Malfoy Manor, Wiltshire
The candles were growing soft and gnarled, curling in on themselves as if they were finally nearing surrender in their battle against the dark. Narcissa, perched neatly atop an armchair in the Malfoy family library, glanced up from her book as one of the house elves shuffled past the open door, humming to himself under his breath.
Releasing a shaking breath of her own, the young woman closed the book and set it down on the end table to her left. She had been in the midst of peeling up the enormous rug draped over the gleaming library floor when she had heard the approaching footsteps. If she hadn't been so frantic with panic, she might have noted that it was a light shuffle not at all characteristic of the heavy, purposeful footfalls both her husband and her father-in-law produced. Besides, both men were out "tending to business" (Narcissa was always tempted to roll her eyes when Lucius phrased it so delicately; apparently he was worried it might cause his young wife to faint away if the words 'death eater' were uttered in her presence.) They weren't expected back until half-past nine, which had given her a neat little window with which to carry out her activities—some "woman time," as Abraxas slightly condescendingly referred to the periods in which Narcissa was left to her own devices in the manner.
In any case, she had been in the midst of what would be her final exploration of the library. Hermione had informed her that there was meant to be a secret store cache of sorts underneath the room, and that it ought to contain a black leather-bound book that the Dark Lord had entrusted to Lucius. Why she needed it, her sister-in-law had been unwilling to say—floo connections could only be kept so secure, after all—but the urgency in her tone had communicated more than any words could have. It was obvious this was important, which made it all the more frustrating that the fabled store cache appeared not to exist.
The woman had searched every nook and cranny of the library twice, and this third attempt was really more of a way for her to wittle away time trying to feel useful while her husband and father-in-law were out consorting with Dark Lords and playing with the future of the entire wizarding world.
Rolling her eyes—she had to make use of the few opportunities she had to release her pent-up exasperation—the woman returned to her knees, sweeping aside the heavy (and musty, she noted, coughing slightly as the fibers released a puff of dust) rug in the center of the room.
Staring down at the parquet floor, Narcissa willed a door, a seam, a strange bit of wood—anything, really—to make itself apparent. The parquet gleamed back at her in what she fancied was a smug fashion. About to whip the carpet back into place in a fit of frustration, she suddenly stilled her hand. As she had begun to lower the rug, and the ancient textile had released a puff of gritty dust, the aforementioned gritty dust had floated down to the floor, settling upon the polished wood. In all but a single spot. It was small, no more than a square meter or so, but the dust had settled around it in a perfect frame.
"Thank Circe." The witch breathed, delicately moving the rug to one side and sliding closer to the square.
Tentatively, she ran a hand through the air over the square. Nothing. Except…was that a whisper? Of something?
She passed her hand over the area again, only a few centimeters away from the floor this time, and was rewarded with a pulse of warmth so slight it was nearly imperceptible. Narrowing her eyes, she drew her wand.
Nothing. Except…except a slight, imperceptible draft that seemed to sweep through the room and work its way down the back of Narcissa's robes, causing goosebumps to erupt down her spine. She shivered slightly.
Tucking her wand back into the sleeve of her robes—she obviously wasn't getting anywhere with the basic detector spells she knew—she frowned and drew closer to the floor. Aside from its utterly conspicuous lack of dust, the inlaid wood was identical to that around it.
Tentatively, ignoring the fact that the room seemed to have grown perceptibly colder, the witch stretched her hand out, her elegant fingers reaching for the center of the square.
"Cleaning the library, Cissa? We do have house elves for that, you know."
Narcissa narrowly swallowed the scream that had slithered up her throat, and forced herself to calmly turn towards the door, an unreadable expression on her face. Her husband was leaning against the frame, looking the very picture of leisurely indolence. Aside from a slight flintiness lurking in the depths of his eyes, which Narcissa was astute enough to catch before it disappeared. Oh yes, she was in trouble.
"Hardly." She scoffed, smiling as she rose to her feet and dusted off her robes. "I don't think I've cleaned a floor in my life."
"I thought not. You're too well bred for that sort of thing." Lucius murmured, moving forward to tuck a wayward strand of hair behind her ear.
She couldn't help the slight unease that flashed through her. She wasn't afraid of her husband, not really, but she couldn't imagine he would be pleased to discover she had been conspiring with his sister behind his back.
"So what were you doing, darling, scrabbling around on the floor? In the library of all places?"
His hand had moved to the back of her neck, where he began stroking the soft little hairs at the base of her skull. She struggled not to be distracted by the soothing motion. It was obvious what she had been doing, they both knew it; clearly Lucius had been alerted by some sort of ward being triggered (the cold air sweeping through the room ought to have been warning enough) and it was therefor irrefutable that she had been trying to get into the secret storage room beneath the library. It was just a question of misdirection at this point, of ensuring that he didn't discover the true reason why she had gone looking for the storage room in the first place.
"I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said it was because I wanted you to catch me on my hands and knees?" She purred, moving closer to her husband and twisting a hand in the front of his robes.
They were all black, she noted, and cut in a far plainer and frankly unstylish fashion than any of his other clothes. So he had come from a meeting with his 'colleagues', as she had suspected. No doubt he had feared an intruder in the manor when he had felt the wards triggered, and had rushed home with all due haste. Oh dear, yes, she certainly had some appeasing to do in exchange for all the trouble she had caused him.
"Amateurish, Cissa." He said smoothly, although she didn't miss the way his hand tightened in her hair slightly and his eyes seemed to darken.
"Sometimes the simplest strategies are the most effective." She smirked.
"I'm not a simple man, my love, if that had somehow escaped your attention."
"Believe me, darling, it has not."
He cocked an eyebrow at her, releasing his hold on her hair and running a wandering hand down her spine. She was wearing a thin set of silken house robes, and she could feel his finger fully against each of her vertebrae. She fought off a shiver with some effort, but was peeved to see Lucius smirk at the sight of gooseflesh appearing along her exposed forearms.
"One of the house elves didn't move the rug back into place after cleaning the floors earlier. I saw that the dust from the rug had settled in an unusual pattern, and I was curious. Evidently there was some sort of magical disturbance, and can you blame your poor, sweet wife for jumping at any available opportunity for entertainment when you've left her all alone to waste away in boredom?"
She was laying it on too thick, but they both knew it, so hopefully he would write it off as her usual attempts at lighthearted flirtation. He didn't appear entirely convinced, but some of the suspicious lines around the corners of his eyes relaxed.
"You're actually quite lucky, love, as what you've stumbled upon happens to be the family safe room. Had you placed your hand on the floor and attempted to open the door, the wards would have rejected you. With unpleasant consequences." His tone was light, but the warning in his eyes was real.
"Rejected me? Am I not a member of this family by every right?" She demanded.
Her affront was hardly feigned; although it was not unexpected that the paranoid Malfoy men would jealously guard their secrets, she was a bit hurt that they didn't consider her family enough to include her in the wards. Lucius saw this, and placed his hands on either side of her face, cradling the back of her neck in such a way that it gently forced her to meet his eye.
"Of course you are, Cissa. As my wife you are entitled to my name, and every right that comes with it. The wards around this property, and any property in our family holdings, will accept you readily as a Malfoy. But these wards in particular are only responsive to my father and me. That is how important the things guarded in that safe room are. You must understand that there are certain matters we must keep to ourselves in order to do what's best for the family."
Ah. So the room would not let her in—and would not let Hermione in, if Lucius was to be believed—because they had made the tactical blunder of being born witches.
"Does Hermione know about the safe room? And that she would be 'rejected' if she ever tried to gain entry?"
Perhaps it was a mistake to even bring up her sister-in-law, but she was well and truly irked by this point.
"Hermione is still a child."
"Do you really believe that? If she were your younger brother, would he still be a child at fifteen?"
Lucius stared at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable.
"You're not to tell her about it. It will only cause her to be unreasonable, which will in turn cause me a great deal of frustration and likely result in me prematurely going gray. And we wouldn't want that, would we, darling?"
Narcissa still felt the sting of being overlooked and shut out, but it was cooled somewhat by the knowledge that she had successfully turned the tables on her husband; now he was the one attempting to appease her and divert the topic to more lighthearted matters. Fine. She would let him. But only because it served her purposes.
"I happen to think you'd make an irresistible silver fox." She murmured, standing on tiptoes to brush her nose against his.
She could feel the whisper of his smirk against her lips.
His hands were wandering lower.
"Oh, yes, your father is starting to go gray and I must say, he looks—" She squealed as his hand closed around one of her buttocks and issued a firm squeeze.
"Are you trying to provoke me, love?" His voice was edged with danger, but in an entirely different way than it had been earlier.
That wasn't suspicion coloring his tone, dragging it into low and husky depths.
"Obviously." Drawing out the final syllable teasingly, Narcissa moved to draw back slightly from his embrace.
His arms tightened around her, and before she knew it he had her backed up against a bookshelf, his hands sliding beneath her overrobe. She gasped slightly as his fingertips, only the slightest bit roughened by wandwork, glided over her hips.
He moved forward to trail kisses up the side of her neck, and Narcissa stifled a moan when she felt the hot wetness of his tongue in the hollow behind her ear.
"Odd…" She heard him murmur, and the puff of his breath against the damp patch of skin sent shivers up and down her spine.
She couldn't help squirming a bit, and there was a slight rumble in Lucius's chest as he pushed her back against the bookcase. Her mind was clouded, but not foggy enough for her to forget what he had just said.
"What's odd?" She asked, breathily, watching the way his eyes fixed on her chest as it moved up and down.
"I had thought…and correct me if I'm mistaken…"
One of his hands emerged from her under robe and, tracing its way down her collarbone, settled on the silk ribbon holding her bodice closed. Momentarily releasing the ribbon, he ran his finger along the strip of downy soft flesh bordering her neckline. Narcissa fought to keep her breathing anything resembling steady as he continued,
"…that the house elves cleaned the floors on Thursdays."
With this final word, he slid both of his hands under her thighs and hitched her up against the bookshelf. Her legs automatically wrapped around his waist, and she crushed her chest against his, gratified to hear his own breathing speed up as the softness of her breasts pushed up against him.
"I wouldn't know. As you say, I'm too well bred to have much of anything to do with cleaning." She breathed.
"Hm. Naturally. But I hope that doesn't mean I never get to see you on your knees."
Narcissa fervently hoped the house elf that had plodded past earlier was far, far away down in the servants' quarters by this time, or else the poor creature was about to be treated to some very…colorful sound effects.
Hermione was a bit drunk. She didn't quite want to admit it to herself, but following her third glass of punch, it was no longer feasible for her to continue ignoring her sudden lack of coordination.
"Potter's spiked the punch, if I'm not mistaken." Rabastan murmured.
He had to bend slightly to say it into her ear, and Hermione found herself leaning, like a sapling swaying in the wind, away from his encroaching body heat. He noted the movement—stupid of her not to contain it more adeptly—and hastily put a respectful few inches between them.
He really was good looking, almost painfully so, and Hermione would be lying if she said she hadn't enjoyed gazing up at his well-formed features as they had danced that evening. But every time she looked at his jaw, the shape of his nose, she found her stomach turning as her illogical reptile brain associated them with his brother and sent a thrill of fear down her spine. She couldn't bear to be touched by him, she realized, not when it reminded her so irresistibly of Bellatrix's claw-like hand gripping her upper arm or the musty, dank odor of the disused bedroom they had been tossed into at the Lestranges' estate that summer. She had even found herself wondering, berating herself for not contemplating the possibility before now, if perhaps he had been instructed by his brother or sister-in-law to try to get close to her for purposes of manipulation or maybe even more overt violence.
Of course he's acting on his family's behalf! Don't be daft. I should have said something before, but you never follow my advice.
In a testament to her slightly inebriated state, Hermione muttered under her breath,
"That's not true and you know it, you cow."
She cleared her throat, her cheeks pinkening.
"Oh, I was just saying that I could use some air."
Despite Old Hermione's dire pronouncements, Rabastan had been the perfect gentleman that evening. He hadn't overstepped his bounds once, always maintaining a careful distance between them as they danced, and offering to fetch her refreshments at every turn.
Slughorn had commandeered one of the smaller, disused ballrooms on the fourth floor for his annual gathering of sycophants. The room, which normally sat dingy and disused—aside from the occasional after-hours rendezvous—had been polished into brilliance. It was in the Rococo style, likely an addition to the castle courtesy of some 18th century headmaster. One wall was entirely lined with gilded mirrors, which reflected the light of what must have been hundreds of floating candles. Marble cherubs, swimming amongst decadent clumps of carved grapes and fat apples, wound up the pillars placed at regular intervals throughout the room. As Hermione watched, one of the winged babes caught her eye and stuck its tongue out at her.
About a hundred students—and their plus ones, of course—had been invited, alongside a few dozen of Slughorn's carefully-cultivated adult connections. Hermione had caught sight of Laurinda Macmillan, a reluctant-looking Alice in tow, as the older woman greeted a wispy-looking man that Hermione vaguely recognized as some ministry official who had attended the Equinox ball on a few occasions.
She had parted ways with Lily and her friend at the prefects' bathroom earlier, and had only briefly spotted a shock of read hair from across the room as she and Rabastan had arrived; she didn't think it wise to allow Rabastan to see her conversing amicably with Lily, especially not now that she was more seriously considering the possibility that he might be acting at his family's behest. The Dark Lord was testing her family's loyalty now more than ever—his trusting Lucius with the diary was testament to that—and it certainly made sense that that test would extend to her as well.
Hopefully if news of her brother protecting a halfbreed from the Board of Governors reached his ears, he would think that Lucius was strategically cultivating the allegiance of a Dark creature who might prove useful in the future. But for the time being, she might have to be more cautious about openly displaying her friendship with a mudblood—which would likely grow ever more difficult, as apparently they had progressed to the level of camaraderie that they did their makeup and gossiped together in the toilets. Hermione may not have had many female friends, in either of her two lifetimes, but even she knew that this was essentially an official declaration of friendship and loyalty.
"I think I'd like to have a minute outside to get my bearings." She said, moving towards the sweeping double doors on the other end of the room.
Observing her companion's obvious intention to follow, she smiled lightly and held out a hand.
"I could use some quiet, if that's alright. I'll catch up with you later?"
He took the gentle rebuff in stride, bowing over her hand and heading off towards the sparkling silver spruce tree that had been conjured into existence on the other side of the room; several Slytherins were congregated there, including two of his quidditch teammates.
Gathering the long, muted blue skirts of her robes about her, she made a beeline for the French doors, brushing off any attempts at garnering her attention with as much poise as possible.
The winter air, when it hit her face, was like a shocking dose of sober-up potion; she immediately felt less fuzzy. Several jars were placed periodically along the balcony railing, each containing a dozing fire salamander. The little creatures emitted a gentle orange glow, in addition to a radius of heat that spread for several meters around each of them. It kept the balcony at a comfortable temperature, despite the cold air pressing in from all sides, and gooseflesh exploded along her arms in reaction to the stark contrast of sensations.
The balcony was long, stretching along the outer circumference of the tower like a girdle, and although several students were clumped together near the doors, it only took a few steps along its length to find the solitude she had been seeking. She sped up slightly as she passed the dark form of what was clearly a couple pressed up against the tower's wall, and only slowed when she grew close to the end of the balcony. On this side, nearly fully opposite the ballroom doors, the balcony looked out over the snowy castle grounds, which were slick and silver under the light of a waning gibbous. The fire salamanders had become fewer and far between as she had progressed along the balcony, and were entirely absent here at its very end; the air had grown bitingly cold and dark without the little creatures' protective warmth and light, and the stars stood out like stark pinpricks.
She stood utterly still for several long moments, beginning to shiver as her breath billowed out before her in a thick cloud. Old Hermione was silent; she could not even feel her presence, as she occasionally could, pressing lightly against her consciousness. She felt wholly alone—wholly herself. Or as much of herself as she could be, without the fact of a past life actively making itself known. She was beginning to realize that the distinction she insisted on drawing between herself and 'Old' Hermione was a blurred line at best; for years she had resented the 'other' presence in her head, the girl who had appeared in her mindscape when she'd been but a child and made it known that she would never, never, be like other children. But had she just been resenting a part of herself, trying to separate herself from a past that was as much her present, her reality, as this very moment? Could she really draw such stark divisions between Old Hermione's world and her own, or were they in some strange, inconceivable way, two threads of the same fabric, two branches of the same tree, somehow brought into conversation with one another?
Perhaps it was her deep submersion in thought that allowed her to let her guard down, or perhaps it was the alcohol making her limbs heavier than usual, but she gasped and only belatedly gripped her wand at the sensation of a touch against her waist.
She moved to whirl around, her muscles bunching with sudden adrenaline, but a gentle hand came down upon the back of her neck, keeping her facing forward, and she felt herself suddenly, involuntarily relax as a familiar, woody smell reached her nose.
"Didn't mean to scare you, princess."
He spoke so quietly that it almost seemed the words hummed to her through his chest, which was mere centimeters from her back, radiating a warmth to rival the fire salamanders. Ordinarily she would have pushed him away, berated him for not only disturbing her peace but also making her think she was being attacked, but something forestalled her. Something, whether it was the weight of the alcohol or of her own thoughts, made her sigh and lean back into the warmth of his chest. She felt it momentarily tighten in what she took to be surprise, before the hand that had lightly brushed against her waist encircled it securely, pulling her even closer.
She could feel his breath on her ear, and the contrast with the earlier sensation of Rabastan whispering to her was stark; both sent shivers down her spine, but these shivers now were anything but an indication of fear or disgust.
Somehow, though, despite her involuntary reaction to his touch, there was nothing sexual about it; he hadn't, as she had expected by this point, made a lewd or suggestive remark, and although his hand rested snugly in the hollow of her waist, he hadn't moved to touch her anywhere else. There was something companionable, almost comforting, about him holding her this way, as if he had some idea of the unsettling thoughts that had been running through her mind minutes earlier.
That thought shook her out of her unguarded stupor; there was no way he had even an inkling of what went on in her head, and he never would. No one ever would, because she would never, never, be like other children.
She tensed slightly, and he felt it. His grip immediately loosened, and she reluctantly turned to face him, her cheeks hot with embarrassment, not wanting to acknowledge the quiet intimacy she had just broken. But when she looked up to meet his eyes, his face half in shadow and half illuminated by the light of the moon, she did not find the teasing sparkle in his eye or confident smirk she had been expecting. There was a strange, odd openness in his expression, and his eyes roved over her face as though he was searching for something. Feeling suddenly exposed beneath that penetrating look, she flicked her eyes downwards.
"You're drunk." She said, feeling compelled to whisper despite their utter solitude.
The murmur spread itself between them in a cloud of white.
"Certainly. As are you." She could hear the smirk, having apparently returned, in his words.
"Maybe, but not as drunk as you."
"I'll admit that we maybe got overzealous with the punch this year. James was a bit heavy-handed with the firewhiskey."
Silence fell between them, and she felt its weight settle heavily down upon her shoulders.
"Are you alright?" She blurted.
She wasn't sure why she asked it; he was standing before her, his posture its usual combination of poised and lazily relaxed, one hand—was it the hand, she wondered, that had been curled around her waist only minutes previously—tucked into the pockets of his robes. Not dress robes, she noted. Dressing up for an occasion such as Slughorn's Yule party was, unsurprisingly, apparently beneath him.
He stared, his expression of lazy indolence slipping to reveal that earlier, strange rawness.
A gust of wind swept along the tower wall, whipping her skirts up into a froth of blue silk and lifting her hair out of the updo she had painstakingly wrestled it into earlier that evening. Instinctively, she stepped back from the balcony railing, into the safe radius of his body heat. Starting slightly at a sudden sensation of wetness against her cheeks, she glanced up at the sky. It had started to snow, flakes spiraling down across the castle grounds like falling stars.
"I'm afraid, Hermione." He said it so softly that she almost thought she might have imagined it.
Craning her neck to meet his gaze, she knew she hadn't. She felt a snowflake tangle itself in her eyelashes, and nearly held her breath as he reached up and touched it, melting it away instantly against the pad of his thumb. Her lashes fluttered, involuntarily, against the calloused skin, and he instantly withdrew his hand as though he'd been burned.
"I am too." She said at last.
The flakes had begun to grow larger and pick up speed, gathering themselves into real flurries. They huddled close atop the balcony as winter swirled around them.
After a long moment, his hesitation so palpable that it was a thick, physical presence, he drew back from her just far enough to be able to meet her eyes. His hands came up to cup the back of her neck, tangling in her hair, which was already growing heavy and knotted with melted snow.
"Can I—can I kiss you?"
They both seemed taken aback at the question, his eyebrows coming together in a frown almost immediately after the words left his mouth. For her part, it shook her out of whatever trance she had fallen into, and the reality of the situation came rushing back upon her. Suddenly, as she looked up at Sirius, all she could see was a gaunt-faced man, tortured shadows flitting through his eyes and a mad twist to his mouth.
"No." She managed to choke out, pushing away from him in a movement that felt wrenching and violent but really wasn't much more than a brisk step backwards. "You may not, Mr. Black."
It was physically painful, this distance she felt herself opening up between them, made even more agonizing by how painstaking it had been, how tenuous, spinning that fragile thread of trust that held them together in the first place. She felt it fraying and snapping, as shutters closed down over his eyes and the strange rawness disappeared entirely, replaced with a cold, unreadable gray that she hadn't been forced to stare down since that day in Hogsmeade.
Unable to bear looking at it any longer, Hermione swept up her skirts, which had already gathered pockets of snow in their creases, and practically ran for the double doors. It was only when she emerged into the full glow of the French windows and the jars of fire salamanders that she glanced over her shoulder, back at the portion of the balcony that wrapped around the tower. Sirius hadn't followed, and she managed to convince herself that that was a good thing. A necessary thing.
Be careful. Albus Dumbledore is all the evidence one needs to see what a life in pursuit of 'The Greater Good' does to someone.
"Oh, so now you're concerned for my welfare, my personal relationships? All you've ever done is use me in pursuit of your greater good." She hissed under her breath.
The balcony was empty, the snow having evidently pushed even amorous couples back inside.
Don't be ridiculous. What do you mean 'use' you? I am you, and you are me. My world is yours as much as it's not, and vice versa. Obviously I care what happens to people in your life, to Sirius and James and your family—
"As if you care what happens to my family. You don't see them as anything more than Death Eaters and you never have."
You are acting like a child! A drunk child, at that. I've already explained this; they're my family as much as they're yours. I hate what they became in my world, but I see that they are not that in this world, just as I see that Sirius will never become that man you saw earlier.
"But how can you know that?" She whispered. "What if I fail?"
Only silence answered her.
AN: I am sincerely sorry for the inexcusably long gap in updates. I have had some very challenging personal stuff going on the past few months, in addition to a heavy courseload. As you might notice, the tone and even perhaps the writing style has shifted slightly in this chapter. I've been working on my writing a lot the past few months, and that very well may be reflected in this chapter. Expect things to get increasingly complex, mature and dark moving forward—so if pure fluff is your cup of tea, a warning that this story is likely to move away from that as it progresses. As you also might have noticed, I was far more heavy-handed with the romance/lemon-y elements in this chapter; consider it an apology for my extended absence.