That Which Could Never Be
Disclaimer: I want the version of Draco I have in this fic. I really want him. I would keep him under my desk and play with him every day… Sadly, I don't have him. Neither do I have any of the Harry Potter characters, places etc. J K Rowling has them all, the lucky woman, and gets to keep interesting version of Draco under her desk to play with. Lucky woman.
Latin Translations: I've used a good bit of Latin for spells: here's the
rough translations, missing out one or two which will be obvious when you get
Sine Ululis - Allow owls
Veta omnia alioqui - Forbid everything else
Devinci in dolorfunis omnia intrans - Bind in dolorfunis everything that enters.
Dolorfunis - pain-rope
Sine omnia - Allow everything
Seca - cut
Glacies - ice
Infula - circlet
A/N: This was written for the Contra Veritas Valentine's Day Fic Exchange a few weeks ago, and now the 'period of anonymity' is over and we can reveal who we all are, I'm putting this up for everyone to see. This was in response to request 55, which stated:
3-5 Things to Include
in the Fic:
1. Set in Hermione and Draco's sixth year
2. Hermione as a skilled thief (may or may not be an AU fic - Alternate Universe)
3. After the defeat of Voldemort
4. Pairings on the side: Blaise/ Ginny, Luna/ Harry, Pansy/ Ron
What Not to Include in the Fic:
Slash, femmeslash, Lucius, no OOC fluffiness
I leave it to you to judge whether I met all my criteria!
I also used this fic as an excuse to write a different style of Draco to usual – an attempt to push myself to new levels! Plus, I had to use some unusual pairings that I hadn't really looked into much, which was definitely a challenge and one which I enjoyed attempting.
If you pay attention, you may spot the occasional clue to my identity in here – remember that at the time I wrote it, I was anonymous and couldn't reveal who I was. But there are references to other stories and suchlike. Keep your eyes peeled!
Well, I'll shut up and let you read, shall I? Massive thanks to all the usual crowd of betae, the wonderful people at the D/Hr Exchange who made this all possible, my challenger and everyone else. You all rock.
And to you, my readers: enjoy.
Hermione Granger pulled the Invisibility Cloak – borrowed from Harry, of course – tighter around herself, as the freezing wind tore cruelly at her, trying to push her away from the imposing mansion. She was tired and out of breath from climbing up the steep hill on which the house perched, so she sat down, leaning against a tree, and gulped in deep breaths of the cold night air.
She felt nervous, of course. This wasn't her first mission, but it was easily the most important she'd had so far. Not that there'd been many. But if everything went as well as it had in the previous ones, she'd be fine. Just fine. Hadn't Dumbledore told her she was the best at these kinds of missions?
'Harry's strength is in duelling,' he'd told her, looking seriously at her as she'd sat, nervously, in his office. 'Blaise is suited to spy work, Ron is a very capable strategist – presumably stemming from his passion for chess? And all the others, likewise, have their places. But I need one of you to break into the Malfoy Manor and steal relevant artefacts, giving us sufficient evidence to bring Narcissa Malfoy to trial for her involvement with Voldemort. And I think you are the one best suited to such a task.'
And here she was; wrapped in an Invisibility Cloak, shivering near the base of the Manor, fingering her wand as she thought over what she had to do.
How on earth had she gotten into this situation? Goodness knew what would happen to her if she was caught… But no, she had volunteered for this, and she knew what she was getting into. Even though Harry had defeated Voldemort, the Death Eaters were still around and still dangerous. The Final Battle, as the Daily Prophet had termed it, had come quite by surprise over the summer holidays.
They'd been awoken one night at the Order's Headquarters by the slamming of doors, shouts and frightened voices. They'd demanded to know what was going on, but the few hurried explanations they got had been useless. All the adults had gone to fight, and no matter how much they protested and pleaded to go, Harry was the only one allowed to go with them, because of the Prophecy. Mrs Weasley had even gone so far as to lock them all in Hermione's room.
Then, around lunchtime, the survivors had turned up, exhausted from battle, bearing the news that it was all over. Voldemort was gone. They'd won.
It had all been explained later, of course, the whole long, in-depth story, splashed all over the Daily Prophet for weeks, as the wizarding nation celebrated endlessly. But at the Order, the celebrations had been muted. Almost half the members had died in that fight. Mundungus, Kingsley, Hestia Jones, Elphias Doge, Emmeline Vance… they were only a few among the dead.
And the Order had more to do than ever, it seemed, in rounding up rogue Death Eaters. Some, inspired by the rewards Voldemort had given when he rose again to those who had remained faithful to him, had openly declared allegiance to him, massacring innocent Muggles in vast numbers. Others had remained quiet, gone underground with their Dark Arts activities, and they were the hardest to catch. Narcissa Malfoy, who had risen to take her husbands place in Voldemort's circle after Lucius was sent to Azkaban, was one of these.
Because of the shortage of Order members, and the fact that Harry and some other DA members had continually pleaded to fight, Dumbledore had allowed a few – a very select few – to join the Order underage. They never went into the front lines, as it were, directly fighting against the Death Eaters. Dumbledore kept them out of danger as much as he could. In fact, missions such as Hermione's were the most dangerous things any of them had done. And they were only dangerous if they got caught.
Hermione fixed her eyes on the stony walls of the Manor, scanning for a way in. The front door was obviously out of the question, but there were other methods…
Movement at the corner of her vision caught her eye; she swung her eyes upwards just in time to see a dark figure – an owl – fly through the air towards the manor, and vanish inside it. Through a window – left open, or glassless in owleries, such as the one at Hogwarts. Old wizarding homes often had similar owleries, she knew. And if they were anything like the ones at Hogwarts… they would provide an admirable way in.
Which meant getting up there. If she'd had a broomstick, it would have been so much easier – but then, the Cloak wouldn't have covered a broomstick. Which meant she had to go it the old-fashioned way. Climbing.
Biting her lip, she examined the walls closely. At ground level – and hopefully higher up – they were built of large stone slabs kept together by mortar. With age, and the wind and the rain, the mortar had crumbled somewhat… She tried pressing her fingers into a gap, then the toes of her shoes into another one, and climbed a step or two off the ground. She could climb it well enough, though the Invisibility Cloak hampered her movements somewhat.
Dropping back to the floor, she rearranged the Cloak, pinning it in place with a useful charm (another benefit of being in the Order; Dumbledore had persuaded the Ministry to waive the rules on underage magic for them). Now she had the cloak in a hood over her head, and the rest trailing down behind her. It would keep her invisible to anyone looking at the Manor. Her front wasn't protected, but as that would be pressed to the wall, it didn't matter.
And now, the climb. She fixed her eyes on the owlery window, forced herself to forget how high up it was, and began.
Hand, then foot, then hand, then foot. It fell into a steady rhythm; though she kept going slowly besides, wary and frightened of falling. By the third storey, her fingertips were numb, and every muscle in her body aching, but she kept on. Once, terrifyingly, the ancient stone crumbled beneath her foot. She was thrown off balance, but caught herself before she could fall, her leg swinging uselessly in the empty space… then she kicked out with her foot, found a new foothold, and carried on.
She lost track of time; it was probably only fifteen minutes later that she reached the window, though it felt like fifteen hours. Aching, Hermione pulled herself up into the window ledge – a nice wide one, for the owls in summer, she assumed. She took the charm off the Cloak, and wrapped it round her properly again, hiding herself from view completely.
Now, the window. The one at Hogwarts was charmed against intruders, and she had a feeling the Malfoys would do the same. Kneeling on the ledge, she raised her wand again, gripping it tightly – her fingers were so numb she could barely feel the wood – and ran the tip along the stone frame of the window, muttering under her breath.
'Aperi mihi carmina tuae tutelae… aperi mihi carmina tuae tutelae… aperi mihi carmina…'
As she passed the wand over a point about halfway up the left of the window frame, the stone began to glow a faint lilac. In the space of ten seconds, the glow had grown bright enough to reveal words, handwritten on the stone in a graceful style.
Veta omnia alioqui.
Devinci in dolorfunis omnia intrans.
It took Hermione a few moments to work out what this meant; and when she did, it made her shudder. The 'Allow owls' and 'Forbid everything else' parts were fine. They made the protection spell allow owls through, but stop anything else. The Hogwarts owlery bore the exact same lines.
What was different was the third line, the one that specified what happened to any intruder. While the Hogwarts owlery windows would simply Stun anyone who tried to pass through them, this window bore a far Darker curse, one Hermione had only read about. 'Dolorfunis'. It bound the poor victim in a net of tight, fine ropes that, where they touched the victim's body, would cause pain second only to that of the Cruciatius…
Hermione was very thankful she'd checked for hexes. Now all that remained was to take the charm off, and she would be inside the Manor. Placing her wand slightly above the lilac writing, she traced new words on the stone.
As she wrote, the wand tip sapped the light from the earlier words, forming it into the new spell, one that simply allowed anything whatsoever to pass through it. Breaking protection charms was nearly impossible; rewriting them was an often-overlooked way around that.
The new writing glowed once with renewed brightness, then began to fade. Which should mean that it was safe to enter. Hearing the blood pound sickeningly through her ears – what if it wasn't safe? – she cautiously slid her legs over the threshold, into the owlery, and jumped down quietly onto the floor.
She breathed a sigh of relief, and glanced around at the room, taking her bearings. It was a dark place, filled with softly hooting owls that fixed their wide, staring eyes on her, as if they could see through the Invisibility Cloak. Or hear her, perhaps? She hoped not; their beaks looked vicious, and their talons equally so.
Hermione forced her mind back to practicalities. This room was on the… fourth floor? Yes, she'd passed three rows of windows, and the owlery window made four. She knew her targets, the places that would yield the vital evidence; the drawing room on the second floor had secret chambers beneath it; then the study, on the third floor, and Narcissa Malfoy's bedroom on the fourth…
Where was the door? Ah – there on her left. Hermione moved towards it, trying to keep her footsteps silent on the stone floor. The owls shifted restlessly. One let out an alarming hoot – and the door swung open.
Hermione bit back a gasp, swinging herself aside, into the shadows, as the figure entered the room. A figure she had seen only once in person, but a hundred times, a thousand times, in newspapers and files and reports…
Her cold eyes fixed on the restless owls with a faint puzzlement. She crossed the room to what had to be her favourite; a large black owl with a fearsome expression, which gave Hermione chills just to look at.
'What's wrong?' she asked the owl, running an elegant, manicured hand over its glossy feathers. 'What is it?'
The owl, its firm gaze never moving from Hermione, let out a long low hoot, shifting from foot to foot. Hermione could hear the blood like a river in her ears; her heart throbbing so hard it was painful; her breathing faint and shallow with fear. If she was found… if she was captured…
'Show me.' Narcissa commanded the owl, and then Hermione failed to contain a shriek of horror; for the owl had launched itself directly at her, talons outstretched and beak agape. It landed on her shoulder, clawed the Cloak away – she was visible, she had been seen – and Hermione fumbled for her wand as Narcissa shouted and the owl swooped down, digging its razor talons into her shoulder with a lightening stab of pain, a cry of pain – her own – then a shouted spell, and blackness…
The Room of Requirement had prepared itself for their meeting, as it usually did. It was far smaller than it normally was, when they held DA meetings there, or when the Young Order met. The walls were now a deep silvery-grey, like mist or fog. At first, Ginny had wondered why it wasn't some more romantic colour, like bright pink or scarlet, but she realised now that the grey suited them better. Deceptive, and secretive, and subtle.
The room didn't have much in it, but that just made it all the more cosy. A large, comfy sofa with a pile of plump cushions, a window drowned in draperies, a joyfully roaring fireplace, and the rest was just scenery, really, to add to the happy, cosy feel. Things like bookshelves and tables, and paintings on the wall of beautiful, moving landscapes.
Ginny loved these times; these soft, gentle quiet times at the end of the day when she could come here with him. How could she ever have thought that all Slytherins were cruel, heartless? Three days of the Young Order, working with her Slytherin counterparts, had quickly disproved that; and shortly after that she'd started the friendship that had blossomed into romance.
He was nothing at all like she'd imagined Slytherins to be, when she first came to Hogwarts. He was ambitious and cunning - Slytherin traits to the core - but he was also kind, thoughtful and loving. Close enough to what she was used to that he was familiar, homelike, but different enough to be exciting, exotic, and unpredictable.
They hadn't told anyone about their relationship. While Ron had adjusted to the idea of working with the Slytherins, he still didn't trust them enough to consider them as anything more than well-known acquaintances. Harry would have understood, but she had a feeling he'd have told Ron out of a friendly duty. Luna – Harry's girlfriend – probably knew; she was eerily perceptive, and Ginny was sure she'd seen Luna watching her when she sat next to Blaise at Young Order meetings.
Blaise Zabini, the boy who she was currently curled up with on the sofa in the Room of Requirement. The boy who – she was fairly certain about it, certain enough to say it at least – the boy who she loved.
She smiled at that thought, resting her cheek firmly against his chest, listening to the distant throb of his heartbeat. If only they could do this all the time, in public, among their friends. Instead of having to confine themselves to quick, surreptitious glances across tables vast as oceans, and all-too-infrequent meetings such as these.
'I wish we could tell everyone,' she said drowsily. 'About us, I mean.'
Blaise shrugged gently, so as not to tip her head off his shoulder. 'We can, if you want to.'
'And you know very well we can't.' Ginny replied. 'Ron would skin us alive.'
Blaise laughed a little, 'That's a bit violent and gory for Ron, don't you think? Now, strangulation in a fit of rage, that I can see. Except he's too protective of you to kill you.'
'Fine. He'll strangle you if we tell him,' Ginny amended. 'Which I still don't want to happen.'
'It depends on which is worse; having to hide in public, or facing the wrath of Ron,' Blaise said simply.
Ginny sighed. 'I hate having to keep this hidden. Bloody Ron with his bloody vendetta against Slytherins… we've kept it hidden too long. I hate it in meetings, when I have to sit there and pretend we're only… only friends, and not even close ones.'
Blaise grinned. 'You should see yourself in those meetings, when you look at me. You look distinctly…
He chose his word carefully. 'Predatory.'
Ginny let out a laugh of delight. 'Predatory? Seriously?'
'Definitely predatory. I won't even dare to ask what you're thinking about when you look like that…' he teased, and Ginny turned crimson.
'Shut up,' she mumbled into his chest. 'I'm not thinking anything like that…'
'Maybe once or twice,' she allowed grudgingly. Blaise laughed and gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead.
'I probably think much the same,' he confessed, 'I just hide it better. Still we've gone off-topic. Do we tell your brother or not?'
Ginny considered this. Ron would be furious, she knew, he hated all things Slytherin. But equally, they couldn't hide this forever. And she wanted to do all the things that normal girlfriends and boyfriends did, like hold hands in public and sit together and go to Hogsmede at weekends together.
'I say we tell him,' she found herself saying with a sudden rush of daring. 'We've waited long enough, after all… Is that alright with you? You wouldn't rather keep it secret?'
'I want to be open as much as you, remember? As long as we tell him with Harry, Luna and Pansy around, it's fine by me.' Blaise smiled.
Ginny looked puzzled, and Blaise explained himself before she could ask the question. 'I want them there so that, when Ron tries to strangle me, they can hold him back,' he explained, and Ginny snorted. 'You think three of them will do it?'
'Well, I don't know. My brother can get pretty mad…' she laughed.
'It'll all be fine,' he assured her, squeezing her hand, then lowered his lips to hers to catch them in a kiss.
Cold hard stone under her cheek. Burning pain in her shoulder. From somewhere, light was streaming across her face – but from where?
Hermione opened her eyes, remembering as she did so, in one sickeningly horrible moment, everything that had happened before she'd lost consciousness. Narcissa Malfoy… And now she was surrounded by stone, in a tiny room, with bars on the windows and a stubbornly shut door…
A prison cell.
Hermione was in the Malfoy family's dungeons.
She pushed herself upright – the pain in her shoulder made her curse quietly – and looked around, taking full stock of her surroundings. Nothing but the door, the window and the stone, cold and grey, completely lifeless and completely impenetrable.
Just in case, she checked her robes – but, as she'd expected, her wand was gone. Hermione leant against the harsh wall, put her face in her hands and despaired.
She was a prisoner in the dungeons of one of the most dangerous Death Eaters there was, with no wand, no method of escape… and what, she thought with a twist of cold dread, would they do to her? Would they torture her for information? Kill her? Or leave her there to rot, without food or water, till she wasted away, leaving nothing but a semi-rotted corpse for the next hapless prisoner to find…
Hermione squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the threatening tears. Crying would do no good at all, she had to think. She couldn't get out, but surely there would be a rescue attempt? And the Malfoys would be unlikely to kill her without reason in case the murder were discovered. So all she had to do was survive any torture or starvation she faced until the rescue team came… she could do that, couldn't she?
She made herself believe that she could, in case the belief could make it true, and tried to think of something practical to do with the time. Her shoulder, for a start; she should examine it and see if it was okay
The owl's talon had sliced deeply across her shoulder, and the area around the wound was crusted with dried blood. It wasn't bleeding any more, and Hermione thought she could see the signs of where it was beginning to heal. There didn't seem to be any dirt in it…
Which meant there was nothing more she could do. Sighing, Hermione leant against the wall. What to do now… well, schoolwork was always an option, even without a library. She closed her eyes and began to list Transfiguration spells and methods, her voice echoing, hanging in the lifeless air like a challenge.
She had finished Transfiguration and was reciting the Twelve Uses of Dragons Blood when she heard the door creak open.
Her head whipped round, her lips frozen in the middle of a word. Upon seeing who stood there, so nonchalant, so casual, she was assailed by shock, fear, and anger. Because Draco Malfoy was now locking her door behind him, holding in one hand a drawn wand.
Torture, then, she thought, and her stomach recoiled in cold horror. By Draco Malfoy, of all people. By someone she knew – it made it all so much more personal, so much more horrible, so much more cruel.
He leant against the wall, smirking, swinging his wand idly between two fingers. 'Well, Granger,' he said at last, 'look what you've got yourself into. Are your filthy Muggle parents proud of having a thief in the family?'
Hermione felt a pulse of anger, but forced herself to remain calm, dignified. 'Life isn't black and white,' she said simply, stiffly. 'Sometimes you can do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and thievery in order to get a dangerous criminal prosecuted is such a case.'
He snorted. 'How pretty, Granger. Have you been reading The Stupid Mudblood's Guide To Ethics, or was that all your own invention?'
'It was the truth,' she said simply, not letting herself rise to his bait. She changed tack. 'What do you want with me?'
'Well, Mother is not best pleased with you. So she thinks I may as well use you as practice for some of my Dark Arts spells,' he drawled lazily, as if the whole subject bored him. Hermione shuddered. Torture.
'Dark Arts are wrong,' she said with a shudder. 'They're evil…'
'Oh? And I thought nothing was black and white, Granger?' he asked with a smirk, eyes aglow. 'I thought it all depended on the situation?'
She shrugged calmly. 'It does, but in the vast majority of cases, Dark Arts are wrong. That's why they're illegal.'
Draco held up his wand reflexively, examining it from all angles, and Hermione fidgeted uncomfortably. 'You know, ethics is a whole lot easier when you don't give a damn about it,' he said mildly, then without warning, levelled the wand at her and muttered, 'Seca.'
A thin line of light flew out of his wand; before she had time to react, it had sliced across her arm. She cried out in pain, and a thin line of blood slid from the cut, dripping to the floor below, staining the stones.
Draco smirked. 'You aren't giving in already are you, Granger? One little spell and you're already crying out. That was nothing.'
'I know,' she said, swallowing hard, sick to the core and shaking as she thought of what could come, of hat he might do to her, litanies of Dark spells running through her mind. 'I don't care. I won't…' She wouldn't what? Give in. Beg. Plead. No matter what he did, she wouldn't lose her dignity, her pride…
He smiled, lips curving into a cold arc. 'Good. All the more fun for me,' he said mockingly, then lowered his wand again. 'Glacies.'
This one came in a haze of white light, which seeped slowly through her skin, through veins and muscles and tendons, through ligament and cartilage into her very bones, and where it went, it froze. She was filled with ice – no, made from ice, a sculpture or statue, immobile and lifeless, reduced to nothing more than a tiny speck of consciousness encased in a frozen prison which cried it's cold its so so cold please stop it like ice so cold…
And then it did stop; normal warmth returning with a snap, and she shuddered violently – the shivering she had been incapable of – and let out a harsh dry sob. Draco's hand was locked around her wrist; he dropped it carelessly. She kept her head bowed, eyes shut, not wanting to see him. Not wanting to see his… satisfaction… at her pain. Sick at herself, her helplessness, she could do nothing.
He laughed a little; she heard a soft thud on the ground beside her, and then his hand was under her chin, tilting it upwards. 'Open your eyes,' he commanded quietly. She kept them shut for a few seconds, tensing herself, preparing for whatever punishment he would give her for defying him. But none came. Slowly, timidly, she opened her eyes.
Draco was kneeling beside her, holding her chin firmly in position with his cold hand and looking into her eyes with an impassive, scientific gaze. His own eyes flickered, as if looking for something.
Finally he smirked, releasing her and shifting away. 'Scared,' he pronounced. 'So much more fun when you're scared… He raised his wand again, malice glittering in his eyes.
Hermione gritted her teeth and prepared for the worst.
They were in the Room of Requirement, as usual. The members of the Young Order were all in different houses, after all, and the difficulties and demands of their work made them prefer to spend time with each other than among their own houses. Normally the seventh years were here too, but they'd all gone home for Christmas. The fifth and sixth years had decided to stay. Harry always did: Luna, Ron and Hermione wanted to stay with him. Ginny and Blaise didn't want to be separated over the holiday, and Pansy wasn't welcome at home, after she'd left her parent's ideals of Pureblood superiority and joined the Young Order.
Of course, Hermione was away on a mission, but she would be back soon – by tonight, if all went well. But the others were all ranged around the room, now in a cheerful yellow with huge windows and plenty of comfy sofas, chattering. Harry and Luna sat together, of course, arms around each other on the largest sofa. Ron sat next to Harry, with Ginny beside Luna, Blaise beside her, and Pansy on the very end.
While the others were laughing at a joke Luna had just told, Ginny took the opportunity to catch Blaise's eye. Now? she mouthed. He looked unsure for a split second, then nodded swiftly.
Ginny bit her lip, taking a deep breath, and trying not to shake too much. Her eyes lit on Ron, still red-faced from laughing, spluttering slightly at the joke. She wondered what the joke had been: her mind had been too fixed on Blaise and what Ron was going to think to pay much attention.
'Could I… er…' she began, feeling frightened when she heard the words come out of her mouth. 'Could I say something to you all?'
Pansy shrugged, and spoke for all of them. 'Go ahead.'
'Well…' she began, her ears already turning red. She looked down at the floor, suddenly terrified of what Ron would say, and felt Blaise surreptitiously take a firm hold of her hand, holding it carefully in such a place that only Pansy would see it, and only if she looked in the right place. It fortified Ginny, and she looked up with renewed confidence.
'It's not something bad, is it?' Ron asked, suddenly worried for his little sister. Ginny shook her head.
'It's not bad,' she said firmly, knowing very well that Ron would think it was. 'It's a very, very good thing…'
On Harry's right, Luna grinned suddenly, and looked pointedly at Blaise. Ginny had always thought that Luna suspected something; well, she was about to be proven right…
'Go on then, give us the news.' Harry prompted, eyes alight with curiosity.
Ginny took a deep breath, looked her brother squarely in the eyes, and said, 'I'm going out with Blaise.'
There was a ringing second of silence, in which Luna grinned wider and Blaise squeezed Ginny's hand tighter, reassuring, and Pansy gasped a little from behind them and Harry looked surprised, then pleased, then suddenly worried because Ron was getting redder and redder and redder…
'WHAT?' Ron roared, making Ginny flinch backwards into Blaise's shoulder; he wrapped an arm around her protectively, though it was she who should be protecting him. 'You? And a… a SLYTHERIN?'
'Ron, calm down now…' Harry began, placing a restraining hand on his friend's shoulder. 'Blaise isn't…'
'He's a Slytherin.' Ron hissed, his eyes alight in a strange way Ginny had never seen before, a way that terrified her. It wasn't anger, or hatred; but something else, something indefinable, something that deep, deep down, was rooted in fear.
Ron got to his feet, a slow, predatory movement, and Ginny clutched Blaise's arm in fear. Harry, too, must have seen the danger: 'Ron, calm down,' he began, but Ron ignored him.
Shaking slightly with anger, Ron turned an angry, fiery, scalding look on the hapless Blaise. 'Get your hands off my sister,' he snarled. Blaise didn't move.
'Ron,' he said, trying to be calm, 'I'm not going to hurt Ginny, I promise you, I will treat her well. Just try to calm yourself…'
With an enraged roar, Ron flung himself at Blaise, who flinched, reflexively attempting to shield Ginny. Thankfully, Harry had been watching in case Ron did anything stupid, and jumped forward to grab his friend round the waist, holding him back.
'Ron, stop it!' shrieked Ginny, but he paid no notice: he was angry, furious, and struggled hard, trying to break free of Harry's grip, trying to get to Blaise. It was all Harry could do to stop him.
'Help me!' Harry shouted to Luna and Pansy, who had been watching in shock; the two girls pulled themselves together, grabbed hold of Ron, and the three of them managed to drag him backwards.
Ginny and Blaise shared a dismayed look. The others managed to get Ron to the other side of the room, where he'd calmed enough to stop trying to attack Blaise, yet was still furious. 'Don't touch me!' he snarled at Pansy, flinging her hands off where she's been restraining him. Harry took a tight hold of Ron's shoulder.
'I think we should go back to the Gryffindor common room for a little talk,' he said firmly, to which the simmering Ron had little option but to agree, throwing burning scowls at the couple back on the sofa. Harry steered Ron out of the room, throwing a significant look back at Pansy and Luna, with a jerk of the head towards Ginny and Blaise. Help them.
Closing the door behind Harry, Pansy and Luna shared a glance, then walked back to the sofa. Ginny was curled up, squashed onto Blaise's lap, and nearly on the verge of tears; Blaise was trying to comfort her.
'He was so angry,' Ginny sobbed. 'And ... and he hated you, so much…'
He hugged her tightly. 'Don't worry,' he soothed, 'it was just the shock. He'll get used to it, I'm sure…'
'His eyes were horrible.' Ginny gulped, and choked back a sob.
'I know, I saw them. Harry will sort him out, don't worry.'
Pansy sat down beside Blaise, Luna by Ginny. 'It'll be okay, Ron just needs to calm down.' Pansy told the two of them. 'And it's only Ron that's against it. Everyone else is really happy for you.'
'I thought there might be something between you two.' Luna nodded sagely, the impression of wisdom complete but for today's choice of earrings, which were actual Honeyduke's chocolates pierced with wire. Harry had already taken a nibble out of one of them. 'Ever since you worked together on the Nott case.'
'That was when it started,' Blaise confirmed with a small smile. In his arms, Ginny had relaxed, and calmed down enough to smile back.
'Do you really think Ron will be okay with it eventually?' she asked. 'I mean, he really does hate Slytherins…'
'He'll get over it,' Pansy assured them. Then she frowned, and asked uncertainly, playing with a fold of her robes, 'Why… why does Ron hate us so much? Us Slytherins, I mean.'
'I don't know, really,' Ginny replied. 'He always has been, even before Hogwarts. It was one of those stereotype things, you know? The Slytherins were always the bad guys…'
She trailed off there, closing her eyes and leaning against Blaise, who smiled and held her close. Meanwhile, it was Luna who noticed that Pansy looked troubled, worried. She frowned. Was there something…?
A house elf had been by, bringing her food, which answered one question at least; the Malfoys didn't intend to starve her. Though they certainly didn't want her to enjoy herself too much either. The meal had consisted of slate bread, a lump of old cheese, and a cup of water.
She'd forced it down, recognising that she might be here a long time, and they may decide to stop feeding her at some point, if she became regarded as unimportant. She's drunk half the water, and with the rest, cleaned the dirt out of those wounds that needed it most. The wounds from the torture. From when Draco Malfoy had tortured her.
That was still hard to accept. Draco was a school bully, someone who insulted and played pranks and generally made a nuisance of himself. He was not a torturer. He was not someone who would stand there, with a defenceless woman in front of him, and use Dark curses on her. He was definitely not someone who would smile while doing it, who would enjoy it.
And yet he had.
Hermione shuddered, leaning her aching head against the wall, and curled tighter into herself, tighter into the corner. She didn't want to think about Draco Malfoy now, didn't want to remember that painful torture session he'd put her through, didn't want to think about the pain that still lurked in her flesh, waiting to catch her out when she moved. She forced her mind onto other topics.
How long would it take the others to realise that she'd been captured? How long before they could rescue her? The Order itself was stretched to full capacity; the seventh-year members of the Young Order were on holiday over Christmas, only to be brought in under dire situations.
Which meant it would be her friends on whom the rescue mission fell, if Dumbledore decided it was worth sending a mission. She knew full well that to the Order, she was one person among many, and that in war sacrifices had to be made. Dumbledore knew that. And sending rescuers might lose more lives than it saved.
Still, would he be able to stop Ron and Harry coming, whatever he did? Short of chaining them to the walls, she doubted he could, which made her smile. They had saved her from the mountain troll once, back in first year. Harry, Ron, come save me again.
And then the sound she had been dreading; footsteps down the passage outside. She looked towards the door in fear, hearing the soft whisper of an opening spell, the clink of key in lock, before the door swung gently open, and in stepped her tormentor.
'Greetings, Granger,' he said, locking the door behind him. 'How are you feeling?'
She glared at him, trying to keep her pride, her dignity – a ridiculously impossible task, cowering in a corner, bloodied and bruised. 'You should know,' she replied in a clipped tone. 'You know what you did to me earlier. Bastard.'
He smirked. 'Language, Granger.'
'Just get on with it,' she snapped. 'We both know what you're here for. To torture me again. So just… just get it over with.'
Draco looked amused. He didn't reply for a minute, just smiled at her in a faintly patronising manner, then crossed to the window, looking out through the bars.
'Talk to me,' he said at length.
He looked round at her, repeated himself. 'Talk to me.'
Hermione frowned. 'What about? Why?'
'About anything you want,' he said, turning back to the window with a graceful shrug. 'Because I'm bored, and I want conversation.'
'Why should I?'
A sardonic smirk. 'Because if you don't, I'll revert to torture to entertain myself.'
She her opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again. She was still in pain from the last bout of torture. 'I don't know what to talk about,' she said at length.
'Then think harder,' came his curt reply.' Pick something. Anything. Explain your concept of ethics to me: I find it quite amusing.'
A conversation about ethics or torture. The choice wasn't too hard to make.
'Alright, well… Basically, I don't think there's any action that's either always good or always evil.'
He scoffed. She couldn't see his face, but his hair was lit by the light from the window, making him look almost ethereal. 'Well that much any five-year-old should be able to work out.'
She ignored this, and carried on. 'Rather, what we call good and evil depends not on the action itself, but on the consequences of the action. For example, murder is often considered an evil act, but if one was to murder a man who was about to commit mass genocide, that would be a good thing. At least, better than letting him kill all those people.'
Hermione paused, watching him. He hadn't moved from the window: just a dark-robed figure, leaning against the wall, his hair ands skin suffused with golden sunlight. Almost beautiful, if he wasn't so evil. Though of course, evil depended on the situation.
He spoke at length. 'Define good and evil,' he said shortly.
Hermione considered this for a minute, forcing her mind to work, which was harder than usual – had she lost much blood, or was it just the lingering pain? 'Good is something that causes more improvement to people's lives than it causes damage to them. Evil is the opposite.'
He once more paused, considering this. Finally, he turned away from the window, raising one eyebrow quizzically. 'So, by those specifications,' he began, 'If I held a charity event in which you were slowly tortured to death, charging… say, a thousand people one hundred Galleons each to watch, all proceeds of which went to MagicAid or paying off Third World debt or some such cause, that would be good, would it?'
'No!' she said, appalled. 'That's wrong. Evil.'
'Why?' He seemed amused.
Hermione struggled for the answer.' Because… losing your life, and suffering, that's the biggest damage to your life there can be. So it's incredibly, incredibly evil, and the good can't weigh up against that.'
He spread his hands. 'But your sacrifice would earn a hundred thousand Galleons for charity. One hundred thousand Galleons that could go towards saving so many people's lives. Towards schools and hospitals in third world countries, towards medical care, towards the cure for cancer, towards treatment of HIV, towards helping people in war zones and disaster areas… Not to mention the… enjoyment… of the spectators. How can you refuse, when such a little evil can produce so much good?' He stressed that final sentence, mocking her, sarcastic.
Hermione didn't know how to respond. Certainly, torturing anyone to death was incredibly, incredibly evil. But then if such a thing could cause good… She didn't know what to say, and wouldn't admit he might be right, so she changed tack.
'How do you define good and evil, then?' she asked defiantly.
He shrugged. 'I don't.' was his simple answer. 'There is no good or evil. They're just… silly, childish concepts people made up to classify things. There's only results, and methods, and as long as the methods get you to the right result, who cares about good and evil?'
Hermione was momentarily taken aback by this. 'But what if you hurt people?' she asked 'But what if you cause suffering, pain, misery…'
'What should I care what happens to other people?' he asked, shrugging. 'I'll help those that are useful to me, certainly, but why should I go out of my way to help someone when it won't do me any good?'
She gaped. 'But it will do you good!' she protested. 'You get the satisfaction of knowing you've done the right thing, of knowing you helped someone, and you don't have things on your conscience!'
He examined his fingernails, leaning against the wall. 'Generally, I have little time for conscience. Or altruism, for that matter. But this talk is boring me now. Change the topic.'
She glared at him, knowing she was bound by his whims if she didn't want to be tortured. 'What to?'
'Anything,' he replied vaguely.
Her choice of topic was unsurprising, given that she was Hermione Granger. 'Have you done your homework yet? There's only one week of holiday left, you know.'
Draco gave her a disgusted look. 'The one thing that could possibly be more boring than my current state of mind – schoolwork – and you choose to talk about it.'
Hermione pushed back a strand of hair that had fallen into her eye and glared at him. 'Schoolwork isn't boring,' he contested hotly. 'You're in my Arithmancy class, and I've seen you look interested when we were doing Transfiguration with quadratic equations…'
He waved a hand elegantly, as if such things didn't matter at all. 'Don't talk to me about schoolwork. Pick something else.'
'Well, I don't have any ideas,' she said, feeling irritated. 'Why don't you think of something?'
Draco appeared to consider this, gazing pensively at a rather oddly-shaped stone in the wall. 'Alright,' he said eventually, 'tell me about yourself.'
'What is this, Get To Know Your Victim Day?'
He actually smiled, a strangely distant smile that suggested Hermione had made some kind of strange, private joke that no one but himself would understand. 'Perhaps,' he replied, then left the wall he'd been leaning on to stand nearer to Hermione. She glared darkly at him, pulling herself tighter into her corner, feeling strained and painful muscles protest as she did so. He simply leaned against a new section of wall, about three feet away from her, and smiled maddeningly.
'Go on then, victim,' he mocked, 'I'm waiting for your story.'
She had no choice but to begin. 'Well, I was born…'
'Skip those bits,' he commanded.
'The boring bits.' His eyes sparked suddenly. 'Tell me the interesting parts of your life. Most embarrassing moment, what you really think of those Gryffindor idiots you call friends, first kiss, first sexual experience, assuming you've had one, and anything else you'd normally never tell anyone.'
'What makes you think I'll tell you any of that, Malfoy?' she spat, cheeks flushing hotly.
'Would you rather be tortured than tell me?' he asked with a falsely bright smile.
He raised his wand. 'Are you sure?'
Draco laughed, and Hermione looked away, already feeling ashamed, inwardly seething. That bastard, that complete and utter bastard…
'First kiss, victim. Age, place, time, and name of the poor sod you kissed so I can send him my condolences. Or her. There's another question: do you fly for the other Quidditch team, as it were?'
'No,' she said, her voice clipped and anger strangled.
'Shame. I could have had some fun with that,' he said, his expression regretful. 'Might have some fun with it anyway, of course. Back to the original question. First kiss.'
Hermione sighed, leaning her head against the harsh wall. 'In fourth year…'
'Fourth year?' Draco laughed. 'You didn't get kissed until fourth year?'
She glowered at him. 'Well, some of us have more important things to do than have mass orgies in the Slytherin common room, 'she snapped. 'Like schoolwork.'
'Mass orgies in the Slytherin common room? I wish!' he said, looking wistful. 'But come on, I want to know who you actually managed to persuade to kiss you. Did you have to pay him?'
She controlled her anger. 'It was Viktor Krum,' she informed him curtly. 'After the Yule Ball.'
'Ah, well, Bulgaria is not a country known for the beauty of its women,' Draco nodded sagely. 'And he's not particularly pretty himself, is he? A nice pair you make, then. Both as ugly as each other.'
'Shut up, Malfoy,' she muttered, closing her eyes. If she wasn't under threat of torture…
'Come on, there's still plenty more things to tell me,' Draco grinned. 'First sexual experience. In detail.'
'Pervert,' she called him, which only made his grin wider. Hermione considered what to say. 'I haven't had a sexual experience,' she tried first.
From the corner of her eye – she was determinedly not looking at him – she saw him frown, tilting his head on one side to look at her. 'Really?' he asked, his voice probing, testing.
'Really,' she affirmed.
He paused again, then smiled suddenly; a nasty, horrible, sharp smile like broken glass. 'You're lying,' he informed her triumphantly.
'No I'm not!' she protested. 'I mean it, I'm not…'
'Yes, you are,' he replied, confident and calm. 'And now you shall tell me the truth.' His eyes glittered cruelly, demonically, and Hermione shuddered.
'You can tell when I'm lying?' she asked in despair.
He nodded. 'Most of the time. Anyone could, if they knew what to watch out for. So go on, first sexual experience.'
Hermione groaned. This was going to be a very long, very difficult couple of hours…
'Look, Ron,' Harry was saying, 'Ginny's old enough now to make her own decisions…'
'I don't care if she's sixty four, no sister of mine is going out with a Slytherin!'
The two boys had retired to the Gryffindor common room – empty now, as everyone was at home for the holidays. Harry had sunk into a fat, comfortable armchair, while Ron paced the floor, fuming.
'I grant that there are some Slytherins you wouldn't want Ginny near, yes,' Harry continued, 'but then there's quite a few people in other houses I'd not let her near either. And Blaise isn't one of the nasty Slytherins. He's quiet, he's thoughtful, he's polite and kind, he's a member of the Young Order for goodness' sake. What more do you want, a certificate of approval from God himself?'
Ron frowned. 'He's a Slytherin. I don't like Slytherins… I don't trust them.'
Harry was very nearly tempted to blurt out that the Sorting Hat had almost put him in Slytherin, but thought better of it. 'Why not?' he asked instead. 'You never had any problems with them before this year, except for Malfoy.'
'Well I never had to spend social time with them before,' Ron pointed out. 'So you wouldn't have noticed, would you?'
'I think I might have picked up on it,' Harry said mildly. 'Whatever's making you hate them so much happened this year.'
Ron shook his head at that, and didn't respond. Harry sighed, resting his forehead in his hands. Ron could be so difficult…
'All I'm saying is, you have to let Ginny make her own decisions,' Harry went on. 'You may not be happy about them, but if you try to control her she'll hate you for it. And she could have chosen much worse than Blaise.'
'I'm never going to let…' Ron began, but was interrupted by a knocking from the portrait hole, the Fat Lady's protestations, and a fearful voice calling their names.
'Ron! Harry! Let me in, please let me in…'
They shared a puzzled glance. It was a female voice, and it sounded distraught…
'Who's there?' Harry called, suspicious.
'It's me, Pansy, oh please let me in…something awful's happened…'
It was Pansy's voice, now they considered it, but it was still better to be safe than sorry – how could they know it wasn't a Death Eater disguising their voice? Holding his wand at the ready, Ron crossed to the portrait hole, followed closely by Harry, and opened it.
Pansy clambered through, white and shaking, her eyes red and cheeks still wet with tears. She almost stumbled, but Ron caught her arm to steady her. 'What's wrong?' he asked. 'What happened?'
'It's Hermione…' Pansy said in a soft voice, struggling not to cry again. 'It's…' and her voice wore out.
Harry looked up at Ron, his face whitening. 'Let her sit down.'
Between the two of them, they got Pansy to the nearest sofa and sat down, one on either side of her. She was dissolving into tears by now.
'Pansy, calm down, its okay…' Ron told her, but she wouldn't stop. Rather awkwardly, he put a hand on her back and tried to soothe her, while Harry, his green eyes anxious, continued trying to stop her crying long enough to tell them what was wrong. Was Hermione in danger?
Eventually, Pansy calmed down enough to speak. Pale and shaking, her voice breaking in places, she told them her message.
'Dumbledore… He came to see us, he looked… awful, like death or something. He said…he said he'd tried to contact Hermione, because she was taking so long to get back. He tried to find out where she was… if she's okay… According to the spell…'
She broke off again; Harry encouraged her to keep on, which she did. 'The spell said… it said she was in the Malfoy's dungeons. And she was in some kind of pain…'
Ron took a sharp breath, and Harry paled. 'What kind of pain?' he asked, his eyes as unreadable as emeralds.
Pansy shook her head. 'Dumbledore's spell couldn't tell how much, or what kind. Just some sort of pain. Oh, why wasn't I nicer to her? Now she… what if she dies, and I've been horrible to her all that time, and…'
'She knows you aren't horrible,' Harry cut in. 'You may have been a bit of a prat for the first five years, but Hermione knows you aren't a bad sort really. And she's not going to die.' He said this adamantly, with the force of belief behind it.
'She's at the mercy of the Malfoys,' Pansy said quietly. 'I… I don't even want to think about what they might do to her…'
'Cheer up, Pansy.' Ron said, trying not to think what Draco Malfoy might, at that very moment, be doing to his friend. 'Hermione's a tough girl, she'll cope. And if those bastards have harmed a hair on her head…'
He let the threat dangle, and Pansy smiled a little. 'You'll have to keep me from getting revenge on them too,' she sniffed. 'We're meant to be meeting the others downstairs, with Dumbledore. To discuss… what to do…'
The two boys nodded. 'Is Luna okay?' Harry asked, face softening in concern.
'And Ginny,' Ron added in.
'Luna's fine,' she told them. 'A bit shocked, but… well, she takes things calmly. Ginny… Ginny was… she didn't take it well. But Blaise was there, so…'
She realised her mistake in mentioning Blaise a second too late. Ron froze, then jerked his hand off her back as if he'd been touching red-hot metal. Harry frowned.
'Come on,' he said, standing up and offering Pansy his hand, 'lets go. The sooner we discuss what to do, the sooner we can get Hermione back…'
'The most embarrassing mistake you ever made on a test.'
He was actually sitting beside her now, his wand in his hand, playing with the dark-coloured wood. Hermione had pressed herself into the corner, trying to get away from him.
'I don't make many mistakes…' she tried to protest, but Draco cut her off.
'Everyone makes mistakes,' he informed her with authority. 'Frequently, amusing ones. And I want to hear it.'
She sighed. 'Fine, but its not very amusing. When I was five, I had an arithmetic test, and I mixed up the plus sign and the minus sign. So I failed.'
He smirked. 'Did you cry?'
'Malfoy, I don't think…'
He didn't let her finish. 'Ah, but you know the rules.' His eyes glittered. 'Answer the questions or suffer. Did you cry?'
She snapped. 'Yes, I cried, okay! I was five, and I made a stupid mistake, and I was upset over it. Okay?'
He tried to look innocent, with a devilish smile that would have made her slap him, had she not been defenceless against him. 'I was only asking a question, no need to get angry…'
Hermione turned her face to the wall. 'Whatever…'
'Why are you looking away?' he asked, voice just as evil as always. He took a firm hold of her chin and yanked it round to face him again. The instant he released her, she tore her head back round, to face the wall. She didn't want to be controlled by him…
Then his hand was on her cheek, just a light touch, but she knew that in an instant it would turn hard, to hurt her, to drag her head round again. And instant later, her stomach sinking, she felt the tip of his wand under her chin.
'Face me,' he commanded, and reluctantly, she did so. Inside, she burnt with hatred, anger and impotence.
He surveyed her face, frowning, and she stared back defiantly. Finally, he spoke.' I'm bored of asking you questions,' he informed her.' You're a very boring person, Granger.'
She did not reply.
He reached out, a sneer on his face, and touched her hair. She yanked it out of his grasp at first, but he took hold of it again, and she realised that if she stopped him a second time he would torture her again.
'Your hair's filthy,' he told her.
'It might be less so if I hadn't bled all over it.' she reminded him. He laughed.
'It's your blood,' he reminded her. 'Your filthy,' he tucked the hair behind her ear, 'Mud,' he let his finger trail a little way down, to the point where her earlobe met her head, and she shivered, 'Blood.'
On the final word, he brought his fingernail sharply down, scratching across her jawbone, across her neck, to reach the dip between her collarbones. She winced, gasping aloud, more at the shock of it then the pain. Malfoy's mouth curved into a smirk.
He trailed his finger upwards, nail always touching the skin, to touch the underside of her chin, making her hold her head up, making her face him. 'Don't talk back,' he hissed, then released her.
Not knowing how to react, her skin still smarting, she pressed herself further into her corner, looked away…
'Face me,' he ordered crisply, and she did. He was still smiling cruelly. 'Talk,' he told her.
In an instant, she felt like crying. She'd been captured, tortured, not given enough to eat or drink, and now she was forced to pander to Malfoy's every whim, pride and dignity abandoned for… for not being tortured. And she hated it, hated his mind games and his talks and his everything.
'What about?' she whispered, trying not so show it but failing miserably. Unbidden, a tear crept out of her eye.
He was there, wiping it off, scratching the skin as he did so and making her wince again. It was cruelty masquerading as kindness, like a poisoned chocolate.
'Stop that,' she pleaded, as another tear fell and was scratched away. 'It hurts.'
His voice was cold, impassive. 'That's the point.'
She shook, from hatred and fear and misery. 'What do you want from me? What are you going to do to me…?'
She could hear the amusement in his voice, but didn't care. 'I don't know,' he told her, 'I'm making it up as I go along.'
Another tear, another scratch, another wince.
'Let me think. What haven't I done to you yet?' he asked. 'There's a couple of Dark spells I'd like to try… Other than that, just general games. If I get really bored, I could always resort to rape…'
Her eyes flew open. 'You wouldn't.' she said, her voice too high pitched, shaking a little from her tears and her fear. 'You wouldn't do that…'
'Wouldn't I?' he asked, smiling like Satan himself would smile, eyes bright, deadly, and his finger was trailing down from her face, over her jaw, down her neck…
She screamed, flinging his hand away from her like a poisonous snake, fear in her wide eyes. Instantly, he grabbed her shoulders, swung her down flat on the floor – she screamed again, in terror – and was lying on top of her, face just inches from her own, cheeks flushed, breathing hard, eyes shining, predatory…
Hermione didn't scream again. She was too terrified.
Then he spoke, voice the most silent of whispers. 'I would never sully myself by raping the likes of you,' he said, then kissed her, a sharp kiss as swift and silent as a dagger, as black as dark chocolate wrapped in cold silk, over before she could react.
His lips hovered over hers, almost touching them, and he only mouthed the next word, didn't say it, but she knew what it was.
A pause, a brittle, slicing smile, and he was on his feet. Without a backward glance, he unlocked the door, swung out of the cell, locked it again, leaving Hermione lying confused and terrified on the harsh, cold floor.
They had all gathered round a table in the Room of Requirement – a sober white, to reflect the occasion. It was a mark of how bad the situation was that Ron didn't even mention the fact that Ginny was sitting on Blaise's lap, her head rested on his shoulder, her face pale and tearstained from two shocks in so short a space of time – Ron's volcanic reaction and the horror of Hermione's capture.
Luna was on Harry's knee as well, though this was most likely an attempt to make Harry feel better. Pansy sat on her own, quiet and shaken, while Ron was sitting between the two couples.
Dumbledore was there, and he spoke at length about Hermione's skills and talents, and how she was capable of many things, and how he was sure she'd do as much as humanly possible to come through this ordeal with as little effect as possible, and how their misery and grief and fear was natural and to be expected, and how this was not the time for despair, but the time for action. The time for planning a rescue.
There was a silence. Harry was the first to break it, in a flat tone. 'You mean you're not getting some people in the Order to rescue her. Just us lot.'
Dumbledore sighed. 'Yes, Harry, that is what I mean.' Harry was about to speak, but Dumbledore held up a hand for silence. 'You know full well that if there were any way I could get an adult witch or wizard to rescue Hermione, I would do so, but I quite simply cannot do so within the next week. And we cannot leave Miss Granger in captivity for that long. There would be no knowing what might happen.'
Harry didn't reply, just bowed his head, and silence reigned again.
'What do we do?' Pansy asked finally, quietly.
'I have some maps of the Manor.' Dumbledore replied. 'Also, the methods to pass some of the guard mechanisms on the entrance to the prison. But, I need hardly say, the Manor is well guarded.' He sighed. 'It will be difficult for you to get in there and out again safely, but I'm certain you can do it.
'Now, time is of the essence, and there are three sections to the dungeon entrances that need working on. May I suggest you split into three pairs and each take one section? It should go faster that way, and I need hardly remind you that this will mean we can get Hermione back to safety all the sooner.'
Blaise nodded. 'I agree.'
'Usual pairs?' Harry asked. 'Luna and I, Ron and Ginny…'
'Actually,' Luna spoke up from his lap, eyes strangely thoughtful, 'I think Ginny and Blaise should work together.'
'Oh, yeah. Of course,' Harry said, smiling a little at the couple, before his eyes darted towards Ron quickly. 'Uh, Ron…'
'I don't want to work with Pansy,' Ron said softly. Pansy stiffened.
He glared. 'You ought to know that by now…'
Pansy gulped and looked downcast. Ginny looked horrified.
'I want to be with Blaise,' she protested. 'I…'
Ron's glare darkened. 'Ginny, he's a…'
'Enough.' Dumbledore cut in, quietly, but with force enough to stop Ron in mid sentence. 'Mr Weasley, may I remind you that while you're arguing over who works with who, Hermione's life is in danger?'
Ron's ears went red. 'Yes sir. Sorry,' he mumbled.
Dumbledore frowned. 'I think that working with Pansy could be a good experience for you.'
'Good.' Dumbledore straightened. 'The plans are here. There's a spell on a different door that will need a potion to get through; I shall go and ask Severus to brew it for you. I'd recommend that some of you use the library for research…'
'We'll go,' Luna volunteered quickly, and after a glance at the bitter Ron, Ginny and Blaise volunteered to go as well. They collected the necessary papers in silence, and filed out of the door in silence. Dumbledore gave Ron and Pansy a nod, then left.
There was a tangible pause, a tension in the air.
Pansy spoke stiffly. 'Look, I know you don't like me, but Hermione's in danger, so can we just forget all that for now while we work on saving her?'
Ron shrugged, trying to act like none of this mattered. 'Sure.'
He pulled the remaining sheaf of parchment towards him, and spread it out on the table. The section of dungeon they had to solve appeared to be a labyrinth; a detailed plan of it sprawled across the table, labelled in the neat, precise script of Professor Snape.
They examined it in silence for a few minutes.
'So basically, we can get through the traps here, here, here and here,' Pansy said, indicating stretches of the maze on the map, 'but the other places will require sorting out… What route would be best through the maze? There's more than one way of getting through it.'
Ron bent over the map, trying to stay away from her as much as he could. 'There's this route… or this one, or that one,' he said firmly, trying to ignore how close they were. Damn Dumbledore…
Pansy considered this, twirling a piece of hair between her fingers as she always did when she was thinking.
'Don't do that,' Ron snapped.
'That,' Ron said, frowning. 'Playing with your hair…'
Pansy looked confused. 'You don't want me to play with my hair?'
'It… distracts me,' Ron gave as his excuse. 'And I'm trying to concentrate.'
She bit her lip; Ron gritted his teeth. 'Okay, I guess…' she said, dropping her hand back to the table, and Ron relaxed again.
It did distract him: that was the problem. Her hair looked soft, and shiny, and she had this habit of twisting it between her fingers, fiddling with it… It made him want to touch it, twist it between his own fingers.
Quite a lot of things she did made him feel similarly.
Only he couldn't. Slytherin was the enemy, and she was a Slytherin, and it was most definitely not allowed to play with the enemy's hair, however much you may want to…And Ginny couldn't possibly go out with Blaise, could she? Because that would make it alright to like Slytherins, and…
Slytherins had always been the enemy. From his earliest bedtime stories, from Bill and Charlie's tales of school, they were the enemy.
How could they be anything else?
Hermione was still aching. Everywhere, it seemed, her flesh was burning with pain. Every movement brought a new twinge, a new flash of agony, as torn or stretched or tortured muscle protested at the movement.
It was cold too, and her stomach was an agony of acid. When had she last eaten? That tiny meal, bread and cheese… how long ago? She'd lost track of time, she realised with a touch of fear. That was why prisoners marked the days in a tally on the wall, so they remembered there was a world outside, a world with sun and moon and stars, seasons and years, something greater than their tiny cell. And so that, by recording time as it passed, they could remind themselves that their imprisonment had an end.
And she was already losing the concept of time. There were just events, things that happened one after another, but could have been suspended in a second or stretched over days for all she knew.
A heartbeat or an hour passed, and again there was the soft sound of a key in the door, a whisper as the spells were taken off. Then a pause. Then the door swung open, soundless, and Draco Malfoy entered.
His glance raked over her body, and for no reason, she shuddered as he turned to lock the door behind himself. She knew how awful she looked, could see it with her own eyes; crusted with blood, marred with bruises. Her skin was unnaturally pale, contrasting even more sharply with the torture marks. Blood loss, she supposed.
Draco crossed the room towards her, and she parted her lips – a scar across her cheek flaring into life – to speak.
'Bored again?' she asked.
He appeared amused. 'Obviously so,' he said, sitting down beside her with a smirk. 'I simply need to decide what to do with you. Some more torture, perhaps…no, on second thoughts, you Mudbloods seem too weak to handle even a few nasty spells. Another round might kill you off, and then you'd be no fun.'
'I wouldn't put it past you to think of some ingenious things to do with a corpse, Malfoy.'
'Your unnatural Muggle tastes might stretch to necrophilia, Granger, but those of normal people don't,' he said, making a face.
She glared at him. 'I meant you'd probably dissect it and preserve parts in jars on your wall,' she corrected him. 'Or feed them to your owl, or something sickening like that.'
He appeared thoughtful. 'I think there's a Dark potion that uses human hearts as an important ingredient. 'He said, and trailed his finger across that spot on her chest directly above her heart. Hermione flinched away.
'The Infula potion,' she remarked, and Draco raised an eyebrow.
'How does the goodie-two-shoes Gryffindor come to know of a potion like that, I wonder?' he asked.
She shrugged. 'I just picked it up somewhere, I guess…'
His hand was on her cheek, holding her head still so she couldn't move away from him, and his wand pointed at her. 'Tell me, or suffer,' he taunted lightly. She swallowed.
Could she really tell him? It had been in second year, ages ago…yet he still might torture her if she admitted it. If she didn't, however, he'd torture her anyway.
'In second year, when the Chamber of Secrets was opened…we all thought it was you,' she began. He laughed, a short, harsh laugh, letting go of her cheek as he listened to the story.
'I'm flattered, Granger. You thought it took me two years to do what took the Dark Lord five,' he pointed out, then laughed again
'Well, we didn't know it had taken him five years at that point…' she protested, but Draco ignored her.
'Finish the original story, Granger,' he ordered.
'Okay. We thought it was you, but we needed to be sure. So we took Most Potente Potions out of the Restricted Section and made Polyjuice Potion. Harry and Ron turned into Crabbe and Goyle, crept into the Slytherin Common Room and found out that you weren't doing it. That potion – the Infula potion – that was in the book too.'
There was a short silence.
'And all that at twelve,' he said, as if considering something, and Hermione glanced over to see a frown on his face.
'What is it, Malfoy? Shouldn't a Muggleborn be able to do all that?' she taunted.
His tone, when he spoke, was sarcastic. 'Oh, and this is the part where you prove my evil ways wrong and convert me to the Light side, is it?' he asked. 'Of course, Granger, shoving a load of ingredients into a cauldron proves that you have such incredible magical powers, why didn't I see it before?'
'Actually, you need magical ability to make potions work…' she began, but Draco cut her off.
'Yes, yes, I'm well aware of that fact. My point was that if you're going to use that incident as a basis for Mudblood equality…'
'I wasn't. Not while I'm in your dungeons, anyway.'
He smiled. 'Good. Another question, Granger: why didn't you use the Polyjuice too? Scared?'
She shifted uncomfortably. 'Do I have to answer?'
'Yes,' Draco replied. 'You should know the rules by now.'
She sighed. 'I took a piece of Millicent Bulstrode's hair after she attacked me at the Duelling Club, but it turned out to be a cat hair.'
He snorted. 'So you got turned into a cat?'
'More like… half a cat, and half a human,' she admitted reluctantly, and he snickered at the image.
'That's priceless. I don't suppose you have any photographs?' She glared at him, and he smirked. 'Good kitty,' he said, patting her on the head. 'Who's a good little kitty, then?'
She shook her head. 'Don't mock me…'
'I'll do what I want,' he told her firmly, and stroked her hair like a cat's. 'You know, cats meow when they're stroked…'
'I'm not pretending to be a cat, Malfoy…' she told him bitterly.
'Oh, yes you are.' He twirled the wand between his fingers. 'I find the idea amusing. Meow, Granger.'
She couldn't fight against him. She drew breath sharply, and gave her best impression of a cat's meow.
He laughed again. 'That was a cat?' he asked incredulously. 'Granger, that was a hamster being tortured. Try again.'
'Well, I can certainly sympathise with the torture aspect,' she quipped, then tried again. This was so…so childish…
'Even worse. You sound like a frog being trodden on by an elephant.'
He was still playing with her hair.
It annoyed her. 'I'm not trying again.'
'I don't think I could stand the horror of it if you did,' he replied. He began tugging on those places where blood had clotted in her hair, trying to tear the matted areas apart. He was rough, perhaps on purpose, jerking at her hair.
'Stop that!' she cried out.
'But I like doing it,' he said, a cruel lilt to his voice. The copper tang of old blood drifted onto the air, a flavour to match his tone. 'I want to do it.'
'But it hurts!'
He laughed. 'Shall I be more gentle, then?' And he started doing it softly as possible, slowly and cautiously. It would almost have been a nice sensation, had it not been Malfoy's hands in her hair, Malfoy's fingers prising the clots apart.
He ordered her to move round, so that she had her back to him – which she did; she could hardly disagree – and set to disentangling her hair, still just as gently as before. She shivered, on occasion, and she heard his breathing grow heavy. It was silent in the cell, but for his breathing, and the distant thud of her own heartbeat.
Time passed, presumably; she didn't feel it. Seconds ceased to exist, and now things were measured in strokes of long, graceful fingers through hair, of clots pulled apart, of how much hair had passed through those elegant hands, and how much was left.
When he spoke, his voice was low, dangerous; it had a certain quiver in it, a certain uncontrolled property, that made it potentially lethal.
'Power,' he said, softly as melted chocolate. 'I have too much of it, here. I have the wand, and you are defenceless.'
'I could steal your wand,' she pointed out. His voice was frightening her, and she needed to stop him speaking.
Yet he carried on. 'It's charmed so that only I can use it,' he informed her. 'Useless to you. So I have all the power. I could do anything. Anything! I could hurt you, I could kill you, I could curse you… whatever I wished.'
He leant forward then, his arms around her neck, resting his chin on her shoulder. She was terrified – what he could do to her was unthinkable, horrific – and she started shaking.
'Hush, Granger. Don't tremble.'
'I… I can't really help it, Malfoy…' she pointed out, her voice terror-laced.
His lips twitched, the saw it from the corner of her eye. 'Really?' he breathed, voice blacker than the lowest shadow of the underworld, and his hands began to move. He trailed leisurely fingers over bones, around joints, never touching anywhere significant, but still… His touch flickered lightly over shoulders, over fingers, over elbows and knees and shins, over healing cuts, around bruises. Terrifying, because she didn't know what he'd do next. Terrifying, because he had such power over her, and even this gentle, light touch had the potential to turn into pain.
Terrifying, most of all, because some part of her didn't want him to stop.
Still, she told him to, in a shaky, fearful whisper, which he ignored, only traced ever more complex patterns over her skin. She told him a second time, 'Stop it,' and at that, his fingers froze.
Then, slowly, leisurely, he brought a hand up to her face, turned it towards him, and pressed his lips to her own.
It was a strange kiss, and certainly not the way she'd expect, from him. She would expect something violent and forceful, scratching, biting, his hands holding her down as she struggled.
Except that she wasn't struggling, and she didn't know why not. And he was relaxed, as though he were kissing her on a whim – he probably was – and none of it mattered. There was interest, even a little passion, and his hands were dancing again. Where his fingers went, they burned; but the places they missed ached for their touch. Why? She didn't know.
And she found herself falling into the kiss. She should push him away, even if she'd be tortured, but she found herself not caring. And with his lips on hers, and his hands caressing, and his body close to hers – not pressed to hers, but close – it was near impossible to draw away. It was like a drug, something deadly that still drew you back, or like a candle's flame to a delicate moth.
She was powerless to resist.
Their table was piled high with books on spells and defence systems and Dark Arts, as Ron and Pansy poured over maps and diagrams and descriptions of traps, working out how to solve this section or pass through that trap, finding spells to prevent poisons taking effect or allow safe passage down the corridor that fired multitudes of tiny silver needles at its victim, slicing flesh from bone in seconds.
In short, they were too busy, too engrossed in their work to remember their enmity. Too worried about Hermione, for that matter. They both knew that the sooner they solved their part, the sooner they could get to her – and even an hour wasted could be an hour too long. It didn't even take a minute to die. You could die in the time it took to say, 'Avada Kedavra.'
Ron was desperately leafing through a fat book that seemed incapable of using ten simple words to explain something if a hundred complicated ones could be used. But the subject he needed was listed in the index, and it could be the only one with anything about it in…
He reached the right page, blinked, and attempted to read it.
'What does 'fugacious' mean?' he asked desperately a short time later.
Pansy glanced up, frowning. 'I haven't a clue.'
'Do you know meretricious, loquacious or abacinate?' he asked. Pansy looked confused.
'I think the second one has something to do with talking a lot…' she said doubtfully.
Ron groaned. 'Then this book is far too loquacious for its own good,' he moaned. 'I can't believe the Malfoys actually bother to work their way through this maze every time they want to get to the cells. Do you have a dictionary?'
Ten minutes and a lot of definitions later, Ron managed to figure out what the passage meant, and to his eternal annoyance it was nothing to do with what he'd wanted to know. With a sudden bout of anger, he flung the book aside – a useless gesture, as it was far too fat and heavy to fly far. The resultant thud, however, made Pansy jump.
'Don't do that!' she scolded him.
'Sorry,' he muttered, 'but that bloody book… It's wasted time, and we can't afford to lose any…Hermione can't afford to lose any.'
Pansy gave him a sympathetic smile. 'Ron, just… try not to worry about it. Because if you start thinking about all the awful stuff, then you just get depressed, and then you can't do anything because all you can do is… is be afraid.'
He sighed. 'But you can't stop worrying. It's like trying to stop thinking. It doesn't work…'
'I know,' she said softly, and her hand moved for an instant as if she was going to take hold of his, but she stopped herself, biting her lip. Ron didn't notice. 'I know its really hard, but you must stop thinking about bad things. In the long term as well as in the short term.'
He frowned. 'How can you know that, what if… what if she dies, and I can't stop thinking about what might have happened if we'd got there a little earlier, if we'd done a little bit more, if…'
'Ron,' Pansy cut in patiently, 'she'll be okay. She won't die, she won't. If they were going to kill her they'd have killed her as soon as they caught her, and we know she's not dead yet, because of Dumbledore's spells. Which gives us at least a few days grace. And if she does die, I promise that you can eventually stop thinking about bad things like that and move on.'
'How do you know that, though?' he asked desperately. 'I'm… I'm afraid, because if she dies and I can't cope with…'
Perhaps emboldened by the fact that Ron was telling her things, Pansy did what she hadn't dared to before and put her hand over his. 'I promise it's possible,' she said firmly. 'And I know, because I… I did it. Not because of someone dying, but…'
Ron looked surprised. 'What? When?'
She looked away, suddenly shy, but part of her wanted to tell him. Because this was Ron, and Ron was… but she couldn't think about that, could she?
'When…' She paused, licking dry lips. 'At the beginning of this year, because… My parents are Death Eaters. You know that. And they didn't exactly like me joining the Young Order… They might have been evil, and killed people, but they were my parents. I still loved them. But they just… disowned me. You see?'
Ron listened with a growing feeling of… sympathy, perhaps, or surprise at the fact he'd never realised this before, or guilt, because… 'I'm sorry. I was a bastard to you then, wasn't I?'
'Yes,' she said bluntly. 'But its okay. Ginny was really nice to me, and…and Hermione…'
Ron nodded. 'We should carry on the work…' he said, and immediately wished he hadn't; but he didn't know what to say to her about it. She didn't appear to mind, just nodded.
She took her hand off his, leaving the skin wishing for her warmth to return. Maybe not all Slytherins were bad. Maybe… the ones like Pansy, who fought for the good side and suffered more for it than the others, weren't they brave? And wasn't bravery a Gryffindor trait?
Pansy was looking at the map again, all her attention focused on it. 'This passage,' she said, tapping the parchment with her finger, 'doesn't it strike you as…odd?'
'Why?' Ron asked, frowning.
'It's the only one with no traps on.'
And she was right, Ron realised, frowning. What could that mean…?
'There could be traps on it that the spy didn't mark on,' Ron suggested.
She considered this. 'No, look there; he's written it specifically. 'No Traps.'
The both frowned at the map, trying to puzzle out this mystery. Pansy's eyes went wide, suddenly, with a sharp intake of breath.
'Ron,' she said, voice shaking, 'look here…'
And with one finger, she drew a line from the dead end of the passageway, through what was marked as a solid wall, twisting and turning but never crossing a marked corridor, straight to the cells.
'What?' Ron frowned, 'Walk through walls?'
'No,' she replied, 'Remember what you said before? 'I can't believe the Malfoys actually bother to work their way through this maze ever time they want to get to the cells…' Well, they don't. They use a secret passageway.'
Their eyes met, Pansy almost shaking with the excitement of it, neither daring to speak for a second in case any noise shattered the beautiful, perfect conclusion. Then it sank in, it was real, and the two leapt to their feet with a wild whoop of joy. Ron grabbed hold of her in a tight hug, and they half-danced, half-jumped up and down with glee, because they had done it! They'd found the answer, and now as soon as the other two couples had solved their parts of the puzzle, they could rescue Hermione, and she'd be safe and everything, everything would be perfect…
And then Ron realised he had his arms round Pansy, and stopped, uncertain, as if he'd just over stepped some major boundary line. Pansy drew away, ashamed, and the two stood in silence for a second, jubilance draining away.
'We… We should tell the others.' Pansy said, and Ron nodded mutely.
And now, not only time was meaningless, but gravity had vanished too into the dizzy, heady, senseless feeling of fingers dancing over skin, of warm lips, of the clash of mouth and mouth. Up and down were senseless; his flickering touch had stolen them from her, and the occasional stab of fingernails drove all memory of them from her mind.
All things other than this were faded, a dream that slips away like a handful of sand upon awakening. This was reality: their rough breathing, the distant tang of blood, warm skin against her own, nerves shivering into life at his soft hands – mist on her skin – and the unthinking blankness that blocked all other things out, that pushed them away, that forgot all things except this single, indefinable moment.
What am I doing? she asked once, but there was barely any I left to answer. Just sensations bundled together, just desires, just passion and curiosity and a vague, barely existent disbelief that someone so evil could feel so…
He drew his mouth away from hers, and her lips ached, bereft of his warmth. And his arms stopped moving for a minute, one hand even leaving her skin, and she ached for them to return.
'Don't stop,' she whispered, before she even thought of speaking, and opened her eyes – when had she shut them? – to look at him. His face was barely readable, but his eyes, they were a different matter; they burnt.
His wand was out. She watched it passively, without fear – there was no room for fear – to see what he would do. 'Contraconceptum,' he whispered, voice hoarse, and she knew what the spell was, and she knew what he wanted, and she…
And she knotted her hand in his hair, and drew it back down to meet her eager lips, and his hands returned to their tantalising wanderings only this time with a purpose, undoing buttons, opening robes.
And then, even this reality faded away, replaced by…
Everything. Everything that ever was or ever will be compressed into an instant or an hour she didn't dare to think which in case it vanished beneath her like a dream…
They were leaving in ten minutes.
The mazes solved – it had taken two days after Ron and Pansy's breakthrough - the spells memorised, potions prepared, wands tested and certain and ready for action. They were ready to go.
After a quick, hurried discussion, it was decided: only Ron and Harry would form the rescue party. They couldn't risk losing more people to the Malfoy dungeons, so only the bare minimum could go. One, possibly, could have sufficed, but two was safer.
And they were leaving in ten minutes.
Just one last thing to be said, one thing that had to be done before they went off, possibly to their deaths, and it was Ron who had to do it. It was nothing to do with the rescue mission, but everything to do with what would happen after.
The Room of Requirement had filed itself with ambient lighting, soft pastel walls, thick drapes at the windows; from somewhere, distant enough to be merely a texture on the air, a violin was playing.
It had set the scene, now all he had to do was act it out.
'What did you want to say?' Pansy asked quietly. 'You'd… you'd better say it fast, Harry's waiting for you and you know you have to rescue Hermione soon…'
'I know,' Ron said, and he was afraid, 'I'll be quick.'
She nodded warily, watching him as the tips of his ears turned red, as he frowned nervously.
'I… I'm not sure why I'm saying this,' he began, ' only that I realised that… if I died tonight, I didn't want to die without saying it.'
'Ron, you won't die,' she said firmly, 'You won't…'
He held up a hand. 'Just in case I do. I needed to say… I wanted to tell you…' he fell silent, searching for words.
Pansy, quietly, provided them. 'You… you have feelings for me, don't you?' she asked, almost fearfully, as if he might laugh at her for even thinking it.
He didn't. 'Yes,' he admitted heavily. 'But… but I can't.'
She was very, very quiet and very, very still. 'Why not?' she demanded. 'Why not?'
He fidgeted, nervous. 'Because you're a Slytherin and I'm a Gryffindor. You're… the enemy. I don't know…'
'What does it matter?' she asked, pleading, and tears sparkled in her eyes. 'Houses don't matter, they're just stupid ways of classifying people, that's all, nothing more…
A tear spilled onto her cheek, she wiped it away angrily. 'I've liked you for ages, Ron Weasley, but I always thought you'd never, never like me back, and now you do but you say you can't because…because of what some stupid hat said!'
'Pansy…' he said again, desperately, and awkwardly he stepped forward, put a hand on her shoulder, then gave in to his instincts and wrapped his arms around her, holding her timidly, and she pressed her head to his shoulder and cried.
'Pansy, please, don't cry. Its just, you've always been the enemy, Slytherins I mean, everything bad's been from Slytherin, or it seems that way, and its hard to ignore…'
'Slytherin and Gryffindor,' she whispered, looking up at him, 'it doesn't matter. Forget Slytherin and Gryffindor. Just be… just be Ron and Pansy.'
'I don't think I can just forget…'
She reached upwards and caught his lips with her own, in a simple kiss that still managed to spin the world upside down, make the impossible possible and the unreal real.
And Ron just forgot.
She hadn't seen him for something like two days now.
Was he avoiding her? Had he only been using her – which would make sense, except that she didn't feel used. She didn't know what she felt. It was… complicated, difficult. Shouldn't she hate him? Shouldn't she be shocked, horrified, sickened at what had happened. Yet she didn't, even though she knew he was evil and cruel, and she had a feeling that if he visited her again the same would happen.
Plus, in some odd way, he was caring for her. After what she'd come to term That Night, she'd woken up to find herself wrapped in a blanket, a thick, warm one covered in black silk, and her clothes cleaned and waiting by her side. Five minutes after she'd woken up, a house elf had come carrying food – some delicious soup, a crusty bread roll and butter. And plenty of water; she'd used some to clean herself.
She'd washed the blood clots out of her hair.
The next morning – she could tell the time now, judging by when the house elf brought her meals – she'd awoken to more surprises; a pillow under her head, some healing potions for her injuries and a pile of books. She could tell they'd been chosen carefully: some advanced textbooks for school and a selection of fiction – all, she noted, with an incorrigibly evil yet seductive male lead. The tattered Modern Witch magazine from about twenty years previously puzzled her, until she turned to the Agony Aunt page,
There's a boy in my year who's a complete bastard; he doesn't care for anyone, he picks on people, he's arrogant and uncaring. But somehow, I'm starting to feel something for him. What should I do? – L.
The advice was that it was probably just hormones, and she should ignore him. Hermione spent many hours puzzling over Draco's choice in books, what had happened, and what she should do next, but came to no conclusions other than that he was an enigma.
And then, one night, reading a book on Potions by the light of the moon, she heard footsteps outside, and her heart leapt into her throat. Him. He was coming back…
The door was unlocked, the spell whispered, and it swung open to reveal…
For the first time in her life, she was disappointed, for a second, to see Harry Potter.
Then, shock, amazement, relief, joy – she could get out of here, she could go home, back to safety! Back to her friends, back to Hogwarts… and, distantly, a twinge of reluctance to leave.
Harry's face was fearful, as though he expected to find her lying dead on the floor, and Ron – oh, to see Ron again! – was just the same. But when they saw her, an incredulous smile came to their lips and their eyes widened, almost incapable of believing what they saw…
'Hermione?' Harry breathed. 'Is it really… are you really okay?'
Slowly, eyes shining with tears at the reunion, Hermione nodded.
The moment of disbelief shattered, and in an instant Hermione was almost suffocated by the two boys, grabbing her and hugging her tightly, almost crushing her ribs. She winced at the slight pain, but hugged them back just as fiercely.
'Damn it, Hermione, we were terrified you'd be dead…' said Ron, as the two boys drew back to sit beside her. Both, she noted, still kept their hands on her, as though she might vanish if they let go.
'I'm not injured, I'm fine,' she said. 'Just look at me, I'm fine.'
The healing potions had done their jobs well. They weren't as good as spells, and took longer to work: still, she had only a few yellowish patches where once savage bruises had ached, red lines to mark the sites of violent cuts.
Even these, however, were noticeable, and Harry frowned as he looked at one on her cheek. 'Where did you get that?' he asked. 'It looks really old, but it can't be, you've not been here that long… We thought you'd been tortured, but you can't have been, you look so well…' He frowned as he tried to puzzle this out.
'And why's everything here so… nice?' Ron asked, with a vague gesture towards the corner where her 'bed', books and empty plate lay.
Hermione was conflicted: she couldn't explain what had happened, but equally the boys wouldn't accept that there was any reason for the Malfoys to be nice to their prisoners.
'It's all rather complicated,' she settled for. 'And I can't tell you right now. Ron, don't look so worried, its nothing bad. At least, I don't think it was bad, I'm not sure…' She shook her head.
Harry looked anxious. 'What happened?' he asked.
She sighed. 'It's all too long to say here, and I need to figure out what happened before I can say for sure,' she said. 'Just… don't press it. We ought to get out of here.'
The boys shared a glance, but nodded in agreement. 'Alright, lets go,' Ron said, and they got to their feet – Hermione staggering a little: she hadn't walked properly in days – and left the cell behind.
The journey through the labyrinth was mostly uneventful; she walked with Harry in front and Ron behind – to guide her – and watched as they muttered spells and avoided traps and carefully, carefully followed their map. She didn't tell them much of what had happened, knowing it would only get her into difficulties.
Instead, she asked what had happened while she was away. Quite a lot, it seemed: first Ginny and Blaise had revealed themselves to be a couple, then, Ron admitted nervously, he and Pansy had done the same – which surprised Hermione much more, because after all, Ron and Pansy had hated each other.
Yet so did she and Draco, and look where they'd ended up.
There was one event of significance, one more piece to add to the puzzle that was Draco Malfoy. Pausing by one wall, they heard the distant echo of footsteps. They'd waited in fear, Harry and Ron with their wands drawn and ready, but nothing had come of it. They'd carried on.
A few twists of a corridor later they'd discovered, lying on the floor directly in their way, Harry's Invisibility Cloak and Hermione's wand.
The boys had been perplexed- 'They weren't here when we came by before,' and 'Why would the Malfoys leave them for us to find anyway?'
Hermione knew, but couldn't say. She took her wand back, Harry picked up his Cloak, and they were ready to move on again. Just before they did, Hermione looked behind her, found the place where the shadows were deepest, and softly whispered, 'Thank you'.
She was heard.
On the morning after the rescue, the sun rose cold and hard in the dungeon that had been Hermione's. The door now gaped widely, the pillow and blanket and books she had read now gone, leaving nothing but lifeless stone. And memories.
And in the middle of the cell stood a boy, silvery hair framing his pale face, mouth twisted into a near-permanent sneer from years spent taunting others, eyes that were as grey and lifeless as the walls.
He stood there, motionless, for a long time.
A crimson stain still marred the floor, dried blood, shed barely three days ago by the boy's own hand. His face impassive as a mask, he crossed to it, knelt by it. He touched a finger to it, elegantly, almost reverently, then raised it to his lips, in semblance of a kiss.
He left. All dreams had to end, eventually.
A/N: One of the things I asked everyone when they'd finished it was what they thought of Draco and his motives etc. It was especially interesting seeing how their opinions changed throughout the story! But of course, I can't do that here. Anyway, I'd be really interested in seeing people's responses. Its slightly ambiguous, and I love seeing how people see Draco in such different ways…
Even if you have nothing to say about Draco, review! Go on. I've spent ages working on this; it's nice to know my work was worth something to someone, even if you only say a few words, it means a lot to me.