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Hermione materialized in the receiving room at the manor in the mountains. She barely made it into the corridor when Lucius met her.
"How did you fare at the Potter house?" he asked. It was as if he had been waiting nearby in case her confrontation with her friends went badly. She was overcome by a soppy feeling, and she stroked his hand with her fingertips. Her fingertips weren't as scarred, (the treatments had restored some of their tactility as well) and since she cupped his cheek in the crypt she'd been a bit freer with touching. If not for the scars, it would have been almost impossible for her not to touch him constantly.
He wound his fingers between hers, and she nearly yanked her hand back…but she didn't. When she made no protest, he began to guide her down the corridor. He treats me delicately, she mused. Like a stray dog that might bolt if approached in the wrong fashion.
"It didn't go well," she said. "But there wasn't quite as much screaming as I imagined."
"Did you manage to have dinner with them?"
"No, but I'm not hungry."
"You haven't eaten all day, Love."
"My eating habits are my business. And you sound like my grandmother."
He chuckled. "Maybe I do, but someone has to look after you. You've proven how you tend to yourself when left to your own devices."
She snorted as they entered the dining room and he pulled out a chair for her. It was the one to the left of his chair at the head of the table. Thankfully, after the night they had their first sterile dinner together, she hadn't been seated so far away from him.
Hermione dropped into it, and when he released her hand, she was taken aback by her level of disappointment. "Fine, I will eat, but I don't want anything fancy."
"Order whatever you desire," he said, and summoned Binty.
She politely asked for a small portion of shepherd's pie and a cup of espresso. Shepherd's pie was her version of comfort food, and she needed a caffeine fix. She was exhausted from her visit at Grimmauld Place.
Binty popped out to fill the order after Lucius requested a cup of espresso. He had already eaten.
"Tell me what happened," he said.
"I don't want to offend you."
"If you think I'm unaware of their opinions, you are wrong. What you tell me will not be a surprise."
Again he wanted to Talk. She smiled, but the smiling stopped as she considered her visit. "Ginny called me sick and said I needed help. Ron showed me crime scene photographs from some of your Death Eater raids. Harry was calm, though. We actually had a reasonable conversation."
"I admit I am surprised Mr. Weasley showed you photographs."
Hermione tried to divine what Lucius was thinking. Did he worry the pictures had damaged her view of him? If he did, he was not letting on. "I've already seen you in action during raids, Lucius. You were in some of the memories I collected from other Death Eaters."
The corners of his mouth tightened. If he wasn't carefully schooling his face it might have been a grimace. "I see. I wondered if that was so."
"It's so," she said, then thanked Binty when the elf popped in with the espressos. Hermione added cream and stirred, only vaguely hearing the soft pop as the elf left again. "You were almost always masked, but I recognized how you moved, and later, your pattern."
"You would enter, cast Killing Curses, and exit as soon as possible. You took no joy in it. When the others urged you to go any further than that you always had an excuse ready. It was the same way Professor Snape operated. I viewed a few memories where he was present as well." She cautiously sipped the espresso, as it was steaming hot. "There was an exception, however. I'm curious what the poor man did to you. His name was Snodgrass."
She vividly recalled the pain Snodgrass endured under Lucius's wand. It had been sickening to view, but it was clearly an act of revenge. There was a personal feel to it.
When she first observed Lucius' methods, she thought he was a "humane" killer because he believed Muggle-borns were beneath him, and he would not deign to waste his time torturing them. His victims were like cattle to be slaughtered swiftly and efficiently. Ridding the world of them should not have to be a messy business, after all.
But once she realized Professor Snape operated in a similar fashion, she began to doubt if her opinion of Lucius was accurate. It wasn't until she watched Lucius' memories that all the pieces fell into place.
"Snodgrass overheard something he shouldn't have heard," said Lucius. "A conversation between Severus and I that shed light on our true allegiances. Snodgrass tried to blackmail me. I pretended to agree to the arrangement, and Severus concocted some fabrication that persuaded the Dark Lord Snodgrass should die."
"His death wasn't quick," she said. "Yet you offered to kill Pearl quickly. You did kill her daughter, didn't you? That's why you offered Pearl a painless death." His sadistic side took over when she refused to give him the answers he craved, but he did initially tell her he would kill her quickly and painlessly.
"I believe you already know the answer to that."
When Pearl recounted how Diana died, Hermione figured it out then. Now Lucius had confirmed it. "But you enjoyed torturing Bussard."
"Because of what he did to you, Love. I have witnessed what one suffers to become a sleeper. It's painful and time consuming."
Her twisted side was showing again. She was flattered he would torture someone in her honor, though that wasn't his only motive. He wanted information from Bussard, and Bussard had programmed Hermione to kill him.
"I don't remember any of it," she said.
"And I hope you never reacquire your memories of it."
Which reminded her of Draco. "How did Draco reacquire his memories? I saw you mentally battle with Bussard and win. Surely you can perform a simple memory charm."
"I suspect his robe or his ring is bespelled to reduce the effects of memory charms."
Draco did always wear a gold ring bearing the Malfoy family crest. He might hate Lucius, but he was proud of his lineage. "He never told me."
"Why would he?"
"Because we were partners for years. Because he should have known he could trust me. I would never Obliviate him."
"It was wise of him not to tell anyone, and unwise of him to reveal it to me."
"You act as if you plan to Obliviate him again."
"Nothing is set in stone, Love. I don't intend to, but I will if I must."
Binty delivered Hermione's shepherd's pie. The scent sparked her appetite, and she ate with more vigor than she thought she would. "Were you angry I told him the truth?"
"Yes. But then I realized I could simply watch how the situation with Draco unfolds. If necessary I can sort it out again."
She laughed. "To Obliviate him successfully you would have to strip him bare. But I don't think you should. We were Aurors, but we did our fair share of illegal activities when we had to."
"You're referring to Reginald Langley."
Hermione nearly startled. Reginald Langley was the Dark wizard Draco killed in cold blood for hitting Hermione with the bone shattering curse. Draco claimed it was self-defense, and Hermione backed him up. Both had lied to the ministry about what truly happened that day. "How do you know about that?"
"I make it a habit of knowing many things, particularly where Draco is concerned."
"A direct answer every now and then would be nice," she said, but not with rancor. Lucius hoarded secrets like dragons hoarded gold and jewels. In a way he treated everyone like they were a potential enemy, and he found it prudent to hide how much knowledge he had from his enemies.
"I will never stab you in the back," she said. "But my friends think you would do it to me, if there was ever a time it would be to your advantage."
"Do you agree with them?"
"I don't know. Snogging me was a stab to Draco's back, and he's your son. So…maybe."
"Things aren't always how they seem," he said.
"Another vague response from Lucius Malfoy." Now she was a little irked with him. He could have at least said he had no intention of betraying her, even if it was a lie.
"Hermione, there is an entire world behind the scenes that you aren't even aware of. I intend to show you that world, but not tonight."
Now that was intriguing. "Does this world have anything to do with the alliance of the scorpion?"
"You once demanded I give you full disclosure. When I resisted, you purposely angered me until I spilled everything, and you dissolved my glamour against my will."
He smirked a bit. "Brutish, I know, but I achieved my objective."
"Perhaps I should copy your methods. I can be quite Machiavellian myself. Or would that be dangerous?"
"It seems you wish to learn how far I am willing to go if I ever betray you, or if you displease me."
"Merlin, you really can cut to the quick of it, can't you?" Sometimes Lucius was perfectly vague, but sometimes he was perfectly blunt.
"If I ever do something…harmful to you, it would be for your own good. Because I have your best interests at heart. But I have no intention of ever hurting you."
She dropped her fork; the conversation had made her lose her appetite. "Yet you forsee circumstances where you might find it necessary, like you do with Draco. Why don't you just tell me what you're hiding? Haven't I proven that I can be trusted? That I will accept you, no matter what I learn about your past?" She pushed her plate away from her, and Binty popped in long enough to retrieve it and pop out again. The process was complete in half a second.
"Have you ever heard the expression curiosity killed the cat?"
She balked. "You're threatening to kill me?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Hermione." His voice was like a whip, and anger penetrated the surface of his mask. "You know what happened with Claudia. Do you think I would ever do something like that again?"
"You place me and Claudia in the same category?" she blurted.
"My point is, if you were to learn certain truths at the wrong time, you would find yourself in a jeopardous situation. The threat is not from me, but there are others who do pose a threat. Furthermore, I think you would put yourself in even more jeopardy if you know more than you do, because of how you would react to the information."
"So you claim you're hiding things to protect me. And you will no doubt refuse to tell me who these dangerous others are if I asked. You are not an easy man to care for, Lucius. I'm tempted to dose you with Veritaserum."
But her mood had lightened, and she didn't really mean it. Lucius avoided answering the question about her and Claudia, but he said enough. I think he might love me, she thought. She literally had to crush her lips together to avoid grinning from ear to ear.
Lucius took her hand, as it was resting on the table between them. This time she didn't think about withdrawing. "I would never become violent with you," he said.
"I know. That wasn't what I meant. What I meant is that you would Obliviate me, or lie to me, or manipulate me in other ways in order to keep your secrets. If there is a threat out there, I need to know what it is so I can protect myself. You aren't omnipotent. You can't protect me twenty-four/seven."
An image flashed: that of Lucius, pouncing in front of the spell meant for her…dying to protect her.
"When I was in the coma, I had a recurring dream. It was all I dreamt the whole week I was unconscious. Blackburn snapped my wand and then cast a spell at me. You jumped in front of me, to save me, and it killed you. It was dreadful. The dream looped over and over again, and each time I experienced it, it was like the first time. You died in my arms, over and over again." She shook her head. "If something like that ever happened, how could I live with myself?"
Lucius had gone very still…too still. She eyed him closely but tried to seem casual. "If you ever died to save me it would kill me inside. You would drag us both with you." This was true, though she had worded it rather dramatically in order to see his reaction.
Either he had figured out what she was doing, or he had no reaction, for she detected nothing. He plucked up her hand and kissed her bent fingers. "It was only a dream, Love."
"Are you using your mojo to distract me?"
He blinked. "My what?"
"Your mojo. Your…sexual appeal. Kissing my fingers to divert me from the topic we're discussing."
"I had no idea I could divert you so easily. I will have to remember that." He began kissing her fingers again, one after the other, causing jolts of delicious pleasure. It was difficult, but she managed to pull herself out of it.
"You are trying to distract me." She wrenched her hand from his grasp. "Lucius, please tell me that was just a dream." Hermione didn't believe in Seers and visions, but miraculous things did occur in the magical world. Such as Harry being hit with the Killing Curse twice and surviving both times.
"You act as if I am lying to you, but why would I lie about it? If it is a vision of the future how would I know?"
She frowned. "I'm not sure. But I sense something in you."
"You are jumping to conclusions, Love."
"Am I? May I see your wand?"
"My wand is bespelled so only I can touch it. If you were to touch it you would be hit with a very Dark curse that would literally turn you inside out. Most Death Eaters use this spell on their wands. You should never flippantly grab another witch or wizard's wand."
She nearly reminded him she was a fully trained Auror. Not touching other wands without checking for bespellments beforehand was one of the first lessons they were taught. But she decided not to digress. "Then remove the spell or simply show it to me."
He hesitated, but finally withdrew it from his robe. His wand was fairly long, eighteen inches, and was constructed of elm. She wondered what the core was.
"This is how your wand appeared in the dream. It always disappeared under the snow, so I only saw it for a second, but I had the dream so many times…I'm certain this is the wand from the dream. Every detail I remember, anyway."
"You've seen my wand before, Love. That doesn't prove anything."
But Hermione wasn't so sure.
I have your gift, said the letter. Harry's handwriting was the same messy scrawl he'd used since he was a first year at Hogwarts. Meet me at Grimmauld Place tonight, and I will give it to you after dinner.
The gift was the cold case files, or so she hoped. It had been several days since she asked Harry to copy them. He also mentioned dinner at his home…which meant Ginny had also invited her? It seemed Harry had learned how to be subtle.
She Vanished the letter and returned her attention to the many notes she had taken while investigating Blackburn and his murders. Hermione had "reopened" the investigation, so to speak, the day prior in preparation for the cold case files.
It was all for naught, as she had no new revelations that might help her take down Blackburn. She did, however, find the address to the mysterious manor, which she had placed among her notes during her recuperation after the coma. Hermione had not visited Deacon manor herself because she would not be able to crack the wards, and she could not ask Ginny to do it.
She found it unlikely that she would learn anything Draco did not when he inspected the manor, but she wanted to see it with her own eyes. The reporter, Gribble, might have been wrong when he said the manor was somehow connected to Blackburn…but he also might have been right.
But who could she ask to disable the wards? She mulled over this for a while until the answer literally walked in.
"You have been working for hours," said Lucius. "You haven't eaten, and you have hardly left this room."
Hermione had holed up in Lucius' library and spread her notes across the table there. The only time she left was for her daily treatment with Healer Coruja and the hour she wore the accursed cream. "You are absolutely correct. I need a change of environment. How proficient are you at ward-cracking?"
His brow lifted. "Why, Love?"
She showed him the address of the mysterious manor and explained how she had acquired it. "I'm not sure how serious the wards are. Draco and Ginny went there, but Ginny can crack through just about anything."
"I am more than proficient," he said. Lucius was never one to shy away from declaring how skilled he thought he was. "Would you like to go there now?"
He offered one of his mischievous smiles and embraced her tightly. The Side-Along was not nearly as nausea inducing since she materialized in Lucius' arms. She bowed to temptation and let him hold her for a few seconds longer than needed before detaching from him.
Deacon manor had definitely gone to seed. It drooped to one side; a strong gust of wind could send it toppling it over.
"The only thing holding the manor together is magic," said Lucius. He was busy with his wand, determining what sort of wards he was dealing with and how to crack them. "This might take about ten minutes. If I am not careful I might trigger an alarm."
This was why Hermione did not ask him a hundred different questions about ward cracking while he worked. She kept silent so he could concentrate, but she did cast a spell. Four, red glowing zeroes appeared in the air before her. They began to count the seconds.
When they were at 00:45 Lucius spoke. "Timing me, Love?" she heard a smile in his voice, a smile she couldn't see because his back was to her.
"You might want to stop talking and start working. It's already been…fifty seconds."
"In that case I shall have these wards cracked in eight minutes."
Hermione snorted. She knew he would want to beat the ten minutes he'd initially given himself if she timed him. And she was curious how quickly he could complete the task. Hermione had familiarized herself with ward cracking prior to finding Blackburn's note in the Kneazle's grave, but all she had really learned was that it was a complex subject that required years of study and hands-on experience.
She kept a sharp eye on their surroundings, searching for signs of Disillusionments or anything suspicious. If Lucius accidentally triggered an alarm the master of the wards could ambush them.
"I am finished," he said finally.
"Seven minutes and fifty-five seconds," she announced, and allowed him a look at the numbers before she made them disappear.
"I've rerouted the wards so that we can Apparate anywhere on the property. Once we leave here, the wards will return to normal and there should be no indication anyone tweaked them. But we should not Apparate directly into the manor, not at first. I want to inspect it closer beforehand."
She and Lucius were already walking through the manor's front gates. They were rusted and in generally poor condition from the elements. He continued to move his wand now and then, searching for booby traps or other dangers.
Ward tweaking made her think of the warden of Azkaban. "Warren Crabapple."
Lucius turned to look at her. Now they were ascending a set of wide, stone steps, which were cracked and crumbling in some areas. "What about him?"
"Did you pay him to tweak the wards in your cell? How else could you have taught yourself how to do wandless Legilimens?"
"This is a good place to stop."
Hermione halted, and he began waving his wand around again. She held her tongue to let him work in peace. Eventually he went still. "It is safe to Apparate inside." And he was gone before she could say anything more.
She followed suit and found herself in a vast foyer. The walls and ceiling had fissures in the plaster that resembled spider webs, and they weren't the only spider webs. Real webs were in abundance, especially on the chandelier, which was so shrouded in white it might have been cocooned.
Lucius had paused to wait for her, and together they began exploring the ground level. It soon became clear that, besides the spider webs and layers of dust, the manor was empty. Each room they entered was bare.
"Draco said there was nothing to find here," she said, and her voice echoed wildly. "But I wanted to see for myself."
They eventually finished with the ground level and climbed the stairs. At the apex was a wide corridor, which dead ended at a massive window. The window was so dusty it was impossible to see through, so she cast a few Scourgifies until there was a clean space wide enough for her and Lucius to take in the view beyond the glass. From this vantage point she would be able to examine the grounds in the rear of the manor. She imagined they would be overgrown and offer nothing of value, but she was curious.
When she had her first glimpse of the grounds, she gasped, and a mixture of shock and panic and terror exploded in her. She pressed her face closer, hoping that she was wrong, that she was imagining it…but she wasn't.
She turned on Lucius, who was staring out the window with astonishment. He felt her gaze and his expression abruptly grew cold. "You lied to me! You recognize this place for the same reason I do!"
He opened his mouth to retort, but she grabbed him and Apparated them to the very grounds they had just spied through the glass.
She recognized this place because she had seen it in her dreams so many times. The only thing different was the lack of snow on the ground, but everything else…there was even a vine choked chapel looming in the distance.
Hermione found the little embankment he would roll down, and the spot where his wand would disappear in the snow, and the spot where she would hold him as he died.
This place was real. Real. And if this place was real…
But she seized him and Apparated them to her flat. If Lucius was to die at the manor, she wanted him as far away from it as possible.
The moment they materialized, she pushed back from him. She hadn't been to her flat in weeks, and it was on its way to being as dusty as the manor. But she didn't want to be underneath his wards, in case he should try to Obliviate her, or do anything shady. He lied when she asked if it was just a dream, which meant he did not want her to know.
"You didn't realize that was the place where it would happen until you looked out the window, but I know you recognized it…Expelliarmos!" His wand flew through the air, and too late, she remembered it had that horrid curse upon it. She stepped out of its path and it clanked to the floor, rolling beneath her sofa.
"There is no reason to disarm me," he said. "I have no intention of stripping your memory, or whatever it is you suspect I might do."
"And I'm supposed to believe that? You lied to me." Her hands were shaking. She curled and uncurled her fingers and tried to breathe evenly. Raging at him, or becoming too overemotional, would be counterproductive.
"I give you my word that I will not cast any spells upon you. The memories are yours and I will not try to steal them." And then, as casually as you please, he settled on her sofa and motioned for her to sit as well.
He was so elegant and gorgeous and calm…and absolutely infuriating. She wanted to throttle him she was so furious. But beneath that was a raw fear that made her feel desperate. In the dream there was snow on the ground. We only have a few weeks before it will be too warm for snow. If that was a vision, and not just a dream…
"I won't sit," she said. Instead she paced in front of her fireplace. "Now I am demanding full disclosure, Lucius."
"In the memories I gave you, there was a ring you once asked about," he said without preamble.
"The hideous ring with an eyeball rather than a stone."
"It is called the Cyclopean ring. According to legend, the Cyclops asked Hades for the ability to see the future. He granted their request, but they were only able to see a vision of their own deaths."
Hermione went rigid. "When you put on the ring…"
"It gives one a vision of their own death. The ring is extremely old, and it is the only of its kind in existence. The eye supposedly once belonged to an actual Cyclops. Whether that is true or not is unknown."
She thought of his memory, the one where he was standing on the cliff edge at the cottage by the sea. He was wearing the ring, and he told Professor Snape, I won't die on this day. Because he already knew how he would die.
"While Claudia and I were together, I often worried what would become of me if the Dark Lord learned of my love for her. I stole the ring from one of my father's safes, but I was reluctant to use it."
Yes, he was reluctant in the memory when he and Claudia were in bed together. The ring was on a chain around his neck when he considered putting it on.
"For a long time after I killed Claudia, I didn't care whether I lived or died. That broke through my fear and I slipped the ring on my finger."
"What did you see?"
"You know what I have seen because you have seen it as well."
"The dream. The bloody dream." Her wand snapping. Lucius, pouncing in front of the spell meant for her. Rolling down the embankment…All the blood rushed from her face. She had suspected as much, but to hear it…"No. That won't happen. I won't let it."
"You can't change the ring's vision, Love. This is our path, and no matter what we do we cannot veer from it."
These words were reminiscent of another conversation she had recently. "You told Professor Snape about your vision. He mentioned my path was set, and that it would not have a happy ending."
Lucius nodded. "Each time I put on the ring, I experience the vision as if I'm Future Lucius. I'm inside his skin. I feel what he feels, see what he sees, as if I am truly him. When I saw the wizard cast the spell, knowing your wand had snapped…Then, later, as I died, you held me in your arms.
"For years I did not know who the witch was in my vision. I was only able to see you in profile, and very quickly. When you held me after I was hit by the spell, my sight was blurred and your face was not entirely clear. It never crossed my mind that it could be you when you were a girl. Your hair was bushy, and a lighter color, and you were not yet a woman. Later I saw a photograph of you in the Daily Prophet, taken your first day at the Auror Academy. And I thought, This is the woman from my vision. The way you moved, and your changed appearance…I wasn't certain at first, and I didn't want to believe it. That it could be you…"
Hermione stared into the fireplace, trying to make sense of what she had heard. The bloody dream was real. She had watched Lucius's actual death over and over again while in the coma. She had even seen a portion of the vision earlier than that, when Draco was in St. Mungo's.
Lucius and Professor Snape insisted there was no changing the future, but Hermione refused to accept it. All Lucius had to do was not jump in front of the spell. How hard could that be?
"Why have I seen the vision?"
"There is a spell that allows another to see it, but only those who are in the vision itself. I paid Theodore Nott to cast this spell upon you. I believe you were in Mr. Flint's club when it happened."
Someone had bumped into her that night at The Lotus, and she'd felt a prickling across her scalp as if hit with a spell. The man was familiar, both in gait and voice. That was because it was Nott under a glamour. She would recognize his voice and gait; she went to school with him for years. But they were never close, so she wouldn't have figured out his identity from such limited contact.
"Why show the vision to me?"
"I wanted to prepare you for what is to come."
She shook her head. "This is ridiculous. All you have to do is not jump in front of the spell! You don't have to die."
"And if I don't then you will die."
"No, I won't, because we have foreknowledge of the events that will occur."
"It is not that simple. Do you know how many wizards before me have tried to change the ring's vision? The future it reveals cannot be changed."
"But the past can be changed," she said, thinking of how she used the Time-Turner to rescue Sirius Black and save Buckbeak's life. "If the past can be changed so can the future."
"You are misunderstanding, Love. There are pieces missing from the vision - important pieces." There were pieces missing in her dream. "These are the pieces that can stop me from changing the outcome. And the ring has also been known to twist pertinent details for the same purpose - to thwart anyone from altering their destiny. The only aspect of the vision that we know for certain is genuine is the manner of my death."
Blackburn would kill Lucius. Unless I kill Blackburn first…She gripped the fireplace mantle until her fingers throbbed. "I won't allow you to sacrifice your life for mine."
"It is fitting, though, don't you think? I could not save Claudia, a Muggle-born I loved. But I will save you."
Hermione's head snapped toward him. What was he saying?
"I have slipped on the ring countless times," he said. "As I already explained, I experience the vision as if I'm actually in future Lucius's skin. I know how I felt when you held me as I died. For years you were a mystery, but I knew what would happen between us. I have been waiting to be with you for over twenty years." Twenty years he had spent, wondering who she was. It was boggling.
Was this Lucius's way of telling her he loved her? She was stunned to silence. At this moment, she hated Blackburn more than she ever did. Because of the accursed scars she could not feel Lucius's touch…and because he would kill Lucius…
If Lucius was right, and the future could not be altered, she would not have him long. Grief wrenched at her with cruel precision. "All you have to do is not jump in front of that spell."
"There is no doubt in my mind I will. It is predestined."
"No, it isn't!"
The Malfoy mask was on full blast, and she had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. Show one glimpse of an emotion!, she wanted to shout. Something to show me what is happening under the surface.
"At least fight for your life, Lucius," she said, and her voice cracked. "Or are you suicidal?"
"There is no changing it, no matter what I do."
"So you won't even try?" She turned her back on him. Tears spilled, and her throat burned from the sobs she held at bay. She was so upset she lost control of her glamour; it blinked in and out, causing a strange effect. Smooth skin. Scarred skin. Smooth skin. Scarred skin. If she didn't compose herself soon it would completely dissolve.
More than once she imagined what it would be like if Lucius ever told her he loved her, but she never imagined it would be like this - ruined by the knowledge that he would soon die, that she could not keep him. "If you care for me you will fight to stay alive so we can be together."
"I'm sorry, Love. That is impossible."
This was the first time she called him a name and his lips didn't twitch.