A/N: The Unseemly Proposal is probably one of the greatest unfinished Dramione fics ever. If you still haven't read it, here's the link (just delete the spaces): fanfiction . mugglenet viewstory . php ? sid = 10872
I'm picking up where Sparx left us with that killer of a cliffhanger, which is the start of chapter 39. I know she's posted it a while back, but she has said that this fic isn't exactly at the top of her priority list right now.
I think we all deserve a little closure on this well-loved story, and it would simply be a relief to not have to keep wondering how the hell it might have ended.
The Unseemly Proposal
Chapter 39: Truth, Lies and Denials
And then something happened.
The Love Knot around their wrists started to shudder violently, accompanied by a humming vibration that seemed to fill up the whole room in its sudden, taut silence. As Hermione and Draco watched, dumbfounded, the very fabric seemed to boil before their eyes. Instead of feeling as it usually did like there was nothing binding them together, the Love Knot suddenly felt hot and unbelievably heavy.
"What the-" Draco gasped as the Love Knot around his wrist gave a particularly pronounced tremble. "What the hell's happening, Granger?"
"I don't know!" Hermione cried, all enmity forgotten at the moment in the face of the current, much more pressing situation.
In their panic, they tried to pry the increasingly hot fabric from their wrists, fingers scrabbling over it to find some kind of purchase they had previously overlooked. But the moment they both touched it, the Love Knot suddenly glowed a bright, searing white that made them instinctively shut their eyes. Their heads throbbed from the intensity of that glare, as though they had just been caught staring directly at the sun. It was the same color it had emitted when it saved them from that potentially lethal Quidditch fall, and for Hermione, that incident seemed to have happened a thousand years ago, at a time when the boy beside her still seemed to care, and she in turn cared for him.
But this was no time to think about that anymore, not when she hurtling through emptiness, the wind rushing through her ears and her insides churning as if she'd left half of them back at the Head's dorm. She was unable to even scream because of the unyielding pressure on her whole body…
Just as suddenly as it began, it came to an abrupt stop. Hermione wasn't able to take in any of her immediate surroundings, because at that moment her intense feeling of nausea rose and she swayed on the spot, and then fell over. She didn't register the warm, heavy weight on top of her until his breath tickled the side of her cheek.
"Well, isn't this familiar."
Her eyes snapped open to see Draco's gray gaze boring into hers with great irony, and something else underneath that she couldn't entirely decipher. And at the moment, she didn't really want to.
"For god's sake, get off!"
"Take it easy, Granger," he said, wincing. "Not like I chose to fall on top of you, of all things."
Draco scrambled unsteadily to his feet. He then held out a hand to help her up, but she ignored it.
As Hermione slowly stood up, she willed her stomach to not expel its contents, while at her side, judging from the slightly green tinge to his face, Draco looked like he was doing the same.
"I don't believe it," he said hoarsely. "Aside from making our lives a living hell, this god-forsaken Love Knot doubles as a portkey to send us to-" He paused, looking around in bewilderment. "What is this place, anyway?"
They were in a large, windowless room with a ceiling that seemed to reach up to the heavens. There was no adornment of any kind on the colorless walls, and perhaps that was why everything seemed oddly insubstantial, as if they were there but not really there.
Hermione suddenly grabbed Draco's arm. "Someone's coming," she said, voice low and anxious.
They both whirled around to see a feature of the room they had previously overlooked: a cavernous series of twisting hallways that could have led anywhere and nowhere. And within that maze, they could hear an unseen someone hurrying along one of its routes.
"You don't think this is dark magic, do you?" Draco whispered, as the footsteps grew nearer.
Hermione shook her head. "I don't think so. Nothing's powerful enough to mess with any of the Love Knot's properties." But she looked nervous nonetheless.
They waited in tense silence as the footsteps finally came to a stop, and then quite suddenly, a head poked through one of the entrances.
Draco's jaw dropped as the stranger sprinted towards them, beaming as if their arrival had made his day. He was short, only coming up to their shins as he stopped before them, and with his baby-like face, white diaper and tiny, feathered wings, he looked like the unfortunate stereotype of every clichéd cherub image ever conceived.
"Welcome!" he squeaked, wringing both their hands. "Welcome, my dear sir and lady, to Here."
Hermione exchanged stunned looks with Draco.
After a moment of silence, she tentatively ventured, "Sorry, but where is here? What is this place?"
He blinked in astonishment, as if that question had never been asked before. "No one really knows."
Draco stared at him in disbelief. "He's mental."
Hermione shushed him, though she couldn't help privately agreeing a little. Anyone who wore diapers and carried around harps on a daily basis couldn't be entirely right in the head.
"In that case," she said slowly, "will you tell us who you are?"
Draco nudged her, sniggering. "C'mon Granger, isn't it obvious? He's a bloody cherub!"
"Don't be ridiculous, Malfoy-"
"But I am," the cherub interrupted, smiling indulgently. "One of many, actually. The name's Cupid."
Catching their looks, he added, "I know, I know. Not very original." Then he shrugged as if to say, what can you do?
As both their jaws dropped, Cupid continued, "There's no need to tell me who you two are, of course. You've been the whole chamber's entertainment for nearly a year now, Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger."
Newly enlightened with this disturbing information of voyeurism, they could only continue staring at him.
Apparently unconcerned, Cupid clapped his hands. "Now that we've got all the introductions out of the way, I'll best be presenting you to my lady. She does hate to be kept waiting."
Draco and Hermione reluctantly exchanged a look filled with communication, debating the merits of going with this Cupid fellow who seemed not only a bit unhinged, but quite possibly psychotic (at least, according to Draco's opinion).
He grimaced, and Hermione was familiar enough with that look to know he thought this was all a load of bull and the best thing they could do was find some way to activate the Love Knot to send them back to the Head's dorm.
She narrowed her eyes, and Draco was well-versed enough with that action to know that she was set on going with Cupid to finally get some decent answers on the Love Knot, and if it so happened the other cherubs were waiting to bludgeon them to death with their harps as they crossed the threshold, so be it.
Draco rolled his eyes at her, thinking that if they died an untimely death in this place, all the better. At least he would be finally free from her incessant nagging and know-it-all ways.
Hermione glared at him, and then flipped him off. Now, she was glad that didn't need any translating. She wouldn't normally do something so unladylike, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Besides, it was totally worth it to see Draco's reaction.
Neither of them thought it strange that they knew each other so well as to be able to hold a conversation composed entirely of grimaces and obscene gestures.
Amused, Cupid watched their silent exchange and wondered how two obviously intelligent people could be so stupid to what was in front of them. Still, it wasn't something he hadn't witnessed a thousand times before in this very chamber.
"Denial," he murmured. "Classic."
Hermione was currently engaged in a battle of wills in the form of a stare-down with Draco, but she broke eye contact to look at the object of their debate when she thought she heard him say something.
"Sorry, but did you say something, Cupid?"
"Nothing at all, Hermione," he said, flashing an easy smile. "So, have you two decided whether or not I'm a psychotic killer intent on leading you to your doom?"
"Mother of Merlin," Draco swore. "You can read our thoughts too? What, do you guys practice Legilimency in your spare time for kicks?"
"Not at all," Cupid said, enjoying the look of annoyance on Draco's face. "I just happen to be quite good at knowing what people are thinking. In my line of work, you have to be."
"It still doesn't rule out the fact you could be some lunatic leading us into a trap-"
"I assure you that I am entirely sane." He paused. "Or as sane as I can possibly be, considering the circumstances."
Draco began to edge away from him, pulling Hermione with him.
"The point is," Cupid stressed, "no harm will come to you here. We are a peaceful people, and we only want to help."
After they argued some more, Draco finally gave in when a frustrated Hermione pulled out her wand and threatened to turn him into an elephant again. And because he had left his own wand back in their dorm, he really had no choice. He sulked as they strode across the room, but he would be lying if he said he wasn't burning with curiosity as well.
As the three of them walked through the same colorless walls (which were thankfully devoid of murderous cherubs) as the room they had just left, Cupid kept glancing at them at the corner of his eye, grinning.
"Ah, young love." He took out a dainty handkerchief from the folds of his diaper and dabbed at the corner of this eyes. "We haven't seen that in a while here!"
"We're not in love," they said simultaneously, glaring at each other.
"Dear, dear," Cupid chuckled. "To be frank, we weren't too surprised when we felt you two coming. It was only a matter of time before the Love Knot decided to take matters into its own hands." He gave the said Love Knot an admiring look.
"Hold on…" Draco said, as they ventured deeper. "When you say we, who else are there besides you and the other cherubs?"
But Cupid only smiled once again and increased his pace.
Hermione lost count of the number of times they went right, left and right again in the seemingly endless series of hallways. As they came upon one route significantly larger than the rest, the first thing they noticed was the various framed portraits adorning the newly-scarlet walls.
Draco and Hermione watched in wonder as each of its occupants, usually a man and a woman (though there were quite a few showing only men or only women), excitedly grinned and pointed at them, before whispering into the ears of their companions.
Hermione examined them closely one by one as they passed, doing a double take at how familiar the majority of them seemed. It took her only a few more seconds to figure out why.
They were portraits of mortals and immortals alike, many of whom she had read about in her beloved books. There was everything from famed historical figures, to heroes, artists and inventors. She could see Zeus and Hera surveying them with interest at her right, Romeo and Juliet craning their necks to look at them at her left, and a few portraits down, Odysseus and Penelope smiling and waving at them, just to name a few.
He turned to look at her. "Yes, Hermione?"
"The people in these portraits…"
His eyes twinkled. "Go on!"
"They were all once in love with each other, weren't they?"
"Correct!" He beamed. "They are immortalized here because they all bear a testament to the beauties, and tragedies, of love. Have you now figured out to whom I'm taking you to, Hermione?"
She had an idea, but it just seemed too fantastical, too illogical to even contemplate.
"Malfoy, you don't think…?"
"This place," she said. "You don't really think we're about to meet-"
But at that exact moment, they rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a set of enormous wooden doors with golden knobs in the shape of hearts and knockers that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be smiling cherubs.
They could now discern the sounds of what seemed like a large party taking place beyond those doors. Cupid knocked three times, and then waited with an expectant look on his face.
"Come in," called a woman's voice, cultured and imperious, amidst the din.
Cupid pushed open the doors and then swept them a bow. "After you."
Exchanging nervous looks, they stepped through the doors, and as they did, the sounds of people talking and laughing in the room came to an abrupt halt.
If the room they were in before was devoid of any decorations, the enormous chamber they were now in was just the exact opposite. Although it was just as airy and had the same impossibly high ceilings they saw in the first room, this particular chamber had the added effects of sumptuous silk draping of red, white and pink on the walls and across the ceiling, where hundreds of lanterns hung, casting a pleasant gold glow on the whole room. There were elaborate marble statues and fountains scattered across the room, and staring at them slack-jawed and motionless like the sculptures among them, were hundreds upon hundreds of other cherubs.
Curious whispers followed them as Cupid bustled importantly to the front of the room, where there was an intricate golden throne at the center, upon which sat a woman clad in a flowing gown of the deepest red.
"My lady." Cupid bowed deeply. "Presenting Mr. Draco Malfoy and Miss Hermione Granger."
"Thank you, Cupid," she said graciously. "You may go back to the others now."
He gave another deep bow before walking back to the other cherubs, but not before flashing Draco and Hermione a reassuring smile and a wink.
The woman beckoned them closer, and as they did, Draco could smell the scents wafting from her, and it was the most seductive aroma he had ever smelled in his life. It was a heady combination of his wood spice aftershave, his favorite brand of broomstick polish and something fruity that he couldn't put his finger on, though for some reason it was very familiar to him.
Beside him, Hermione looked like she was experiencing the same thing, her eyes half-closed as she breathed deeply. She smells just like the character spirals from Amortentia, thought Hermione in wonder, remembering their first lesson in Slughorn's class back in their sixth year. She could smell the familiar aroma of new parchment and freshly-mown grass, but there was a new scent that puzzled her as to where she might have smelled it. All she could recognize was that there something distinctly woody about it.
Up close, they could see that the woman had one of those faces that were seemingly ageless. She had a body that was ethereal and graceful even when she was sitting down, and lustrous raven hair framing features both strong and delicate, with eyes that seemed to shift color whenever she moved. She studied them closely as they approached, then seemed to approve about something.
" Welcome, Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger," she said. "Welcome to my Chamber of Love."
"Chamber of… what?" Hermione said faintly, thinking she'd heard incorrectly.
She arched her brow. "Love, dear. Love. What else would you expect my chamber to be called?"
Hermione stared at her. "So… you really are Venus."
"The one and only," Venus said, inclining her head.
Draco ran an agitated hand through his hair. "This must be a hallucination," he muttered. "A side-effect from cracking my head open on that Quidditch match… yes…"
"Malfoy, if this is a hallucination, then why on Earth am I experiencing it with you?"
He glared at her. "You just can't help being a know-it-all, can't you, Granger?"
Hermione decided she wasn't going to dignify that with a response.
As this was going on, Venus continued to watch them with faint amusement. "Don't you two want to know the reason for your presence in my chamber? The reason why my Love Knot," she fixed her gaze upon it now, "decided to bring you here to stand before me?"
"Well… yes, we do want to know why we're here," Hermione said, chancing a glance at Malfoy from the corner of her eye. "Does it have anything to do with… er… what was happening before we got here?"
"It has everything to do with what happened before you got here. And then some."
She stood up from her throne, striding over to them, and the heavenly fragrance surrounding her became stronger. "Perhaps my greatest creation yet," she said, caressing the Love Knot between their wrists.
"Well, your creation has been more trouble than it's worth," Draco replied, defiant.
Hermione dug her elbow into his ribs, making him flinch and scowl at her.
"I can see that. Still, that's a matter of opinion. I have gleaned a lot from you, Draco Malfoy, all of your hopes, dreams and feelings from the moment my Love Knot bound you two together."
"Oh?" Draco said, massaging his ribs and trying to look nonchalant. "Would you care to tell us what you've learned then?"
"Certainly." She smiled, but there was a shrewd, calculating look in her eyes. "Let us first speak of that Quidditch match, because you truly changed my opinion of you that day." She nodded to Draco, who flushed. "Jaded as I am with some aspects of love, that heroic stunt right then made me feel as if I were experiencing it for the first time."
"That wasn't love," Draco said through clenched teeth.
"If you say so."
"It wasn't! I was… merely performing my duty. I just paid off a debt."
"Yes, a debt! Granger here thought it would be a fine idea to take a Calming Draught just before my match so she wouldn't scream in my ear or squeeze the life out of me anymore!"
"Malfoy, I already told you…" Hermione muttered, embarrassed and now sincerely regretting that particular lapse of judgment. "It was nothing, there was no debt to be paid-"
He turned back to Venus. "Why am I telling you this, anyway? You ought to already know, since Cupid there oh-so-kindly let slip about you lot spying on us!"
Venus ignored this. "People can choose to be kind without expecting anything in return, you know."
Draco didn't answer, while Hermione fidgeted uncomfortably beside him.
"Hmm... I think it's about time you both knew the truth." Before they could say anything more, Venus waved a delicate hand in the air before her, and with that movement the whole room rippled then seemed to melt and fade away like watercolors from a painting.
Various images were flickering in their mind's eye, far too fast to make anything out. There was an indistinct blur of what might have been a face… something that looked like the village of Hogsmeade… a vague image of two figures walking together… what looked like the ceiling of one of their rooms in the Head's dormitory… Suddenly, that last image trembled and dissolved, only to quickly reform into a perfectly vivid memory. But as soon as it became clear what it showed, Draco and Hermione fervently wished for it to still have been indistinguishable. They were silent spectators to the events unfolding before them, events that now were a bittersweet torture to revisit.
There they were kissing in the Head's dorm after that disastrous Valentine's double date…. them out on a moon-lit broom ride with Hermione's hands resting on Draco's bare abdomen, his half-buttoned shirt billowing in the breeze… them plummeting to the ground, and Draco wrapping his arms around Hermione and positioning his body in a way that ensured he would hit the ground first… them kissing in the Quidditch stands in the pouring rain, Draco drawing Hermione closer to whisper in her ear…
The deluge of memories slowed down, only to be replaced by a single memory showing Harry, Ron and Pansy in a room together, and they all appeared to be arguing. But as far as Draco and Hermione could tell, this wasn't one of their memories…
"… don't care how long it takes!"
They were startled to suddenly hear Pansy's voice, as if the volume-control somewhere had just been turned on at full blast.
Harry and Ron watched Pansy pace around the room, both wearing identical scowls.
"You said we'd do it next week," Harry accused. "Why the sudden rush, Parkinson?"
"Forget what I said. We've got to do it now."
"Watch it!" Ron snarled.
"Fine, Granger's already got Draco wrapped around her finger, so how much longer will you two let this thing they have continue?"
"Are you even sure this plan of yours will work? Fat lot it'll do us if it just serves to bring them closer."
Than they already are, was the unspoken thought.
Pansy didn't answer and instead started to rummage around in her schoolbag, eventually coming up with an old, crumpled piece of paper that looked like it was torn from one of the library books.
Harry sighed, exasperated. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
Pansy's only reply was to thrust the piece of paper under both their noses.
Harry and Ron bent their heads together to read the text, their eyes becoming wider and their mouths opening slightly as they did. "Where on Earth did you get this?"
She waved a hand dismissively. "Doesn't matter. The point is, I know how to push Draco's buttons, and you two know to push Granger's. If everything goes according to plan, all this Love Knot business will just be an unpleasant memory."
Harry sighed. "A lot of things could go wrong with this plan of yours, but I guess we're willing to risk it."
"Anything to help Hermione see this giant mistake she's making," Ron added, a troubled and angry look on his face.
"Believe it or not, I'm acting for our best interests here," Pansy said.
Ron snorted. "Yes, I'm sure you've got no ulterior motives whatsoever."
Ignoring him, Pansy continued, "I've seen both your faces whenever you see her with him, you know. All that talking and laughing. Spending all their free time up in their cozy common room."
Harry and Ron exchanged dark looks.
"And of course," she grimaced, "that disgusting display at that Quidditch match."
Ron's fists tightened.
"You want Granger back, and I want Draco back. It's a win-win situation."
Harry and Ron looked decided. "Fine, we'll do it tonight."
"Good. You lure Granger to this room with some tripe about wanting to talk about her feelings or some other nonsense like that, and I'll be strolling up to Draco outside to make him see the light once and for all."
"What are you going to say to him?"
"Let's just say if there's one thing Draco cares about, it's what his friends think of him. Don't worry, after I'm done, Draco will be sorry he ever treated Granger with more courtesy than dirt like her deserves."
Ignoring their glares, Pansy turned on her heel, calling out over her shoulder, "Until later, Potter, Weasely. Don't you dare fail."
But even as she said it, she and her voice were already fading away, and Draco and Hermione suddenly found themselves standing back in the Chamber of Love, as if they had never left it in the first place. Disoriented, they could only gape at Venus, who was sitting back on her throne and smiling sadly at them.
"Well, their hearts were in the right place, except for that detestable girl, but it does irk me to no end when people interfere in the matters of the heart. Nasty business, that, and with ever nastier consequences." She gestured to them. "The very proof is here before me. And it was all going so well for you two."
Hermione was too stunned by what she had seen to pay much attention to what Venus was saying, while at her side, Draco kept swearing under his breath, his expression furious.
It's too late. Too late. The damage has already been done.
These were the thoughts repeating in Draco's head like a broken record, his stupidity that had cost him so much thrown into stark relief.
As if reading his mind, Venus said softly, "Nothing's ever too late. Especially love."
Draco eventually unstuck his throat, finding it impossible to look Hermione in the eye, and suddenly so angry, but at what, he wasn't entirely sure. At Venus, for having him relive those moments that used to make him so happy, but now caused him pain? At Pansy, for her selfish meddling? Or at himself, for having been manipulated so easily and destroying the one thing that made him the most content he'd been in years?
He rounded on Venus, his voice rough as he asked, "Were those first images necessary? You could have just shown us that last one, and be done with it. Wanted to see us squirm, did you?"
"That wasn't my doing. My Love Knot showed you only what it was able to. All those moments were when it was at its strongest." She tapped her chin with an elegant finger. "I wonder why."
Draco still refused to look at her, or at anyone else for that matter.
"I once heard a wise wizard say that good consequences can result from bad beginnings. Charming man. Pity love never strayed for long in his wake."
Hermione cleared her throat with some difficulty. "Do we know him?"
"I'll never tell." But Venus continued to muse, "Great love can spring from great hate. Not something I didn't know before, but still. It's an exceedingly fine line between love and hate, don't you agree? Some might even go so far as to say you can't have one without the other."
"That's what I see in both your futures, you know," she added.
When Hermione still looked confused, and Draco still determinedly looking at anything except her, Venus clarified, "Great hate. But also a great deal of love. One will eventually outweigh the other, but which, only you two have the power to decide. However, if there's one piece of advice I can give you, it's this: Don't lose love because of pride."
"Well, that ought to be easy enough to do, because we aren't in love!"
It was a reflex saying, and one that seemed to Draco a feebler and feebler excuse each time it was uttered.
Venus looked at him. "Keep telling yourself that."
"Anyway," Hermione hastily interjected, feeling like there was only so much her emotions could take. "Can you please tell us once and for all why the Love Knot sent us here?"
Venus nodded. "Have you any idea why the Love Knot is so rare in your world, Hermione?"
Hermione blinked at the unexpected question, but then shook her head.
"It's because I don't give away my Love Knots just to anybody who requests them. The one you have now has been on Earth for more than six hundred years, all with hits and misses with the people it has bonded."
"Did you just say six hundred-"
"It doesn't agree to malicious purposes, and only consents to bind two people together if it believes they truly have a chance of falling in love. It's a very rare thing for my Love Knot to send you two to me. It must have decided to never give up until it has fulfilled its purpose." She smiled faintly. "Its power baffles even me sometimes."
"But my father-"
"Your father's intended purpose was only for you two to agree to marriage. What he didn't know is when the two people it has bound fall in love, the Love Knot starts making its own rules." Venus shrugged. "Ignorance is its own folly."
Draco was stunned by this. It appeared his father was thwarted by his own game. Serves him right, he thought viciously. He looked up at Venus. "But if you're so keen to get the two of us together, why didn't you, I don't know, find some way to compel someone to slip us some Amortentia or something?"
Her brow wrinkled. "That filthy brew? I can think of nothing more lowly then forcing people to love. Not love in the true sense, even! Merely an all-consuming obsession." She shook her head. "Disgraceful."
Draco frowned. "Doesn't this Love Knot of yours do the exact same thing?"
"Haven't you learned anything at all from your time with my Love Knot, Draco?"
He shifted uncomfortably.
"My dear boy, the Love Knot doesn't need to resort to such lowly tricks, not when it can make people fall in love the old-fashioned way! Which is still the right way, I assure you."
"Venus, just what do you mean by the old-fashioned way?" Hermione asked.
"Isn't it obvious? By talking, laughing, being there for one another, learning each other's secrets and keeping them-"
"Finding out that a person is more than what they first appear," Hermione murmured, a faraway look on her face, "and that they add up to someone you're glad to have known."
Venus winked. "Clever girl."
Draco had an odd look on his face, his chest suddenly feeling uncomfortably tight. "And… tolerating all that person's infuriating habits," he said, voice quiet, "because you know it what makes them who they are."
Venus smiled widely. "Clever boy."
Draco and Hermione continued standing there for a little while, lost in their thoughts. They idly wondered how much time had passed back in their own world, although if it turned out days, months or even years had gone by, it wouldn't matter. Not really. Then Draco coughed, and Hermione got the hint.
"Thank you for showing us the truth, Venus. I… I guess we'll best be going now."
Venus settled back into her throne, her unnerving smile still in place. "You'll do that, won't you?"
"Yes," Hermione said, attempting a weak smile.
"Well, all you have to do is touch the Love Knot again, and it will transport you back."
They nodded and started to raise their hands, prepared to do just that, but her voice stopped them.
"By the way," she said, tone casual. "When you two return to your world, the Love Knot will no longer bind you together."
They froze. "Why?"
"Because it has already fulfilled its purpose."
Before Draco and Hermione could start bombarding her with questions on this infuriatingly enigmatic statement, Venus waved her hand and the whole chamber was swallowed up by the feeling of once again hurtling into emptiness, that horrible suffocating sensation bearing down upon them, their insides feeling like mush…
They staggered as they appeared in the Head's common room at the same spot they disappeared, but thankfully, neither fell over each other this time.
"Bloody hell," Draco mumbled, massaging his temples.
Hermione couldn't agree more.
She remembered Venus's parting words, and immediately looked down at her wrist. And just in time too. As Draco copied her movement, the Love Knot detached from both ends, slowly drifting to the floor between them, its strange, silvery sheen glinting innocently.
Hermione sucked in a sharp breath as she stared at the Love Knot, feeling an odd mixture of relief and sadness at seeing it there on the floor after it had been a part of her daily life since that eventful Christmas morning.
Draco in turn gazed at the Love Knot that at first had made his life a living hell, then later on became something that had given him a quiet sort of contentment. He finally tore his eyes away, and was startled to see Hermione already staring at him, her face unreadable.
"Save it, Malfoy."
"Look, I'm exhausted, we'd just been to see the Goddess of Love in another dimension for Merlin's sake-"
"I know, but here me out- please!" he said, seeing Hermione's expression turn stonier with every passing second.
"Believe it or not, I'm not really in the mood to hear your excuses tonight, Malfoy. Or any other night."
And with that, she started to storm away from him in the direction of her room, but he caught her arm.
"Let go of me."
"I said, let go of me."
"Not until you hear me out."
Her eyes blazed. "If you don't let go of me right now, I swear, I'll curse you into oblivion."
Draco opened his mouth, ready to argue, but stopped as he saw Hermione's eyes fill with unshed tears, trained on him with such venom… and hurt.
"Don't you dare think anything's changed tonight just because of where we'd been or who we'd seen. You still think of me as nothing more than a mudblood, and I still hate you."
Stung, he let her go, watching as she ran up to her room and slammed the door.
He didn't know how long he stood there staring at her closed door. Eventually, feeling a kind of numbness as if his body didn't belong to him, he went in the opposite direction that led to his own room, where he would be sleeping alone from now on.
Hermione started to gasp as huge sobs shook her the moment she slammed her door. She sank to the floor, clutching her knees and burying her face against them. She didn't know how long she stayed like that, but finally she summoned the courage to drag herself to bed, not bothering to change into her nightclothes. And speaking of nightclothes…
As if in a daze, she got up and headed to the pile of clothes waiting to be laundered in her wastebasket. She roughly rummaged through it, tossing away shirts, pants, robes… and then there it was. Her favorite nightie with the dancing sheep and pompoms, the one that had become something of Draco's favorite as well…
With a cry of rage she threw it with all her might, where it skidded to the bottom of her chest of drawers, out of sight.
She flopped back into bed with her head buried in her pillow, trying vainly to muffle the sobs that seemed to have no end. Somehow, she felt even worse than she did a few seconds ago, as if that were even possible. Her throat further constricted as she remembered Draco grabbing her arm, him leaning close and her catching a whiff of that enticing, woody scent she had smelled from Venus's Amortentia-like fragrance. No wonder it was so familiar, Hermione thought bitterly. It was his stupid wood spice aftershave.
And speaking of stupidity, she turned out to be the biggest dunce of them all. No doubt he'd be laughing with the Slytherins at breakfast tomorrow, telling them all about her pathetic admission of liking him and having a grand time doing it…
Her fingernails dug into her palms.
She didn't even feel remotely angry or betrayed at Harry and Ron's interference. As of the moment, she didn't feel anything at all. Hermione vaguely remembered something of this effect mentioned in one of the psychology books she had borrowed from the library in a now ill-fated attempt to understand the turbulent feelings inside her.
She needn't have bothered. Those books could burn in hell.
In the silence of his room, Draco could hear the faint sounds of Hermione's muffled sobs. He still couldn't bear to admit to himself, much less out loud, that he had in fact cared. Cared much too deeply, too much for his own good. He couldn't help replaying the night's events in his mind over and over again, like some kind of sick masochist.
"I did it out of pity."
Lies usually came so easily to him. So why did this particular one haunt him so much? It had been a long time since he experienced these painful twinges of his seldom-used conscience, for he usually forgot the lies he told as quickly as he uttered them.
"I hate you, Draco Malfoy. I hate you."
He screwed his eyes shut as the wave of bitter regret crashed over him for what seemed like the millionth time tonight. Hated him, did she? Well, in some way, he hated her too for making him feel like this, but probably not as much as he hated himself at this very moment.
"You still think of me as a mudblood, and I still hate you."
He found himself remembering that memory of Pansy and the dream team conniving, and succeeding, to break them apart. He knew that months ago, he would have done anything in his power to be rid of the Love Knot, but it seemed that little by little, Granger had crept up on him, and being with her day in and day out no longer seemed like the most horrible thing in the world.
He wondered how Pansy (Merlin, what had he done to deserve getting saddled with a psychotic bitch like her?) had consented to being his father's informant. It was possible he threatened her, but something told him Pansy wouldn't need any convincing to ruin his life and keep him under her thumb for as long as she wanted. The most likely scenario he could picture was Malfoy Sr. promising that once Granger agreed to marriage, Pansy could become Draco's unofficial wife and bear his child in secret, or something similarly crazy.
Draco snorted. He'd often wondered if perhaps his father had been a little touched in the head after the Dark Lord's downfall.
But nobody ever counted on them actually falling in love…
Now, just where had that thought come from? The suddenness of it sent him reeling. He couldn't really be in love with Granger, could he? He tolerated her, was amused by her, and at times maybe even liked her, but loved her? He couldn't be that stupid. No, no, no.
Hermione's crying had tapered off to a few sniffles during Draco's inner battle, then eventually, silence.
And all Draco could do was continue listening to that heavy silence as he stared, unblinking, up at the ceiling.
Hermione woke at the crack of dawn and was no longer able to fall asleep after that, her dreams proving to be just as restless as her waking hours. She slowly sat up, stretching and working out the kinks in her neck and shoulders. She wouldn't admit to herself that perhaps there was another reason for her being up this early, and that it was to avoid a run-in with the boy responsible for her restless night.
After she showered and dressed, she crept as silently as she could to the common room to grab her bag and go down to the Great Hall for an early breakfast. Mercifully, Malfoy still wasn't up, but Hermione wasn't as alone in the common room as she would have liked.
"Ah, there she is." Salazar smirked from his portrait atop the fireplace. "Just the person we wanted to see. Enjoying your newfound freedom?"
Resigned to being interrogated, Hermione looked up at him. "I suppose."
"Hermione!" Godric exclaimed. "We were just wondering when one of you would come down. I hope you'll tell us," he said in a hushed, excited whisper, "what in the world happened to make the Love Knot release you two?"
He pointed to something a few feet to her left, and as she followed his finger to the object in question, she felt a little pang in her chest as she saw the Love Knot lying there in the same position they had left it last night.
Was it glistening even more now than usual, or was it just her imagination…?
"Oh- what?" she said, distracted.
Godric looked a little worried. "I was just wondering why the Love Knot released you two." He added graciously, "If you would consent to tell us, of course."
Salazar looked up, interested. "Has it fulfilled its purpose, then?"
"… in a manner of speaking."
"How wonderfully enigmatic of you," he snapped.
"Hush, Salazar," Godric admonished. "Hermione is probably just a little shaken up by the recent events. How would you like it if your daily routine was uprooted in such an abrupt manner?"
He raised a thin bow. "I wouldn't know. There are no daily routines of mine with which to uproot. For Merlin's sake, we're paintings, Godric, in case you've forgotten."
Godric ignored him.
"But you're okay, aren't you, Hermione?"
"Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?"
Godric looked uncomfortable. "I don't know. I thought perhaps you and Draco have become rather… er… fond of each other."
Hermione was bending over her bag, her face hidden from them. "Not really."
"Oh," Godric said in a slightly disbelieving tone, as Salazar snorted. "Well, alright then. I hope you have a good morning, Hermione."
"I hope you have one as well, Godric."
They watched her as she gave them another false, cheery smile, and then went on her way.
As she climbed through the portrait hole out of sight, silence prevailed for a few seconds. Then suddenly,
"She's lying, you know," Salazar drawled.
Godric settled back into his chair, frowning slightly. "Yes. But about what, I have no idea…"
"Don't bother, Godric. Give teenagers the chance to tell the truth, and they almost always choose to lie just to spite you."
He drummed his fingers against his armrest. "All I can say is that we've definitely missed something big this time. Again."
Draco rolled over in his side of the bed, groaning slightly at his aching head. He was still exhausted, seeing as he hadn't fallen asleep until the crack of dawn. Thank Merlin it was a Sunday.
He reflexively reached his hand over to his right to wake Hermione, but then he stopped. Of course she wasn't there. And it was highly unlikely that she'll ever be there again. He found himself unconsciously missing her warmth, missing her, but the truth was, he was much too emotionally drained to deal with it right now. Last night was a bit of a blur, as if the impossibility of being transported to another dimension and meeting the Goddess of Love who'd kept on insisting he and Granger were deeply in love had temporarily robbed him of the ability to think properly.
Granger. Even her name now brought a bitter taste to his mouth. Once again, he felt a hot surge of anger at her. He had apologized, hadn't he? Or tried to, at least. Even begged her (which was relatively unheard of for a Malfoy to do) to hear his side of the story.
He already knew deep down that no matter how much he pretended otherwise, he had always cared about what others thought of him. He didn't know how to be anything else. It wasn't his fault she refused to listen, not his fault if she wanted to stew for the remainder of the year. In fact, he would be better off. Free to play Quidditch, to hang out with his own friends, to kiss other girls…
So why did these thoughts, instead of cheering him up, make him feel infinitely worse?
Draco got up, still refusing to look at that particular side of his bed, and then proceeded to get dressed. If he had a choice, he would have been quite happy to spend the rest of day in bed. But his stomach had other ideas. It gave a series of loud rumbles as he made his way to their common room, reminding him that he hadn't eaten anything the night before. He sincerely hoped Hermione wasn't in the common room, and cautiously poked his head through the hallway, eyes sweeping the area to see if the coast was clear.
It was, and he gave a sigh of relief as he swiftly walked to the portrait hole. As he swung his legs through the entrance, he thought he might have heard the portraits calling after him, but he paid them no mind. He really didn't have the patience to satisfy their curiosity right now. Or ever.
It's not like I won't have the life questioned out of me today, he thought darkly. Seeing as it seems every student's sole purpose in this school was to hear, and spread, gossip.
And sure enough, when he arrived at the Great Hall the hum of conversation broke off as those nearest the doors burst out in hushed whispers and giggles. It was almost as bad as when people first saw them bound with the Love Knot or rumored to have been involved in all sorts of illicit activities in the boys' toilet. But this was probably ten times worse, since he didn't have anyone to share the humiliation with this time around.
And despite the assurances he'd told himself not ten minutes ago about all this being for the best, his eyes were still drawn to the Gryffindor table almost against his will. He found her in an instant, sandwiched between the dream team who were shooting not-so-subtle glares at him, as if somehow this was all his fault and not the other way around.
Hermione was keeping her head down as she ate her porridge, thoroughly ignoring him as though they hadn't just spent more than half the year tied to one another. Well, if that was the game she wanted to play, so be it. Just as Draco was about to turn his head, he noticed the Weasely girl- what was her name again? Ginny?- staring as intently at him as Granger was as determined to avoid his gaze.
He shrugged it off. He had enough problems to deal with right now without wondering when she would take it upon herself to yell at him until his ears bled.
First things first: breakfast. As he walked over to the Slytherin table, he tried his best to ignore all the stares, whispers and pointed fingers still following him. Wanting to situate himself as far away from Pansy as possible, he slid into a seat beside Zabini, who turned to look at him with a faint smirk.
"Draco!" he said, his eyes immediately zeroing in on his bare wrist and the absence of any brown-eyed, bushy-haired girls by his side. "Finally got that ball and chain out of the way, I see."
Whether he meant the Love Knot or Hermione, he would never know.
Draco loaded eggs and kippers into his plate, not meeting Zabini's eyes. "I guess."
"Pity," he sighed. "I think she was the first girl to ask me questions requiring more than the minimum amount of brain cells we usually get from people around here."
"And with looks like hers, she wasn't exactly breaking any mirrors either."
Draco just grunted.
"I mean, if it wasn't for her blood I might even consider her as something of a friend." He shrugged. "Shame, really."
Draco found himself nodding along, not really paying any attention anymore.
"So, how did it happen?" Zabini asked as he leaned closer and winked suggestively. "Did the Love Knot finally fulfill its purpose?"
Draco jerked, nearly spilling pumpkin juice on himself. Well, technically the Love Knot did indeed fulfill its purpose, but it wasn't like Draco was stupid enough to tell him that. "Sod off, Zabini. It was nothing like that. There was-" He cast around wildly for a decent excuse "-a loophole."
"A loophole," Zabini repeated. "Really. How convenient."
Draco gave a seemingly nonchalant shrug. "It happens, you know. The Love Knot knows a lost cause when it sees one. And besides, magic can only take you so far."
Zabini still looked unconvinced, but since he wasn't the type to think too deeply about matters of the Love Knot, or about love in general, he chose to let it go. This time.
"Besides, it's for the best, isn't it?" Draco quietly asked, as though he wanted to convince himself more than the boy beside him.
Zabini raised a brow. "Nevertheless, I still find it hard to believe you didn't have your fun with her while you had the chance." He shook his head. "What a waste of opportunity."
Draco remained silent, reminding himself that it probably wasn't wise to strangle Zabini right now. At least, not in front of so many witnesses. Perhaps later, then?
"Come on, Draco," he cajoled. "I swear I won't hold it against you. Are you quite sure there isn't something you forgot to tell us?"
"For the last time, Zabini, get this through your thick skull: there isn't one bloody thing going on with me and Granger!"
Zabini's reply was drowned out by a shrill, feminine voice suddenly speaking up behind them.
"Well, I certainly hope not!"
It appeared Pansy had decided to join them regardless if she was wanted or not.
"And speaking of girls with the barest minimum of brain cells…" Zabini trailed off.
Pansy ignored him, choosing instead to squeeze herself beside Draco and in the process almost knocked a scowling Zabini off the bench.
"Hello, Draco," she almost crooned, fluttering her lashes at him and grazing her fingers along his arm.
Draco tried hard not to recoil. Pansy's voice suddenly sounded to him like nails on a chalkboard, her touch something to be washed from his skin. Instead he merely gave her a curt nod, sure that if he opened his mouth he'd hurl forth all the accusations he was bursting to say at her.
"It's a good thing that leech's no longer attached to you, isn't it?" she asked with fake sympathy, which sort of ruined her intended effect when she had on the smuggest face he'd ever seen.
Of all the poker-faced bluffers…
"Ah, Pansy." Zabini gave her a sarcastic smile. "I know gossip at this school has no merit whatsoever unless you've gotten a hold of it."
She idly picked at some imaginary lint on her skirt. "True."
"Indeed. So, care to share you're no doubt intelligent view on this matter?" he said, gesturing to Draco's wrist.
"I haven't the faintest idea what you mean, Zabini."
He raised an incredulous brow. "Come off it. The day you haven't got anything to say will be the day all hell breaks loose." His tone turned condescending. "I don't get why you're being this deliberately vague. Am I speaking too fast for you?"
Her smile tightened, but she just blinked innocently at him. "What's there to get? The Love-Knot failed its purpose, Draco's free from that insufferable know-it-all, and now everybody gets to go home happy." She added nastily, "Did you get all that, or will I have to write it down for you?"
Now, to the unobservant eye it might have seemed like she was telling the truth. But Draco had known her far too long to be fooled. Pansy didn't do innocent. She did cunning and manipulative and sneaky, but innocent? Never.
Draco opened his mouth, ready to retort, but Zabini beat him to it.
"Granger wasn't that bad. She's a hell of a lot better company than you, that's for sure!"
Pansy exploded. "Oh, go screw yourself!"
Zabini grinned; glad to finally get a rise from her. "Gladly. Want to help me out? That's all you're really good for anyway."
She made a move as if to slap him, but Draco held her back.
"Don't be stupid," he muttered, gripping her arm to stop her from smacking the living daylights out of Zabini.
"I'm sure she can't help it, Draco," Zabini drawled from over his shoulder as he finally gathered up his things to leave. This was way too much crazy for him to handle this early in the morning.
Pansy took a breath as if to calm herself, then wrested her arm away from him. "And don't you be daft," she snapped. "I know you think Granger's some kind of saint, but really, think about what the Slytherins were starting to say!"
Draco couldn't hold it back any longer."Yes, because apparently I care so much about what my friends think of me," he retorted, using her exact words in the memory Venus showed them.
Pansy looked shocked. "W-what? Where did you hear that?"
Draco refused to answer, averting his eyes and roughly sitting back down. He'd already lost his appetite.
Her face darkened. "Potter and Weasely told you, didn't they? I should have known I couldn't trust those two idiots-"
He stared at her evenly. She really had no idea, did she?
"No," he said.
Her scowl deepened. "What?"
"I said, no. They didn't tell me anything."
"Then how do you-" She shook her head. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. What matters is that this whole ordeal's finally over."
Draco begged to differ, not when he now classified Pansy as a particularly clingy and malignant 'ordeal', and one he'd be infinitely glad to be rid off.
"Do you even know how embarrassing it is as your girlfriend to put up with all the rumors flying around?"
Draco had been staring off into space, but something she said brought him back to reality with an unpleasant bump. "You're my what?"
She looked at him as if he were slow. "Girlfriend," she enunciated with an awful kind of finality. "I'm your girlfriend."
He gaped at her. "Where on Earth did you get that idea?"
Oh, what fresh hell was in store for him this time…?
Pansy seemed baffled at his disbelieving expression, as if honestly wondering why anyone in their right mind wasn't leaping at the chance. She stared at him for the longest time, until something seemed to click into place in her mind. "Oh, you can't be serious." She came closer to hiss in his ear, "Draco, she's a mudblood for Merlin's sake-"
He jerked away from her, hands unconsciously tightening into fists. "How many times have I told you to stop calling her that?"
Pansy's cheeks flushed with anger. "What the hell is your problem? You didn't have much trouble tossing 'mudblood' before every chance you get!"
Draco closed his mouth with a snap. That was true. He did toss around derogatory terms like that like they were nothing; never stopping to think or care that people might be offended or hurt. However, the word now felt like tar in his throat and he was unable to say it aloud anymore.
Pansy tapped her foot impatiently. "Well?" she demanded. "I'm waiting. Have you forgotten what she is? Do I need to remind you every single time?"
In the silence that followed, Draco felt a kind of bone-deep weariness descending upon him. He wished he hadn't come down after all, would have been content to lie on his bed in the sanctuary of his room, stomach grumbling with hunger but otherwise glad to not feel this increased hurting in his chest that showed no signs of abating…
"I really don't care anymore," he told Pansy as he dropped his head on the table with a distinct thud. "Can you just… go?" He refrained from adding, And never darken my line of sight again?
For possibly the first time in her life, Pansy was speechless. She stared at him, sure she had misheard. But when no sounds of apology were forthcoming, she abruptly stood up with barely restrained violence.
"Fine," she snarled. "Fine! If that's the way you want it." She tossed her bag over one shoulder, just narrowly avoiding hitting Draco's head. "But don't you dare come crawling back to me when you get over this delusion of yours!"
Pansy cut a pretty terrifying figure whenever she was in a rage (which more or less happened once a week). People wisely parted from her quickly as she stormed past them, oblivious to the literally hundreds of people craning their necks to see why she was storming off in another one of her legendary huffs.
Draco looked up from the cover of his arms to see if anyone had heard their indiscretions. It wasn't like they'd been shouting, but they hadn't exactly been whispering either. But now that the show was over, the Slytherins sitting closest to him turned back to their respective breakfasts, their newly-resumed conversations buzzing in the air and no doubt keen to dissect this new piece of gossip.
But Draco didn't care about them. His eyes roved the table at the opposite side of the Great Hall, where they locked with the girl responsible for his current predicament.
Hermione looked squarely back at him. She had heard or perhaps guessed what had happened, and now there was curiosity and confusion burning in her eyes. Their gazes lingered for a few moments more, as if they were sizing each other up, but then she turned her head and the connection was gone.
When Hermione entered the Great Hall that morning, she was intent on finding a seat as far away from Harry and Ron as possible. Giving them the cold shoulder was perhaps the politest form of passive-aggressive retaliation she could think of.
However, all her volatile thoughts were blown out the window when she saw their concerned expressions as they caught sight of her entering through the doors. They beckoned her over, and before she knew it, her feet were already striding towards them before her mind had caught up with her actions.
"Hermione!" Harry said, standing up hastily to give her room on the bench beside him and Ron. "I- how are you?"
"Fine," she replied, smiling a little too cheerily than the simple question warranted.
Ron matched her fake cheeriness perfectly as he turned to look at her. "Hey, you're free! What happened to the Love Knot?"
She shrugged as nonchalantly as she could. "It malfunctioned."
"Oh," Ron replied.
"Hmm," Harry said.
"Yes, well, you guys don't seem too choked up about it," she felt the need to point out. Hermione didn't know why she didn't call them out, but she somehow felt it was the right thing to do for now.
"It's for the best, don't you think?" Harry asked, a hint of uncertainty in his tone.
Ron chuckled unconvincingly. "Besides, I reckon Malfoy was getting pretty boring."
"I guess," she intoned, thinking that even if they thought Malfoy was boring, she'd still rather be bored for the rest of her life than have to go through another second of this infuriating charade, orchestrated by the two people she thought understood her more than anyone else. But it was hard to stay truly angry at people who'd only been acting with the best intentions (although she was still tempted to give them a good kick up the arse).
It wasn't their fault, Hermione reasoned. Me and Draco going our separate ways was probably inevitable. At least, this was what Hermione kept telling herself as she tried to crush the feelings that were threatening her with all its impracticalities and impossibilities that given enough time, their fledgling of a relationship might have had time to grow and blossom into- what? Something meaningful? Hermione very nearly snorted. She was deluded, clearly.
But as a last favor to herself and the tattered remains of her dignity, she would try her utmost to squash any and all of her lingering affection for Malfoy. She would forget all the times he'd made her heart race or day just a little bit brighter and less monotonous, be it in the form of his sarcastic, witty remarks, or the times he'd remember that she didn't like her eggs sunny side-up or that pumpkin juice was exactly what she needed to start off her day. It was these little gestures that had unknowingly charmed her as well as disarmed her, giving her insight to a side of Draco not many people knew. She would have wanted to know more, but it was not to be, and Hermione found herself back to reality and the sounds of Harry calling her name.
Harry and Ron looked at her in a way that was reminiscent of Godric's expression that morning, when he'd looked like he was questioning her sanity.
"Anything… interesting happen last night, Hermione?" Harry asked instead, with Ron looking intently at her.
Ginny was looking at her as well, a thoughtful but rather intense look on her face as she awaited her answer. She hadn't said anything since Hermione had sat down, but Hermione had a feeling Ginny understood more than she let on.
Hermione thought of her and Draco going to another dimension, meeting hundreds of cherubs and the Goddess of Love herself, finding out about them going against her back to ruin the thing that made her the most happy until yesterday…
"No, not really."
A/N: Whether it's good or bad, tell me what you think! I can take it. :) About six more chapters coming up, so I'll be updating as fast as physically possible.
Next chapter: The Consequences of Meddling