Effortlessly, he caught both her small hands in one of his own, and grabbed the half-empty glass with the other.
"Oh, no, Hermione," Harry replied firmly. "Enough is enough."
"But I was just-"
"No." He was insistent, even as Hermione struggled feebly to remove her hands from his Quidditch-roughened grasp. "It's been two months. Stop torturing yourself." Easier said than done, to be honest.
"A month and a half," she corrected, dangerously close to pouting. The date Saturday 28th August would forever be etched into her memory.
"And that's a month too long," Harry replied, rising from the bench and grabbing both his bag and hers. He stared down at Hermione from his great height, green eyes glinting. It was a statement of fact, though Harry made it unusually fervent. Before Hermione could focus on the meaning behind it, he held out a hand to pull her up. "Let's go. We have Potions."
Looking quickly at the watch on Harry's outstretched hand (it was almost nine o'clock!), Hermione glanced once more at the pile of ashes marring the table's scrubbed wooden surface, before allowing him to pull her up. His hand engulfed her own in welcome warmth, its rough callouses scraping into her soft palm, and Hermione supressed a peculiar shiver. Discomfited, she snatched back her hand and quickly glanced up at Harry to see if he'd noticed, but he'd already turned and was heading for the door.
BLAISE ZABINI had never been the type to pity others. Empathy and sympathy were alien concepts to him, ones he only bothered to fake when it was in his best interests. So the fact that he found himself giving even the slightest fuck about a certain Gryffindor's current state was utterly confusing.
Not that he could be blamed. All of Hogwarts had noticed Hermione Granger's mental fragility since the start of the year. Students spent almost every mealtime stealing glances at her and devouring any scrap of news about her ex-boyfriend's antics in the Daily Prophet. It irritated Blaise to end that that he couldn't walk down a corridor without hearing her name mentioned.
Wolves, the lot of them.
Back in September, Blaise hadn't given a damn. He, like everyone else breathing in the Wizarding World, had read all about Granger and Weasley's disastrous break-up but unlike the others, he had simply read it, processed it and moved on (which was more than he could say for the famous Gryffindor Princess). However, as the leaves had fallen from the trees and September had handed things over to October, Blaise had noticedd that Granger seemed even more depressed and downhearted than ever - trudging from class to class, head bowed and looking a mess. She was even thinner now than she had been right after the war, and that was saying something.
The haunted look in her eyes had also made an unwelcome return. Not that Blaise cared, because he didn't. He just didn't think it seemly for Granger to make such a spectacle of herself, especially when Weasley clearly didn't give even half a shit about how she felt.
Sneering in disgust, Blaise quickened his pace as he walked down the dimly lit corridor. Ahead of him were Granger and Potter, the young woman's head stooped so low as to almost be almost scraping the floor. To his credit, her dark-haired companion was visibly concerned, not that it seemed to do any good. Irritated beyond belief, Blaise rolled his eyes. Potter had had over a month to sort this out and still hadn't gotten through.
Blaise was going to have to take matters into his own hands.
Hermione started as a black satchel was dumped on the table in front of her. A moment later, Blaise Zabini sank into the seat beside hers, his slanted dark eyes glittering.
"Zabini –", her surprise made for a squeal rather than a casually worded question –"What are you – where's Harry?" Without waiting for an answer, Hermione swung around to see her dark-haired best friend take a seat beside someone she would never have expected – Draco Malfoy.
"What is –"
"Eyes forward, Granger." A sharp rap on the table brought Hermione's attention back to the lithe Slytherin beside her. Zabini's eyes were fixed steadily on her, his expression impassive. Hermione hadn't known that it was possible to lean on a backless chair, but Zabini was managing to do it, an elbow placed casually on the table behind theirs.
"Can I help you, Zabini?" Hermione's confusion made her sound more polite than intended.
"Stop this," Zabini answered bluntly.
"Stop this right now." Zabini's face remained expressionless.
"What are you talking about, Zabini?" Hermione asked tiredly.
"It is completely unacceptable." It was clear that Zabini didn't care to explain just what on Earth he was on about, but what else was new? The Slytherin was notorious for saying three words where others would use ten, with a raised brow to express disgust, irritation and the rare display of anger. The man was a sphinx – exotic, enigmatic and even more arrogant than Malfoy on his worst day.
Speaking of Malfoy, what were he and Harry doing sitting together? Sure there hadn't been much animosity between them since the school year began (Harry and Hermione's testimony at the Malfoys' trial over the summer seemed to have gone a long way to assuring that), but they had probably only said a few words to each other.
Hermione glanced over at the two young men to find them quietly conversing, neither one noticing her fervent stare. To her surprise, no one else in the room appeared to care about the change in seating arrangements; the other students chatted as they waited for Professor Slughorn to turn up.
"Granger –" Hermione jumped when Zabini rapped the table once more, – "Would. You. Focus?" The brunette swung back around to find the good-looking man eyeing her, irritated. What was wrong with him? He had barely spoken three words to her before today.
"What is it?" Hermione exclaimed, now beyond confused and venturing into 'annoyed' territory.
"This has gone on long enough," he replied – as if that made things any clearer.
"If you don't tell me what you're talking about this minute, Zabini –"
"This moping over Weasley." Eyes narrowed, Zabini seemed almost annoyed that he'd had to explain himself. "It's gone on long enough."
"Excuse me?" Hermione spluttered, voice rising in anger. Did Zabini just say what she thought he said?
"You are embarrassing yourself, Granger," Zabini continued as if she hadn't said a word.
"And what concern is that of yours?" Hermione asked, outraged. She paid no mind to Pansy Parkinson or her companion, Daphne Greengrass, who were a table over and were now looking over in her direction.
"It is my concern because you have made it my concern," Zabini explained with a bored drawl. "You have made it everyone's concern, and as such, I have taken it upon myself to inform you that enough is enough."
"You have no right." Hermione's rage almost choked her, her fingernails digging sharply into her palms. But Zabini only continued to stare at her as if she were no more interesting than a fly.
"I have every right." Zabini's calm tone only served to anger Hermione even more. She could not believe what she was hearing. But he wasn't finished. "Much as I may not like you, Granger, even I can see that Weasley is worth neither the time nor effort you are putting into this prolonged recovery."
"You have no idea what you're talking about." Against her wishes, Hermione's eyes pricked sharply. She swallowed hard, struggling to regain her composure, before continuing, "Ron and I were – he – I –" Unable to continue, she broke off. How could she hope to explain that her break-up with Ron was only part of the reason she was this way? Zabini couldn't even begin to understand what she was going through; not with how he looked. There was no way he'd ever go through what she had with Ron.
"Exactly." There was a slight pause during which Hermione fixed her gaze on the blackboard, refusing to allow the threat of tears to become a reality. Zabini eyed her carefully before he seemed to take pity on her and looked in the opposite direction, giving her time to gather herself.
When her eyes lost their grittiness and the lump in her throat had shrunk enough for her to speak, Hermione quietly, but firmly, said, "You don't know what I'm going through and you definitely don't have the right to judge me."
At that, Zabini's lips tilted in a sardonic smile. "Oh, I know a lot more than you think and unfortunately, everyone now feels they have the right to judge you - whether you like it or not. That's the price the defeat of He Who Shall Not Be has cost you – the price you'll have to pay for the rest of your life.
"Is it fair? Maybe not. But it is what it is." She was surprised by his quiet empathy and Hermione looked at Zabini to find his eyes more expressive than she'd ever seen them. The two gazed at each other for a moment, before he briefly glanced in Harry and Malfoy's direction and continued loudly, "But not to worry. I am going to help you."
"Help me?" Hermione couldn't have been more surprised at his casual, out-of-the-blue offer. "How could you possibly help me?" Zabini turned to the front, apparently having grown bored with what must have been his longest conversation in years.
"Watch for my owl, Granger."
A peal of confused laughter slipped out of Hermione. "I'm sorry?" But the dark Slytherin didn't bother to reply, for his attention was on Slughorn who had entered the dungeon as they were talking.
Watch for my owl?
What did that even mean?
As she made her way to the Great Hall, Hermione's earlier irritation returned with a vengeance. Just what had Zabini meant when he'd said he was going to help her? First, she didn't recall asking for his help; and second, his condescending attitude definitely hadn't been asked for.
Growling, Hermione quickened her pace. It was dinnertime and she was still thinking about that – that idiot's cruel words. They had flat out ruined Potions, resulting in her messing up the first stage of her Polyjuice Potion and having to start over three times before she'd finally gotten it right. To add insult to injury, Zabini had spent the entire lesson with his eyebrow raised – his equivalent to raucous laughter.
Harry had only made things worse by going on to sit with Malfoy for the rest of the day and refusing to tell her just what was going on. Her DADA notes were still hopelessly incomplete as a result and Hermione had just about had it.
Speak of the Devil and he doth appear.
Hermione turned to see her dark-haired best friend walking up to her, green eyes glowing in the well-lit corridor. Harry (AKA persona non grata) came to a stop, towering over her at well over six foot. After the war, she'd almost forgotten how intimidating Harry could be under the right circumstances, but right at that very moment, with him gazing down at her with a frown creasing his brow, she got a quick refresher course. Hermione suddenly remembered that spark at breakfast and took an involuntary step back. If Harry noticed he didn't show it, because a smile crossed his lips.
"There you are." He sounded oddly relieved. "I've been looking for you everywhere."
Hermione blinked. He couldn't have been looking that hard, surely? "I was in the Owlery replying to Fred and George." Having been furious after Ron had slept with Cho, the twins had offered to temporarily castrate their younger brother in their last letter. Against her better judgement and much as she had appreciated the offer, Hermione told them not to. No doubt it'd be traced back to her, making her look even more pathetic than Zabini told her she already did.
Hermione stiffened as humiliation threatened to overwhelm her. God, why had she asked Zabini to explain himself? She should have just told him to shove off. Going through this break-up had been bad enough; she hadn't needed that poser making things even worse with his condescension.
"Ah," Harry replied. He tilted his head, an odd light appearing in his eyes. Heart suddenly pounding, Hermione barely resisted the urge to take another step back and just as he looked about to say something else, she jumped in.
"Well, let's get to dinner, then," she screeched before wincing and turning to walk towards the Hall. God, she sounded like a chipmunk. It wasn't her fault, though. For whatever reason, Harry was behaving very strangely.
Yep. That was right. It was all Harry's fault. Nothing to do with her whatsoever.
But before she'd gone very far, a large hand landed on her shoulder and swivelled her back around to face glowing green eyes.
"Actually, Hermione, I-"
"Potter. Granger," the Malfoy heir greeted with an aristocratic drawl. A peculiar prickling heat flooded Hermione's cheeks as Harry's gaze seared into her for a moment before he turned to look at the Slytherin.
Clad in beige trousers and a grey cashmere sweater (that Hermione couldn't help noticing offset those pewter eyes of his), Draco Malfoy strode up to them, hands in his pockets.
"Malfoy." Harry nodded. To Hermione's relief, he seemed to have forgotten all about whatever he was going to say before Malfoy showed up. Hermione was quite sure that it wouldn't have been good. Things were strange enough as it was without Harry adding to them.
Malfoy swivelled in Hermione's direction. "Zabini told me about your little conversation earlier." Hermione stiffened for the second time in as many minutes. Oh, God, not this again.
"Oh?" It was to her credit that her voice managed to come out evenly, because her heart was pounding hard enough to shatter bricks.
"It was – very interesting," he answered, gaze boring into her as a small smirk twisted his lips. "Very interesting."
"I can't see why that is, Malfoy." Hermione replied, finally recovering recovered her courage from where it had been hiding (right beside the self-respect and dignity she lost when Ron decided to dip his quill into another inkwell) and continued in a stronger voice, "Despite what he might think, it wasn't any of Zabini's business, just as it isn't any of yours."
The blond darted a glance at the silent man behind her before raising a brow. "Arguable though that is, the fact remains that he was right. Enough is enough." Hermione balked as Malfoy repeated Harry's words from breakfast, so she missed what he said after. Unfortunately for him, however, she did catch the rest of his sentence.
"I should what?"
"You heard me, Granger."
"How dare you? How dare you presume to tell me what I should do with – with -"
"Well, someone had to tell you. It's time to move on and we all know the best way to do that is to –"
"Oh, don't you dare repeat yourself, Malfoy! I heard you perfectly well the first time, you – you deviant!" Teeth gritted and cheeks heated for an entirely different reason, Hermione was beside herself with rage. Malfoy, on the other hand, appeared as unmoved as ever. The rat.
He shrugged now, even taking the time to nonchalantly lean against a stone pillar, seemingly unaffected by Hermione's anger. "Get under to get over, my little Gryffindor. It's actually very simple." As she spluttered impotently, beyond words, Harry chuckled.
That's right – chuckled. As if it were a joke; as if what she was going through was a joke.
It was the last straw.
"You know what, Malfoy? I've had just about enough of you." Hermione's voice was quiet, dangerous, and Harry seemed to realise that it was no longer a joke, for he stepped out from behind her with a hand held out as if to soothe. But it was too late for that. "You too, Harry." She shot a disgusted glance at her former best friend who looked taken aback. "It isn't enough that I have all of Wizarding Britain judging me, oh no! Now the two of you want to get in on it, as well!
"Well, go on then!" Hermione cried, angry tears blurring her vision as all the hurt and rage that had been building up for almost two months suddenly boiled over. "Make a joke out of it! Poke fun at the girl who was stupid enough to trust that her best friend wouldn't betray her with someone he claimed he couldn't even stand." Hermione swiped ineffectually at her tears, barely noticing the looks of dismay Harry and Malfoy wore.
"How stupid was I – to think that I could be enough for him?" As she sobbed, her arms came up unconsciously to clench about her body, as if trying to hold it together. "After all, this is me we're talking about. How could I possibly hope to –" Her voice broke off as sobs racked her body, hurt and disappointment almost crippling her. She saw Harry and Malfoy move forward out of the corner of her eye, and she immediately raised a hand to wave them off. If either touched her, she knew she'd never recover.
"Don't, just – don't," she rasped. Using the cold stone wall to support herself, she glared at both of them through tear-filled eyes. "Just stay away from me. Both of you," she added, ignoring Harry's hurt look. Hiccupping now, her chest aching, Hermione used the last reserves of her strength to push herself off the wall and walked away; leaving Harry and Malfoy standing there, dumbfounded.
It took over an hour for Hermione to calm down, though the hiccups remained as a testament to her breakdown. The tearstained pillow muffled their panicked sounds and her last few sniffles. Hermione was thankful that everyone was still at dinner, because she was now conscious enough to realise just how embarrassing it would have been if her roommates had found her in the state she'd been in.
On reaching her bedroom, Hermione had flown into a rage. Sobbing hysterically, she had rummaged through her suitcase and chest of drawers, torn up every photo of Ron, burnt every letter and crushed the cheap gold necklace he'd given her in July (the one that she'd faithfully worn despite it turning her skin a nasty shade of green). Exhausted, she had then fallen onto her bed and cried herself into silence, something she hadn't done since she was a child.
It wasn't that she missed Ron – well, it wasn't just that. What had so crushed her over the last hour was finally realising that she had hung on to those things in the vain hope that he'd someday want her back. They had been proof that she was worth something. That she'd actually been wanted by someone.
But, no. Not even Ron – the cheating, lying scumbag – had wanted her, even when he was dating her. What did that say about her?
A dry sob tore itself from her throat, but just as she was about to bury her head in the pillow and do her best to suffocate herself, there was a sharp tap on the window. Steeped in self-pity, Hermione turned over and did her best to ignore it, only to have her efforts rewarded with several more sharp taps.
Groaning in frustration, Hermione reluctantly rose from the bed and went to the window. Outside, a Bald Eagle eyed her sternly and resisted being buffeted by the strong winds. Hermione frowned in astonishment and taking pity on the bird, opened the window. It swooped in, settled on the desk and stuck out its leg. Puzzled as to just who would be writing her (she didn't even know anyone with an Eagle), Hermione detached the letter and opened it up.
Come to the Room of Requirement.
Hermione blinked twice at the long slanting italics, the piece of parchment surprisingly dry against her fingertips. What in the seven levels of Hell? The handwriting appeared oddly familiar, but – no. It couldn't be.
The image of her desk in the dungeons flashed before her, confirming her suspicions. Ugh. There was no doubt about it; it was definitely Zabini's handwriting.
Hermione barely registered the Eagle's departure through the still open window as she shook her head in refusal, despite the fact that there was no one else around. Oh, no. There was no way she was going. Zabini must have been out of his mind.
She crumpled up the parchment and threw it into the bin, before sitting stubbornly on the bed. The ticking of her alarm clock (a Christmas gift from Molly Weasley) and the few remaining hiccups were the only sounds in the room, though the wind continued to rage outside. Refusing to think about it any longer (what did Zabini think he was playing at?), Hermione snatched up her Charms textbook and flipped to her last page, reading fervently.
A few minutes later, after reading the same three sentences over and over, she finally gave it up as a lost cause.
"Oh, for God's sake," Hermione groaned, irritated, as she stalked over to the parchment that had been taunting her for the last few minutes and glared down at where it lay among feminine rubbish. "Fine! I'm going."
After all, how bad could it really be?
Famous last words, Hermione thought, as she paced up and down before the entrance to the Room of Requirement.
She had been there for almost ten minutes, now, wondering whether she should actually go in. She had no idea what was in there. This could all be a trick Zabini was trying to play; God knew he was a Slytherin. Hermione had immediately reprimanded herself for such prejudice. If there was anything she'd learned from the war, it was that house boundaries had clearly played a major part. She refused to fall prey to them.
Hermione stomped her foot in frustration and was instantly grateful that there was no one around to see it. Her reputation was already swimming around in the toilet – there was no need to flush it all the way down. This was so annoying, though! For all the reasons she could think of to walk away, she just couldn't bring herself to do it.
So, go in, Hermione.
Torn, Hermione glanced both ways before stepping forward. To her surprise, an oak door appeared in the wall. She raised her hand to the gold knob before pulling it back.
But what if – no. Even if Zabini was out to humiliate her, how bad could it really be? She doubted there was anything the Slytherin could do that could possibly be any worse than anything she'd faced over the last year.
Swallowing hard, she turned the cold doorknob, pushed open the door with a creak and stepped in.
Much like the rest of Hogwarts, the Room of Requirement had been restored over the summer. Unlike the rest of the school, however, this one room had taken all summer to be rebuilt. Understandable when one considers how many enchantments it must have taken, Hermione thought.
When Hermione saw what form the room had taken, though, a gasp escaped her. Whatever she had expected, it hadn't been this. Before her was a bedroom, luxuriously decorated in cream, burgundy and emerald. Over on the far wall, a fireplace blazed merrily, while on a dais in the middle stood the largest bed Hermione had ever seen.
What is going on here?
As two men stepped forward, however, Hermione realised that it was indeed possible for her to be even more surprised than she already was.
I wrote this story for the Hermione Smut challenge over on LJ in November 2012. The second and final part will be up in the next few days.
I am also going to post another story that I managed to write for the Smutty Claus challenge over on LJ called 'Under the Table Assault' – a DM/HG. Expect it within the next few days.
I am now also posting over on GrangerEnchanted, and will be replacing the unbetaed versions of my works on here with the beta-ed versions very soon.
For those wondering about the impromptu hiatus, I cannot apologise enough. Uni has really been kicking my arse for the last few months (assignments and work experience have been RIDICULOUS), and I've only recently had some free time to work on 'The Gauntlet' which is still alive and well.
I intend to post the next chapter of The Gauntlet next Tuesday or Wednesday, with chapters to be posted on a weekly or fortnightly basis.
I cannot thank you all for the support and love I have gotten over the last couple of months. I truly do read and appreciate every single review, and it means so much to know what you think of my work. It also keeps me going, especially when work is kicking every inch of my arse. LOL.
I love you all.