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Chapter 4 : Complicated Associations
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As he rounded the corner that led to the Great Hall, he stopped short, nearly running into the slightly shorter blonde boy standing in front of him. Frowning, Harry resisted the urge to push Draco out of his way. "Excuse me," he mumbled, hoping to step around the Slytherin student without incident.
"Hey, where were you?" Draco called. He caught Harry's arm as he tried to step past and fell into step with him as he entered the Hall. "Hermione and I were looking for you on the train yesterday. She thought something might have happened."
Harry stood stock still for a moment, trying not to betray his surprise that Draco Malfoy actually seemed concerned about his welfare. He stared into the gray eyes opposite his for a few seconds, looking for signs that the other student was joking. Draco's arm was still on his, but his grip wasn't painful. In fact, it would've been comforting if it hadn't been coming from Malfoy.
"I had an incident on the way to school. I got in during the feast last night."
"She told me." Draco looked up at the Gryffindor table as they approached, waving companionably to Hermione as she waved in greeting to both of them. Before Harry could move to sit down, Draco increased the pressure on his arm and pulled him closer. "So, you're okay? I wasn't sure what would happen after what you said about…the parchment," Draco whispered, his eyes darting around as if he feared being overheard. "Were you caught?"
Draco was in his confidence? Harry felt the fleeting urge to scream. He could hardly think of anyone he'd like to be friends with less, but apparently this was a choice his Doppelgänger had made without knowing any better. "I…" He stumbled over what to say, knowing any mistake would make his friend—he nearly gagged over that thought—suspicious that something was wrong with him. "I got away with it," he said vaguely. "But I still have to be careful. Can we talk later?"
"Sure," Draco said affably. "I have to get to my table anyway. Hermione won't tolerate waiting for you any longer." Draco winked and then walked away, leaving Harry to wonder if this life's version of him was entirely insane. Of all people to align himself with…
He had to get Hermione alone, and soon. If there was anyone he could confide in who could explain the craziness in this life, it would be his best friend. Romantic association aside, he had no doubt Hermione was just as intuitive about his life and relationships as she'd always been. Harry never thought he'd appreciate her analytical brain as much as he did now, when it would give him the insight he needed to extricate himself from this mess.
"Did you sleep well?" Hermione asked as he sat at the table. She immediately passed him a tray of toast and began pouring him a glass of pumpkin juice.
"I didn't get much sleep at all," he admitted. Harry noticed Ron glancing up from across the table, smirking around his mouthful of food. When he saw Harry watching, he turned back to listen to Neville, Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil, who were deeply engrossed in a debate about how the strength of a Shield Charm could be increased.
"I spent a lot of time reading—" he cleared his throat, "rereading a lot of the letters you wrote me over the summer," Harry continued in a softer voice. "I have some questions for you."
Hermione blushed lightly and passed Harry the tray of sausages next. "Needed your memory refreshed?"
Harry smiled at her embarrassment and wondered briefly if she'd ever acted this way around Ron. He didn't think so, as they spent so much time arguing. Were she and Ron even friends now? He hadn't seen them speaking to each other before he'd reached the table, but that meant nothing. Ron was usually too busy eating at mealtimes to speak to anyone. It'd be even worse today, the first day they'd have double classes to prepare for their O.W.L.s. His nerves alone would have him cleaning every tray within reach. The only reason Harry wasn’t doing the same was because he'd gone through it all before. Of course, receiving what he perceived as a death threat from Snape first thing in the morning was doing little in the way of settling his nerves.
"A little," he finally responded. He began to eat his breakfast. "I was wondering if we could talk after our first class, during the break."
Hermione stared at him as she chewed her toast, lost in thought. Harry was sure she was about to lecture him about how the time would be better served getting started on their first assignments and studying when she said, "There's more to this than what I wrote, isn't there? You were acting very strange last night and it had nothing to do with being hungry or tired."
Harry shrugged without meeting her eyes and speared a sausage on his fork. "I did some traveling before I got to school. I had a lot going on," he said, repeating her words from the night before. He knew his evasiveness would only make her more curious, but he didn't see it going well if he explained to her what had happened in the middle of the Great Hall.
"So I gathered." They ate in silence for a few seconds before Hermione said, "Fine. I'll meet you in the Room of Requirement right after the first class. I hope you'll be prepared to be honest with me by then."
At the quiet declaration, Harry looked up. Before a denial could pass his lips, he spotted Snape walking the length of the table. He stopped before Harry and Hermione, waiting until Hermione paused from her breakfast to look up. The contempt in his eyes had faded a bit since Harry had last seen him, but his impassive expression could hardly be described as friendly. Fortunately, the outright hatred Harry had been subjected to earlier had been reigned in. For Hermione's sake, he supposed.
Snape thrust two sheets of parchment forward with a quick flick of his wrists. "As you were unavailable last night Harry," the name struggled to come out in a normal voice, "we were unable to meet as a group. I'd like you and the other Prefects to join me after your first class, in my office. We will go over what is expected of you as Prefects and the passwords you will need to access the Prefects' bathroom and all common rooms. I trust you'll make room in your schedules."
Hermione nodded and took the sheet waiting in front of her. Harry wondered how far his enemy could hear as Snape's eyes narrowed on him. He took the proffered parchment, frowning slightly as he glanced down at his schedule. He had Double Potions just before lunch. It promised to be unpleasant at best.
"Don't forget your badge, Harry," Snape said before walking briskly from the table, heading to speak with the Prefects in Hufflepuff.
After a few seconds of tense silence, Hermione cleared her throat, drawing Harry's eyes back to her. "Our Deputy Headmaster seems in a worse mood than usual. Did something happen?"
"My mother came by the school this morning to check on me," Harry responded. "They…I wouldn't call it an argument exactly. They exchanged words."
Hermione put her fork down and turned to face Harry fully. "You don't have to hide things from me. I know how bad it's been lately." Her hand went up to cup his cheek and Harry forced himself not to flinch as Ron snorted from the other side of the table. "What you haven't told me, I've been able to guess. If your mum is unhappy, she has every right to be. There's nothing you can do about that. But, if she doesn't want to leave him, Harry," her light brown eyes implored his, "you can't make her. This is all her choice. Maybe her time with Bathilda Bagshot will let her see what it's like to live without her husband."
"I mean," Hermione continued, "You said your mother's hardly been on her own since your father died, and they got married right after school." Harry swallowed hard, trying not to choke as Hermione delivered the news about James Potter as casually as someone would speak about the weather being a bit cloudy. "She'll be able to see what it's like to live as a single mother, if that's what she wants. Though, I don't know how realistic it will be since she's nursing Madam Bagshot indefinitely. I'm sure she'll take everything you said into consideration. Plus, there's Raven to think about."
"She wouldn't want to take her away from her father, would she? I know your mother has no idea that you and Raven both feel the same about—Harry, are you all right?"
He shook his head slowly, trying his best to digest the information she was feeding him, one supposedly reassuring sentence at a time. "I don't feel well. I don't think I'll go to class after all." Maybe he could use the Floo and get to the Ministry immediately. Waiting for Dumbledore to be available would not be an issue.
"You can't do that, Harry. You promised your mother you'd be more respectful of the rules if you were made Prefect. She never would've asked your—Professor Snape," she said, watching the way Harry's nose flared, "to make you a Prefect if she thought you'd abuse the privilege."
"The two of you really are close, aren't you?"
"Well, I—" Hermione stared at Harry for a long moment, her eyes glancing over his face.
He knew he'd made a mistake asking the question before she responded.
"Harry, you know what my relationship with your mother is like," Hermione said. "Why are you acting like everything's changed?" She paused. "I still feel the same about you, want the same things, and I hope I still have the same place in your life."
How could he tell her he wasn't trying to push her out of his life, but merely understand the world in which he was now living? Harry knew a lot about Hermione, not the least of which is that for all her fussing over him, she cared deeply, more now than in his other life. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, but how could he not do that when he couldn't seem to get a handle on how to talk to her? Leading his friend on was not an option, but he didn't think she would help him if he broke her heart either.
"We're going to be late," Hermione said. She reached under the table and grabbed her bag; it was stuffed nearly to the point of bursting with books, parchment and quills. Harry looked up and was startled that Hermione seemed to be looking everywhere but at his face. "I guess…I'll meet you outside after class. Have a good morning, Harry." With that, she walked away from the table.
Harry stared after her as she left the room, shoulders slouched, ignoring other students who waved or spoke to her until she'd disappeared through the doorway. As other students filed out of the room on the way to class, Harry took one last swig of pumpkin juice. From what had already transpired, he knew his day would be hard. He just had no idea how much.
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