Disclaimer: Everything belongs to J.K. Rowling and associates. No money is being made from this fanfiction; it is purely for entertainment.
A/N: I was completely blown away by the reviews for the last chapter. A big thank you to everyone who reviewed. :) Sorry this one is late.
Chapter 18 – Weakness
There was a sick feeling in her stomach that wouldn't go away, like someone had cast a slug vomiting jinx on her but the slugs wouldn't come out. Instead, they nestled inside her, twisting and slithering and crawling over each over. Hermione rolled over in her bed, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She'd lain there for hours, mentally and physically exhausted, but sleep refused to take her. Her mind raced, going over and over the last several hours in an attempt to make sense of everything and failing miserably.
Harry hadn't come back for her. She had waited impatiently, sure that he would return to tell her Ginny's condition. Hours had passed, long and empty and torturous, but Harry never returned. Had Ron made it to St Mungo's in time? Was Ginny recovering from her injuries? Cruelly, the more negative part of her mind insisted that Ginny had died and Harry resented her for it. He was never coming back.
And then there was the part that she tried not to think about. Her stomach twisted and she buried her face further into the pillow. Even now, she found herself wondering how it had happened, how she had ever allowed him to get that close, to break down that barrier of anger and resentment that she'd worn like armour.
The problem was that she didn't object to his presence the way she had before. In fact, she had almost grown accustomed to it. It wasn't odd to think of Lucius Malfoy intruding on her life, having a say in decisions about what she would or would not do. Because she had stopped objecting to his presence long ago. She had long since grown accustomed to his voice, his presence, his touch, so that her mind did not scream its protest when he came near, so that the things he said seemed reasonable to her, so that he fit neatly into her life.
"You must know that I find you attractive." Said so casually as if it had been nothing to him. She had been flattered, she admitted, shame burning in her chest, that a man like Lucius Malfoy, with his blood prejudices, his arrogant demeanour, and elegant, beautiful wife would ever really look at her, plain, bookish, and with those repulsive scars, and see something he wanted. It was a petty triumph, a confirmation that she was good enough even for him.
She wasn't stupid. She'd noticed the way he looked at her. But she'd thought that her Muggle heritage had been a sort of protection against him, that he would never cross that line. She'd seen the way he'd flinched when she touched him, the way he always spoke to her as if she were beneath him—a stupid Muggle lost in the wizarding world. His claims of reform had largely been lip service, she knew, said to pacify the new ideals of the Ministry and the current political climate.
But somehow, they'd gotten beyond that. And that scared her.
He scared her. He always had. He knew it and that was worse.
She cursed herself silently. He hadn't needed to draw his wand against her because he knew she wouldn't attack him, not really. Duelling had never been one of her strengths—she was too cautious, spent too much time thinking and calculating risks—and she definitely didn't want to challenge Lucius. That was one battle she knew she'd lose.
Restless, she rose from the bed, smoothing out the skirt of her blue robe that had been crushed beneath her while she lay down. She had long since changed back into one of her own robes, the exquisite pink robe that Lucius had given her having been thrown into the fireplace of the parlour room.
Her feet began moving, her body echoing the agitation of her mind. She wandered aimlessly throughout the house, through the kitchen, where she heard the rustle of movement—somewhere Tully was settling down for the night, through the dining room where she occasionally took the meals the House Elf prepared, the library filled with hundreds of rare and antique books, the parlour with its beautifully ornate furniture—her eyes drawn to the fire burning in the hearth, and finally the potion's room where she had managed to botch her healing spell. In and out, she wandered through each room again and again, her hands trailing along the spines of books, along the polished wood of the chairs. Maybe Harry would never return and she would become a spirit that walked this house, an echo of the woman who'd lived here once for a short time. A Muggle-born witch haunting Lucius Malfoy's pureblood sanctuary. In a twisted sort of way, it seemed entirely appropriate.
A sound startled her awake. Hermione lifted her head from the sofa she'd fallen asleep in, her eyes darting around the room to find the source. On the table nearby was a tray with a porcelain teapot decorated with gold-traced white narcissus painted on the side and two small matching teacups. In the fireplace, the remains of the pink robe were still smouldering, the embers twinkling faintly among the coals. She secured the wand in her pocket before pulling her feet up under her and immediately leapt from the sofa when she noticed a blonde figure standing behind her.
"I only came here once, you know." The tall woman stood with her back to Hermione, her silky blonde hair arranged in a complicated updo behind her head. "Not long after I married Lucius, he took me to see all of the Malfoy properties. I never cared for this one. It's far too small, too removed from civilization, though Lucius has found it useful to store some of the old, ugly things I don't care for in the Manor." She turned slowly, as if acutely aware of the elegant figure she presented. "I suppose now you've spent more time in this house than I ever did."
"Mrs Malfoy." Hermione acknowledged her visitor with a nod.
"Miss Granger." Her red painted lips curled up in a honey-sweet smile. "How lovely to see you again. I see Lucius has managed to rid you of those hideous scars you had. How fortunate for you." She didn't wait for a response, but stepped around the sofa with careful, dainty steps and gestured towards the wingback chairs in front of the fireplace. "Do sit, Miss Granger."
She sat, more out of exhaustion than to convenience Narcissa, noting that the other woman had chosen to remain standing. It was a small thing, but it was one of many small things that Narcissa did to advantage herself, and Hermione observed the witch carefully. Her green robes were covered in delicate, and obviously expensive, embroidery, the shape being cut to show off her slender figure to its best advantage. Narcissa would have been stunningly beautiful without make up, but she had painted her face with elegant expertise and added some pretty dangling emeralds to her ears. It created quite the impression of wealth and beauty.
When she finally spoke, it was not the question that she'd been expecting. "What exactly did you do to my husband last night?"
"I didn't do anything to him," Hermione snapped indignantly. She wanted to add "that he didn't deserve" but that would invite questions she didn't want to answer.
"Oh, I see," Narcissa said, a smug little smile on her lips. "It's not what you did to him, but what he did to you." She moved to stand against the fireplace. Ironically, the same one Hermione had thrown Lucius against the night before. "He was in quite a state when he returned last night. I'd have blamed Potter, but he's never been able to affect Lucius quite like that, so I assume it must be you."
Hermione's already strained patience was waning. "Mrs Malfoy, if you want to know what happened, I suggest you ask your husband. I'm not in the mood for this." She rose from the chair and turned to leave.
"Such poor manners," Narcissa remarked, shaking her head with feigned disappointment. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected more." She took a seat and poured herself some tea.
Hermione stopped at the door and looked back. Part of her was curious about what Narcissa would have to say to her.
The blonde witch sipped her tea daintily, peering intently over the top of the cup. "My son is in love with you. Oh, don't look so surprised. It's been obvious for years. I won't insult you by pretending I'm happy with the situation, but I am not so arrogant that I cannot see the advantages a union with you would bring him. Should you return his affections, I would not stand in your way."
Had she really just...? Instinctively, she began shaking her head.
Narcissa's eyes flashed with resentment and her teacup clinked sharply on the saucer. "The arrangement would benefit you, as well, I promise. The Malfoy name still carries a great deal of prestige and my son is a fine man. He would be good to you."
It must have pained her to say this, Hermione realised, and she was impressed by her selfless love for her son. Narcissa may not have had many good qualities, but this was her greatest. She almost felt guilty when she gave her answer.
"I don't want your son or your name. I don't want anything from you."
"Oh. Pity." Her eyes were downcast. "Lucius seems intent on having him marry the Greengrass girl. I don't think Draco would be happy with her." There was a small twitch at the side of her lips. She was relieved.
Fine by me, Hermione thought bitterly. I wouldn't want you for family either.
Narcissa stood gracefully, head high and proud, but her voice was quiet. "My husband has an extraordinary talent for finding weakness." She watched Hermione carefully. "The flaws you try to keep hidden, the tiny little doubts that creep into your mind. Finding and exploiting them for his own use. He knows exactly where you're most vulnerable, exactly what to say to hurt you." She smiled again, supercilious pride on her red-painted lips, but Hermione suspected she was speaking from experience. "That's probably why he's attracted to you. You're no match for him, Miss Granger."
"I don't mean to be."
"When this is over—"
"When this is over, I won't have anything more to do with your family, Mrs Malfoy."
Narcissa arched an eyebrow. "Do you really believe that?"
She met her gaze with confidence.
"Well, keep your delusions if you like. It's nothing to me. I suppose I should be going. He doesn't know that I've come here. You won't tell him, of course."
"And why not?"
She laughed, a high lilting sound that was as delicately musical as it was snidely condescending. "Oh, you poor dear. You don't even know the game you're playing, do you?"
But something about what she'd said made her think. If she'd come here without Lucius knowing, he must be distracted, which meant... "Harry is there."
There was a momentary lapse in her perfect composure, which Narcissa quickly covered up. "Oh bravo, Miss Granger. Very clever. Yes, Mr Potter is at the Manor. I understand there's been some incident involving the Weasley's youngest daughter."
She was either fishing for information or else she expected a reaction. Hermione gave her neither.
"I do hope the poor girl recovers. Please give my best wishes to the family." She stopped short. "Oh. Silly me. You can't." And then she Disapparated without another word.
Hermione sank back into the sofa, weariness seeping into her limbs. Narcissa must have felt very threatened to come here. On further thought, it didn't surprise her. The House of Black had been destroyed and, with it, any influence Narcissa might have drawn from her family. The House of Malfoy might be in disgrace now, but it was all she had.
But Hermione was bothered more by the fact that Harry had gone to the Manor and not bothered to see her or even send word of how Ginny was doing. He had to know she was sitting here, waiting anxiously for any information. Her eyes were stinging when she laid her head back down.
Three days of silence and anticipation had her on edge. Lucius would return eventually, alone or with Harry, she didn't know which, but she didn't look forward to seeing him again. She'd set wards to alert her when he finally did arrive, determined not to be taken unawares, but Tully had steadfastly dismantled them every night. Confronting the Elf had only resulted in tears, a wringing of hands, and cries of "Master says no!" and she'd been unable to convince her to stop taking down her wards.
The library was where she spent most of the days, engrossed in the books when she could convince her restless mind to concentrate. She searched fruitlessly for more information on the gwyllgi, but could find scarcely more than she already knew. Lucius would know more. He'd taught Harry some kind of spell to fight it, but somehow she doubted he'd tell her anything. Especially after that night.
The book she held now, a leather-bound tome, so carefully preserved that even the black lettering was still crisp, had proven the most valuable. She read the passage for what must have been the thousandth time, hoping there was something more she must have overlooked.
The gwyllgi is a wild magical creature, native to Wales. Its appearance has been regarded as a portent of death. Witnesses have described it as a enormous black dog with fiery eyes, slavering jaws, and an ominous
Ginny's face, blood spilling from her throat, appeared behind her eyes. She shook her head to clear it and continued reading.
The gwyllgi can only appear after dark as its form is composed of Dark Magic. It has been known to attack unwary travellers on dark roads. Its body is at once tangible and intangible, resembling a ghostly apparition rather than a substantial animal. It is capable of merging its form into shadows to dodge magical attacks. As such, capturing the gwyllgi has proven difficult for even the finest Magical Creature Keepers.
"Don't move." She closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
Gwyllgi are vulnerable to light and fire, though given its form, there is considerable debate over whether it can be substantially or even permanently injured. Gwyllgi which had appeared to sustain injuries from magical attacks have appeared again, whole and uninjured.
Her heart leapt in her chest, the way it always did when she reached this part.
Unseen in the magical world for the last fifty years, the gwyllgi has been assumed extinct by many Magical Creature researchers, although rumours of its appearance in the Muggle world continue. Its last confirmed sighting was recorded by Magnus Ignotus in 1896, who studied the creatures extensively and postulated that gwyllgi should be a protected magical species. To date, however, attempts to capture and preserve the gwyllgi in substantial form have been unsuccessful.
She felt his presence before she heard him. It was like a weight on her shoulders, a prickling down her spine. She'd been listening for days for that tell-tale pop of Apparition and now she she had to wonder if that deceitful little House-Elf who'd been removing her wards had also put up silencing charms.
Lucius stood in the doorway, cloak around his shoulders as if he were dressed for a proper outing, arms crossed nonchalantly over his chest. He was watching her, she realised, weighing her reaction to seeing him. She tried to refrain from any of her nervous habits that always gave her away—chewing on her lip, tucking her hair behind her ears—but somehow, she knew he'd pick up on it anyway. It was a horribly apt comparison, she thought: Lucius Malfoy could read her like a book.
"Enjoying my books, are we?" He pulled the cloak from his shoulders and laid it over a chair.
For a moment, she just stared at him, unsure of how to respond. Was he still angry with her? Or did they just pretend nothing had ever happened? Her fingers smoothed over the wand in her pocket—it was a comforting gesture. "I was just doing a bit of research."
He held out his hand, an unspoken request for the book she was holding. She handed it to him. His fingers brushed hers as he took it, and she pulled away abruptly and stepped back. The barest hint of a smile was the only acknowledgement he gave. "Gwyllgi? Your research comes a bit late."
"I was hoping to find something I'd missed. The one we fought escaped that night," she explained. "I wanted to be prepared in case it returned."
His eyes scanned the page, then flicked back up to her. "Magnus Ignotus... he didn't actually succeed, you know. But his research was invaluable to the wizard who did." That wasn't indicated in the book, of course. She wondered how Lucius had learned of it. Was it written in some book held in a private pure-blood library? Or was it passed down orally to ensure the knowledge was kept among pure-blood families?
"And who was that?" she asked.
Lucius smiled. "Don't be presumptuous, Miss Granger." He slammed the book shut and it magically replaced itself on the bookshelf.
His refusal didn't bother her; she hadn't expected him to tell her anyway.
"Would you care to see it?"
She eyed him skeptically. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. The gwyllgi."
He was deliberately being cryptic. How could she see the gwyllgi?
"Mr Potter's found it," he said finally.
Her brow furrowed. "He's found the gwyllgi? How?"
"The gwyllgi must be anchored by a magical object. It would have returned to its container when it was injured. Potter was able to retrieve it. He's bringing it back to the Manor so that I'll have a chance to examine it. I thought you might be interested."
"What about Ginny? Did he say anything about her?"
"She's alive, I'm sure of that much. Potter hasn't deigned to tell me anything about her condition. He's set Aurors by her bedside, though I doubt she's in any danger. She, after all, was not the intended target." He looked pointedly at her.
"I need to see her. And Ron. He'll be devastated."
"No." The answer was automatic.
"You can't forbid me."
Lucius shrugged. "I can't help you either. You can't leave this house and I can't leave the Manor." He said it as if it were some sort of equal punishment.
"Then ask Harry—"
"It can't be done, I said. Now let's have no more talk of Weasleys." He waved a hand at her as his brow furrowed in irritation.
"Then what did you come here for?" she snapped. "If you have nothing to tell me—"
"It seems Miss Weasley's injuries have prompted Potter to act." He paused, waiting for her reaction. "I suppose we should be grateful. He has quite the tendency to drag his feet."
"To act? What has he done?"
"He's taking a team of Aurors to investigate the Crowley house. Under the guise that all pure-blood households are being checked for Dark Magical objects. Crowley can't refuse without appearing to have something to hide."
"But what if he's already moved whatever evidence was there?"
"It doesn't matter. Potter only needs an excuse to bring him in for questioning. Once under Ministry control, a dose of veritaserum should give us enough to arrest him."
Was he implying what she thought? That Harry would plant evidence if they couldn't find anything? She didn't think that Harry would compromise his integrity like that. The Harry she knew wouldn't, but she had to admit that she knew very little about his life as an Auror, caught between Ministry politics and his own need to protect the wizarding world. And her, she reminded herself. She considered the man in front of her. Somehow, she didn't think Lucius was bothered by questions of morality.
"That's it, then?" she asked, hopeful. "Are you here to take me back?"
"Back?" he repeated incredulously. "Oh no, Potter hasn't given me permission to remove you from the safehouse. I came merely to inform you of developments. You did still wish to be informed, did you not?"
She nodded reluctantly.
"Even if it comes from me?"
She didn't answer.
"But you'd prefer it didn't."
Instinctively, she crossed her arms over her chest.
Lucius sighed. "I can't help but feel a bit insulted. I have done my best to protect you and advise you. You ignore that advice to your own detriment and now blame me for it."
"Or do you simply not trust yourself around me?" A mocking smile played about his lips. He reached out a hand, skimming the stray locks that twirled around her head. She slapped it away.
"Enough games," she snapped. Her hands were shaking and she clenched them at her sides.
"I beg your pardon?" He looked mildly amused.
"Stop playing with me, Malfoy! I'm not your entertainment for when you're bored with house arrest! This is my life at stake, Ginny's life, and it's just one big game to you, isn't it? I've had enough!"
"I assure you I am not playing games." He enunciated the last words with distaste. "You can't possibly understand how important this case is to me. My name, my future hangs on it. Potter would have me thrown back in Azkaban if you die and I can guarantee those Ministry bottom-feeders would ensure my accidental demise followed shortly." His eyes were bright when he looked at her. "Your life, Hermione, is the most important thing in the world to me right now."
Courage was failing her; she couldn't meet his eyes. "I don't want it to be."
"Neither of us wanted this, but here we are."
"I'm Muggle-born," she said.
"Yes, I'm aware of that."
"I'm not stupid. I know what you think of people like me."
"And you know what I think of you."
"You keep saying that—"
"But you refuse to accept it."
She shook her head. "I can't. I won't."
He sighed. "You can't deny there's something between us."
Something. There was a word for it. There was a lot of something and none of it good. This strange relationship they had – not quite enemies, not friends, possibly something like allies, but with far too much tainted history between them to ever really be on the same side. To him she said, "What do you want from me, Malfoy?"
"Exactly what I say." There was a look in his eyes that she didn't understand.
She looked at him with disbelief.
"I apologised for hurting you," he insisted. "It was just a kiss, nothing more."
Except it wasn't just kiss. There'd been more in it than simply attraction. That kiss had been a statement. She felt her skin flush at the memory—his hands holding her in place, mouth pressed against her own. She didn't believe he'd been misled. He'd acted on his own impulses and, like a child caught red-handed, had put the blame on her rather than accept fault. That controlled aristocratic mask was slipping and now she could see that he was far more petty and cowardly than she'd realised before.
"If you ever touch me again, Lucius, I will tell Harry." She looked at him evenly. It was the first time she'd used his name and it had the desired effect. "He won't stand for it. You know he won't." Her voice was quiet, but she knew he was listening intently to every word.
He met her eyes and she caught the barest hint of a nod. He didn't like to be told no, but he wouldn't jeopardize his situation by making an enemy of Harry Potter. If there was one thing she could trust, it was that Lucius Malfoy would always act in his own best interest.
"Believe me, Miss Granger, you need not remind me what I have to lose." His voice was bitter.
She nodded, teeth worrying her lower lip despite her best efforts.
"Then we understand each other."
His lips pulled into something that wasn't a smile. "Indeed, we do."
A/N: Reviews please? :)