Hermione ran into Cedric as she came down from the Gryffindor Tower. He gave her a small smile, though he winced when he saw she wasn't wearing his jewelry.
"Hermione…" he said. "Do you have a moment?"
"I don't, not really," Hermione said. "But you could walk with me?"
Cedric fell into step next to her.
"I'm—I'm sorry for everything my father said," he said. "And for the misunderstandings. But… we can work them out."
"It's not your fault, Cedric," Hermione said gently. "Still. Until there's parental approval, I don't really think it'd be appropriate—"
"No, you're right," Cedric said, shaking his head. "I'm… I'm talking to my father. He'll come around."
Hermione glanced over at Cedric, who looked somewhat anguished and upset. She sighed, and she reached over, lacing her fingers with his and squeezing.
"Hey," she said softly. "It's not the end of the world if I don't wear your token right now, is it?"
"No," Cedric admitted. "I just… I wanted to see…"
"Everyone can see later, once things are more sure," Hermione said calmly. "Don't worry. If it's meant to be, it'll all work out in the end."
Cedric looked bolstered by this statement, and he managed a warm grin at Hermione, squeezing her hand back.
"Thanks," he said. "I actually have to get something before dinner, but – it's good to see you again, Hermione."
"Likewise," Hermione told him, and she watched Cedric disappear down a staircase before she continued toward the Great Hall. A moment later, Blaise had fallen into step beside her. Hermione had no idea where he had come from.
"'If it's meant to be, it'll all work out in the end'?" he quoted, his lips quirked.
"Well, it's true, isn't it?" Hermione couldn't hide the frustration and disgust in her tone. "If it's not meant to be, it won't work out in the end, but phrasing it that way seemed cruel."
"I don't envy Cedric," he mused. "His heart on the end of a leash you're toying with."
Hermione shot him a sharp look. "I am not."
"Okay, you're not," Blaise conceded. "He tried to give you his heart without you opening your hands to take it, though." His eyes glinted. "And I think he's in for a nasty surprise when he discovers more about the person he's offering it to."
Hermione glared at Blaise, but he shrugged and snickered as they went into the Great Hall, sitting down for dinner.
The Great Hall was loud and boisterous, friends who hadn't seen each other over the break catching up happily. Daphne was talking to a couple older Slytherin boys at the table, both of whom must have noticed her very prominent butterfly brooch. Hermione supposed it wasn't inappropriate to wear, considering she'd come from 'the outside world', but she wondered if it was exactly appropriate to wear just day to day in school life.
Her other classmates were returning as well, some of them looking happier to be back as school than others. Millie was busy stabbing her food with a fork like it had personally offended her, glowering down at it, while Theo looked slightly relieved, as if returning to school had unburdened him with a load of stress he'd been carrying. Pansy's face was inscrutable, her nose ever-so-slightly upturned as she watched Crabbe and Goyle, who seemed to be practicing the Knife Game with the butt end of a spoon, both of them grinning widely as they took turns getting faster and faster stabbing in between their fingers. Hermione found herself watching the spectacle despite herself, desperately hoping that any upgrades to knives would not be done at the dinner table.
"Isn't that a muggle game?" Blaise asked, nudging Hermione. "I've never seen it played before."
"Err," Hermione said, puzzled. "I mean, I know it was popular on the East End of London when my Dad was younger, but I imagine it's the sort of game that multiple people could 'discover' over and over independently. It's not like wizards haven't had access to daggers and knives just as long."
"We learned about muggle games like that," he said. "They all seemed brutal. Five-Finger Fillet, Mumblety-peg, Bloody Knuckles..."
Hermione shuddered to even imagine someone playing 'Bloody Knuckles' with a coin the size of a galleon.
"I missed this," Tracey sighed happily, sliding onto the bench next to Hermione. "I love my parents, but neither of them can cook like this."
"I believe it," Hermione said, turning to Tracey with gratitude at the change of subject. She had no desire to keep thinking about why the stupid potentially-maiming games muggle boys played were included in the Muggle Studies curriculum instead of basic things like cars on her first night back. "How was seeing your parents again?"
Tracey launched into telling them all a funny story about how her mother had tried to make a roast for Christmas (the operative word being 'tried'), with her mother mistrusting the rosemary and thyme her father rubbed it down with, helpfully 'adding more flame' to the oven because she couldn't see it being cooked, and a reflexive attack on the smoke alarm that blew it to smithereens. Her father's resigned amusement as he helped salvage an edible meal from his wife's efforts had been evident to Tracey even as she swept up the mess the smoke alarm had left behind. By the time Tracey and her father actually sat down to eat, left staring at blackened, charred meat and unappetizing burnt balls of some sort of vegetable on their plates, it was much too late to save the roast; when her mother joined them a moment later, she had sat down, looked at her plate, and announced that maybe Tracey's father should just get Chinese takeaway instead.
Toward the end of her dramatic retelling, while everyone was laughing, Draco Malfoy suddenly sat down across from Hermione, chuckling along with the rest of them as well. Hermione blinked, looking at him curiously.
"Draco," she said. "Fancy seeing you over here on this end of the bench."
Draco looked…off, somehow. His eyes were wide, and his hair somewhat mussed.
"Yes," he said stiffly, his voice high. "I thought I'd dine with you tonight."
Hermione raised her eyebrows and exchanged a glance with Tracey, but Blaise looked thoughtful, his eyes gleaming. It was weird of Draco to fully come down toward their part of the table - usually he sat a few seats over on the opposite side. And he looked odd, somehow, as if he'd been alarmed or afraid and was doing his best to pretend everything was okay.
"Good of you to join us," Hermione said diplomatically, taking a roll. "How was your holiday?"
They managed conversation over dinner, Pansy coming over to chime in with details about the various balls, and, to Hermione's mortification, the story of her hair.
"Burned to bits," she said sadly, shaking her head overdramatically. "Terrible, really. It's good she came to me – otherwise she'd have shown up with half her hair in ashes still."
Tracey and Millie were laughing, teasing Hermione over her issue with good humor, but Draco's eyes had widened.
"Your hair caught fire?" he said, his tone slightly horrified. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Hermione snapped. "It was just an accident. I didn't even get burned."
Draco kept a thoughtful eye on her the rest of the meal, which unnerved Hermione. Even Blaise's teasing about her new haircut and upcoming classes failed to help her fully relax. She eventually managed a sort of anxious stasis while she ate, ignoring Draco's attention even while her mind raced, wondering what he wanted.
She didn't have to wait long; Draco fell into step beside her after dinner as they all walked down to the Slytherin common room.
"I have no idea what you did," Draco said conversationally, "but both my mother and father have come to the conclusion I should openly befriend you now."
Hermione nearly tripped over her own feet in astonishment, barely catching herself before she fell.
"What?" she said, turning to look at Draco with wide eyes. "Are you serious?"
"Oh, very," Draco said, nodding. His eyes glinted. "They were quite adamant, actually."
Hermione was gobsmacked.
"Why?" she said. "Your father loathes me. Hates me, I thought. I represent everything he despises."
Draco shrugged lightly.
"Apparently, you made an impression on my mum when you met her at the Lestrange house," he said. "You told her to 'compare notes' with my father, and she did." He smirked. "And after they did, they seemed to come to the conclusion that I should try and become your friend."
Hermione looked at him suspiciously.
"'Try and become my friend'?" she repeated. "Most friendships arise organically, Draco."
Draco gave her an injured look.
"I know that," he said. "I've done the best I could with you before, didn't I? Or as best I could with my father's obvious disapproval. But now… well. They're the ones telling me to get close to you, now."
"Why?" Hermione demanded. "What changed?"
"I have no idea," Draco said, shaking his head. "Honestly, though, I don't really care."
"You don't care? You parents have apparently completely changed their thinking, and you don't care—?"
"Hermione," Draco said, cutting her off. "If it means I get to spend more time with you, I'm content."
His eyes met hers, and his silver gaze was warm, soft, and Hermione faltered, flushing.
"They've got to have a reason," Hermione objected, flustered.
"I'm sure they do," Draco said mildly, nodding. He looked at her again, his voice gentle and warm. "But until I'm told otherwise, I'm glad that I get to spend time with you."
Even as she blushed a brighter red, murmuring something in response to Draco, Hermione's mind was racing, wondering just what the entire Malfoy family thought they were up to now.