“You're acting like this is my fault?” Draco yelled back, seething with rage, “It was all going fine until you decided to put your hands on me, mudblood! Now, because of this bet-”
“I don't care about the bet! My friends hate me!” she screamed, “Maybe you don't care about having friends, but I do! And now they think I'm... that I'm some sort of...!”
Draco sneered. “Don't worry, Granger, they probably thought that secretly beforehand.”
Granger flushed scarlet, and her right hand swung, slapping Draco across the face with so much force that he staggered. Boiling with fury, he went for his wand, but he froze when he saw that Granger had already pulled her own. He could see her taking deep breaths, her wand arm trembling while she pointed the thin piece of enchanted wood at the area directly between Draco's eyes.
“It's going to be fine.” she said, shaking with anger as she feigned calm, “I'm just going to go talk to Harry, Ron and Ginny. I'll tell them that you confunded me, and they'll forgive me. This is all going to be fine.”
Draco couldn't summon a sneer of disbelief to his face; his mind was dwelling on what Weasley and Potter would likely do to him once they found out the truth. He doubted that Weasley in particular would care a great deal about whether or not he survived whatever ordeal to which they decided to subject him. Meanwhile, Granger continued to take long, deep breaths, perhaps readying herself for her own ordeal. Finally, Draco smirked, leaning his shoulder against the stone wall of the corridor which had played host to their shouting contest.
“Are you sure you don't want to come with me, instead, Granger?” he said, making his voice huskier than usual.
Stars flashed in front of Draco's face when the fist struck his nose, accompanied by a loud cracking noise. Draco howled in pain, staggering backwards, his hand rising to stem the sudden flow of blood. His foot caught on the floor and he toppled over, landing inelegantly on the ground.
“You'll pay for that, mudblood.” he said thickly, “I think you broke my-”
“Listen to me, Malfoy,” she hissed, and he looked up at her; her hair was a mountain of frizz, and her brown eyes were alight with hatred, “if you don't stay away from me, I'll do much more than just break your nose. I don't care about the bet. I don't care about you. I just want you to leave me in peace, for once. Is that too much to ask?”
Draco tried a smirk, but he was sure it must have looked more like a grimace. “Whatever, Granger.”
And then she turned, walking swiftly away from him. Just as she was about to walk around the corner, she shot a spell at him over her shoulder; Draco flinched, expecting a curse; and for a moment he thought it was, because his broken nose was suddenly wrenched to the side. He yelped with pain, his fingers flurrying as he tried to work out what she had done to him; and then he realised that she'd fixed it. He should have suspected; she had always been a model pupil, after all.
“Honestly, did you really have to make all that racket?” said an indignant voice next to him; a portrait of a rosy-cheeked woman in a long blue dress was glaring at him.
“Shut up, hag.” Draco snapped.
“Excuse me?” the portrait replied incredulously. Draco ignored it, setting off after Granger; unfortunately, the situation compelled him to do so. Potter, Weasley and Weaslette had been her allies; as much as it pained him, he wanted them on her side so that his new job was less difficult.
He trailed her for several corridors, weaving in and out of secret passageways; at some point he cast a disillusionment charm on himself in order to make following her easier. Eventually, they emerged onto a corridor far too bright for Draco's liking. The carpet was thick and rich; a mixture of gold and red; and the walls an elegant mahogany. Judging by the lavishness, he surmised that they were approaching Gryffindor tower. Wrinkling his nose slightly, glad that it was no longer hurting, he continued to pursue Granger, and after a short time she stopped, at a portrait of a grotesquely fat woman in a pink dress.
“Fragrant Flamingo.” she said, and the portrait swung open, Granger stepping inside; Draco was about to follow her in when someone else streaked out in a flash of ginger hair. “Ron, wait, please!” Granger came flying out of the portrait, presumably running after Weasley. “It was Malfoy, Ron!”
“Well we all know that by now, Hermione!” yelled Weasley, turning and facing her, incandescent with fury, “We all know that very well!”
“No, you don't understand!” Granger implored tearfully, “He cast a spell! The confundus charm!”
“The confundus charm.” Weasley repeated, his face blank. “The confundus charm. Did you actually think I was going to believe that?”
“But it's the truth, Ron!” Granger sobbed, tears now rolling down her cheeks. Weasley was already shaking his head, and turning to leave. Granger flung out her hand, grabbing a sleeve of his robe desperately. “Wait, please!”
Weasley stared at her hand on his robes for a few seconds, and then spoke. “You know, I would have understood if you'd just told me you weren't interested. It would have hurt, but at least it wouldn't have ruined our friendship. But you decided I wasn't worth even being your friend. He's a Death Eater!”
“No, Ron...” Granger whimpered, clutching at his arm, “it's not... I swear... the confundus charm.”
“The confundus charm.” Weasley said, his voice sounding dead, “Right. Stay away from me, Hermione.”
Draco heard Granger's gasp even from his fairly distant vantage point. Then Weasley left, and she let out a wail that shocked even Draco with its rawness. He watched as she crumpled to the floor, hugging her arms to her sides as she sobbed; then, he heard the portrait swing open once more, revealing a sombre-looking pair. Potter and Weaslette must have been listening to Granger and Weasley's conversation. Hearing the portrait open, Granger looked up, her cheeks flushed from crying and her make-up distorted by tear-tracks.
“Harry, Ginny,” she began, gazing at them pleadingly, “you have to believe me. It was the confundus charm. Malfoy.”
It was a while before either of them spoke. A single tear trickled slowly down Weaslette's face as she stared at Granger.
“We thought about it, Hermione, we really did.” said Potter eventually, but he wasn't looking at Granger; he had averted his eyes, “Malfoy didn't cast a spell. Even if he didn't use the incantation, nobody saw anything, and the confundus charm lets out a bright yellow light.”
“He shielded it with his robe,” she croaked, “and, and besides... he didn't cast it... it, it was me.”
“It was you?” Potter repeated, sounding confused, “You confunded yourself? Why would you do that?”
“He gave me his wand.” Granger said desperately, “He wanted me to say the incantation...”
“He gave you his wand? Why would he...” Potter stopped himself, taking a deep breath; then he exploded. “THIS ISN'T VERY BLOODY LIKELY IS IT HERMIONE?”
Granger dissolved into tears again when he shouted, lifting her hands to her face. “But it's th-the t-truth!” she cried, her voice muffled by her hands.
“Look, Hermione,” said Potter, his voice filled with a palpable strain, “I think it would be best if you stayed away from Ron for a while. In fact, it would probably be best if you stayed away from us all for a while.”
Granger lifted her head from her hands, aghast. “N-No. You aren't... you aren't saying... Ginny!”
But Weaslette was already leaving, and Potter with her, their heads disappearing behind the portrait of the fat woman, who levelled a haughty glare of disapproval at Granger. Draco, his own heart thumping a little quicker with the shock of the event, glanced back towards her. Granger was crying silently, her hands by her sides as she stared unbelievingly at the closed portrait, seemingly transfixed. Her face had crumpled completely; she looked utterly broken. In theory, she was exactly how he had always wanted her to be; a ruined shell; but, oddly, all he was feeling was a great sense of emptiness. He couldn't even force a smirk onto his face, however hard he tried. It was then that he realised, for the first time in his life, that he might possibly have gone too far.
Really, it was Potter, Weasley and Weaslette's fault, he reasoned as he made to follow Granger; she had stood up, and was walking, slowly, away from the entrance to the Gryffindor common room, as if in a daze. He had overestimated them, believed that they would see through his game and forgive her. He hadn't thought that it would actually be successful; he had hoped that it would be, sure, but he hadn't known exactly what that success would entail. It was true that he hated Granger; hated her with a passion; but a part of him enjoyed exchanging insults with her, seeing the fury rise up in her eyes and listening to her barbed retorts. Really, he decided confidently, if he fixed her problem, he would be acting with a selfish motive; he had no desire to see her happy or content. His only want was for their game to continue, and currently one of the players was incapacitated.
Draco followed her through many corridors, traversing the maze that was Hogwarts. She wandered seemingly aimlessly for a while, then began to head up staircase after staircase, a little more purpose to her steps. Finally, she clambered up a ladder, pushing open a trapdoor at the top and hoisting herself up to the highest point of the Astronomy Tower. Momentarily considering the possibility that she might be thinking about throwing herself off the edge, and shuddering slightly as he thought about the last time that he had visited this part of the castle, Draco followed hurriedly, but he needn't have worried because as soon as he pushed open the trapdoor he heard her speak.
“Are you happy?”
She looked around, searching the air for his form; Draco cancelled the disillusionment charm, lifting himself onto the floor of the tower. He straightened up, looking down at her. She was sitting on the floor, shivering with the cold. The tower was ringed with a black iron railing, but other than that it was entirely exposed to the sky and the howling wind. Even with his robe on, Draco could feel the biting chill, and Granger had discarded her own. It appeared that underneath, she'd been wearing strange muggle clothing, which did not cover her arms. Then he noticed that she was looking at him, her eyes full of reproach, her lips trembling from the effort of not breaking down. Feeling awkward, he looked away.
“Pull yourself together, Granger,” he muttered, “they'll forgive you. Potter was buying it until you told him you confunded yourself.”
He risked a glance at her and saw that she was still shaking; whether from the cold or her bottled emotions, he wasn't sure. Sighing with frustration, he pulled his own robe off and flung it in her direction. “and pick yourself up, you look pathetic. Where is your robe anyway?”
“I threw it over the edge.” she muttered, looking away as she grudgingly wrapped Draco's robe around her shoulders.
“Why did you do that?” Draco replied, snorting slightly with laughter.
“Because I was upset!” she yelled, making him jump. “Am upset.” she added, more quietly.
“You don't say.” said Draco dryly. Anger flashed in Granger's eyes and she leapt to her feet, pointing her finger tremblingly at him.
“This is all your fault! Don't you dare mock me! If you hadn't confunded me, if you had just been pleasant for once in your life-”
“It's not my fault your friends are idiots!” Draco yelled, “Personally, I don't see why they are your friends at all if they ditch you after one prank!”
“DON'T YOU TALK ABOUT THEM LIKE THAT!” screamed Granger, “They're my friends and they care about me! They've always been there for me!”
“Then why am I the only one at the top of this tower with you?” Draco said quietly, seeing Granger's mouth drop open with shock.
“That's... that's because... because you and your prank... you made it look like I was... and so they...” she tailed off, her eyes dropping to the floor. “Why are you here anyway? You don't care about me.” she mumbled finally.
“I'm here because I lost the bet, Granger, and I'd prefer Weasley and Potter do their fair share of the protecting. I'm not doing it all myself.”
She gave him an odd look. “So you are really going to do it then? Protect me, I mean.”
“I don't know if you know what an Unbreakable Vow is, Granger,” Draco began, slowly, “but I can't not protect you. I would die.”
“What a shame that would be.” Granger said sarcastically. Draco smirked.
“You don't want me dead, Granger. You can't resist me.”
“Oh really?” she said, arching her eyebrows. “You're really pushing that idea, mad as it is.”
“Really.” he let his smirk stretch wider, “We just had an intimate bonding moment on the roof after all. I declared that the prospect of death was just about enough to convince me to protect you, and you suggested that my death would be preferable to having me around.”
“How romantic.” she commented sardonically. Her expression grew more serious. “What about Voldemort?”
Draco flinched slightly at the name. “Worried about me, Granger? So long as the Dark Lord doesn't find out about... our arrangement... I should be fine. Besides, he's busy right now, building an army.”
“An army?” Granger sounded a little frightened. Draco nodded.
“He's abroad, trying to convince foreign forces to unite against the Ministry. The Ministry's diplomatic ties are weak in places, and the Dark Lord always exploits weaknesses.”
“I have to tell Harry and Ron!” Granger exclaimed, glancing at him hesitantly after she spoke; she looked almost nervous. Incredulous, Draco raised his eyebrows.
“Are you asking my permission, mudblood?” he asked, “I'm a Death Eater, why would you care what I want?”
“I don't.” she replied defiantly, looking away; after a while, she spoke again, “Why do you use that horrible expression?”
“What, 'mudblood'?” Draco queried.
“Because it annoys you.” he said frankly. To his great amusement, she glared at him.
“You are so horrible, you know...”
“So you keep saying.” he replied mildly, folding his arms across his chest and smiling arrogantly.
“Well, you are.” she sniffed. They stood in silence for a few moments, then she glanced at him. “Listen, Malfoy... are you alright?”
Scarcely able to believe what he'd just heard, Draco stared at her. “What did you just say?”
“I mean,” she said, her gaze oddly intense, “after what happened last year. We know you are a Death Eater, but we also know that you weren't the one that killed Dumbledore and that you lowered your wand before... well.”
Draco looked away, frustration threatening to boil up in his chest. “Drop it, Granger.” he said coldly, and his forbidding expression seemed to convince her to do so, because she lowered her head.
A minute or so passed, and then Granger glanced towards the trapdoor. She stood briskly. “Well, if you are completely done annoying me, I'm going to go to bed. I'm sure I'll see you sometime tomorrow, no doubt with that insufferable mocking expression plastered across your face.”
Draco drew himself up, pretending hurt, glad that she hadn't pressed him for answers. “Not even a 'thank you for the talk', Granger? Just more insults?”
It was her turn to look incredulous. “A 'thank you'? You expect me to thank you, for ruining my life?”
Draco smirked. “You're too dramatic, Granger. Night... mudblood.”
Granger rolled her eyes. “Goodnight, Malfoy.”
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