< >Draco gaped after her and a second later, half of her body leaned through the wall.
< >"You coming?" Hermione asked him.
< >When Draco blinked, the corridor appeared. "Yes," he said quickly and shrilly, "of course." He followed after her, stopping behind her at the end of the corridor; he saw Filch stride by, his vicious cat trailing after his heals.
< >"You ever wonder why Mrs. Norris is called Mrs., Draco?" Hermione whispered.
< >"What?" Draco asked, startled at the question.
< >"Shush," Hermione hissed, waving at him behind her back. A minute later, "Okay, I'm going." She stepped out into view and turned the other way, walking away briskly.
< >Draco peered around the corners as far as he could with out sticking even a millimeter of his hair out into the front hall. Filch was coming back the other way, he realized, jumping back.
< >Mrs. Norris stopped after Filch had past by Draco's hiding place. She looked up at the wall, as if looking him in the eye. She then turned and padded after Filch and Draco sighed a deep breath of relief.
< >He peered around the corner, then hurried out the corridor, nearly racing to his common room like a lightning bolt. Pansy, though, was waiting impatiently for him at the entrance.
< >"Where have you been?" she asked, looking suspicious.
< >"Why should I tell you?" Draco demanded angrily, pushing away her reaching hand. "You have no business in asking where I go or why, you - " He had been ready to call her a name, but she cut him off.
< >"Yes, I do, Draco!" she yelled.
< >Draco had been trying to reach the entrance, but he now stopped, and slowly turned his head to her. Her words sunk in and he turned all the way around to her. "What?" he said, grinding his teeth together viciously.
< >Pansy looked lost. "I thought you liked me," she sniffed pathetically.
< >Draco threw back his head and laughed cruelly. "Why would you ever think - "
< >"Third year, you always smiled at me, fourth year - " Pansy began.
< >"Three years ago, Pansy!" he shouted in her face. "Three years! And I always thought you were shrewd! Look in the mirror - you look pathetic, hanging onto someone who can't stand you!"
< >"What?" Pansy gasped, stepping back, looking unbelieving.
< >"I don't like you, Pansy," Draco growled. "I never have - and I never will."
< >Pansy stared at him, then suddenly began sobbing, and ran away. Draco felt bad and rather ashamed of being so blunt, but what had she done to him? He shook his head and climbed into the Slytherin common room.
< >Everyone was looking at him; they had obviously heard the shouting.
< >Crabbe and Goyle signaled to him and, with a sigh, he strode over to the fireplace, and seated himself in a chair in front of the two, gruff-looking boys. They were yet again playing cards.
< >"What happened out there?" Goyle asked.
< >"Pansy," Draco said simply. "Trying to hang onto me again."
< >"I thought you liked her," Crabbe said.
< >Draco stared at him. "Why does everyone think that?"
< >"She's always following you around," Crabbe replied, putting down a card. "She tells everyone who'll listen you two are together. And it looks like she says." He glanced up at Draco.
< >"She said she thought I liked her because I smiled at her."
< >"And you do," Crabbe replied - he'd gotten brighter over the years, though not a bit less tougher than he looked, so everyone usually thought he was a big, walking, talking idiot, like Goyle was still. "You're always smiling - smugly, but she doesn't see that. All she sees is you smiling at her, all the time."
< >"You're annoying," Draco snapped at him.
< >"Guess I am," Crabbe laughed, setting down another card, looking proud of himself that he was winning. "But it's true. You thought she'd come see you in the infirmary, didn't you?"
< >"Yes," Draco said sheepishly.
< >"You're attached to her."
< >"I am not!"
< >Crabbe's face broke into a smile. "Not attracted, but just attached to her, like you are us." His face grew serious again, as his eyes turned dark, looking at Draco. "You don't know us or like us that much - like Pansy - but if you miss one of us, you feel lost or angry."
< >Draco was ashamed to admit he was right. "Maybe."
< >Crabbe didn't reply as he shuffled the cards again, having won. When he was finished and dealing out the cards to himself and Goyle, he spoke, "Pansy didn't come to see you in the infirmary because she was jealous. She spread it around the house that you were 'in love' with Hermione Granger, because she's seen you looking in her direction."
< >"You believe her?" Draco demanded, raising an eyebrow.
< >Crabbe looked at him with surprise. "I didn't believe it at first, but then I watched you one night - last Friday, because Pansy had been saying that since Wednesday - and sure enough, you were."
< >Draco's eyes darkened, remembering he really had to cover himself. "Why would I like her?" he scoffed half-heartedly. Well, that's convincing, Draco, he chided himself bitterly.
< >Crabbe shrugged. "I don't know - but what were you looking at?"
< >"Planning Weasley's demise," Draco spat sarcasticaly. He hesistated a moment. "Staring into space, I guess, actually . . ."
< >Crabbe chuckled. "Yeah, sure, Malfoy," he replied, sounding amusedly doubtful.
< >"What's that supposed to mean?" Draco snapped.
< >"Settling every night on the Gryffindor table," Crabbe replied delicately, "then suddenly not? That's hardly kosher." He blinked in surprise when Goyle put down a card.
< >"Since when is it your business - or anyone's, especially Pansy's - of looking into my life? It's my life! I look where I look!" Draco snapped. "It means nothing. My eyes settled on something."
< >"Then where did you disappear to, after dinner? Pansy came in three times, begging Goyle and me to check our dormitory for you - you weren't there. Where did you go? She checked the library and anywhere else she could."
< >"In a half an hour?"
< >Crabbe smiled crookedly. "She's fast."
< >"And probably overlooked me. I was talking with someone."
< >Draco stiffened. "What's it to you?"
< >Crabbe looked up, surprised, then said, "I think you're out with someone." At the sight of Draco's face, he grinned mysteriously. "Of course, knowing you, it wouldn't be with a Gryffindor - especially Hermione Granger, being Muggle an' all and the way you feel. Probably a Ravenclaw, huh?"
< >Draco winced and Crabbe laughed. "I knew it!"
< >"Well, er, don't say a word."
< >"I won't," Crabbe promised, looking back to his game. "Hey!" he shouted at Goyle angrily, looking stricken that he'd lost without noticing. Goyle was the only one smiling smugly now.
< >On Monday, after breakfast, Draco was hurrying down a crowded hall with Crabbe. He saw Hermione and Potter coming the opposite way and he was immediately wary of anyone around him.
< >Hermione looked at him expectantly. She opened her coming palm slightly, exposing a piece of folded parchment. He understood and when they passed each other, he snatched the parchment from her hand, unnoticed by anyone.
< >In History of Magic, a few hours later, during yet another sleep endowing, boring lecture by the ghost professor, he opened the folded parchment. In shiny, graceful, maroon lettering, it said:
Draco, < >It seemed to me last night this may be the only way to communicate - by sometimes meeting in the tower. Yet there is hardly time for that because I have no idea when Harry or Ron may be in there, unless I know for sure that they won't. Meet me in the tower again tomorrow night - they told me they're studying up there and they need my help. They'll leave before nine, though. They have a chess tournament beginning then with some fifth years. Love, < > < > < >Hermione
< >It seemed to me last night this may be the only way to communicate - by sometimes meeting in the tower. Yet there is hardly time for that because I have no idea when Harry or Ron may be in there, unless I know for sure that they won't. Meet me in the tower again tomorrow night - they told me they're studying up there and they need my help. They'll leave before nine, though. They have a chess tournament beginning then with some fifth years.
< > < > < >Hermione
< >After dinner, without looking once at Hermione, he went to the back of the library, and took out a piece of his own parchment. Draco pulled out his quill and began to write in green ink.
Hermione, < >Meet you there. Nine. I assume we are talking. See you there. < > < > < >Draco
< >Meet you there. Nine. I assume we are talking. See you there.
< > < > < >Draco
< >Draco quickly folded the simple letter and began his homework for the night. Thirty minutes later, restless, he collected his things, and hurried to his common room. Crabbe and Goyle were sitting next to the fire, not playing cards this time, though.
< >"You're late," Crabbe muttered at him.
< >The blood from Draco's face drained. "Oh, God . . ."
< >"Yeah, 'Oh, God . . .' You-Know-Who is going to be - "
< >Draco stormed away, cursing himself bitterly. Who cared about bloody Quidditch practice anyhow? He charged to his common room and threw his homework on his bed. "To hell with it," he muttered.
< >"You," Draco snapped back instantly. "Do you ever shut up?"
< >"I could socialize," sniffed the mirror. "But no one has moved me in fifty years. Would you talk to the headmaster . . . Dippet for me?" The mirror shifted uncomfortably.
< >"Can I asked how many times people in this room have said Albus Dumbledore in this room?" Draco demanded, petulant, and wondering why he'd even bothered saying a word to the mirror.
< >The mirror was silent. "Mirrors never forget," it said softly.
< >"Yeah, sure," Draco replied sardonically, rolling his eyes.
< >"So I'm a stupid mirror!" the mirror cried miserably, sounding as if it was sobbing. "I don't pay attention to you bloody people anymore! Haven't for years!"
< >Draco sighed and didn't reply. "Bloody hell," he muttered a few minutes later, thinking what his captain was going to say to him in the morning. Draco figured he should steer away from the tyrant of a seventh year, but, realizing he didn't care that moment, sank onto his bed, face first.
< >"Would you ask Albus Dumbledore to move me?" the mirror asked meekly.
< >Draco looked up, surprised, yet amused. "Sure," he replied.
< >Sighing contentedly, the mirror fell silent, and Draco turned over to finish his homework. He found himself falling asleep about two hours later when Goyle and Crabbe came in, mumbling at him about how he was going to get a beating in the morning.
< >The beginning of the next morning was a blur. His captain, looking angrier than the wrath of hell, starting yelling at him as soon as he walked into the Great Hall, spotting Draco. He had kept this up for a few minutes, everyone watching, until Draco couldn't help but burst out laughing, seeing how purple the older boy was.
< >Crabbe had started laughing too, and soon almost the whole hall was laughing. Only Draco's captain wasn't laughing. He still looked angry - but now he ten times more embarrassed than angry. Some people were nearly crying still, holding onto their friends and shaking in mirth, even after the abashed seventh year had sat down, his face turning back to normal color. Even Professor Snape was seen with an amused smile on his face.
< >When Draco passed Hermione in the hall, he glanced at her, then dropped the note into her bag, almost missing, but it made it, thankfully for both them. They walked by each other like neither saw the other.
< >"Same pairs," Snape snapped at them, after explaining a long, complex potion to the class for nearly twenty minutes. "You worked fine yesterday - better than ever, probably," he added dryly, shaking his head.
< >The class shuffled around and soon, Draco and Hermione were next to each other again, muttering instructions to each other, trying to talk in-between.
< >"Unicorn hair," Hermione said, pointing. "Meeting."
< >"How much?" Draco asked distractedly, reaching for a vial of wolfsbane.
< >"Twenty strands." Hermione took the vial from him and added it and dragon's blood into the fetid smelling potion that was overpowering the entire room. "Tomorrow night."
< >"Am I supposed to count that? Tomorrow? What about -"
< >"Yes, tomorrow. No game. Yes, count."
< >Draco cursed and began counting. "What are we going to do?"
< >"Like you said. Add those," Hermione muttered. "Talk."
< >With that, Draco threw the hairs and a handful of nightshade into the cauldron and there was a loud explosion that sent them both back flying. The class gasped and several people cursed, but their voices were lost in the confusion. Draco and Hermione nearly toppled onto the table behind them as the loud CRACK reverberated on the dungeon walls.
< >For a few seconds, they were missing in the white smoke, but everyone could hear them coughing. Draco and Hermione emerged suddenly, looking surprised and rather dazed as the waved at the smoke, their eyes watering and red.
< >After he recovered, Draco turned on Snape who had kept a solid distance, far from the other side of the lab table. "Was that supposed to happen, professor?" Draco demanded angrily of the instructor.
< >Snape smiled coyly at them, striding over. He peered into their cauldron. "Yes."
< >The rest of the class stared at their own potions, then at their partners nervously. Snape smiled again, looking delighted at their faces. "Continue," he said sternly. Or else, everyone knew.
< >During the next ten minutes, there were explosions, and students flying backwards, or coming up from under the desks they'd been hiding under already. Then things became quieter.
< >"It's the nightshade," Draco said to Hermione irritably - and a bit loudly. A few of the pairs around them heard and were the ones hiding under their tables. "It doesn't matter the order you put the ingredients in - I'm watching - but when you put the nightshade into the damn thing . . ."
< >Boom, they both mouthed in unison, struggling not to smile.
< >When the potion was finished and everything was cleaned up, Snape collected himself from his desk, and rose from his seat. He cleared his throat for attention. "As I know Mr. Malfoy and Miss Granger have realized, it was the nightshade." He smiled at the two and pointed everyone to the door.
< >The next day, after dinner, Draco slipped away from the Great Hall, unnoticed. He hurried down the hall and disappeared into the wall. Since he had gotten there first, he went to the tower and lit the candle, then settled into a chair.
< >Hermione appeared ten minutes later, looking flustered. "Sorry," she apologized quickly. "Harry was telling me awfully something boring, but I couldn't just leave him there when Ron wasn't listening either . . ."
< >"Of course not," Draco said, nodding.
< >Hermione seated herself in the opposite chair and they began a slow, but gradual conversation. Draco poured his heart out to her; he'd never said any of this to anyone before in his life. He told her about his insufferable father, his distant mother who had been unable to ever love him because of her husband, and how much he hated himself. Hermione listened attentively to every word, and didn't flinch once when he repeatedly apologized to her about what he had done to her. She spoke lovingly of her parents, careful not to gloat, and spoke of her years before Hogwarts. She touched briefly on her current self but not too much. Draco admired Hermione for her self-control and felt a bit ashamed her had blurted out so much.
< >Suddenly, after they had both drifted into silence, Draco embarrassed and Hermione thoughtful, she got up and strode over to him. "Move over," she said quietly, gesturing with her hand. Though surprised, Draco moved over in the armchair and Hermione sat down next to him, patting his hand lightly.
< >He was stiff in his place for a few minutes, but slowly relaxed next to her. She understood him.
< >"Two different worlds, two different people," Hermione whispered.
< >"Going across enemy lines," Draco murmured back.
< >"So we are."
< >Draco closed his eyes, leaning back against the chair. "And what hell will break loose when word gets out," he muttered dryly.
< >Hermione shook her head. "It won't get out. It won't destory us."
< >"Someday it will," Draco said, opening his eyes.
< >Hermione sighed and put a finger to his lips. This time, he didn't pull back, like he had done when Pansy had. He already loved. Knew he would always, forever love her, no matter what. "Ssshhh," she said. "Don't talk about that now. We'll worry about it later."
< >Draco sighed and leaned against her slightly.
< >He didn't realize he had fallen asleep until he was being shaken violently. Opening his eyes, Draco saw Hermione looking at him urgently, holding her lit wand. He jumped to his feet in horror. "What time is it?" he asked shrilly.
< >"One in the morning," Hermione said sharply, glancing back at forth at the walls.
< >"Oh, God . . ."
< >"Mrs. Norris!" Draco cursed. "We're going to be in trouble."
< >"We already are! People are going to realize we're not there - and what if someone's awake?" Hermione said shrilly.
< >The two stared at each other, wide-eyed with shock and fear.
< >"We can't make ourselves invisible!"
< >"For God's sake, I know!" Hermione hissed.
< >Draco cursed again, scowling. "Let's go," he said, striding to the trapdoor.
< >Hermione muttered to her wand, the light going out instantly. The room darkened immediately - the candle had blown out probably hours before. Fumbling in the darkness, Draco ripped open the door, and the two quickly, though as quietly as possible, hurried down the stairs, and ran to the charmed corridor.
< >Filch was standing right outside it, his back turned to them. Who knew where Mrs. Norris was and God help them that she wasn't around. Draco and Hermione spun around as soon as they saw him and flattened themselves against the wall.
< >"He knows about this place," Hermione whispered terribly, muttering curses at herself.
< >"No way in hell," Draco cursed rancorously under his breath.
< >Hermione didn't even glance at him. She peeked around the corner, then snapped her head back. "It's dark," she said quietly, "but if he comes down here, he'll find us easily enough."
< >"Pity we haven't been trained in Apparation," Draco muttered dryly, as if that would even work.
< >"Pity we haven't got ourselves an Invisibility - "
< >Filch coughed loudly, cutting Hermione off. "Peeves," he growled angrily - and quite loudly, as well - from outside the corridor, "what are you doing around here?" They could hear the malice in his voice.
< >"Midnight stroll," Peeves answered back oily.
< >"You're out here to cause trouble," Filch snarled.
< >Peeves cackled. "Already have, dear sir!" He said something softly and Filch shouted at him angrily, cursing, "I'll get you for that, Peeves!" There was more laughter and they heard the distinct pounding of running feet.
< >Hermione and Draco swiftly ran from the corridor and slinked to their common rooms alone, sharing a fleeting look of sheer fear and rushed excitement when they parted ways. Neither had ever wanted to thank Peeves so much for his rambuncious acts of violence on school property.
< >Draco slipped into his common room easily - no one was there. His dormitory was silent, with only soft snores and an occasional grunt as he pulled on his night clothes, and pulled himself into bed.
< >They had been lucky that time. It was sheer luck. Peeves was good for some situations, Draco had to admit to himself as he slowly fell asleep.
A year and a month later . . .
< >Draco sighed as he leaned against Hermione, content. She fluffed his hair gently, letting her fingers slide down the back of his neck. He took her hands in his and rubbed them with his fingers. They both relaxed their backs against the wall, staring across the room.
< >After a moment, Hermione said, "I think Harry and Ron suspect something."
< >Draco stiffened immediately. "Why do you think that?" he asked slowly.
< >Hermione hesitated, taking her hands away. "Harry handed me a piece of parchment yesterday . . ." Again, she paused. "It was from a while ago, I don't know why I kept it, but I did," she said, scoffing herself. "Silly, really. It was the note that just said . . ."
< >"'I love you,'" Draco finished softly.
< >Hermione closed her eyes, taking her hands from him. "He looked at me funny when he gave it to me. At least you didn't sign it, but I am very sure he will have told Ron by today . . ."
< >"The whole Slytherin house thinks I'm up to something. Crabbe let it slip I was seeing a Ravenclaw - like I told you last month - so they've been hounding that whole house, trying to figure out who."
< >"You said someday someone would find out," Hermione whispered.
< >Draco turned on his side and Hermione tenderly smoothed his hair down with one hand, the other taking one of his own. He held onto her hand tightly and protectively, his eyes closed.
< >"If someone finds out . . . they all find out . . ."
< >"Do you think we should be honest with everyone?" Hermione asked.
< >Draco felt so tired. "I don't know," he said, sounding rather annoyed. "Let's go." He rose to his feet and held out a hand for Hermione, which she took. "Quidditch tomorrow."
< >Hermione rubbed her cheek against his. "Big day."
< >"Yeah," Draco muttered, his eyes closed. "Decision if we play in the cup against Gryffindor . . . We didn't last year." He sighed and reopened his eyes, pulling himself away to look at her. "You'll come, right?"
< >"Of course," Hermione promised as they left the tower. "I always do."
< >In the morning, Crabbe shook Draco awake. Draco mumbled something incoherent to him and Crabbe shook him again so that Draco would open his eyes this time.
< >"Wake up!" he said urgently, looking grave. "There's been a fire."
< >The blood from Draco's face rushed away. He knew instantly. Oh, God, the candle! He jumped out of bed and dressed as quickly as he could, then followed Crabbe and half of the remaining Slytherin house to the Great Hall.
< >Albus Dumbledore stood from the teacher's table when everyone was in. "Never in my life," he began in a cold voice, "has this happened. Yes, yes, a fire here, a fire there. Old news, really, but what angers me more than the ignorance of not blowing out a simple candle, is that someone was in an illegal area of the school.
< >"No student should have known the entrance to the Fire Tower, as Mr. Filch called it during the night. Mr. Filch, myself, and a few other teachers were the only ones who should have known about this entrance."
< >The whole school stared at him.
< >Dumbledore cleared his throat and continued. "An ancient old desk was the only item damaged, as it was the only item in the room, besides the candle that lit the fire. Professor Snape and Mr. Filch swiftly saved the desk before it was further damaged.
< >"In short conclusion, if the perpetrators come forward within the hour, the least you will get is a detention. It is merely a slap on the wrists - for if the fire had not been seen, rather, smelled, much of the school could have been in flames, if the wind had willed it. I will release you all to breakfast now," he said finally. "Remember, within the hour." With that, he strode out of the Great Hall in silence.