A/N: Thank you for reading and reviewing, as always!


Chapter Seventeen

The next morning dawned crisp and pale, rather unexceptional for another winter's day. Hermione had watched the sky gradually lighten through a gap in her curtains, feeling torn between relief and sorrow that they were to be leaving Pemberley in just a few hours to return to Ottery St. Catchpole. She did not feel as she had during her last days at Netherfield when Ginny had been ill – the place had grown to bother her with all of its elegance and uncluttered space, and over time had started to feel like a corset she couldn't loosen or take off. Pemberley, however, was a different creature. She could spend hours looking outside one of its many windows, wondering at the wild woods gingerly kissing the edges of the land. She wondered if Mr. Malfoy liked those woods, if he visited them often, and what he thought of when he did.

It was clear to Hermione that the more time she spent around Mr. Malfoy, the more unsettled she became, for her uncertainty had only grown in direct correlation to her increased exposure to him. The more she wanted to gather him back into the coarse, ill-mannered figure she had pegged him to be, on that very first night at Netherfield Hall, the less he appeared to fit. The truth was that Hermione was not used to being surprised by wizards - or men in general - particularly of his breeding and rank. Males of his societal upbringing were either narcissistic bores or cold businessmen, and for a time, Mr. Malfoy had appeared to adhere to his kind quite impeccably – at least, until now.

What a sweetly torturous topic Mr. Malfoy had become for Hermione's innermost reflections, for entirely different reasons than those she had originally derived. In fact, thinking back on the very first day she met him felt like years ago now, as if from a different lifetime.

Hermione packed up her few belongings and dressed before heading down for breakfast, where she greeted the Lupins and Daphne. Mr. Malfoy she could barely rest her eyes on with the memory of last night still so fresh, but he too she greeted as politely and as graciously as one would. They had a leisurely breakfast, helping themselves to the fresh fruit and hot pastries with no urgency, trading the stories they hadn't had a chance to share last night. Hermione was content to listen along and laugh at the Lupins' lovable eccentricities, but also could not help but notice the marked difference in Mr. Malfoy's enthusiasm. He was more reserved than he had been the previous night, though only subtly so, and only perceptible to someone paying all too close attention.

A few hours later, with the exotic object of the Lupins' desire contained in a primly packaged box for their travel, Daphne and Mr. Malfoy walked them out of the manor towards the horseless carriage. Outside, the esteemed Pemberley grounds were now covered in snow, a pristine blanket of white.

Daphne wrapped Hermione in a tight and familiar embrace, her breath materializing in a white puff as she spoke earnestly. "Miss Hermione, how glad I am to have met you! Will it be too much of a favor to ask if I can write to you while I am away at Hogwarts? I am positive the anticipation of your clever replies will motivate me through my dreary schoolwork!"

"Of course, it is no favor at all. I would be honored to exchange letters at your convenience."

The young girl pulled away, clapping her hands with joy. "How delightful! I shall write every week. Twice a week, if I am in deep distress and simply inconsolable."

"I look forward to it," Hermione smiled. For a moment, she was tempted to lean in to tell her that she had failed in carrying out the favor she had asked of her, but Miss Daphne had already turned away to say goodbye to the Lupins, and Hermione was left with Mr. Malfoy.

She could almost barely look at him as she curtsied, and she was glad for the cold for it slowed the physical effects within her that his close presence elicited. "Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Malfoy. It was an honor to visit Pemberley. This is not a place that will be easily forgotten, nor its inhabitants."

Behind her, there was the creaky swing of the carriage door opening and the affectionate chatter of Mr. and Mrs. Lupin as they climbed in.

Mr. Malfoy bowed to her, all seriousness and manners, even if just a touch distant. "Of course. It was a pleasure to see you again, Miss Granger."

With that, Hermione turned to climb into the carriage, feeling a quiver in her chest that she could not directly attribute to the winter chill, when she suddenly felt a hand underneath hers, strong and steady, as she lifted herself up on the step. The realization did not dawn on her until she was seated and the door had snapped shut, the carriage propelling them forwards into motion. Miss Daphne was waving to them as they began to move away, but all Hermione could see was Mr. Malfoy, his figure tall and perfect with his hands by his side, watching her back as Pemberley Manor in all of its snowcapped splendor grew smaller in the distance, and so did they.

ooo

Hermione returned to the Burrow only to be welcomed by the sounds of wailing traveling from the living room.

"Hermione! How fortunate you have arrived," Ginny greeted her immediately in a hushed whisper, drawing her into a hasty embrace. "Quickly – into the kitchen."

"What on earth is the matter?" Hermione asked as Ginny led her into the kitchen, where the walls only muffled the weeping reverberating through the house. She was surprised to see Fred, George, Ron and Charlie already in there, seemingly hiding out. "Is that Mrs. Weasley crying?"

"No, it is not Mama," Ginny said worriedly, her hands wringing the coarse fabric of her apron. "It is Mrs. Brown. She and Mr. Brown arrived early this morning."

"Mrs. Brown? Whatever for?"

"Their daughter, of course," Fred snorted. "What else could break a mother's heart so wretchedly?"

"An idiot son would do the job just fine," Charlie muttered. "Show some compassion, won't you, Fred?"

"It's Lavender," Ginny said to Hermione, clearly distraught. "Oh Hermione, it's horrible. At the assembly last night, Mr. Nott was there. He was seen talking to and dancing with Lavender all night. This morning Mrs. Brown found Lavender's bedroom empty and a letter from her stating that she had run away with Mr. Nott."

Mr. Nott! Hermione felt the blood drain from her face as she clutched the edge of the table behind her. "Did she not say where they were to go?"

"No. They left no clues as to where they might have gone. Father and Mr. Brown have gone to speak to people around town to see if perhaps they had overheard anything. Poor Mrs. Brown has been inconsolable for hours. She thinks Lavender will ruin their family forever, for she has no reference of Mr. Nott's character." Ginny grabbed her hand, her palm clammy. "Hermione, you can attest for him, can't you? Perhaps that will soothe her a bit."

"I cannot," she said firmly, drawing her hand away.

Ginny stared at her, shocked. "Why ever not? I thought you said he was a perfect gentleman."

Hermione flinched at this. A perfect gentleman! How terribly misguided she'd been. "Oh, Ginny, if only you knew the painful truths I have had revealed to me—"

They were interrupted by the loud sound of the front door opening, signaling the boys to their feet. Charlie and Ginny were the first to make it out of the kitchen, anxiously flocking a weary and snow-dusted Mr. Weasley.

"What is it, Papa? Any news?"

He sighed heavily. "Not much, but whatever it is you shall have to hear with your mother and Mrs. Brown. May Merlin help us all."

Mrs. Weasley stood when he entered the room, Mrs. Brown dabbing her swollen eyes with a handkerchief, her body heaving with soft, watery sobs. Hermione and the Weasleys crowded by the doorway, pressing themselves up against the wall, trying to be as silent as possible.

"What is it, Mr. Weasley?"

"The Fosters thought they saw Mr. Nott and Miss Brown together ducking into the Floo station, early this morning –" Mrs. Brown wailed louder "—but I'm afraid that is all anyone has seen, aside from their flirtation at the assembly. No one certainly thought much of it, either. After all, many conversations have been had at assemblies that did not turn into scandals."

"Mr. Weasley!" Mrs. Weasley admonished.

"I am only saying, my dear wife – no one could have foreseen this, nor have known to prevent it. Lavender is such a friendly girl. Why, it'd be odd if she wasn't seen talking to some new gentleman every time there was a social event."

Hermione could barely keep down her own guilt, for she had certainly known – at least, enough to prevent it. Why, if only she'd told Ginny about Mr. Malfoy's letter as soon as she had returned, and made sure all the young females were warned! Why did she not think of it? Why had she let her own embarrassment and pride convince her into silence and put Lavender's reputation at risk?

They were suddenly startled by an owl flying through the window. Ginny was the first to it, hastily retrieving the letter from its leg. "Papa! It's from Mr. Nott's Lieutenant from the Auror office - the Ministry of Magic."

Mr. Weasley took the letter, reading it quickly.

"What does it say?"

His expression was grim. "Worse news, I'm afraid. He says that Mr. Nott had been expelled from the Auror office for quite some time now due to an inability to refrain from… unsavory habits."

Ginny paled. "What sort of unsavory habits?"

"Gambling debts, I'm afraid," Mr. Weasley said wearily, and Mrs. Brown's sobs deepened. Mrs. Weasley crouched over her, rubbing her shoulders, muttering words of comfort. "Extraordinarily large sums of it."

"Do you think he might have taken Lavender for ransom?" Ron asked.

"At the present moment, none of us can say," said Mr. Weasley. "He did not leave a note, but perhaps he is waiting for a more opportune time, when it is more dire."

"Or perhaps they mean to wed," Ginny suggested, though her feigned optimism fell flat against the current temperature of the room. "Lavender had talked of little else these recent weeks ever since the announcement of Padma Patil's engagement."

"That would certainly be one of the more desirable outcomes," Mr. Weasley muttered. "Let us hope the fates are in your favor, Ginevra, that this should be just the foolishness of two young people in love rather than an act of deviousness. For all our sake's, but Lavender's most especially."

"It would hardly do Lavender any good to be married to a man with such disagreeable proclivities," said Charlie. "I doubt she would marry a man knowing the full extent of his debt."

Mrs. Weasley had had enough of their standing around and gawking. Their talk had only further distressed Mrs. Brown. "Enough! Please find a way to make yourselves useful," she said, shooing them away. "Hermione and Ginny – would you begin preparing supper? Though I doubt many of us will have much an appetite tonight, having something hot and savory may be our only comfort."

Hermione and Ginny went into the kitchen with their voices hushed as the boys trudged upstairs.

"Have we not considered that maybe Lavender is under some sort of love potion, or spell?"

"That I'm afraid we cannot know until she is found," Hermione said, despite her knowledge of Lavender's fondness for handsome, charming men with professional distinction – dishonorably ejected or not. She doubted Mr. Nott would have told her about him being banished from his Auror training and likely had conjured up another heart-wrenching story centered around his undeserved misfortunes. If he had chosen to disclose it - his debts he would have painted in some similar light. Ginny caught onto her tone immediately.

"Do you really think Lavender ran away with him on her own accord?"

"I think Mr. Nott knows how to employ his charms expertly and nothing should be so quickly dismissed until we find proof." Hermione reached into the basket of snowturnips to begin preparing a stew when Ginny suddenly grabbed her arm, stopping her.

Her tone was soft, nearly a whisper, as if she was afraid the walls would eavesdrop. "Hermione – what was it you were saying earlier, about Mr. Nott?"

"He is not the man I thought he was. Quite the opposite, in fact. He plays the victim so convincingly, and I did not even stop to think once that perhaps there might be another side. I do not wish to alarm Mrs. Brown, though it is slowly being revealed now – Mr. Nott is not a man of honor as we had hoped. I should be surprised if he even knew the concept."

"Oh my." This only seemed to torture Ginny more. "You don't think… he won't hurt Lavender, will he?"

"I cannot say. He has not shown any inclination towards violence, but we have only known him in social settings." Hermione placed the snowturnips into Ginny's hands, an urgent idea coming to her. "Will you get started on the stew? I need to send an owl to someone who might be able to help us."

Hermione was already halfway up the stairs when she heard Ginny call after her. "Who?"

Once she was in their shared room, Hermione grabbed a piece of parchment paper and pried open her ink bottle.

Mr. Malfoy,

I am sorry to write to you asking for a favor so soon after you had generously hosted us at Pemberley, but I would not be writing if it was not an urgent matter. A friend of mine, a Miss Lavender Brown, has run off with Mr. Nott. She was last seen in his company at last night's assembly here at Ottery St. Catchpole and left a note to her parents, though she did not divulge any details of where they might have gone, or if they might be wed.

We have just received an owl from Mr. Nott's former Lieutentant from the Auror office – apparently he had been ejected from the Auror training program quite some time ago due to his large gambling debts. We are worried for what this means for Lavender. It is not clear what he intends to do with her but the signs are making it difficult for us to hope for a happy resolution.

I am not writing to you for your sympathy, for I know I could have prevented all of this had I just revealed the truth I had discovered of Mr. Nott's character. That is my own mistake and guilt to carry. However, you have known him for several years – perhaps you might have any clue of where they might have gone? Or the name of an acquaintance you believe Mr. Nott still keeps in correspondence with?

I am sorry to inconvenience you in this manner, but any information you are able to send would be of much help. At the present time we find we have exhausted all of our resources.

Sincerely,

Hermione Granger

ooo

It was not an hour after she had sent off her letter with an owl for Pemberley manor before she received her response. Hermione tore open the letter with Ginny watching her anxiously.

Miss Granger,

I am sorry to hear such troubling news from Ottery St. Catchpole. Unfortunately, it has been a long time since I have had any contact with Mr. Nott, for I have done nearly everything in my power to sequester myself and Daphne from him. I am deeply sorry to say I have no information to give you.

My sincere wishes that Miss Brown returns safely and unharmed.

Draco Malfoy.

"What did he say?" Ginny said. "Can he help us?"

"No," Hermione said hoarsely, full of disappointment. She tucked the letter into the pocket of her skirt, swallowing hard. "No, he cannot."

"That is unfortunate, indeed. But I wish you would not look so grieved, Hermione. It means a great deal you even wrote to him. I know how much you dislike him."

For a second Hermione opened her mouth to tell Ginny the truth – how wrong she'd been, how foolish and stubborn, and how embarrassed she felt to have taken so long to believe the truth about Mr. Nott and Mr. Malfoy and even that of herself. How she could have prevented all of this by having told Ginny and Lavender about the contents of Mr. Malfoy's letter instead of having hidden it away as part of her secret shame! Was that not the purpose of friends? To share with them your innermost conflicts and expose the occasional ugliness of one's own pride in hopes that they might help in its timely correction? But no, it was her vanity that had been her prime motivation, her wish to preserve herself in the eyes of those she loved. Oh, how she had not truly known herself until this very moment!

Hermione could feel the deluge waiting, feel the pressure in her chest that begged for release, but in her cowardice and emotion, she still did not. She would not feel right taking the attention away from Lavender's situation. Their energies needed to be gathered towards finding her and Mr. Nott, not Hermione's regrets surrounding a certain gray-eyed gentleman.

"I am sorry that you returned to such bad news," Ginny continued. "Perhaps it might do us well to distract ourselves, if at least temporarily, while we wait for news from Mr. Brown. How was your trip with Mr. and Mrs. Lupin? Did you find it as educational as you presumed?"

Hermione looked up to meet Ginny's curious, expectant eyes, attempting to shake away her lingering thoughts. The kitchen was filling with the aromatic scent of snowturnip stew – a typical favorite of Hermione's, though today she found herself lacking an appetite.

At Ginny's inquiry she suddenly remembered the moment in front of Pemberley Manor when she had stepped up to climb into the carriage, and Mr. Malfoy had wordlessly offered his hand as support, shocking her by the brief yet unexpected contact. Even now, her hand tingled at the memory. What could Mr. Malfoy have possibly meant by it?

"Yes," Hermione said quietly, still quite affected by the last few days. "Yes, I daresay it was."


A/N: Truth: Few things give me little pleasure aside from the Darcy hand flex scene in the 2006 Pride and Prejudice, which I didn't get to write here, but I did manage to sneak in the part where he helps her into the carriage! I'd delayed that part (originally it was when she returns from Netherfield) because I thought it would be more meaningful and satisfying to have it when Hermione's feelings for him were a little more fleshed out.

But! That being said, I want to say we're in the homestretch, ish? Geez. I can't believe it either! As always, reviews are always welcome!