< >The room exploded into whispers and amidst the chaos, Hermione and Draco exchanged swift, fearful glances, then looked down again.
< >"Who do you think did it?" Crabbe asked him suddenly.
< >Draco shrugged. "I don't know. Secret entrance, eh?"
< >Crabbe laughed. "I'll bet the ones who did it will come groveling."
< >Don't count on it, Draco thought to himself miserably. He looked up and saw Hermione arguing angrily with Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley who both looked very suspicious.
< >Draco pushed away from the table, Crabbe and Goyle looking up, surprised. "I'm not hungry," he mumbled in explanation, "I'm going to go get ready." He walked out of the Great Hall.
< >As he was walking to his common room, a voice spoke behind him.
< >"Did you ever have an intent in telling me, Mr. Malfoy?"
< >Draco jumped and spun around. He stepped backward in surprise.
< >Professor Dumbledore looked at him harshly. "I know it was you," he said quietly, gravely, somberly, a bit angrily. As if he was sorely disappointed in Draco. "I ask you answer my question. Did you ever have an intent on telling me?"
< >Draco began backing up more. "What's it to you?" he growled, startling himself.
< >Dumbledore looked at him in surprise. "It is my business."
< >"Hardly," Draco scoffed, his confidence growing, though he thought it was probably his fear and anger crashing together like the Medieval knights in war that was driving him. He was truly infuriated and he didn't know why. "Now, tell me, how do you know?"
< >"The Bloody Baron spotted you leaving the charmed corridor. Last night. With another." Dumbledore looked Draco hard in the eye. "He did not recognize that person who was with you and he went straight to me."
< >"The Bloody Baron has no business spying on me, nor do anyone of the other ghosts. Or you, professor," Draco said slowly and angrily. He looked up at Dumbledore, eyes full of anger toward a man he hardly knew or even cared to know. You can't trust him, Draco told himself. He's too suspicious . . . he spies, he deceived, and he gets what he wants!
< >"I beg your pardon, Mr. Malfoy, but please show some respect," said Dumbledore icily, looking Draco in the eye still.
< >Draco heard people coming around the corner and he swooped into a large bow, followed with a curtsy. "There," he said in a sickly-sweet voice, "was that respectable enough for you, sir?" He curtsied again for show.
< >The people coming up behind him burst out laughing, having no idea the real situation.
< >"Now, if you will excuse me, professor," Draco said quietly. "I have a match to get to." Before he could walk away, Dumbledore snatched his arm angrily, and said in a hard voice just above a whisper, "Come with me, Mr. Malfoy."
< >Whoever was behind Draco - he hadn't looked - turned and walked quickly away from the scene. Dumbledore glared down at Draco and led him - still by the arm - to Professor McGonagall's office.
< >"Silly me," Dumbledore began sarcastically once he nearly threw Draco into his seat, "I thought I was the student for a moment and you were the headmaster! Well, now that I know the truth of who is who in the school," he sneered at Draco, "you will answer my question. Did you ever have any intent on telling me that you lit the candle?" Dumbledore moved behind the desk and waited with scrutinizing eyes.
< >"No," Draco said flatly, snidely. He almost smiled.
< >Dumbledore looked as if he had known the answer.
< >"Sir," Draco began coldly, "if you knew my answer, why bother taking us both through this mockery? Why not expel dear old Mr. Draco Malfoy - the son of a prejudiced pureblood? I am barely a fly in ointment to you. I am - as I am assured by the look on your face - a mean, cruel, idiotic person! Why not throw the naughty little boy out of Hoggy-warty-warts?"
< >Dumbledore looked at him, clearly dubious. "Why would I throw you out?"
< >Draco threw back his head and laughed. "Well, you seemed so intent on catching me in a lie - and you did, I might add," he replied sarcastically, laughing scornfully again. "I mean, why not?"
< >"I do not throw you out because I believe it was an accident."
< >"But you had to make a big scene of it, didn't you?" Draco sneered. "You had to see me squirm, didn't you, sir? Does it please you so, dear old professor to make me - of all people! - uncomfortable? Uneasy? Wriggle in my seat and sweat while you tell a lucrative and ludicrous story? Does it so?" Draco glared.
< >Dumbledore sighed and opened his mouth to speak, but Draco cut him off.
< >"Would you stop sighing?" Draco demanded angrily, jumping to his feet. "Are you trying to make me feel bad about what I just said? About my life? Bloody hell, I admit, I hate my home life, but does that give you the right to try to make me - and everyone else you suck in - feel bad?" He was nearly screaming.
< >Dumbledore looked at him, studying. "I have obviously not 'sucked' you in."
< >"Damn straight," Draco snapped at the old professor. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a match." He twirled on his heel and stalked out of the room angrily, fists at his sides. The door to the office slammed behind him.
< >Later that day, at the Quidditch match, Draco spotted Professor Dumbledore in the crowd, looking up at him profoundly. He mirrored the look and turned his broom away.
< >"Get him!" the Slytherin team shouted at Draco suddenly, a long hour later.
< >Looking up, Draco immediately pulled up on his broom and zoomed after the new Ravenclaw Seeker, streaking towards the heavens. He quickly passed the younger fourth year who looked stricken and angry when he saw Draco, pulling away when Draco caught the Snitch easily.
< >"Great job, Draco!" a very tall fifth year bellowed, slapping Draco on the back.
< >There was a party being held for the Quidditch team in the common room, as all they had to do was beat Gryffindor! Which, Draco said to many people, would be a task in itself. The Gryffindor team was strong. Those people just laughed nervously - looking at him strangely - and said that he could do it, then walked quickly away.
< >"Good work, Malfoy," Hermione muttered to him on Monday with a hint of amusement in her voice as they passed each other, handing him a note which he quickly stuffed into his book bag.
< >"Thanks," he mumbled back, though they had already walked by each other.
< >"What?" Crabbe asked, looking at him.
< >"Nothing, just me talking to myself." Draco smiled and shoved Crabbe into their next classroom, both laughing. Draco had made a point to get to know Crabbe, or Vincent, as he hated to be called, better through the past year and a half.
< >Draco opened the letter as he sat at his desk during his class. Draco,
< >This is only to say I was impressed at your performance at the match on Saturday. Really good job, so be proud. I'm sorry we didn't get a word over the weekend, but we both know why.
< >Now, in final reply to what you wrote a while ago, I love you, too, more than you know. And I always will . . . no matter what happens.
< >It wasn't signed and lucky thing, too, since it was snatched out of Draco's hands suddenly, nearly tearing in half. He looked up immediately, stricken, and trembling from head to foot.
< >Professor McGonagall glared down at him, letter in hand. "Class has started, Mr. Malfoy, if you didn't know. I don't appreciate students not paying attention," she said coldly. "Now, let's see what this is about." She peered down at the letter, smiling, thinking about how much pleasure she would get from reading it aloud.
< >Draco forced himself to stop trembling and regarded Professor McGonagall carefully as she read the note to herself. Her smile quickly faded as she read the last line and she folded it up, handing it back to Draco, surprising everyone.
< >"Interesting, Mr. Malfoy," the professor told him carefully, clearing her throat loudly, causing everyone to look at her instead of Draco. "Please see me after class, I want a word. Now, class, back to my lecture . . . No, Mr. Goyle, you cannot go to the bathroom. Not for the third time - what are you doing in there?"
< >Draco laughed along with the rest of the class, but he was nervous, and nearly shaking as the end of Transfiguration came closer, and closer, and closer . . . until it was finally the end of class and everyone was leaving.
< >"Professor?" Draco croaked as he stood in front of McGonagall's desk. "You wished to speak to me?" He was very sure that she would recognize Hermione's graceful handwriting . . .
< >McGonagall looked up at him and folded her hands on the desk. "Yes, Mr. Malfoy. I wanted a word." She sighed. "You realize that I had every right to read that letter aloud?"
< >"Yes, ma'am," Draco replied quickly.
< >"Do you know why I didn't?"
< >"Because it was personal," he said tonelessly, yet almost sarcastically.
< >McGonagall looked amused. "Yes," she agreed. He looked up at her, surprised. "I have every right to read aloud notes, letters, or what have you, but I didn't - because it was personal. Very personal - and short to the point, but that's not the reason I wanted to speak with you."
< >Draco blinked. "What did you want to talk to me about?"
< >"Sit down, Draco," she instructed and when he had, she continued. "As we have stated before, that letter that you have tucked deep inside your book bag, was and still is very personal. Whoever wrote that, loves you."
< >Draco nodded slowly, feeling distressed. His eyes were watery with knowing.
< >"And do you love her?" Professor McGonagall asked.
< >Draco closed his eyes. "You may think me silly, madam, we are so young, but I love her more than anything. More that life itself," he whispered quietly, speaking the honest and truest of truths of one of his heart's many forbidden secrets. He opened his eyes to look at his professor.
< >McGonagall allowed a very small smile, startling Draco slightly, but he recovered himself. "You pour your heart out to her?" she asked and he nodded solemnly. "Is she another Slytherin?"
< >Surprising the both of them in different ways, Draco shook his head. "No."
< >"Ravenclaw?" The answer was, again, no. "Hufflepuff?"
< >Draco gathered himself and stood up, dignified. "Professor McGonagall," he said slowly and softly, "you saw the hand writing. And if that doesn't convince you - really, Hufflepuff?" He smirked a bit at the irony he found in her query. "What do you really think?" With that, he walked briskly out of the room.
< >"What took you so long?" Hermione hissed seconds later.
< >"Professor McGonagall . . . she knows," Draco whispered back as they both slipped down a usually unused hallway. "She read the note, snatched it right off my desk, for God's sakes. She scared me half to death, but she knows."
< >Hermione looked about to cry. "It's coming out."
< >Draco hugged her awkwardly, about to cry himself, but both of them, deep down, knew they wanted to ousted of the misery they always felt. They felt they betrayed each other, their friends, their lives, every time they spoke, whispered, kissed. No one knew but now . . . there would be no more secrecy. "We can't say we didn't expect it," he mumbled.
< >Hermione shook her head, resting it slowly on his shoulder. "No, no, of course. You knew, I knew, but I didn't want to admit it." She gripped his hand tightly and he held hers just as tightly. She smiled at him. "After all this time, I think the occasion needs a special announcement."
< >"Dumbledore came to me . . . oh, God, he knows that I burned the tower!" Draco swore, now feeling about to cry even more. "On - on Saturday, right before the match . . . he pulled me into an office and starts telling me he knows about the candle because the Bloody Baron saw me and you, but he couldn't tell who you were . . . And then he goes off trying to mess with my head, trying to confuse me . . ." He silenced himself and hugged her tightly, not wanting to let go.
< >Hermione pulled away from him, still holding his hands. She looked up into his eyes. "We burned the tower, Draco. It was all really my fault," she whispered, looking away. "I lit the candle; I should have blown it out."
< >"No, don't . . . please," Draco said, pulling away a bit, reluctant. Then, suddenly: "What happened to Weasley's chairs?" he demanded shrilly. "Dumbledore said there was only one piece of furniture in the tower and -"
< >"Ssshhh," Hermione said, smiling rather sadly. "I told you long ago - didn't I? - that they were old dollhouse armchairs. I know I did." She shook her head. "Just a stupid potion or two . . . easy enough, I guess."
< >"Potions that enlarges an object, then shrink it when fire hits it?" Draco asked meekly, and Hermione nodded.
< >"Yes," she said, "exactly. Or extreme heat. Simple, really, so simple . . ." Hermione sighed. "Evidence? What evidence? All is destroyed . . ."
< >Draco bit his lip and looked down, his eyes closed, trying to block tears that suddenly overcame him. He whispered a few words too low for even Draco himself to hear them correctly. Hermione looked up at him. "What?" she asked.
< >He smiled weakly at her. "Oh, God, I love you."
< >Hermione took a hand and slid it across his cheek slowly, her fingers gently trailing over the white scar that Draco was sure would never go away. As her fingers slipped past his mouth, he kissed two of her fingers, looking her in the eye the whole time.
< >Draco stepped back after a moment of silence, shaking his head. "Even if everyone finds out tomorrow, we'll still love each other, right?" he asked, nearly whimpering.
< >Hermione smiled warmly, taking his arm. "Yes, Draco, always."
< >A few minutes later at dinner, when, after he had put his book bag away, while Hermione had gone on, Draco entered the Great Hall, it silenced almost immediately at the sight of him. Hermione was looking around, confused and bewildered as he slowly sat at the head of the Slytherin table.
< >Suspicious immediately, Draco snapped his head up to the head table where Professor Dumbledore looked extremely stern and grave, along with the rest of the teachers, besides McGonagall, who was still in her classroom. Hermione, also suspecting, looked up at the table, as well did the rest of the hall.
< >Dumbledore stood up and cleared his throat. "Mr. Malfoy," he said loudly, "please stand up." Even from the Slytherin table, Draco could see the twinkle of determination in his eye.
< >Draco glared up at the man, but stood, righteous.
< >Dumbledore, satisfied, turned to the rest of the hall. "You all have heard rumors, you all know different stories - why, you might have even heard of Mr. Malfoy bowing and curtsying to me on Saturday." He chuckled. "Well, that is probably the only story you have heard that is true.
< >"And yet, I believe most of you think I am wrong. There is another story, you say, isn't that correct?" the older man queried of the whole hall and many nodded, but stayed silent.
< >"What is this about?" Draco demanded angrily and suddenly.
< >The entire hall looked at him and so did Professor McGonagall when she suddenly entered, stopping immediately. A few seconds after that, a voice began to speak snidely.
< >"Draco," called the irritable voice Draco instantly recognized, stiffening, "there is another story - that story - and we all know it. At least, most of us." Pansy smiled at the back of his head. "And a few of us know a third story."
< >Slowly, Draco turned to her. "And what is that supposed to mean?" he snarled.
< >Hermione pulled herself to her feet. "Yes, dear Pansy," she called maliciously from across the room, "what is that supposed to mean?" Glancing at her quickly, Draco saw a look of complete fury on her face.
< >The rest of the school didn't know who to look at with more surprise, but to some it was becoming clear. Too clear.
< >Pansy leered at Draco, ignoring Hermione's question, ignoring Hermione's very being. Her face looked victorious. "Pity, Draco," she said slowly and clearly, "last year, you nearly went on a mutiny on your own house - "
< >"Hardly," Draco sneered. "You and Professor Snape were the mutineers! You both are lying and cheating and complete idiots!" He pointed accusingly at Snape, who looked him back in the eye from the head table, silent. Draco swore softly and lowered his finger.
< >The Great Hall stared, shocked at the yelling, but Pansy continued, undaunted. "You were never around, people said you were with a Ravenclaw, some said a Hufflepuff - but that's a laugh, isn't it? -" the Hufflepuff table bristled "- and you lost the Cups for us."
< >Draco laughed bitterly. "What? Blame me for your loss?"
< >Again, Pansy continued, ignoring his remark. "Then, this year, you were again never around, though perhaps a little more, from the end of last year, I guess, but that's just to convince the rest of us of something. You have also seemed to become more social, but we all know it was you that was in the tower," she said, voice raising as she pointed a long finger at him accusingly, "we know it was you that set the tower on fire, and we know you were with someone! At least I do!"
< >The Great Hall looked at Draco, quite - in mild terms - interested.
< >"What is your point, Ms. Parkinson?" Dumbledore demanded calmly and quietly. "I let you go on without my own, personal interruption, until now. What are you getting at?" His eyes were lit with fire.
< >Pansy ignored Dumbledore. "And who was it, Draco?" she asked quietly, viciously. "Who was it?"
< >"Who do you think it was, Pansy?" Draco replied defiantly.
< >"Her," Pansy yelled, pointing, "if that wasn't obvious to you idiots in the first place!"
< >The Great Hall swiveled in their seats and found themselves staring at Hermione. Many gasped in amazement, but many just stared, dumbfounded, dubious, paralyzed with anger and surprise. Could it be? they wondered.
< >Draco gathered himself quickly and strode across the room, taking Hermione's hand, and leading her into the middle of the hall. "Look, Hermione," he said, looking her in the eye. "They found out. We always said they would."
< >Hermione smiled at him slowly, understanding. "So they did and so we said."
< >"You wanted something big like this to happen, though?"
< >"After all these months . . . more than anything," Hermione whispered.
< >"Earlier, what did I say?"
< >"You said, 'Even if everyone finds out tomorrow, we'll still love each other, right?'" Hermione replied solemnly. "But everyone will not find out tomorrow, will they?"
< >"No, obviously, but you said always," Draco murmured, gazing at her.
< >Both Draco and Hermione, still holding one another's hand, began walking in a small, slow circle, locking their eyes together. Each had a small, amused smile dancing around their faces like a drunken piper at festival time in merry Old England.
< >"We both knew," Draco said.
< >"Yes. We did," Hermione agreed solemnly.
< >"How long has it been that we have seen each other?" Draco asked.
< >"Hmm," Hermione said almost snidely, "I don't know. Do you?"
< >"Why do you always answer a question with a question?"
< >"I don't."
< >"Oh, yes, of course. No, you don't, not usually," Draco replied, smiling at her. No one, not even the most cynical of cynical, uttered a noise as the two spoke. "I believe it has been a year and a month - to this date exactly, actually - that we have been seeing each other."
< >"In hallways, passing notes, sitting in the now burned tower for hours, just talking. We would take the secret passage one at a time, walk the long journey to the trapdoor and sometimes stay there for hours, falling asleep in each others arms, then having to get around Filch." Hermione threw back her head and laughed shortly.
< >"Picture perfect times," Draco said quietly and dryly, smirking a bit. "And then one day, a professor caught me reading a note from you. That was quite interesting, I must say, eh, Hermione?"
< >"Yes, it was, Draco. And that was today, was it not?"
< >"Yes, very much today. I believe it said - and I quote - 'Now, in final reply to what you wrote a while ago, I love you, too, more than life.' And I told Professor McGonagall earlier that I loved you more than anything - than life itself - and I spoke the truth from my heart," Draco finished, tears suddenly streaming down his face. Oh, how he loved her.
< >They stopped, but still stared into each other's eyes. The spell was then broken on the Great Hall.
< >"This is a trick!" Ronald Weasley shouted suddenly, jumping to his feet, glaring. "It is a trick! How can they even stand one another! She hates you, Draco. Do you know that, or is this just a show?"
< >Draco turned to him, silent.
< >"What are you both trying to prove?" Weasley said coldly, continuing when Draco still didn't speak. "That you two could actually even have a conversation? Ha!" he laughed mockingly. "That could possibly happen, but being together for over a year? You couldn't have pulled that off!"
< >"I love her," Draco whispered hoarsely, beginning to cry again.
< >Weasley stared at him, indubitably stunned at the sound of sincerity in his weakening voice, and more stunned because of his tears, that couldn't possibly be faked by the way Draco looked.
< >"If you could love her," Pansy sneered loudly, from behind, "why couldn't you love me?" Draco didn't turn to her, but she continued anyway. "You are a traitor, Draco Malfoy," she said coldly. "And you are leading us all on! Traitor!"
< >"Traitor is as traitor does, then," Hermione sneered back, tightening her grip on Draco's hand, as if it was her only way from keeping her from attacking Pansy. "It wasn't Draco that led me, either. I charged forward beside him."
< >Pansy rounded on her, walking around the two like a stealth cat, pushing Weasley out of the way angrily. "Trying to protect yourself now, lowly Gryffindor?" she snarled a bit pathetically. "He may not care for me, but I hate you."
< >Draco pulled away from Hermione, tears gone, and furious. He grabbed Pansy by the shoulders and shook her angrily, to the utter shock of the Great Hall. Everyone erupted in shouts of protest and worry, several people jumping out of their seats. "Do we care, Pansy?" he shouted in her face, still shaking her. "DO - WE - CARE? NO!"
< >Suddenly, arms grabbed him from behind, forcing him to let go, and she stumbled backwards into a chair, eyes wide in shock. As his assailants dragged him from Pansy, Draco continued to yell and tried to get away. "Let me go, you damned idiots! She is the idiot! LET - ME - GO!"
< >Hermione suddenly appeared in his face, grabbing his shirt collar roughly. The loud hall silenced and whoever had Draco lessened their grip on him reluctantly, but still held his arms securely behind his back.
< >"Draco, calm down," she whispered, putting her face against his, speaking into his ear. "It's all right, just calm down." She was crying and Draco began crying again, dropping his head onto her shoulder. "Just calm down," Hermione kept repeating soothingly.
< >Draco raised his head after a moment to look at her and she pulled away. As he tried to pull away, the grips tightened around his arms. He was forced to relax and panted for a minute, then looked back up at Hermione, ashamed.