Draco slumped down on the armchair in the corner of the almost-empty Slytherin common room, eyes shut close in frustration as he contemplated the chain of unlikely events that could have led Ronald Weasley to manage the extraordinary feat of poisoning himself with the mead intended for Dumbledore. The poison had always been a long shot — half-baked, half-arsed and slightly desperate — and the likelihood of it missing its target and harming someone else had always been high, but it took a special kind of bad luck to score a Weasley — and that one in particular.
Even if Hermione had no way of knowing Draco was behind it, she knew enough to at least suspect it, and pinning the blame on Malfoy had long been Potter's favourite hobby. He could manage Potter — he'd been doing it for six years - but Hermione complicated things. For many different reasons, she complicated things.
He didn't realise someone had taken the armchair next to his until Blaise spoke up.
"Don't break my toys, Draco," he said without looking up from his book. "Or I'll start being far less careful with yours."
Maybe his problem was that his secret plans were far less secret than was desirable.
"I don't respond well to threats, Blaise."
"Surprising, considering how much practice you have with them."
His hand tightened around his wand, but before he could do something monumentally stupid, Pansy strode across the room to where they were.
"Both of you seriously need to start making better life choices," she said. "Draco, we're going for a walk."
"Are we indeed?" he asked unimpressed.
He had been on the receiving end of that specific glare often enough to know to get up and follow her out of the Slytherin common room.
They walked in silence. The heavy rain had driven all of the students indoors, making it impossible to walk two steps without tripping over one student or another. They had just turned a corner when two first-years ran out of a room and straight into Draco, almost knocking him down.
That was all the motivation Draco needed to lash out at the alarmed duo — a Hufflepuff boy and a Slytherin girl — with threats specific enough to be chilling and vague enough to be ominous. Maybe human beings shouldn't be used as stress balls, but Draco took what he could get. He was aggravated enough that he finished his tirade by docking twenty points from both houses, which earned him a less than impressed looked from Pansy.
"Feeling better?" she asked after the terrified kids had ran off.
Without replying, Draco made for the stairs, trying to get away. He didn't even know what he was trying to get away from — Pansy and the questions he knew were coming; Hermione and Weasley, and the stupid idea to give Slughorn the poisoned mead and hope for the best; the eleven-year-olds that every year seemed to get younger and smaller and more breakable.
There was no escaping any of it, however, and when he made it to the south gallery on the fifth floor, Pansy was close behind him. The place was empty, as he had hoped it would be. Ignoring the rain coming in through the open end of the gallery, he leaned against a pillar.
"Was it you?" Pansy asked conversationally, stopping near the opposite wall, where it was dry. "Weasley," she added. "Was it you?"
Draco didn't reply straight away. He would have, a year ago. Back then he had been stupid enough to brag about things best kept quiet, and cocky enough to think that he was too smart ever to come up with something so half-arsed as a poisoned drink, set adrift like a message in a bottle and just as likely to reach its intended recipient. But it had been a long year and he knew better. He had precious few things left to brag about, and he wasn't even sure that was really Pansy.
"Who's Algernon Worthing?" he asked, turning to face her.
The witched quirked an eyebrow. "Paranoid much?"
Maybe he was, but there were too many people running around with Polyjuice Potion for comfort.
"Answer the question, Parkinson."
Pansy sighed, crossing her arms. "Algernon Worthing was a powerful pure-blood wizard. He could fly without a broom and make magic without a wand, and everyone worshipped him like a king. He didn't have a curfew, ate nothing but sweets, and you killed him off in a fit of pique when I decided he was much cooler than you. We made him up when we were seven. Happy?"
"Yeah, it was me." He turned away, staring out at the rain-soaked landscape.
After a few moments of silence, Pansy came to stand by his side.
"Honestly, poison?" There was no mistaking the disapproval in her voice.
"Too underhanded for your taste?"
"Too daft for my taste." She flipped her hair over her shoulder. "And it reeks of desperation."
"If that's you trying to cheer me up, you're extraordinarily bad at it."
Pansy shrugged, linking her arm with his. "It was a piss-poor plan, and you should feel bad about it."
Draco couldn't help but smile, a brief, blink-and-you-missed-it smile. Pansy telling him off for being an idiot shouldn't make him feel better, but it did — however slightly, however briefly. The normality of it was reassuring.
Despite everything that had happened during the past year, despite the Dark Mark carved into his arm, Pansy was who she had always been — the same blunt, fierce, opinionated girl who had refused to apologise for breaking his broom when they were five, because it was really his fault for having such a flimsy, breakable thing anyway.
From the time they had learnt to walk, she had refused to be impressed by his big house, old money and famous last name, because her house was just as big, her family just as old, and her name just as distinguished. She wore it like an armour, like he had once worn his, and he missed that. He missed being that sure nothing could ever touch him.
"Hermione will never forgive me for it," he said.
"Probably not," Pansy replied dismissively. "But I dare say you have more pressing concerns than Granger's good opinion."
He did. And in a perfect world, he'd only have to deal with one problem at a time. It wasn't a perfect world, however, and it never rained but it poured.
"I'm running out of time," he said, feeling all the worse for having said it. "And I'm running out of options."
Pansy was quiet for a few moments. When she spoke, her tone was measured.
"Maybe it's time you cut your losses."
"Meaning a live traitor is better than a dead lackey."
Those were dangerous words, but not surprising ones. Pansy's idea of loyalty was part ambition and part self-interest, and all self-preservation. She would have sided with Muggle-borns and blood traitors well before ending up so cornered, principles be damned.
"It's not that simple, Panse."
"It really is, Draco."
But it wasn't, however much he wished it were. Draco did not forget that his mother was still at Malfoy Manor, playing hostess to monsters and murderers, and that being in Azkaban did not ensure his father's safety either, for the loyalty of Dementors was sure to prove even more fickle than Pansy's.
No. A live traitor might be better than a dead lackey, but he was in no position to find out.
Everything was quiet in the hospital wing, and even the twins looked unusually subdued as they listened to Harry's account of what had happened in Slughorn's office. Hermione, who had heard the story before, was only half listening. Her gaze followed the steady rise and fall of Ron's chest, needing the constant reassurance that he was still breathing.
She tried to silence the unending string of 'what ifs' running through her head. What if Harry had not thought about the bezoar? What if there hadn't been one in the room? What if it had been too late? It was a pointless line of thought. Harry had thought about it, there had been a bezoar in the room, and Ron had taken it on time. But she kept turning cold at the thought of what might have happened if things had played out differently.
The arrival of Mr and Mrs Weasley, who had been talking to the Headmaster, caused Madam Pomfrey to usher Harry, Hermione and Hagrid out of the room, limiting the visitors to family alone.
Despite it being the middle of the day, the corridors were mostly deserted. The witch was paying little attention to the conversation between Harry and Hagrid, but she couldn't help but snort when the gamekeeper proclaimed his conviction that Dumbledore — Headmaster of Hogwarts, knower of secrets and master puppeteer extraordinaire — did not know who was behind the cursed necklace and the poisoned mead. She would as soon believe the Headmaster didn't know the Black Lake was wet.
Harry's well-placed paranoia had had him pointing fingers in Draco's direction since the beginning of the year, and Hermione was not so much a fool that she was in any doubt as to who was to blame for what had just happened. How much more did Dumbledore know, who always knew so much?
Hagrid left them at the entrance to the Gryffindor common room, and Hermione was about to step into the open entrance when Harry grabbed her arm. They watched in silence as the gamekeeper disappeared around the corner, and then Hermione followed Harry in the opposite direction and into an empty room.
"Was it him?" Harry asked before the door was even closed behind them.
Hermione did not have to ask who 'him' was.
"We have to tell Dumbledore."
"Tell him what, Harry?" she almost screamed, exasperated. "We have nothing but conjectures."
"I have nothing but conjectures," he said pointedly. "You know things. And it's no use saying you don't, because I know you do. Merlin, Hermione, stop protecting him already."
"I'm not protecting him." Not really. Not entirely.
"You bloody well are." Harry ran a nervous hand through his hair. "You want to defend your boyfriend even after everything he did to you? Go right ahead. But I care that he almost killed Ron."
"And you think I don't?" Her voice was shaking with rage. "How dare you? You have no—"
"Oh spare me the indignation," he cut in. "If you cared you would tell me what you know and help me put a stop to it."
"It's not that simple."
"Yes, it is. It's perfectly simple. You choose us or you choose him. You choose your friends or you choose the git who's been trying his very best to make our lives hell for the better part of six years."
"You don't get to give me ultimatums, Harry."
"The hell I don't. I kept quiet when you chose to fool around with a guy who always treated you like dirt because that's your business." Hermione scoffed, but Harry kept going. "I stayed out of it when he hurt you because you asked me to. But that's over. He's dangerous, he's working for Voldemort, and you still won't give him up. Where's your bloody loyalty? He can't be that good a lay."
"Where's my loyalty?" she repeated, too aggravated to keep her voice down. "Where's your fucking common sense? You think your precious Dumbledore knows less than you do? Less than I do? Grow up, Harry. There's nothing that goes on in this place he doesn't know about. You think I'm keeping secrets? Ask him about his."
Professor Flitwick droned on about Summoning charms, but Hermione wasn't paying attention. Her mind kept going over the angry words she and Harry had thrown at one another. Their argument had only grown louder and uglier, until they could barely look at each other, let alone speak to each other.
Hermione might have forgiven his accusations had they not so closely mirrored her own guilt. There was a Death Eater at Hogwarts and she had kept quiet about it. And maybe Dumbledore knew, and maybe he didn't, but it did not change the fact that she knew. She knew and she had chosen not to do anything about it.
The Unbreakable Vow forbade her to disclose much of the information she had, but she could have tried harder, she could have found a way. Smartest witch in the school and she had done preciously little to stop Malfoy. The coded documents still sat inside her Ancient Runes textbook, unexamined and useless. She had found no time to work on them, but time enough to fool around with Draco in the tower room.
And Harry wasn't wrong. Some part of her had been protecting Draco. Against her self-interest, against her common sense, she had been protecting him. Harry might be a self-righteous ass, but he wasn't wrong.
Hermione was one of the first to leave the room when Flitwick dismissed the class. Ignoring the heavy weight pressing against her chest, she made for the library. There were a couple of hours to go until dinner, plenty of time to work on the damn code, far away from Harry and Ron and Draco, and the mess she had made of everything. She could do this one thing right. She would do this one thing right.
That resolution accompanied her until she turned a corner and spotted Draco walking in the opposite direction, flanked by Crabbe and Goyle. Their eyes met for a split second before their both looked away.
And then Hermione did something stupid. She unpinned her prefect badge and moved it to the opposite lapel. She did not pause to see if Draco had seen it, but kept on walking, making towards a little-used staircase that led to one of the many out-of-the-way rooms Filch had made them clean.
The previously cluttered and dust-covered room was now dust-free and slightly less cluttered, allowing just enough space for her to pace back and forth while waiting for Draco to show up. It didn't occur to her that he might not. After everything that had happened, after everything he had done, the very least he owed her was to show up.
Their story had started in rooms like that one, half a million years ago. Broom closets, and storage rooms, and dusty old corners where no one ever went. A boy with an inflated sense of his own worth and a girl who liked books better than she liked people. It had been just wrong enough to be fun, and just dangerous enough to be exciting, and she didn't quite know how they had gone from there to here. From two people who could barely stand each other — constant snogging notwithstanding — to this mess of mixed feelings and conflicting loyalties.
Draco walked into the room, closing the door behind him, and for several moments none of them said a word. What a mess they had made of everything, she and this boy of hers who would be a villain however much it cost him. However much it cost her.
She would have kept him safe, if she could, but not at the expense of herself, and not at the expense of her friends. Not anymore. Harry wasn't wrong, and it was time for her to pick sides once and for all.
Hermione reached into her pocket and took out the necklace he had given her, with its shiny constellation on a dark sky. Crossing the short space between them, she took Draco's hand and placed the necklace on his open palm. He took it without comment, but his impassive expression lasted only until he felt her drop the wards on the tower room, all the way across the castle.
"Hermione," he pleaded, grabbing her hand as she moved past him, towards the door.
She looked back at him and tried to smile.
"If we ever make it to the other side of this," she said, "give it back to me."
And with that she turned and left, pausing at the top of the stairs to dry her face before walking out onto the corridor, where a mass of students hurried to class.
Hermione had no words to express the relief she felt when Ron finally woke up the next morning. She would have spent the whole day in the infirmary if Madam Pomfrey had not kicked out everyone whose last name wasn't Weasley. The murderous look Harry shot the nurse was almost identical to the ones he kept giving Hermione.
The witch took their banishment from the Hospital Wing with relative equanimity. Ron was fine, and that was as much as she needed to know at present. She needed to talk to him, but what she had to discuss was incompatible with an audience, so it would have to wait.
It did not have to wait very long, however. Making use of skills eleven-year-old Hermione would never have dreamt of acquiring, the witch sneaked out of the dormitories after curfew, making sure to avoid Filch's usual routes.
She was almost at the infirmary when the door swung open and Blaise Zabini sauntered out without bothering to check whether the coast was clear. He took no more than two steps before spotting her, and for a few seconds neither of them moved or made a sound. Hermione was the first to react, wand outstretched in front of her before she even had time to think about it.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "What have you done to him?"
Quickly recovering from the surprise, Zabini smirked and walked slowly towards her, hands in his pockets, not a care in the world.
"I didn't lay a finger on him, Granger," he drawled. "Not like you're suggesting, anyway. What? You think you're the only one who enjoys the occasional tryst behind enemy lines?" He stopped next to her, an eyebrow raised at the wand. "Gryffindors are always so melodramatic." And with that he moved on, strolling along the deserted corridor without another glance back.
Hermione rushed to the door, barging into the infirmary without caring whether the noise might carry to Madam Pomfrey's nearby room. She was greeted by Ron's quarrelsome tone.
"Sod off, Zabini," he said, his back turned. "It's 3a.m. I'm going to start thinking you care."
Relief washed over her. She needed everyone around her to stop being in danger on a semi-regular basis. She needed the first thing that sprung to mind whenever something happened not to be that someone was dead or dying or hurt. Was that so much to ask?
"It's me," she said, carefully closing the door behind her
Ron sat up with a start, turning a deep shade of red. "Thought you were someone else," he mumbled.
"Tall, dark and annoying?" she asked, still light-headed from the adrenaline. "Met him on the way out."
Ron refused to meet her eyes as she sat down on the bed, focusing instead on a loose thread from the blanket covering him.
"Yeah… He… That is…" He paused, twisting the thread between his fingers. Then, seemingly deciding that it was in everyone's best interest if he just changed the subject — certainly in his — he said, "What are you doing here this late, anyway?"
Hermione took a deep breath, trying to ease the knot in her stomach — a knot that was part nerves, and part fear, and all guilt.
"I need to talk to you about something," she said.
Ron crossed his legs, sitting up straighter. "In the middle of the night?"
Quick and to the point. Like ripping off a band-aid.
"I think Dra— Malfoy did this to you. I think Malfoy hurt Katie. I think that horrid necklace was his."
"Well, yeah," Ron cut in, "so does Harry, but Malfoy wasn't in Hogsmeade when—"
"I'm not done. I know things Harry doesn't. And the reason I know them is because Malfoy and I… we… Draco and I were together." Unable to look at Ron anymore, Hermione kept going, trying to say everything she needed to say before she had time to think better of it. "We were together and there are things I know, and if I had spoken up maybe this wouldn't have happened and you wouldn't be hurt. It's partly my fault and I'm sorry, Ron. I'm so sorry."
Hermione bit her lip, waiting for the explosion that was sure to come, but was met by nothing but silence. She finally chanced a look at Ron, who was staring at her wide-eyed. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no sound came out. When he finally managed to speak, his voice was unusually high-pitched.
Hermione rolled her eyes. Of course that was the only part he'd paid any attention to.
"He helps me knit scarves for house-elves," she said. "How do you think?"
"But what about Viktor Krum?"
"Oh for goodness' sake. You and Harry need to stop fixating on Krum. It's been two years. Nothing ever happened between me and Viktor. We were only ever friends, and anyway I don't think that's what—"
"But he's vile," Ron said horrified, only half listening to the witch. "He's… He's Malfoy! He's a freaking Slytherin! How could you possibly—"
"Well, last time I checked," she cut in, her temper flaring up, "Zabini isn't in Hufflepuff."
Ron had the good grace to blush. "Well, that's a completely different thing," he muttered.
"Oh really? Do tell."
"Well, it's… he… we… It just is, alright?"
"And Lavender would agree it's a completely different thing, do you think?"
"Well, it's not… It's not like it's a relationship or anything. Just two blokes having a laugh."
"So that's how you excuse being a cheating prat?"
"Oi!" he said indignantly, suddenly catching on to the fact that the tables had somehow turned. "Let's go back to the part where you were apologising to me."
"I wasn't apologising to you." Apparently her memory was as curiously constituted as his morals.
"You're dating Malfoy!" he accused.
"Glass houses, Ronald."
"Your boyfriend almost got me killed."
"We don't know that for sure."
They almost jumped out of their skins when someone spoke at the other end of the infirmary.
"Is this a private party, or can anyone join?" Harry smirked at their panicked expressions and walked over to the bed.
"Mate, make some noise when you walk," Ron complained, slightly out of breath. "Merlin's beard."
"You'd have heard me if you weren't trying to wake up half the castle," Harry said good-naturedly. "How is Madam Pomfrey not here yet?"
"Muffliato charm," Ron said.
Hermione stared at the quilt, pointedly refusing to meet Harry's gaze. He sat on the other side of the bed and reached over, touching her hand lightly with his.
"Let me guess," Ron said. "She also told you about this demented thing with Malfoy?"
"Nah, I've known that for a while."
"You bloody knew?! And you didn't think to tell me?"
Harry shrugged. "I keep your secrets. I keep hers too."
"His secrets?" It was Hermione's turn to be indignant. "You knew about Zabini?"
"Of course I knew about Zabini," Harry said. "I know all about the piss-poor life choices you both make. But that's besides the point. Hermione, you need to tell us what you know about Malfoy."
Hermione sighed. Harry was like a broken record, but it was just as well. No more secrets.
"I will tell you what I can."
"No. Not what you can. You will tell us what you know."
The witch bristled at his tone, but tried to keep her temper in check. "What I can, Harry. I took the Unbreakable Vow, so there are things—"
Harry almost had a fit. "You took the Unbreakable—"
"Yes, I know," Hermione cut in. "'Make better life choices.' There's no helping it now."
Harry pinched the bridge of his nose with a pained expression. "Neither one of you should be allowed to make decisions. Ever."
"Oi, enough with the high and mighty," Ron said, fishing a box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans from the small drawer on the nightstand. "As if I don't know you've been carrying a torch for Parkison since our third year. Good life choices indeed."
AN: It took a while (It took two years, I'm so sorry!) but I finally got this chapter done. I wish that meant I'm likely to update more regularly than once every two years, and I hope it does, but who can say? Life is complicated and I have the attention span of a six-year-old.
Complication remains in semi-hiatus and will be updated whenever the stars are in alignment. Don't blame me, blame the stars.
If you're new to the story and only just read this far, hi there! If you've been sticking with this story for the last three years, I'm so sorry and you're awesome!
I hope you all like the chapter and I'm sorry if there are any plot inconsistencies (I tried to be on the lookout for them, but it's been two years...)