Chapter 52

Hermione entered the Slytherin common room on the morning of September 2nd, the first day of term, to see Draco seated on the floor. She could practically hear Narcissa gasping in horror all the way from Wiltshire. It made her giggle to herself.

Draco was leaning against a sofa with Plato perched on his lap, looking as relaxed as she'd ever seen him. Greg Goyle was sitting next to him. They were surrounded by what appeared to be every single first year and a few of the slightly older kids.

It was quite a sight. It was also interesting to watch the different ways that the puppies interacted with a larger audience.

Hermione knew that at first glance The Philosophers were identical in appearance, but it hadn't taken them long to discover that Plato actually had a diamond shaped patch of pure white fur on his chest, whereas Aristotle had the same uniform dappled coloring all over his body. But Hermione didn't need them to roll over and inspect them to know immediately that it was Plato who was sitting in Draco's lap, because in just the short time that they'd known them, Hermione had learned that they had two distinctive personalities.

Plato was much more serious than his brother, not unfriendly, just...cautious. For instance, at the moment he was happy to let anybody who wanted to approach him and pet him and he was happy, yet he was unwilling to leave the safety of Draco's presence until he had a better lay of the land. Ari, on the other hand, had quite literally dived right in. He was leaping from one person's lap to the next, basking in the attention he was receiving like a glutton.

Draco was patiently answering all the questions the younger students were throwing his way— some of them were about Hogwarts and what to expect, but the vast majority were about the puppies—and it took him a few minutes to become aware of Hermione's presence in the room. But when he finally looked up at her there was such an expression of smug satisfaction on his face at his success in bringing the dogs to Hogwarts that she couldn't help it, she stuck her tongue out at him.

He burst out laughing and Hermione didn't miss the shocked reactions of the older students who had been milling around preparing for the day, and had been surreptitiously watching their interactions; she actually saw a few jaws drop. Draco acted like he didn't notice the reactions—though she knew that he was far too aware of his surroundings not to—and standing with Plato in his arms, he made his way over to her.

"Good morning."

He was grinning at her but he continued to look a little too smug, so she decided to ignore him and make him work for her attention a little bit. She took Plato from him and nuzzled the puppy's nose. "Good morning," she cooed to him, "is your daddy showing you off like he actually had anything to do with how cute you are?"

Draco made a little growling sound and leaned in to steal a kiss from her. "I did pick them both out," he protested.

She just laughed and looked around for Aristotle, surprised that he hadn't come over to demand his share of her attention, he was generally greedy like that. She found him seated in the lap of a first year boy who she distinctly remembered being sorted, because something about him had reminded her so much of Harry that her heart had lurched with yearning for her best friend, regardless of the fact that Harry had been sitting just across the Hall at the time, it had still been painful.

It hadn't helped that the boy's name was James.

And now her dog was chewing on his tie like he had every right to it.

She let out a startled laugh and resisted the urge to go re-adjust the tie in question. "You don't have to let him do that," she told the boy.

He looked down and blushed fiercely. "I didn't even notice."

She looked around at the small gathering. "All of you should feel free to tell them 'no' or to leave you alone. Don't be afraid to come and get Draco or myself if they're bothering you. This is your home and you shouldn't feel uncomfortable here because they're making nuisances of themselves. Also, I won't have them running all over everyone and everything, no matter how much this one," she elbowed Draco gently, "seems determined to spoil them."

There was some nervous laughter and nods of agreement but she knew that she'd have to keep a close eye out until these kids got more comfortable with her and Draco. She was trying to be light hearted, but she had absolutely meant what she said. She wouldn't have her dogs running roughshod over Slytherin House—or all of Hogwarts—just because they were Malfoys and could probably get away with it.

Draco sent her a mock glare, but she knew that he was simply amused by her declaration. "Will you put them in my room while I make sure this lot is organized to go to breakfast?" He asked her quietly.

"Oh, but can't they come?" One girl blurted, she went slightly pink and it was clear she hadn't exactly meant to voice the question, but she didn't back down.

Hermione resisted the urge to sigh lest it be misinterpreted as irritation with this little first year. But, Merlin, Draco was going to be insufferable about how well this little experiment in puppies was going. He'd probably be posting sign up lists on the House notice board so that students could volunteer for the privilege of walking them within the week.

"Maybe when they're a little older and can be trusted to wait for us in the Entrance Hall," Draco chuckled. Well, at least he wasn't being totally unreasonable.

Without another word Hermione went and collected Aristotle from James and carried them to Draco's room where they'd set up a small pen for them to sleep and stay in when she and Draco were busy. When she reentered the common room this time Draco noticed her immediately and held an arm out for her.

He bowed in her direction and gestured for her to join him. "I apologize for not introducing this beautiful witch before," he said, addressing the small crowd as she leaned into his side, "but this is my betrothed, Mia Garnier. You may have already heard who she is, but I remember how overwhelming your first night at Hogwarts can be, so I would never want to assume. Also, it might interest you to know that this is her first year at Hogwarts too, she was homeschooled up until this point. Anyway, I'm certain all of you will come to love it." He turned to Hermione, "I was just telling them that I'll be giving a tour of the castle after dinner, would you like to come?"

"Oh," she brightened, genuinely excited. She was very interested to see how Draco would describe the castle to a group of such young kids, and his fellow Slytherins at that. "Yes, that would be lovely."

"Okay, then, that's settled," he turned back to the younger students, "you'll get your timetables at breakfast. You can make your way back here to collect your things for class on your own, of course, but I'll also be leading a group if you're still not sure of the way after breakfast, then I'll give you all instructions to get to your first class since the first year timetables within every House are identical, You can find your way together if you like. Everybody ready?"

There were a couple of handfuls of heads nodding. "Did you do a headcount?" Hermione leaned into Draco and asked quietly, "to make sure that they're all here?" She clarified.

He smirked at her knowingly but just nodded and led them out of the common room with a wave of the arm that wasn't wrapped around her. Truthfully, Hermione was a little bewildered. She'd never seen Draco interact with, well, anybody younger than they were, nor had she ever really thought about how he would handle such an interaction.

But now that she was considering it, she realized that somewhere in the back of her mind she had assumed he'd be either terse or awkward with younger kids. Of course, eleven and twelve year olds were far from babies, but there was a big difference between a first year and a sixth year. And Draco was not known to be naturally gentle.

"I know what you're thinking," he teased softly, nudging her with the arm she was holding; because, of course, they were expected to enter breakfast like they were actually entering a ball and not an everyday affair - if only to make Hermione's place in Draco's life abundantly clear. "It's kind of a Slytherin tradition, the sixth year prefects are in charge of the first years," he added.

She was caught up short by this explanation. "Oh, why?"

"Because the fifth years are still getting used to their duties as prefects, plus it's their O.W.L. year. In addition, the seventh years have earned the privilege of getting a break, and also they have their N.E.W.T.s. to worry about, so it just seems natural for us sixth years to take point."

"Oh," she said, a little stunned. "That makes complete sense actually, very logical."

"Slytherins take care of our own," he shrugged.

She bit her lip, but couldn't help herself from blurting out her next statement: "I didn't see Parkinson jumping in to help you ,though. Actually, I didn't see her at all."

He snorted. "Love, it can come as no surprise to you that on top of being a shitty human being, she's also a shitty prefect. She didn't obtain her position on merit, both Greengrass and Davis are better liked and have superior grades, but Pansy has the most prominent family name. She does the bare minimum."

"Of course," she sighed.

He lowered his voice. "It would do well for you to try and befriend Daphne and Tracey. I don't know them well, but I think you might actually like them, and it would give us a foot in the door with the moderates which I simply can't provide."

"Right," she nodded, "I'd already considered that."

"And," he continued, in a more normal tone, "I know I was all bluster during my first year, but if I hadn't had the support of my House, I'm not sure I wouldn't have written to Mother begging to come home. I was viciously homesick. I'll not let this group just flap in the wind."

She smiled to herself, his conviction was touching. "I love you a lot, you know?"

He squeezed her hand.

The evening of September 1st was traditionally chaotic for the entire Hogwarts population. Not just the sorting, but catching up with friends who hadn't seen each other in months—particularly during already chaotic times—hearing about the changes in staff and rules, and just generally getting reacquainted with life in the castle. And so, the evening before, Hermione's presence had been noted, but it had mostly been an afterthought. Especially because she hadn't needed to be sorted herself. As Draco's betrothed she'd automatically been placed in Slytherin with him.

The next morning was a different story.

She could practically feel the eyes watching her as they entered the Great Hall. It didn't help that they had what appeared to be an entourage, not just of first years, but at least a dozen other Slytherins had joined them on their walk from the dungeons.

Draco seated them with their backs to the wall which she knew was a decision entirely based on situational awareness, but it also left her facing the Gryffindor table. She took his hand, allowing him to help her into her seat and then girded herself before she looked up. And there he was, her best friend, staring at her. She relaxed and exhaled quietly.

Harry was no more of a morning person than Draco was. He wasn't lazy, but he tended to sleep as late as he could get away with and then partake of an only a hurried breakfast. To see him sitting there, waiting for her - she just knew that he'd intentionally come down early to be there when she arrived, to do his best to support her.

Her lips twisted and she felt a hand on her thigh; she looked up at Draco. He appeared to be glaring at Harry who was now glaring right back, and she immediately set to buttering some toast lest she laugh. They were playing their parts perfectly and she knew them both well enough to be certain they were actually enjoying it immensely. It was exactly what she needed to relax.

Stupid, wonderful boys.

What ended up bothering her, which she hadn't anticipated, was how quickly it became apparent that Slytherin was frozen out from the rest of the school. She liked to think she'd listened to Draco, but she had to recognize that she hadn't taken his complaints as seriously as she should have until she experienced it for herself. Being a Slytherin wasn't fun; it took her only a few hours to understand why they bullied their way around - it wasn't an excuse, but it was an explanation. One which Tom Riddle had lept all over like a hungry predator.

She supposed there could be more to it, actual bad blood between most of Slytherin House and the rest of the school, but there was no excuse for the animosity with the kids who had just been sorted the night before—or, now that she thought about it, animosity against kids based on their sorting in general. That was simply ingrained prejudice.

However, as strange as breakfast had felt to Hermione, there was no actual trouble until classes started and they had to intermingle with the other Houses. From what Hermione could tell, every single Slytherin in their fourth year or above made it a point to introduce themselves to her. She knew people were talking about her, and the deference and even fear some people exhibited towards her—and especially in Draco's—presence was deeply disturbing. But they were polite, and some of them seemed to show genuine interest in getting to know her. So she tried to press past it, she simply wasn't in a position to dispel their fear over the very idea of the Malfoy name at the moment.

She would get to that in the years to come. For now she was just determined to tackle the school year and hopefully win over some of the hearts and minds of her fellow students. And maybe she could have some enjoyable moments with her betrothed.

However, when she read the first class on her timetable she nearly groaned aloud. It was DADA. Not that she was opposed to the class in general, though it had become more than a little boring to her, given her own intensive personal training. And she had even been somewhat relieved over the summer when Lucius had told them that—at Dumbledore's suggestion, and Lucius' subsequent urging to the Headmistress—Professor Snape had been shifted to the DADA position and a man named Slughorn had re-taken the job as potions master. It was one he'd held for decades.

Slughorn had actually taught both Lucius and Narcissa, as well as being their Head of House during their tenure in the castle. Hermione didn't have any idea why Dumbledore thought his re-appointment as a professor was so important that he'd asked Lucius for such a favor—he was well aware that Lucius' political capital was precious—but she'd decided that this was one of those things she might not want the answer to, so she'd left it alone.

And because she knew that, as much as she didn't particularly like Professor Snape, she had been assured by Lucius and Narcissa that he was actually an expert in defence, and that he would probably be a better substitute for the parade of auror trainees they'd had coming through the castle to teach them since Moody had been found to be a fraud in their fourth year. And, she was almost certain that he wouldn't give a damn about following the Ministry approved curriculum. She certainly wouldn't begrudge her fellow students even the smallest chance of attaining some of the knowledge that he might help them learn.

But their first class was unfortunately a Gryffindor-Slytherin pairing and she was just dreading it. Sirius had offered to pull Harry out of DADA and get him private tuition as he had with potions, but Harry felt strongly that his presence in the class, due to his position with the M.A. as well in the war was vital. Hermione couldn't honestly disagree with him, but she just knew that it wasn't going to be pleasant.

She wasn't wrong.

And, because fate was a bitch, or, more likely, because Harry was a lovely person with an irrepressible hero complex who wanted to do what he could to- however unnecessarily- subtly check on her after her night in the Slytherin dorms, he and Ron sat right in front of herself and Draco even though there were several other empty desks. As soon as the two Gryffindors seated themselves, Draco draped an arm across the back of Hermione's chair in what was surely meant to be a supportive gesture, which Hermione appreciated, but which she thought would probably only draw attention to them.

She was correct.

"What did I tell you?" The redhead snickered with little attempt to be subtle, as he looked back at them.

"Ron. Please. Just stop." Harry answered.

Hermione couldn't see it, but she knew that Harry was clenching his jaw, and that he was doing his best not to lose his temper, or even give in to the urge to do something to check on her. Ron apparently completely misread the message.

"I'm just saying that it was wrong to trust Hermione," he insisted. "She betrayed her own betrothed. She'd betray you in a heartbeat. I mean, look at her and Malfoy, she basically threw herself at him," he made a gagging noise, "and now he just sits here with another witch. Who even is this girl? It's disgusting."

Hermione felt Draco's entire body tense up and she clasped his thigh with her closest hand.

Harry sighed. "Yes. I get it. You've made your point. You could maybe stop talking about her so disrespectfully, though. She's supposed to be our friend and she's not here to defend herself. It's honestly none of your business. You're being an arsehole."

Ron froze, he seemed to be actually stunned for at least ten seconds. But, of course, it didn't last.

Ron glanced back at them, a dark look on his face. Hermione could practically feel the tension building and that both Draco and Harry were doing their best to resist the urge to draw their wands to defend her, and suddenly she felt very old. This wasn't a battle they should have to be fighting. And so, when Ron narrowed his eyes in her direction but turned back around almost immediately, she couldn't even make herself glare back at him.

She sent Harry a tight smile; it was the best she could do and she hoped that anybody who witnessed it would interpret it as a peacekeeping gesture with the Boy-who-Lived. She also hoped that Harry had a plan to explain himself to Ron for not being more angry with her, his temper was rather well known, afterall.

Not that she was unappreciative of Harry's reaction, of his automatic defense of her, but in the end she couldn't even be angry with Ron. These were the situations they'd taken advantage of: the hatred between Gryfinndor and Slytherin, Pure-blood and Muggle-born. There were divides in their society they'd played into, ingrained prejudices they were exploiting, and it wasn't something she was entirely proud of. But it was necessary, at least until the end of the war.

Still, she mourned an adolescence where she could just be her. Where she could proudly be Hermione Granger: a Gryffindor and Harry's best friend, but also hold Draco's hand in public. Where Harry and Draco could compete against each other in a, mostly, friendly way in Quidditch. Where blood status didn't matter.

It was, of course, the world they were fighting for. And it wasn't Ron's fault that he didn't know the knots they'd all tied themselves up in, the sacrifices they'd made. She shouldn't resent him for the almost normal adolescence he'd been given. But it was difficult.

And then the Potter/Snape dynamic came into play, and she just wanted to cry, another thing she didn't want on her plate. It had been over a year since she'd really seen student and teacher interact. Unfortunately, the distance from Professor Snape in the classroom over the past year had not made things better. In fact, it seemed to have become worse.

It was the first day. It should have been an easy lesson. They were meant to be practicing non-verbal spells.

She had naturally partnered with Draco and they were practicing their skills as instructed, trying not to draw too much attention to themselves and what they were capable of performing. However, Harry had understandably partnered with Ron and the professor seemed drawn to them like a moth to a flame and watched them like a hawk for several minutes. It did not bode well for Ron's casting.

"Pathetic, Weasley," said Snape, after a while, "Herelet me show you"

He turned his wand on Harry so fast that Harry reacted in a way that Hermione was certain was instinctual; all thought of nonverbal spells forgotten, Harry yelled, "Protego!"

His shield charm was so strong Snape was knocked off-balance and hit a desk. The whole class had looked around and now watched as Snape righted himself, scowling.

The strength of Harry's spell wasn't something that surprised Hermione in the least, but Hermione shot a look at Draco with concern; they'd been intentionally hiding Harry's sheer power.

But Professor Snape wasn't finished. "Do you remember me telling you we are practicing nonverbal spells, Potter?"

"Yes," said Harry stiffly.

"Yes, sir."

"There's no need to call me 'sir' Professor."

Hermione wanted to close her eyes in horror, but she made it a point to school her face at her best friend's sass. He was undoubtedly going to suffer for it. She sympathized, even as she wanted to wring his neck, but there was no need to draw more attention to this situation.

"Detention, Potter, Saturday, my office." Snape ordered.

Hermione bit her tongue and looked away. It was far from fair, but arguing wouldn't help, and she hoped Harry wouldn't be so foolish as to protest.

"Fine," Harry responded tersely.

Hermione felt like she was merely holding herself together for the rest of the day and it was such a relief to meet the first years after dinner. She and Draco brought the puppies along and Hermione noted that while Plato stuck close to Draco for comfort—as usual, though he had taken very well to Greg Goyle—Aristotle immediately bounded over to a couple of girls he had clearly taken a liking to that morning: Eliza and Ruth. They both let out little cries of happiness at being sought out, but quickly looked up when Draco cleared his throat.

"Hello, and thank you for coming, your attention to being responsible members of Slytherin House is noted and appreciated."

Hermione watched as each first year puffed up a little with pride. With Draco's help she'd made sure to learn and memorize all of their names throughout the day. He'd asked her privately if she would be willing to tutor any of them, or just revise their essays if they asked, as he knew she'd done the same in Gryffindor. She had been more than happy to agree. And she wondered why Gryffindor—and possibly the other Houses—didn't have a more organized system to help the younger years; she certainly would have appreciated it when she had been eleven.

When she'd asked Draco he'd simply shrugged.

She'd spent the evening clinging to Draco's hand like it was a lifeline. Not because she was opposed to anything he was saying to the kids he was leading on the tour. He was actually very engaging and age appropriate, but because she was trying to keep herself from saying anything that would give away her advanced knowledge of the castle. So, she spent her time contemplating questions that she wished she'd asked somebody early on in her Hogwarts career, but she'd never known to consider, and made sure to ask them for her new charges benefit.

By the end of the night she was at least confident that they'd provided the younger students with enough knowledge to use the moving staircases, talk most of the portraits into giving them directions, if necessary, and just generally navigate the castle. It filled her with pride, especially because a few of them had expressed trust in her which she would have given her wand arm for feeling for an older student while she had been in her first year. It was no wonder Slytherin House was so tight knit. .

When they got back from their tour, the kids had gathered together on the common room floor; and the first years had been joined by at least a dozen of their Housemates, their limbs wound together as they let the puppies bounce between them.

Hermione sighed as she watched. In her opinion many of them had some misconceptions about the fundamentals of life. She'd heard enough over the course of the evening to know that many of them had a very narrow view of blood status. But, then again, a lot of people had some seriously wrong ideas about a lot of things; prejudice wasn't relegated to Slytherin House or to Hogwarts, or even to the magical world. And these kids were, by definition, kids; they were young. Once upon a time Draco had looked at her with disgust.

She glanced at him. He had Plato clasped to his chest, nuzzling the puppy's head with his chin. He grinned at her, eyes full of love. It had been a long time since he'd needed to say it to her for her to know it to be true. She watched the delight on these kids' faces as they interacted with these innocent dogs she and Draco had brought into the equation, but mostly as they just lounged around their common room, just as her fellow Gryffindors did. They were just school children, the colors that adorned their robes ultimately made no difference. And if she hadn't believed it before, she now knew that she couldn't give up on them.

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Narcissa had initially worried that, despite their friendship, asking Helen Granger for advice on essentially murdering Narcissa's own sister might be a step too far. But after she'd fully explained the situation and stated to the woman that she was looking for any ideas that didn't include magic, but that she would understand if Helen didn't want to be involved, Helen had simply tilted her head this way and that in apparent consideration. It had taken her mere moments to respond.

"This is the woman who tortured our Draco almost into insanity? Who hurt Hermione?"

"Yes." Narcissa looked away briefly. She was deeply ashamed of her own family. But more than that, it pained her that the Grangers were not magical. It was no longer because she was worried about the future of her Magical House, but because of how exposed she felt that two people she'd come to care for deeply, were. They had Dobby, and Crookshanks, who had taken on his duty as guard-kneazle very seriously, but they didn't have wands, and that was frightening.

Helen seemed to read her mind. "I know this is difficult for you Narcissa, if you tell us our position here is untenable, we'll take your escape route and go to the safe house. But as it is, I don't want to leave our children anymore than you do. So, how can I help?"

"Obviously not a spell," Narcissa laughed at her weak attempt at a joke.

"Obviously not," Helen agreed with a laugh, though it was strained, and she reached over to take Narcissa's hand. "I really appreciate you asking for my help with this. It's so rare that Richard or I are able to give it."

"I think," she responded, looking away in shame, "we should ask more often." Helen just squeezed her hand.

"Say what you need to say."

"I can't be more specific," Narcissa shrugged, sometimes her ignorance of the muggle world was deeply humiliating. "I need a way to kill somebody so that it can't be detected with magic. Is that possible?"

To her credit Helen only paused for a beat or two and then she nodded. "I know a lot about commercially available medication, of course, but I'm not certain that's what you're looking for. Most of it would be detectable in a muggle blood test and I'm not sure that's a risk we want to take. I need to do some research, possibly look into something that's undetectably by either means. I'll contact you with any questions. How does that sound?"

Narcissa just nodded - most of that explanation had gone over her head, but she trusted the other woman's judgement.

It was a few weeks before Helen came back with a response and they agreed to meet at the Granger home to discuss it.

"How does your sister take her tea?" Helen asked; somehow managing to be both excited and nervous; anxious and uncertain, she very much looked like Hermione in that moment.

Narcissa frowned at the odd question, but shrugged. "Absurdly sweet. Azkaban has ruined her sense of taste...her sense of everything really," she gave another little half shrug in an uncertain gesture which was usually very unlike her.

Helen took a deep breath. "Well, that's good, actually. Otherwise we might need another plan. Have you ever heard of antifreeze?"