"What are you doing?" Ginny asked from the doorway.
Ron sat in the middle of his room, that morning's Daily Prophet scattered around him in an almost perfect circle at arm's length. The moving photographs made him feel like he was in the middle of a shallow puddle, with ripples of movement catching his eye.
"Since when do you read the Daily Prophet?" asked Ginny.
If they hadn't just plundered the Department of Mysteries together a month before, he would never have told her. But she looked so much older than he remembered... and she would be able to help.
"Find an article about house elves," he said.
"Find it yourself."
"I lied to Mum," he mumbled, shifting the paper. "Hermione's in London alone and—" he felt the shame rising again, "she asked me to go with her and I said no."
"Hermione knows ten times more jinxes than you do. How on earth could YOU protect HER?" Ginny sneered at him, but was already on the floor sifting through the articles.
When he first checked the paper Ron wasn't necessarily worried; he was going to see where Hermione went, in case Mum really got on his case about it. But as he scanned article after article of witches and wizards disappearing, muggle-borns being harassed, and violent attacks in London... why didn't he just tell Hermione to come to the Burrow first?
Ron put the pages that were empty of House Elf news into a pile behind him.
"Ew," Ginny said.
"That one Oliver Rumsburg wizard is out of Azkaban"
Ron furrowed his eyebrows. "I thought he was in for life?"
"He was, but this article says that him and a bunch of other Azkaban prisoners were released to make room for supporters of You-Know-Who, now that they're not using Dementors as guards."
"Just because he's not a supporter of You-Know-Who doesn't mean he's not dangerous."
Ron hadn't fully understood the news stories about Rumsburg when he was only eight years old, listening to snippets about it on the Wizarding Wireless Network. Every single time something about it came on, Mum always came in to turn it off saying Ron didn't need to hear that kind of news.
Ron understood that Rumsburg was a kidnapper, but it wasn't until Ron was older that he understood that Rumsburg did more to those witches than just keep them locked up.
Ginny shrugged. "Maybe his notorious days of kidnapping witches to be his servants are over," she said. "It says he was almost killed by a dementor at his house, but a stupid house elf saved his life for some reason. I should tell Cho Chang to be careful. I think her mother lives in that part of London."
Ron tore the paper out of Ginny's hands. Who cared about Cho Chang? Ron scanned the article about Rumsburg and the words "fifteen house elves" jumped out, and felt like a punch to Ron's stomach.
Hermione—stupid, STUPID Hermione—was on her way to THE Oliver Rumsburg's house.
She wouldn't know, Ron realized. Hermione wouldn't know about Rumsburg's crimes from before she joined the wizarding world.
If anything happened to Hermione while she was in London, it would be his own fault. The realization felt like another punch in the stomach. If anything was happening to her right that moment...
Suddenly, Ron was sick all over the newspaper. It was the breakfast he so stupidly yearned for as Hermione went on and on about visiting Oliver Rumsburg's house. He was glad to get the food out of him, every last ounce of it.
"Ron?" Ginny was on her feet and she sounded scared. Strangely, her fear seemed to make Ron's go away. He wiped his mouth and pulled out his wand.
"Scourgify." The mess cleaned itself up and Ron started for the door.
"Wait!" Ginny hissed, stomping in front of him. "You tell me what THAT was all about!"
"It's Hermione. She's at Rumsburg's house."
Ginny went pale, her freckles standing out vividly on the suddenly white face.
Ron opened the door.
"I'm going with you." Ginny said.
Ron took a deep breath and closed the door without going through it.
"Ginny," he could tell she was already preparing for an argument so he spoke quickly. "I know I've been mean to you before. I know I've been stupid when it comes to boys you like and saying you can't do stuff when I know you can. You're a better witch than I am wizard, to be honest, but I'd be the worst brother on earth if I lead you into that man's house. I could never live with myself if something happened to you."
Ginny didn't argue. Not yet.
"I need you here," Ron continued. "Hermione might not be in trouble, but if she is I need you to know immediately once I find out. I'll give you a signal with the coins from DA. I'll send HELP or OK. If it's HELP, or if it's been longer than 3 hours, tell Dad, and Dumbledore, and whoever else you can get hold of. You already know that if Mum knows about this she won't let me go, so I have to sneak away before you tell her."
Ginny looked furious, but Ron didn't have time to argue. He ran.
"Now isn't this nice?"
Rumsburg took a sip of tea from an oversized yellow cup, bending awkwardly over the low table in the sitting room. He sounded genuine, his nasal voice cheery. He looked at Hermione to agree with him.
Hermione's arms were tied behind the hard chair, a house elf helpfully held the scalding tea to her lips. She had no choice but to sip, burning her tongue. Her feet were tied around the chair's back legs, making her feel like she was pitched forward.
"Ron will know," she repeated to herself. When she didn't show up at the Burrow, he would know, and he would know where she was, and she would be rescued. She just had to stay alive until tonight.
She tried to forget the fact that she had to do extensive research to find out where Chester Nook was located in London, and which house on Chester Nook Rumsburg lived in. But Ron would figure it out. He had to.
"You're not listening to me," Rumsburg said darkly.
"I thought you loved House Elves, so I'm telling you all about how one of them saved my life by destroying a dementor and you don't even care."
Hermione wished that the dementor had gotten its way and had sucked Rumsburg's soul out of his body...
The house elf offered her another sip.
"No thank you," she said to the young-looking elf, but he was stubborn, and put the cup to her mouth, tipping the cup higher, burning her upper lip with the scalding tea. She pulled away and the entire cup of near-boiling liquid splashed onto the front of her muggle shirt and shorts.
The tea went straight through the fabric to her skin. At first it was just wet and she thought it would be okay, but then she felt her skin pulse with the pain of the heat.
"Ow!" Hermione wriggled against her restraints. She blew frantically and writhed, trying to keep the hot fabric from touching the places where she was burned.
"Oh no!" Rumsburg said, "Your shirt is ruined!" He moved his chair nearer to where she sat.
"It's fine," she whispered through her numb, heat-swollen lips, gritting her teeth against the pain.
Rumsburg placed his chair close enough that he could reach her.
He went to unbutton the top button of her shirt.
"Leave it!" she yelled, twisting as much as her restraints allowed. "Please, I... I don't mind it, really." But it was too late. He had unbuttoned the first button.
"Maybe while I wash your clothes," he unbuttoned the second button, "you can think of something for us to talk about since you seem to be so disinterested in what I have to say."
There it was. Of course he wanted to talk after being in Azkaban and coming home to nothing but a house filled with house-elves.
"I want to talk!" she said.
Stall him. Stop him! Don't let him touch you! He had four more buttons to go, but had paused his progress.
"Tell me!" she gasped. "Tell me about Mester."
Rumsburg's hands dropped into his lap.
"I don't like thinking about him," Rumsburg said flatly, turning his face to the floor.
"I thought he was your favorite?" she pressed.
"How long has he been your house elf?"
"He's not my house elf anymore."
"How long was he your house elf before he... had to leave?"
"My whole life."
Rumsburg, unexpectedly, let out a sob. His limp hands turned into fists in his lap. He looked desperately unhappy.
"My dad... died.... when I was 5.... Mum when I was... 7," Rumsburg sobbed at the floor. "None of my extended family wanted to take me in, so Mester raised me. What other kid has to go to get their school supplies with just a House Elf?" He raised his head to look at Hermione.
"That's horrible," Hermione said, truthfully.
A wide grin spread across Rumsburg's thin face.
"Ha! You're the most gullible girl I've ever met! You'd probably believe it if I told you I was a muggle!"
Hermione's pity disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. His sobs had seemed so real, but there wasn't a single tear on his face. She couldn't believe she let herself care about Rumsburg, even if it was only for a moment.
She turned her head away from him.
He cupped her chin and pointed her head in his direction.
As if led by an inner force not entirely under her own control, Hermione bit Rumsburg's hand, hard.
His other hand slapped her across the face. She tried to pull her hands up to cover the stinging, prickling flesh, but they were, of course, stuck behind her. Tears sprung to her eyes and fell easily across the hot cheek.
"Why did you make me do that!?" Rumsburg yelled, rubbing the hand she bit. "I didn't want to do that but you made me do it!"
He stood up and Hermione glared at him. "I'm not MAKING you do anything!"
"You wanted this," Rumsburg insisted, pacing like a caged animal. "Why else would you come to MY house?"
"I didn't know! I didn't know about you or about Azkaban! I just wanted to free your house-elves."
"House elves," he spat. "Hollis!"
A fat house elf with a head full of hair waddled into the sitting room.
"Get me tape and a black cloth."
Hollis bowed, and left.
"There was a house elf who saved the life of my friend, Harry Potter, even when he was supposedly loyal to another family," Hermione said, hoping to instill some kind of doubt in Rumsburg about the loyalty of his legion of elves.
"HA!" Rumsburg's laugh was like a honk. "Your friend Harry Potter? And I'm going out with the Wicked Sisters. And my best mate is Minister Scrimgeour. Didn't you know that's why I was let out of Azkaban early? HA! Friends with Harry Potter indeed!"
"House elves deserve to be free!" Hermione said when Hollis returned with a cloth and strip of tape. "They shouldn't have to do things just because you want them to!"
"Oh, but that's my favorite thing about them," Rumsburg said, holding the edges of the tape with his thumbs and index fingers.
Hermione turned to Hollis. "Please," she said, "Please you have to tell someone that I'm here! Tell Ron! Tell Crookshanks!"
Hollis just looked at Rumsburg, who shook his head. Hollis shrugged at Hermione with indifference. Her wishes weren't the same as his master's. Hollis bowed and left.
"Now you stay still," Rumsburg lined the tape up to Hermione's mouth. "If it doesn't go on right, then I'm pulling it off without magic and putting it on again until it goes on straight. That won't feel good at all."
"Why are you doing this to me?" Hermione whispered.
"So you don't bite me anymore." Rumsburg smiled and pressed the tape onto her burned lips. The tape sealed completely, and she could feel the magical stickiness of it when she tried to open her mouth.
"That's better," he said. His face inched closer to hers.
I could head-butt him, she thought. Though the only result would be an injury for the both of them, with her still tied up and him even angrier than when she'd bitten him.
He sniffed her hair, above her ear. She couldn't avoid smelling him as she inhaled through her nose. He had a stale, apothecary smell to him, as if he had smeared old herbs and iron-rich minerals into his skin.
"The women in Azkaban don't smell like this," he growled, inhaling again.
Hermione had liked it when Viktor, the only wizard she'd ever kissed, smelled her hair. It made her feel beautiful and elegant. Every sniff that Rumsburg took was like poison in her, causing her beauty to shrivel and shrink into a tiny corner in her mind.
Rumsburg pulled away, facing Hermione again.
"Did you like that?"
She couldn't bear to look at him, so she looked down. He moved to try to intercept her gaze, but she darted her eyes upwards. He grabbed her jaw with his huge hand and squeezed, hard.
"I try to be nice..." He tossed her chin sideways and he turned and grabbed the black cloth from the table. "You keep making me do things that I don't want to do!"
Hermione kicked herself, mentally. You idiot! Play along or he'll keep making it worse!
She shook her head in apology, trying to catch his eye while he walked behind her, but he wasn't looking at her.
"First you avoid conversation during tea, then you can't keep your teeth to yourself while I'm helping you, then you can't even stand to look at me, is that it?"
He was behind her now. He finally looked down and she stared at him desperately, shaking her head, trying to apologize with her eyes.
"Close your eyes."
Hermione's heart felt like it was beating in her arched throat. She had to listen to him or he'd get angry. She closed her eyes tight and tears spilled out of the corners, falling towards her ears. He pushed her head so that she was sitting normally again and the cloth was around her eyes so tight that she couldn't open her eyes against the pressure.
Rumsburg's finger touched the bridge of her nose, and followed the cloth to her ear. Then his fingers were barely touching her neck and his voice whispered into her ear:
"Do you like that?"
His voice felt like a stinging insect about to buzz into her ear. She wanted to swat, to cringe, to run away. Instead, she nodded in reply.
Hermione had no idea if that was the right thing to do. No book she ever read prepared her for this. No teacher ever taught her if it was better to fight against him until he killed her, or if it was better to lie to him and pretend to enjoy the most horrible moments of her life.
The only helpful advice she could muster was from a lifetime ago, when she was little and teachers told her never to go into a stranger's car or house.
Something wet touched Hermione's chin, right where her burn was, and she jerked away.
"It's just my fingers." Rumsburg said. "I dipped them in some water." He let the cool water drip on her chin and it did ease the throbbing.
"That felt good, didn't it?" Rumsburg said.
He followed the line of burned skin from her chin, down her neck and across her collarbone. His wet fingers kept pressing, further and further down until he reached the closed fourth button on her shirt. It was the last button that was keeping her bra hidden from view.
She barely felt his nose against her neck, and he inhaled slowly, purposefully. Then he blew very gently on the wet spots that covered the burn, all the way down to the next closed button. It eased the pain of the burn, but it sent needles of a different kind of pain much deeper inside of her.
Her shirt rustled and she felt cooler air where her shirt had been closed.
"No!" she screamed, except the tape over her mouth turned it into nothing more than a terrified, muffled shout. Button four had been unbuttoned.
"That meant 'yes' right? You like how that feels against this nasty burn?"
Hermione strained against the restraints, but she hardly moved.
"I asked 'do you like that?'" he snapped.
Stay alive. Stay alive. She nodded in reply.
His icy finger traced the burn, skipping over her bra and back onto the skin until it hit the next button. He pressed his nose against the newly exposed skin and inhaled hungrily. The skin was burning, then cooled as he blew.
Button five. The breaths moving in and out of Hermione's nose quickened. The sound of it felt magnified as it rushed to and fro over the tape.
He traced his cold, wet finger down her belly and plunged it into her bellybutton, making her gasp. He pressed his face against her stomach and inhaled her scent before blowing on the burn again.
Hermione felt tears absorb into the cloth over her eyes. As much as she wanted to be saved, the last thing she wanted was Ron to come in and see her like this. Who could save her without adding to her humiliation? Not Harry, not Mr. Weasley, certainly not Dumbledore or anyone from the Order. She didn't want anyone to see her tied to this chair, helpless to free herself with Rumsburg's dirty face pressed against her bare stomach. She couldn't imagine the horrifying embarrassment of being untied by someone so that she could button her shirt back up.
The Last Button.
Hermione shook her head, sniffing in as hard as she could. She couldn't let herself cry, or she'd fill up her nose with mucus and she'd suffocate.
He pulled her shirt apart. A hand covered her stomach, cold and spidery.
The water-chilled fingertips pressed slightly, and inched down just a bit. It was enough, Hermione realized, that the tips of his fingers were just under the band of her shorts and her pants.
You won't die from this. Stay alive. He won't kill you. Just cooperate.
"Has a boy touched you here before?"
She truthfully shook her head no.
"Because you seem calmer than the other girls were. Are you calm?"
Hermione didn't know what he wanted to hear. She shook her head slowly back and forth.
She couldn't see his reaction, and didn't know if it was right or wrong. He just pushed his hand further downward, and let it rest again.
Was he looking at her with hunger? Was he just bored? How far would he go before he stopped? Would he eventually kill her so that she could never tell the truth of what happened?
If she was going to die anyway, shouldn't she fight as hard as she could until he killed her?
The tips of Rumsburg's fingers brushed against the most sensitive part of her, and her knees couldn't close together to stop him.
Hermione suddenly felt like she was sitting across the room without a blindfold. She was watching herself in the chair, watching Rumsburg's fingers wiggling within her shorts.
She saw her body twitching and moving involuntarily, but didn't feel like it was actually happening to herself, even though she knew it was. She watched his hand move even further until it disappeared. The Hermione in the chair writhed and began to scream and sob behind the gag.
She was horrified, wishing she could turn away, but she couldn't control the part of her that was watching. Rumsburg was behind the chair, both hands reaching around: one in her shorts, the other pushed up under her bra.
Since she wasn't feeling it, the sound of it is what made Hermione feel sickest. The room was so silent, magnifying the sound of hands against fabric, the sound of her muffled sobs, of his breathing, of the quickening repetition of moisture against skin.
Just as suddenly as she left herself, she was back inside herself, back behind the gag and plunged into the darkness behind the blindfold. She was filled with terror, and filled with a dirty, cold finger that moved like a snake within her.
She lurched her body so violently that she nearly tipped over the chair.
"It's the best feeling there is, isn't it?" Rumsburg was breathless behind her. "It'd be a great way to die." He pulled his hand out from under her bra without putting it back it its proper place. Not that Hermione had a chance to care, for at that moment, Rumsburg pressed her nose shut.
Hermione's body went into hysterics, trying to suck in breath that couldn't come into her nose or mouth. She couldn't cough or inhale, and she realized with a wave of helplessness that she was going to die.
Rumsburg's other hand was still going in her shorts, but it was just movement. It didn't cause her to spasm anymore, and she felt her feet and hands go numb, and she thought she saw gold and black sparkles, even though she knew her eyes were closed.
I'm going to die, and I didn't even fight back.
Just as quickly as he had decided to kill her, he decided not to. His hand was off her nose and she was desperate to get air into her lungs. She tried to cough, but her mouth was still taped so she was left to try to gasp enough air through her nose to keep herself from losing consciousness.
Once she knew she wasn't going to die that minute, Hermione began to wail, unable to press her fear and anger down anymore.
"Hollis! Hide her NOW!"
Rumsburg's voice came from the other side of the room. It took Hermione a long time to notice that he was no longer touching her, because it felt like he still was.
But he sounded nervous about something, she realized. What had happened? She managed to stop crying and listen.
There was knocking at the front door.