The Unseemly Proposal
Chapter 40: The Consequences of Meddling
The late-morning sun streamed through the castle's arched windows into the classroom below, overlooking the mixture of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor students in various states of attentiveness at the ongoing lesson.
The only interruption to the sounds of quills scratching parchment was the witch lecturing at great length on the current topic, supposedly one of the more difficult branches of magic they'd be encountering in their N.E.W.T.s at the end of term.
"Human-Object Transfiguration, which you will all be attempting today, is yet another sub-type of transformation magic."
McGonagall paused to turn and scribble something on the board already filled with the spell's founding wizard, history and many other things anyone in their right mind wouldn't be bothered to learn.
She faced the class once again and continued, "It differs from a straight transformation in two ways: firstly, switching the target into an object simultaneously; secondly, the change in one of the pair is dependent on a change in the other."
Most of the class had the same glazed looks on their faces that usually happened when McGonagall spoke for more than a few minutes these days; except of course for Hermione, who was listening and taking down notes, as diligent as ever.
Harry and Ron at her sides were less diligent, and quite blatantly so: both were playing hangman on a spare piece of parchment they'd been passing back and forth for the past half-hour, ignoring Hermione's glares and occasional painful pokes to the ribs whenever McGonagall had her back turned.
"Now, the incantation is, repeat after me: Homo Inanimatus."
"Homo Inanimatus," the class echoed.
"Good," McGonagall said. "Remember the nuances of the incantation and the proper wand movements, and I trust most of you will have something to show for it at the end of class. You will be working in pairs," and almost as an afterthought, she added, "and I beg you, Mr. Longbottom, to not have a repeat of the last time I assigned pair work to this class, or else Mr. Finnigan would be behind on his homework again."
Some people snickered as they remembered the disastrous class last week, where they ended up having to carry an unconscious Seamus with purple smoke coming out of his ears to the Hospital Wing. Neville's face grew pink as he slid further down his desk, while Seamus grinned and slapped him companionably on the back.
"No harm, no foul, eh Neville?"
Professor McGonagall sternly surveyed the rest of the class beneath her spectacles. "I trust everyone has been keeping notes. Even if it may take most of you a few more lessons to execute this spell perfectly, I still expect all of you to have a reasonably firm grasp of it at the end of this session. Oh, and Potter, Weasley, if I catch you playing that Muggle game in my class again..."
She let the threat hang in the air, leaving Harry and Ron to exchange sheepish looks as they hurriedly crumpled the offending parchment.
"You may begin."
Ron cajoled Hermione into being his partner for the day, while Harry, too late, was stuck with an enthusiastic Neville, who had sidled to his side when he wasn't paying attention. Apparently, Seamus thought being partners with Neville for a second time in a row was tempting fate.
They had spent the better part of the lecture listening to McGonagall explain the intricacies of the spell they would be casting, as well as listing all kinds of horrific things that could happen to them if they got it wrong, which was awfully considerate of her.
"Homo Inanimatus! C'mon… Homo Inanimatus! Oh no…"
Poor Neville was having no luck with the spell as time crawled by, but Harry and Ron weren't any better off, always missing a vital element in the transfiguration process.
As usual, it seemed only Hermione quickly got the hang of it, successfully transfiguring her lower body into an exact replica of the legs of a nearby chair.
"How on earth do you do that?" Ron asked after his fifth unsuccessful attempt, which somehow managed to turn his right arm into something resembling a grimy mushroom, which wasn't exactly what he was going for.
"Do what?" Hermione asked distractedly as she transfigured her legs back, now looking into transfiguring her whole body into the chair.
"Soak up information and theories like a sponge and be all nauseatingly perfect when you execute it."
Hermione raised a brow. "We've been friends for nearly seven years, and it's only now you're asking me that?"
Ron grinned. "Only when I'm in dire need."
"In that case, I'm surprised you don't ask for my help more often."
"Well, don't rub it in or anything."
"Oh, but Harry wouldn't stoop so low as to ask for my help now. Just look at him, he's doing fine all on his own."
True to her words, Harry chose that moment to accidentally set Neville's sleeve on fire.
"He's a proud man, but lucky for you, I'm not."
"Lucky me," Hermione deadpanned. "Well, let's get started then. Try the spell again, and I'll look at where you're going wrong."
Ron did just that, imagining his legs transforming into the chair, waving his wand and—
"Wait," Hermione interrupted. "Only wave your wand when you're nearing the end of the incantation, to allow the transformation time to seep into your consciousness."
Ron chuckled. "You sound like Trelawney."
"You want me to help you or not?"
"The wand movement's a bit like a flourish at the end— I said flourish, not jab."
Ron gave her a confused look. "What's the difference?"
Hermione gave a huge mental sigh and prepared herself for a long lesson ahead of her.
"Nightmare, I tell you," Ron muttered as they made their way from the Transfiguration classroom to the Great Hall for a quick lunch. They had double Potions in the afternoon with the Slytherins, which were thankfully the last for the day.
"It wasn't too bad," Harry said reasonably.
"Speak for yourself. I nearly tore my hair out before I finally managed to turn my body into the desk, and even then it wasn't a full transformation! You could still see my freckles on the wood grain."
"You'll get the hang of it," Hermione assured him. "You're probably just a little stressed, which I'm sure will disappear once—"
"Ever the optimist. You'll be eating your words, Hermione, when N.E.W.T.s week comes. No one's safe from the madness it inflicts, both on teachers and students alike."
As Ron stated so ominously, their N.E.W.T.s were fast approaching, with only a weekend as respite before their day of reckoning. Seventh year students could be seen filling up the library to near capacity when they had free time, or else snapping at the noisy undergraduates to "shut the hell up" when they studied in their respective common rooms.
With all this dedication and tension filling the air, it was no wonder it came with the usual minor and massive breakdowns suffered by students. Susan Bones, looking pale and wan for the better part of the week now, had taken to drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee at every meal time. Ernie Macmillan on the other hand, had once again began interrogating everyone on their study hours while he irritatingly boasted 12 to 16 hour runs, even as he swayed on the spot.
But despite the increasing difficulty of the lessons they had to learn and the worrisome amount of homework they had to do, for Hermione, it was getting easier. All this mind-numbing preparation she put herself through for the exams (which made the time Ernie spent studying seem lazy) provided much-needed distraction from the rollercoaster of emotion she had gone through for the past few weeks.
Hermione thought she was getting quite good at avoiding Malfoy now. Aside from the usual tactics, she had long ago started coming in at odd hours into the Head's dorm, (having stayed at the library until Madam Pince kicked her out) thus ensuring she'd no longer have to experience the awkwardness of meeting Malfoy face-to-face. She supposed could have slept in her old room at the Gryffindor Tower, but Hermione had her pride, and she loathed to be the first one to admit defeat so publicly.
If Harry and Ron noticed Hermione was sometimes quieter than usual and that her smiles were few and far between, they chose not to think too hard about it, and when they did, attributed it to her terrifying penchant for studying with barely restrained zeal for the exams that could soon influence the rest of their lives.
The Potions class they had after lunch was fortunately devoid of any nasty surprises, with Snape just choosing to have them review the uses and components of the potions they had already covered last term, and brew the relatively simple (compared to the immensely difficult ones they'd been covering so far) Draught of Living Death.
Malfoy could be seen sitting at the furthest table from the room with his usual cronies, never once meeting her eyes. Not that Hermione noticed, for when she entered through the heavy wooden doors of the classroom, she immediately zoned in on their usual table at the front of the room, conveniently the one located farthest away from Malfoy's table.
Hermione couldn't deny coming to this class was sometimes both the highlight of her day, and the one she dreaded the most. Funny, because that was exactly how she felt about Malfoy these days. Some part of her still wanted to choke the life out of him for being so damn infuriating, but she still couldn't forget the other side of him, the side that wasn't choke-worthy. Hermione was humiliated to admit, even to herself, that she still had feelings for him.
She sighed with relief as the bell finally rang at the end of class, all three of them having scraped decent marks for their draughts (and in Hermione's case, decent meant a grade of Outstanding).
As the bell finally rang, they gathered their things and followed the stream of people heading out of the classroom doors.
"I'll catch up with you two at dinner, alright?" Hermione said, her feet already oriented to the direction of the library.
"Sure thing, Hermione," Ron replied with a smile and a wave goodbye, but seeing as she was already hurrying along the corridor, Hermione didn't notice. Unbeknownst to her and to everyone else, Malfoy, accompanied by his friends, watched her go from the corner of his eye as he strode to the opposite direction.
Ron's smile faded a little as he turned to look at Harry. "You don't think she's pushing herself too hard, do you? I mean…"
"I know," Harry replied.
"You can't honestly think she's still worked up over… him?"
Ron shot Malfoy's retreating back a hard look, making no question about who "him" referred to.
"If she still is, then maybe… Merlin, I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe it's true what she said— that she honestly loved him?"
"She didn't say that!"
"She implied it."
"Not the same thing as actually admitting it," Ron said stubbornly.
Harry gave a helpless shrug. "Well, we didn't exactly give her a chance. Ron, I'm sorry, but I've been thinking."
"Thinking that maybe… we were wrong to help Parkinson break them up. And let's face it, even the mere fact that we willingly partnered up with Parkinson is enough to get our heads checked. Also, Hermione always seemed loads happier then, you've got to admit it, even if you don't want to—"
"No, no way." Ron shook his head vehemently. "Whatever this thing they had was, we did her a favor. Malfoy would have hurt her sooner or later, and look at that, we were right!"
Thinking of the differences between Hermione then and now, and how, dare he even think it, Malfoy seemed somehow more human with her around, Harry wasn't so sure anymore.
Much later that day, with the sun setting and the corridors nearly deserted, Malfoy made his way back to the Head's dorm. He'd opted to skip dinner, seeing as he was still stuffed from the various Honeydukes sweets he'd eaten.
It had been the last Hogsmeade weekend for the term today, and Malfoy had taken the opportunity to relax and let loose, if only for a couple of hours. Maybe Hermione's studying habits had been rubbing off on him, because he found himself studying for long stretches into the night, quite unlike his usual study sessions, which more or less consisted of him reading a few pages of his books and then nodding off when it got too boring.
Even when he arrived at their dorm in the early evening and trooped off to bed around midnight, he had never once encountered Hermione, who he could hear coming in at around two o'clock, long after he'd gone to bed.
But for some reason, he couldn't sleep until he could hear for himself that she got back okay. This was quite preposterous really, since the only danger he could think of her coming across in the mean corridors of Hogwarts would be Peeves pelting her with dungbombs (which no matter how disgusting, was easily remedied by Scourgify).
Even if Hermione was still obviously avoiding him with icy indifference, he couldn't help thinking about her in the most inopportune moments… like right now, for instance. Malfoy scowled and put his hands in his pockets, previous good mood forgotten.
True to form, Hermione was nowhere to be seen when he crossed the entrance through the portrait hole. But this evening was clearly not destined to be relaxing or productive, as he could now hear the unmistakable sounds of Malfoy Sr. calling his name with increasing annoyance from the fireplace.
For a moment, Malfoy was torn between just going on his merry way and shoveling dinner down his throat after all; but then again, there was only so long he could put this conversation off.
Malfoy strode into view, and before he could even open his mouth, Lucius fixed him with a glare.
"Finally," he barked. "Haven't I told you I would be dropping in any day now? Especially in light of the recent… developments." With this last statement, he fixed his eyes on Malfoy's empty wrist.
"Hello to you too, Father," Malfoy dryly replied. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes."
"I'm in no mood for your sarcasm today, Draco. And haven't I explicitly told you to contact me immediately the moment the Love Knot fulfilled its purpose?"
Malfoy shrugged. "Must have slipped my mind."
"As things of utmost importance often do with you. But as I've said all along, the end justifies the means. Now, where's my daughter-in-law?"
Malfoy hastened to steer the subject out of these dangerous waters. "With the way you're always breathing down my neck, I would have thought you'd have come to reprimand me sooner."
"Oh, believe me, nothing would have given me greater joy," he drawled. "But your mother, I'm sad to say, has still lost her mind and is getting nowhere near to retrieving it, seeing as I'm still losing money on these ridiculous shopping sprees of hers."
"Is that why you haven't been able to call?"
"Yes, that and we've been staying at this absurdly deserted luxury resort in the Maldives for the past week, with no Floo network access whatsoever. How these Muggles still continue to thrive, I will never know."
"How on Earth did you get from France to the Maldives?"
"You shall have to ask your mother that when we arrive in a few days' time to bring you and Hermione home for the holidays. I'm sure her parents would be simply delighted."
Malfoy felt the world sway for a moment. "Did you just say you'll be arriving soon?"
"Of course. Your Easter holiday is coming up, is it not? We shall use that time to plan for the wedding, send out invitations…"
Malfoy gave a shaky sigh. Better to just get it over with now than to dig a bigger hole for himself later on.
"… although I must say, despite your many ineptitudes, you certainly outdid yourself this time, Draco. I thought it would be another few months at least before the two of you finally cracked."
"Did you just hear what I said?"
Malfoy rolled his eyes and started from the beginning. "I screwed up. Or better yet, we screwed up. Or to put it more accurately, you and your Love-Knot screwed up."
There was a very long pause. "And how, pray tell, did I and my perfect plan, to use your crude slang, 'screw up?'"
"The Love-Knot… 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. Your intended purpose was only for me and Granger to agree to marriage. But when the two people it has bound fall in love, the Love-Knot starts making its own rules."
Malfoy said all this with an air of resigned memorization. To someone who didn't know him, they would have said he sounded uncaring. But Lucius Malfoy, for all his faults, did in fact know his own son. However, all this took a backseat to the bigger picture.
"Did you… did you just say you love her?" Lucius slowly shook his head in denial. "A mudblood? You've gone and fallen in love with a mudblood?"
"Crazier things have happened. And don't you ever call her that in front of me again."
As his father was silently hyperventilating, Malfoy withdrew into the part of himself that was long past the point of denial, and had been for the past few months. It was tiring to keep pretending, and frankly it was a relief to have finally confided to someone, even if it was someone as unsympathetic as his father.
He'd made peace with the fact that, as utterly unbelievable and absurd as it was, he loved Hermione Granger. Loved her. He'd fallen in love with the way she'd waste no time telling him when she was pissed off (which usually involved something he said and/or did), her intelligence that went beyond books, her loyalty and bravery, and especially the long, intriguing conversations they had in bed, talking about everything and nothing in particular, conversations that sometimes lasted all night and only ended if one of them had already drifted off to sleep.
The fact that he loved Hermione Granger didn't come in the form of some mind-bending, life-altering epiphany. Rather, like his love for her it had come quietly, unexpectedly, and crept up on him with soft, heartfelt certainty. That she was muggle-born didn't matter to him, and he belatedly realized that what she had been trying to tell him all along had finally gotten through: that blood wasn't what defined people.
After a few long moments, Lucius sighed. "I'm extremely disappointed, Draco."
"I can only imagine why. I technically did what you wanted me to do. Well, except for the falling-in-love part, but hey. You can't have everything."
"Allow me to enlighten you, then. All I asked was for you to make Hermione agree to marriage for the sake of convenience, and you couldn't even do that one little thing? I certainly didn't ask you to fall in love with her."
Malfoy held up his wrist. "Since we're playing the blame game here, have you forgotten you're the one who got me into this mess in the first place? Smart move with the Love-Knot, Father, I'll grant you that, but you obviously weren't thinking of the possible consequences."
"I thought you'd be stronger than that, so forgive me for foolishly overestimating your capabilities. It's so like you to fall prey to this sort of weakness of falling for pretty faces— and not even that pretty."
Personally, Malfoy thought his father was insane. It was true Hermione wasn't pretty— she was beautiful. The way she refused to change her stubborn, curly hair for anyone, her turned-up nose that always crinkled adorably when he made her laugh, her clear skin and pink lips, and that body… but then again, he might have been biased.
"The whole purpose of this tedious affair was to endear me to wizarding society once more, and perhaps in the future assure me the candidacy of Minister of Magic, which as you perfectly know, has been a dream of mine for quite some time now. And because of this fiasco, it will stay exactly that: a dream."
Malfoy stared at him. First, he desperately wanted him and Hermione to get married, and know he kept reiterating the fact that he only did so to bolster his reputation? Trust his father to always go back to the one agenda that served him best.
"And more importantly, how did you know all this information regarding the Love-Knot?" Lucius gave his son a pointed look. "I was sure I was thorough in eliminating all the possible means for you to acquire that information."
Malfoy was sure he could guess just what these "means" were, which probably ranged from instructing Pansy to rip off the vital pages of Alfred Pigwiggle's book on the Love-Knot to flashing his galleons at the publishers all over Britain to make them all say they no longer had the book's first edition when written to.
"Oh, let's see… first, me and Granger had this huge fight, which resulted in the Love-Knot transporting us to another dimension filled with cherubs and Venus, the Goddess of Love herself. She then told us everything. And I do mean everything."
"I will not tolerate anymore jokes from you!"
Draco slumped down into the nearest armchair. "It's not a joke. Everything I just told you was the truth."
"Stop this nonsense at once." Lucius slowly shook his head in disbelief. "I thought even you wouldn't be able to mess this up, but clearly I overestimated you. Again."
"Hey, it's not entirely my fault!" Malfoy retorted. "If you're so desperate to blame someone, you should look at yourself."
Lucius ignored this.
"So," he said. "So… there is absolutely no chance of the two of you reconciling over your lover's spat?"
"I think this is a hell of a lot more than a lover's spat, Father. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no. No, I don't think we'll ever work this out."
"Well, in that case, I guess there isn't anything else much to say."
Malfoy agreed wholeheartedly. "I guess not."
"However, I will say this: thank you, Draco. Thank you very much for your utter destruction of even my best-laid plans."
"You're welcome, Father."
Lucius shook his head in disgust as he turned away from the fireplace, the green flames already obscuring his image as it climbed higher and eventually stopped, revealing a cheerfully crackling fire in the proper shades of red and gold in its wake. All the while Malfoy watched, lost in thought with a troubled look on his face.
Much later that night, Hermione yawned as she pushed the portrait door closed a little after midnight. It was much earlier than the time she usually came in, but Hermione thought she needed a much-deserved break from all that studying. Her soft bed sounded good right about now, but a long soak in the bathtub with her favorite lavender bubble bath sounded even better. Now if she could just—
"Gah!" Hermione clutched her chest as she saw something, or someone, move at the corner of her eye.
Malfoy turned on a lamp. "Shh. You'll wake the portraits."
Hermione ignored this, trying to calm her galloping heart. "I thought I was alone."
"Well, I'm here."
"I can see that."
A long silence stretched out, Hermione standing and Malfoy sitting in one of the two armchairs nearest the fire. This was the first time they'd spoken in months.
After a few moments, Hermione coughed. "Should I find it strange that you're sitting here in the dark at this hour?"
He shrugged. "Let's just say it's become a favorite pastime of mine lately."
"Oh? It's the first time I've seen you down here."
"I'm always here when you come in. It's just the first time I've turned on the lights." He gave her a wry smile.
She tried not to let her mind linger on the question on why he would be waiting up for her in the first place.
"Well, don't let me keep you then," Hermione said. She turned to head up the stairs, but Malfoy's quiet voice stopped her.
"Why don't you take a seat, Granger?" He indicated the empty armchair across from him.
"I'd really rather not," Hermione said quickly. "I'm tired, and I just want to go to sleep—"
"A few minutes won't kill you," he interrupted. "Go on. I won't bite."
Hermione hesitated for a moment, but then cautiously started forward. No matter how hard she tried to convince herself otherwise, she still wasn't totally immune to him. Even talking to him, looking at him, was more than enough to make her heart race with all the things still left unsaid.
"What do you want?" Hermione asked when she finally sat down, perhaps a tad more brusquely than the simple question warranted.
Malfoy didn't speak right away. Instead, he looked at her with one hand resting on his chin, and Hermione stared back at him. The pounding in her chest still wasn't easing up. In fact, it might have gotten worse now under his scrutiny. Oh Merlin, was this what cardiac arrest felt like?
"To talk," he eventually replied.
Hermione grew instantly wary. "About what?"
"You know what. To put it plainly Granger, I don't like this ridiculous amount of pressure you're putting yourself into for the N.E.W.T.s. We both know you could be drunk out of your mind, and you'd still score higher than anyone in our year."
Hermione's mouth hung open in outrage. "You have no right to tell me that! We're not friends; we're certainly not married, so mind your own business."
He held up his hands. "Alright, alright, you don't need to get your wand in a knot. I just think you don't need to wear yourself out with this much studying."
"I like wearing myself out studying."
"Don't I know it. But it's unhealthy, and…"
"I just want you safe, okay? I don't want to hear about you keeling over one of these days because you forgot to eat or didn't get enough sleep."
Her mouth set into a stubborn line, Hermione asked, "What's it to you?"
Malfoy shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. But listen, I'll continue keeping out of your way, if you just promise to relax once in a while. Just a few hours break."
Hermione didn't say anything, her eyes still fixed resolutely at the wall behind him.
"Don't do it for me, but for yourself, and the dream team. Not that I actually care what they feel, but even I can see they're worried about you."
Hermione crossed her arms and exhaled resignedly. "Fine. I'll do it."
Malfoy gave a tired smile. "Thank you."
Hermione nodded stiffly. "So if we're done…"
"Hold on," he said. "Do you remember that day in Hogsmeade? When it was snowing so hard we were convinced we'd be buried alive before we've even finished one round of patrolling?"
"What about it?"
"It was a nice day, wasn't it?"
"I suppose, if you call nearly freezing to death a 'nice day'. Any particular reason for this trip down memory lane, Malfoy?"
Even as she said it, Hermione could remember that day clearly, because it was one of the moments she had with Malfoy then where she'd felt happy and content beyond belief. It started in the late morning, mind-numbingly cold with a seemingly endless supply of snow falling over their heads…
A few months ago, the day after Malfoy and Hermione's kiss in the Quidditch stands in the pouring rain…
"This wind's brutal!"
Malfoy had to nearly shout in Hermione's ear to make himself heard over the din. They had just stepped out of The Three Broomsticks, Hermione clutching a butterbeer and Malfoy furiously rubbing his hands together for warmth.
The village was coated in a picture-perfect postcard of fluffy white snow, and students could be seen hunched over the cold, hurrying along to their destinations. No one else was lingering to chat on the nearly deserted streets.
"You don't think McGonagall's trying to kill us, do you?"
"Probably not. I'm sure she just thinks the Heads should do their duties no matter the weather."
"Yeah, I'm sure she'd say that, seeing as she isn't the one doing the patrolling."
Hermione gave him an amused smile. "Aren't you eager to put misbehaving students in their place?"
"Trust me, no students in their right mind would stay out here in this weather. Why don't we just forget patrolling and head back to the castle? McGonagall won't notice."
With that, he playfully started pulling on her arm, the Love-Knot glittering between them.
"One patrol!" Hermione laughed. "We do just one patrol, then we head back."
"Always the voice of reason, but I'll take it. C'mon."
They started heading up the winding street that went all the way around the village, passing Scrivenshaft's on the way. Hermione took a moment to admire the new gold eagle feather quills gleaming at the front window.
Malfoy shuffled his feet, his hands jammed into the pockets of his cloak. The cold definitely sucked, but the company was another story. He smiled at Granger when he thought she wasn't looking, and just enjoyed the companionable silence as they strolled along, the distant hoots of owls keeping them company.
After a little while, he began eyeing Hermione's butterbeer with envy. "I knew I should have gotten one of those."
Hermione grinned. "Well, tough luck, because I'm not sharing mine."
"I always knew you were the evil one."
"Yes, yes I am."
"Hey, what's that over there?" Malfoy pointed to the group of fir trees behind her.
What?" As Hermione turned around to look, he snatched the butterbeer from her hand and took a big gulp.
"Hey!" She made a half-hearted attempt to get it back, grinning all the while. "You could have just asked for some, if you're so desperate."
"I like keeping you on your toes." He took another sip. "You know what? I think I'll just finish this myself."
"Oh, no you don't!" She made another grab for the bottle, but he dodged her, taking another drink and raising an eyebrow at her. "Malfoy, aren't you the least bit concerned about swapping spit with a muggleborn?"
Malfoy snorted. "It's not like we haven't done that before. Twice now at the last count, isn't it?" He gave her a cheeky grin.
Hermione felt her own cheeks color in response. Trust him to make something that previously embarrassed him into a tool of mockery.
Malfoy privately grinned as he pretended not to notice her blushing. Taking one last sip, he handed her the bottle and clucked her on the chin. "Thanks, Granger."
"Yes, I am quite amazing, aren't I?"
Hermione laughed out loud. "That's not what I meant, and you know it!"
He smirked at her, and as he did Hermione raised the bottle to her lips to distract herself. She then noticed how he'd actually drank only a little bit, and had still left plenty for her. The considerate gesture touched her, though she was still trying her best to seem annoyed, or else he'd make it a habit to drink everyone's butterbeer without permission.
Hermione turned to look at him. "By the way, I've been wondering what you were planning on doing when you finally graduate."
"Such deep questions so early in the day."
Hermione waited. "Well?"
"Hm. Let's see. Probably something with the highest paycheck and minimal work required."
She snorted. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Hey, don't knock it. Not everyone can be brilliant like you."
Hermione closed her mouth, a bit lost for words. To anyone who didn't know him like she did, that might have sounded like sarcasm. But he said it in an entirely matter-of-fact way, and Hermione knew he wasn't just saying it, seeing as he gave out compliments the same way misers gave away money.
She turned her head slightly so Malfoy wouldn't see her little smile, and then decided to change the subject. "You're smart. I've seen your Potions marks."
He shrugged. "Or maybe I'll just live off my father's money for the rest of my life."
"That's a sorry plan. With the rate you're going, all of your father's money would be gone in a few years, tops."
"I always did love your unwavering faith in me."
"Call it looking out for your best interests. Besides, what on earth would happen to our poor children?"
"Not to worry. You'll still be the main breadwinner, of course."
"Of course," Hermione agreed with wry amusement.
The topic of children as well as the plans of a future together had become something of a joke to them, sure as they were of the sheer absurdity and impossibility of it. Or, as Healer King might have said, they were both just in extreme denial.
She finished her drink, then walked a little to the side to toss it into the waiting trash bin, where it crunched up the bottle and let out a self-satisfied burp as a thank you.
On her way back, Hermione kneeled to retie the loose laces on her left trainer, and then almost as an afterthought, scooped up a handful of snow and started forming it into the shape of a ball.
Malfoy gave her a look. "You're not fooling me. As hard as it is to believe, I'm not really in the mood for being target practice right now."
"Must you always make it about you? I just fancied making a snowball."
"Uh-huh. Well, I just hope that snowball won't soon be headed in my direction. I loathe snowball fights."
"Why? Are you scared I'll win?"
"Haha, no. Also, that won't work, Granger. That whole playing against my ego thing? Juvenile. I'd expected more from you—"
Before he'd even finished his sentence, the snowball hit him square on the chest.
Hermione chuckled. "Oops. My hand must have slipped."
Malfoy stared at her in disbelief. "Oh, so this is how it'll be, is it? You're in for it now, Granger."
Hermione shrieked with laughter as a giant snowball came whizzing past her.
Their epic snowball fight continued well into noon, Malfoy ducking behind a makeshift fort as Hermione fired away snowballs at him from her plentiful ammunition beside her. As she took shelter from a giant oak for a few moments to catch her breath, Hermione found herself remembering that silly article she'd found wedged into one of the psychology books she borrowed from the library. It had been entitled (rather childishly) Ways to Find Out If A Guy Is Attracted To You.
Hermione had rolled her eyes at that, but at the end couldn't resist sneaking in a peek. She was still a girl, after all. Number one had stated that, "His pupils dilate when he looks at you." She did seem to recall something of that effect as Malfoy looked at her as they left pub, but it could have just been a trick of the light and her own wishful imagination.
Although, number two did say that, "He finds way to touch you and be close to you." Hermione found herself remembering Malfoy's hand lingering on her own a bit too long when he snatched up her butterbeer, but to be fair, it was a cold day, and he probably only needed to warm his hand some more.
Then number three was that, "He smiles at you for no good reason." Well, Malfoy did seem to smile a lot more these days, but Hermione could attribute it to the general high of knowing their day of graduation was near, this teetering between the precipice of being a child and an adult, because she often felt that same combination of giddiness and dread herself.
Meanwhile, number four had said…
But Hermione could no longer remember number four, not when she just now noticed how Malfoy had stepped closer to her hiding place behind the oak tree, and that he was leaning closer to her, one hand settling on her waist and the other brushing the side of her cheek…
Hermione tried to muffle her soft gasp of surprise, but failed. Eyes closed, he was coming nearer, and there was nothing to do but stay still and close her own eyes, and hope for the best that this moment wasn't another figment of her wild imagination.
Malfoy suddenly leaned back, chortling. "I knew it. You so want to kiss me."
Hermione gaped at him, outraged. "You're the one who leaned in! In case you haven't noticed, people don't normally do that!"
He laughed again, and as annoyed as she was, Hermione couldn't help thinking about how this was the first time she saw Malfoy smile and laugh with such abandon. She decided she liked seeing this side of him.
Lost in thought, Hermione didn't notice how Malfoy had once again stepped closer to her. She looked up to see his face softening, a fond smile on his lips. Then unexpectedly, he leaned in, closed his eyes, and gave her a sweet, gentle kiss on the cheek.
As he slowly leaned back, Hermione fought the urge to touch her cheek there, just to see if it was as burning hot as it seemed. "What was that for?" she whispered, feeling irrationally flustered all of a sudden.
Malfoy shrugged, looking embarrassed. It was so unlike his usual cool and confident self. Hermione decided she liked seeing this side of him as well.
"Don't know what came over me. It must be the cold causing me brain damage. That's the last time, I promise."
"Good," Hermione said faintly. "I wouldn't want you to, anyway. To kiss me again, I mean."
Malfoy looked away. "Good."
"Great," Hermione said.
They were both terrible liars.
Hermione found herself suddenly back in the Head's dorm with the sound of Malfoy calling her name, the fire in the hearth still crackling merrily and the sky beyond the window a deep indigo scattered with a million stars.
Malfoy was looking at her with a strange expression. "You alright? You looked a little out of it for a while there."
"I'm fine," Hermione said brusquely, embarrassed by the direction her thoughts had taken.
He didn't look entirely convinced, but chose to let it go.
Hermione was desperate to leave, to leave this conversation behind, to leave him behind, and all the unwanted memories he invoked.
Hermione sighed, back still turned. "What is it this time?"
"I just wanted to tell you… I'm sorry," Malfoy said, voice barely audible.
A heavy silence settled over them, as uncomfortable as it was stifling.
After a while, Hermione asked in a tight voice, "What's there to be sorry for?"
"You know what for. I shouldn't have said what I did back then…"
"But you did," Hermione felt the need to point out.
"Yes, I did. Which I suppose is why you told me you hated me."
At a loss for words, Hermione just gave a feeble shrug.
"I know you can't mean that. I mean, don't you see? Pansy screwed us over, and I see that now, which is why we can go now go back to being—"
"Being what, exactly?"
The bluntness of that question gave Malfoy pause. He didn't know what to tell her, and the right words to placate her were beyond him now. What exactly were they? Friends, lovers, or fiancées? Well, maybe not that last part, but still. He just knew that something, anything would be better than not talking to her ever again.
When Hermione saw that she had effectively shut him up, she seized the opportunity to promptly leave, even though the idea of her warm bed and the promise of a warmer bath did nothing to entice her as before.
Malfoy watched her leave, and didn't call out to stop her this time.
Early the next day, Harry, Ron and Ginny were sitting at one of the tables in the Gryffindor common room, the muted sounds of their other classmates chatting and laughing a rather pleasant hum in the background.
Ginny wished she could be as carefree as them just now. Although her original purpose had been to catch up on homework before she started classes in less than an hour, at the moment, no homework was being accomplished whatsoever.
She had been tapping her fingers against the table for the past half hour, unsuccessfully thinking of ways to broach the topic that had been occupying her thoughts for nearly a month now in the most tactful way possible. But finally, she couldn't take it anymore.
"That's it. You two, come with me." Ginny punctuated her statement with a sharp jerk of her head towards a deserted corner of the common room, hopefully far from prying ears.
Startled, Harry and Ron exchanged confused looks before slowly getting up to follow her.
As they made their way over, Ron muttered, "Know what this is about?"
"No idea," Harry said quietly in return, although he could sense that what had been bothering Ginny for weeks was exactly the same thing bothering them.
"Right," Ginny said, tossing her long, red hair behind her shoulder. "Out with it. What did you two do to Hermione and Malfoy?"
Bingo, Harry thought dully. He opened his mouth, but Ron beat him to it.
"What makes you think we had anything to do with it?"
Ron only used this remarkably indignant and defensive tone when he was full-out lying and guilty of it, like when Mrs. Weasely accused him of not cleaning his room again, or forgetting to de-gnome their garden.
And Ginny knew it.
"I'm pretty sure the Love-Knot didn't just fall off on its own," she shot back. "Also, every time I try to talk to Hermione about it, she just clams up, which can only mean one thing: she doesn't want to put the blame on someone, so aside from Malfoy, this has your names written all over it."
Ron shuffled his feet. "Don't know why it's any of your business."
"My friend's happiness is my business, Ronald," Ginny said as she marched over and poked Ron in the chest.
He slapped her hand away. "Get that away from me."
"Ginny, listen," Harry said hurriedly, before this escalated further. "At the time… we thought we were doing the right thing."
"Harry!" Ron whipped his head to the side, giving him a reproachful look.
"Give it up, Ron. You know she'd find out sooner or later."
Ginny crossed her arms. "Even the best intentions aren't always for the best, Harry. I mean, do you realize exactly what you've done?"
Harry lowered his eyes. "Before, I couldn't see it… or I just didn't want to."
"And you just couldn't leave it well enough alone, could you? Especially you." She turned sharp eyes on Ron. "You just had to ruin Hermione and Malfoy's friendship, for lack of a better word, because you wanted her all to yourself. Well, newsflash Ron: she loves you, but never in the way you wanted. So, suck it up and deal with it."
As she looked up to stare at both their faces, her quiet intensity seemed to fill the room. "Hermione deserves better friends than you two."
With that parting statement she had knowingly stabbed them with, Ginny left, and in the ringing silence she left behind Harry belatedly realized the common room had gone quiet for some time now.
Ron pushed past him, his face a thunderstorm and seemingly oblivious to the looks and gossip they were undoubtedly inspiring. Or not.
"What are you looking at?" Ron snarled at a gawky first-year boy looking at him and most likely whispering unflattering things to his friend behind his hand. The boy blushed scarlet and hurriedly escaped through the portrait door, his friend right behind his heels.
Hermione eventually found out, in equal parts amusement and chagrin, that stealing was surprisingly easy in a school like Hogwarts. A day didn't go by when a student wasn't moaning the fact that someone had stolen their favorite quill, or had the nerve to filch a copy of one of their more expensive textbooks. And though a lot of them had the presence of mind to take simple precautions to ward against common theft, like say anti-theft charms, the majority were simply too lazy, or too trusting, or believed too much in their overall invincibility.
Lucky for her, Pansy was (unsurprisingly) part of the latter, and walking behind her in a nearly deserted hallway between classes, Hermione, after discreetly whispering "Confundo!" and then "Accio wallet!", had no more difficulty if she had simply strode by and plucked Pansy's wallet from her bag right from under her nose.
Until she actually had the parchment in her hand, Hermione hadn't even been entirely sure at first if Pansy kept something as incriminating as this in her bag, for it could have already been burned or hidden Merlin-knows-where in her trunk in the Slytherin basements.
Hermione didn't relish the thought of drinking a glass full of Polyjuice Potion with one of Pansy's disgusting neon pink painted toe nails just so she could search for it, so she was glad her misfortune didn't extend to that. She knew Pansy, knew how petty minds like hers worked, and thus was certain she'd kept it close to her as some sort of sad trophy she could gloat over.
Sure enough, hidden in the secret compartment in her disgustingly pink neon wallet was a piece of old parchment folded up into a tiny square. Finally, Hermione thought. At last, she had the key to unlocking even a part of the Love-Knot's secrets, as well as gaining a more solid explanation than the annoyingly mystical one Venus saw fit to give her and Malfoy.
Having a spare period just now, Hermione took the opportunity to head on up to the privacy of the Head's Tower. When she got in through the portrait hole, she sighed with relief when she looked up to find Godric and Salazar weren't in their portraits above the fireplace.
As she got to her room, Hermione sat on her bed and opened Pansy's wallet. Aside from a few galleons and sickles, there wasn't anything much in it, except for a tattered photograph of Pansy and Malfoy laughing in what appeared to be a Quidditch match, and based on their painfully young faces, it had probably been taken in their first year.
Even if Pansy did orchestrate the plan to break her and Malfoy up, there was no denying Pansy did love Malfoy. True, it was a misguided and selfish love; love formed from all the wrong reasons, but it was love nevertheless. After watching it for a bit and feeling a strange pang in her chest, Hermione refocused her attention to the old parchment hidden in the clever compartment behind the photo. Hermione pried it out, carefully unfolded it, and then smoothed it out to reveal a very creased copy of Alfred Pigwiggle's missing chapter. It was entitled:
My Findings on the Love-Knot after Years of Exhaustive Research by Alfred Pigwiggle
The properties of the Love-Knot are most powerful and mysterious, and endures as one of wizardkind's most enigmatic artifacts. Sought after by many in equal parts admiration, envy and dread, and elusive to those most expecting it, the Love-Knot continues to baffle those under its spell and those who have played witness to its temperamental magic.
My grandmother, Cassandra Shafflefold had the great fortune (or misfortune, depending on your view) to be saddled with the Love-Knot in her youth, which according to my great-grandfather, "Finally put an end to her inappropriate dalliances with all sorts of men of varying ages and disposition."
In her rather scandalous young life, my grandmother did not take kindly to being fettered, and no one was altogether surprised when she vehemently tried all manner of things to be rid of a certain Brandon Pigwiggle, a handsome, arrogant boy whom my mother could never see eye to eye. Mr. Pigwiggle, who had once called my grandmother, "A spoiled, insufferable little girl," retaliated by all means necessary, including searching for all sorts of powerful spells, researching the most obscure books and trying to determine the Love-Knot's true purpose, all of which was in vain.
Left with no choice, they were forced to endure each other's company and predictably squabbled over every little thing. But as long days, weeks and months passed, and finally at the end of the year, something remarkable happened, something I believe quite outside the realms of 'usual magic'.
Lo and behold, Brandon and Cassandra started falling in love. It was at their wedding, a few years later, at the moment they said I do and shared a long and passionate kiss that the Love-Knot gently fell away from their wrists to pool on the ground below, as thunderous applause erupted from all around them.
And thus, this was how Mr. Brandon Pigwiggle became my grandfather, and how Miss Cassandra Shafflefold became Mrs. Cassandra Pigwiggle. They lived a long and happy life together, blessed with many children. Since the time I had been told this utterly delightful story when I was a boy, the Love-Knot has held an endless fascination for me, as well as the outcomes of the couples bound to it.
In various eye-witness accounts from all over the world, and with research spanning centuries, not all stories were happy endings. I've come to discover instances where the Love-Knot has saved them from grave peril, transported them to unknown destinations for a few seconds at a time, and inexplicably fall off in moments of intense heat and passion, and some couples do split up and go their own way, never to hear from each other again. For all this, it can be said that when the Love-Knot takes on a mind of its own, pity to those who stand in its way.
The rest of the chapter was filled with the same spiel, and frankly, it wasn't any different from the dozens of books about the Love-Knot she had read all those months ago. Hermione rolled her eyes as she crumpled the paper to a ball and tossed it over her shoulder. As shocking as it was to contemplate, it seemed Venus had in fact been telling them the truth, though her version of things was vastly preferable to the cloying sentimentality she had just read. And aside from sounding like a complete fruitcake, Alfred Pigwiggle seemed—
Lost in thought, Hermione jumped guiltily when she finally heard the sounds of someone calling her name. She hurriedly stuffed the balled-up parchment underneath her mattress, and sat with what she hoped was a casual and entirely guilt-free look. After a few moments, the door to the room opened and Ginny's head popped in.
"There you are! I thought you might like some company for a change." Ginny held up two bottles of butterbeer. "I even come bearing gifts."
Hermione laughed. "I should have guessed Fred and George would have let you in on what's behind that fruit painting in the basement."
"Yeah, they're good like that," Ginny agreed. "Dobby and Winky said hello, by the way."
"I'll tell them hello back as soon as I get the chance to drop by."
"They'd like that," Ginny said. "You really don't mind if I hang around?"
"No, I want you to," Hermione said with a sincere smile. She had often felt guilty about not talking to Ginny these past few months. It was kind of hard to do that to people you've poured your heart to, and saw the kind of damage that comes from that sort of vulnerability.
Hermione had felt especially vulnerable, not to mention embarrassed, when she recalled that heartfelt letter she sent to Ginny, about Malfoy and the absolutely insane things she had started to feel. If she recalled correctly, it went a little something like this...
It's strange that despite being in the same school as you and seeing you practically everyday, I have to resort to writing you a letter to share with you my thoughts. How I miss the days when we could talk freely, face-to-face. The Love-Knot indeed comes with a price.
I'm not complaining though, not about having to write this letter, nor about the Love-Knot. I've learned to live with it – and with him too. It really isn't that bad, not anymore at least. He isn't all that bad anymore. I know, I know, it sounds odd, doesn't it? I, me, Hermione Jane Granger admitting something like that. I still find it hard to accept. But, believe me, that's not the worse part of this letter. We have bigger problems. I have bigger problems. You'll see what I mean in a bit.
Have you ever experienced hating someone with every fiber of your being, and then gradually tolerating that someone, then having his habits, his mannerisms, his attitude, his temper, his smile and that stupid way he smirks grow on you? And before you know it, you're feeling emotions that cannot exactly qualify as hate for this someone? Emotions that deserve to be put in a completely different category, a category quite the opposite of hate?
Well, I know you well enough to say that no, you have never experienced the abovementioned. Unfortunately, I have. I'm experiencing it, right this instant. And you know exactly who I'm talking about. Yes, I can hardly believe it myself.
There's just something about him, Ginny. EVERYTHING about him. It may surprise you, but he can actually be quite civil, gentlemanly and, I daresay, sweet (when he wants to). Don't get me wrong, I'm most certainly not saying that he's an angel in a devil's disguise. No, no, he's not a misunderstood poor soul who has been misguided by his parents. He is the way he is, an insufferable git, no doubt about it. But that's what's so perfect about him – he's imperfect in every conceivable way and I've seen most of it. I've seen through it. He's not innately evil, Ginny, and I can bet you my life that he will not run off to become the next Voldemort.
I have been spending most of my waking moments making sense of these feelings that seem to be running amuck in my mind. Initially, I thought ignoring them would make them go away. Fat load of good that did. It only made matters worse. Then I did what any sane, logical person would do in a situation like this- I went to the library, borrowed a whole lot of books and did some research. And these feelings simply defy logic! According to the Matching Principle of Interpersonal Relationships, I am supposed to like someone with a personality, interests and likes similar to mine, not so VASTLY different! Then there's Watson's Theory of... Oh, you know what I mean!
I have not been hit over the head with a Bludger repeatedly (as I know you will ask me), I'm not drunk and am certainly not under a spell of some sort. I assure you, Ginny, that I am in the right state of mind. Actually, I don't know about that last bit though, because I honestly think I am falling for Draco Malfoy. That surely warrants for me to get my head examined, doesn't it?
P.S. Please don't tell Harry and Ron. They're not ready for such a shock. I can almost imagine their reaction – ranging from booking a room for me in St. Mungo's Psychiatric Ward to feeding Malfoy to the giant Squid.
P.P.S. Please, oh please, burn this letter after you have read it.
And speaking about that letter…
"You did burn it, did you?"
"Burn what?" Ginny asked absent-mindedly, her attention mostly focused on prying the caps off the bottles with a handy spell.
"The letter that could possibly ruin my life and make me move to Antarctica to breed penguins if it ever fell in the wrong hands."
"Oh. That letter."
Hermione waited impatiently. "Well?"
"What do you take me for?"
"Just answer the question!"
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Of course I burned it."
Hermione unconsciously relaxed, now feeling a bit contrite. "Sorry I snapped at you. It's just that I think I'll die from embarrassment if anyone ever got their hands on that letter."
Ginny shrugged. "It's okay, I get it. But… I don't think you should ever apologize for emotions you can't help. Don't ever apologize for the truth, Hermione."
"Well, try telling that to the people who matter." She scooted over to lean against her headboard, and Ginny followed suit. "Also, out of curiosity, when did you get so wise?"
"I learned from the best."
"Ah. No wonder."
Ginny smiled and handed Hermione a butterbeer, and they both leaned and took long swigs. "By the way… why penguins?"
Hermione blushed. "Well, why not? They're cute, especially when they walk, and they all look like they're wearing little tuxedos."
"Of course," Ginny said, barely stifling a laugh.
They smiled at each other, and eventually lapsed into a comfortable silence, sipping their butterbeers and just enjoying each other's company.
Ginny spoke first. "So, care to tell me your version of the story? I'm tired of hearing it secondhand from everybody else."
"I would have thought they've already covered the finer points. Or barring that, you could just ask Harry and Ron. I'm sure they'd leap at the chance to tell you how it was for my own good."
Ginny shrugged. "They're idiots like that. You know only your own story matters to me."
Hermione kept quiet, and for a lack of anything to do, sipped at her bottle, though it had been empty for some time now.
"I swear, if ferret-face did anything—"
"It wasn't like that. Well, not exactly. I messed up just as bad as he did."
Ginny raised her brow. "Then tell me. I'm your friend, and it's written in the friend handbook that 'Thou shall never judge a friend, no matter what insanely stupid thing they get themselves into.'"
"I'd like to get my hands on that handbook."
"Don't change the subject. I've kept your dark secret for months now." Ginny leaned in close to whisper to her, as if the very walls might have ears. "You love Malfoy. And from the way you're moping, I bet you loved him a lot. And smart boy that he is, I can bet he loved you too."
Hermione tried her best to fight the sense of discomfort and embarrassment trying to overcome her. Had she really been that obvious? Was she like an open book, free for others to witness her failures and peruse her hurts at leisure?
"Ginny…" She averted her eyes. "Can you please just drop it?"
"No, I won't," she said stubbornly. "I've given you the space you needed for two months now, and it's time you returned the favor. Tell me, Hermione. Trust me."
Hermione remained silent. Ginny was about to open her mouth when at that moment Hermione looked up and Ginny suddenly understood.
Somehow, the pity in Ginny's face hurt worse than all the accusations Harry and Ron could throw at her.
"I know I've been stupid… about loving him, I mean. I couldn't help myself, he's surprisingly easy to love when he puts his mind to it. But I should have known no good could have come out of it." Hermione gave a world-weary sigh. "I was just setting myself up for heartbreak."
"No, you weren't. I don't believe it for a second."
"Why not?" Hermione asked, honestly confused.
"I'm not blind. I've seen the way you look at each other. If that's not love, then I don't know what is."
"Look like what, exactly?"
"Like you're always pining for each other. Back then, when you two were always talking and laughing, it was almost like you were the only people on Earth. And sometimes, when he thinks no one's looking, he looks at you like he's been thirsty for days and you were the only source of water for miles."
"Oh come on, that's ridiculous!"
"The truth often is."
"Ginny, you've been reading entirely too many romance novels."
"Maybe so, but you can't deny it. Go out there, forgive him, and then kiss the shit out of him."
"Too bad fantasy didn't inform reality, or it would be entirely that easy," Hermione said dryly.
"It is that easy. What's stopping you?"
"This little thing called pride, for one."
"Boo to your pride. I thought you'd be past that by now. And besides, not to belittle what you've gone through, but what's a little heartbreak here and there, when in the long run it'll give you the kind of happiness people dream about?"
Hermione sucked in a quick breath. Would it really be that easy?
"And if for some reason the two of you can't ever work it out, I'll always be here for you. What's that muggle saying again?" Ginny thought hard, then snapped her fingers. "I got it! Chicks before dicks!"
Hermione nearly choked on her own spit. "Merlin, where did you hear that one?" As outraged as she tried to make herself sound, Hermione couldn't quite keep the amusement from her voice.
"My dad and I were in the London underground on our way to Diagon Alley, and we could hear these two girls in front of us talking about their backstabbing boyfriends, or something like that. Then the girl with short blonde hair told her friend, 'Remember, chicks before dicks.' Then my dad's ears turned red and he hurried us away before I could hear anymore similar gems."
Hermione snorted. "I'll keep that in mind. By the way, did you know the original version of that was 'Bros before hoes?'"
Ginny gasped in mock outrage. "No way! I've never felt more insulted in my life. Stuff like this makes me want to leave home, become a hardcore feminist, and join all those topless rallies just to prove my point."
"Well, tell me if the urge becomes too unbearable. I'll be behind you all the way."
Hermione tried to keep a straight face, but at Ginny's expression, she burst out laughing.
Ginny chuckled. "Careful, I might take you up on that offer."
Hermione wiped at her eyes, still laughing. "Hah! I hope not. I'd have to be insanely drunk to even think of doing something like that."
"You and me both," Ginny agreed. "By the way, when was the last time you laughed like that?"
"Way too long," Hermione said. She surprised Ginny with an impromptu hug, then quietly said, "Thanks, Ginny."
Ginny squeezed her back. "Anytime, Hermione."
After a while, Ginny broke the silence. "Do you think…" she hesitated, then seemed to gather courage. "Do you really think you could fix what's broken between you two?"
"I don't know," Hermione said, in equal parts honesty and pain. "I'm not really sure about anything between us anymore."
The library had been filled with a huge number of students at the start of the early afternoon, but eventually tapered off as they were nearing dinnertime. Also, the sight of Madam Pince prowling the shelves for students mishandling her precious books was enough to scare the younger students away. Harry and Ron had been here studying for hours, and Harry offhandedly wondered if this was what it felt like to have your brain slowly turn to mush.
"Ginny was right, you know."
Ron greeted this statement with a grunt, continuing to make Herbology notes on a piece of parchment that had seen better days.
"Hermione deserves better friends than us."
"That's not true," Ron felt the need to point out. "Parvati and Lavender would never have thought to do what we did for Hermione…"
"Maybe Malfoy would have had better sense."
Ron stared at him. "You can't be serious."
Harry stared back, refusing to back down. "You know I am. He cares about her. Maybe even loves her, in his own way."
"I'll have to see it to believe it."
"You do see it. You just don't want to believe it."
Ron gave a heavy sigh, as if all the weight of the world was on his shoulders. After a few minutes that seemed like an eternity, he spoke into his muffled hands, his voice oddly subdued. "I love her. But you're right, she does love him. And Malfoy would have to be insane to not love her back. Nobody's that stupid. People know a good thing when they see it. But… I'll kill him if he hurts her, anymore than he already has."
"Anymore than we already have, you mean?" Harry said gently.
Ron winced, and Harry knew he hit a little too close to home. "I wouldn't expect anything less, Ron." He smiled, and when Ron gave a small, reluctant smile in return, Harry got up.
Ron took a longer time getting up from his chair, claiming his butt had been permanently stuck to it for a few hours now. "And you know… if ever it doesn't work out between them, she'll always have the two of us."
"That she does."
"Also, I'd give anything for Hermione to laugh more these days."
"You and me both. Now, let's go find Hermione and see if she's got the heart to forgive two sorry sods like us. I'm sure with the proper amount of groveling, she'll eventually cave in."
When Hermione had eaten her fill of the roast chicken, potatoes and steak-and-kidney pie, and drank copious amounts of pumpkin juice, she felt immensely better. It felt good to have a large appetite again. She hadn't seen Ron and Harry at the start of dinner, and thinking they had probably already started earlier, shrugged and settled herself between Ginny and Seamus, who gave her a cheerful grin as she sat beside him.
Pleasantly full and sleepy, Hermione said her goodbyes to Ginny at the entrance hall, planning to go to the Head's dorm to catch up on some much-needed sleep. "Think about what I told you, alright?" Ginny said quietly in parting, and Hermione nodded in return.
It was as she was walking the length of the hallway that she heard pounding footsteps and Harry and Ron's voice call out, "Hermione!"
She turned in surprise to watch both of them running towards her, looking for all the world like someone was chasing them. They skidded to her side a few moments later, sweaty and looking relieved.
"Glad we caught you before you went up for bed," Ron wheezed out.
"Why are you two out of breath?"
"We ran all the way from the library."
"Why? Dinner won't be over for a couple of hours at least."
"It's not dinner. We wanted to tell you something." And in unison, they blurted out without pause, "It-was-our-fault-you-and-Malfoy-had-a-falling-out,-we-were-jealous-and-worried-for-you-and-in-a-decision-we're-sure-we'll-regret-for-the-rest-of-our-lives-we-teamed-up-with-Parkinson-to-figure-out-ways-to-push-your-buttons-and-we're-really-sorry-and-we-hope-you'll-forgive-us-and-we'll-spend-the-rest-of-our-lives-making-it-up-to-you."
"Guys, guys, wait." Hermione held up her hands. "I already know."
Harry and Ron looked up in astonishment. "You do?"
"Yes, but don't ask me to go into the details. Not yet."
They nodded, confused but compliant.
"Also, I just had a talk with Ginny," Hermione continued.
"Ouch." Harry looked at the ground. "I hope she didn't lay it on us too badly. We learned our lesson this morning."
"Not too bad," Hermione said lightly. "She just made me realize some things I should have seen by now."
"So do you… can you please forgive us? I promise we won't meddle anymore, and you're even welcome to continue your relationship with Malfoy."
"What is this, some sort of bizarre blessing?" she asked incredulously.
"No!" they denied vehemently. "Well, sort of… But not in the way you think!" Harry said hastily before Hermione decided to storm off.
"We just want you to know that whatever you decide, we'll always be here for you. As we should have done from the beginning." Ron hung his head as he said this last part.
Hermione looked at them, and could see that they were sincere. She smiled softly. "Well, I appreciate it. And I accept your apology." She stepped closer to them to ruffle their heads affectionately. They started to protest, but they both knew they were indescribably happy to have the old Hermione come back to them.
She looped her arms around the two of them, Ron on the left, Harry on the right. "You know I love you guys, right? Whatever happens, whatever stupid crap you pull, believe that."
Harry and Ron grinned at her. "We believe it, Hermione."
"Just do me one favor, okay?"
"Anything," they said without hesitation.
"Don't ever go behind my back again. I know you two did out of concern for me, and thank you for that, but I'm smart enough to decide things for myself. If anything's bothering you two, come tell me, and we'll work something out, I promise."
After two more days, N.E.W.T.s week eventually came with a vengeance, and all the seventh-years spent their free time either in the library for some last-minute cramming, or walking around the school with bags full to bursting and with permanently constipated looks.
Fortunately, Hermione felt fairly confident about things, which wasn't a surprise, considering the amount of studying she had dedicated herself to (although she did take Malfoy's advice of taking short breaks now and then, but wouldn't admit to anyone else that she did feel all the better for it). She took her exams with no trouble, helped tutor Harry and Ron with the more challenging subjects, and survived the week virtually unscathed.
It was later that night when Dumbledore was enjoying a nice plateful of cookies in his study that he heard a tentative knock at the door. He sighed, pushing the plate off the side of his desk, brushing the crumbs off his beard and lacing his fingers together as he called, "Come in."
He was just wondering which disgruntled teacher complaining about their salary would it be this time, when Hermione unexpectedly stepped in.
"Why, Miss Granger, isn't this a pleasant surprise."
"Good evening, Professor Dumbledore. I'm sorry to disturb you, but can I please ask for a few minutes of your time?"
"Not at all," he replied kindly. "I'm in need of stimulating conversation anyway. Please, won't you take a seat?"
Now, this should be interesting, Dumbledore thought. Sometimes entertainment was hard to come by in this day and age, and being headmaster was sometimes not all it was cracked up to be. Mr. Malfoy and Miss Granger's predicament with the Love-Knot on the other hand had been the furthest thing from boring.
When Hermione had taken the seat in front of Dumbledore's desk, he offered the plateful of treats to her. "Ginger and lemon cookie?"
"Um, no thank you."
"Don't mind if I do, then."
He bit into a cookie, and while he chewed he asked, "Now, what can I do for you, Miss Granger?"
As Dumbledore waited for her response, his eyes caught her hands twisting together, as if agitated by something.
"I'd like to leave for Easter break early. Tonight, if it's not too much of an inconvenience."
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "Do you have a reason for this rather hasty decision?"
"I suppose I just… need to think. And to breathe."
Dumbledore nodded, sympathy radiating from him.
"Well, I have it on good authority from your professors that once again, you've passed all your exams with flying colors and top marks. So Miss Granger, you are free to come and go as you please." He grinned. "Congratulations."
"Good to know," Hermione said as felt herself deflate with relief at the news. At least this was one load off her shoulders.
"However, I've noticed you haven't yet asked my opinion on what caused the Love-Knot to release you and Mr. Malfoy. I take it you two didn't suddenly agree to marriage when it happened?"
Hermione blushed. "No, professor. I suppose I've been bombarded with too much information on the Love-Knot recently, to be honest."
He nodded sagely. "I know what you mean. The mysteries of love are meant to be discovered slowly through the span of a lifetime, and sometimes even that is not enough time."
"The pain love causes makes you forget about how wonderful it could be sometimes," Hermione spoke without thinking.
"Ah, but the rewards of love soon make it all worthwhile, don't you think?"
"So answer me this, Miss Granger. You love him, don't you?"
Hermione fought the urge to thump her head against the desk. "Oh come on, is it really that obvious?"
"A little bit," Dumbledore replied with a gentle smile.
"How embarrassing," Hermione muttered. It almost felt as if she was walking around with a neon sign on her forehead, flashing Look at me! I'm in love with Draco Malfoy!
"Not at all," Dumbledore disagreed. "I'm 110% sure Mr. Malfoy feels the same way, so at least you shoulder the burden of loving together. Although burden might be the wrong word. Properly cared for, and under the right circumstances, love has the power to make you a better person than you have ever imagined you'd be. It makes you capable of great things, Miss Granger."
"You sound like you know a lot about it, professor."
He chuckled. "Well, I should. I haven't been entirely celibate for the past 150 years, you know."
Hermione tried to get the mental picture out of her mind, but wasn't entirely successful.
"Love is the most powerful force on Earth. Well, that and music, of course." He now had a note of nostalgia in his voice. "Even if this ends badly, Miss Granger, be happy for the time you spent together, and learn from them. In the grand scheme of things, regret and despair has no place in our lives, short as they already are."
Hermione nodded faintly.
"The minute I learned you two became bound with the Love-Knot, I admit I was overcome with great curiosity. I've always known that you and Mr. Malfoy were destined to either remain the greatest of enemies, or on a more optimistic note, the greatest of friends and lovers. Great love can always spring from great hate, you know."
Hermione jerked her head up. Now, that sounded eerily similar to what Venus said…
Dumbledore looked like he knew what she was just thinking about. "Charming lady, isn't she?" he asked, his blue eyes twinkling.
"Oh no, don't tell me you—"
"That's a marvelous tale I'd love to tell another day. Unfortunately, this day is not it. So, off you go, Miss Granger!"
Recognizing when she was being politely dismissed, Hermione made her way out the door. As she made her way to the Head's dorm to finish her packing, Hermione kept thinking about what Dumbledore had said, about love and life and how it was all intertwined to make something bigger than yourself.
Having talked with Ginny, and reconciled with Ron and Harry, Hermione felt a certain lightness she didn't know she had been missing. But she still needed time to think, to come to terms with herself. So, the decision to leave Hogwarts early wasn't exactly something she wanted, but rather what she needed, and for now that was good enough.
A/N: This one's for MoaningMona, who gave me the kick I sorely needed to stop being such a shameless procrastinator and finally finish this chapter. That said, I'd still really appreciate a review! :)
Next Chapter: Missed Chances