A Strange Engagement

The Ingenious Plan

Ariella shifted in her seat so that she was even closer to Valerian and watched Hermione and Draco with a strange smile on her face. They seemed to get along well enough. They were debating with one another about the purpose of Alstere House, and what exactly Dumbledore had meant when he said that he thought they'd be there for a long time. But she knew. She and Valerian had asked Dumbledore about the relationship between their descendants, and were not surprised at his answer that before this summer, due to family pride and all that he was brought up on, Draco had looked down upon Hermione due to the fact that, as far as he'd known, she was a muggle-born witch. And that Hermione had thought of Draco as conceited, manipulative and just plain bad. But she'd watched them since they'd come to rescue her and her father from the dungeon of the Clan Castle, and something told her that there was more between them then just mutual dislike.

"What are you thinking about?" Valerian asked her suddenly, his breath ruffling her hair.

"I was just thinking that it should be our mission to bring those two together," she said, gesturing at Draco and Hermione. "Don't you sense something between them?"

Valerian nodded. "I do. And I think that somehow, they know it's there too, they're just too stubborn to admit it, even to themselves."

Ariella smiled. "Once we land, I say we start our mission by getting them to talk to us separately about their relationship, man to man, woman to woman. The first step will be for us to know what we're dealing with."

Valerian nodded once more, and the two of them smiled to themselves, happy with their clever plan.

They arrived at Alstere House, landing on the lawn with a soft thump. Dumbledore, who'd been driving, let everyone out and then went to park the car while the rest of them went inside.

As they entered the foyer, Hermione let out a gasp at what she saw. The house was really one of the grandest she'd ever seen. She walked up the stairs, admiring the paintings that lined the staircase, although most of the people in them seemed familiar.

"Draco," she asked him, for he'd decided to follow her up, "do the people in these paintings seem familiar to you?"

He followed her gaze to a portrait of a rather sour-looking man, who looked vaguely familiar. "Yes, I feel some connection with them. But I swear I've never been here before in my life."

Hermione nodded, and was so distracted by trying to figure out this puzzling new mystery that she missed a step on the stairway, and with a yell, started to tumble down the stairs. It wasn't long though before she felt a tight, warm, strong grip pull her up. She opened her eyes and saw Draco, hovering over her with a worried expression on his face. She was surprised to see that most of her was now lying vertically across the steps on her back, with her head facing downwards toward the floor. And she was even more surprised to see that Draco was actually holding her hand. She thought she'd dreamt it.

In the next minute, he was hauling her upright as easily as if she weighed nothing at all. "You need to be more careful. These steps are slick. And we can't have you break your neck. That wouldn't do us any good."

At that moment, Ariella and Valerian came upon them. "Is everything all right?" Ariella asked. "We thought we heard yelling."

"Its fine," Draco replied almost immediately.

"Yes, it's fine. I just got distracted and missed a step, but Draco caught me before I fell." Hermione agreed in a rushed voice.

"We can see that," Valerian said, grinning as his eyes lit on their entwined fingers. When Hermione and Draco realized what he was looking at, they gasped and separated. This just made Valerian grin wider. "When you two are finished looking around, we'd like to meet you both in the parlor across the hall for a little chat."

They left before Hermione or Draco could reply. After they were gone, Hermione looked at the pictures for a few more moments, and then went down the stairway to look in some of the others rooms, and once again, Draco followed her.

"Do you think it's strange that Valerian knows his way around this place so well?" Hermione questioned as Draco fell in step beside her. "I mean, I've never heard of it, have you?"

He shook his head. "And it seems like those two know something we don't. Did you get a good look at their faces just now? At those know-it-all smirks that they were wearing?"

Hermione nodded. "Yes, yes I did. Maybe we should head to the parlor now. Then we'll find out what they're up to, I'm sure of it."

They arrived in the parlor soon after and took a seat in the two red plush chairs across from a pair that Ariella and Valerian were sitting in. The other pair greeted them with enthusiasm, those infuriating grins still dancing on their faces.

"Nice to see you were able to get here," Valerian said as soon as they sat down. "Now, we have to tell you that Dumbledore had some business to take care of at Hogwarts, and he enlisted Ailbert to help him, leaving Ariella and me in charge of you. I have a feeling that we're going to get along famously, but you two must do what we ask of you, is that understood?"

Hermione and Draco nodded confusedly.

"All right then," Ariella replied. "First, Hermione, I would like you to come with me, and Draco you go with Valerian for that chat we talked about earlier."

"Why can't we do it all together?" Draco asked nervously.

"Because it will work better if we do it man to man and woman to woman," Ariella said with finality in her voice.

Hermione and Draco looked at one another and sighed, following their respective relations into their rooms.

Ariella shut the door behind her with satisfaction as she watched Hermione slump down on the bed and sigh heavily.

"What did you want to talk about?"

Ariella walked over to the bed and sat beside her, putting her hand on Hermione's shoulder. "I want you to tell me about Draco."

Hermione frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, what's he like? What do you think of him?"

The question gave Hermione pause. She realized she'd never really taken time to think about him, beyond the Gryffindor prejudices she had.

"Well," she answered finally, "at school, we don't get along. He's in Slytherin and I'm in Gryffindor, and he's always surrounded by all his Slytherin buddies who hate me and make him act really nasty, especially to me because of having muggle parents which upsets my friends and causes lots of problems. This summer has been quite an interesting experience to say the least. I mean, I saw a side of him that I wouldn't have believed if you'd tried to tell me about it last year, and I just-" she stopped, unable to find more words.

Ariella nodded. "All right. Now, let's pretend that you were at school, going down to the dungeons for Potions class all by yourself and you lost grip on all your textbooks and started to topple down the stairs. Right at that moment, Draco comes by the stairs and happens to see you fall. Do you think that school Draco would try and save you like he did here, or would he laugh as he watched you fall?"

Hermione thought a moment. "Well, it would depend on if he was with anyone when he happened by. If he was with Crabbe and Goyle or Pansy Parkinson, he would probably laugh as I fell just to impress them, but if he was by himself, I don't know what he'd do."

Ariella's eyebrows knitted. "And who are those people?"

"Crabbe and Goyle are Draco's goons and Pansy is the girl who wishes she was his girlfriend."

Ariella nodded. "All right. I think I've heard enough. When Valerian and Draco are finished, they're going to knock. Then we will reconvene and talk all together."

"But Ariella, why are we doing all this?" Hermione cried.

"You'll see," Ariella grinned. "You'll see."

Meanwhile, Draco and Valerian were well into their own conversation.

"…So you and she don't get along at school?" Valerian asked.

Draco shook his head. "I don't go near her if I can avoid it."

"Why?" Valerian asked.

Draco shrugged. "Because she's in Gryffindor and I'm in Slytherin and it just doesn't work out for us to be seen in each other's company."

Valerian nodded and sat down next to him. "All right, that's acceptable. Now, if I'd asked you why you didn't want to go near her a year ago, what would you have told me?"

Draco opened his mouth and tried to answer, but nothing would come out. Valerian smiled at that and excused himself for a moment to go fetch Ariella and Hermione.

A few minutes later, they were back in the parlor. Ariella insisted that Hermione and Draco share the couch, so she and Valerian were now in the single chairs.

"In your separate conferences," Ariella began, "you told Valerian and me what you thought of one another, until we each asked you a question that you weren't able to answer completely. Now, in each other's presence, we will ask you those questions again. I'll go first: Hermione, if you were at Hogwarts carrying your books to Potions and you happened to loose grip on them and topple down a flight of stairs while Draco was watching you, do you think you'd want him to save you? Do you think he would?"

Hermione looked at Draco for a moment before she answered. His eyes were eager, curious, as if he really wanted to know what she was going to say. They weren't cold at all. "I think he would save me," she said finally. "And I think that I would definitely want him to."

Ariella smiled. "All right."

"And Draco," Valerian continued, "You stated that you don't come near Hermione at school because it's not acceptable for you to be in each other's company. When I asked you how you would have answered that question last year, what did you say?"

Now Hermione looked at him, knowing full well what he would have said last year: It was because she was a mudblood. She dared him to say it now. She watched him closely. He took a deep breath.

"I would have said last year that it was because she's a m-" he stopped, then tried to start again. "A mu-"

And once again, Valerian smiled. "You can't call her a mudblood anymore, can you?"

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