Standard disclaimer:   None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of J.K. Rowlings.  No copyright infringment is intended by their use in this story.

Author's note:  I wrote this story almost a year ago, as an attempt to explore why people generally don't tell each other the truth about what they really think.  May contain hints of HG/DM if you want to see it that way; Cho Chang acting kind of out of character.  PG-13 for one broken arm and cruel words being said.

The courtyard of Hogwarts was enfolded in a soft blanket of fluffy snow that gently layered its cobblestones with white; large snowflakes drifted like feathers through the air as giggling, chattering students hurried back and forth on their way to classes, cutting dark footprints through the slushy layers on the ground.   Three young Gryffindors stood off to one side of the courtyard, discussing their last class animatedly. 

"Did you see what Neville turned his pencil into?" Ron asked, giggling.  "I didn't know that worms were supposed to have erasers!" 

Harry laughed too but Hermione frowned at them both.  "You know, you shouldn't make fun of poor Neville like that," she chided sternly.  She shifted the pile of books she was carrying from one arm to the other so that she could vainly attempt to brush the accumulating snow from her bushy hair.  "He tries his best."

"Aw, come on, Hermione, lighten up," Ron pleaded.  "It was funny!"

"It was, you know," Harry agreed.  "It really was."

Hermione's mouth twitched.  "Well, maybe it was a little funny," she agreed reluctantly.  "But still, if Neville heard you…."

"He won't," Harry assured her.  "He's halfway to Herbology by now."

"Yeah, we'd never say anything like that with him around," Ron agreed earnestly.  "Who do you think we are, Malfoy?"

"Did someone say my name?"

At the sound of the familiar, drawling voice, all three of them turned sharply, reaching almost automatically for their wands.  The blond boy stood behind them, some distance off, leaning against the wall casually watching them.  He made no move to defend himself, simply raised an eyebrow.  "Talking about me behind my back, Potter?  I didn't know you cared!"

"We were simply saying how nobody in school is as heartless as you are, ferret-boy," Hermione spat out.

Malfoy straightened up from the wall, his silver eyes gleaming.  "I'm hurt.  I'm really hurt.  You have no idea how seriously I take the insults of a filthy little mudblood like yourself—"

"You take that back!" Ron shouted, drawing his wand.  Harry went for his wand too, glaring at the other boy; Malfoy ignored them and took a step closer to Hermione.  He had identified and locked onto his target.

"So what's this I hear about someone asking you to the dance?" he asked scornfully.

"Why do you even care?" Harry shot back.

"Yeah, were you planning on asking her yourself?" Ron retorted.  A derisive laugh was his answer.

"Me?  Go with that filthy mudblood?  Don't make me laugh," Malfoy sneered.  "I'm just surprised anyone would ask her.  Who would even want to be seen in public with that worthless, useless, bushy-haired creature?  I'd rather go with one of the house-elves than that."

Ron and Harry both turned to look at Hermione, who drew herself up steadily, even though her face was starting to redden.  "For your information, it's true!  And you'd be surprised at who it was…."

Malfoy shook his head, cutting her off.  "I don't believe it," he said mockingly.  "I can't imagine anyone would want to go with you—I can't imagine that anyone would sink that low, not even you, Weasel."  Ron jerked violently, his hands tightening on the grip of his wand, his own face becoming almost as red as his hair.  They were starting to attract an audience now, Harry saw; students were pausing in their steps to watch the four of them.  "Admit it.  You made it all up, didn't you, mudblood?  That's the truth, isn't it?"  He stepped closer to her, speaking directly to her, zeroing in for the kill.  His voice dropped.   "No-one would ever want to go with a disgusting little hideous creature like you, would they?  But you should at least have the grace to tell plausible lies…."  Hermione held her ground, but a tell-tale shine appeared in her eyes; she began to blink furiously.  Harry's hands clenched.  Malfoy smiled and moved in even closer.  "You didn't actually expect anyone would believe you, did—"

"You know, why don't you lay off?"

All four of them suddenly turned at this new intrusion to see Cho Chang standing a few feet away, watching them.

The older, taller Ravenclaw seeker stepped forward now.  Her long black hair and the shoulders of her robe were just covered with a light dusting of snowflakes; clearly she had just arrived on the scene.   She dropped her armload of books to the ground and turned a cool, appraising, black-eyed gaze on Malfoy, a gaze so intense that the shorter blond boy squirmed under it.  "Seriously," she said, never breaking that eye contact.  "Why don't you leave Hermione alone?"

Malfoy looked incredulous.  "This filthy little mudblood?" he cried.  "Come on, Chang, you're from a wizarding family too!  You don't actually care about this creature, do you?  I mean, be honest!  She's just a—"

"Lay off.  I mean it."

Cho did not speak those words especially loudly or forcefully, but something in her tone caused Malfoy to break off abruptly, staring up at her.  It must have penetrated to the crowd around them, too, because students began to slowly gather around them.  Cho Chang ignored them.  Her gaze was fixed on Malfoy.

Slowly she stepped closer to him, never looking away, holding him pinned with that cool, evaluative stare.  She straightened to her full height and looked down on him from perhaps a foot of distance, distance that lent weight to her measuring gaze.  Malfoy slowly began to back up, unable to look away from her; then he hit the wall behind him and could back no further.  Still Cho advanced, until she was almost within reaching distance.

Harry could not move.  Whatever spell Cho had woven around Malfoy seemed to hold him too; he could not even tear his eyes away to check Ron's and Hermione's reaction.  The air crackled with intensity around Cho and her prey.

She paused within reaching distance and looked him over with that searching, measuring stare.  Malfoy's apprehension was plain on his face as he stared up at her desperately, but he didn't know what Cho was going to do.  Nobody knew.  Complete and utter silence blanketed the courtyard as hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on Cho and Malfoy.

Then Cho spoke into the stillness.  She did not speak a spell; she did not draw her wand.  She merely spoke, her words utterly dispassionate and without emotion at all.  She could have been commenting on the weather.  "You know," she said coolly, her words echoing slightly from the high stone walls of the buildings around them, "you're going to be quite the little heartbreaker when you grow up.  Too bad your personality's such a complete and utter waste."

Malfoy stirred at this point, but Cho continued as if she hadn't seen.  "No, seriously.  You're quite the little monster, aren't you?  Aren't you?" she asked calmly, her voice carrying in the stillness.  "It never even occurs to you to think of anyone's feelings but your own, does it?  That's why you don't have any friends, you know.  You really don't.  Because you're cruel.  You're cruel to everyone all the time, and that's why nobody likes you.  Say what you will about Hermione; she has friends.  She has people who love her and care for her.  You don't.  And you never will, either.  You never will, because you're just going to get worse and worse as you get older.  As far as I can tell, even your parents don't care about you.  And I don't blame them, either.  If I were your mother, I certainly wouldn't care about you.  I probably would have dropped you down a well shortly after you were born.  I'm right, aren't I, and you know it too."

Malfoy's face twisted and he started to say something, but Cho cut him off, holding up a hand.  Harry could not take his eyes away from this spectacle.  He should feel happy, yet somehow he had a sinking feeling in his guts.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ron looking sick.  "No, no, please," Cho said calmly to Malfoy, shaking her head a bit.  "Don't insult my intelligence by arguing with me.  You could try to say that I was wrong, but anything you said would be a lie, and you and I both know it, so why should you waste my time like that?  I mean, at least you could have the courage to admit what you are, but it doesn't seem that you even have that, does it?  And the fact that you don't even have the courage to do that leaves you, as far as I can tell, without a single quality that's of any worth to anyone.  Not one.  It's amazing.  I never thought it would be possible for a human being to be devoid of any positive qualities, but somehow you've managed it."  She tipped her head to one side slightly, regarding him evaluatively again.  The cathedral hush that hung over the courtyard was unbroken; nobody even breathed.  Malfoy cringed—actually cringed—back away from Cho as she shifted herself forward a bit; he was staring up at her, his gray eyes wide.

"You know," Cho said dispassionately into the silence, looking down at him with that cool air of appraisal, "I used to have a friend who would try to convince me that some people deserved to die.  I agree with her, but frankly, I take it one step further.  There are some people who never deserved to have been born in the first place.  You're one of them.  You have no positive traits whatsoever.  Your life is without value to anyone, including your own parents.  You are completely and utterly worthless.  You're a waste of air.  That's what you are," she said, shrugging.  "A waste of air.  It boggles the mind that you're walking the earth sucking up perfectly good oxygen that could go to something of some value to someone.  It just blows the mind.  Why don't you do the world a favor and throw yourself off a cliff or something?  Give up your oxygen to someone that actually deserves it."

Her last words echoed in the oppressive stillness with the finality of a verdict.  Her very dispassion lent her words weight; during Malfoy's insult matches with Harry, he had always spoken with a heavy superciliousness that was designed expressly to get a reaction, but the calmness of Cho's words made it clear that she was not interested in what his reaction might be.  She was speaking only exactly what she thought.   She turned away with a sort of distant contemptuousness that suggested that her prey was worth no more of her time, and yet it wasn't over.  The atmosphere of the courtyard focused on Malfoy.  All eyes turned to the blond boy as he slowly straightened up, his gray eyes wide and desperate.  Nobody spoke, moved or said anything, yet an expectant hush overlay the courtyard.

Malfoy turned helplessly in the stillness, staring at the hundreds of eyes that were fixed on him, seeming to look for what to do next.  For a moment, his arrogant mask had dropped, and his features were twisted in an expression of raw hurt—hurt and humiliation.  His mouth hung open slightly, his blond hair hung in his face.  His eyes brushed over Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and all three of them winced for him.  He turned in the stillness until his vulnerable gaze settled again on Cho's back.  His expression contorted—not in anger, but in pain—and he snatched out his wand.

"Cho, look out!" someone called out.

Cho moved at the warning, moved with a speed that was beyond belief.  She turned back to him, stepped to one side, closed her hand over his wand, and simply yanked it out of his grasp.  She stepped back, holding it up and looking at him calmly.  Malfoy's face flushed.  "Give it back!" he cried.  "Give it back, give it back to me RIGHT NOW, give it BACK—"  He lunged for it frantically, screaming incoherently.  Again, Cho simply stepped out of the way coolly, holding Malfoy's wand up above his head; her assailant was unable to touch her.  Malfoy, breathing hard, turned and attempted to come at her again.  As he lunged at the taller girl this time, his feet skidded on a patch of ice; they shot out from underneath him.  He threw out his arms as he fell in an attempt to catch himself—the heel of his right hand hit the stone courtyard—and there was an audible snap.

That snap echoed in the hush; it cut off Malfoy's cries like the blade of a knife.  He crumpled to the ground, crying out as he landed on his broken arm.  He thrashed for an instant, turning to stare up at Cho; Cho's face had remained impassive throughout and was still expressionless now.  Slowly she started toward him.

Malfoy stared up at her as if he could not move.  He stared up at her, fear naked in his gray eyes, as she advanced toward him, his mouth slightly open, his breathing too quick, too shallow.  As she drew near, he actually flinched back.    His eyes were locked on her face.  Cho dropped her distant, impassive gaze briefly to his wand.  Her mouth gave a slight twitch as she lifted it to her face.  Then she brought it down sharply and snapped it over her knee.  With a distant, contemptuous gesture, she tossed the two fragments of the now-useless wand at him, folded her arms, and took a step back, her face utterly expressionless.  And waited.

Malfoy gasped.  He lifted his sick gaze from the pieces of what had been his wand, up to Cho's dispassionate face; then his gaze scattered around the courtyard, looking for help.  Nobody moved.  Nobody even met his eyes directly.  He drew a deep, shuddering breath, then another one, as if to speak.  He opened his mouth.  Nothing came out.  He gasped in breath again, and then the unthinkable happened.

Draco Malfoy began to cry.

His body shook with harsh, braying sobs that racked his entire frame and bounced off the high building walls.  He turned and pressed his face to the cobblestones beneath him and sobbed helplessly, his shoulders shaking with the force of his emotions, his good hand plastered over his eyes.  Tears streamed down his cheeks, to fall in the slush beneath him.  Cho watched impassively.

"Truth hurts, doesn't it," she said with no sympathy.

Then—suddenly, too late—there was movement.  Harry and Ron were shoved violently to one side as Hermione shoved her way forward.  She ran with quick, light steps, to stand between Malfoy and Cho, her wand out, her brown eyes snapping with anger.  She lifted her gaze to Cho's face.  "That," she said, her tone shaking with fury, "was really mean."

"Don't you DARE stand up for me, Granger, you f-filthy Mudblood!!" Draco screamed through his sobs, the words barely intelligible.

"There, you see?" Cho commented calmly.  "His sense of self-worth under attack, he tries to buttress it in the only way he knows how, by attacking someone else.  What a piece of work he is."

"I mean it," Hermione said furiously, glaring up at Cho.  "That was really, really mean.  Take—take it back!  Take it back right now!"

Cho did not seem angry.  She crouched down slightly to Hermione's eye level, and asked patiently, "What part of what I said was untrue?"

"Wh-what?" Hermione stammered, taken aback by the question.

"You heard me.  What part of what I said was untrue?" she asked calmly.  "If you can convince me that what I said was untrue, then I'll take it back and apologize.  Was anything I said untrue?"  She faced Hermione seriously, as if she honestly expected an answer.  Hermione, flustered, cast about the courtyard, turning to Harry and Ron for help.  Both of them stood, stunned and in shock; they had no help to give her.  Alone, Hermione turned back to Cho.

"That's—that's not the issue!" she insisted desperately.  Cho smiled slightly, a trace of warmth coming into her eyes.

"You're right," she said calmly.  "That's not the issue.  So what is the issue?"

Hermione opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again.  She stared up at Cho, who watched her calmly, waiting patiently, as if she were a teacher with a favorite student.  Hermione started to say something, stopped, started again, and that was when McGonagall arrived on the scene, pushing her way through the crowd of enrapt students.

"What in the world is going on here?" she demanded furiously, her eyes going from Malfoy, huddled sobbing on the ground, to Hermione and Cho standing locked in face-off.  "Somebody speak up right this instant!"

All eyes turned to Cho Chang, who drew a deep breath and then stepped forward.  She looked up and met Professor McGonagall's eyes squarely.  "Malfoy and I were having a disagreement of opinion, Professor," she said calmly.

"A disagreement of opinion?" McGonagall repeated, her voice stern.  Cho nodded.

"Malfoy was making some statements about Miss Granger that I took exception to, Professor," she said evenly.  "I took the opportunity to correct him.  During the course of our altercation, he attacked me with his wand and I was forced to confiscate it.  He lunged after me to retrieve it and had the misfortune to slip on a patch of ice.  I think his arm is probably broken, Professor."  She bore McGonagall's keen gaze without flinching.

McGonagall looked at her for a moment, then turned her attention to the shaking form of Malfoy as he lay sobbing hysterically, face still pressed to the ground.  She frowned, and looked over at Hermione, standing with her wand out, facing Cho.

"Is this true, Miss Granger?" she demanded severely.

Hermione bit her lip, glancing from Malfoy to Harry and Ron, still standing frozen, to Cho, who looked down at her dispassionately, then back to the tall, stern form of McGonagall.  "Yes, Professor," she said quietly.  "It's true."

McGonagall looked back at Cho.  She gave Cho a long, measuring stare, not entirely unlike the one Cho had given Malfoy earlier.  Cho stood without flinching under that scrutiny, meeting the older woman's eyes with a resolute air.  At long last, the professor nodded slowly.

"I understand, Miss Chang," she said quietly.  "I appreciate your honesty.  Fifty points from Ravenclaw for fighting." 

Cho nodded.  "Yes, Professor."

McGonagall stepped forward and her foot ground on the broken pieces of Malfoy's wand.  She turned and looked back at Cho.  "You broke it?" she asked. 

"I had to, Professor," Cho answered calmly.  "He had demonstrated his desire to attack me with it.  I was not going to leave a weapon for him to use."  There was no anger in her voice, no arrogance; it was a mere statement of fact.

McGonagall looked at her again for a moment, then went to Malfoy.  She knelt down beside him and helped him gently to his feet.  His sobs were tapering off now, but his face was flushed and swollen, and tears still streamed down his cheeks.  He would not look at anyone.  "Let's get you to Madame Pomfrey," she said, her voice low and soothing.  "Let's have a look at that arm.  Come on."

"Professor McGonagall!" Hermione spoke up, stepping forward.  McGonagall turned to look at her.  "Please….may I go with you?  I'm concerned about him—"

"You should let her, Professor," Cho agreed calmly.  "She attempted to defend Malfoy against me after his arm was broken.  I'd say she deserves it."

"No!!" Malfoy cried through his tears.  "I don't want that mudblood anywhere near me—"

Hermione ignored this, and stepped closer to McGonagall.  "Please, Professor," she repeated quietly, looking up at her earnestly.   McGonagall looked down at her for a long moment, then nodded at last. 

"All right, Miss Granger.  Ten points to Gryffindor for your show of compassion for a fellow student—particularly one who has tormented you in the past.  You may come."  She looked up at Cho.  "You too, Miss Chang—after I escort Mr. Malfoy to the infirmary, you will come with me to speak to Professor Dumbledore about this matter."

Cho nodded again.  "Yes, Professor."

"All right.  Come on, then."  She turned and looked at the assembled crowd of students, who were now slowly beginning to mutter among themselves.  "The rest of you—back to classes.  Go!"

As the crowd slowly dispersed, McGonagall put one arm around Malfoy and led him off, Cho and Hermione in tow.

*

Three hours later, Hermione perched in a hard-backed chair at the end of one of the beds, knees drawn up before her, eyes resting pensively on its occupant.

Madame Pomfrey had given Malfoy a drink of a combined sedative and restorative, wrapped his arm in plaster, and put him to bed, where he lay sleeping now.  Hermione studied him thoughtfully.  He was paler than usual, even in sleep; he looked almost as white as the sheets he lay on, and his closed eyes seemed deeply socketed, influenced, perhaps, by the heavy dark shadows underneath them.  Even in sleep, his forehead was knitted into a scowl, but the vulnerable curve of his mouth belied his forbidding exterior; he looked like what he was—a tired, badly-used child.  Hermione sighed as she watched him, folding her arms over her knees and resting her chin on them.

As she watched him, he stirred slightly, then slowly opened his eyes.  They were glazed with lingering drowsiness—probably from the drug that Madame Pomfrey had given him—and pain.  He looked, if possible, worse with his eyes open than with them closed—almost like a living corpse.   He looked around the infirmary with an exhausted lack of interest until his eyes came to Hermione, sitting quietly at the end of the bed watching him; he immediately dropped his gaze, a faint flush rising in his cheeks.  Hermione said nothing, simply watching him silently.

"Come to make fun of me, mudblood?" he asked in a low, defeated tone that wanted to be hostile but couldn't quite manage it.  Hermione's mouth curled up in a smile, one eyebrow raising.

"'His sense of self-worth under attack, he attempts to buttress it in the only way he knows how, by attacking someone else,'" she quoted; she could not help herself.  Malfoy's flush deepened and he bit his lip, staring down at the counterpane covering the bed.

"Listen, mudbl—Granger, if you want to insult me, go on and do it, but then leave me alone.  I'm not in the mood for company."  His voice was thin and drained.

"I'm not here to insult you," Hermione said quietly.

 "Then why are you here?"

"I'm here because I was concerned about you," she answered gently.  He winced at her words and looked up at her, his gray eyes hot.

"I don't want your pity," he spat with weak anger.

Hermione tilted her head to one side, examining him; he dropped his eyes again.  "I do pity you," she said at last, "although not for the reasons you probably think."

Malfoy's mouth twisted unhappily and he swallowed, blinking rapidly.  "I don't care what your reasons are, I don't want your pity!" he insisted, trying to sound angry and succeeding only in sounding miserable.  He sniffed once, and his scowl deepened.  "Go away, Granger," he said with a hollow attempt at command.  "Go away and leave me alone."

Hermione shrugged.  "If you say so," she said, pushing back her chair and standing up.  That was when the door to the infirmary opened.

Cho Chang entered, crossing the room with long, firm steps that echoed throughout the room.  She stepped to the center of Malfoy's bed, turned and faced him with almost military precision.  Hermione was rooted to the spot; her eyes went immediately to Malfoy, who had frozen and was staring up at Cho with fright naked on his face; he looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.  He looked very small and helpless, lying in that hospital bed with his arm bandaged; a hot flare of protectiveness leapt up in Hermione's chest.  Cho looked down at him with the cool dispassion she had displayed before.

"I have just spoken with Professor Dumbledore about the incident," she recited in a distant voice.  "You should be pleased to know that Dumbledore has given me a month's worth of detention as punishment for fighting, and further has taken an additional fifty points from Ravenclaw for instigation.  He has also ordered me to tell you that I am sorry.  Therefore I will now do so."  She paused, looking down at him.  "I am sorry.

"I am sorry that you attacked me, resulting in me having to confiscate your wand.  I am further sorry that, during your attempt to recover your wand, you were clumsy enough to slip on some ice and break your arm.  I am sorry that during the time which I have been acquainted with you, you have demonstrated that you possess no personal qualities of any worth at all; and I am sorry that neither have I seen that you have formed any relationship with any person whatsoever that cares about you."  She paused again.  Hermione saw with rising anger that Malfoy had begun to cry again as he stared up at her; not the huge, gasping sobs of before, but a quiet streaming of tears down his cheeks.  "I cannot be sorry for what I said, because to the best of my knowledge, I spoke the truth.  Should you at some later date demonstrate that you actually do possess qualities of worth, I will be happy to retract part or all of what I said, but I think you and I both know that's not very likely, is it?"  She drew a breath and stepped back.  "I have now told you that I am sorry."  She turned on her heel and started for the door.

Hermione looked from Cho's unassailable back to Malfoy's devastated expression and snapped.  She drew her wand from her sleeve and ran to place herself between Cho and the door.  "I said it before," she said furiously, glaring up at the taller girl.  "That was really mean.  Take—take it back!"

Cho raised one eyebrow, but said again, patiently, "I said before:  What part of what I said was untrue?  Tell me what part was untrue and I will take it back."

"I thought we already agreed," Hermione said coldly, "that that wasn't the issue."

Cho smiled.  "You're right.  That wasn't the issue.  So what was?"

Hermione paused for a long moment, groping for an answer.  "You said mean things to him to hurt his feelings!" she came up with at last.

Cho nodded briefly.  "True.  But you and Ron and Harry say mean things to him to hurt his feelings all the time, and he does as well to you.  How is it different?"

Hermione paused again, stymied.  Cho was facing her with a tolerant expression, waiting for an answer.  Hermione groped again and came up blank.  Her eyes darted to Malfoy, and found no help there; he had turned his face to the wall, probably so she would not witness his tears.  Her fingers tightened on her wand as she attempted to come up with some answer; she stared up at Cho helplessly.

Cho smiled again.  "You're very intelligent, Hermione," she said, warmth flickering in her eyes.  "In a year or two, you're really going to be something.  But you're not quite sophisticated enough yet to understand what the real issue is."  She held up her thumb and forefinger, about an inch apart.  "So let me help you out.

"First," she said calmly, "the difference is in our ages.  You three are his contemporaries—his equals.  I'm his superior.  I'm older than he is, more mature than he is, and wiser than he is.  This means that anything I say to him automatically carries more weight than whatever you, Ron, or Harry say.  It also means that I have no business saying mean things to him at all.  The power differential is just too great; it's like attacking a three-year-old.  That's the first difference.  Do you understand?"  she asked patiently.  Hermione nodded.

"Second," Cho continued, "is just this:  when you, Ron and Harry insult him, you are throwing insults at him.  Insults are meant to hurt.  You are telling him things specifically to get a reaction out of him and hurt his feelings.  When I spoke to him earlier, I was simply telling the truth as I saw it.  I did not and do not care what his reaction is or was to what I have to say."  She paused.  "Paradoxically, that makes my words more hurtful than if I were trying to hurt him," she continued with a slight smile.  "He can easily disregard your insults if he so chooses; he knows you want to hurt his feelings, and therefore he is free to believe that you're exaggerating, stretching the truth, or lying if he wishes.  I was not trying to hurt his feelings.  I was telling him nothing but the plain, unvarnished truth, and I made that perfectly clear to him.  He can't ignore it; he can't tell himself I didn't mean it; he can't blow it off.  He has to accept it.  Remember that, Hermione," she added.  "Sometimes the truth can be the most powerful weapon of all.  And that is also why nobody should ever have to hear the truth about themselves.

"So what it comes down to, Hermione, is this:  I, who have no business saying mean things to him at all, told him things about himself that nobody should ever have to hear, in a way that made it impossible for him to dismiss what I was saying.  Does that about cover it?"

Hermione swallowed and nodded.  "Yes," she said fiercely.  She gazed up at the older girl for a long moment, then delivered her own verdict.  "That was really cruel of you, Cho Chang," she said quietly.

Cho nodded.  "Yes it was," she agreed calmly, looking down at Hermione.

"Why did you do it?"

Cho shrugged.  "Two reasons.  First:  I was tired of hearing him insult people and I thought it was time to put a stop to it; and second…."  She paused, turning her gaze to the low, still form of Malfoy, lying shrouded in blankets, his back to them.  He could certainly hear what they were saying, yet he gave no sign.  "I thought he needed to hear it," she said calmly.  "I thought that he needed to hear what the truth was.  This way, at least he knows, and if he wants to, he may be able to change his ways.  Not that I have high hopes on that score, you understand, but it's possible—hey, anything's possible.  I'll be waiting, though not very hopefully.  Do you understand?" she asked, looking at Hermione again.

Hermione looked over at Malfoy for a moment too, lost in thought, then looked back up at Cho.  "I do, but I don't agree.  That was very cruel."

  Cho looked at her for a moment, then suddenly grinned.  "Heart of a lion.  And that's why you're in Gryffindor, Hermione.  You're going to be great someday—you know that, don't you?  See you around."  With that, she turned and strode out of the infirmary, her steps ringing from the walls.

Hermione watched her go for a long moment, then turned back to Malfoy's motionless form.  Slowly she approached him, not sure what to say or do, only sure that she could not leave him like that.  She halted by the side of the bed and reached out hesitantly, then drew her hand back, uncertain.

"Malfoy—" she began and could not think of a way to go on.

"Go away, mudb—Granger," he responded in a thick, choked voice without turning toward her.

"Don't—don't cry, all right?" she asked helplessly.

"Who says I'm crying?" he responded with an attempt at echoing his old arrogant defiance.  His denial was so obviously false—and yet at the same time, so bravely meant—that Hermione could not suppress a giggle.

"It's all right, you know, I won't tell anyone," she said gently.  "Promise.  Swear.  Go ahead, cry.  Nobody will ever know, you have my word."

There was a long silence, and then he gave a heavy, exhausted, bitter sigh.  "You might as well tell whomever you like.  It doesn't matter anyway," he said dully without turning.  "After—after what happened—in—in the courtyard—"

"Oh, that?" Hermione scoffed kindly.  "Don't worry about that.  Everybody will probably have forgotten all about it by the time you get out of here."

Now he turned to look at her, his pale complexion still alarmingly white, his gray eyes dark in that ashen face.  His gaze hung on Hermione with an unexpected and somehow touching innocence.  "You really think so?"

"Sure, absolutely!" she said with false cheeriness, but looked away as she said it.  He saw it and his brows drew together in a shadow of his former scowl.

"You're lying," he accused.

Hermione gave up.  "Yeah.  Yeah, I am," she admitted helplessly.

He closed his eyes, lying back against the pillows weakly, his free hand plucking aimlessly at the coverlet.  He was silent for so long that Hermione thought he had drifted off again.  She was about to get up and leave, when he whispered unhappily, "She broke my wand…."  He choked and tears started to flow again.  Hermione winced, feeling sick herself.  She knew how she would feel if anyone broke her wand—as if she had lost a part of herself.  She leaned forward and patted his hand gently.

"Well, that's no problem," she said with forced brightness.  "Just write your daddy and tell him that some mean kid beat you up and broke your wand for no reason.  He'll probably buy you ten more to make up for it."

She had spoken with a sort of gentle, teasing scorn intended to reassure, but she regretted it when he opened his eyes again and looked at her.  A spasm of fright crossed his face as he whispered, "No.  You don't know Father.  He'll—"  He broke off abruptly and looked away, his free hand clenching unconsciously.  Hermione dropped her eyes too, feeling very awkward and at the same time glad that he had broken off.

Once more there was silence.  Hermione watched him, frowning slightly, unsure what to say or do.  He was staring off into the distance, seemingly lost—or trapped—in his own thoughts—unpleasant ones, to judge by his expression; he looked pale, and tired, and desperately unhappy.  After a time, he looked back at her uncertainly, meeting her eyes for a moment, then dropping his gaze.

"Can….can I ask you something?" he asked hesitantly.

Oh no, here we go….  Hermione swallowed nervously.  She had heard such a prologue only a few times before in her life, but enough to know that it usually presaged some hideous, awful question that would be every bit as painful to answer as it was to ask.  But she could not refuse his obvious need.  She drew a deep breath, braced herself, and said quietly, "Go ahead."

He was silent for a long moment, so long that she wondered if he had lost his nerve.  One hand fiddled aimlessly with the coverlet; he did not look at her.  Finally, he drew a deep breath and asked, glancing at her sidelong, "What—what Chang said—it—she—  It wasn't true, was it?"

Hermione let out her breath in a rush and looked away, biting her lip.  "Look," she said in a low voice, "Chang had no right to say that to you, none at all.  She was way out of line and—and she should be ashamed of herself.  She—"

His brows drew together in a faint scowl, a shadow of his former imperiousness.  "You're not answering the question."

Hermione sighed.  She lifted her gaze and looked at him.  His eyes held hers, vulnerable, pleading, and helpless; they begged her to deny it.  How could she do otherwise?  How could she hurt him more?  How could she hurt herself?

But she had only one answer to give.

She met his eyes squarely as she delivered her verdict.  "Yes," she said quietly.  "It was."

It was as if she had stabbed him in the heart.  His pale face whitened still further, whitened as if he had received a mortal wound and was bleeding out his life.  His gray eyes widened in shock, then squeezed tightly shut as a strangled sob escaped him.  Only one—then he rolled over, turning his back to her and his face to the wall, his shoulders trembling.  Hermione, her own face paling, rose halfway to her feet and reached out.  "Draco—Draco, please, I—" she began, having no idea what she could possibly say to make it better, to call back those awful words, only knowing that she had to try.

He did not give her the chance.  "Get out," he ordered in a choked whisper.

"Draco, I—"

"Go!

Hermione hesitated a moment longer, then gave a heavy sigh.  Sick at heart, she rose to her feet.  With head bowed, she turned and trudged out the door.

But as she closed the infirmary door behind her, she paused and put her ear to it, listening.  Behind it, she heard sobbing.  Alone in that cold infirmary, Draco was crying as if his heart were breaking.  Feeling cold and dead inside, Hermione turned and started down the hall toward Gryffindor Tower.

*

Draco was kept in the infirmary for two days for observation.  He received no visitors, either from Slytherin or any other house; Hermione, rightly or wrongly, assumed that he would not want to see her again after what she had said and stayed away.  While he was in the infirmary, it was as if he had died; his name was not spoken, except in hushed whispers, by the other students in the school.  Nobody quite knew how to process the experience—to deal with what Cho had said and done to him.  Even Harry and Ron, his mortal enemies, were uneasy with what had been done; instead of gloating, they avoided mentioning him whenever possible, and changed the subject quickly when it came up.

When Malfoy was released from the infirmary on the evening of the second day and entered the Great Hall for the first time, looking pale and scared and defiant all at once, it became clear that things had changed.  The room went silent as he stood in the doorway, and all attention focused on him.  His walk to the Slytherin table resembled the walk of a condemned criminal to the gallows.  Hermione, watching from between Harry and Ron at the safety of the Gryffindor table, had to admit that he had guts; he looked as if he wished the earth would swallow him, yet still he went forward.  Halfway there, Cho Chang rose from the Ravenclaw table with the easy air of a lioness rising from a kill and sauntered past him to the door; as she came near him he froze in his tracks, staring at her like a deer in the headlights.  She turned to look at him briefly as she passed, her face set in that impassive mask; the corner of her mouth might have twitched for an instant, and then she brushed past him as if he were beneath notice and left the hall.  He's not going to be able to go on, Hermione thought, watching him, and if she had asked him at that moment he might have agreed; yet somehow he found the courage to take the next step, and the next, and continue his slow march toward the Slytherin table.  He slowed uncertainly as he reached it, Hermione saw, scanning the faces of those who were seated there, most likely looking for a friendly or welcoming face; but the Slytherins were all looking at him with the same unified, solemn stare as those sitting at the other tables, and no one beckoned him to join them.  He ended up taking a seat by himself at the end of the table, separated by some distance from the other students, and stared down at his plate looking very isolated and alone; after a moment, the buzz of normal conversation resumed around him slowly, but he was not part of it.

It was the same elsewhere in school as well:  in classes, people avoided sitting next to Malfoy; if he entered a room, conversation would cease for a moment while all eyes turned to him briefly, and like as not, those in the room would end up finding some elaborate pretext to leave after a few moments had passed.  Nobody spoke to him if at all possible; people even tried to avoid making eye contact with him.  It was as if he were an unperson.  Hermione, watching from afar, thought about going to him during this difficult time, but the memory of the words she had spoken in the infirmary stopped her; she was not at all sure he would want her help, and even if he did, she could not pretend that scene had never happened.

This state of affairs lasted for three days.  Finally, on the fourth day, it was the Slytherins—in particular, Pansy Parkinson—that managed to bring his status back to a state of normalcy—albeit substantially altered from what it had been.  Pansy, who had assumed the position of leader of the Slytherins during Malfoy's absence, did this by marching up to him after the end of Arithmancy as he slowly gathered his books up, planting both of her hands in the small of his back, and giving him a shove that almost knocked him down.  As he whirled to stare at her in shock, mouth open, gray eyes wide, she stepped right up to him, looked him directly in the eyes, and sneered, "Crybaby!"

At that word, the tense atmosphere in the classroom broke with an almost audible snap.  What Cho had said to him had been too sophisticated to make for really good insults; indeed, a large portion of the student body had not understood exactly what it was the Ravenclaw seeker had said to him.  However, the fact that Malfoy had cried was instantly graspable by the entire student body.  By calling him a crybaby, Pansy had reduced the incident with Cho into terms that everyone could understand and relate to.  Instantly the entire classroom burst into laughter.  Shouts of "Crybaby!  Crybaby!" filled the air.  Malfoy backed away, clutching his books to his chest, staring around at the jeering crowd; he looked from Pansy to his former thugs Crabbe and Goyle, who had started accompanying Pansy everywhere she went, and back again.  Nobody came forward to help him.  He turned tail and fled the classroom, followed by taunts and mocking laughter.  Within hours, reports of the incident in the Arithmancy classroom had spread to the entire school, and Malfoy was essentially finished.

Cho Chang's status, on the other hand, had never been higher.  Many people, even some in Slytherin, had wanted to see Malfoy take a fall for a long time, and what Cho had said to him had been right on the mark.  The pinpoint accuracy of her comments, combined with the cool, dispassionate way in which they had been delivered, served to burnish her reputation for intelligence and toughness.  Many of the younger students were slightly afraid of her, since she had demonstrated that she could hurt them; she had managed, after all, to break Malfoy without even laying a hand on him.  Those of her own age group and those older treated her with increased respect as well; the general consensus was that she had done something which had needed to be done for a long time.  Her power and stature within the student body were increased.  Some of this rubbed off on Hermione as well, since Hermione had been seen to stand up to Cho, thus proving that she at least was not intimidated by the older seeker; furthermore, whenever the subject of Hermione came up around Cho, the seeker was unsparing in her praise of the young Gryffindor.  Hermione began to accumulate her own clique of followers, and sometimes she used her influence to shield Malfoy from the worst of the teasing he endured.  She did not do this often, though; she could see in his gray eyes that he thought it was pity, and he resented it deeply.  He was right, of course; it was.  Yet one good thing happened between them out of Cho's interference:  Malfoy never called her "mudblood" again.

*

Spring came early that year, melting the snow that froze the school grounds and bringing green grass and foliage in its wake.  It was on a beautiful, clear-blue day that Hermione stepped out of the Herbology gardens, accompanied by Lavendar and Parvati.  The three girls were giggling. 

"So what do you think you're going to do for the summer holidays, Parvati?" Hermione asked.

The other girl shrugged.  "I don't know.  Probably nothing.  My family never does anything over the summer; it's so boring.  How about you?"

"Maybe we'll take a trip to France," Lavendar said offhandedly.  "My mom's always wanted to visit there, and my folks have been talking about it for years.  How about you, Hermione?"

"I might go visit my older cousin Isabelle," Hermione said offhandedly.  "She moved to America a couple years ago; she has a job with an advertising firm in New York.  We were really close, it was almost like she was the older sister I never had."

"Yeah, I know," Lavendar agreed.  "My cousin Rosemary is the same way.  She's like my best friend…."

"Well, thanks a lot!" Parvati said playfully, swatting her.  Lavendar giggled. 

"Sorry, guys!  I mean, my best friend not at school."

"It's okay," Hermione said, smiling.  "We've got some time before the next class, do you want to….what's that?" she asked, trailing off as she caught sight of a lone figure sitting by itself under a tree.

"What….oh, it's just that loser Malfoy," Lavendar said dismissively, turning to look as well.  And indeed it was; he was studying a book, looking down at it with a frown of intensity.  "What's he doing out here by himself?  What an idiot!"

Parvati giggled.  "Probably afraid he'd get picked on if he went to study in the Slytherin common room.  My sister Padma knows a girl who's dating a Slytherin—"

"Ick, why?" Lavendar asked.  Parvati shrugged.

"Don't ask me, Padma says it's 'cause she's so ugly that nobody from any of the other houses would touch her—and anyway, Padma heard that Malfoy gets beat up by the other Slytherins on a regular basis—girls, too, she says Millicent Bulstrode kicked his butt really bad a couple months ago.  Serves him right, the little reject.  Come on, Hermione, let's go to the library," she concluded.  "I need to get started on that project for Arithmancy—I've probably waited too long already as it is—"

Hermione waved absently, her eyes fixed on that lonely figure under the tree.  "You two go on ahead, I'll catch up.  Okay?"

Parvati and Lavendar looked at each other, then shrugged.  "All right, see you in Charms," Lavendar said, and she and Parvati walked off.  Alone, Hermione approached the tree.

Malfoy did not look up from his book as she came near, but she saw his shoulders tense at the sound of her approach.  She stopped a few feet from him and said quietly, "Hey."

He relaxed almost imperceptibly at the sound of her voice, and looked up, scowling ferociously.  "What are you doing here, Granger?  Slumming?" he asked bitterly.

"I wanted to say hi," she said quietly.

"Good, you've said it.  Now you can leave," he responded angrily, looking back down at his book.  Hermione, ignoring the hint, sank gracefully to the grass close by.

"How's your arm?" she asked calmly.

He looked up again.  "What's it to you?" he demanded irritably.  Hermione raised one eyebrow.

"It's called 'small talk,' Malfoy, and people generally engage in it to be polite," she answered coolly.

"Somehow I don't feel like being polite at present," he answered, his voice sullen.  "Do me a favor and go away, all right?"

Hermione ignored this too, simply looking at him contemplatively for a long moment.  His frown grew more pronounced.  "Something wrong with your eyes?"

She still did not answer, looking him over calmly.  Her eyes fell on the wand lying on the grass beside him.  "I see your daddy sent you a new wand after all," she said, gently teasing.

He looked up at her, startled, then gave a grim laugh.  "Are you kidding?  No, I bought this with my own pocket money.  Father was angry enough with me when he got the owl from Dumbledore about my arm; I wasn't about to tell him I'd broken my wand in the process.  If I'm lucky, he'll never find out."  His gray eyes grew distant for a moment, and he shivered slightly.

"What happened?" Hermione asked curiously.

"I don't want to talk about it," he answered sullenly.

Hermione thought about it for a moment, then nodded.  "Fine.  What are you going to do when you go home for the holidays and he sees it's different?"

He frowned slightly.  "I don't know," he said, shrugging.  "Maybe I can convince him that I lost it somewhere."

Hermione nodded.  For a moment, there was silence.  A clutch of students wandered by, giggling; Hermione noted the way Malfoy tensed up, following them warily with his eyes until they had passed.

She sighed.  The subject of what had happened in the infirmary hung almost visibly between them; she wanted to bring it up, but couldn't think of how.  She could see it in his eyes too, the way he would dart a glance at her and then quickly look away.  The silence between them stretched out, longer and longer, becoming more and more awkward.  At last, unable to take any more, she stood up.

"Well, I guess I better get going," she said, her voice slightly strained.  "I'll see you around, I suppose."

He nodded, staring back down at his book.  Hermione hesitated another moment, then turned.  She had already started off when he spoke behind her.

"Granger."  His voice was low and forced.

"Yes?"  She turned to look back at him.  His eyes were still lowered, and he was biting his lip.  Whatever it was he wanted to say was obviously not coming easily.

He opened his mouth, stopped, bit his lip again, and finally rushed out with, "All—all those times I called you a mudblood—"

"No, don't worry about it," Hermione interrupted, holding up one hand.  "It didn't really bother me all that much—hey, I just considered the source," she added, smiling to let him know she didn't mean it.  He took no notice of her interruption, however, and continued on.

"No, I have to say—"  He ground to a halt again.  He drew a deep breath, almost visibly braced himself, and looked up at her, meeting her eyes squarely.  "I'm sorry.  I would say I didn't mean it, except at the time I did.  I don't know how I could have been such a—such a—"

"Such a little jerk?"  Hermione asked, smiling a bit.  He dropped his eyes and nodded shamefacedly.  "Hey."  She crouched back down to his level, to look directly into his face.  "It's all right, you understand?  You—"  She stopped and looked at him closely.  His face was slightly flushed, his shoulders drooped—this is guilt, she thought in surprise.  Real guilt.  From Malfoy.  You told me I would have seen this a year ago, and I would never have believed it. 

She drew a breath, then looked him directly in the eye and said what she felt to be essentially the whole of the truth.  "You didn't know any better."

He looked up at her, seeming absurdly touched.  "You—you really mean it?" he asked, his voice unsteady.

Hermione nodded.  "Yes, I do.  I forgive you."

At those words, his face broke into a huge, relieved grin; Hermione could see his shoulders visibly straighten, as if a huge weight had been lifted.  As she rose to go, she smiled back at him.  He's changed—how much, I'm not sure, but he's actually changed.  She looked down at him, and said, "You know—what I said—that one time—"

 He went very still, and looked up at her warily, as if he expected a blow.  Perhaps he does, Hermione mused to herself, if what Parvati said was true….   She continued, looking directly into his eyes, "Maybe….I wasn't completely right after all."

He stared at her for a moment, working through what she said, then closed his eyes and gave a long sigh.  Gratitude spread itself across his face and he said quietly, "Thank you.  You don't know how much that means to me. Thank you, Granger…."  He paused, then added, his eyes still closed, "Hermione."

Hermione shrugged.  "Thank yourself.  If you were still like you used to be, I wouldn't have said it."  He opened his eyes and looked at her now; Hermione gave him a slight smile.  Slowly, almost reluctantly, he smiled back.

Malfoy changing…who'd ever have thought….  As she turned and headed toward the main complex, she was still smiling to herself; now her smile was one of amusement.  Cho might have been wrong about one thing—he might be able to change after all.  And all she had to do was tell him the truth.