Author's Note: This isn't my usual style, but I had a good time writing it. I hope you have a good time reading it! Reviews nourish my soul, etc.
You've done well this time. I promise you shall be greatly rewarded for this feat.
Thank you, my Lord.
I am surprised, however, that you chose to take this one prisoner. You cannot believe that she would give up her friends. I am sure she would rather die than betray them and would be quite capable of doing so if she believed it necessary.
My Lord is wise in all things, of course, but there is one thing…
You know I do not appreciate being kept waiting.
Truly, I beg my Lord's forgiveness if I have offended. I believe that there is a way to persuade her to talk, and it requires neither a spell, a potion, or any extraordinary efforts at all. If my Lord is willing, I should like to try something a bit more… subtle.
She had been captured. All that training, all those years of preparing for just this sort of situation, all that promise everyone had professed to see in her, and here she was. Bound, temporarily blind, and worst of all, waiting. She did not think she had ever felt so helpless in her life, so stupid, but there was one aspect to all this which made her smile a very tiny bit.
If she was stupid for letting herself be captured, they were much stupider for believing that she would tell them a single word.
The sound of a creaking lock and heavy footsteps awoke her from her reverie, and though a long, dark hood tied over her face covered her eyes, she looked up instinctively. Someone grabbed her bound hands and jerked her to her feet. She stumbled and was dragged halfway out of the cell before regaining her footing.
"Come on," a male voice growled at her. "You're supposed to be smart. This walking business can't be too hard even for you, Mudblood."
Hermione passed through foul-smelling corridors, stepped in squelching messes she tried not to ponder, and eventually stopped long after she had lost count of the number of turns they had made. The air was stale here but relatively clean. Another door creaked open, and her escort shoved her through it. Her shoulder struck the metal frame, but she did not cry out. She did trip and landed hard on her back.
She was too busy trying to breathe to focus on what the man was telling her and doubted it mattered much. The usual gloating, she suspected. Through her wheezing she heard the door swing shut, and for a moment, silence reigned all around her. She struggled against the heavy robe which enfolded her, writhed on the ground against what felt like straw strewn across cobblestones until she heard a quiet shuffling noise and soft breathing.
She froze. "Who's there?" She did not expect an answer and steeled herself for the worst. The trick, they said, was to leave one's body, to let one's mind be free while…
A man chuckled hoarsely. "I do believe they forgot I was here. I'm insulted."
Despite the obvious toll long imprisonment and who knew what else had taken on the man, a note in his voice rang familiar. She frowned, trying to remember where she had heard it before. Underneath the roughness of hard use, it was a cultured accent, once smooth and sure.
"Could you help me here?" she asked, deciding it was too soon to try to make nice with this stranger. She could not fathom why the guard would place her with another prisoner, considering that all the adjoining cells, if adjoining cells there were, sounded empty. From what sounded like a long ways away, she heard a scream. They would not have done this out of charity. Perhaps he was a serial killer or rapist who had somehow erred on the wrong side of Lord Voldemort. Or maybe the man was right. Maybe the warden had truly forgotten he was in this particular cell.
"Oh, I see no reason to rush," he replied. Hermione made up her mind right then that whether or not he was a serial whatever, he was certainly an unpleasant person. Maybe the guard had just wanted to amuse himself by adding this extra little bit of annoyance to her already miserable future. "How do I know you aren't a decoy sent here to finally finish me off? That would be so like my Lord, to give me a taste of human companionship at long last, only to reveal the poison in the apple when you emerge from that robe with a wand or a dagger if he's feeling dramatic."
Speaking of dramatic, this man was either extremely narcissistic or simply insane. She drew her knees near her chest and, as she rolled off her back, pushed up from her legs and found herself kneeling. Her arms were still bent behind her back, but at least she was no longer lying on her back like a flailing cockroach. If the rope were a bit looser, she might just have been able to swing her wrists under her feet and bring them up to her front, but the knots were all too secure. She tried to stand, but a fiery bolt of pain sizzled up her leg and she fell.
"Fine," she said from her new, slightly more dignified position. "We can wait until I'm free to see if I'm armed." It was hard to sound condescending while on her knees and speaking through a scratchy hood, but she was doing her best. "Won't your face be red when you discover that I'm just another prisoner here? You're just prolonging the suspense this way, though."
Rustling straw was her only answer; the quiet sound of his breathing grew a little quieter, and she understood that he was not going to help her, not yet. Either she had annoyed him, she bored him, or she amused him, bound as she was. Or perhaps seeing her bound roused some other sentiment in him, but she did not think about that. Whatever he was feeling at the moment, it was clear to her was she would get no help from this vexing and vaguely familiar man. Maybe the guard had placed them together as a sort of mutual torture.
She remained in her crouched position and slowly worked her hands back and forth in the binding knots. They were so tightly and thoroughly tied that she could not feel them give even a millimetre after several minutes, but there was little else for her to do. Her cellmate remained silent during this time, but when she could not stop herself from heaving a sigh at her lack of success, he spoke up again.
"If you can move yourself toward the bars, you'll find a sharp spur of metal near the left corner of our suite. I once found it quite useful." He did not speak so much as fling the words as one might fling food to a dog or change to a ragged tramp. But these were nourishing words, and she was grateful.
With great care she shuffled on her knees toward where she thought the bars blocked the cell door. Instead, she bumped into a stone wall and fell to her side. She exhaled sharply but struggled again to her knees. This time, though, she felt a warm hand at her elbow. Strange, she had not heard him move or the straw rustle.
"This way," he murmured and gently led her in the proper direction. "I cannot untie you, but this may help." His fingers were long and handled her poor, battered hands as if they were fine porcelain. He guided her fingertips to the jagged bit of metal.
She did not know what had inspired this sudden burst of kindness, but in a flash she knew who this was. Her breath caught in her throat. Did he know who she was? And if he did, that would redouble her curiosity. He lifted her bound wrists and set the outermost coil against the sharp edge. She barely managed to thank him as the straw shifted again, indicating that he had retreated. She pressed the rope as hard as she could on the bar and then slowly drew it down. One of the strands caught, and with a burst of angry energy, she shoved her hands down so hard that not only did the strand break, but she nearly toppled backward into the bars.
"That's one you've managed," her neighbour observed from his side of the cell. "How many do you suppose remain? I must say, I'll be impressed if you're able to keep up that level of energy for long."
Though she could see nothing but darkness, she rolled her eyes. If this man was who she suspected he was, it was only natural that he would follow up a brief act of humanity with more of his notorious laconic scorn. "Well, you're right, of course. I shall have to clear my social schedule for tonight. At the very least I shall be forced to cancel my dinner with the Duke of Sandwich, and you know how that man is about unpredictability."
She heard a chuckle as she repeated the process. That was two strands severed now, and her arms were already beginning to ache with exertion.
"If you'll take some advice, you may wish to consider dropping your acquaintance with the Sandwiches. It's an impressive name, I grant you, but they're generally considered to be quite common by the better families. And quite dry… no amusement whatsoever."
Hermione snorted as she cut through another strand of rope. Really, was he descending to food puns? The minutes dragged on and the first coil of rope thinned to a wisp of hemp. Finally, she broke through the final strand with a triumphant shout.
"Hush," he warned, "a guard will come running if you sound too content."
She ignored him and began working her wrists in their restraints. This time, she could definitely feel the rope give under her efforts. She strained against the bonds until they would give no more, and then she applied them to the jagged bar again. It might take hours yet if she were unlucky, but she would free herself… and it was thanks to her cellmate. He had offered no more help since that uncharacteristic episode, but that had been enough.
He continued to send snide comments her way, and she replied every time. She was not always terribly clever, but she realised that, whether he meant to or not, he was distracting her from her endless repetitive actions. She could almost wish that he would stop being so helpful, so that she could properly hate him.
Finally, after an indeterminable length of quips and machinations with the robe and an increasingly painful burn running form her wrists to her shoulders and through her shoulder blades like wildfire, her hands were free to hang limp in her lap. The hood was still bound over her head, but at present she was far too weak to do anything about that. She wiggled her fingers and stopped immediately with a hiss. Tears pricked at her eyes, and for a moment she was glad of the cloth concealing her face.
"I remember that only too well," he remarked, and she wanted to scream until she heard the unmistakable sound of movement from where he sat. "It would be… unpleasant to watch someone else go through it, unless it were one of those who put me here."
She tried to sniffle very softly and not to allow herself to hope that he was going to show a little sympathy again. Twice in one day would surely cause the universal balance of good and evil to upset completely. But almost before she could finish the thought, those cool hands were on hers again. She whimpered as he began to massage her pained flesh and sent hot pins and needles stinging furiously. Before she could stop herself, she found herself sobbing in agony and despair, leaning on his chest as he continued his torturous ministrations. A few times he stopped to rub her back in slow strokes, and the entire time, he said not a word.
Eventually, the worst of the pain subsided, and Hermione was suddenly ashamed of herself. Crying like a baby because her arms had fallen asleep. She jerked away from him and started working the knots on the back of her neck with still-tingling fingers. She still hiccupped now and again, but soon that stopped too. Underneath her hood she felt utterly disgusting, face so wet with mingled sweat and tears and mucus that her hair and the wool clung to it. At first she could only scrabble desperately, but after she broke a fingernail and her sobs threatened to burst out again, she slowed down and began to pick more calmly at the knots. She took deep breaths and soon had the knots loose enough that she could pull the hood free.
She turned to face what she hoped was the corner opposite from him. To her dismay, he had not left and now sat in unnerving proximity to her. She removed the hood slowly, surreptitiously wiping her face with the scratchy material until it was reasonably dry. It hung from the rope down her back, and she shook her hair to fall over it. The touch of fresh air on her face, wherever that air had circulated, felt absolutely divine. For a moment she was content to sit and breathe.
And then she had to turn and face her companion and thank him. She dreaded the prospect; she had a good idea of who he was, but since he had never once called her any of the names she had expected, she was certain that he did not know her identity. Now he would, and now those few gestures of kindness would cease for good. She rearranged herself to look at him and was shocked to see not a trace of surprise on his features.
He raised an eyebrow at her expression. "You looked as though you were expecting something… more. I admit my looks have suffered during my time here, but really, your evident shock is rather insulting."
"I-no, that's not it." Now that he mentioned it, Lucius Malfoy did look worse for the wear. His cheeks were sunken, and his eyes were hollow. His skin looked paper-thin and chalky in this light. What she suspected had once been his greatest vanity, his long white-blond hair, scraggled around his shoulders like a young child's crayon squiggles. Thin squiggles, at that. But he was still unmistakably a Malfoy and still held himself better than almost anyone she knew. "It's not important."
In addition to the toll his imprisonment – for what reason he had been sent her she could not guess – had wrought on him, she could also see why he had been unable to help her untie the rope. Though his fingers had felt soothing on hers, they looked terrible. The skin was peeling away from his ragged nails, and dried blood spotted his fair skin.
He looked as if he wanted to ask exactly what it was, but just then a guard, different from the one who had brought Hermione in, approached their cell. "Well, well," he said with a twisted leer, "I see you've made one another's acquaintance. I bet prisoners on the next floor heard the girl screaming… what did you do to her, Malfoy? Didn't think you had much left in you, but I guess we were wrong. Master thinks maybe you could do with a little softening up yourself. Come on now, don't make this difficult."
Lucius leaned in close to her. "For once, he's correct," he whispered. "Don't try anything clever." His warm breath on her neck made her shiver.
The guard had to unlock the door both physically and magically before it swung open on protesting hinges. "Don't worry, girlie," he said, "I'll bring him back, and maybe he'll behave better this time."
She did not know what exactly he and his master planned to with Malfoy, but she did not think she would have wished it upon him, not now. The guard jerked Lucius to his feet and touched his wand to his prisoner's hands. Ropes snaked around his wrists, and suddenly Hermione understand the appearance of the hands she was sure had once been smooth and unmarked.
While he was gone, she explored the cell they were to share and tried not to think about what they were doing to him. She tried to stop up her ears, but inevitably they strained to make out the faintest cries. She thought she did heard disturbing noises, but she could not be sure where or who they were coming from. In one corner of the cell lay a bucket covered tactfully with straw. Judging by the smell, or lack thereof, she guessed that at least the guards had the decency to replace it fairly often. A heel of bread was nestled in the opposite corner, a dark greyish brown against the pale straw.
After finishing the circuit of her new home, Hermione sat in the middle of the floor, legs loosely crossed at the ankles and hands resting on her knees, and closed her eyes. It would not be easy to escape this place, but as her breath slowed, she forced her mind into the familiar patterns. It fell unwillingly into her meditation routine, but fall it did. It wanted to slip into worry about… well, about everything, but she overrode it with mental shouts of the four words she breathed to.
I am… at peace…
I am… at peace…
She was in a dungeon with her chamberpot and her dinner almost in arm's reach was where she was. She was sitting here in a pile of straw poking at her through the robes her captors had thrown at her, concerned for the health of Lucius Malfoy, of all people.
No. Stop it.
I am… at peace…
And eventually she was at peace. Tiny currents of air caressed her face, and when the guard began stomping down the corridor with Lucius in tow, she could feel the change in the air even before she heard his heavy footsteps. She opened her eyes and peered down the hall. When she could make out the two figures, she gasped. Malfoy was barely conscious, if that, bleeding and muttering to himself. Sweat and blood matted his hair to his face, but he did not appear to be aware of them. He only moaned when the guard shoved him into the cell and sent him stumbling to the back of the cell, where he stopped with a thump and then collapsed.
Hermione rushed over to him and bit her lip indecisively. Should she try to manoeuvre him into a more comfortable position? What if they had broken something? She could not stand to see him writhing on the ground and so made up her mind. Wincing, she settled herself beside him and struggled to pull him into a sitting position in the corner. She had to move the bucket aside and despite the straw over top of it, got a whiff of the contents as they sloshed about. She would not gag, she told herself firmly.
"Shhh," she whispered, "it's all right, they're gone. I'm not going to hurt you, okay?" She made quiet, reassuring noises at him as she began picking at his bonds. Sometimes he stirred and feebly attempted to fight her off, but she was able to restrain him with pathetic little effort. After a while he stopped trying to fight her and slumped against the wall. His eyes fluttered open from time to time, but he did not appear to recognise her. She did not even think he was aware of her presence most of the time, but when she finished untying the ropes, he proved her wrong yet again.
She began to leave after settling him a little more comfortably, but he reached out to her with shaking arms. "Don't," he muttered. "Don't… alone." She hesitated for a moment, considering what he was asking of her. She knew who he was. She knew what he had done and knew personally many of those to whom he had done those things. She knew that he deserved no mercy, only hard justice. But worst of all, she knew all too well what he had done for her earlier, and she knew what kind of person she was (and was not).
She sat back beside him and slung an arm awkwardly behind his back. Her touch seemed to reassure him, and he quieted instantly. She touched his limp hair and was startled to find it soft under her fingers. When he grasped a fold of her robe, she jumped a little. His eyes were closed again, but he was not taking the slow, deep breaths of one who sleeps. She stroked his hair and traced idle patterns down his back. As time passed, his sweat and tears dried, and the blood crusted around his wounds. Still she touched him. Still he held her robe in his hand.
Later, she would wonder which moment it was that had sealed her fate. Was it when he had told her where the sharp edge of metal was or when he had stepped forward to help her find it? Was she doomed as soon as he touched her or when she had reciprocated and touched him in his hour of need? Or, as she came to suspect, perhaps her destiny had been set in stone the moment the guard had thrown her in that cell with him.
Later, things became grey, and she could not say for certain whether she was right, whether he was right, and more importantly, whether he had ever told her the truth. But as she re-traced the series of events in her mind over and over again, she could not distinguish any one point where she should have acted differently. She was not even sure she could have acted differently, knowing as she did later what was to come.
Later she would marvel at the recuperative ability of the human heart – or more accurately, at whatever part of the brain it was whose action was attributed to that particular muscle. She would also marvel at its extraordinary capacity to be tricked and manipulated, for that scene which she remembered so vividly was not at all what she had thought it was. Nevertheless, she could not help but look back with a sort of fondness at that moment, when concerns about fate had seemed so far away compared to the suffering of the man before her, when things were not grey at all because they had been allied from then on against a greater evil, when her heart had been touched and then broken. And then it had healed, and though she would never understand how much had been a lie and how much the truth, she thought he had healed a little too.
Later she could not bring herself to regret any of it and knew with clear certainty that no one would have believed her if she told them. Except him. She could not ask him as he withered away in another prison, a captive far away and admittedly better treated, whether he regretted any of it. She never visited, and they thought they knew why. They thought she did not want the reminder of her own time in a dank dungeon, trapped with that cruel man, and she did not try to dissuade them. The truth was, she never visited him because she was deadly afraid that she might want to join him again in his cell, where they would be locked away together, united in common cause against a greater evil.
Because there in the dungeon she had been the most free. There in the darkness she had seen so clearly. Isolated from the world she knew, she had loved and been loved. That world was a better place now. They didn't just mouth the words; it was true. But it was not their world. It was too big, too open, too subject to prying eyes and whispers and questions of black and white.
She never saw him, and she saw him every night. She loved him. He loved her. He lied to her. He loved her. It was all the same.
Longer A/N: This is unquestionably, unequivocally, undebatedly a mysterious little one-shot. Nothing will be further explained or elaborated... that's for you and your imagination!
If you liked it, let me know, and I may be persuaded to let try my hand at something like this again, sometime in that hazy future when I've had a little more sleep. If you enjoy my other work(s) and didn't enjoy this one, that's okay too. And now I need to get some sleep. Someone should conduct a scientific investigation into the correlation between angsty fanfic and lack of sleep. 'night!