...It's been a while. Don't think I've been buying up the rights to Harry Potter during my absence. I still own none of this.
New chapter. Believe me when I say that I wanted to get this up earlier than I have. I lay it on pre-e-e-e-etty thick in this chapter. It's all very introspective and claustrophobic. I'm not sure if that's where I wanted the chapter to go (to state it plainly, it wasn't) but that's what I've got at the moment. I actually quite like parts of this, as much as they were a surprise and completely different from the original outline/drafts. This hasn't been compulsively checked over and over as per usual, but you've all waited long enough. No, too long. And for that I apologise. Ignore any mistakes.
Although the other voice made muffled attempts to continue the conversation, Draco clearly believed the matter to be finished. Hermione listened to the other person's long speech, holding her breath so she wouldn't miss anything, but she was able to glean no more than a few unimportant words that did nothing to further her understanding. Only Draco's "Yes", "No", "Of course" and final "I don't believe that's any of your business" made it through the thick stone.
She remained frozen in place, breathing in with shallow, almost silent breaths, as the two pairs of footsteps departed the room, the door closing softly this time. When Hermione finally did move, it was no more than a small shift in position, moving her ear from the wall to press her forehead to the cool stone. She stood like that, leaning into the wall, attempting to sort through the snatches of the conversation she had overheard. It wasn't much use. Important parts were missing and she hadn't heard enough to put the pieces together so it resembled anything close to a full picture.
For a moment, she wished heartily that she had thought to bring a pair of Extendable Ears. But her lack of foresight was excusable, she had not expected to be doing any spying during her fitting. The magicked Ears wouldn't be much use against a stone wall either, and Hermione couldn't move easily wearing a wedding dress, creep around silently or crouch unnoticed behind a door. It was just another frustration to add to the list, frustration at the unknowns that kept her up at night… and she was already so so tired.
Even exhausted, her mind still leapt to make connections and explanations… Extendable Ears and spying at keyholes would have been useless against a wizard who spelled rooms against eavesdroppers. The little she had been able to make out through the wall was far more than she would have heard had either person thought to use Muffliato. That she had heard anything at all was proof positive that no spell had been cast, which meant that the conversation couldn't have been all that important.
Important, perhaps, Hermione amended mentally, but certainly not confidential. Unless Draco had completely forgotten the valuable lessons the war had taught them…
Important or not, what she had been able to make out just wasn't enough to satisfy Hermione's curiosity. It had been enough to hint at additional problems, but not to actually confirm any of her suspicions.
She already knew the country was under pressure from all sides, and it was obvious that this could only increase after recent events. Political violence was like that, it rarely solved problems but often brought new ones to bear. However, the possibility of a problem between the Prince and the government had been news to her; Draco had previously seemed so commanding and in control. But again, the little she had heard was not enough to draw conclusions from.
A thought occurred to her that, if the Prince were to be impeached, the wedding would almost certainly be cancelled; he would have no need for a royal bride. But she dismissed the realisation at once as unconstructive.
Rather than analyse her ambivalent response to the matter, Hermione was focused on the unexplained "plans" that had ended the dialogue. Unluckily, that just happened to be the hardest part of the conversation to puzzle out.
If the plans were being moved forward rather than being implemented or new plans being put into place, it would seem that both Draco and the other man (the voice had sounded male) agreed that the course of action, whatever it may be, was inevitable. However, Draco had sounded unsettled. Despite not having heard more than a few words, she decided that the other man had been trying to argue against them. Inevitable they may be but, whatever the plans were, neither man favoured them.
But extrapolating would only get her so far, and political intrigue and machinations, especially those still unfolding, were some of the (admittedly few) subjects that couldn't be understood or explained in a book. It was harder still because she only knew half the story. Draco seemed reluctant to tell her anything, which was the thing that most annoyed Hermione. When she had offered her help, he had had her assist him sorting out small issues to do with the wedding, rather than the problems of state that she believed to be the most important concern.
So Hermione was torn. Draco had made it clear that he expected her to concentrate on their upcoming nuptials, rather than involve herself with any state business. She, on the other hand, desperately wanted something to distract her so she wouldn't have to spend all her time and exhaust her mental energies on weddings; it was too demoralising. She wanted to be involved in something bigger, be involved in something constructive where she could be of use. But she didn't want to be stuck in the middle of a battles over ideology again.
Hermione was a campaigner and a reformer more than a soldier, and she had already waged too much war during the fight against Voldemort. She'd been so happy to leave all that behind when the battles had ended, but within a few short years she found herself surrounded by another burgeoning conflict. When there had been the explosion, her first thought had been to help out, throw herself into the thick of things and find out who was involved and how she could stop it, because that was her conditioned response. She had been doing it for so long that it felt natural. That was what Harry would do. But she didn't want that. She wanted answers to puzzles. She wanted the solution that couldn't be found; the one that would eliminate all the problems, the ones that would let her go home.
It was too messy a situation for an easy answer. And she was powerless to do anything to solve anyone's problems, let alone her own…
She should have hated him for that; for forcing her to marry him. For doing this after he had so cruelly rejected her in the past. For being the root cause of most of the problems in her life.
She did hate him… sometimes. And at other times – when she thought about House Elves, Schools and social change – it occurred to her that he was reforming his country, so perhaps this meant that he was, in turn, reformed. In those moments she could forget everything that happened in the past and that was happening now. Sometimes, she forgot to the point that they were almost friendly with each other… occasionally, she forgot to the point that she wished it was more than friendly. Then a voice in the back of her mind would intrude and remind her with a whisper, 'This man has trapped me. I hate this man'.
She just wished that the little voice was a constant roar so that there were never moments when she forgot, or that it would leave her completely alone to forget… because she felt torn, yes, but it was more than that.
She was breaking, she could feel it.
I have to spend less time alone in my own head. It's too crowded in here with just my thoughts for company.
...Or just less time alone...
Hermione had never dealt well with being alone. It was all too easy for her to ignore people and retreat into books, theories and whatever work she had to occupy herself but, at the end of the day, she craved human company. All alone, she was inclined to be overly anxious, withdrawn and reclusive. She needed people to cheer her up and with whom to talk her worries through. "People" used to mean Harry, Ron and Ginny. Now she just wanted people, person, someone, anyone.
She had more fears and doubts now than any time since the end of the war; she had been forced into an impossible situation, she was stuck in the middle of a situation that looked to be escalating into another war, and she had absolutely no one to share this with.
She did have someone; she had Draco, whom she hated but not always. Which all went to show just how exceedingly lonely she really felt.
She wanted out.
She wasn't powerless, after all. In any blackmail she had the choice to pay the ransom or suffer the consequences. Hermione refused to pay any more, if the price was her own sanity.
He would survive. Ron was resilient; if he had proved anything over the course of their friendship it was that he had could come back. He learnt from his mistakes if they packed a big enough punch. This would be a harder lesson than most, but he would come out the other end. He would struggle when Draco chose – 'if he chose', corrected the small part that still saw him as reformed – to release the incriminating information, but he would survive. Ron was surrounded by people who would help him; he had the love and support of the entire Weasley family, he had Harry and he had his wife.
She would be ruined just as surely as Ron would if she left. She would be ruined, but she would at least have her friends and family around her. As long as she remained, they were both safe, but she was alone.
As long as she remained with Draco, she was isolated. Completely alone, and she had never dealt well with being alone. She was fighting herself, ripping herself in half and wearing those halves to shreds.
Her wand held tightly in one hand, the heavy skirts of her dress clutched up off the ground in the other, back held rigidly straight and head high, Hermione strode determinedly out into the hall.
No one. No Chloe, Draco, Luc, no nameless servants. It was empty. She was alone.
She did not head to her rooms to pack. Didn't compose a note to explain her absence. She didn't rehearse a speech in case she ran into anyone. She didn't even bid a mental farewell. Mind blessedly clear for the first time in a long time, Hermione walked confidently out. Making her way along hallways, down staircases and through entire suites of rooms, she didn't see a single soul.
She didn't think to question how she made it all the way down to the central courtyard without meeting someone, anyone, in the usually bustling palace. She was too caught up in the steady rhythm of one foot in front of the other. In this moment, it seemed to her the most important, triumphant detail. She became entirely consumed by the simple action, walking, that she typically performed unthinkingly.
Hermione wasn't running away, no she was walking away. There was a huge difference.
Everything else faded away. She was fixated: each step, just under a metre closer to getting out, to leaving all the stress, worries and paralysing emotions behind.
The eventual cessation in the rhythm of her footfalls was displeasing to her ears.
Her feet had stopped before she was even fully aware of an obstruction. The gate, solid wood, set into thick stone with strong iron supports and as tall as she was three times over, was firmly shut… locked by key and reinforced by magic.
Hermione felt a dull sense of dismay. She could go no further, but she refused to go back. She did not turn around, just stood staring at the giant doors that were closed so firmly there was not even a gap to let sunlight or wind through. What chance did she have?
She might have collapsed on to the ground in dejection if it didn't seem so important for her to stand straight and tall and certain of her decision. She might have stayed standing, facing the gate like some tragic heroine from a forgotten legend, for a whole day and a night had she not been interrupted by a scornful voice.
"You're wearing that as everyday attire now to – what – mock me?"
"I think you'd be surprised how very little you figure into my decision making process."
Hermione spoke her words to the wall rather than the woman. She couldn't bear to look at her just then, and her tone conveyed her feelings clearly enough. Her back a straight line, shoulders held taut, her neck a slender curve to the tight knot of hair a twist on her head. A bitter expression frozen on her face, her gaze concentrated on one iron peg on the door as if it was anchoring her to the world.
"I don't know what possessed you to wear white. We both know it's a blatant lie."
"I'm sure you of all people appreciate symbolism, Narcissa. Will you be wearing your family's traditional black cloak and mask? Perhaps you'll celebrate by conjuring skulls with snake tongues?"
"You haven't won yet, Mu–"
It was too dangerous to continue to stand with her back turned to this woman. Narcissa prefered to face her opponent head to head, not out of a sense of fairness, but to see their reactions – she was both a Malfoy and a Black, after all – but she did not have endless patience. Her last comment had sounded very much like a threat.
Hermione turned, looked directly at the older woman, her face a picture of a perfect storm.
"Don't say it."
If it had been a competition over who could best encapsulate chilling malice then, in that moment, Hermione would have won. Her voice so glacial she was half surprised her tongue hadn't turned to ice in her mouth, that her breath hadn't coated the wood of the gate with icicles. In the soft, sparkling magnificence of the dress made for a wedding that would not be, Hermione more resembled an ice queen than frigidly fair Narcissa ever had.
As it was, she did not inform Narcissa that she had already conceded in the competition for Draco – in fact, she had never really been a contender, just convenient. She didn't want Narcissa to think that she had played any role in Hermione's decision to leave, it would grant the older woman a victory she did not rightly deserve.
Narcissa's eyebrows sank into an outraged frown, lowering over eyes that glinted with displeasure, "What was I not supposed to say, Mudblood?"
"Get away from me."
"You do not order me around." The older woman glided forward menacingly, "understand this: I am your better. It is the difference between who I amandwhat you are. No education, no war, no marriage – nothing – will change that. If, if, you marry my son it will be the greatest tragedy for him, but it will not change who he is. And you will remain as you have always been: filthy, lowborn and base."
The words had left Hermione's mouth before she thought them and she felt her wand slicing through the air rather than consciously guiding its movement herself. The bright light of a spell erupted from her wand.
It was almost like a form of the Imperius curse; she did not feel in control of herself, could not stop her mouth from forming the words of the spell nor the hand from pointing her wand. The difference was, there was no foreign voice from outside her mind, yet somehow inside her head, telling her what to do. Some part of her that she had not been aware of must have been in control.
In the moments immediately after the spell was cast, Hermione stood bent double at the waist, sucking in great gasping breathes of air and blinking her eyes back into focus. Trying to recall just what had happened.
The mixture of adrenaline and anger had a bad effect on her.
Her vision cleared before her brain did.
Narcissa lay motionless on the ground.
She stumbled backwards with uncertain steps until she felt her back connect solidly with the door. Sliding down the wood polished smooth with age, Hermione sobbed into her tightly balled fist.
"No… I – Shit. Shit! Shit… Oh, no. I – Please, no."
She gagged, what if she had…? No. She didn't want that. She never wanted to feel that again. Had never wanted to take a life in the first place... War – she had done so many things she didn't want to in the war… but this wasn't the heat of battle, she wouldn't have... she wasn't… didn't mean…
Oh please no.
Swallowing the sick feeling that crept into her stomach, Hermione quickly scrambled across the short distance to the motionless body. She said nothing. She didn't apologise; didn't beg the woman to breathe; didn't reassure her everything was going to be all right. Narcissa wouldn't be able to hear.
Hermione raised the heavy head slightly, rested it on her lap. The first time she had touched Narcissa, it was to cradle the woman's head in her hands because she had just blasted her with an unknown spell. She didn't even know if the woman was dead or alive.
The body was warm but so little time had passed that it would mean nothing.
She didn't speak, just sat there and watched – and eventually saw the slightest movement. The rise and fall so shallow as to be almost imperceptible. She was breathing.
Hermione hadn't used the Killing Curse.
"Thank you. Oh, thank you. Thank you."
She didn't know who she was thanking: Narcissa for being stronger than she looked; strong enough to withstand the physical effects of a serious curse shot directly at her. Herself; for holding back just enough and not using a curse that would have killed the woman stone-dead. God or Merlin or any other spiritual presence. Perhaps no one. Perhaps she just needed to say something, anything, to express her relief.
Relief more that she had not killed, than that Narcissa lived. Hermione felt only slight guilt at that, but she didn't think the older woman would begrudge her. It was unlikely Narcissa would have felt anything if their positions had been reversed.
Hermione looked at the face of the woman whose head rested in her palms. She looked older, fevered anger had lent her energy and fervour that was disguised as youth. All malice and harshness had now disappeared from the face, as quickly and completely as removing a mask. She looked older, but softer and more beautiful, Hermione thought, like a different person.
She raised her wand in air, waved it to emit bright red sparks high above her.
"She deserved it," Staring down at the insensible witch, so delicate and gentle-looking now, Hermione shakily rationalised her actions, if only to herself. "Maybe not to this extent, but… she insisted on making this into a battle."
She readjusted Narcissa's head in her lap before swapping the hand that held her wand aloft.
"I was leaving. She'll figure that she won in the end. I don't care. There wasn't even a reason to fight just now. And I nearly – I could have… I never really fought for him. I just fought her... because she was an adversary, because she provoked me – because I had to do something."
Narcissa's breaths were coming stronger and deeper, the rise and fall of her chest clearly observable on each inhalation and exhalation. Hermione patted down the woman's cloak, removing a wand from amongst the folds of cloth.
"Just in case."
She appeared to be all alone. From a distance, the skirts of her voluminous white dress hid the body lying against her. When Draco and Luc came running, that was the scene that first met them; Hermione sitting with back bent and her head hanging down, wand arm held straight in the air, near the closed gateway at the end of the courtyard. Narcissa's prone body became noticeable only as they hurried over, the woman's head resting cushioned by soft white silk on the younger witch's knees.
Hermione didn't move, not at the sound of hurried footsteps, not when Draco dropped into a crouch beside his mother, not until he turned to her and clasped her bare shoulder in a firm grip. So intent had she been on watching the woman's closed eyelids, waiting for them to open and the screwed up, hateful expression to return to the now placid features, that Hermione was startled by his sudden appearance. By grey eyes, not the bright blue she had been expecting, that stared searchingly into hers, completely devoid of malice.
She glanced down, his mother's eyes were still closed, before looking up to his concerned countenance.
"I didn't mean–"
"Never mind. Just tell me what happened here. What's wrong with her?"
"I don't know."
"You found her?" the question was tinged with uncertainty, his expression hopeful.
"No. I did this, only..." her voice wobbled, "I don't know what it is I did. I cast the spell, I don't recall what spell. I wasn't thinking – I just wanted her to go away."
He looked back to his mother. Grabbed her hand from where it lay, pale and relaxed against the dark cobblestones of the courtyard, and held it tightly.
None of them moved, the only sound coming from four bodies taking in air and breathing it out. There was nothing to signal a response from the unconscious witch.
"How long ago?" He didn't look at her, but it was clear who the question was directed to. His tone was clipped, but not severe.
"Not much time. She's gotten stronger since then."
Draco nodded. "Alright. I need to take my mother back. Luc, bring Hermione with you. Carry her if she can't walk, just get her inside."
He lifted his mother up with a wave of his wand and a terse Levicorpus and, despite the speed at which he travelled, levitated her carefully to the castle.
Hermione looked behind her, to the man she hadn't even realised was there, "I can walk."
Luc offered her his hand, which she ignored. "What really happened?"
She glared at him as she rose unsteadily to her feet, "Just what I said."
"Right. If that's all you have to say," He gestured for her to proceed him, "we'll be on our way."
She did not like Luc; She trusted him even less than Draco. Even so, when they were walking back, he a solid presence behind her, she stopped and turned. She hadn't wanted to travel one step back towards the palace, and she had already taken many more than that.
"I need to leave. I need to get away from here."
He looked down at her, his jaw tense and locked. It was a confession, not a demand or a request for help. Hermione stared up at him with huge brown eyes, every other time he'd been in her company there had been an indefinable sense of strength about her. Not now. Now, she just looked broken.
Luc nodded, "Yes... But I can't allow that."
He looked away from the small, white-clad woman. Strong hands turned her back to face the castle and pushed her on her way.
"For everything to work, you need to stay."
Not bad for five months work. Yes, that was sarcasm.
Thanks to everyone who keeps on reading and reviewing after all this time. And also to mischievous female, Eccthlacine and Regin amongst others, whose reviews reminded me that people are still finding this and enjoying it. See, reviews do make a small, but concrete difference in the world!