The story of the the confrontation between Draco and Hermione spread like Fiendfyre throughout the school. No details were known, but as is often the case, no details were needed. Before the end of the day, it had become a heroic tale of Muggle-born perseverance vs. pure-blood arrogance, Gryffindor bravery vs. Slytherin corruption, the powers of good vs. the forces of evil. To hear Gryffindors tell it, at any rate.
Hermione had little time to enjoy her newfound prominence, however. Filch — who was still mourning the loss of the good ol' days when he could hang students from the ceiling for infractions like breathing too loudly — was more than happy to dull some of the pain by bossing Hermione and Draco around like a pair of glorified house-elves.
With a glee that would've seemed undignified in someone less covered in grime, he spent the day spouting insults, shouting orders, and quietly creeping in corners in the interim, overseeing their work with the eagerness of a vulture over a killing field.
Hermione tied her hair back in a braid and set to work, trying to ignore the stinging from the cuts on her hands and face. She could live for a thousand years and never be able to get over the mortification she had felt during McGonagall's lecture. A few days in Filch's company were a small punishment by comparison.
Draco, however, was not used to being ordered around by the likes of Argus Filch, and it wasn't long before the black cloud following him around turned into a full-blown storm.
"Listen here, you good for nothing Squib," he growled, tossing his broom to the ground. "You want to back off right now, or Merlin help me, when I'm done with you they won't even be able to identify your body."
But Filch hadn't spent years dealing with Peeves and cleaning up after basilisks and trolls to be intimidated by a teenager. "Uppity little boy who can't even do magic," he scoffed. "I'm shaking in my boots. Boy, I know every inch of this castle, in and out. They won't be able to identify my body? Rubbish. They won't be able to find yours. Now back to work before I report you to Professor McGonagall."
"Draco, come on," Hermione pleaded, pulling him by the sleeve. They were in enough trouble already without him picking more fights.
"Leave me alone," he spat, jerking his arm away before storming off to the other side of the room.
There were no more fits of temper after that, but there was no dissipating the tension in the room. By the time Filch finally released them, Hermione was both exhausted and emotionally drained. It was dark already and they had missed dinner, but the witch didn't care. All she wanted was to get into bed and sleep.
Alas, as soon as she walked past the portrait of the Fat Lady, the entire Gryffindor common room erupted in cheers and applause. Hermione blushed and smiled awkwardly, trying to plot her escape while dodging her friends' questions.
"I don't know whether I should be worried or impressed," Harry said, pulling her away from the general commotion to a seat by the window.
"You don't need to be either," she said, flinching when he touched a bruise on her cheek. "It was foolish and rash, and I don't know what I was thinking. Oh God, you should've seen the look on McGonagall's face." Hermione groaned, hiding her face in her hands and trying to erase the memory from her mind.
Harry chuckled, patting her in the head. "There, there," he said. "It could've been worse. At least she didn't expel you."
The following days were no great improvement on that first one under Filch's supervision. The caretaker was thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to lord over a couple of snotty students, and kept coming up with exciting new ways to make them miserable.
From dawn till dusk, Draco and Hermione swept, scrubbed, dusted and polished their way across the castle, until even Hermione was ready to scream at the old man. Filch's tyranny was made worse by the pointlessness of their task. Most of the places Filch forced them to clean were out-of-the-way rooms — rooms where people seldom went, and that no one particularly cared to see properly swept, scrubbed, dusted or polished.
Between Filch's demands and the school work that kept piling up, almost a week went by without Hermione managing to find the time to devote to the coded documents she had found among Draco's things. The witch used what little time she had during the day to hound both teachers and students for notes of what she had missed in class, and she spent the evenings labouring over textbooks.
She had been top of her class from the time she was eleven — something she prided herself on not the least because it annoyed all the pure-blood prats in the school — and she was not about to let a flare of temper change that. So she took the time to painstakingly go over all the notes, read the relevant chapters, write the necessary papers. Even when her entire body ached from days slaving away under Filch's dictatorial rule. Even when she was tired enough to sleep until the end of the school year.
Most nights she stayed up well past everyone else, often being the last one in the common room, but there were nights when sleep won over stubbornness and she could be found softly snoring on top of a pile of books. On one such a night, she woke up when Ginny set a package next to her head.
"From Fred and George," Ginny explained, sitting down across from Hermione.
Hermione picked up the envelope on top of the package and opened it with clumsy fingers. She had just broken the seal when the letter flew out of her hands and stood hovering in front of her face.
"We're so proud, Hermione," George's voice said in a melodramatic tone.
"So, so proud," Fred agreed before blowing his nose.
"You're like the little sister we never had," George said.
"The other little sister we never had," Fred corrected. Ginny rolled her eyes.
"We don't know where we failed the others."
"They never so much as blew up a broom cupboard."
"Let alone a classroom."
"Charlie set my broom on fire once."
"But it's just not the same."
"So we're proud!"
"Proud, proud, proud. So proud."
"We didn't know we had had such an influence on you."
"We're writing Ginny and Ron off our will right now."
"Only you are worthy of inhering our empire."
"Okay, we're not really writing them off."
"Mum would kills us."
"Ironically kicking off the terms of the will."
"But we're sending you candy."
"Harmless candy, we promise."
"Mostly harmless candy."
"And some fireworks. Just in case you feel like having an encore."
"We're oh so proud!" they both chanted before the letter glided peacefully to the table.
Hermione and Ginny looked at each other and burst out laughing. "My brothers, ladies and gentlemen," Ginny said in tears.
"Oh God, I miss them," Hermione said, trying to stop laughing.
"You wouldn't miss them if you had ever had to share a bathroom with them, I promise you."
They continued to giggle while Hermione struggled to untangle the magic string holding the package together. She looked up when Ginny spoke again.
"I don't commend you taste in guys, but I can't fault your way of getting even," she grinned.
Hermione forced a smile and was about to reply when a shadow fell on them.
"Risky move, Ronald," Ginny said to her brother, who was standing awkwardly next to their table. "Lavender is glaring."
But Ron ignored his sister, turning to Hermione instead. "Look," he said, "I know you and I haven't really… What I'm trying to say is, if that git had hurt you — really hurt you — I'd have put his head on a pike. I still have half a mind to—" But he never got to finish. Hermione jumped to her feet and threw her arms around his neck, trying very hard not to cry. They had been fighting for so long that she couldn't even remember why, and she really missed her friend.
He patted her uncertainly on the back. "Well, don't make a fuss now… And really," he added, "I'm really impressed with the number you did on that classroom."
The next day, Filch led Draco and Hermione to the Trophy Room on the third floor and handed them a bucket full of rags, brushes and cleaning products. "Don't even think about leaving here until all the awards in this room are spotless."
"There have to be over a thousand trophies in this place," Draco complained with a frown. "We'll never get done."
"Well, then I suggest your majesties get started." And leaving Mrs Norris to watch over them, the caretaker walked out.
With a resentful look at the cat, Draco picked up a rag and a bottle of Madame Glossy's Silver Polish, and walked off to the far end of the room without another word. Hermione watched him go before picking up some supplies herself. All things considered, it was not the worst assignment Filch had given them. And it seemed that at least today they were rid of the old man's company.
She started working on a glass case with Quidditch trophies. Some of them went as far back as the 1600s, and she wondered whether somewhere in the room she might find some even older. There were trophies from familiar witches and wizards, like Richard Carter and James Potter, but Hermione did not recognise most of the names on the awards. She had just picked up a trophy belonging to an Ashley Sanders when something rattled the trophies still on the shelves. And suddenly, in a puff of smoke, Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall were standing before her.
"Miss Granger, why are you still here?" Professor Dumbledore asked with a disapproving frown.
"Professor?" Hermione asked, confused.
"Heavens, girl." Professor McGonagall pushed her glasses higher on her nose. "Why haven't you packed yet?"
"Muggle-borns aren't very smart, are they?" Dumbledore asked the older witch.
"They're always a bit of a hit and miss." McGonagall shrugged. "A pity. She showed such promise as a young girl."
Hermione took a deep breath, her hand instinctively flying to the pocket where she usually kept her wand. But there was nothing there. She took a step back, struggling to remain focused.
"You're not real," she said, needing to hear the words aloud. "This isn't real."
"Don't talk nonsense, girl," McGonagall said. "You'll only make things worse for yourself. Now hurry up; you're taking the train back to London tonight. Muggles don't belong at Hogwarts."
"I'm not a Muggle," Hermione protested, her heart drumming in her ears.
"Muggle, Muggle-born, it's all the same." Dumbledore searched his pockets until he found what he was looking for. "Cough drop, Minerva?"
"No, thank you, Albus. Now, enough tarrying. Come with us, girl."
"Stay away from me," Hermione said, a touch of hysteria in her voice. She moved back as the pair advanced towards her. Just then, the clanging sound of metal against the stone floor drew their attention.
"Get away from her, you stupid boggart." Draco ran across the room, another trophy in hand. But as soon as he got close enough to the boggart, the creature morphed and shifted, and suddenly they were looking at the broken bodies of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy. Lucius was sprawled on the floor, one of his legs at an unnatural angle, and a mess of golden hair covering his face. He wasn't moving.
His wife was a few feet away. Her chest was still slowly moving up and down, but she made a whizzing sound whenever she drew a breath. There was blood running down the side of her mouth, and her eyes were wide open as she tried fruitlessly to turn her head in her husband's direction.
Draco had stopped moving, all colour drained from his face. Hermione called to him, but he didn't seem to hear her. He could not tear his eyes away from the scene in front of him. Hermione looked around, desperately trying to find something — anything — that could help.
It was then that hurried steps announced the arrival of Argus Filch. Without pausing, the caretaker picked up a candle and a spray can of Mrs Skower's All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover. He marched up to the Malfoys and, holding the candle in front of the spray can, set the boggart on fire. The creature hissed and flailed, its form changing and morphing until there was nothing left but a still shapeless mass, burned to a crisp.
"Bright young minds who can't even get rid of a boggart with no magic," Filch scoffed. "Merlin save us all. Back to work, you two."
They spent the remainder of the day in silence. Hermione pretended not to see the way Draco's hands were still shaking, even hours after it had happened. Draco pretended not to see how she flinched every time there was a loud noise. Filch pretended the good ol' days were back and that soon he'd be able to put his chains to use once again.
The sun had already set by the time they were done cleaning, and enchanted candles cast wavering shadows on the walls and floor. Filch sent them off with a half-shouted reminder to be on time the following day or even the Minister of Magic himself wouldn't be able to help them.
Draco was the first one out the door, and Hermione quickly lost sight of him in the darkened corridors. She made no great effort to keep up. Her boggart had shaken her, but so had his. And she didn't want to feel sorry for him. She didn't want to feel sympathy. She was too tired for a complicated world of conflicting loyalties and difficult choices. All she wanted was a simple world of heroes and villains, and the choices that defined them.
By the time she took a shower and made her way down to the Gryffindor common room, everyone had already headed to the Great Hall for dinner. Hermione wasn't hungry. She was too exhausted to feel hungry. Too tense. Too unsettled.
She reached for her Charms book and started reading the chapter Flitwick would've covered in class that day. After reading the same sentence ten times, she set the book down with an exasperated sigh. Maybe she should get something to eat after all. They had skipped lunch, and breakfast seemed like half a lifetime away. Having dinner was simply common sense. It had nothing to do with checking up on Draco. It was just the reasonable thing to do.
Knowing she would get nothing done otherwise, Hermione got to her feet and made her way to the Great Hall. With most people at dinner, the corridors of the castle were deserted, and she saw no one as she made her way to the ground floor. The low rumble of muffled voices and the cluttering of silverware grew in a crescendo until she walked into the Great Hall.
She glanced at the Slytherin table, but there was no sign of Draco. Hermione raised an inquisitive eyebrow in Zabini's direction, but the wizard merely shrugged, looking away.
Finding a seat next to Harry, Hermione stared at the empty plate in front of her but did not reach for any of the food. Stealing another glance at the Slytherin table, she tried to remember all the reasons why she shouldn't care whether or not Draco was still shaken by what had happened earlier.
She tried to summon the anger she knew was justified. Anger over Katie. Anger over herself. Because whatever his reasons, they did not absolve him of the consequences of his actions. She knew this and she did not forget. But neither could she forget his horrified expression as he stared at the scene conjured by the boggart.
Unable to sit still any longer, she got up and walked out, ignoring Harry's questions and Ginny's curious looks. It was a big castle and he could be anywhere, but she had a good notion of where to start looking.
He did not turn at the sound of the door opening. The wards were still holding and there was only another person besides himself who could open it.
"You shouldn't be here, Granger," he said before raising the flask to his lips.
"I know," she said, coming to stand next to him by the open window. Without asking, she grabbed the flask from him and took a sip.
"Firewhisky," she sneered. "Some prefect you are, Malfoy."
"This from the woman who blew up half a classroom." He stole the flask back.
"I didn't blow it up alone," she said with a small smile.
"You pretty much did." He took another gulp of firewhisky, before adding, "I was holding back."
"Liar." She took back the flask. They drank in silence, passing it back and forth, watching the stillness of the night outside. The moon reflected on the lake cast its glow on the landscape, but everything inside the room was immersed in shadows.
"Why are you here, Hermione?" he finally asked without looking at the witch.
She shrugged, shivering despite the alcohol. "I thought the room would be empty."
She did not reply and he dropped the subject. Part of him — the sober, sensible part of him — knew that he should leave. He shouldn't have been up there to begin with. But he was tired of denying himself the things he wanted, and just then he desperately wanted to be up there, drinking himself into a stupor. She was welcome to stay and watch.
"It was just a boggart," Hermione said, turning her back to the window.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said. His ghosts were his own, and he did not need her sympathy.
"Suit yourself." Grabbing the flask, Hermione disappeared into the shadows of the room.
"Close the window," she asked. "It's freezing."
"It's dark inside," he complained, torn between the wish to follow and the instinct to be difficult.
"There are candles and matches in here somewhere."
Draco snorted at the indignity of having to resort to matches. No Malfoy had any use for matches. No self-respecting witch or wizard did. But remembering she was holding the firewhisky hostage, he bit back a snide remark about Muggle tricks and closed the window before moving to the sofa in the almost complete darkness.
The sound of opening cabinet doors and drawers gave away Hermione's position nearby. A small flash of light lit her face momentarily, but the match died out before she could bring it close to the wick. She stroke another match with deft movements, this time succeeding in lighting the candle set on top of the desk. Grabbing a few more candles from a cardboard box, she lit them on the first candle and spread them around the room.
"A beautiful fire hazard," he joked, rescuing the flask she had left on the desk. "McGonagall is going to have our hides if we destroy another room."
"You can always blame it on my unfortunate Muggle upbringing," she said dryly, letting a few drops of wax drip on the dark top of a dresser before using it as a base to keep the last candle upright.
Draco stopped the ascending movement of his arm before the flask reached his lips. He wasn't the only one plagued by ghosts. "It was just a boggart, Granger. You said so yourself."
"I know." She crossed the room back to where he was standing and put away the rest of the candles without meeting his eyes.
"I don't want to talk about it either, Malfoy," she snapped. "Certainly not with the likes of you."
The words stung, but not half as much as the pointed look she gave his left arm. Before the witch could move away, Draco turned to face her, pinning her against the desk. "Well, if we're not going to talk," he said suggestively, his face only a few inches from hers, "I can think of at least one good use the likes of me have for the likes of you."
The sound of the slap filled the room around them. Neither moved in the few seconds it took for the sharp pain on the side of his face to turn into a dull ache. He relished the feeling. There was relief to be found in a pain that was physical and tangible and real. Hermione glowered at him.
"You're disgusting," she said in an unsteady voice.
"I'll take that as a no, then," he smirked, letting go of the desk. He started to move away, only then noticing her left hand clinging to the edge of his robes. Suddenly realising it herself, Hermione hastily let go before looking away, trying and failing to conceal the hurt that was only too clear in her expression.
Sometimes he wondered whether he was an ass out of habit or just an ass.
"I'm sorry," he said, pulling her to him. "I'm so sorry." He had to stop trying so hard to shatter everything within reach. It was the impulse of a child throwing a tantrum, and he was not a child — when he went for blood, he seldom missed his mark. "I did not mean that," he said, wrapping his arms tight around her.
He searched for the right things to say, only to realise what he should've known already — that words do more damage than they can fix. He leaned his forehead against hers, his fingers buried in her hair. When he kissed her, there was no ulterior motive in the gesture, no hidden agenda. He just wanted to make her feel better and was at a loss as to how. It started out soft and tender and sweet, and it should've gone no further.
She kissed him back, hesitantly at first, and then with an intensity that scared her. There were so many things that should've made her stop. Hurt pride, self-respect, common sense. There was a world of things between them that did not disappear just because she wished them gone. But she needed a break. She needed a truce. She needed them to stop trying so hard to tear each other apart. Just for a little while.
She fumbled blindly with his robes, trying to remove everything that stood between them.
"The true tragedy of the Muggle-born," Draco said huskily, pulling his robes over his head, "Defeated by a set of robes."
"Shut up," she laughed, blushing slightly at the sight of his naked torso.
"Make me," he dared, leaning down to kiss her.
She gasped when he slid his cold fingers under her shirt, sending shivers down her spine. Misinterpreting her reaction, Draco stopped kissing her and gave her a searching look before asking, "Do you want to stop?"
By way of reply, Hermione took off her top, letting it drop to her side. Draco stared down at her with a hungry look, but did not move until she wrapped her arms around his neck, her warm body pressed against his. When he kissed her again, his mouth was harder and more demanding than before, with an urgency that took her breath away.
It was a bad idea. She knew it and he knew it, but it was a knowledge that stopped neither of them. Because the world might be going to hell, and them with it, but not yet. Not just yet. They could hold on a little while longer — just a little while longer — if only they tried.
Draco steered them both in the direction of the nearby sofa, quickly unbuttoning her jeans with practised movements. They hadn't gone very far, however, when he stepped on the hem, tripping her and almost sending both of them flying to the floor. He caught her in time and they both burst out laughing.
"Big bad pure-blood," she teased, "defeated by a pair of jeans."
"Shut it, you," he said, still laughing.
With a wicked smile, Hermione stepped out of the hazardous trousers and walked over to the sofa. "Make me," she said.
There was a small pool of wax at the base of the candles spread around the room, and only two of them were still burning. Draco brushed a strand of hair away from Hermione's face, kissing her nose. "We should get dressed," he said drowsily.
"Five more minutes," she said, her lips brushing softly against his. Draco did not argue. It was a stolen moment and he did not wish it to be over any more than she did. "What happened here?" she asked, her fingers tracing a large bruise on the side of his neck.
"Someone," he grinned, "tried to kill me with a desk."
"Oh. This must've been a person uncommonly powerful and talented."
"Uncommonly bloodthirsty, more like it." He groaned when she pinched his chest. "All right, all right. Uncommonly powerful and talented."
"That a boy."
Her smile fell when she looked down at his left arm, which was thrown casually around her waist. She reached for it, and Draco turned it so she could properly see the black tattoo that took up most of his lower arm.
"Hideous thing, isn't it?" he said, trying to make light of it. Hermione did not reply, her fingers running along the sides of the mark without ever actually touching it. Draco kept silent. He had no excuses to make, no explanations to offer. The mark on his arm was no accident. He was not some innocent bystander caught in the middle of something too big to handle. His choices had been his to make, and they'd be his to live with.
"What does he want you to do, Draco?" she asked, breaking the silence.
He smiled ruefully, kissing her forehead. "Ask me no questions and I will tell you no lies."
"I won't let it happen."
"I won't let you stop me."
There was no animosity in the look they shared, only sadness and regret, and something Draco could not identify.
When they finally got up, they took their time getting dressed. They did it in silence, avoiding looking at each other. By then, they were down to their last candle, and most of the room was immersed in shadows.
"You should go first," Draco said. "Don't get caught or we'll be in seventh year and still in detention."
It was a poor joke but she smiled anyway, leaning against him as she kissed him. "Goodbye, Malfoy," she said softly.
"Goodbye, Granger," he replied, tucking a rebellious curl behind her ear.
It being Saturday did not deter Filch from dragging them to a fresh hell of dust and cobwebs. Unmoved by their sleepy faces and sluggish demeanour, the caretaker barked orders while sipping coffee from a mug that had not seen any soap since the time of the Founders. He had been in such a hurry to set them to work, that he had not even allowed them time for breakfast, though that hadn't stopped him from packing a few scones for himself and some milk for that vile cat of his.
But even Filch's petty attempts at tyranny could not dampen Draco's good mood. So maybe his plan wasn't going quite as planned, and he was now behind on all his classes on top of everything else. But for the first time in a long time, he could breathe again. His eyes met Hermione's across the room and the witch smiled at him before rolling her eyes in Filch's direction.
Draco picked up another rag from the pile set for their use, and was about to begin polishing an overly-elaborate cupboard when the sound of hooves made them all turn towards the door. Hermione went white at the sight of the large Patronus. The stag stopped a few feet away from the witch, and Potter's voice filled the room.
"Ron has been poisoned. Hospital Wing. Come quick."
And just like that, the Patronus disappeared. Hermione did not move for a few seconds, frozen in place.
Draco tried to control the nausea building in his stomach. "Hermione…"
The witch cast him a horrified look before hurrying out of the room.