Whoosh. The quaffle passed through the curtain of his quidditch robes, just barely squeezing its way through the loop of his arms, and into one of the Gryffindor hoops. Ron almost fell off his broom from the sudden contradicting sounds of raucous cheering from the Slytherin and Ravenclaw stands, and lamenting from the Gryffindor stands. He shook his head to clear it of the extraneous noises, and tried once again to focus on the game at hand. Gryffindor was playing Ravenclaw in what would be the last game of the winter season. If Gryffindor won this game, they would go on to play Hufflepuff once more, before officially holding their spot in the championship. However, if Ravenclaw won, or even scored 100 points, Gryffindor would need to win its next three games to stand a chance. Risking a glance over at Harry, Ron tried desperately to return to his level of play from the last quidditch match. Harry apprehensively drew his eyes away from searching for the snitch long enough to mouth the words, 'Just breathe' to Ron. Nodding nervously, Ron filled his lungs once more with the bitter air of early March. He could just make out the remnants of melting snow on the ground below him. Looking up at the ensuing game, he muttered to himself, Come on, Ronald. It's just Ravenclaw; you've beaten them before, you can do it again. FOCUS! Just as he finished his mantra, the quaffle came soaring towards him. Ron jutted his broom out to the right, extended his arms, and effectively caught the offending object before it could do anymore damage.
"And the Ravenclaw lead is halted at 90 to 60 with a spectacular save by Ronald Weasley! It looks like the Gryffindor keeper has returned to the land of quidditch once again!" The voice of Justin Finch-Fletchley, who had taken over for Lee Jordan following his graduation, boomed through the quidditch field. Ron was just beginning to gloat when he felt someone fly in a circle around him.
"I knew you weren't going to let us win that easily." The lilting voice drew Ron's attention to his right, as he looked into the winking face of Camena, Ginny's newest, most enticing friend.
"Who said you'd win at all?" Ron could almost hear himself form his witty response to the Ravenclaw chaser. However, almost is never enough, as Ron was instead left sputtering at Camena's pretty face, unable to come up with any sort of coherent response. Fortunately for the Gryffindor keeper, he was saved from further attempts by an eruption across the quidditch stands. Turning towards the deafening noise, Ron and Camena could see Harry flying in circles above the field with his right arm held high in the air. Glinting through the cracks of his fist was the coveted golden snitch. Ron turned to Camena, and offered her a grin and a shrug before flying off to rejoice with his teammates.
"Well done, Harry!"
"Nice recovery, Ron! Brilliant broom-handling, Seamus!"
The entire Gryffindor house was mashed into the Common Room, in celebration of their recent victory. Harry, Ron and the rest of the quidditch team members were trying to filter out the congratulatory calls over all the clinking of butterbeers and general mayhem. Seamus, meanwhile, was attempting to locate his girlfriend among the masses. Ginny was seated in a corner on the floor, focused intently on scratching her quill on a notebook of parchment while keeping her butterbeer balanced precariously on her knee.
"Ginny!" Seamus called, startling the redhead into almost spilling her drink all over her hard work. "What are you doing over here? I've been looking everywhere for you." He took her drink for her and placed it on a nearby table.
"Oh, hullo Seamus. I was just working on a History of Magic essay that I really need to get done," Ginny replied easily as she closed the notebook a little too quickly according to Seamus. "But that can wait, I suppose."
"Yeah," Seamus mumbled, pulling Ginny to her feet, "I suppose it can."
The way Seamus's eyes kept sliding over to glance at her notebook was not lost on Ginny, and she thought a quick distraction was in order.
"Hmmm, I should be congratulating you for an excellent game, shouldn't I?" Ginny cooed before snaking her arms around his neck. "Could you possibly think of an appropriate way?"
"I think I can come up with a few ideas." Seamus grinned back at her, warming up to the idea, and suddenly forgetting anything he was thinking about before. He gently lowered his smiling face to hers, and their lips touched in a tender kiss. Seamus held her to him with unassuming arms around her back. Before he had the chance to deepen the kiss, they heard someone calling Ginny's name. They broke out of the kiss with Seamus grumbling about Malfoy always managing to ruin his fun.
"Malfoy?" Ginny asked, decidedly ignoring the way her heart rate had just sped up, "But Draco isn't even here. Colin's the one calling me."
"Yeah, well, I can guarantee Malfoy's got something to do with it," Seamus grunted in response, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
"Hey Gin!" Colin pushed his way towards them through the huddle of fifth years staring at the pictures in a magazine that was clearly not meant for the eyes of anyone young enough to be a student. "Malfoy's waiting for you outside the portrait hole."
"Hah! What'd I tell you!" Seamus called out accusatorily before storming away. Ginny watched the retreating back of her boyfriend, but decided she didn't have the time or energy to fix that little problem right now; instead, she thanked Colin and turned towards the portrait hole. On the way there, she passed Ron and Harry sitting on one of the long couches. Ron saw her leaving, and then turned to look at the clock. Seeing that it was 8:15, he called out after his sister,
"Aw, come on Gin! Can't you skive off just once? Let Malfoy deal with giving Snape some old excuse."
"Now Ron," Ginny countered over her shoulder, "I think you and I both know that a little Slytherin now keeps Slytherin out for good later."
"Malfoy!" Ginny panted, "Will you slow down, please? I don't understand why you're in such a rush to get back anyway." She was struggling to keep up with the fast pace he had maintained since they first left Professor Snape's office.
"I would've thought you'd be itching to get back to that little soiree of yours in Gryffindor, Weasley. I think the real question is why you're not in a rush," Draco drawled back, refusing to slow his pace.
Ginny scuffed her boots as she walked, and mumbled something about pending arguments with boyfriends. Draco turned around to see Ginny dawdling behind with a miffed expression in her eyes. Leveling himself with her, he looked into her eyes and murmured,
"Ginny? Is something bothering you?" Ginny looked up, startled by the soothing tone his voice took, "or have you finally realized that you're dating an Irish prat?"
"Very funny, Draco. But actually," Ginny pushed past him and resumed walking to Gryffindor tower, "I'm just not looking forward to the argument I know we're going to have about how you take up too much of my time."
"So Finnigan's jealous of how much time we spend together, eh? I thought you explained to him our little situation." Draco caught up to Ginny and just passed her.
"Even so, Draco, you can't really blame him for being upset, with the way you're always around." Ginny once again took the lead.
"Always, Weasley?" Draco practically growled, grabbing her arm and spinning her around. "Keep in mind, little Gin-Gin, that I have plenty of better things to do with my time than lead you around on your little rehab missions. You would do well to remember that I'm doing you a favor."
"You know what, Malfoy," Ginny roared back, shoving her face up to his, "I don't need you either! So why don't you just go sod off, and get back to your amazingly busy life. Don't bother doing me any more favors, you sniveling little brat! I'm just fine getting out of this situation without you!"
"That's just as well, Weasel." Draco's face resumed its normal icy, impassive expression. "After all, I'm beginning to think you've been fabricating this little 'situation' as you call it. How long has it been since you've had a supposed episode, or even made any semblance of a breakthrough? Really Weasley, of all the ways to con me into spending my time with you, this was rather lame." Draco turned on his heel and stalked back to the dungeons, leaving Ginny with a heaving chest, trying desperately to fight back the tears.
He's just saying that, Gin. Of course he knows it's real. Ginny closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Her breath shook as she exhaled. Staring at the empty spot that used to be Draco, Ginny trailed her eyes down the long corridor. She watched his silhouette slip around the corner and finally out of her sight. Why does it feel like Malfoy just broke up with me? The silence that settled over the hall was just barely disturbed by the sound of a single tear falling from her chin to hit the marble floor at her feet.
Harry was currently engaged in a challenging game he often found himself playing. His right hand reached out to gently rest on Hermione's leg, under the safety of the library table. However, as soon as his fingertips hovered over her knee, his hand was immediately swatted away. Steady, Harry, he thought to himself, a couple centimeters closer this time. Less than a minute later, he tried again, but was swatted away for the fourth time since he'd taken his seat next to his girlfriend.
Hermione raised her eyes to Ron's sleeping form slumped on the table across from her, and whispered out of the side of her mouth,
"Cut it out Harry! I'm trying to study here, and I suggest you do the same if your Transfigurations grade means anything to you."
"Pardon me, Hermione," Harry snapped, scooting his chair farther away from her, "I was under the impression that I'm allowed to touch my girlfriend once in a while. Looks like I was mistaken." He tried to turn back to his books, but found himself unable to focus. Harry muttered something about needing the loo before getting up and slamming his chair back into place.
"Wha- humma-" Ron mumbled incoherently, then swiped at his eyes in time to see Harry storm out of the library. He turned to Hermione with raised eyebrows and a question in his eyes.
"Harry's upset, and this time I think he actually has reason to be." Hermione sighed heavily at Ron's confused expression, and continued, "I don't know if we're working out like we thought we would be when we first got together. We keep having this same argument over and over, and I don't even know if I can fix it at this point."
"Hermione," Ron said as he reached over and placed a hand over hers, "if there was ever a problem in the world I didn't think could be fixed, you would be the witch to prove me wrong. I've never seen you shy away from any sort of challenge. Trust me, Herm, whatever problem you're having with Harry, I'm sure you'll find the best way to make everything better."
Oh Ron, I'm only afraid that I already know the solution...and it might hurt more than the problem itself. Hermione forced herself to smile back at her friend, for once grateful for how na´ve he could be sometimes. Apparently satisfied with this, Ron nodded and turned back to his studies.
Harry had closed the door to the library behind him, and was just turning down the hallway to walk off his foul mood. However, he didn't make it two paces until he was almost pummeled to the ground by Seamus. Harry turned to scowl at the fellow Gryffindor, but Seamus was gone before he could form the words. Mumbling something about madmen and something in the water, Harry went off in the other direction.
"Oy, Malfoy!" Seamus called out as he jogged up to Draco. "Slow down, will you? Let's talk," he added as he finally caught up to the now impatiently waiting Head Boy.
Draco watched the other boy catch up to him, and could not help but wonder why Seamus would want to be talking to him. Maybe Ginny told him about our conversation and he wants to play the role of the ever-dutiful, protective boyfriend? "Well, Finnigan," Draco all but growled, "out with it. I don't generally make it a habit of wasting my time on Gryffindors." Seamus cocked his eyebrow and looked like he would be willing to argue that point, but decided against it in the end.
"Look, Malfoy, I've been thinking. I've never really liked you; in fact, I doubt anyone really likes you at all. But it turns out that Ginny doesn't seem to mind you all that much. And considering how much time you two end up spending together because of some insufferable Potions project, it really is a wonder that you're both still alive after all these weeks," Seamus droned on pleasantly, leading Draco to believe he was mistaken in his earlier thoughts. "The way I see it, the only way this is possible is because you're more human than I've given you credit for being. So to make up for getting off on the wrong foot, I want you to join me and Ginny at Hogsmeade this Saturday," Seamus finished with a toothy grin spreading from ear to ear. Draco was looking at him as though he'd grown an extra head.
"Finnigan, give me one good reason why I would want to spend any time at all with you and your silly girlfriend?"
"Because, Malfoy," he responded, sidling closer to Draco with a suspiciously Slytherin glint in his eye, "I'm not quite the trusting Irish git you take me for. I did a little research of my own. Ginny's not being punished in Potions; in fact, she's among the top in her class. And Snape makes it a habit to not entertain students after dinner, the only exceptions being those with detention. Now, unless you'd like me to continue my research and discover something else about your little adventures with my girlfriend, I suggest you show up at the Three Broomsticks at 12:30 this Saturday."
Seamus walked away, clearly pleased with himself, leaving Draco gaping at his retreating form in wonder.
It was well into the evening before Hermione was finally left alone in the library. Harry and Ron had tired of studying and opted instead to play some Wizard's Chess in the Common Room. Hermione had managed to patch things up with Harry enough to have spent a pleasant afternoon in the library with him and Ron, but she was still grateful to have the time to turn to researching the counter curse to Ginny's condition. Whenever the other two were around, Hermione always felt apprehensive about what she might find out, given their overprotective nature of Ginny. She much preferred having the time to digest what she was reading and put it into the mildest of words before she told Harry and Ron. There was, of course, also another reason she favored researching this particular topic without the watchful eyes of Harry and Ron.
"Granger," came the familiar drawl before Draco settled himself into the chair opposite Hermione's, "Finnigan has a very inopportune way of interrupting the natural flow of my daily schedule."
Hermione nodded at Draco, instantly deciphering this random statement as Draco's way of explaining his tardiness to her. She had been meeting him regularly in this corner of the library for months since the first time she had shared his collection of books on dreamwalking, and could not help but notice a few subtle changes in him. The most outstanding change was that he had stopped calling her "Mudblood," but simply resorted to Granger or "Hey." The next difference Hermione noticed was the slight tick in his jaw that appeared whenever he was particularly peeved about something. She observed, however, that it really only surfaced when someone mentioned something about his father, Death Eaters, or Ginny. Hermione was abruptly jarred from her musings by a fist pounding on the table. Looking up from her book, she saw Draco scowl at a page before he ran a frustrated hand through his hair and rested his forehead against the heels of his hands.
"Hit a dead end again, Malfoy?" Hermione asked, knowing the feeling well.
"I feel like we keep going in circles here," he grunted back, "sitting here reading is going to get us nowhere. There's nothing that ink on parchment can tell us about what to do about Gin unless we know more than we know now."
"What are you getting at? There isn't anything else we can do but try to find something that'll give us a clue."
"The only clue we need has to come straight from the horse's mouth," Draco mumbled, extracting his face from his hands, and fixing Hermione with a glare.
"Well, it's not like there's any questions we haven't asked Ginny. So unless she's holding out on us about something then -" Hermione's eyes widened as comprehension dawned, "wait a second, you think she's holding back?? But what, and why?"
"Look, Granger, I don't propose to know the inner workings of silly little weasel girls, all right? All I know is that something doesn't add up. She has non-stop nightmares about Tom Riddle coming to her and taking her somewhere since last summer. I have a penseive sitting in my room chockfull of dreams about him approaching her, each more vivid and coming sooner than the last. Then all of a sudden, they stop without any warning. I understand completely that Snape's got her going to hypnosis sessions, and that's supposed to help with the mind control. But all the same, it doesn't make sense for him to stop appearing; he should just be less powerful." Draco let out a frustrated sigh when he was done and began flipping furiously through the book that sat in front of him.
"Hmm." Hermione began to tap her finger against her chin in thought, "You have a point there, surprisingly enough. But I honestly don't believe that Ginny would be having dreams about him and not telling us. I mean, they would definitely show up in either the hypnosis or the penseive. She really wouldn't have a choice in that matter. So something has to have prompted Riddle to stop appearing in her dreams...and that would only happen if he no longer had an interest in manipulating her. Could he have found another target?" Hermione continued to stare into space, the gears in her mind working furiously. Draco meanwhile was frozen, staring at the page in front of him.
"Granger, say what you just said again."
"What, about him finding a new target?" Hermione turned her attention back to him, fascinated by the way he seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough.
"No, before that."
"Erm, he no longer has an interest in her? But that could only be if -" she cut herself off with a gasp, as Draco began to read from the page.
"'Most instances of the concitatius spell in history have involved dark and powerful wizards, as mind control is generally banned in most areas. Additionally, complete cases of concitatius are hard to come by since the wizards tend to abandon their target once they have materialized.' I think we've officially found what Ginny's been hiding from us." Draco looked up gravely.
"It seems pretty clear what our only conclusion can be," Hermione squeaked out, "Tom Riddle's back...in person."
Neville sat on one of the cushions in the Room of Requirement, waiting for the minutes to tick by. He had arrived a little earlier than the scheduled meeting time, having given up on studying for the evening. Forcing himself to sit up a little straighter, Neville smiled to himself at how differently he saw himself now from before. Sure, he would still cower at the sight of certain particularly nasty Slytherins, including Draco Malfoy and the Slytherin Head of House, but nevertheless Neville liked to think he had grown a great deal braver over the years. He was no longer hiding behind every corner, scurrying along to his next destination, given that Mrs. Norris was nowhere in sight. He had also used his new surge in confidence to allow him to talk to girls without stuttering. It meant nothing that the list of girls he spoke to easily did not extend far beyond Hermione and Moaning Myrtle. All the same, the Neville Longbottom of his first year would never have been able to conduct himself with nearly as much stealth as he had been lately. And it was this newly discovered skill at spying that found Neville sitting here in the Room of Requirement, waiting to meet with Seamus Finnigan.
"Neville, you're a bloody genius!" Seamus cried as he walked in the room and threw himself on the floor opposite Neville. "I blackmailed Malfoy with what I knew about his meetings with Gin, and he just stood there like a gaping fish!" Seamus rolled his head back and his body shook with laughter.
"Are you sure you should be so happy about this, Seamus? It seems to me like meetings between Malfoy and Ginny should be some cause for concern." Neville picked at his cushion, his brow furrowed in thought.
"Hm? Oh yes, I was thinking about that earlier, Nev." Seamus was lying on his back on the floor, with his arms crossed behind his head. "I know at first I was really upset with Ginny for lying to me about whatever she was doing with Malfoy, but then I started to think about why she would lie to me. The only answer I could come up with is that Malfoy somehow conned her into silence. Then I started thinking of why Malfoy would con my Gin-bug into keeping her mouth shut, and the obvious answer presented itself. Really, I don't know why I didn't see it before. Every time I go to study with Ginny, Malfoy is inevitably there. Ginny is among the best in her Potions class. Malfoy is an arrogant git who doesn't like to admit he needs help," Seamus finished and grinned like a Cheshire cat at Neville.
"Er, Seamus? I'm not quite following you..."
"Don't you see, Neville?! Ginny's tutoring Malfoy in Potions!" The Irish boy exclaimed as though he had single handedly discovered the wizarding purposes of plutonium.
"But isn't Malfoy Head Boy? Why would the Head Boy, who is also rumored to be Snape's godson need tutoring from Ginny in Potions of all subjects?" Neville was shaking his head from side to side with an utterly confused expression on his face.
"Who knows why Malfoy's failing. But you said so yourself, that you overheard Hermione and Harry talking about Dumbledore having to do with Ginny's meetings with Snape and Malfoy. So it makes perfect sense that he would have assigned Ginny as a tutor, because Merlin knows they don't even like each other. Really, mate, what other plausible reason would Ginny have for meeting Malfoy every evening in Snape's room?" Neville took a long moment to study the blissfully ignorant boy sitting in front of him and remembered the first conversation he had overheard about Ginny. Heaving a sigh of defeat, he finally replied,
"Of course, Seamus. No other reason at all."
The Great Hall was packed Saturday morning. The excitement of another Hogsmeade weekend was bouncing off the walls. Harry, Ron and Hermione were huddled together, barely able to stop chattering about all the things they wanted to accomplish this weekend. Hermione had been forcing herself to stay in the library for many of the past weekends, claiming that, between her research and her school work, she had no time for anything else. Harry and Ron had finally convinced her, however, that she could take a much needed reprieve and have fun with them this weekend. Ginny, meanwhile, wished she could have found some way to weasel out of the past Hogsmeade weekends, but was instead left to walk the streets with her hand snugly enclosed in Seamus's. You should WANT to walk around Hogsmeade with your boyfriend, she tried unsuccessfully to remind herself. Ginny glanced over at Seamus out of the corner of her eye and sighed heavily at what she saw, or rather, what she did not see. Stop it, she chastised herself, stop pining for things that were never yours to begin with. Her battle with herself was interrupted by a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Ginny?" Seamus spoke sweetly close to her ear, "is everything all right?"
"Well, I was just thinking about our plans for today at Hogsmeade. Are you really sure you want to be having lunch with Draco? I mean really, you don't even like him. I barely even like him, and I have to spend all this time around him. He doesn't particularly think much of either of us either. So when you think about it, it's really rather ridiculous for the three of us to be having lunch." Ginny was abruptly stopped there with a finger to her lips. Seamus knew it was up to him to stop her now, or she would continue rambling all the way to Hogsmeade.
"Shush, Ginny dear, and just trust me. Lunch will be splendid." Ginny decided then and there that there was nothing she liked about the glint behind Seamus's eyes when he said that.
Ginny was still stealing surreptitious glances at Seamus as they walked down the cobblestones of Hogsmeade. He seemed to be gradually increasing their pace, constantly checking his watch as they neared The Three Broomsticks. Seamus burst in the door and whipped his head around from side to side, keenly searching for something. Eventually he settled for pulling Ginny to a booth near the back, and situated himself so he could watch the door with hawk-like eyes. Ginny was beside herself with confusion when she heard Seamus grumble about how the art of punctuality should be a class at Hogwarts. All of a sudden she felt someone's presence near her, and nearly cursed herself aloud for getting excited.
"Settle your Irish arse down, Finnigan. You look like your head's about to fall off your shoulders. Besides, who could you possibly be searching out, now that I'm here," Draco trailed off when Seamus sprang up from his seat and darted towards the other end of the restaurant. Shrugging, Draco slid into the booth next to Ginny, forcing her to move further into the corner.
"Malfoy," Ginny practically growled at the blond next to her, "I thought we agreed that neither of us had any desire to be seen with one another. So maybe you could tell me why you're sitting here with us?"
"Look, Weasley, I don't know what you're on about this time. Your own idiot puppy was the one that asked me to join you, completely against my will, mind you."
"Why would my puppy purposely call you along? My boyfriend, I mean!" She quickly corrected at the sight of his raised eyebrows. "Besides, why would you even accept?"
"I have no clue what goes on in that potato brain of his. And no, before you ask, I do not tire of the potato jokes; I find them rather witty." Draco ignored the pronounced rolling of her eyes and continued, "And as to why I accepted, it seems that Finnigan has somehow learned the real reason for our little meetings. What did you bloody tell him for? Do you fancy yourself in love with the boy or something?" Draco's blazing eyes gave away how irate he was.
"Me! Why in Merlin's name would I tell him anything? And what business is it of yours if I'm in love with him or with a hippogriff?" Ginny took a deep breath to calm herself down, having noticed some of the other customers starting to stare. "Not that it's any of your business, Malfoy, but Seamus turned to me yesterday and said that he had spoken to you earlier and that you told him the truth about me tutoring you in Potions."
"He said that I told him that?" Draco asked in an incredulous whisper.
"Well, he said that you had essentially confirmed his suspicion." Ginny was prevented from continuing further by Seamus's reappearance with Camena by his side.
"Well, what are the odds of me finding Camena by the bar, at the very same time that the three of us are having lunch?" Seamus remarked in an exaggeratedly casual tone.
"But Seamus, didn't you ask me to - " the end of Camena's sentence was lost as Seamus quickly pulled her into the booth next to him, seated across from Draco, who was conveniently hiding his snicker behind a hand.
"Now why don't we just sit and have a pleasant lunch?"
Ginny thought that the way Seamus kept winking at her strayed so far from subtlety that it ceased to amuse her. Draco, on the other hand, seemed unable to see anything but humor in the situation. Every now and then he would catch a glimpse of Seamus's conspiratorial grin and accidentally let slip a loud guffaw. Conversation continued in a surprisingly agreeable vein, and Ginny found herself forgetting just whom she was lunching with. Seamus clearly had the discretion of a Hungarian Horntail in a room full of dwarfs drinking tea, and this added only a moderate amount of awkwardness to the whole situation. By the end of lunch, Seamus had pulled Ginny off, claiming he needed time with his girlfriend. Draco had taken hold of Camena's elbow and steered her in the opposite direction.
"He's just so dreamy, isn't he?" Lavendar sighed, casting covert glances across the Great Hall. "With all that soft hair falling in his eyes...Oh, just look at the way he cuts his meat! Such skilled hands!" Her last comment sent her, Parvati Patil and anyone surrounding them into peals of shrieking giggles.
"Will you shut your gobs already? Hermione's clearly got Harry all sewn up. So why don't you direct you fantasies elsewhere," Ron cut in around a mouthful of blackberry pie.
"Excuse us, Ronald," Lavendar sniffed, "but we were having a private conversation here. Not that it's any of your business, but we weren't even talking about Harry. No offense Harry, but you're really just last year's news." Harry gave her a red-faced nod in response.
"That's right," Parvati chimed in, "there's a new star on the stage: someone whose nasty exterior has mysteriously been taken over by his brooding good looks. Having abandoned his less intelligent cronies, he reigns over his house like a lord over his subjects. His piercing eyes hide countless stories of a troubled childhood that any one of us would love to unlock." Parvati would have gladly continued if she had not just had a roll thrown at her. She fumed down the table, only to see Ginny and Seamus innocently engaging each other in a hushed conversation. Hermione spied Parvati's narrowed eyes, and decided to play interference,
"Parvati, who is this bloke who's caught your attention? Do you think you'll try to pursue it?" All of the girls who were previously sighing across the hall turned to look at Hermione as though she'd grown an extra head. Lavendar threw her nose up in the air and grudgingly responded,
"It really is unimaginable that you wouldn't know who we're talking about. In any case, we're obviously admiring Draco Malfoy, resident bad boy of Hogwarts. And of course none of us are going to pursue anything with him. After all, he's got a girlfriend of his own." At this, Ginny snapped her head in Lavendar's direction, not missing the smug look on Seamus's face. "Yes ladies, that's right," Lavendar continued, "the illustrious Ravenclaw Camena Yates has swooped in and taken Draco Malfoy from right under our noses. It really is a shame that none of us noticed how much of a turn-on a villainous background is any sooner." Lavendar and Parvati shook their heads remorsefully before returning to their meal and to the gossip mill.
Ginny sat up straight and tried as casually as she could to look over her shoulder at Draco. He was bent over his plate, concentrating hard on keeping his peas balanced on his fork. Suddenly he was startled into dropping them all back on the plate by a groping hand at his back. Ginny raised her eyes further and noticed Camena standing behind him with one arm draped across his shoulders, stroking his chest. She whispered something in his ear, making him smirk and lead her out of the Great Hall. Ginny vaguely registered that her grip on her goblet was near lethal.
"Hey Gin, pass me the pepper will you?" Seamus's voice barely floated past Ginny's ears. She slammed the pepper in front of him and scowled into her plate. Neville asked if she was feeling all right, and offered to take her to the Hospital Wing if necessary. Ginny just sighed loudly, apologized for her little outburst, and returned to her meal. She did, however, take an extra effort to stab the chicken on her plate, perhaps imagining it to be someone else. Meanwhile, the couple in question was having a hushed conversation under a tree near the lake.
"Did you mean what you said to me in there?" Draco asked Camena quietly.
"Of course," Camena giggled, "it's as though all the Gryiffindor girls hadn't known you were even male before. The way they were ogling you was just priceless. Even Ginny was trying to steal a few glances. But that was probably just a response to all the conversation. I mean, she is in such a committed relationship with Seamus. It's really adorable how long they've stayed together, considering how indifferent she was to the relationship in the beginning."
"Indifferent, you say?" Draco raised one eyebrow in question at the Ravenclaw who was currently sprawled on her stomach next to him.
"Oh yes, she almost turned him down." Camena tapped her chin in thought with one finger. "Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure she did practically turn him down when he first asked her. But then she said she had some things put in perspective, and couldn't find any reason not to date the poor boy." She let out a small giggle and scrunched her nose before continuing, "Now, of course, the silly little couple's in love." At this, Draco cast her a sideways glance. Almost of its own volition, his mouth formed the words before he could stop himself,
"She's told you she loves him?" He hid his own apprehension by drawling the words out with as much disinterest as he could feign.
"Well, not in so many words. But we were playing this silly Muggle game, Truth or Dare that one of the other girls suggested the other day. And Ginny had definitely admitted to being in love."
"Fine, then." Draco cut the conversation off with a light growl, and a few moments of silence passed over the pair. "So can you think of nothing better to do than talk about Gryffindor love sagas?" he asked in a slightly more hostile tone than he had intended.
"I think I can come up with a few suggestions," Camena cooed back before reaching her arm out to him.
Hermione leaned back in one of the plush chairs in the Room of Requirement. Her quill was too busy scratching furiously over her pad of parchment to notice someone glowering at her from his offensive height. Only when Draco moved to block the light from shedding onto her lap, did she bother to look up.
"Yes, Malfoy?" She started, slightly miffed that he had bothered to interrupt her in the middle of furious note-taking. "Can I help you somehow?"
"Don't get too comfortable, Granger!" He snarled back at her reclining form.
"Malfoy, it was your idea to even meet in the Room of Requirement as opposed to the library. So please, don't bother chastising me for something as silly as that." She heaved an exhausted sigh. "Do you really expect me to believe that my comfort level is the only reason you're currently blocking my light?" Draco regarded the witch in front of him, and then took a seat on the coffee table in front of her. He held a book in his hands, and was lightly leafing through it, before coming to a stop at a page that had been earmarked. Draco cleared his throat once, then shot Hermione a cold look before reading from the page,
"The history of the wizarding world has seen many dark wizards, and witches alike, rise and fall through the ages. In an effort to curb the havoc that they can wreak, the Ministry of Magic has deemed three curses as Unforgivable. One of these curses is the Imperius curse, which puts the wizard who casts the spell in control of the actions of the wizard upon whom it is cast." Draco paused in his reading to look up at Hermione's face. He could see her furrowing her brow, clearly recognizing the words as something she had read, but not remembering their context. He sneered once for good measure, then read on,
"As a counter-response to the Unforgivable curses, many spells, potions, and hexes have been developed to manipulate and control through more subtle manners." Draco ignored Hermione's gasp of realization, and continued over her, "One such spell plays upon the concept of 'true love.' When the wizard or witch who is cursed with this spell becomes intimate with the object of his or her affection for an extended period of time, he or she is eventually rendered comatose, and his or her partner is doomed to reciprocate that love forever. The details of this archaic spell are extremely difficult to come by, as its use has not been reported for hundreds of years." Draco trailed off as he shut the book gently and folded his elbows across his knees thoughtfully.
"Well, Granger," he drawled so quietly Hermione almost felt herself leaning towards him to hear him better, "does any of what I just read sound familiar? I believe you should recognize the stipulations of this little curse. I really only have one simple question for you." He paused to stand and straighten out his robes. "What exactly are you doing, researching MY BLOODY CURSE??" The book came sailing at Hermione as he shouted the last few words.
Hermione cowered before the fuming Slytherin in front of her, her head narrowly missing the heavy tome. She gingerly picked the book up and placed it to the side with shaking hands. The only irate teenage boy Hermione had ever come face-to-face with was Ron. Ron usually turned various shades of purple and red, and clenched his fists as he growled. Peeking up at Draco, Hermione realized that this boy painted a very different picture. Draco was standing above her, his body set in stony rigid lines, and at first glance she would have mistaken him for a statue. But if she looked closer, Hermione could clearly see that he was just barely shaking with rage, and seemed to be ready to burst at any moment. She slowly rose from her chair and inched around to the back of it, aching to put as much distance between her and Malfoy as possible. Draco was too quick for her, though, and pounced forward to grab hold of her shoulders. He gave her a good shake before she felt compelled to answer his earlier question,
"See, Malfoy, the thing is," Hermione squeaked at a high pitch, "after you told me about the cruse your father put on you, it kind of peaked my curiosity." She stopped talking when she noticed his eyes narrow.
"As thrilled as I am to know that my fate amuses you, Granger, it would do you well to mind your own business. Don't bother trying to stop the inevitable. I didn't tell you what I did because I wanted you to take me on as some charity case. I simply said it to get you off my back."
"No buts, Granger." He growled, shaking her once more. "We have an agreement to research about Ginny's situation, and nothing more. The rest of my life is of no concern to you. I can't wait to be rid of you ruddy Gryffindors for good after this year." Draco let go of her with such force that she was forced back into her chair. Draco stalked over to a chair on the other side of the table and threw himself into it.
"If you can't wait so badly, Malfoy," she replied, noticing that her voice seemed to have returned, now that she could freely move her arms, "then why exactly are you so hell-bent on helping Ginny? It's not like you've got some mandate to be here."
"I really thought our Head Girl wouldn't be that daft." Draco rested his left elbow on the armrest of his chair, and massaged his temples with his left hand. "Do you not recall that Tom Riddle has manifested himself in our world? He also happens to be teenage version of the greatest Dark Lord to cross wizarding England. Anyone with a gram of intelligence and common sense would think to stop him before he got out of hand. This has nothing to do with your sappy fantasies of all-consuming love."
"Malfoy, that may all be true, but you can't attempt to deny that you've fallen in love with Ginny Weasley over this last year."
"You know as well as I do, Granger, that I never attempted to deny the truth." His voice was slightly muffled by the hand that still held his forehead.
"So then why are you pushing her away?" Hermione pressed softly. "She told me that she needed me to start coming with her to her meetings with Snape, because you had made it clear to her that you wanted nothing further to do with her. I understand that under your curse, you can't conceivably be with her without inevitably hurting her and yourself in the process. But when you're so obviously in love with each other, do you really need to be adding this distance?"
"Granger, have you ever wanted something you couldn't have?"
"Oh yes, this one time I desperately wanted a piece of Ron's Christmas fudge that his mum had sent him. I couldn't take any though, because Ron hadn't even had the first taste, and oh, it just killed me to watch that box sit unopened, begging for someone to -" Hermione stopped herself when she saw Draco glare at her from between his fingers.
"This may be a touch too elevated for someone of your caliber, but do try to follow what I'm saying." He exhaled noisily before speaking distantly in a low voice, as though speaking too loud might remind him to hide behind the typical Malfoy pretense. "Being around Ginny is just a constant reminder of what I don't have, cannot have, and will never have, but have always wanted. Every time I'm near her I just need to touch her to know that she's real. I need to mark her to know that she will be just as real the next time I see her. Can you imagine having that box of fudge sitting right under your nose everywhere you go? Now imagine that box were opened and willing to offer itself to you for the taking. But you know that the only possible outcome of taking a piece would be utter destruction." Draco leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. For the first time that Hermione had ever noticed, his face lost its stony fašade, and was simply that of an emotionally drained 17-year old boy. "Tell me this, would you close the box and walk away, or just sit there and stare at it, hoping that you won't give in to the temptation?"
Hermione just stared at him for a good minute, taking in everything she had seen. This normally closed off boy had just shown her such a wide array of emotions in the last few minutes. She had seen him rise with uncontrollable anger and pride, and then almost immediately melt into exhausted submission. Now he was sitting before her looking more vulnerable than she could have ever imagined seeing him. As a matter of fact, that look of defeat seemed so out of place with his platinum blond hair and immaculate robes that the sight actually frightened her. Mumbling a quick apology, Hermione gathered her things and took off towards the door. She muttered over her shoulder that they would meet at the same time and place the following day, and then she all but ran back to Gryffindor Tower.
Ginny and Seamus were reclining near the stands on the quidditch field in the few minutes before Gryffindor practice. Ginny glanced at her watch and reminded Seamus that he needed to go get ready for practice soon, while she would return to the Common Room to catch up on some work. She slowly sat up from her position lying down on the grass, stretching the kinks out of her back. Seamus watched her lazily without sitting up, but when he saw her rise to her feet, he soon joined her.
"Would you like some help brushing off those grass stains, Gin?" He murmured in her ear while suggestively trailing a hand down her back. Ginny quickly swatted him away and moved out of his reach.
"Seamus, really! What if someone saw us? That'd be more than a touch embarrassing." Ginny straightened out her robes then bent to retrieve a notebook of parchment that she had brought out with her when Seamus abducted her from the library.
"Who cares if someone sees, Gin?" He responded, then added below his breath, "It's not like we do anything anyway."
"What was that? Seamus Finnigan, if you have something to say about this relationship, you might as well say it to my face, instead of ducking your head to the side like that. I think I deserve that much."
"Well I think I deserve a little more from my girlfriend of six months! Ginny all we do is kiss innocently here and there and then you have to run off and do something or the other. I'm not trying to be like one of those boys, but -"
"One of what boys, Seamus?" Ginny's mouth was set in a tight line, in a fine imitation of Mrs. Weasley.
"Look, Ginny," Seamus ran an exasperated hand through his hair, "I'm not trying to pressure you or anything, but we've been dating for quite some time, and we barely act like we're anything more than friends! You say that I'm so good for you, and we've never had any real problems, so I just don't understand what's holding you back!" Right at that moment, something moving just beyond the hill caught Ginny's eye. When she made the mistake of turning her head almost instinctively to follow her eyes, Seamus followed her line of sight to see Draco walking by with Camena's hand in his. "Oh you've got to be kidding me," he muttered under his breath, almost desperately.
"Seamus, no, it's not like that at all!" Ginny immediately refocused her attention on her boyfriend, and pleaded him not to read the truth.
"How else could it be? I always figured he had some sort of unhealthy obsession with you, but I didn't dream that you'd reciprocate." Seamus shook his head sadly and chuckled lightly, "You aren't very subtle though, Gin-bug. Ever since he started traipsing around with that Ravenclaw friend of yours, you haven't been able to see them once without either staring or bursting into some random jealous rage. I guess one good result of me setting them up was that you could finally stop lying to yourself." He regarded her with a sad smile and raised his hand to gently stroke the side of her face with his thumb while his palm cradled her jaw.
"I'm so sorry, Seamus, I never intended for anyone to get hurt..." Ginny trailed off when he took a step closer to her and rested his forehead against hers.
"Just tell me one thing Ginny," Seamus whispered so softly, that Ginny had to close her eyes to focus on his voice completely, "was there ever any part of you that I had?"
All Ginny could do was silently nod back at him. Seamus dropped his hand from her face and turned towards the locker room, broom in hand. Ginny stood rooted to the ground, watching Seamus round the corner and leave her sight. That's the second time I've watched a boy walk away from me, she mused to herself.
In the passing weeks, time glossed over sudden changes, bringing everyone back to a sense of routine. Ginny and Hermione began going to regular hypnosis meetings with Professor Snape, and only earned raised eyebrows from him during the first of these new meetings. Ginny suspected that he had always predicted that either Draco would tire of her or vice versa.
Draco used the extra time to divide his life systematically between his studies, quidditch, and researching the concitatius spell.
Hermione had begun devoting more and more of her time to her secret meetings with Draco. She secretly hoped and dreaded at the same time that his vulnerability might one day show through again. The anticipation was almost addictive, and Hermione suddenly understood what was meant by the term magnetism. While she would never think of him in the way those other girls did (or the way that Draco seemed to think she did), she found herself drawn involuntarily to him. When Harry confronted her about her sudden lack of free time, she realized she had been avoiding her boyfriend to spend time with Draco Malfoy. The thought made her feel suspiciously like Ginny, and that thought scared her sufficiently into withdrawing drastically from Draco and his accompanying research. The remainder of the spring season passed in a flurry of preparations for N.E.W.T.s.
Ron was sitting in a chair near the window of the Gryffindor Common Room, fanning himself on the first hot day of May. He was unsuccessfully hiding his snickers behind his hand, while listening to some third years seated on the sofas.
"Merlin, Samuel, you just amaze me with how much you know about Defense Against the Dark Arts. I wish I could handle boggarts the way you do. The way you laughed my bad hair day away was just mind-blowing," a mousy brunette simpered at the boy seated closely next to her.
"Well, you know what they say, Tabitha: laughter is the best medicine." The boy smugly adjusted his robes.
"Ronald, I hope you know you look ridiculous sitting here and laughing to yourself!" Hermione called out to him as she approached his window seat.
Ron quickly shushed her and pointed to the couple he was watching earlier, "Young love," he added with a grin.
Turning to the direction he was pointing, Hermione heaved a sigh and tried to prevent the wistful smile that crept up on her face. It seemed like it was so long ago that she first thought she felt something more than friendship for Harry. It must have been decades since the first time he kissed her and her insides lit on fire. It can't have been less than a century ago when her sleepless nights were caused by dreams of Harry, and not nervous awkwardness. So what was different now? Why couldn't she be around him without hopelessly thinking something was just off?
"Hey, Mione?" The sound of Ron's voice literally made her jump from her thoughts. "Is everything all right?"
"I don't even know what to tell you, Ron," Hermione sighed and plopped into the seat next to her friend. "Everything is just so confusing."
"Is this about Harry?" Ron gently prompted her to continue.
"Well, I suppose it is. But somehow I'm thinking it's got more to do with me than with Harry," Hermione was now watching the couple on the sofa with a far-away look in her eyes. "I know it must sound strange, but every time I'm with Harry, I keep thinking that something just doesn't fit. It's not quite right. I don't mean to imply that something is off with Harry, that's not it," she quickly added at Ron's concerned face. "We just don't seem to work the way we used to. Although, I'm not even sure I remember how we used to work. Oh, I don't know, I just feel as though this entire year has been a slow decline on mine and Harry's relationship."
Ron had been watching the couple as well, but turned to Hermione when she threw her head in her hands.
"Look, Hermione, maybe it's just the stress. After all, you are Head Girl, we've got N.E.W.T.s coming up in a couple weeks, not to mention all the hubbub with Ginny. Bloody Hell, Mione, we're lucky we haven't lost you to St. Mungo's already. Erm, I think that was a compliment in my head before it actually got out," Ron added sheepishly at the way she narrowed her eyes.
"You're probably right. I just can't help but think sometimes..." Her voice trailed off as she saw the third-year couple shyly kiss then blush furiously as they walked out the portrait hole hand-in-hand. "Do you think everyone falls maddeningly in love?"
"Wha- Erm- Eh- " Ron's sputtering was cut off when Hermione turned to him wearing a wild look on her face.
"I mean the kind of love that grabs you by the throat. Where all you can think to do is throw something because you just have to let go of what's building inside. The kind of love that takes someone made from stone, and turns him into a raving madman. The love that creates a fiery passion, only to feed off of it. Like a box of fudge, enticingly held under your nose, and it would kill you not to take a piece, but taking a piece would mean jumping headlong into the unknown, and what if you didn't like it?" Hermione trailed off again as her thoughts played with the words from her least likely study partner.
"Do you want some fudge? Mum just sent me a package, and I would have given it to you if I knew you loved fudge that much," Ron pleaded with her, if only to get that devilish look out of her eyes. Hermione met his eyes for two long seconds before they both burst into laughter.
"I'm sorry, Ron!" She cried between peals of laughter, "I don't know what got into me there. I guess I just got a little carried away with my daydreams."
"Like I said, St. Mungo's is expecting you," the redhead quipped with a friendly smirk. "But seriously, Hermione, don't worry. I'm sure everything will work out with Harry. And as for your question before: sure, I definitely believe everyone falls maddeningly in love at least once. Whether it's with someone you haven't met yet, or someone you hadn't thought to consider before." He paused to give Hermione a searching look before continuing. "Or your best friend of seven years, really isn't the point. If you think you haven't felt that with Harry, who knows, it could just be because you're too caught up with everything else. After all, it's not as though you've met someone else or something. Now, come on, let's go try some of that fudge Mum sent me."
The occupants of The Great Hall were noisily chattering over their breakfast when the owl post came swooping through. Hermione easily caught her copy of The Daily Prophet, while Ginny leafed through her Witch Weekly, when a rather offending screeching owl landed in front of the space between the two witches. Ginny stared with wide eyes at the owl, instantly recognizing its owner. With a fluttering heart she willed herself to put aside her anxiety and reach for the letter attached to the owl's leg. Come now, Gin, it's not like he's never sent you a letter before. And it isn't as though he hasn't spoken to you in almost two months. Besides, it's not as though you've been sitting around dreaming of when he'd try and contact you again...of course not. However, Ginny's internal ramblings were interrupted when something slapped her hand away from the owl. Startled, she shook herself and reached for the letter again. This time the bird was not so forgiving, and nearly bit her hand off. Ginny looked up at the Slytherin table in indignation, as though to ask Draco what was the bloody matter with his bird, but Draco was nowhere to be found. Her impossibly wide eyes widened even further when the owl strutted closer to Hermione and stuck his leg out. The Head Girl blushed profusely and took the proffered letter while mumbling something about silly owls. Ginny's eyes never left Hermione's back even as the older girl excused herself, climbed up from the bench, and left the Great Hall. Harry reached over and closed Ginny's hanging jaw for her.
"Don't want to let the flies in." He shrugged.
It was convenient that Ginny's eyes were still trained on the doors when a thoroughly shaken up Neville Longbottom came stumbling in the doors. He sat down in the gap that used to be Hermione and muttered "good morning"s to his neighbors.
"Neville, are you all right?" Ginny voiced the question that everyone seemingly wanted to know but was slightly afraid to ask.
"Er, yes, I just had a little run-in with Malfoy," Neville responded with forced cheer. When Seamus nudged him with a bemused expression, he leaned closer and whispered, "It seems my surreptitious tactics of following him weren't quite as stealthy as I had thought."
Hermione quickly caught the book tossed at her as soon as she entered the Room of Requirement. Not recognizing the title as one that she had used in her research, she immediately flipped to the bookmarked page. Quickly scanning the page with her eyes, she froze and knew what she was looking for without needing to be told.
"There is only one documented case of the concitatius curse being countered, due primarily to the rare nature of the curse itself, as well as the stipulations of the counter-curse." From across the room, Draco's voice breathed life into the words Hermione was staring at so intently. "The counter curse may only be performed in the presence of the mind controller, or it will be ineffectual. The caster of the counter curse must exhibit a stronger form of the same spark that connects the original mind controller and the subject. Once these requirements are met, the caster of the counter curse must recite the words suscitatio ex vestri somnus." Without turning his head from the fire, he continued in a chilling tone, "Before you ask, Granger, there are certain perks to being a Malfoy, despite a surprising affinity for hideous tattoos. The book comes from our library, courtesy of my personal house elf."
Hermione crossed the room to the fireplace and took a seat on the floor. She looked down at her crossed legs and her hands folded in her lap, concentrating intently on what this new information meant.
"Calm your bushy head down." Draco cut her off before she began. "I've already figured out the details of our predicament. It seems that while you were busy avoiding me, I actually remembered my priorities enough to try to stop the destruction of the wizarding world as we know it."
"Now you look here, Malfoy!" Hermione shouted from her seat on the floor, "Just because I don't want to see your face every day does not mean that I don't have my priorities straight. And besides, what kind of priorities are you referring to? N.E.W.T.s? Head Girl duties? Don't think that I haven't noticed you skiving off on your patrol duties the last two weeks! It seems you've done a stellar job setting an example for the other prefects! Really, Malfoy, how can you possibly imagine that I would be as obsessed with Ginny as you are, given what you and I already know to be true? You're just lashing out at me because there's no one else around. Well, you know what? It isn't my fault that you're so top over teakettle in love with Ginny Weasley!" Hermione's chest was heaving when she finished her rant. She was still seething moments later when Draco spoke again,
"Are you quite through?" At her narrowed eyes, he continued, "Since Riddle needs to be present for the spell to work, we'll have to lure him out. Given his unhealthy obsession with Miss Weasley, I propose we make some big show of having her alone in a secluded area, and he'll be sure to make an appearance. Of course, she will have to stop undergoing hypnosis, so Riddle can communicate with her somehow. Once he shows up, I will cast the counter curse, and this whole ruddy mess will be behind us. Ginny, the sweet complacent darling that she is, will never go along with any of this. This is why you must find some way to get her to stop going to Snape, and get her to the secluded spot."
"That's all good and well, Malfoy, but I think you're forgetting something. How do you even know that the counter curse will work? We've gone through everything in her penseive, and still haven't been able to find the spark that started this whole mess." Hermione threw here hands up in frustration.
"Trust me, Granger." Draco turned to her with at stony expression. One scene was playing over and over in his head: I love you. No one else can love you like I do...let me show you how much I love you. Then you'll see. "It'll work." With that, Draco turned and left the room, feeling sincerely as though he had Tom Riddle by the bollocks.
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