ENOUGH FOR A SECOND CHANCE
The repair of the castle was slow. Magic could repair walls and restitch tapestries; it could move the rubble.
But the building had been imbued with promises the founders had made to protect its students and its hallowed ground. No amount of magic could right the wrongs that had occurred here in the year leading up to May 2nd, 1998.
Hermione felt the shift as soon as Voldermort had dusted away into nothingness. It was as if the earth under their feet was trying to riot and nothing they did to the brokenness of the castle could fix it.
Still, they laboured; brick by brick they rebuilt.
After the battle, the world had held a collective breath, desperate for the peace that followed war. It never came.
Hermione distracted herself with hard work— idle hands, and all that.
She found solitude in the forest. It was odd how much the feeling of the forest skirting the castle grounds had changed since she was eleven years old. Back then it held terrors that she couldn’t imagine… now it was her refuge.
On this particular June day, the sun streaked through the full trees leaving dappled light playing along the forest floor as she worked her way towards the river.
The gentle sounds of the babbling water lulled her into comfort and she sank against a giant tree with roots that sprang up around her like it was welcoming her home. She’d brought her book, she always did even if she never touched it, and no sooner than she had tucked her legs under her, but her friend arrived.
A beautiful white unicorn with a glittering horn and stunning mane that shimmered in the sunlight. He was the most beautiful creature she’d ever remembered seeing. She’d named him Sterling for the faint lilac coloring under his coat.
No one knew he existed and she got the innate feeling that he too felt the unrest in the grounds. He, too, was lost.
Weeks ago, just days after the battle, she’d come here and found him curled in a knoll, blood trickling from his brow and body thin and beaten.
She’d nursed him back to health, and now visiting him in the afternoons was her most sought after respite.
His hooves crunched in the underbrush as he made his way to her side, dipping his head so she could press her forehead into his snout.
“Hello, you.” His coat was silken, like running water under her fingertips. “I was wondering if I’d see you today.”
She swore the animal’s eyes twitched in confusion as he came down to rest next to her, placing his massive head in her lap. Her jaw trembled as she continued, her hands running through his fine hair and pulling gently on his long ears . “I remember reading that Unicorns are attracted to virgins, you see and—”
The words stuck in her throat as she blinked away the tears lining her eyes. She’d thought that maybe if she and Ron pushed through the awkwardness that had preluded their physical intimacy…
It hadn’t worked.
It’d made it worse. They’d crossed a precipice they couldn’t possibly come back from; they’d irreparably changed their friendship. She still loved Ron but after it’d… ended, she laid on the floor of the Astronomy tower and counted his breaths as they turned from sharp and panted to long and sleepy. She clutched her robes over her naked body and stared at the painted constellations on the ceiling, wondering if the stars had known her fate all along.
“I know I told you that I was thinking about taking things further with my boyfriend—” Sterling huffed a wet breath over her arm. “Well… yes. Suffice it to say I wasn’t sure you were going to be here today to see me.” She swallowed the thick emotion pressing on her vocal cords and a single tear striped down her cheek. “But I’m happy you are. I’m not sure… I’m not sure what I’d do if you weren’t.”
Hermione shifted where she sat, maneuvering so she could lay over Sterling’s back, her wild curls splaying over the curve of his spine. Soft sobs left her and while she kept them at bay within the walls of the castle and the company of most, she let them go freely here.
“It’s not that I expected it to be good , mind you. I simply thought that we might— that I might— realize I’ve been wrong about being confused.” Her fingers trailed over the fine hairs on his spine and she loosened a long, tired breath. “At least I have you.”
After a long while of just resting over him, she sat up and sniffed away the last of her tears. “Look what I snagged from the elves.” She smiled as she dumped the contents of her bag onto the forest floor and a half a dozen fat, green apples rolled free.
She swore Sterling’s eyes widened as he rose to his feet and wrapped his lips around the first one.
“Hogwarts is coming along. They’ve invited us back for our eighth year and to sit our N.E.W.T.s in the spring.” Hermione watched as Sterling roamed around the clearing, collecting and chomping on apples. “They’ve sent owls to all the students explaining the circumstances. I’m starting to wonder who will return. None of the Slytherins in our year are here for the repairs.”
Hermione sighed and began tugging on her curls absently. “I feel bad for them honestly… It’s not as though you’re evil just because your parents were Death Eaters. I bet it’s really hard for them to want to come back.”
Next to the brook, Sterling shoved his snout in a bush, huffing and rooting around until he found a wayward apple.
“With all this time on my hands, I start to wonder about them. Maybe they do deserve a second chance… maybe not.” Pulling on her fingers, she fought the emotion that was starting to climb up her throat. “Draco Malfoy has been missing for weeks; his parents have bought out the bloody Prophet just to find him.”
Sterling turned slowly, his long lashes fluttering as he blinked wordlessly back at her.
“I know, I know… I shouldn’t care. He was an utter prat and a racist bully.” Sterling whinied lightly and huffed out a hard breath. “You don't’ have to tell me, boy.”
Rising to her feet, Hermione dusted the dirt from her bottom and crossed the space between them, curling her arms around his long face in a hug, her nose just brushing his horn. “But I saw him a little differently than the rest, I think.”
As she released him and stepped back, she was struck by the beauty of the animal. By his silver eyes that swirled like they were almost liquid and the soft fur on the top of his nose. She smiled and shook her head.
“I think I’ve lost it, Sterling. Defending Draco Malfoy to a unicorn. Merlin, they’re going to have me committed, I think.” She leaned down to collect her bag and waved her fingers in a small goodbye. “I’ll come back tomorrow but be careful. Hagrid said the centaurs are returning to the forest now that the war has ended. Can’t see why they’d want to hurt little ol’ you but then, why would anyone want to hurt a unicorn?”
Knowing she had full and well lost her mind, she turned and made her way through the forest and back towards the castle.
As Hermione wound her way back into the forest the next day, she felt quite proud of her haul. More apples, regrettably red this time— he’d curled his lips at the red ones once— and a handful of carrots.
Things with Ron the night prior had been… uncomfortable. He seemed quite keen to repeat their liaison from the night before but Hermione couldn’t stomach the idea.
She needed to officially end things with Ron, that much was certain. But with each step that carried her further into the forest she couldn’t help trying to figure out how they’d dissect their lives. He’d get his family, Ginny, of course. Where there was Ginny there was Harry, and Hermione believed in her heart that Harry would make an effort but…
She shook her head free from the fear that threatened to overtake her mind. It would be fine. Sure, she had no parents— at least none that knew her— no siblings, and she was about to sever the tie to the only family she now knew but yes, it would be fine.
Waiting in a circle of hazy sun for her was her faithful friend, Sterling. He was staring in her direction, ears twitching as she made her approach.
“Good afternoon, you.” She stepped over a root and came up in front of him, pressing a kiss between his eyes as she threaded her fingers in his mane. “Don’t get mad but—” She reached into her bag and produced a juice red apple, snickering when he whinied and shook his head. “Don’t be sour; it’s all they had left.”
With an almost begrudging look, the steedgingerly snagged the apple from her palm. “What will you do when I’m away? Hm? I’ll have to find someone to tend to you because you seem to be lacking most of your survival instincts.”
The horse glared at her, if such a thing were possible, and she giggled and shrugged, undeterred by his ire. “It’s true! You were skin and bones and bleeding when I found you. Now look at you, a proper unicorn.” Hermione’s pride waned as she considered the day when she would leave Hogwarts.
The unknown put a pit in her stomach and she had to swallow the thick emotion inching up the back of her throat. She managed it poorly, her jaw quivering “Well, maybe I’ll get a cottage near the forest, hm? You can come with me. Or maybe I’ll stay near here, let a flat in Hogsmeade. Or—”
His long nose nudged her gently in the belly all the emotion she’d been keeping inside burst forward. Broken sobs echoed through the forest as she fell to her knees and wailed , fingers digging into the soft earth as a vain attempt at grounding herself.
Merlin, how long had they fought for peace? How long had they run and lived on nothing just so that someday they might have a semblance of security?
She couldn’t bear it.
Everything in her future felt like it was being viewed through thick gauze; it was as if she was seeing someone else’s futures, someone else’s possibilities.
“It isn’t fair!”
Hermione clutched her arms around her abdomen and shook her head frantically. “I’ve— Sterling, I’ve given up everything and for some reason I thought that would make me feel whole. I’m so broken…
Her lamentations were punctuated by hard gasps for air as her tears coated the tops of her thighs. Sterling sniffed at her curls and pushed his soft nose against her cheek, earning a broken laugh as she guided him away. He was stubborn though, she’d give him that much.
He rutted the top of his head into her chest until she tipped over, her sob turning to laughter as she admonished him under her breath.
Then, he dropped one leg and knelt in front of her, whinnying and shaking his mane back and forth.
“What is it boy?”
Another whinny and he almost seemed to… shake his tail. Like a crash, it struck her and she scurried backwards. “I’m not going to ride you, Sterling. You’re a unicorn.”
He huffed loudly and took two steps forward and then repeated the position.
“You should find the idea abhorrent, honestly. You’re practically sentient; next you’ll be wanting me to mount a centar or take a mermaid for a dip.”
At that his eyes narrowed and landed on her and she couldn’t help but smile. He knew her. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she pushed to stand and made a wide circle around him, her nose wrinkling.
“I don’t much like riding things. Brooms, thestrals , dragons, and the like. Riding magical things usually means I’m under duress; what if I panic?”
A long breath, followed by the rumbling of the unicorn’s lips caught her attention and she rolled her eyes and steeled her resolve.
“Fine,” she sighed. “But if I fall to my imminent death, I hope you’ll at least fetch a friend so someone can bury me.”
She swore the animal rolled its eyes and she bit back a smile. With less grace than she could have imagined, she climbed over his back and grimaced as she found a comfortable position. Sterling rose tall and she cried out, gripping his mane perhaps too hard as she found her balance.
“You’ll have to go slow,” she whispered, eyes clenched in fear.
She was nearly hugging his neck as they made their way into a slow trod and when she felt the warmth of the sun on her back she peeked through her eyelashes to find they’d travelled further into the Forbidden Forest.
Some of the anxiety thrumming in her system quieted and she allowed herself to push up so she was seated, clenching her thighs around Sterling’s back to keep from falling off.
Deep in the forest, the colors shifted. The emeralds of the trees now almost violet in the shade and the light that danced along the earth was golden and near glittering. The quiet was a welcome reprieve, lulling her into tranquility as Sterling took them deeper yet.
After a while of travelling in silence, Sterling stopped in the center of a sun filled clearing. She climbed off of his back and waded through the knee-high grass, turning in a slow circle as she smiled up at the clear sky.
Sterling remained still, watching her with a curious yet intent stare.
“Is this where you live?”
His brows tugged together.
At first, it was so subtle she didn’t notice the earth rumbling beneath her feet; panic surged through her as she whipped around. Sterling sensed it too, trodding quickly to her side and studying the horizon.
“What is it boy?” Her jaw trembled as she placed her palm on his thick shoulder.
A shadow flickered in the trees, then another, and another.
Hermione took a quick step back and reached on instinct for her wand, realising too late that it was stowed in her pack back by the stream. “Oh no.”
“You are not welcome here.” A low, elegant voice sounded through the clearing and Hermione whipped around. Between two massive tree trunks was a centaur, far taller than Sterling and constructed of what appeared to be only thick strips of muscle from head to hoof. His hair was shaved to the skin above his ears, three long braids intertwined and swung over his shoulder, and his arms were stained with an impossible number of runic tattoos.
Swallowing thickly, she held her hands up and took a step forward, grimacing when he growled at the advancement. “Hello. I’m Hermione Granger.”
“You are not welcome here,” he repeated and it did nothing to quiet her nerves.
“I’m a student at Hogwarts and was out for a ride with my—”
“We have sent proper correspondence to your headmaster.” Around the clearing another dozen centaurs came forward, hiding just outside the light. “You are trespassing on magical land.”
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed, her lips mashing together. “We’ll leave.”
The centaur’s hand fell to the side and she saw a crossbow dangling from his fingertips as he stomped his front hoof into the dirt. “We’ve warned your kind before; this is our land. You’ve desecrated the ancient magic; you’ve upset the earth’s balance with your darkness.”
Hermione’s brows pitched together and she raised her hands up in defense. “No, no. That’s not— I’m not like that. I fought for the light.”
His lip curled, his eyes narrowing into thin slits. “Your kind is the darkness; you are the enemy.”
The herd pressed in around her and she couldn’t feel the eyes and weapons trained on her. “I’ll leave right now,” she said and turned to Sterling who swiftly fell to a kneel so she could climb on his back.
“No.” The single word echoed through the air and her heart clammored wildly as Sterling retreated backward.
They were met with a cluster of Centaurs and her unicorn whinnied and scratched at the earth with his hoof, keeping his head low and his horn forward.
“We should keep her!” Another voice called out.
“They should pay. Bring her body back to the gates of Hogwarts as a message!”
“She is an abomination!”
Hermione whimpered and curled her fingers in Sterling’s silver mane, letting her body fall low over his neck as he snorted and reared back just slightly, his hooves striking out as he stomped back into the earth.
“Let them go,” the first centaur said. “Tell your people to stay away.”
Sterling shoved his head forward, jabbing his horn into the nearest centaur who kicked back and cried out in anger. He growled and pulled an arrow from the quiver slung across his back, knocking it into position in his bow.
“Go, witch. Do not come back.”
She swallowed, clenching her thighs over Sterling’s back and praying he took off in a sprint, but what she could so easily sense from the centaur in front of them, Sterling seemed to sense even more. His neck stayed stretched out, his hooves stomping in a rhythmic beat.
They remained squared off with the magical being, Sterling’s ears pinned low against his skull and she could hear the sharp bite of his jaw as his body pulled back just slightly.
She could feel him like they were one. Their energy synced and shared and she let out a low breath and fell flat over him, tightening her limbs around his broad body as he took off in a sprint.
“Sir! We can’t—”
She felt a branch brush over her back, and she clung tighter.
“Stand down, Crede. I said stand down!”
In vain, she tried to match the animal's breaths, to calm herself as he pushed through the brush and veered sharply to the right. She felt the strike, the nick of an arrowhead clipping her ankle before burying into Sterling’s hips. Hermione cried out and hugged tighter as Sterling whinied and buckled, somehow remaining upright as he ran harder still.
He went as long as he could, finally slowing with a low whinny and a snort. She didn’t waste a moment, sliding from his back and standing back as he knickered and collapsed.
Protruding from his right hip was a long arrow, red blood seeping over his white fur and into the earth. She placed her hands on the wound, grimacing when his muscle flinched away from gentle touch.
Thick, warm, crimson blood covered her palms and she finally dragged her gaze up to his head. With a low sob she crawled up to his head and laid down next to him, placing her stained palm on his jaw and her tears fell freely.
“I need you to hold on, okay? I have to leave and get Hagrid; I’ll be right back.”
Sterling whinnied and pressed his nose against her chest.
“Hold strong, boy.”
She was on her feet and running like she never had before. Not with snatchers on her heels or through the wreckage of battle. For so long she’d put her life on the line for the safety of others, she’d been tortured and kept, starved and alone.
She would not lose Sterling.
“He’s just this way, Hagrid!”
“‘Mione! Slow down—”
“I can’t! He’s hurt…”
Hermione stumbled near the spot where she’d left Sterling, feet catching as she fell to the forest floor only to crawl back to her feet.
It’d been just there, she was sure of it. In the shade of a giant oak by the brook… but now just a puddle of blood marked the earth where he’d lain.
“I don’t—” Hermione blinked at the empty spot, her teeth clattering as she staved off a fresh round of tears. “He was here.”
Maybe he’d run, tried to get closer to the edge of the forest. Maybe he’d gone off to die.
Hermione hid a sob with the back of her hand as Hagrid stomped through the trees and to her side.
“Where is the beast?”
Shaking her head, she tried to speak but words failed her.
“Well, can’t be a unicorn can it now?” He laughed, clamping a large hand over her shoulder.
Her features pinched hard, and she shook her head violently. “What?”
With a watery snort, Hagrid pointed at the spot and then at her hands. “Unicorn blood be silver, innit?”
She stared at the red caked into the lines of her palm, turning them to study how it had hardened into her nail beds. Memories of a wounded unicorn in the forest during her first year flooded her mind along the ribbons of shimmering silver that had coated the earth.
“No…” She shook her head. “He’s a unicorn. I— I’ve seen him everyday, Hagrid. He’s a unicorn.” She replayed the memories, each moment she’d spent with him and the day she’d found him emaciated and bleeding, exhausted from just surviving.
“Aye, look’ere.” Hagrid pointed to a small, almost unnoticeable trail of blood leading in another direction and together they wound through the trees until they could hear a strange, yet oddly familiar groaning.
They rounded the trunk of an ancient tree and there in its roots, covered in blood and paler than she could ever remember seeing him was Draco Malfoy. He coughed, wincing at the pain and his eyes fluttered to hers.
“Hey, Granger.” Malfoy’s lips quirked into a weak but signature smile and the world hazed around the edges and stilled as Hagrid rushed to his side and took him in his arms.
She watched, for the second time, as Hagrid carried Malfoy to the infirmary from the shadows of the Forbidden Forest.
ONE WEEK LATER
It’d been seven days since the incident with the centaurs and the transformation of Draco Malfoy. She hadn’t yet been to see him, still unable to make sense of the past month and the animal she had come to trust more than almost anyone else. The animal who almost died to protect her.
The animal who was impossibly Draco Malfoy.
So, no, she hadn’t been in to see him…but she’d been to the infirmary. Or rather to the corridor outside the infirmary where she paced for hours on end, or read leaning up against the wall.
Madame Pomfrey despised her lurking, always coming out to tend to her and tell her to suck up her pride and go in.
But she couldn’t.
She couldn’t because she hated Draco Malfoy. He was a bully and a bigot, a Death Eater, if the rest wasn’t enough, and a complete and utter prat.
But when she’d ended things with Ron five days prior, all she wanted to do was see Sterling. To feel his calm and hug him again.
Not only had Draco Malfoy been a constant stain on her childhood but he’d now gone and stolen her familiar and trusted companion. She glowered at the thought.
But in the week since the accident, the grounds had calmed. The magic settling back into the bricks and that collective breath they’d waited so long to take was finally had.
“Ah, Miss Granger.” Interim— and plausibly permanent— Headmistress McGonagall stopped in front of where Hermione sat, knees pulled up with a book resting against her thighs.
Hermione scurried to her feet. “Yes, Prof— Headmistress?”
“I was coming to check on Mr. Malfoy; I'm surprised to find you here.”
A blush blossomed along her cheek bones and she bit into her lip and nodded lamely. It was hardly an answer but all she could manage.
“We’ve had a bit of a breakthrough regarding Mr. Malfoy’s circumstances, perhaps you’d like to join me.”
Her heart leapt into a gallop in her chest because while she didn’t especially want to see Malfoy, her curiosity could not be sated. Gnawing on the inside of her cheek she lofted her bag onto her shoulder and nodded again.
She didn’t dare lift her eyes; instead, choosing to keep them locked on the dingy grey tile as she followed the sweeping robes in front of her.
The robes stopped, so did she.
“Mr. Malfoy, you’re looking well,” McGonagall said in a clipped voice. “Madame Pomfrey has told me you’re to be released from the infirmary.”
The bed springs creaked as he shifted but still she didn’t look up. Sterlin g knew almost everything about her, knew she wasn’t keen on Ron… knew she slept with him. Knew her deepest, darkest fears about life after Hogwarts.
“I feel much better. Thank you.”
Swallowing the anxiety pinching in her throat, she forced her eyes up at the sound of his voice. His grey eyes were locked on hers, his brows tugged together as he stared at her.
“I’ve come with two pieces of news for you.” McGonagall folded her hands in front of her and tilted her head to the side, earning Malfoy’s full attention. “The curse placed upon you was what we believe to be the castle’s magic in distress. Your actions were egregious these past years but from what I’ve heard from your classmates, you defected in the end. Is this true?”
Malfoy blinked, his jaw steeling. “I don’t know.”
“Did you harm a member of the Order?”
“Did you harm a Death Eater or follower of Voldemort?”
Silver eyes locked on hers and for the life of her, she couldn’t understand why her heart was hammering.
“That helped you, I believe. The castle may have lashed out at you far differently but as you fled into the forest, it changed you.”
Hermione’s head snapped to her old Professor. “Why did he change back?”
“His repayment of the debt; he saved your life. The Forbidden Forest still sits on Hogwarts grounds and the blood shed in exchange for yours eased the unrest. With the help of the rest of the staff we’ve been able to reinforce the magic and stabilize it again. You saved not only Miss Granger but Hogwarts as well.”
Slowly she turned back to him, watching as he worked through his thoughts on the statement.
“The second piece of information is from the Ministry of Magic.” Both Malfoy and Hermione stilled and then squirmed, watching as McGonagall pulled free a scroll and handed it over. Malfoy unfurled it, reading it hastily as she continued, “You’re on probation for five years but you are allowed the use of your wand. You are to return to finish your eighth year of school here at Hogwarts and then will be required to have quarterly meetings with a liaison at the Ministry to ensure your rehabilitation.”
Malfoy snorted. “Rehabilitation?”
“Back into society, Mister Malfoy. You’ve been given a second chance. I suggest you use it wisely. You may return home for the rest of the summer, your parents are on house arrest and forbidden their wands at the moment so they are unable to see you here. Do you have any questions?”
With a sharp turn, Headmistress McGonagall turned to leave without another word. The door clicking in the wake of her exodus made Hermione flinch.
The silence that followed was deafening, pulled too tightly and begging to snap.
“I have to go,” she blurted, adjusting the shoulder of her bag. “I’m glad you’re okay.” She paused a moment, chewing on her lip. “And thank you… for saving my life.”
He tried to speak but for reasons she couldn’t express, she couldn’t stand to hear a word. She rushed from the infirmary without looking back.
Malfoy left the next day. Part of her had wondered if maybe he might stay and help rebuild but why on earth would the poncey prat want to get his hands dirty putting together the mess he’d made.
A week passed. And then another.
Hermione holed herself in the library, repairing the stacks and sifting through the destroyed books. She wept over the first editions that lay in mangled messes in the corner and often lost herself in the shadows of the Restricted Section now that it was, for all intents and purposes, unrestricted.
She and Ron settled back into their friendship, awkward as it may be, and they found a new rhythm as a group, one that felt lighter and unfamiliar all at once.
On that particular July day, she’d wandered back into the forest, careful to stay to the route she knew and far from where Hagrid had marked off as Centaur protected herd lands.
She found her spot by the brook, the one covered in dappled light with roots that felt like they were welcoming her home and pulled free the book she always carried, even if she never read it. With a long breath, she leaned back and memorised the sounds of the brook, of water tumbling over rock bed and lapping against the dirt walls.
A quiet snapping of twigs pulled her from her reverie and she stilled, waiting for an arrow to come piercing through her heart.
That’s why she was surprised to see Draco Malfoy’s lean frame come into view, hands buried in his jean pockets and shoulders up near his ears.
She couldn’t speak as he fell into the spot next to her, long legs stretching out before them, shoulder brushing hers. Maybe it wasn’t the roots that felt so much like home. Maybe it was him.
The warmth of his arm and the comfort of his quiet settled into her soul and her cheeks pulled into a frown.
“Hi,” he said simply. Nothing more.
“I don’t like you.”
His lungs filled with a slow breath and he released it even slower. “I know.”
“And I’m not sure I forgive you.”
Her lips began to shake as tears formed at her eyelashes. Vulnerability had never been a trait Hermione boasted proudly, but before she could think more on it, a new confession tumbled past her lips. “But I missed you.”
Malfoy snorted and from the corner of her vision she could see him smirk. He shifted, his arm lifting and then draping over her shoulder and it should feel wrong. She should hex him or punch him again.
But she couldn’t because it felt so utterly right. Instead, she leaned into the touch and sighed.
“Do you want to talk awhile?” he said quietly. “I could listen.”
She nodded, letting her head fall back along his shoulder as she recapped what had happened these past few weeks without him.
She still wasn’t sure she liked him or that she forgave him. But there was enough to hang a hope on.
Enough for a second chance.