Monday, 16 December
“Aconite, asphodel, belladonna, wormwood, crab’s eye, wild arum, foxglove, bloodroot…”
The voice droned on like the annoying whine of a hovering mosquito. Severus Snape strode the length of his potions classroom, peering over shoulders as he spoke, his eyebrows beetling and his mouth drawn into a grimace.
“As those of you who have managed to remain conscious are aware, we have lately been studying certain groups of plants, some poisonous, found to be most efficacious for brewing certain potions. We will now begin working with members of the Pinophyta, or Coniferae, family.”
He paused to glance about the classroom, raising an expectant eyebrow and frowning at the unsurprising lack of any response. And then one hand shot up, waving enthusiastically. Resolutely, he ignored its owner, preferring to comb the room once again for any other possible takers. There were none. Hopeless dullards, the lot of them. Except–
He sighed, defeated. “Miss Granger. Do enlighten us.”
Hermione grinned, her eyes bright. “Pinophyta, or conifers, are trees that don’t lose their leaves in winter but stay green all year round. That’s why they’re called ‘evergreens.’ There are eight families of conifers.”
“That is correct. What a relief it is to know that at least one member of this class has the brains to work out something so. Completely. Elementary.” He gave a brief, tight-lipped smile, and turned on his heel, striding back to the lectern.
“In the next week, you will research the properties, traditional uses, and degrees of potency of each, presenting your findings in an essay that will include illustrations. In addition, you will gather specimens from as many different species of Pinophyta as you are able to find: seeds, berries, leaves, bark, and cones. These specimens will be set aside for the brewing of potions at a later date.
“Have a care, however,” he warned suddenly, his black eyes glittering. “There is one that is highly poisonous and potentially lethal if mishandled. That,” he continued, blithely ignoring Hermione’s hand, which now fluttered insistently just beneath his range of vision, “I will expect you to identify in the course of your research, as well as another with the properties of an antidote. The essay is due in one week’s time. Class dismissed.”
“Blimey,” Ron muttered, as he, Harry and Hermione filed out of the classroom along with the others. “Reckon Snape would be dead chuffed if some of us just happened to kill ourselves doing this bloody assignment. Why couldn’t he just tell us which one is poisonous?”
“Because, Ronald,” Hermione answered primly, “he expects that some of us, at least, have the intellectual curiosity to find out for ourselves.”
Harry grinned. “You already know, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh,” she replied with a cheeky little grin of her own, hefting her satchel over her shoulder. “See you later!” And with that, she hurried ahead and was swallowed up by the throng of students surging along the corridor.
“Where’s the fire?” Ron asked plaintively. “It’s just lunch.”
Harry chuckled. Hermione would have bolted her food and been long gone by the time they got to the Great Hall. He’d have bet money on it.
Two days later, 11 pm–
The deep silence in the library had become almost creepy.
Hermione was tucked into her usual corner, several large volumes open in front of her on the pitted old table. She’d been there for nearly three hours, so completely engrossed in her research that she hadn’t noticed the gradual thinning of students who’d also come to study or, more likely, to socialise. Raising her eyes from the page to stretch and yawn, she became suddenly aware of just how alone she was.
And yet not quite alone after all, it seemed. A figure materialised abruptly from the shadows of the far corner.
Great. Rolling her eyes, Hermione turned her attention back to her reading. A moment later, she had the distinct sensation of being watched at very close range. Looking up, she discovered Draco standing directly over her, a faint, sardonic smile curling his mouth.
Hermione could feel her ire growing. “Plainly,” she muttered, keeping her gaze trained on the page.
Undeterred, Draco slipped into the seat opposite hers, folding his arms and continuing to grin at her. Coming from him, such overt cordiality was distinctly suspect. She narrowed her eyes.
“What do you want, Malfoy? I am working.” Unlike you.
Draco’s gaze flitted briefly over the books open all around Hermione, and then he leaned back in his chair, slinging an arm over the back and sighing.
“Seriously, Granger? Such a lot of effort for that arse-brained assignment.”
Hermione raised an eyebrow. “I shouldn’t think you’d want to be quite so public with your disdain. Snape is your head of house, after all.”
“True. Who’s going to tell him, though? You?” Draco snickered basely, leaning back even further and settling his feet comfortably on the table.
Pursing her lips in annoyance, Hermione looked away. Maybe if she ignored him long enough, he would disappear.
No such luck.
Instead, she found him idly pulling one of the books closer and studying it, albeit with the casual air of someone who really couldn’t care less and was merely indulging a passing interest. Torn between the urge to snatch the book out from under his nose and a certain curiosity, she waited, watching him out of the corner of her eye.
“So…” he began lightly. “What’ve you got so far?”
Ah. So that was his game. She should’ve guessed.
“Loads,” she answered airily.
There was a weighty pause.
“What say we pool our resources and work together? I can make it worth your while,” Draco murmured, his eyes hooded and a faint smirk on his face.
It was all too obvious that he’d done nothing on his own yet and merely sought to profit from all the hard work she’d already put into this assignment. His sheer cheek was amazing, though. That he’d ask her, of all people…
Almost as if he’d been privy to her thoughts, he added, “Simple quid pro quo, yeah? A business proposition. I save myself the donkey work and–”
“Yes? What do I get out of it?”
Draco gave her a lazy smile. “A reprieve for good behaviour. A month, say. Consider it a Yule present. Rather generous of me, I think.”
Indeed. A whole month of Malfoy leaving her alone, of not being bullied and taunted– if she allowed him to copy her work.
Eyes glinting, she held his gaze, smiling back sweetly. “Piss off, Malfoy. I only share with friends.”
“You wound me, Granger.” With a dramatic sigh, he hauled himself to his feet and then, walking around to her side of the table, he bent so that his mouth was next to her ear. “Your loss,” he whispered, his breath hot on her neck.
"I doubt that,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders to dispel the gooseflesh that had prickled suddenly. When she looked up again, he was gone.
In the next two days, wherever she happened to be, Hermione had the distinct impression that she was being watched. In the Great Hall, feeling eyes on her back, she found herself looking over her shoulder at nearly every meal, to no avail. Whoever had been staring was quick and discreet enough to cover his tracks.
As she went about her day, it was as if a cold finger were pressing itself to the back of her neck, sending shivers down her spine. Once, she whipped her head around during Transfiguration and found not one but several pairs of eyes riveted on her: Malfoy’s, not surprisingly, but Crabbe’s, Goyle’s, Nott’s, and Zabini’s as well. All five of them were gazing at her with identical smirks.
Chagrined, she turned away, a slow flush suffusing her cheeks and creeping down her neck.
“What d’you lot reckon,” she heard Malfoy say a moment later, just loud enough for her to hear. “Do Mudbloods learn manners like civilised people?”
He might have been asking about the mating habits of dung beetles or some other equally repulsive but ultimately insignificant creature on which he chose to direct a casual scrutiny.
“I have a theory,” he continued. “They think they’re better than the rest of us, see, ‘cos somehow, they’ve got magic when they shouldn’t. So they think they don’t need to observe the niceties. Like sharing. With one’s betters.”
That last word was delivered with an audible sneer. Oh, the pleasure she’d have in delivering a good, hard slap to Malfoy’s insolent face right about now, the way she’d done in third year. However, violence solved nothing, and ultimately, he was just trying to get under her skin. What an infant. He hadn't got his way, so now he was playing games with her. Spite and malice, that’s all it was. She could handle it.
Saturday, 21 December
The day had dawned bright and clear, crystalline blue skies without a cloud in sight. It had turned quite cold as well. Everyone wondered if there would be snow before much longer. The winter holidays would soon be here, and a festive spirit had infected the entire school. Anticipation of the long break from studying and exams had everybody energised and cheerful.
However, as Professor Snape was quick to remind them the previous morning, the holidays had not arrived just yet. The Pinophyta project was due in two days, their last day of classes before the holidays.
Early afternoon found Hermione hurriedly packing her rucksack with supplies and muttering to herself in annoyance. It was not like her to leave any portion of an assignment so late– in this case, the gathering of specimens. On the other hand, truth be told, a part of her was relieved that some of the project remained. The debacle of Professor Slughorn’s party the evening before still stung, and she was grateful for the distraction of some genuinely engrossing work.
Making the most of her time would be critical. She’d do a sweep of the grounds first, and then, if need be, widen her search a bit further. She’d have to be quick, too, as dark was falling ever earlier these days. And today was the shortest day of the whole year. It would be dark by four.
She’d made only a cursory appearance in the Great Hall for lunch, hastily eating a chicken salad sandwich and then secreting another, plus a cream bun, an apple and a pear, in the generous pockets of her robes.
Quickly, she glanced at her watch. Mickey Mouse grinned back at her as one white-gloved hand pointed down to the six and the other, shorter one, up to the twelve. She’d had the watch since the age of eight, long before she’d ever even heard of Hogwarts, and she continued to cherish a sentimental fondness for it.
Half twelve. That still gave her better than three hours to complete the job. After all, how hard could it really be to find a few trees? She had one of the illustrated books, Shrunk down considerably, to help her in the search; some parchment, ink, and her quill for sketching; her wand, a small pocket knife, and several paper bags in which to collect whatever samples she found.
A final glance around her room satisfied her that she’d left nothing important behind. Buttoning her warm winter cloak, she tucked the maroon and gold muffler more snugly about her neck.
The bright, crisp weather boded well. She’d be back in no time.
By three o’clock, the temperature had plummeted and the sky had grown overcast, bright blue giving way to a solid mass of iron-grey clouds. Shivering, Hermione pulled her cloak more tightly around herself and walked on. That eerie sensation of being watched had returned, dogging her almost from the time she’d left the castle. Yet as hard as she’d tried, she hadn’t managed to spot anyone in the nearly three hours she’d been hiking the grounds. Probably just an overactive imagination laced with a bit of paranoia. She laughed it off at last, focusing her thoughts instead on the work at hand.
So far, she’d managed to locate four different species of conifers that suited her purposes admirably: a Scots pine, a juniper, a sugar pine, and a Douglas fir. She’d carefully extracted bark samples, cones, seeds, and needle-like foliage, all of it bagged and carefully labelled, and made a meticulous sketch of each tree; those parchments were rolled up and safely stored in her bag as well. But she was certain there had to be more, considering how vast the school grounds were. There was still another hour of daylight. She would press on a bit farther. There was one very important tree she had yet to find.
Reaching into her rucksack, Hermione pulled out half a sandwich, munching absently as she walked, her attention fixed on the illustrations in the book she held in her other hand. Periodically, she glanced up to check the landscape ahead of her, in case the tree in question should happen to appear. Thin crusts of ice mixed with twigs and loose stones crunched underfoot. Overhead, the sun was fighting valiantly to reappear from behind the gloomy cloud cover that now rendered it a ghostly yellow lozenge shrouded in filmy grey.
Suddenly, she spotted what she’d been looking for: a gigantic and probably quite ancient yew tree. It was the one member of the Pinophyta family that was highly poisonous, from the wood itself to the leaves and seeds. A single mouthful of its foliage was enough to stop a horse’s heart in five minutes. Bright, festive-looking red berries dotted the lush greenery. Hidden inside were the seeds, as dangerously toxic as they were innocuous-looking.
Eagerly, Hermione began harvesting samples from various parts of the old tree, its gargantuan trunk resembling masses of snakes twisted together and turned to wood as if they had been Spelled. Legend had it that the older the yew, the more potent its poison. As she bagged the final samples of berries and seeds, dropping them into her rucksack, she wondered if there were any truth to that. If so, this tree would be especially deadly.
The hour was growing late, and it was a good deal colder now that the light was nearly gone. Squinting slightly in the gathering dusk, Hermione checked her watch. Nearly four. Time to head back. Her work was done.
She’d gone farther than she’d realised, apparently, and stopped to rest. Leaning her rucksack against the trunk of a tree, she slid down alongside it, pulling out the rest of her sandwich. Her eyes drifted shut as she savoured the food, and she sighed contentedly. It had been a good afternoon’s work, and she was feeling quite pleased. All that remained now was to finish that last sketch of the yew tree.
There was a faint noise coming from the ground to her right, a sort of light scratching as if a squirrel were pawing at the ground. For a moment or two longer, she merely listened, half-drowsing and enjoying the tranquillity of the wood. Then the sound ceased, soft whispering taking its place.
Hermione’s eyes flew open just in time to see her rucksack rising into the air and disappearing around the other side of the massive tree trunk. She made a flying dive for it, grabbing one of the straps just in time to stop its flight.
Hanging onto the other end was Draco Malfoy, reeled in like a fish on a hook and looking both surprised and peeved.
“Malfoy! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Hermione yelled. “Never mind,” she added, her voice turning steely. “I know exactly what you’re doing. I didn’t think you could be any more despicable, but I was wrong. Stealing my work? Really??”
She gave the rucksack a tug, but he tightened his grip and yanked it away, dangling it high in the air out of her reach.
Hermione let out a wail of frustration as she tried desperately to snag it. “Why are you doing this??”
“Think about it, Granger. You already know the answer to that,” he sneered. “You had your chance, didn’t you!”
Hermione fell back on her heels, incredulous. “Oh! So… you stealing from me is my own fault, really, just because I didn’t quite fancy the idea of handing over all my hard work to you. Is that it?”
“Points to you, Granger. You’ve got it in one.”
“Well, of all the…!” she spluttered, completely at a loss. “But… why? Come on, Malfoy, there has to be more to it than that. You know I’m going to tell. Why would you go this far just to get out of doing an assignment? I don’t understand!”
For a moment, she thought he might actually answer. There was, very briefly, something in his eyes, an ambivalence, a hesitancy… and then he shook it off, frowning.
“That’s none of your business,” he muttered curtly, and sat down beneath the tree, her rucksack in his hands. “Now… let’s see what goodies you’ve got in here, shall we?”
Before she knew it, the contents had been dumped unceremoniously onto the cold ground, and Draco had begun rifling through the assorted specimen bags, parchments, and napkin-wrapped foods, muttering to himself.
“Hmm… Douglas fir leaves, very nice, I’ll have some of those… Juniper berries, right, plenty for me as well… Scots pine bark and…” He looked up at her sharply, his mouth falling open a little. “Merlin! What the fuck is this thing? It looks like a…”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “The specimen is marked, Malfoy. It’s a male Scots pine cone.”
Draco gaped at her. “What do you mean, male?”
“Well,” she huffed, folding her arms, “if you’d actually done your homework instead of trying to take mine, you’d know that conifers produce both male and female cones. The male cones contain pollen and the female cones contain the ovules, or seeds, that need to be fertilised. Sometimes, the male cones grow at the top of the tree so that the wind will blow the pollen down to the female cones. Other times, they grow right next to each other.”
“Shit,” he murmured under his breath, turning the strange-looking object over in his hands. “It really does look…”
“Phallic. Yes.” Hermione felt an unwelcome blush coming on. “And the female looks a bit like… well, see for yourself.”
Sliding the female cone out of its paper bag, Draco examined it. Its small, woody plates resembled the petals of a rose. And like a newly opened rose, it bore a striking resemblance to a part of the female anatomy of which he was particularly fond.
“Right. I definitely see it.” He nodded, holding it up for closer inspection. A wicked grin crossed his face. “Reminds me of–”
“Too much information!” Hermione sang out quickly, moving to retrieve the rest of her things while he was otherwise distracted.
Apparently, the image he’d been happily recalling wasn’t quite tantalising enough to hold his attention while so many useful project items were disappearing back into Hermione’s rucksack. His arm shot out and he snatched it out of her reach, and then the two of them fell to their knees, both frantically scrambling to grab as many of the paper bags as they possibly could.
“Leave off! It’s mine!” Elbowing him hard, she pushed him out of the way. “You are NOT going to steal my stuff, Malfoy! I won’t let you!”
“Ow! Bloody bitch! That hurt!” Draco yelled, clutching at his side. In the next moment, he had elbowed her back, shoving her away and reclaiming the rucksack. At last, he sat back, hugging it to his chest with a triumphant smirk.
“So..." he drawled. "What else have you got in here, Granger?” Poking a hand inside, he withdrew another of the specimen bags. Before she could stop him, he’d emptied the contents into his palm.
“Oh, be careful–” Hermione began and then fell silent.
Draco narrowed his eyes. “Or what?”
“Those are poisonous,” she replied tartly. “If you’d done the research, you’d know that.”
“What, these?” Draco began pouring the cherry-red berries from one hand to the other, grinning lazily. “Bollocks. Birds eat them all the time. Lighten up, Granger, they’re just berries. I’ll have them as well, if you don’t mind.”
Hermione opened her mouth to reply and then stopped. She did mind. But more to the point, as long as Malfoy insisted on being an evil little git, wilfully ignoring the dangers despite her warning, there was nothing else she could do.
She folded her arms. “Yes, well, I expect you'll take them no matter what I do.” Giving a small, resigned shrug, she sat back down.
Meanwhile, Draco had been studying the berries in his hand. Now he held one up in the fading light. “Hmm. Always wondered what one of these would taste like.”
The next few seconds passed as if in slow motion. To Hermione’s horror, and before she could make a move to stop him, he popped the lot into his mouth, rolling them around on his tongue, chewing and then swallowing. “Yum,” he told her, with a slow, smug grin.
“Oh shit! Shit!” Hermione cried, jumping up and wringing her hands. “Malfoy, you idiot, do you realise what you’ve just done?”
Draco gazed at her, wide-eyed at first and then with anger and dawning fear. “What the hell are you on about? What have I just done?” He grabbed her arm and jerked her closer, his eyes blazing. “Tell me!”
Hermione seemed oblivious, suddenly, to both his frantic question and the fierce grip in which he held her. “Right,” she muttered. “The sap has known healing properties… but that wouldn’t be enough by itself… I’d have to combine it with the seed, but I’d need to grind that into a powder, and… how on earth am I going to make a proper potion out here… oh gods…”
Draco grabbed her other arm and shook her so hard that her head bobbed. “You tell me right now what the fuck is going on.”
Hermione stared at him, ashen-faced. “I did tell you, didn’t I, but you wouldn’t listen! You’ve just swallowed poison. A very powerful poison, and rather a lot of it, I’m afraid. Those yew berries you just ate– they can kill you!”
“You’re lying.” Draco’s voice was flat, but already he was looking a bit pasty. “You’re having me on, right? Getting a bit of your own back because I tried to take your stuff?”
There was a pause, and then he swallowed hard.
“You’re not lying, are you,” he whispered. “Oh fuck, I’m going to die, aren’t I!” Suddenly, he turned wild eyes on her. “You don’t happen to have a–”
“Bezoar? Sorry, no!" she replied, panic turning her voice shrill. "I hadn't planned on poisoning myself today!” Then she glanced away. "Sorry."
Malfoy had grown even more pale in the last minute or two, his grey eyes huge and dark with fear. Hermione’s own heart was hammering uncontrollably in her chest and her mouth had gone dry.
“Lie down,” she told him now. “The less you move about, the more slowly the toxins will travel through your bloodstream. But I… I think… there might be something…”
“What? What is it?” He clutched desperately at her now. Sweat had begun beading on his forehead and his hands had grown clammy and cold.
“Stay here and don’t move!” she said firmly, sweeping up her rucksack. “I’ll be right back!”
Lying beneath the tree now, his cloak and muffler pulled up to his chin, Draco nodded feebly and then leaned his head back against the trunk, eyes shut and grabbing his belly in a sudden paroxysm of pain.
A hastily muttered “Lumos!” and instantly, her wand blazed a narrow path in the darkening wood. She set off at a run, fear rising like bile in her throat and threatening to choke her as she stumbled over tree roots, trying not to fall. Gods, there was no time!
That tree… it had to be quite nearby. She’d found it not very long before locating the yew, maybe fifty yards away. If only it weren’t so dark… All the trees looked alike suddenly, all of them tall, menacing shapes obscuring the murky sky.
And then, thank Merlin, there it was: an elder sugar pine, the tallest and most majestic tree in the forest. Nearly crying with relief, Hermione ran to it and pulled out her pocket knife.
“Okay…” Hermione frowned in concentration. A small fire burned a few feet away, its warmth and brightness warding off the lonely desolation that seemed to hang over the forest. She had Transfigured a cauldron from one of the paper bags and was working to prepare what would go inside it, assuming she didn’t muck things up.
A giant cone from the sugar pine lay beside her on the ground, broken open in several places. Seven seeds had been removed, the same number of yew berries Draco had eaten, and for the past several minutes, she had been working to crush them with a stone. Finished at last, she turned her attention to the other ingredient. Without that, the potion would fail.
A chunk of bark lay in her hand, its underside heavy with sap, the lifeblood of the tree. This sweet elixir, blended with the crushed seeds, could save Draco’s life– she hoped. Because of course, she wasn’t at all certain. Snape hadn’t been there to tell her if she’d been right about the sugar pine. She might just as easily kill Malfoy as save him.
A fresh wave of panic swept over Hermione as she stirred the potion with a small stick. This wasn’t supposed to be happening! She was just a student. She shouldn’t have somebody else’s life in her hands! What if–
“Granger…” He sounded exhausted, his voice thin and weak.
“Yes, coming! Almost ready!” she called, fear still clinging to her like cobwebs.
It was horrifying to see just how dreadfully ill Draco had become. His eyes had grown dull, his skin tone slack, his pallor a sick, chalky grey, and he could hardly raise his head. Even keeping his eyes open took tremendous effort, and periodically, he moaned with pain.
Slipping an arm beneath his head, she raised him up enough that he could take small sips of the potion.
“Hot…” he mumbled.
“I know. I’m sorry.” Carefully, Hermione tipped a bit more into his mouth. “But you have to drink it.”
With some difficulty, Draco managed to swallow most of the potion. Then he fell back, drained.
Hermione checked her watch. Just past five, nearly dinnertime. The Great Hall would soon be crowded with students and staff. She wondered if they would be missed and then decided not to think about that. She needed to keep Malfoy alive. Nothing else mattered.
His breathing had turned thready and laboured. If the potion was working, improvements should begin showing themselves before long. Meanwhile, instinct told her that she must keep him as quiet, warm, and immobile as possible. Come on, come ON, ran the tape loop inside her head. Please!
For a long time, the only sound was the crackle and pop of wood as it fragmented and burned, white-hot. Hermione sat by the fire, anxiously watching Draco. He slept fitfully, his rest punctuated by what seemed to be fearful dreams. Every once in a while, he cried out in his sleep.
When the convulsions started, Hermione could bear it no longer. Lying down beside him, she settled her cloak over them both and held him close, as spasms wracked his body and set his teeth chattering. And then his arms slid around her too, and he pulled her to him with a surprising ferocity.
At long last, his muscles gradually uncoiling and his breathing growing easier, he drifted between sporadic, restless sleep and delirium. “Must…” he whispered, his brow furrowed. “No, stay away… need to…” And then, “Sorry.”
“What I've done. Couldn’t help it.”
“What? Couldn't help what?”
“The lot... all of it. Must… must…”
Gently, Hermione stroked his hair back from his damp forehead. “Ssh… don’t talk. It’s all right.”
Draco turned his head, burying his face in the warmth of her shoulder. “No,” came his muffled voice. “It isn’t.”
Some time later, he woke, raising his head to look at her. Feeling his eyes on her, Hermione opened her own. Overhead, the clouds had parted, ribbons of stars glittering in the velvet night.
“How do you feel?” she whispered, shifting slightly to ease the stiffness in her shoulder. His arm was still threaded about her waist, his hand warm on her back. She didn’t move away.
“Reckon I’ll live.”
There was the ghost of a grim smile in his voice. He was terribly weak, but his eyes were clear, the horrific tremors gone. For the first time in hours, Hermione felt as if she could breathe.
“Look,” she said eventually, pointing up at the heavens. “Just there. Orion’s Belt, see? And there… that little cluster to the right… the Pleiades. Beautiful, aren’t they? It’s the Solstice tonight, you know.”
He gave a small snort of laughter and then winced. “Longest night of the year. Just my luck. How long are we stuck here for, anyway?”
“Just until you feel strong enough to walk back.”
He grew quiet, long enough that Hermione believed he’d fallen asleep again. She closed her own eyes and drifted, waking to a soft kiss being pressed to the corner of her mouth, warm and fleeting, and whispered words tickling her ear.
Two days later, bags packed and the entry hall thronged with students saying their goodbyes for the holidays, there was a moment when he caught her eye. A brief half-smile, a nod, and then he disappeared out the door with his friends.
She watched him go, the tips of two fingers lightly grazing her mouth, and then, smiling to herself, she went to join the others.