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The Return

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Boarding the Hogwarts Express had always been one of Hermione Granger’s favorite aspects of being a witch. The hustle, bustle and excitement of the loading platform as friends were reunited and nervous first years took that first step on their magical journey always seemed to enervate her. She would never tell anyone, but the absolute chaos secretly thrilled her.

The best part, however, was the moment of complete stillness when she first entered a cabin, the door closing softly behind her and the whole world going silent. Always before it was a time to think and anticipate all of the things to come, new classes and spells and books to read.

But not this time. This time, in that moment, she didn’t want to think. She just wanted to forget. About the war. About what she’d seen and done. About Malfoy Manor and “mudblood” carved into her skin. About friends and professors dead and buried and those left behind to grieve. About obliviated parents living happily in Australia…without her.

She dreaded the silence, knowing that this time it would not be broken within minutes by Harry and Ron bumbling through the door, talking about quidditch and the candy trolley. They were in Auror training at the ministry and had decided not to return for an “eighth” year to complete their studies. She was alone and the deafening silence would last for hours.

She contemplated finding Ginny or Luna, or even the other “eighth years” just to be surrounded by noise and distraction but dismissed the notion quickly. The gaiety would just sadden her further as she thought of all those no longer there to celebrate and laugh with. All those she couldn’t save in time. All those who might not have died if she had just been a bit quicker, a bit smarter, a bit less starving and more able to concentrate. Maybe then she would have figured out the horcruxes a bit earlier and stopped Voldemort before he attacked the school.

Hermione knew she was being more than a bit mental and shouldn’t…couldn’t… really blame herself. She knew the only one to blame was Voldemort and those who followed him. No unforgivables had come from her wand and no innocent blood was on her hands. But in the silence, without the distraction of Harry’s brotherly arm around her shoulders or Ron’s quick humor, there was nothing to block the thoughts out, nothing to drown out the roar of guilt, shame, and despair.

Hermione felt the sob crawling up her throat and was about to let loose when the cabin door suddenly flung open and in walked the last person she thought she would ever see again. The last person she ever wanted to see again. A walking, talking memory of torture and “dirty” blood dripping on a marble floor.

Draco Malfoy slammed the door shut behind him and glared at her, his quicksilver eyes, partially hidden behind a waterfall of platinum hair, conveying disgust and anger as he raked them over her from head to toe, barely pausing at her red, blotchy cheeks and damp eyes.

“I would’ve thought you’d have learned some occlumency while on the run, Granger,” he spat, his trademark sneer twisting his lips. “If I have to be subjected to any more of your depressing thoughts, I might have to crucio myself just to get some relief!”

The shock of seeing him quickly wore off as his words registered in her brain. “How dare you use legilimency on me!” Hermione hissed. “You have no right to poke your pointy nose into my thoughts,” she seethed, digging her wand out of her pocket and holding it at the ready, waiting for the slightest twitch from Malfoy.

“Relax,” Malfoy drawled. “I would never willingly peek into your brain, Granger. Probably full of boring facts about Hogwarts and self-righteous speeches about house elf rights.” Malfoy shuddered dramatically. “Besides, I would think the brightest witch of our age would remember that eye contact is needed for legilimency and I only just got here. You’re projecting so loudly it’s a wonder even that thick, red-headed weasel boyfriend of yours doesn’t pick up on it back at the ministry. Not that the idiot would even know what was going on.”

At the mention of Ron, Hermione blushed a deep shade of red and was unable to stop the memory of Ron dumping her “for her own good, really” from pushing to the front of her mind.

“Oh, trouble in paradise, I see,” Malfoy quipped. “I’d think you’d be happier that train wreck didn’t work out. Dodged an avada with that one, surely. I mean, honestly, did you really picture yourself married to that daft git, a dozen bushy-haired gingers calling you ‘mummy’?”

Malfoy was leaning against the cabin door, ankles and arms crossed, looking for all the world as if he had nowhere else to be and nothing better to do than to inquire about her admittedly non-existent love life. Hermione was torn between embarrassment, anger, and outright confusion. Naturally, her need to know everything outweighed anything and everything else.

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d have given any thought to my future husband and children, Malfoy. Envious of the love and affection you will surely never know? After all, what woman would willingly marry a former Death Eater…and such a shoddy one at that?” Hermione shot back acidly.

Malfoy was on her in a blink, one hand wrapped in her bushy hair, yanking her head back, the other forcing her wand hand down and away. His face was so close to hers that their noses were but an inch apart and she had to practically cross her eyes to bring him into focus. She had never been so close to him before. In fact, when she thought a moment, she was sure he had never actually touched her before that instant.

“Watch it, Granger,” he snarled, his warm and wet breath hissing against her lips. “Potty and Weasel aren’t here to protect you and I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

Hermione was too stunned to move, to struggle, to kick or push at him with her free hand. She could feel his heart pounding against her chest and with each inhale she tasted his toothpaste. Spearmint. She was once again confused. His words, meant to intimidate, instead served to bring his own misery into sharp focus. She found herself sympathizing with him.

Before she had a chance to contemplate the wisdom of her actions, she slid her free arm around his back and pulled him to her in an awkward half hug. “I’m sorry,” she breathed. “That was a cruel thing to say.”

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Draco Malfoy was pretty sure that if Hell existed, the Slytherin car on the Hogwarts Express was it. No longer considered the prince of Slytherin, he was hailed as a blood traitor for switching sides in the war. While none of the others would outright support Voldemort’s doomed cause in public, they still very much touted the superiority of pure blood when amongst their own. Draco found himself ostracized and the recipient of some very pointed, very dark looks full of malice and cunning. If those looks were anything to go by, he was single-handedly responsible for the abysmal failure that was the Second Wizarding War.

Looking for another car was out of the picture, as the other houses still viewed him as a Death Eater, a student who took the Dark Mark, let the likes of Bellatrix and the Carrows into the school, and housed the Dark Lord himself in his ancestral home. Did they hate him? As much as anyone on the side of the light could hate someone. Did they fear him? Unequivocally, without a doubt, yes.

Draco thanked his lucky stars his aunt had taught him the fine art of occlumency, never mind that she literally tortured him when he failed a lesson, as it allowed him to hide his inner turmoil behind an exterior of calm indifference. Controlling your feelings was the key to being a good occlumens. That exterior was close to cracking however and it was all the mud-muggleborn’s fault.

Draco felt as if he knew some of what Potter went through, being forced to endure Voldemort’s thoughts, as Granger’s pounded through his skull. Frankly, he was shocked at how dark and depressing her thoughts were. She won. She was a hero. Everyone welcomed her wherever she went. Yes, people died, but that’s what war is. At least her parents weren’t in Azkaban awaiting trial. At least she had friends to take her in. At least she wasn’t forced to live in an empty mansion surrounded by memories of the tortures and deaths that occurred regularly within its walls.

When he saw himself in her ruminations, disheveled and pale, watching helplessly while his aunt tortured and maimed her, he had had enough. He rose swiftly from his seat in the back of the car, strode with head held high past his housemates, and made his way towards the source of the dark cloud in his mind. He had no idea that within minutes he would find himself in the embrace of one bushy-haired, know-it-all, Gryffindor princess.

In fact, as he stood there, his hand buried in her surprisingly soft hair, her pulse fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings against the palm of his hand where he gripped her delicate wrist, he was at a loss. He rarely found himself in a position where he didn’t know how to proceed. Sure, there were times when he couldn’t decide what to do but he always knew what the choices were. And there were instances where he knew what to do, but wasn’t sure how to go about getting it done. But the times when he absolutely had no idea at all on how to proceed were few and far between. In fact, it had only happened once, when Hermione Granger, one third of the Golden Trio, the brains behind the defeat of the Dark Lord, with her hair held savagely in his grip and her wand under his control, hugged him and whispered apologies in breath scented with vanilla and coffee.

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Draco found himself doing something else he had never done before: conceding. He released his grip on her curls, trying to ignore the tingling of his fingertips as the strands slipped silkily away, and stepped out of her embrace.

“Forget it,” Draco muttered. “You’re probably right anyway. Besides, I’d rather deal with your anger than that ‘woe is me’ nonsense you were wallowing in before. Put up some shields, Granger, or at least try not to wallow so bloody loudly. Some of us would like to drown in our own misery in peace, thank you very much.”

With that he pulled open the door and made to leave, remembering in that instant that he really had nowhere else to go where he would be welcomed. He was persona non grata in his own house and akin to a deranged serial killer in the other houses. His hesitation lasted but a moment; however a moment to someone as brilliant and observant as Hermione Granger might as well have been a month.

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“I’m not expecting anyone to join me,” Hermione announced timidly. She had sensed his hesitation and it didn’t take much to ascertain the cause. “The other cabins must be taken by now.” He still hadn’t turned around so she tried a new tactic. “Well, either sit down or don’t. I’m going to read and go back to pretending you don’t exist until classes force us to share the same air. You are welcome to do the same.”

With that, she plunked ungracefully onto the bench near the window, tucked her feet up underneath her, and opened up the copy of the Daily Prophet as of yet ignored on the seat beside her. She sensed rather than saw Malfoy move. The room became a little warmer as the door closed and his body heat was trapped inside with hers. She felt the weight of his gaze on her face and she hastily moved her eyes back and forth, as if engrossed in the article about…how to keep your wizard’s wand out of another witch’s cauldron!

Hermione could feel the fiery red racing up her neck to her face and quickly turned the page before Malfoy could see what she was reading. She risked a glance in his direction, worried he had somehow noticed her embarrassment, but he apparently had taken her invitation to heart and was very studiously ignoring her. He had hunched into the opposite corner of the other bench, close to the cabin door, and was staring straight ahead. If it wasn’t for the tension in his jaw suggesting gritted teeth, she might think him lost in daydreams.

Since he wasn’t really looking at her, she took the time to look at him instead. She had never really paid much attention to him before. Not his looks anyway. His truly rotten behavior blinded her to anything else and made him utterly repulsive. With that arrogance and air of superiority stripped away, she was left with nothing else to notice but how genetics and God had put him together. Hermione could say, with perfect objectivity, that Draco Malfoy was not utterly repulsive. In fact, objectively, one might call him attractive. If one were truly being objective, she argued with herself, one would most certainly say that he was a product of precise breeding. In other words, he was handsome in that way that was a bit….well…perfect, really.

Age had done wonders for his pointy features and his face had filled out enough to balance the length with the width. His high forehead was adorned with sharply arched, thick, blonde brows set above hooded silver eyes framed in lashes so dark any girl would be envious. Between those eyes sat his patrician nose, once too thin and pointed for his face, now a point of delicacy to counteract the sharp chisel of his high cheekbones. Remembering third year, Hermione thought that if she slapped him now those cheekbones might actually cut her. A strong, stubborn jaw and slightly pointed chin were topped with thick, sensuous lips as pink as candy floss. Combine the perfect face with platinum hair just this side of too long and he really did resemble an angel.

Hermione had always known he was tall and thin but didn’t realize how tall until he had her flush against his body with her head held roughly back. The top of her head barely reached his collarbone. He was still thin, but in the way a swimmer was thin, all skin stretched over lean, wiry muscle. The muscles in his forearm when he held her by the hair bulged beneath his simple dress shirt and she recalled feeling the outline of abs and the jut of hipbones against her torso.

Unconsciously she found herself staring at his legs, trying to recall if they had been thin like some men’s were or well-developed with thick thigh muscles and strong calves. She couldn’t remember the feel of them pressed against her own legs but supposed that years of playing seeker straddling a broom had probably helped to define his leg muscles a bit and she doubted that he was hiding chicken legs under his tailored slacks.

Satisfied with her perusal and her ability to assess him objectively, Hermione hummed a low note and smirked, bringing her eyes up from his body and…straight into a pair of steel grey orbs. She let out an involuntary squeak and jumped a little in her seat.

“Enjoying yourself, Granger?” Malfoy asked, one eyebrow raised and a smirk on his lips.

“I was….I was just….um…well, it’s just that I’ve never really….um, what I mean is…,” Hermione stuttered and stammered, sure that at any moment her head was actually going to burst into flames from the heat of her acute humiliation.

“Spit it out,” Malfoy commanded impatiently.

“I’ve-never-really-looked-at-you-before-and-didn’t-realize-that-you-were-actually-quite-handsome-underneath-all-your-arrogance-and-pureblood-posturing,” Hermione answered so quickly her words all blended into one. After that it was like a dam had broken. “I’ve always thought of you as being a pointy faced bastard with your nose in the air but when you aren’t actually acting like a bastard you’re really quite….um…nice….good looking….almost pretty really. Your nose and chin is still a bit pointy but….well your lashes and…um…lips are soft enough to balance it out and….well…yeah, I’m going to shut up now.”

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Draco was pretty sure Hermione Granger had just called him pretty. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to be offended or, frankly, disgusted by the idea that she might fancy him. Or was he disgusted with himself for not being disgusted by the idea that she might fancy him? It was enough to give him a nose bleed.

“Well, if I actually cared what you thought about my appearance I might be flattered,” he drawled. “Then again, an assessment of my looks coming from someone who so clearly puts no thought into her own isn’t really reliable, now is it?”

Draco wondered how her face could possibly become even redder, but somehow she managed it. Though, it was difficult to tell if it was from embarrassment or anger. His answer came when she whispered a charm and his body was suddenly buffeted by a swirling funnel of wind and dust. The wind whipped his hair into a frenzy and stung his eyes and he soon found himself covered in dirt.

“Not so pretty anymore,” Granger observed through gritted teeth. “Just because we don’t all spend a fortune on Sleakeazy hair oil and at least an hour rubbing lotions into our oh-so-delicate skin doesn’t mean we don’t care about our own looks. I just have more important things to worry about and am confident enough in my looks to not feel the need to enhance them.”

“If you were that confident you wouldn’t feel the need to retaliate for my offhanded comment.” Draco knew his mark hit home when the red slowly bleached from her face. “I didn’t say there was anything wrong with your looks, Granger. Your face is fine and you grew into your teeth. I’ve never really paid attention before but your body isn’t half bad either. And your hair is...no, sorry, that’s still a nightmare. I merely pointed out that you don’t put much thought into your looks. A point, I might add, that you were quick to make yourself.”

Draco whispered a quick scourgify to rid his clothing of dirt and ran his hands through his blonde tresses to put them back into some semblance of order. In the past he might have hexed her to teach her a lesson about messing with him. Now though, he was too tired to care about something so trivial. He did wonder, though, why he felt compelled to reassure her about her looks.

“Well, it’s true,” Granger insisted. “I’ve been busy, in case you weren’t aware, trying to prevent a war and then trying to end it. I didn’t really have time to sit and gossip and learn about makeup and hairstyles with the girls. No need, really. And I couldn’t possibly care less what you think of my hair.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Draco insisted. “Really. I don’t care. It isn’t as if you have anyone to impress. The whole wizarding world adores you and I’m sure there will be little witches begging their mums to throw away their brushes and let them dress like schoolmarms.” Draco cursed himself as soon as he said it. He really wasn’t trying to goad her. Snark just came naturally to him and sometimes he couldn’t stop himself.

“You know, I take it back. You are a foul git and too much of a bastard to be considered handsome. In fact, you are probably the ugliest person I’ve ever met.” And with that, and a flick of her wrist, Draco found himself lifted bodily and tossed through the now open cabin door, which slammed and locked behind him once he landed in the hall.

Bollocks, he thought, where the hell am I supposed to go now?

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Hermione didn’t want to cry anymore. Not because she was no longer upset. No. She just didn’t want to give Malfoy the satisfaction. How dare he…well….how dare he off-handedly compliment her like that. What right did he have to talk about her body and face as if he had paid any sort of attention to her looks at all? Fine? Not half bad? His compliments were almost as bad as his insults.

The rest of the ride was spent plotting. In fact, she felt that if the sorting hat could see her now, it would probably say she’d make the perfect addition to Slytherin house. Hermione was so intent on planning how to get back at Draco Malfoy, she didn’t have time to think about war and death and loneliness.

It was the first real moment of peace she’d had since the war had ended nearly 5 months before. She supposed she should be grateful for the distraction. Or, at least, she would suppose if she wasn’t so caught up in her plotting that she would even noticed the absence of the black cloud that had become such a constant presence in her mind.

By the time the train arrived at Hogsmeade Station, she was humming quietly to herself and glowing with the sort of satisfaction she normally felt after finishing a particularly challenging bit of homework, weeks in advance of course. She was so caught up in her own satisfaction, that she didn’t feel the storm cloud eyes on her as she exited the cabin and made her way towards the exit of the car. She was unaware that to those eyes, her glow looked like that of someone who had been well-loved and not left wanting. Combined with her just-rolled-out-of-bed hair and disheveled clothing, she conjured unwanted images of chestnut curls spread across green silk sheets and hummingbird flutters on body parts much more sensitive than the palm of one’s hand.

Oblivious to the thoughts of a certain blonde Slytherin, Hermione joined her fellow Gryffindors on the train platform. She stood just outside their circle, listening to their chatter and waiting patiently for a lull in the conversation. She didn’t have long to wait as first one, and then another, and then another of her housemates realized she was there. They all turned almost shyly and greeted her with small smiles. To Hermione, they also seemed slightly guilty. They probably just realized that they had practically forgotten her existence.

“’Mione!” exclaimed Ginny, as if just remembering that Hermione had been on the train, despite the fact that they had actually boarded together after hugging Molly and Arthur good-bye. “We were wondering where you’d got off to. I was going to come and find you but…” she trailed off.

“Its fine, Gin,” Hermione reassured the younger girl. “I found a nice quiet spot to read. You know I hate the chaos of the train. In fact I was reading this fascinating article about weather magic and the time just flew by.”

“It’s so nice of you to spare everyone’s feelings, Hermione. Did you hear what they’re doing with the ‘eighth years’?” This came from Luna, who had appeared behind Ginny.

Ignoring her friend’s embarrassed blush, Hermione smiled and answered Luna. “No, I haven’t been told yet. I assume that they will announce something at the feast. I just need a bed to sleep in and a desk to write on. I don’t care where they end up. They could set me up with Moaning Myrtle at this point and I’d just shrug and filch a pair of ear muffs from the greenhouses!”

Everyone laughed and embarrassment and guilt were forgotten. Hermione was sure that was exactly what the deceptively flighty Lovegood had intended. There wasn’t much more time to talk as they all had carriages to catch and Hermione, trying to be accommodating, waited for everyone to board before occupying whichever seat was still available.

The ride to the castle was a fairly quiet one as the carriage she was riding in was full of second years that had started Hogwarts during her horcrux hunting year and they were too nervous about sharing a carriage with the Hermione Granger to talk in any volume higher than a stunned whisper. Hermione once again found herself feeling lonely and looked around for Malfoy in a desperate attempt to stave off the dark depression.

She found him in another carriage of second year students, all of whom kept a wide berth and none of whom dared to even whisper, lest they anger the cold man with the dead eyes they had the misfortune to sit with. Thankfully, the ride was a short one and the anxious children were able to hurriedly disembark the carriage and flee.

If Hermione hadn’t been watching Malfoy so closely, she would have missed the look that crossed his face so briefly she actually wondered if it had even been there at all. Malfoy had looked…sad…lonely…hopeless. She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that he definitely wasn’t happy.

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Draco Malfoy definitely wasn’t happy. The twits he was riding with were so terrified they were moments away from wetting themselves. No spines in the lot of them. You would think he had boarded the carriage and immediately started casting curses or something. He supposed it was better than the death stares he was getting from his housemates but the silence was not helping him at all. He needed a distraction. Something to get his mind off of the bushy-haired know-it-all who had invaded his thoughts and was at that moment staring at him. He knew it. He could feel her chocolate brown eyes on him. Unfortunately, it made him want to feel other parts of her body on him and he was disgusted with himself for even thinking about her in that way.

And when did that happen, he wondered. When had Granger become a girl to him? He was pretty sure when he had woken up that morning, she was a nonentity, an annoying reminder that he would always be second best at school, behind a creature his parents had always taught him was inferior to even squibs. Just thinking about how the facts he had grown up knowing were true had been thrown back in his face over the last year, the last seven years if he were being honest with himself, reminded him of everything else he had lost. His parents were gone. His friends had abandoned him. His fundamental beliefs were in tatters around him. And a bunch of 12 year olds were running from him as if they couldn’t get away fast enough lest he murder them where they stood. He felt so lost in that moment that he looked around, desperately trying to find something to anchor him.

For the fourth time that day, his eyes met Granger’s. She smiled a sympathetic grimace in his direction as if to say, “I hate this, too” and it was enough, just barely enough to keep him from losing it on the steps of Hogwarts. He tilted his head in acknowledgement and made his way inside, to a feast he wouldn’t eat and a dorm where he wasn’t welcome.