Disclaimer: This is a non-profit derivative work based on the world and characters of J. K. Rowling.
Characters: Draco Malfoy, Hermione Granger, Others
Genres: Angst, Drama, Romance, Smut
Main Pairing: Draco/Hermione
Story Warnings: Dubious Consent, Epilogue? What Epilogue?, Psychological Trauma, Smut
Overall Rating: NC-17
Summary: Nine years after Voldemort's defeat, Hermione decides to take a holiday from her life to work out who she is and what she wants to do with herself. She soon gets the feeling that Draco Malfoy might be the key to her salvation, but Draco seems to be consumed by a need to keep secrets that are destroying him and does not want her interfering. Armed with a determination to save someone who doesn't want to be saved, she sets out to see how he might fit into the oddly shaped puzzle that is her life.
Credit: Thank you to dollfaced, namelessamelie and mazvn for the comprehensive beta and filigree1 for the Britpick. Extra thank you to dollfaced for the banner.
Chapter Length: 7,317
It was eerie. Almost like déjà vu. It had been eleven years since she'd last done this.
It seemed like a lifetime. It had been a lifetime. Everything had changed so much since then. There had been a war. She had grown up.
Well, actually, it had only been nine years since she'd last done this, and the last trip had come after the war, but that time everything had just been so different from how it should have been. The air had been rather subdued, and she had been so alone, so lonely without her friends accompanying her...
On further consideration, this was actually quite a lot like nine years ago. Granted, she was the only one feeling subdued this time, but that didn't change her strong feeling of sadness and hope for a better life to come.
Hermione let out a deep sigh and looked around her at all the children getting on the train. They seemed so young; much younger than when she had been a student herself. The notion was, of course, ridiculous, but it was nevertheless hard to imagine being no older than these children whilst actively risking her life, fighting for a future. A lot of the parents, on the other hand, looked suspiciously close to her own age. If she were to look closer, she might even recognize some of them as having gone to school at the same time as her, albeit a few years above her; or, worse, some of them could have been people she had met more recently through her work at the Ministry. Maybe if she kept her head down, they wouldn't notice her, wouldn't question her presence. This was another ridiculous notion. Her name would've been in their childrens' letters, and the Board of Governors would've had to approve her for her new position, making it no secret at all that the famous Hermione Granger was now on her way to become a Hogwarts Professor.
Fortunately, her own friends and classmates weren't quite here with their own children yet, although young Teddy Lupin would be attending in only a couple of years and then, shortly after that, the Weasleys would begin pouring in.
Oh, God, the Weasleys. In a few years, they'd be swarming the place. Good thing she would be long gone by then. This position would only be hers for a year. She was simply... getting away from her life for a much needed break. It wasn't that she wasn't fond of the younger Weasleys; truly, she was. She'd been part of the celebrations for the birth of Victoire, the first of several grandchildren to Molly and Arthur, and she'd even treated the children as her own nieces and nephews, because... well... that had been how she'd seen them at the time.
But that hadn't been meant to be, and she had to deal with what was now.
What was now, was a train full of children going to Hogwarts.
And she needed to be on it.
"I trust you had a pleasant journey."
Hermione smiled at the elderly headmistress. She had been whisked straight up to the comfortable, yet very formal-looking, Head's office as soon as she'd stepped inside the castle. "Quite, thank you."
Minerva McGonagall had managed to not age too much in the past decade. The greatest changes to her appearance had occurred around the time of the war. The war had changed everyone, and for Professor McGonagall it had meant extra worry-lines around her eyes, giving her a tired look, as well as a slight slump in her otherwise very straight posture. She simply wasn't as sprightly as she had used to be anymore.
"I trust that you got my missive?"
Hermione's smile faltered a bit. "Yes. I won't be able to teach Muggle Studies."
"Yes, we're terribly sorry for the inconvenience. It seemed like one of our staff was leaving, but then he changed his mind. And he is a very good teacher."
"He couldn't teach something else?" Hermione hopefully asked. She'd really set her sights on Muggle Studies. Being a Muggle-born and all, she knew she could actually teach the children things that some witch or wizard that had never had any connection to any Muggles would certainly have no clue about.
McGonagall made what looked like a small, embarrassed grimace. "I'm afraid not."
Hermione knew better than to push her luck, but she didn't put a lot of effort into hiding her disappointment either. "So, what do you have for me? You did say you still had something?"
"But of course," McGonagall said, reaching for a piece of parchment on her desk. "Our Arithmancy teacher went on maternity leave recently. She should be away for the year. She left her lesson plans behind, though, so I'm assuming that filling in for her shouldn't be too much of a problem?"
"Maternity leave?" Hermione's brain hadn't been able to process much beyond that little piece of information. "How does that work?"
The Headmistress looked a bit exasperated. "You're a clever witch; don't tell me that the concept of maternity leave boggles your mind. You're a little old not to know the inner workings of a woman's body."
Hermione flushed, seeing the rebuff for what it was. "So, not everyone is live-in, then?"
"No." McGonagall indicated the parchment. "We currently have six live-in professors, including you, as well as a teaching ghost and an anti-social centaur. The other six professors floo home from Hogsmeade at the end of their day, unless other arrangements are made in advance."
The fact that some professors might not live at school was something Hermione had never given a second thought whilst attending school herself. "Oh."
"That actually brings me to the next point on the agenda. You're currently the only live-in professor for Gryffindor."
"Oh?" That certainly sounded lonely.
"Yes, Professor Babbling has gone to live with her daughter and son-in-law and will be retiring by the end of the year, and Professor Longbottom goes home to stay with his wife."
Hermione stared for a second and then chastised herself for forgetting that Neville taught here. He'd been an Auror for a while after the war, but his greatest love had always been plants, so when the Herbology position had opened up, he'd taken it without looking back.
More importantly, though: Neville was married. He and Hannah Abbott had married during what Hermione not-so-fondly referred to as the Great Marriage Craze of '04.
No, she was not bitter. Not in the least.
"So, um... what exactly does that mean?" she asked.
"It means we have no functioning Head of House for Gryffindor," McGonagall elaborated. "Would you be interested in filling in on that score as well? It's rather unorthodox to have the Head of House teaching an elective, but I'll just have to see about a more permanent solution later on."
Hermione did a double take. "Me? As Head? I only just got here!"
"I'm aware of that. But I do know enough of your character to know that you'll do fine. It's extra hours and extra responsibility, but also extra pay. I'm assuming you're saving up for something. Young people passing through here always are."
Well, she certainly wasn't going to deny that she could use the money. "You're positive that Neville won't be interested in moving onto the school grounds instead?"
"His wife runs The Leaky Cauldron down in Diagon Alley," said McGonagall, sorting through some more parchment as she spoke. "I'm quite sure it's impossible for them to move here."
"Oh. Well... all right, then."
"Besides," McGonagall continued, "you used to have some ideas for house unity? Breaking down those walls is going to take a lot longer than either you or I have, but we could perhaps make a few chips in them while here."
Hermione nodded. House unity. Freeing the Hogwarts house-elves. It was true that she had spent years at the Ministry fighting for similar causes, but the memory of those times just made this seem all the more insignificant. There were so many things out there that were so much worse. There were people and beings being oppressed, beaten, and discriminated against. Everyone at Hogwarts was safe, clothed, fed and treated well by anyone that mattered. However, she might at least be able to nip certain behaviours in the bud. If the children were taught to connect across Houses and cliques, maybe the world would be just a little bit better off for it.
The Headmistress checked her clock. "Well, the feast is well underway by now. I simply wanted to get all of this sorted out so we could introduce you properly." She handed Hermione the parchments she'd been gathering. "Here's your lesson plans and the roster. It should say how and where you can get in contact with anyone currently filling any position here at Hogwarts. Some will also make use of the staffroom and other facilities. Should all else fail, you can come to me with any concerns you might have." She began to rise.
Hermione accepted the parchments and at first barely glanced at them, but then her eyes fell on a name and refused to budge. "Um... Professor McGonagall?"
"Please, you're not my student anymore. Call me Minerva. Or at least drop the 'Professor'."
Now there was a concept that grated. Hermione was mostly aware that she was no longer a teenager, but calling Minerva McGonagall by her first name somehow seemed wrong. She gave it a go anyway. "Uh, Minerva." No, that definitely felt wrong. "And please do call me Hermione. But... Draco Malfoy teaches here?" She looked up.
"Ah, yes." McGonagall sat back down. "I had momentarily forgotten. Will that be a problem?"
"No, of course not," Hermione rushed to assure her. "It's just... why?"
"He is much changed from the young man you once knew, Hermione."
"Of course..." Hadn't the war changed everyone? "But he's still rich, isn't he? And I doubt it's his heart's desire to teach..." She glanced down to catch his subject. "Defence Against the Dark Arts." She knew it wasn't very nice of her, but she wasn't quite able to suppress her sarcastic tone. This was the boy who had let Death Eaters and a werewolf into Hogwarts to kill innocent children, after all. The boy who had watched her be tortured by his own aunt. The boy who had stood, pale and seemingly tormented yet unapologetic and unwavering, on the other side of the great divide during the war. For years she had seen his eyes in her nightmares before awaking to her own screams. Never Voldemort's eyes or Bellatrix Lestrange's eyes or even Fenrir Greyback's eyes--always Draco Malfoy's pale, sad eyes. The fact that she'd never considered him truly evil and that he hadn't seemed to take joy in any of the real cruelty only made her more wary of him.
Some things were hard to forgive and even harder to forget--even if time would now have turned that boy into a man.
McGonagall's lips actually stretched into a sad sort of smile. "I doubt that as well, but he's more than adequate at what he does, and he's been willing to give up much more than anyone else ever has in the history of Hogwarts, in order to be allowed to work here."
"You say he's a more than adequate teacher. He's been here long?" That seemed strange, considering that Defence Against the Dark Arts had been notorious for being a one-year occupation throughout Hermione's own schooling.
"Two years," McGonagall replied. "This will be his third. The curse on his position seems to have been lifted with Voldemort's demise."
"And, um, what exactly qualifies him for that position?" Hermione asked, trying hard to keep her doubts out of her voice.
The formidable headmistress had obviously still heard, though, because she gave her a stern look just before she answered, "He's alive."
The feast and the introduction went relatively painlessly. Hermione wasn't exactly the life of the party, but she wasn't shy either, so standing up and having her life and credentials summed up in a few sentences by the Headmistress wasn't the worst thing she'd ever experienced.
Apparently, she was a great war heroine and the most intelligent witch alive. Funny how none of that was reflected in her personal history. Certainly, she had a promising career with the Ministry that she could go back to, should she wish to do so after her leave of absence was over, but there was nothing truly grand about her existence. Nothing... sparkly. If she were really that remarkable, there should be sparkles, shouldn't there? She should have published a book or travelled the world, delivering grand speeches to important people. She should be living in a nice cottage in a rural area and rearing her two children with a gentle but firm hand, whilst still being very much in love with her husband, and expertly managing her career on the side.
Only, she wasn't married, she didn't have any children, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd done something exciting or anything that had challenged her mind. And she lived in a depressing little flat in London. Or she'd used to; her lease would be up in a couple of weeks.
She knew that it was her own fault that she had been withdrawing lately, but somehow her life just seemed wrong. As if her skin didn't fit anymore, and she should have been someone else, doing something else somewhere else.
It made no sense.
Getting away had probably been one of her better ideas. She would use this year for self-reflection and figuring out who she was and who she wanted to be, and hopefully, once she returned, she would be a brand new person.
Or she could move to Timbuktu, never to be seen again.
That was actually a pretty good plan. She had to look into that.
While deeply immersed in her thoughts about the joys of being Hermione Granger, she allowed the Headmistress to escort her to the staffroom. It was late, though, and McGonagall had some business to attend to, so soon enough Hermione was alone again. She was just about to go to her quarters to unpack and go to bed when a man entered the room. He didn't see her at first, but went straight for what seemed to be his personal space. Hermione hesitantly stood, signaling her presence.
He stopped dead in his tracks. "New teacher?" he asked.
"New teacher," she confirmed.
The man was oddly young for a teacher. Or maybe it was simply her advanced age of almost twenty-eight that made her think so. He was probably around her own age, maybe even a little older. His age really shouldn't have surprised her when Neville, Malfoy and she herself were all currently working here. The teachers had just seemed older when she had been a student, that was all. He was actually fairly attractive with dark brown hair, dark eyes and an unusually tan skintone. The only other wizard she'd ever met that didn't act as if sunlight would hurt him was Charlie Weasley and, well, he tamed dragons for a living. Teaching adolescents was a far cry from that.
Or was it?
"Darius Dorcas, Muggle Studies," he said, extending his hand with a rather charming smile. He had nice long fingers. "Just call me Darius."
"Hermione Granger, wanted Muggle Studies," she replied, taking his hand for a short, firm shake. It was warm. Why did that even surprise her? Live humans had a tendency to be warm and he certainly didn't look like another ghost. It really had been too long since she'd had actual human contact.
He grimaced. "Yeah, I heard about that. Sorry."
"Just tell me that you at least know something about your subject," she muttered, fighting off a wince at her memory of her own Muggle Studies lessons. Really, with so many Muggle-born wizards and witches--at least a few entered each year, after all--it should have been possible to get better information.
Darius's face lit up. "Oh, I do! Want to see my latest project?" He motioned towards the area he had been aiming for.
Hermione followed rather cautiously and saw what appeared to be some kind of Muggle stereo. "...Music?"
"Yes!" He was rather animated. "Electronics don't work at Hogwarts, due to the high concentration of magic, but imagine the possibilities if I managed to fuse Muggle technology with magic!"
Hermione stared rather blankly at him for a second. "Uh, interesting?"
"Don't mind him. He went bonkers a long time ago," said a very calm voice behind her. She turned to see the speaker and then froze in an unnatural, unconsciously guarded stance.
Oh, she hadn't seen him in years and he didn't look like a boy anymore, but there could be no doubt. Somehow, she didn't think that she would ever not recognize him. His hair was longer and a shade or two darker than she remembered, but it was still very distinctive, and his features were too unique to forget. His eyes had hardened, though. He hadn't been a pleasant boy in school, but it had always felt like his behaviours were all a surface. Now, his eyes were as cold and hard as slate, his whole posture was rigid, and his jaw was set in a way that made her feel like he wasn't happy to see her here. That she was intruding and he wanted her gone. That he still hated her.
It confused her. What could she possibly have done to incite such a strong reaction in a man she hadn't seen for so long? Could it be that he still hated those he did not consider pure? Was it possible that McGonagall would still allow him to teach if that were the case? No, that couldn't be it. McGonagall wouldn't express a desire to promote House unity whilst allowing a teacher to be so openly hostile towards Muggle-born witches and wizards at the same time, so whatever dislike was there had to be personal. But why?
"Interesting," Darius said after a few minutes of her trying to suss Malfoy out. "Do you know each other? If you don't, I promise you that he really isn't as interesting as I am."
"Anything is more interesting than your Muggle scrap metal," Malfoy replied, without even glancing at Darius. He simply narrowed his eyes at Hermione, as if trying to decide something. Then all of a sudden, he appeared to dismiss her, picking up a newspaper from the sideboard and taking a seat.
"Oh, I think Hermione could find me interesting..." Darius said, sounding very amused.
Malfoy didn't deign to answer, but just gave a disgusted snort instead. Hermione got the feeling that she wasn't really expected to respond one way or the other. In fact, the remark didn't seem to be about her at all. Maybe Malfoy simply liked to be at odds with people.
"Speaking of witches," Darius continued, "since I bowed out when you showed an interest in Carys, I figure you at least could lend me a wand with this."
"You did not bow out," Malfoy responded, not even looking up. "She was completely uninterested in you. You never had a chance."
Darius had never had a chance with something or someone? Now this might actually prove interesting... Her very first day and already there was petty intrigue!
Darius seemed completely undaunted. "I walked away, because I figured that you wouldn't stand a chance against a man who actually had charm. Besides, I can always use your gratitude. In fact, I'm basking in it right now." He winked at Hermione, whose eyebrows shot up. Oh, no. He wasn't including her in this in any way! She quickly averted her eyes and tried to look like she wasn't listening.
Another sigh. "If you're getting on so famously with Granger, why don't you ask for her wand-hand instead?"
Hermione narrowed her eyes, trying to follow the last bit of the exchange. "You need to borrow a wand?" she asked. "What's wrong with yours?"
Malfoy cracked his first smile and it wasn't exactly a pleasant one. In fact, it was rather maliciously gleeful. Apparently some things never changed. "You didn't tell her yet?" He put aside his reading material and looked expectantly at them. "This should prove at least vaguely interesting. Oh, go on, Dorky. The worst she's going to do is knit you something."
Hermione blinked. He remembered her knitting things? She'd all but forgotten herself. And... Dorky?
Darius let out a resigned breath of air, his good humour disappearing. "The reason why I'm fairly adept at Muggle Studies... is that I lived among them for almost two decades until fairly recently."
"Too convoluted," was Malfoy's verdict.
"You're a squib?" Hermione asked, frowning.
"Except apparently it wasn't," Malfoy murmured, sounding a little bit surprised, but then he seemed to shrug it off as he reopened his newspaper and tried to ignore them again.
Oh, please, what did he take her for? Why else would a wizard be unable to perform magic? He obviously wasn't a Muggle, since Hermione doubted that McGonagall was that open-minded about her school, and he most definitely wasn't an adolescent Muggle-born who'd only just been called to school.
"Yeah." Darius shoved his hands in his pockets. "I understand if that makes you uncomfortable."
"Not at all!" Although it was rather unorthodox for a squib to work on equal footing with wizards and witches. Especially on equal footing with pureblood snobs like Malfoy. The aforementioned snob was snorting again, and she couldn't help but ask Darius, "Is he always this delightful?"
"Oh, no," Darius drily responded. "Sometimes he's grumpy."
"No, really?" Hermione asked in mock surprise.
"All right, then!" Malfoy abruptly closed his newspaper and stood. "Apparently there's no peace to be had around here, so I'll just leave you two to talk about me in private." He began walking towards the door.
"So what prompted you to come all the way up here to teach?" Darius asked Hermione.
"People don't simply decide to take up teaching?" she asked, uncomfortably trying to dodge the question. Some things just seemed a little personal to share with almost complete strangers.
"We all have a story," he replied. "Even Malfoy. Or maybe especially Malfoy. He's not that keen on sharing."
Malfoy stopped just as he had reached the door and put his hand on the doorknob to open it. Then his lip twisted in a disconcerting sort of way. "Want me to share things?" he silkily asked, turning back. "Fine." He took the few steps back to Darius and handed him the Daily Prophet. "Page six. Did you know that Granger's ex-fiancé is called Ronald Weasley?" Then without waiting for their reactions and sporting just a hint of a sneer, he left.
Looking rather puzzled, Darius opened the newspaper to page six and then glanced uncomfortably at Hermione. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "I... didn't know."
Hermione already knew what was in the paper. There was a whole page on Ron's new engagement. When she had become engaged to him, they had only got a column. Of course, they hadn't been secretly engaged for a while before announcing it, which this journalist thought was an awfully romantic thing to do. Right. It wasn't as if Ron had hidden the engagement for even longer than anyone else knew simply to avoid gossip about his new fiancée being 'the other woman' that had stolen him away from Hermione. It didn't matter that that hadn't been what had happened at all; as late as a year ago, some people would still have interpreted it like that, and his new fiancée would have suffered the censure.
"We split up a while ago," she said with a nonchalant shrug and a small smile. Her whole demeanour was a lie, but Darius wouldn't know. People much closer to her didn't know. It was simply fortunate that she'd had time to get used to the news and that she'd found a way to escape most pitying looks. "I'm simply glad he's happy."
That wasn't a lie. She was glad he was happy.
She only wished she'd been happy first.
If Hermione had ever thought teaching would be easy or simple, she was soon disabused of that notion. In fact, for her very first class on her very first day, she was treated to some rather disruptive sixth years. At first, she took it all in her stride, responding to their questions about her personal life, figuring that they were simply curious about their new teacher.
Then she realised.
They were stalling, hoping that she wouldn't actually get around to making them do any schoolwork that day. And no matter what she did, there seemed to be children fidgeting as well as a constant buzz, and she wasn't completely certain exactly where it came from. Pin-pointing it was difficult, and the class was beginning to confuse and frustrate her. This was not how she remembered herself or anyone else in her year--save perhaps Malfoy and his gang--acting during class.
She was rapidly approaching her wits' end when there was a knock on the door. Certain that she was already looking frazzled, she called out, "Enter!" and then watched with astonishment and an overwhelming sense of annoyance as her class immediately grew so still that you could have heard a pin drop.
How dare they look all angelic and attentive, more than likely making her seem unreasonably irate? She frowned at the class at large and then turned to the person at the door. It was Malfoy, looking every bit as distant as he had the day before. But as he entered, he didn't even look at her, at least not at first. Rather, he was looking at the students, three different individuals in particular, focusing so hard on them that he made one of them--a dark-haired girl from Ravenclaw--blush with embarrassment and sink into her chair as if to hide.
Come to think of it, most of the unruliness did seem to originate around those students.
"The Headmistress wants you to sign this and return it to her as soon as possible," he said, handing a piece of parchment over to her and looking bored, as if he hadn't just apparently intimidated a whole classroom with a mere look. "She was supposed to have given it to you yesterday, but it would seem she forgot." His voice was dripping with sarcasm. That was interesting. But he was probably right; McGonagall had more than likely wanted someone to check in on her and had used this as a pretext.
"No problem," she muttered.
"I will see some of you in my class after this," he said to the room at large before he left, making it sound like a threat in spite of his subtle intonation.
There were no more problems with disturbances after that.
After the class finally finished, Hermione felt drained. Good thing she was teaching an elective and only had about half as many classes as someone teaching a mandatory class. Whilst teaching something mandatory would certainly pay better, she very much appreciated keeping her sanity. That was, if that were even possible.
Wearily, she got up from her seat and went down to the staffroom where she proceeded to sit down on a sofa and lean back to stare at the ceiling. She had developed a pretty good idea of how the rafters were positioned and had even thought of a few theories about the process of making them by the time someone else finally entered. She slowly lifted her head. Oh, great, Malfoy again. She had hoped for a more pronounced change of scenery.
Malfoy stopped short when he saw her, but then simply frowned and went to his own chair, again picking up a newspaper. "You're going to miss lunch," he informed her, no doubt looking to get rid of her. He was such a social being, wasn't he? But then again, if he didn't want to be around people, he could stay in his own office, so maybe he simply liked being grumpy all the time.
"Thanks," she merely said. "For helping with the little tyrants, I mean."
He frowned again, even deeper this time. "I didn't help you."
"Yeah, you did." She yawned. This had already been a long day, but she wasn't going to let Malfoy get away with denying what he'd done. "They felt threatened by you."
"They always feel threatened by me," he muttered. "Nothing to do with you."
"So, you're like Snape the Second?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. That was a rather disturbing thought. Although it didn't seem like Malfoy had given up on the habit of washing his hair yet and, well, his pouting wasn't really all that intimidating.
"No. I have nothing in common with Severus Snape," he said, looking rather annoyed with her.
"You both loathe teaching." Or so one could only assume. But this was Malfoy. There was no way he was actually doing this out of want, so what was his real motivation?
"I do not loathe teaching!" he surprisingly growled. "Who told you these lies?"
She snorted. "Oh, come on. You're saying that you're doing it because you love children and want to expand their minds?"
"I could live quite comfortably without doing anything at all, you know," he replied. "In a nice villa on the continent with enough house-elves and scantily clad witches to see to my every need. I don't need to be here."
"Then why are you?" she pressed, ignoring the rhetoric that was obviously designed to put her off. Honestly, he had to learn to do better than that.
"Because I want to be, and sadly for you, I mean to stay here. I don't want anything else."
He attempted to dismiss her by opening the newspaper he'd picked up, but he really should've known better than to think she could be that easily dissuaded once she had her heart set on something.
"I refuse to believe you don't want the scantily clad witches," she insisted.
He raised an eyebrow. "What makes you say that?"
What did make her say that? She frowned, trying to work it out. It was mostly just an... impression. Also, he was male. "Something about that conversation you had with Dorcas yesterday," she said.
He seemed to buy it. "After you've seen a few scantily clad witches, they tend to blur together a bit."
She snorted. "Now you're just showing off." She should've seen that one coming. This was Malfoy, after all. If he was still anything like his younger self, then showing off and whinging was what he did best.
Something seemed off with that assessment, and she frowned, trying to work out what that was. Then she shook it off. Obviously he'd acquired a new skill: grumping.
He shrugged. "Merely saying that they're only fun to keep around when needed. I'm quite happy to live witch-free the rest of the time."
"Right." Hermione indulged in a bit of sarcasm. "But you have manly needs."
He shot her the most peculiar glance. "I never said there was no such thing as womanly needs and why are we having this conversation?"
Oh, so she was making him uncomfortable, was she? Well, good. Only using witches for his personal Happy Fun Times, indeed. That was annoying. She was definitely feeling annoyed. She tried to rein it in. Lecturing clueless men on their sexism never led to anything good. Pureblood wizards tended to be the worst of the lot; even Ron was rather bad on that score. Instead she forced herself to smile and say, "Because you refused to admit that you were helping me out in the classroom."
"Right." He nodded. "I wasn't."
"So, when you're talking about womanly needs--"
He abruptly stood. "The Headmistress ordered it, so stop it!"
Hermione was still laughing long after he'd gone.
The first few weeks of the school year went by relatively fast. Hermione soon learned that democracy in class did not work, and that she needed to assert herself. That really wasn't much of a problem once she got over not wanting the students to perceive her as a mean old hag. Really, being a mean old hag was so much easier. Besides, it seemed like they actually liked her better once she stopped worrying about being liked. Odd.
The staffroom was generally a bit of a disappointment. Darius explained that the professors who didn't live at the castle usually only showed up at the Great Hall for the meals convenient to them, obligatory feasts, and at the staffroom for planned staff meetings, so she shouldn't be surprised if she for instance didn't really see Neville Longbottom much at all, unless she deliberately sought him out. He was, however, vague about why nobody else seemed to use the staffroom in the afternoons. All she gathered was that it somehow had to do with Malfoy. She didn't quite understand that. He was grumpy, certainly, but he wasn't that bad. He generally kept to himself, even when in the middle of a group of people. He was, however, as she'd found out quite by herself, occasionally fun to bait.
"You should go to Hogsmeade if you're bored one night," Darius said one Friday afternoon, as she was reading a book in the staffroom. He was tinkering with his stereo again. Really, he just seemed to be pulling it apart. "It doesn't have very many places to go at night, so people will still know where to find you, and it's close enough that you could easily be called back for an emergency. Just don't get pissed. Minerva doesn't really like it when her staff overindulges, especially if there's no real occasion."
Go to Hogsmeade? Alone? "I don't know... " she muttered. "I'm really quite fine here."
"Then we could go together."
Hermione glanced at him, feeling a bit wary. All signs pointed towards Darius wanting to become a bit friendlier than she was ready for. Especially with someone she had to work with. Relationships didn't tend to end so well for her. Imagine if he then ran off with Madam Vera, the young matron that had taken Madam Pomfrey's place at some point in the last few years, or imagine if her own shortcomings would eventually push him away. She definitely wasn't prepared to face that. She'd come here, hoping to have a whole year where she wouldn't even have to consider going out with someone, so his attention made her feel a little bit awkward.
She was overthinking the matter. Best to simply reply. He might not even mean anything by it. "Er... " she said.
There was a brief look of disappointment on his face, but it was gone so quickly that Hermione wasn't certain it had ever really been there. Then he shot her a bright smile. "Nah, maybe not such a great idea. They don't take too kindly to squibs down at the Three Broomsticks, and the Hog's Head is nowhere to take a decent witch. Maybe some other time, some other place, yeah?"
She felt bad for rejecting him like that. He'd actually been very nice to her ever since she started, and it wasn't even because she was completely uninterested. She liked him very much and maybe once they didn't have to work so closely together, she could encourage him to owl her. Just not quite yet. Things needed to fall into place, and she needed her safe space.
"That's just wrong," she heard herself say. "You should be able to go wherever you please." As soon as she realised what she'd said, she felt a little stupid. Of course he should be able to go wherever he pleased. She wouldn't be getting arguments from him there. It hadn't been his idea to make wizarding society so inherently bigoted against anyone and anything that wasn't exactly as they'd prescribed. She simply didn't know what else to say.
"I didn't say I wasn't able to go," he clarified, his smile beginning to look a little strained. "I said I wasn't particularly welcome. I did go for a while, but... " He shrugged again. "I don't really have a reason to anymore."
"What was your reason before?"
He hesitated a bit. "A pretty young witch."
"What happened?" Hermione had always been too curious for her own good. If she had to guess without knowing the story, she'd bet this was the same witch Darius had mentioned to Malfoy on the first day.
Darius's hands stopped fiddling with his Muggle electronics and he stared at them for a second. "She wasn't interested in seeing a squib," he finally said. "Nobody really is, you see. They'll be all smiles and flirting until they realise, and then they'll be awkward and can't seem to get away fast enough. We're the ones that don't belong, the ones that don't qualify for anything. They think we should either go and live with Muggles or hide away working miserable jobs, like old Filch is doing. We shouldn't presume." He began tinkering again. "We shouldn't want."
Hermione was quite speechless. "You know that's not why--"
"I know." He didn't look up at her. "You're a very decent sort. But it still plays a small part, doesn't it? Even if you're Muggle-born. Even if you believe in equality."
"You're completely sure about that?"
She blushed with embarrassment and anger. It seemed too much like he was calling her a bigot. Her, of all people! "What are you trying to say?"
He opened his mouth, but then sighed and shook his head. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
"Have I somehow offended you?"
He looked startled. "Of course not."
"Then why are you saying I'd discriminate against you?"
"Maybe because I want you to prove me wrong."
He looked her straight in the eyes for the longest time, but finally Hermione had to look away. She couldn't deal with this kind of thing just now. "I think I might go down to Hogsmeade after all," she said, getting up.
Perhaps walking off without inviting Darius along wasn't the nicest thing Hermione had ever done, but he'd hit a sore spot with her. She was Muggle-born, yet at this point in her life she didn't really have anything to do with anyone not magical. She had wanted to make her parents proud, and she supposed she had, but she had lost any deeper connection with them before she was even a teen. Today, they were little more than polite strangers. Certainly, there was still love and pride, but they simply had nothing to talk about.
This seemed to be the story of all of her old relationships lately.
Hermione stood in the doorway of the Three Broomsticks, clutching her book to her chest. Why she'd even brought a book to the pub, she wasn't sure, but right now it was good for holding onto.
There were so many people. And they were all laughing and talking quite loudly. Many of them had definitely had their fair share of drink.
She quickly stepped aside as someone stumbled to get past her, but he still managed to bump into her.
She shrunk into herself.
Hermione was not a shy person, and she had certainly not been a wallflower at any time in her life. It was just... she'd had a distaste for going out ever since her world had crumbled. She'd had a distaste for meeting new people.
She'd had a distaste for opening up to new people.
Oh, she knew that Ron had never meant to hurt her. He hadn't even been the one to do the leaving, and she knew for a fact that he too had been broken for a long time.
Knowing that simply didn't make it any less lonely and intimidating to be her, trying to fight her way past a natural inclination to shut off and shut down.
However, Ron had moved on and so would she. Just as soon as she was finished hiding in the Scottish Highlands.
Well, whilst she was hiding up here, she might as well socialise with the locals. She took a deep breath and entered the room, making her way around the edges until she found a small table in the corner where she could sit down. So far, so good.
She opened her book to claim her spot, but before she could get back up to order, a young blonde witch who obviously worked there had approached her table. "Can I get you anything, love?"
"Um... Butterbeer, please," Hermione muttered, a bit flustered at being approached. She hadn't thought there'd be table service and had simply ordered the first thing that had come to mind. Regardless, one butterbeer wasn't likely to get her smashed, even if she did have the constitution of a house-elf. The witch nodded, went away, came back with the drink, and then left her alone after accepting payment. Hermione liked that service; she would have to tip the barmaid before she went back.
Although she did suspect that the majority of the witch's tips didn't come from her no-nonsense service, but rather from her low-cut robes. Not that Hermione was a prude that minded low-cut robes. In fact, she felt that wearing them was probably a very good marketing strategy for the witch, and she applauded that.
She wondered if this was the pretty witch Darius had been talking about. She was pretty, that much was for certain. And she was working at the Three Broomsticks. It was none of her business, though. Hermione returned to her book, to her surprise actually liking the activity and noise around her. It reminded her a little of so many visits to the Burrow, where during the holidays she'd sat in a corner of the living room whilst all the countless children and grandchildren--well, they had seemed countless at the time--had been making merry around her.
She hadn't been to the Burrow since the end of her relationship. Molly had actually invited her for Christmas last year, before she had known that Ron had become re-engaged, obviously, but Hermione had declined. It would have been too awkward, even if Molly had assured her that she was still a part of the family. Because the fact of the matter was that she wasn't. Harry was a part of the family; Hermione was not.
This was becoming depressing fast. All of these people made Hermione realise exactly how alone she'd become. Maybe she should simply go.
As she got up, she saw that Malfoy had arrived as well, and he was talking to the blonde barmaid, who now had her back turned to Hermione.
Something seemed to shift. Hermione blinked and frowned. It was an odd feeling, almost like déjà vu, but not quite. It was like... she was struggling to remember something. She spent a few seconds trying to work it out, but nothing came to her and eventually she gave up. It was probably nothing important anyway.
Still, when she looked at the couple again, her world seemed to shift once more.
What's going on?
She frowned. This was not good. Had the butterbeer been off or something?
When she looked a third time, Malfoy looked up to meet her eyes and something just snapped inside her head. Her body went completely limp as if the threads holding her up had been severed.
As she fell, she saw it. There it was. Almost within her grasp. She blindly reached for it and caught something vague, something intangible. Draco Malfoy. A blonde witch. A name. "Marilyn," she breathed the second before everything went black.