They would be right about that.
It might've been the presence of the two hulking, heavyset boys flanking me that made them all shrink uneasily toward their compartment doors, of course, but still. Crabbe and Goyle couldn't take all the credit. I was a Malfoy, after all. And a Malfoy inspires respect wherever he goes.
"Ouch! Oh, excuse me!" I tripped backward a few steps, startled, as a smallish shape banged into my shoulder, putting an abrupt halt to my smooth gait.
A scowl twisted my mouth. Who dared to come mowing me over like I was some insignificant Muggle? Nobody should've been so oblivious to my presence. If I was anything like my father, which I'd been told I was, I should have commanded the attention of any room I was in. A flash of annoyance snapped through me. But as soon as I looked over, and caught a glimpse of the offender, the angry retort I'd been about to hiss at them died in my throat.
It was a girl. A very cute girl. She looked to be about my age, and she had the craziest mane of bushy hair I'd ever seen, like she was half-lion. Her cheeks, which were a warm tone just a few shades away from being tan, were spattered with a light dusting of freckles, and she had a button nose that turned up at the end. But the thing that really caught my attention was her eyes. They were brown. Not just any old brown, either, but the prettiest shade I'd ever seen, with flecks of gold and streaks of caramel swimming in them so her irises looked like they were made of melted chocolate. Nothing like the grey eyes I was so accustomed to seeing in the faces of my parents and my reflection, or the washed out blue of Crabbe's or the murky black of Goyle's. And there was something in them, too, something... beyond physical. A light. Like sunshine.
The fluttering sensation that filled my stomach as I looked at her was a feeling I had never experienced before.
"It's no problem," I croaked out in a voice that didn't sound like my own. Then, realizing my two mates were looking at me funny, I cleared my throat and said in what I hoped was my usual aristocratic tone, "Just don't do it again. Nobody pushes ME around and gets away with it."
The girl furrowed her eyebrows.
She crossed her arms over her chest in a bossy gesture, which for some stupid reason made my stomach go all flip-floppy again. And why is that?"
I scoffed at her incredulously. Surely she knew who I was! My father had said everyone at Hogwarts would know who I was.
"Because I'm a Malfoy," I said, as if I was explaining something to a very slow toddler. This got no reaction out of her. With an exasperated sigh, I mimicked her gesture and crossed my own arms. "You know. Lucius Malfoy's son? He's a Governor of the school?"
Growling, I stamped my foot. "He's important!" I huffed, though I knew I sounded petulant. "We're all important. My whole family! So you shouldn't EVER get in my way."
The girl, to my utter disbelief, seemed completely unimpressed. If anything, she looked disdainful.
"You know, your family name doesn't give you worth," she said coldly. "I like to base my opinions on people off of their actions, not their parents. But you can do what you want. And don't worry. I'll avoid you from now on."
With a toss of her frizzy hair, the girl flounced away, nose in the air. I was nettled at her words, but at the same time, a twinge of something like unease was poking at the back of my mind. Maybe I'd been wrong to act so scornful. What if it turned out this girl was a pureblood? What if she ended up in my house? Surely then I would regret my behaviour. But no, she couldn't end up in into my house, because I was sure to get into Slytherin, and only high-bred people were sorted there. She couldn't be anyone important, or she would've known who I was. No, more likely she was some uninformed half-blood, maybe even a Mudblood. I shuddered at the thought. So it was all for the best, anyway.
But then again...
I glanced subtly over my shoulder to watch her, tromping through the chattering huddles of new and returning students with her head held high. Completely unrattled by me. It wasn't just anyone who could stand up to a Malfoy like that. Maybe she did have some stock in her after all.
An awful, weighty feeling settled in my stomach. I got the oddest sense that I'd just missed out on something big, like I'd reached a major crossroads without knowing it and had veered onto the wrong path by mistake. I certainly hoped my gut was wrong.
"Oy, Malfoy? We gonna find a compartment?" I turned to see Crabbe's dull, piggy eyes staring at me in confusion. The great dolt that he was, I was shocked he'd even realized we had stopped. His words shook me out of my stupor.
"Course," I said, putting back on my mask of indifference. "Come on, let's go. I think Nott said he'd be around this car somewhere." But as we started checking all the compartments for a sign of our friend Theo, my mind stayed with the bushy-haired girl. I hadn't even gotten her name. I wished I had. 'And of course, I just wish that because it would've let me know who her family is,' I told myself. 'That's all it is.'
Was it, though? I thought of that skeptical, snappish look she'd shot me as she folded her arms, the fire in her brown eyes. Nobody'd ever had the nerve to give me that kind of attitude before. It had been... weird though it sounded... almost refreshing. And alright, if I was completely honest with myself... maybe her bloodline wasn't the only reason I wanted her name. My parents had explained to me what crushes were. Of course we'd only spoken for a few seconds, and I knew next to nothing about this lion-girl, but still. She was awfully cute. And she had a spark in her. Maybe, if it turned out she was a pureblood after all, we could get to know each other better. Eventually. Once I convinced her I wasn't a giant prat. I just wished I'd asked her name. And apologized for being rude. I had been on the verge of doing that when she'd walked away, to be honest.
So why hadn't I said anything?
I bristled under the fiery glare Hermione Granger was shooting at me from those infuriatingly pretty eyes. She dared, she DARED to insinuate I had no talent! That the only reason I was Seeker was because I had a rich father! My face was smouldering, and for once, I had no biting argument ready in my arsenal.
I couldn't believe I had nearly befriended this girl last year. Damn good thing I hadn't. The captivating, spunky brunette had not only turned out to be a Gryffindor (ew), but the daughter of Muggles. MUGGLES. If I had gotten close to her, my parents would have flayed me alive. And then of course there was the glaring fact that not far into our first school year she'd managed to buddy up to one of the blood traitor Weasleys and his best friend, none other than the moronic, arrogant, completely insufferable Harry Potter. The precious 'Boy Who Lived'. What a load of dreck THAT was. Anyone with sense knew that the Dark Lord would've been an ideal leader, had a certain scar-headed idiot not messed it up for him. At least, that was what my father said. Anyway, point was, Hermione could not have made herself more disagreeable to me, or more off limits.
But unfortunately, to my shame and utter disgust... I still liked her.
I still BLOODY liked her.
Even after I'd found out she was a dirty Muggle, even after all the trouble her and Potter and the boneheaded Weasel had gotten me into last year. It just couldn't be helped. My heart insisted on drumming faster whenever our eyes met, was hell-bent on skipping a beat every time our shoulders brushed in the corridor.
And I hated it.
Thinking of my stubborn, ridiculous feelings made the rage coursing through my mind built up tenfold, and the hissing embers flickering inside of me ignited into a bonfire. Before I knew what I was doing, before I could think or consider the consequences, I stomped up to Hermione until our faces were only inches apart and spat, "No one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood."
Wands flew out of a half dozen pockets. The entire Gryffindor Quidditch team started screaming bloody murder. If Marcus Flint hadn't dove in front of me, a few of them probably would've bashed my head in.
I took a few steps back, genuinely frightened for my own safety. That was when I heard a familiar irritating voice, distinguishable among the rest of the outrage, cry "You'll pay for that one, Malfoy!" A flash of light exploded in front of me. I flinched backwards and squeezed my eyes shut, fully expecting to be hit with some horrible jinx. Instead a burst of laughter from Flint made me look up.
I was still unharmed, but the caster of the spell hadn't been so lucky. Ron Weasley had fallen back onto the grass as if someone had punched him and was sitting there in a very stupid looking position with his legs splayed out, clutching his stomach and looking downright ill. As I watched, confused, he opened his mouth wide like he was about to say something, but instead of words, something fat and slimy spilled out of this throat. I recoiled instinctively. Several girls shrieked. Was that a... slug?
As the rest of my team howled with laughter, I put the pieces together. Everyone knew Weasley's wand had been malfunctioning since the first day of term when he and Potter had pulled that stunt with the flying car (bloody attention-seeking Potter, always trying to make the headlines) and crashed into the Whomping Willow. His faulty wand must've made the spell backfire on him. I joined the rest of my team in crowing over this new bit of humiliation for the Weasel.
"Oh well done, Weasley." I clapped my hands mockingly and chuckled. "Brilliant wand work there! I see why you're always at the top of your class. Oh wait! My mistake! That's know-it-all Muggle-brain." I nodded at Hermione with a sneer. I wasn't willing to push my luck by calling her a Mudblood again. "You, on the other hand, have about about as much intelligence as... hmm, there's no person alive stupid enough to compare you to... let's say a rock."
Weasley's face turned as red as his hair as the Slytherins snickered approvingly, then immediately reverted to a sickly shade of green. Another slug popped out of his mouth. I roared with laughter and a big bloke beside me clapped me on the back.
"Ignore them, Ron," Potter muttered, helping Weasley to his feet. "Come on, Hermione, let's take him to Hagrid's."
They walked away with Ron's arms slung over their shoulders, flinching away when he belched out slugs and determinedly feigning deafness to our jeers and laughter.
As they stumbled across the grass toward the groundskeeper's hut, the duo steadfastly propping up their violently sick friend, I was surprised to feel a gnawing sensation beginning to twitch at the base of my stomach. A sensation I didn't have much experience with, but I had no trouble identifying.
My hands curled into fists at my sides and I swallowed, my laughter dying away. I didn't want to feel guilty. After all, I hadn't even done anything wrong! It was Weasley who had tried to hex me, and it served him right getting that jinx thrown back at him, didn't it?
I watched the trio of figures grow farther and farther away, and I tried to summon another laugh, but it came out as a half-hearted chuckle. Maybe... maybe...
Then my face hardened. No. I didn't care if Weasley felt completely awful. I wasn't some soft, namby-pamby bleeding heart. I wouldn't take pity on a half-wit who couldn't even cast a spell properly. I was a Malfoy. And a Malfoy didn't glance at those beneath him except to sneer at them from his pedestal high above. That was my place.
But if that was true, why did I still feel so rotten?
Later, as I walked down a corridor back to my common room, I spotted Granger coming toward me at the opposite end of the hall. A smirk twisted my lips. Now was my chance to show once at for all that I wasn't affected by her, by any of them, that my conscience was clear and they had no grip over me whatsoever. But as we passed beside each other, and the opportunity to speak presented itself, something stopped me. I wasn't sure what. I just couldn't force the words out. It was as if some invisible force was clamping my mouth shut, preventing me from speaking. I swallowed hard and kept walking, leaving Granger and the unspoken taunts to drift away behind me.
I turned the corner and halted in my tracks, frowning at the floor. What on earth had gone wrong? She'd been right there. I could've spoken. I could've teased her. I never passed her or any Gryffindor by without poking fun at them. But I hadn't. There had been nothing stopping me, nothing holding me back. My mind was at ease. I didn't care that Weasley had been sick, not one bit. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
So... why hadn't I said anything?
"'S no good, Ron. That Committee's in Lucius Malfoy's pocket."
I stifled a snort and shot a derisive glance back at Hagrid's lumbering, weepy figure and the sympathetic-looking trio patting his arms comfortingly before exchanging looks with Crabbe and Goyle. "Damn right, it's in his pocket," I muttered smugly. "His very deep pocket, along with everything else." The two beefy Slytherins trudging alongside me back to the castle made grunting, halting noises of approval that just barely passed for laughter.
"That barmy chicken doesn't stand a chance," Goyle agreed with a leer. "No matter how much they 'appeal'. Nobody would dare go against your dad, Draco!"
"Which apparently those three haven't figured out yet," I sniffed. Another glance back showed me that Hagrid had completely broken down and was now sobbing into a handkerchief.
I guffawed as we came to a stop inside the front doors of the castle. What a surprise. The big baby had been on the verge of tears for the whole Care of Magical Creatures lesson, and now he was bawling like a two-year-old. Some professor.
"Look at him!" I cackled, watching him hurry away back to the dumpy little shack he called a home. Potter, Weasel, and Granger had caught up now and were listening, but I didn't care. "Have you ever seen anything quite as pathetic? And he's supposed to be our teacher!"
Potter and Weasley both opened their mouths furiously to retort, but Granger, to my surprise, started walking straight at me, and for a minute I was confused as she loomed right up in front of my face, her brown eyes blazing. There was no sunshine in them now.
I stumbled backward in shock, my cheek stinging from where she'd struck me hard across the face with her bare hand. She hadn't even bothered to use her wand.
"Don't you dare call Hagrid pathetic, you foul- you evil-"
Weasley made a feeble attempt to grab her arm, but she just tore it away. It was the first time I'd ever seen Granger really mad, and the first time I understood that what was normally just a spark in her could, if the circumstances pushed her far enough, be fanned to a roaring flame. When the heat reached it's peak, there would be no stopping her. That I was sure of.
Apparently done with using brute force and ready to resort to magical means to get her message across, Granger pulled out her wand. My senses returned to me.
"C'mon," I mumbled to Crabbe and Goyle, ripping my eyes from her fierce gaze. If I was right about her fire, staying any longer would result in me getting burned. I needed to go before that happened.
We turned and rushed off toward the staircase to the dungeons, not looking back, not once. I heard Potter and the Weasel praising her behind us.
"Bloody mudblood," Crabbe growled in his brutish voice as we descended down the hard stone stairs. "You're alright, Malfoy, aren't you?"
"Course," I answered quickly. Now that we were out of Granger's presence, I felt my old spirits rising up defiantly inside of me, my temper snapping. That little brat. Now I looked like a fool in front of my two closest... well, not friends. Comrades was a better word. Incredibly slow and pea-brained comrades, luckily, who would follow me without question. It was just a good thing none of the other Slytherins had been there to see my humiliation. I touched the place on my cheek where her hand had been, then scowled and drew my fingers away.
"Just hope I don't get a disease from her filthy Muggle germs," I continued acidly, wiping my hand on my robes. "Granger's gonna pay for that. You can stake your life on it." And she would, that I could guarantee. I was just slightly at a loss as to why she hadn't already paid for it. I could have taken her right there, I knew I could've. My skills in hexes and curses had to be twice as good as hers- even if she was the smartest student at Hogwarts. And all magic aside, I always had a good comeback ready to whip my opponents down into the dust where they belonged. Nobody had a tongue sharper than mine. The amount of times I'd won a solid victory over some pathetic goody two-shoes using my words alone was uncountable. This situation was no different.
So then... why hadn't I said anything?
I bit down hard on my bottom lip and resisted the urge to pry the vice-like fingers digging their nails into my dress robes off of my arm. Pansy was practically giddy with happiness, that much was apparent. It was more than obvious she was just proud as a peacock to be seen on my arm at the Yule Ball- I just wished she didn't have to be so literal about the 'on my arm' bit. She hadn't let go of me since we'd met up outside our dorms in the Slytherin common room. To be frank, I hadn't even wanted to ask Pansy to the ball in the first place. She was fun, that was true, and very loyal. It was just that she could be, well... too loyal. Her and her whiny best friends clung to me like attention-hungry puppy dogs wherever I went, always screeching with laughter far louder and longer than was necessary at all my jokes and fluttering their eyelashes at me, as if that would make me like them more. But asking her had, sadly, been necessary. Not doing so would've resulted in my public humiliation at dinner as she vented angry questions at me about why I hadn't invited her, and probably more than a few vicious retaliations during classes. So I was stuck with her. Just one of the upsides of being me.
"They're taking forever."
Pansy fanned her face with the hand that wasn't sinking its talons into my flesh and pouted at the huge double doors leading to the Great Hall. The frilly pink dress she was wearing only enhanced the 'spoiled little princess' air she was giving off.
"When are they going to let us in? I want to dance already!"
I patted her hand absently in a reassuring gesture and glanced around the crowded Entrance Hall, looking for something I didn't want to admit I was searching for.
"I'm sure they'll open the doors soon," I said, my eyes darting from head to head. I saw blonde ones and red ones and black ones and brown ones, but none the right shade of brown, none falling in the familiar bushy waves. Maybe she really hadn't been asked after all. I felt a twisted mix of triumph and disappointment at the thought. Then I felt a rush of anger at being disappointed. Who cared if she wasn't here! It wasn't as if...
"Oh, finally! Draco, they're letting us in!" Pansy shook my arm excitedly and I had to make a conscious attempt not to wince away. I glanced at the entryway. The two massive doors had been thrown open, and the Triwizard Champions were all lined up at the sides with their dates, their heads held high. I felt a twinge of jealousy at all the eyes that were on them. It could've been me over there, the representative of Hogwarts school. If only I'd been able to find a way past that stupid age restriction line the way Potter apparently had.
And speaking of Potter... I smirked as I spotted him. He was standing next to Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies, looking very uncomfortable and out of place, with one of the Patil twins (I could never tell them apart) beaming broadly next to him and waving a spangled arm at the swarms of students passing by. She certainly seemed to be enjoying herself, at least. I chuckled at the awkward way Harry kept yanking at his collar. Probably wasn't used to wearing robes that were actually half-decent. If he spent a lot of time in the refined, well-bred Wizarding society my family and I were so high up in, I was a house elf.
On his other side were the two remaining champions, Cedric Diggory and Viktor Krum. Cedric looked annoyingly handsome as usual with the Ravenclaw Seeker Cho Chang smiling sweetly up at him, and Krum for once was missing his characteristic frown, puffing out his chest and grinning down at...
Oh, Salazar help me.
It was Granger. Granger. With Viktor Krum. But not the bushy haired, buck-toothed Granger I was so accustomed to seeing. Her hair, normally so tangled and frizzy, was pulled back into an elaborate updo with a few perfectly positioned curls floating around her face that my mother would've been proud of. Her lips were lightly painted with just the right amount of pink, she was wearing an absolutely stunning periwinkle gown that accentuated curves I hadn't known she was in possession of and made her look like a princess, and she must have done something with her teeth because they looked perfectly average, not at all like the beaver's fangs she normally sported. In other words, she looked good.
I squirmed a little under the sudden aching tightness in my chest, like someone had wrapped a fist around my heart and was squeezing it. Merlin. I could barely breathe. What the hell was the matter with me? A nagging, high-pitched tone laced with annoyance scratched at the edges of my stupor, not quite penetrating deep enough to catch my interest.
"Draco? Are we gonna go in or what?" I didn't look over at Pansy. I knew she had to have noticed where I was staring, and was most likely glaring daggers at me in irritation, furious at the way I was watching Granger. But as much as I knew I was tarnishing my image the longer I looked, I just couldn't force my eyes away. I'd never seen her like this before, all dressed up and beaming like a very happy angel. She could've been the toast of any of my parents' dinner parties. The image of her the first time we'd met on the Hogwarts Express suddenly popped unbidden into my mind; how taken I'd been by those cute little freckles that were speckled along her cheeks like stars, how impressed I had been when she'd snapped back at me.
I blinked and looked over at Pansy like I'd just woken up from a nap. Her ebony-black eyes were narrowed dangerously.
"I said, are we going in?"
It took me a moment to regain my powers of speech, to clear the last lingering tendrils of blankness from my mind.
"Uh, yeah. Yeah. Going in. Let's do it."
Pansy pursed her lips and flipped her glossy black hair, her nails biting even more painfully into my arm as she dragged me through the double doors. I had in all likelihood just sentenced myself to a night of hostile, suspicious scrutinization and sort-of-warranted jealousy. Stupid hormones.
I danced until my legs felt like jelly that night. Pansy clung to me like a very flouncy pink barnacle, refusing to allow me to trade partners for even one dance. We swept across the ballroom in steps I could've performed in my sleep, over and over and over, back and forth, spinning and swaying until I was certain I was going to pass out. Eventually, I begged Pansy to let me bow out.
"Why?" she demanded angrily. "Are you not having fun? Would you rather be dancing with someone else, is that it?"
"No, no, of course not." I discreetly mopped at the side of my forehead. "I'm just a little tired. I mean, you've got to be near exhausted by now too. Right?"
"No," she said in a voice hard as flint. It was clear she didn't believe me. "Let's just have one more dance. Please?" Despite the 'please', I knew she wasn't actually asking. I sighed and stifled my irritation.
"Yeah, okay, fine. One more."
"Thanks, Draco." Pansy smiled simperingly. "You're the sweetest."
Biting my tongue, I took her waist for what I hoped was really the final time. My head was absolutely splitting with a raging headache, and my feet were achingly sore. Not to mention my shoulder, where Pansy had relocated her razor-sharp claws once we'd started dancing. I wanted nothing more than to go straight up to my dorm, flop down on my bed, and not get up for the rest of the week. But I would have to suffer through another few minutes of twirling before that could happen.
The band struck up a prancy, energetic sounding song. Just my luck. We stepped into the centre of the floor with all the other couples and began taking quick, sweeping steps. I wasn't familiar with this one. Oh well. I was a fast learner.
"I've been having so much fun tonight, haven't you, Draco?" Pansy tilted her head and gave me a sharp look as we turned in circles across the floor. "I think they should do this every year."
"Yeah." I nodded in what I hoped was an enthusiastic way. I was having trouble listening to Pansy's words, as mimicking this new dance was taking all of my concentration. "They really should. It's been great."
I spun her out and away from me with one arm the way everyone else was doing with their partners.
"The grounds look really pretty tonight, did you see?"
I didn't take my eyes off of everyone else's feet. "Mhm." Apparently she didn't understand that I was preoccupied. She went on.
"Maybe... maybe we could go out there for a walk afterward."
Now I looked up. The expression on Pansy's puggish face had become coy and expectant.
"A walk?" I asked.
She paused a beat, and then-
"I've never been kissed, you know."
I lost my footing.
My back crashed into someone else's as my eyes grew wide with alarm. Before my panicked mind could formulate a reply to Pansy's comment, however, a familiar snippy voice directly behind me sent shivers through my spine.
"OUCH! Sorry, but would it bother you terribly to watch where you're..."
We both turned around at the same time and I found myself nose to nose with Hermione Granger.
Fate was just conspiring against me today.
I was too startled to move away. And damn it all, she was even cuter up close. Now I could actually see those freckle constellations scattered under her eyes. And those thick dark lashes and the quirky little lift of her nose and her adorable lips... My heart groaned.
"Oh. Malfoy." Granger's tone was painfully cool. She flicked an eyebrow upward in disgust and took a very deliberate step backward. "Dash the politeness, then. Watch where you're going, ferret-face!"
Shockingly, I didn't feel like snapping back at her, which was completely unlike me. In fact, my traitorous mind was whispering that perhaps it would be nice to take her out for a walk among the fairy lights and rose bushes. But the logical part of my brain kicked in and arranged my unwilling face into a phony sneer.
"I don't need to do anything, Granger," I spat, making sure to add the proper amount of contempt to my words. "You can just bloody well stay out of my way if you don't want to get hit."
A hulking figure stepped forward. "Vat did you just say to her?"
Crap. Right. Her dancing partner.
Viktor Krum loomed over me, his heavy dark brows drawn low over his eyes. The scowl that had been absent from his lips earlier was back in all its full glory now, and his bulky arms were crossed menacingly over his even bulkier chest. I really didn't want to have a go with Krum, and not just because he was so much bigger than me. My father had been encouraging me since the start of term to get in good with the Durmstrang crowd, especially Viktor. He was a famous Quidditch player, after all. It was only right that someone as high up as him should be friends with someone as high up as me. Now I seemed to have squashed the friendly acquaintanceship we'd build up over the past few months.
"N-nothing," I said quickly. I cursed myself for stuttering. "Sorry, I'll, um. We'll just get back to dancing." I dragged Pansy away, burying ourselves in the crowd as far from Krum and Granger as I could possibly get. Pansy looked irritated. I thought she was going to snap at me for wrecking our relations with the Durmstrangs like an idiot (which I almost certainly had, since no doubt Krum would report my behaviour to the rest of his brawny friends), but it turned out she was peeved about something else entirely.
"Draco, why were you staring at the Mudblood like that?"
I paled. What was I supposed to say?
"I wasn't staring," I denied quickly. Not too quickly, I hoped. "I just turned around to see who I'd hit."
"Really? Are you sure about that?" Pansy purposely stepped on my toes as we performed a complicated maneuver. "You took way too long to say something. Normally you would've bitten Granger's head off for touching you, but you didn't. She had the first word. And why did you bump into her in the first place, anyway?"
I swallowed hard and tried to keep my composure. I couldn't tell her I'd been revolted at her not-so-subtle request for a kiss. "The dance was tricky. I don't know the steps to this one." That much at least was true.
I picked Pansy up briefly in a little jump and turned a half circle before setting her back down on the ground. At least I'd predicted that move correctly.
"So..." she tried again after a few minutes. "Are you still up for that walk later?" I shrugged. She didn't seem to recall that I hadn't agreed to taking a walk in the first place.
"I guess, after I've rested for a bit. I told you I'm exhausted."
The rest of the dance passed in tense silence, but I didn't particularly care. My mind was occupied with other things- specifically, an annoyingly pretty brunette with satin brushing her feet and sunlight in her eyes. 'Don't be an idiot,' a very weak and feeble voice protested somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness, but just now, just for the moment, I chose to ignore it. Instead I allowed myself exactly two minutes to indulge in the sort of shocking, deplorable thoughts I'd been blocking out for the past four years. Thoughts of the very person I was so adamant about despising gracing me with one of the smiles she saved only for those she cared dearly about, linking her slender fingers with mine and then tracing them across my arms, my face. Talking with me about her favourite things under a willow tree by the lake until sundown. Letting me slide my hands into that stupidly voluminous brown hair. Pressing the lips that could spit such harsh retorts when their owner was provoked against my own. 'Oh, you've got it bad,' that pestering voice whispered in a warning tone.
'Shut up,' I told it. 'Two minutes of wishing doesn't mean anything.' I shoved my doubts down and clutched Pansy's waist more tightly, imagining that it wasn't her I was holding at all, it was Granger, her hand resting on my shoulder and her face alight with happiness.
I guessed something of my fantasies must have shown on my face, because Pansy began to edge her snakelike fingers to the side of my neck. I resisted the urge to shudder.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked flirtatiously, attempting to give me an alluring smirk and succeeding only in making herself look more like a pug than ever. I shrugged and let the dream kingdom I'd concocted where Hermione was in my arms crumble into dust at my feet.
"Nothing," I said flatly. My common sense, which had fled the moment I'd seen Granger and Krum by the door, started sweeping back over me in slow, chilling waves. I remembered once more who I was, and why all these silly daydreams could never come to pass, were not even a remote possibility. I was Draco Malfoy. And this was my place, with a pureblood Slytherin at my side and a strong sense of my own distance from those below me nailed into everyone's heads, including my own.
The dance ended and I let my hands drop gratefully from Pansy's sugary-pink clad form.
"You go have your little rest, Dray," she said with a simpering smile, flipping her hair exaggeratedly over her shoulder as we stepped away from each other. I forced myself not to roll my eyes. "I'll meet you outside in ten. Don't be late." I nodded and she sauntered away, probably to find her little gang of screechy, makeup-smeared hags so they could giggle about their dates. Yuck.
'Granger would never act like that.' Oh, great. The voice was making a comeback after three seconds. I really needed to get a handle on myself. 'She isn't shallow and petty like them, you know. If you ever did end up with her, she would never gossip about you or preen like a peacock to get your attention. You know she wouldn't. She'd be a wonderful girlfriend. She's so...'
'Oh, go kiss a Flobberworm,' I cut the voice off with a scowl. Bloody, bloody, feelings. I hated that ratty little mudblood. I really did. I hated her I hated her I hated I hated her.
But then, like Pansy had asked, why hadn't I spoken up first when we'd crashed into each other? I should've insulted her the moment I'd seen her face. It was just the way things worked. Something put us in a position where we had to interact with each other, and I would tear her stupid, smug attitude down as easily as if it were a sheet of paper. But this time... I hadn't.
Why hadn't I said anything?
Oh, I had really blown it now.
I ran a hand distraughtly through my hair, my shoes clicking sharply against the shiny corridor floor in time with my errantly beating heart. I didn't know where my feet were taking me. I didn't particularly care. I just needed to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible.
I had kissed her. I had kissed Hermione Granger.
'You idiot', I berated myself mentally. 'What've you done? Oh, Salazar, what have you done?' There was no taking this back. No shrugging it off as a wandering mind the way I'd shrugged off the moments of infatuated weakness that had been becoming more and more frequent over the course of this year. This was no innocent daydream anymore, this was real. I'd just made it real.
It had happened so suddenly. I wasn't even quite sure how my lips had gotten on hers- all I knew was that one moment we'd been bickering in the library over some inconsequential book that we both "needed" for schoolwork (I really could've gotten along without it, but I had an image to maintain and the opportunity to argue with Granger was something I just couldn't pass up), and the next thing I knew, I'd had one hand wrapped around her tie and one in her hair.
Where had I gone wrong?
She'd pushed me away, of course, and given me a slap to rival the one she had graced me with in third year. Which I deserved. But then she'd asked why I'd done it. And I hadn't been able to give her an answer. I'd just stared at her blankly until finally she'd given up on trying to get a response out of me and left. What was it about this girl that turned my normally quick and ready tongue into a piece of useless, dead weight?
"Moron," I hissed under my breath as I brushed past a few fourth year Hufflepuffs who were looking at me like I'd lost my mind. "You are a moron, a stupid, impossible, idiotic, demented, moron. What were you thinking?!" I continued muttering like this to myself as I swept around a corner and stomped down a staircase.
"You've really wrecked things for yourself now. What if she tells her friends? Of course she'll tell her friends, she tells them everything! At least she tells Potter and Weasel everything." I stopped in my tracks. Weasley! A groan escaped my mouth. Oh, no. If he found out about this, I might as well kiss my respectable status among the Slytherins goodbye- no pun intended. His temper was the hottest I'd seen in Hogwarts since I had gotten here. It made him fun to tease, but in a situation like this, it would be the final nail in my coffin. I was doomed. There was no way he'd let something like this slide. He'd come raging up to me between classes or something and start screaming about 'how DARE I kiss his best friend, how DARE I', and then more likely than not hex me into oblivion. After that, it was only a matter of time before the news had circulated to the entire school.
'Slow down,' something whispered calmingly into my brain. Seriously, how many annoying little voices did I have? 'She may not tell them. There's still hope. Remember what you were thinking about her just last year? She's not a gossip. She may tell her friends a lot, but she certainly can't tell them everything. There's always the possibility she'll be too mortified or scared or in too much shock to tell them this.'
'Yeah, but since when does anything involving me affect her that much?' I contradicted myself glumly. 'She's never hesitated to shoot me down to Potter or Weasley before. And it's not as if she has any respect for me to hold her back. Honestly, I'll be lucky if the entire Gryffindor house doesn't know about this by nightfall.'
With that comforting thought swirling around my mind, I stormed into the courtyard, found a secluded corner and plopped down with an angry 'thump!' at the base of one of the pillars.
"Damn, freaking Gryffindors, and their damn, freaking lips," I huffed, crossing my arms. And their stupid wavy hair. And pretty eyes. And insanely attractive bossy attitudes. And...
"Gah!" I clapped my hands over my ears, earning me a few puzzled looks. No. That was enough. This changed nothing. I still didn't care about her. She was still a snotty, annoying, stuck-up, Muggle prat. One insignificant little kiss didn't change all that. I just hadn't been thinking straight. I'd lost track of myself, and I'd let myself get carried away by temptation because Granger was a girl and, yes, I admitted it, she was pretty. It had just been a natural, knee-jerk male impulse. A minor glitch in the smooth flow of my mental faculties. I'd made a mistake, and it would never happen again.
But if I was so confident about that... how come I had been unable to come up with a response when she'd asked me why I'd kissed her?
Why hadn't I said anything?
The Dark Lord was in my home.
I was under his service.
He'd asked if there was anyone I wanted spared when the Death Eaters attacked Hogwarts, when I let them in. Anyone I wanted left alone.
The question had undoubtedly been a trap. A means to test my loyalty, to see if there were strings attaching me to anyone other than my puppetmaster and his puppets, anything that might make me waver in my loyalty.
There was someone I wanted protected, though. Someone I didn't want to get hurt. If there was even a remote chance that the Dark Lord would tell his followers to stay their wands in her presence, any slight ray of hope that she, who would with certainty be on the front lines of any fight, could be saved, I should've taken it.
But I hadn't.
I hadn't said anything.
Why hadn't I said anything?
My wand slashed through the air in jagged motion after motion and I breathed heavily through my mouth, nearly unable to see for the sweat trickling down into my eyes. I couldn't wipe it away, the barrage of attacks aimed at and around me from all sides wouldn't allow that. Beams of red light shot from my hand over and over, taking down anyone who approached. It was always red light. Never green.
'Leave me alone!' I wanted to scream. 'I don't want this! I don't want to hurt you!' And so far, I hadn't hurt anyone. I only stunned, and then strictly in defense. This wasn't my fight. It wasn't even my parents' fight anymore. It was The Dark- I stopped myself. Voldemort's. It was Voldemort's fight. No more 'Dark Lord'. He wasn't the lord of anything.
A girl with strands of hair falling wildly over her face and eyes alight with the heat of battle ran toward me, her wand aimed at my heart, and I reluctantly shot her down. I hadn't even been able to tell who she was under the layer of grime and blood coating her skin.
Why was I doing this? Why did I keep attacking my friends and schoolmates if I didn't even agree with my own leader? This was wrong. This was all wrong. Crabbe had already died for this demented cause. I hadn't been allowing myself to dwell on it for fear I'd break down in the middle of everything and get shot, but he had. He'd died blindly for a lunatic's propaganda. I didn't want that to happen to me. And I really didn't want it to happen to my parents.
A familiar, cackling voice broke through the noise of the battle around me. "Run all you want, bitty Muddyblood! I'm going to catch youuu!"
I turned toward its source. My Aunt Bellatrix was skipping through the debris of the hall intersecting with the one I was in, jumping lightly over the motionless figures scattering the ground and shooting off random curses as she went with careless flicks of her wrist. I had to duck to miss an Imperio that very nearly caught me in the head.
"Your little Potty isn't here to protect you now, izee? You're aaall alone."
"I don't need anyone to protect me!" My heart froze in my chest at the clear voice ringing against the now partially-destroyed walls. No.
"I can protect myself! Unfortunately for you."
Bellatrix shrieked with laughter, but I barely heard it. My feet were moving before I knew what was happening. I was running toward the voice, everything else forgotten, narrowly missing hex after hex and not even caring. Yes, yes, you can protect yourself. But not against her, not my aunt. Memories of that very woman eliciting heart-wrenching screams from the girl she was now chasing as she pinned her to my living room floor flashed through my head and closed up my throat. Oh, God, Hermione, please be alright. Please be alright. I didn't even register that this was the first time I'd thought of her as Hermione and not Granger. I just needed to get to her. I needed to stop Bellatrix before...
My breath hitched in my throat.
I stumbled toward the corridor in a daze, my legs barely working, an ocean that I assumed was my own blood rushing into my ears and flooding my brain with the sound of it's crashing waves.
"Please," I whimpered. It was only a whisper, but to me, that word was the loudest cry in the universe. I clenched my fists and hoped that it was falling on some divine ear and that whoever it belonged to was listening. "Please."
I turned the corner.
Hermione was sprawled across the ground.
A choked sound left my mouth. "No."
I stepped forward. And then Hermione lifted her head.
"You missed," she said in a hard voice.
'ZAP!' A rope of light flew from her wand and my aunt leapt out of the way. I felt like crying. She was alive.
Bellatrix screamed in rage and ran at Hermione. A rapid progression of spells sparked from her wand, cracking the walls and floor where they hit.
"I AM GOING TO KILL YOU, MUDBLOOD! RUN ALL YOU WANT, I'LL BE WEARING YOUR FILTHY BLOOD ON MY DRESS BEFORE THE HOUR'S OVER!"
Something heavy and hot snapped in me, breaking me from my daze. I raised my wand. My eyes were smouldering. So, this was how Hermione felt housing a fire.
"No, you won't." The voice that left my vocal chords didn't sound like my own. It was too strong, too determined. It had purpose.
Bellatrix turned around, her dark eyebrows drawn low over her eyes in confusion.
I didn't give her time to process what I'd said. With a quick swish of my hand, I'd disarmed her and left her without any means of defending herself- or hurting anyone else. She blinked. "Draco, what are you doing?" There was annoyance and surprise mingling with the confusion now. I didn't back down.
"Stopping you," I growled. "Back away from Granger."
Hermione had halted in her getaway and was staring at me with just as much shock as my aunt, if not more. She had to be thinking I'd lost my mind.
"What're you playing at?" Bellatrix snapped irritably. "Lower your wand! Stop this!"
"No." There was more power in my voice then I'd ever heard there before. I took a step closer, my nerves pulled taut through every centimetre of my body but my heart forcing that not to matter. I wouldn't give into my fear this time. I was done being a coward.
"I won't let you hurt her. I won't let you hurt anybody ever again. This isn't right, and you know it."
Bellatrix sniffed and rolled her eyes, apparently not taking me seriously. I clenched my jaw in frustration. "Right?" she repeated disbelievingly. "Who ever said anything about this being right? We know it's wrong, lambie." A grin that sent chills rolling down my spine stretched across her face. "And we love it." Before I could react, she'd whipped her foot out and knocked my feet from under me, ducking as she did so to the effect that she missed the Incarcerous spell I shot out on instinct. I hit the floor with a hard 'thud'. She smiled down at me with a stare cold as ice. "Sorry you didn't pick that up before." An instant later I was frozen in a full Body-Bind curse.
I tried to yell, but my jaw was locked into place. The only thing I could move was my eyes.
Which meant there was nothing stopping me from seeing the Killing Curse leave my aunt's wand a second time.
It didn't miss.
I watched as if in slow motion as Hermione's eyes went wide with surprise and the green light struck her slender body, shaking it to its core. Her lower lip dropped just a fraction of an inch. I could visibly see the spell sinking into her heart and fizzling out in her chest. And then her round eyes turned glassy and she sank to the ground.
The world went red.
A scream so forceful it could've shaken a mountain built rapidly inside of me, filling me up, consuming me from the inside. It turned my bones into rockslides and my blood into lava. It was too much. My jaw unhinged, and a cry that could've torn down cities echoed through the hall a thousand times, louder than any fighting, louder than thunder. It was the sound of complete and total agony. The sound of someone who had just lost his reason to live. My limbs broke free of their invisible restraints with a feeling like glass shattering and I jumped to my feet, not caring that I was probably the first person on earth to ever escape a Body-Bind spell, not even really noticing. The tip of my wand was at Bellatrix's throat in a millisecond. "What did you do?" My lips were twitching uncontrollably and my head was pounding. I could barely see the expression of utter disbelief turning her eyes into saucers. "You..." she gasped. "How did you...?"
"WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?!"
Bellatrix's mouth opened and closed like a fish a few times before she answered. When she finally got back what little sense she had, her response was short and simple. "I killed her." There wasn't a trace of remorse or hesitation in the sentence. She just stated it, like she was announcing the weather, like there was no meaning behind the words at all. Like they hadn't just destroyed me.
"No," I got out, sounding gravelly to my own ears, dangerous. My wand tip pressed so hard into her neck a drop of blood spilled out. I was aware of every twisting vein coursing through my body, because they weren't veins, they were rivers of fire. I was aware of my teeth clenched together, because they were knives, and they were grinding each other into ashes. I wasn't a boy. I was a storm. I was the end of all things. "You killed me."
I shot a string of curses at her faster than thought, spell after spell after spell, not needing to utter a single word, driven to insanity by the mad, clawing grief that was tearing my heart into shreds. The magic rocked her head back against the wall, pounding into her through her throat. Her mouth had fallen open in horror and her tangled hair was smoking, her limbs shaking with violent tremors. She was probably dead after the first few hexes, at this close a range. But I didn't stop. I kept shooting, over and over, because my one setting now was to destroy, to eliminate, to eradicate. On and on it went, the lightning ravaging through my soul keeping me going, until, eventually, my strength gave out.
My wand fell from my fingertips. Bellatrix's lifeless body was finally allowed to crumple to the floor, damaged almost beyond recognition. I followed it down and collapsed to my knees. The weight was on top of me almost before I knew what was happening. Crushing me, compressing me. I started to tremble. What had I just done? I had murdered someone. Not someone, my own family. And in such a horrible way...
I dragged myself over to Hermione's body, desperately seeking something, I didn't know what. Just anything that would keep me from suffocating under all this. I stopped at her side.
She looked so tranquil. Peaceful. If her eyes had been closed, I could almost have believed she was just sleeping. Her hair streamed around her head in caramel ropes, knotted and dirty from the battle. One strand was draped across her neck, and I was reminded of a noose, resting morbidly still on its victim after a hanging. I pulled the strand away. Hermione's lips were parted gently, and I touched a finger to them. They were still warm with the lingering sheen of her breath. I couldn't bring myself to remove that finger as I took in her face. The eyes that had always been so full of life and light, that had danced with flames or gleamed with sunshine depending on her mood, were now empty and cold. I'd always admired their churning, dark colour. But that colour was no more. In it's place was faded amber, dull and hard and impenetrable.
Her cheeks were still flushed with the heat of the chase. Her skin was smudged with soot and dust and ash. And her lashes. There was a tear resting on them, a single, solitary droplet caught between the criss-crossed hairs. Like she'd known her life was ending, and, in that split second between the killing curse's contact and her final breath, she had felt. She had regretted, and she had wrung out this one tear in mourning for all the things she'd never done, all the people she was going to lose.
That was what did it. That tiny detail, a tear hanging unfallen. That was what broke me.
There were few occasions in my life when I'd had real reason to cry. There were even fewer when I'd actually done it. I was a Malfoy, after all, and I'd been raised to shut down my emotions, to choke out and stamp down any instances of weakness that came along. I'd always excelled at that. It was the main reason I was so good at Occlumency. There had been a few exceptions to this code of behaviour last year, of course, when I'd been under so much stress from my assignment to assassinate Dumbledore, but I had done my best to quickly pull myself together after these little meltdowns and had been detached and blank-minded once more in only a matter of minutes. This was not one of those exceptions. This was a destruction of my entire inhibition.
My forehead dropped to Hermione's rapidly cooling one and the tears came, not in small, restrained trickles, but in floods, streaming unchecked down my cheeks and dripping off my nose as my entire body was jolted with massive, gut-wrenching sobs. Each one twisted my shattered heart further into knots, pressing the broken shards into each other painfully until the space where my heart used to be was just mangled, twisted up chaos.
Nobody else came down the hallway. I wasn't sure why. Maybe the brunt of the fighting had just moved elsewhere briefly. But for now, I was on my own. I knew eventually somebody would come- maybe opponents locked in combat, maybe Harry and Ron looking for their missing friend. But I didn't care. I wasn't going to budge, not if a thousand other people came and screamed at me to get away, not if a tornado swept through the castle. I wouldn't leave Hermione's side.
She never had told anyone about the kiss. I knew she hadn't, because I would never have heard the end of it if she had. I wondered why she'd kept silent. Then I wondered why I had kept silent. About her, about how I felt.
I had loved her. Really, truly, deeply loved her. More than my "friends", more than my status, almost more than my own family. It had been so apparent all along.
Why hadn't I said anything?