Hi Everyone, here is the longest chapter yet, to make up for three months of no updates. It's not lack of muse that's my problem, it's just a lack of time. And also because of zombies in October. I'm serious. Zombies. I blogged about it, for those who are interested.
Today, I defended my PhD proposal (damn, it was BROoooOOTAL) and am still kind of shell shocked because about an hour ago, my daughter and I were at the ER (paediatrics) for the first time in her life. She cut her foot. She's fine now (snoring right next to me, in fact). Her wee foot is all bandaged up and I'm so tired and emotional right now, I could cry. But I HAD to get this chapter out to you. Please excuse the typos. I often find loads of them AFTER I upload, but I'm going to sleep now and will not get to do that until tomorrow. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who celebrated it. I also hope any readers from the Philippines are safe and well. Oh, and I finally started watching Walking Dead. Only up to the first episode but really liking it so far.
"Let us go. We don't want any trouble."
That was the last decipherable snippet of audio they heard from Hermione. And before that, had been her desperate, final warning issued to Richards. Some kind of scuffle broke out, where it sounded like Mercer had been injured. But it mustn't have been too badly because there was plenty of cursing and trash-talking before Mercer's end of the communication system went dead. Someone had taken his ear-piece.
And then there was radio silence from Richards, Wallen and Hermione.
If it wasn't for the communication system, Harry and Neville would have been none the wiser about what was transpiring on the trawler. Both men were still wearing their ear-pieces when Hermione's frantic voice literally stopped them in their tracks.
They hung in mid-air now, hovering over the water. Neville's broken leg stuck out at a forty-five degree angle to the broom. And thank goodness for it, too. Had they been more streamlined and aerodynamic, Harry would have made more considerable progress in their journey back to London. The strong, head-on wind had additionally slowed them down.
"It's all static! I can't make it out," Neville was saying. Frowning, he tapped at his ear-piece.
"Shhh," Harry ordered, holding up a hand. He blinked, trying to make sense of the garbled noises coming through the system. He even held his breath. Damn it, they were too far out. The voices were soft; sentences came in bits and pieces.
That registered loud and clear. It was Padma. So far she seemed to be the only one who still retained her communication system. Amarov or whoever was perpetrating the attack on the team had evidently forgotten to take it from her.
"Oh Alec, what have you done…."
Neville had progressed well past pale. He was grey now. He stared at Harry. "You need to go back."
Harry was about to reply when they heard Padma again.
"He shouldn't even be here! He's a Muggle, just like you!"
Harry had never seen Neville so panicked, and arguably, he had some experience in dealing with an extremely panicked Neville Longbottom.
"Harry, go! Just go!"
God damn it, he wanted to. He wanted to leave Neville on the broom and Apparate back to the trawler. It would be easy. He could do it.
But no, he really couldn't.
"I can't leave you, you git! If you faint or fall, you're doing to freeze to death in this water!"
"They're being attacked!" Neville shouted at him. "Hermione, Padma and the others! You go to them. I'll Apparate back to London and get help." And with that, Neville reached for his wand, but Harry grabbed his wrist.
"Listen to me, Padma said you're in no state to fly. And if you can't fly, you certainly cannot bloody Apparate! You'll splinch yourself. Or worse, you'll splinch the wards at the house and you'll leave everyone in it open to attack from the Infected."
Neville's mouth open and closed, fish-like. "What...Merlin, what should we do?"
Padma's screaming came through the communication system. She was shouting Mercer's name. And then abruptly there was nothing but static. They had now lost all communication with the team on the trawler. Mere minutes had passed since the first sign of distress from Hermione, but clearly, the unthinkable had just happened.
The wizards sat astride the broom, stricken for a moment.
"We're going back," said Harry, bringing the broom about. "We're both going back."
He received no argument from Neville, who gritted his teeth as he untied Padma's splint from his broken leg. Harry watched, wincing when Neville bent his injured leg into the proper broom-riding position, in line behind Harry. Neville then tied his ankle to the back of the broom, just above the bristles. Now, they were streamlined.
"Ffffuck," hissed Neville, who was undoubtedly in all kinds of agony because he never swore. He was shaking from head to toe and his hands now gripped Harry's back so tightly, it hurt. "Let's g…go"
"Hang on, mate," said a sympathetic Harry.
Back in first year, Oliver Wood had once clocked a reckless young Harry flying so fast on his little Nimbus 2000 that the twenty-year old School sprint-flight record was undone.
On this day, that record was once again left for dust.
Harry leapt from the broom before it came to a complete stop, wand in hand. His agility was always impressive to Neville, but in that moment, it was Harry's fortitude for which Neville was most thankful.
"Stay astride!" Harry called out as he inched around the side of the boat, making his way to the bow. The water was choppy now and the boat lurched back and forth. "You'll have more manoeuvrability on the broom!"
Neville was staring in horror at the bobbing bodies of two Petrified kidnappers. They were about twenty or so meters from the boat, carried away by the current. Neville scanned the horizon. There was no sign of a fleet, which meant that a smaller, faster vessel had likely been involved.
"Who do you think did this?" Neville called out to Harry. "Could it really be Amarov?"
There was no reply from Harry. Concerned, Neville lowered the broom, flying just above waterline. He found Harry near the bow.
Harry was standing in blood. Most of it was already coagulating which meant that the soles of his boots made gruesome imprints as he walked. A man's severed arm lay beside the collapsed crane. It wasn't the neat severing of a machete strike. Rather, it looked like the arm had been twisted and wrenched out of its socket. There was only one person on the Project Christmas team who was able to do that. And it was dire news indeed if Felix Wallen had felt desperate enough to use the strength he laboured so hard to suppress.
But none of these details were as gut-wrenching as the sight of Alec Mercer's body.
"Oh no…" Neville whispered.
Mercer's black shirt was darkly stained across his chest, but it was the gun-shot wound in the center of his forehead that made Harry clench his shaking fists. The Australian scientist lay with his hands folded across his stomach, his head was pillowed upon a rolled up piece of clothing. Harry crouched down next to the body.
"Padma's jacket," Harry said, his voice flat. He didn't look at Neville when he spoke. "Wait here, I'm going below to see if anyone else is still…here."
Neville could not speak. He swallowed and nodded, instead. Harry disappeared into the pilot house, his boots making a sticky noise as he went. Neville turned the broom about and proceeded to fly around the perimeter of the boat. He wanted very much to vomit but managed not to. It was no consolation that close, personal contact with zombies had managed to strengthen his constitution over the past few months. That was experience no one wanted and everyone could do without, thank you very much.
He assumed they would need to check if any of their team had met the same fate as the kidnappers. And he simply would not leave that task entirely up to Harry. So Neville flew up and over the trawler, scanning the water. When he was satisfied there were no other bodies adrift, he began counting the bodies that snagged in the rigging which trailed along and behind the trawler. It was curious to feel regret when he saw the shocked, frozen faces of the drowned people, but there was also relief at the same time, because he did not recognise any of them.
It was when he added 'Body Number Five' to his tally, did he find his voice.
He didn't wait for Harry. Neville dove-broom, broken leg and all-into water that was so cold it felt like a thousand icy needles were piercing his skin.
When Harry found him, Neville had already managed to untangle Agent Barnaby Richards from the nets.
It was thirst that did it. For a while, she drifted in a neutral place where her senses occasionally registered light or muffled sound. Eventually, however, her thirst forced her to awaken. Her tongue felt as dry as cardboard. She sat up against mismatched pillows. One pillow was more of a cushion—covered in floral jacquard with red piping. Wherever she was, it was clearly not meant to be the medical treatment center of Amarov's fleet. There was nausea and dizziness, but it was not overwhelming. It was almost a disappointment not to be afforded at least a few minutes of disorientation, which would have given her time to acclimatize to…well, things.
So many things.
Hermione was cognisant of the fact she was on a ship in Amarov's fleet, and perhaps in some kind of scientific laboratory, seeing as the site had not been fully prepared to treat patients. She was wearing what she assumed was a white nightdress that seemed to consist mostly of frills and flounces. It was huge, but it was clean and made of cotton. It would do. It was pointless to avoid inspecting her wound—the gunshot was not going to go away for lack of pondering over it and neither were the stitches, which she now examined after spending some time undoing the tiny buttons of her nightgown. The stitches were neat and the light pink entry would was sealed and healing well under sterile, sticky, latticed dressing. To her right was an IV stand. Antibiotics and fluids, she supposed. Speaking of which…her monstrous thirst compelled her to scan the metal trolley beside the bed. It contained gauze, tape and other medical supplies, but no water. For a moment she fantasized puncturing a hole in the IV bag and sucking out its contents.
There was a screen separating her sickbed from the rest of the room. If there were people in the laboratory, they were being very quiet. She contemplated calling out for assistance, but decided that she felt well enough to go for a bit of a wander. There was also the fact that she had no idea if the natives were friendly.
Experimentally, Hermione wiggled her feet under the blanket and then drew her knees up. Everything worked fine. All systems were operational, except for the fact a bullet had recently ripped a hole through her belly and people she cared about were dead. There was still some pain in her stomach, being both sharp and dull at same time. If she concentrated hard enough, she could locate a different sort of pain altogether—grief. It swirled and bubbled like molten rock, somewhere deep inside her. It would not do to tap into that pain, for now. Painkillers were clearly still at work, dulling more than just the hurt of her wound. She was thankful for that.
Hermione slowly brought her bare feet to the floor, thinking how odd and squashy they felt against the laminate and after what she assumed were many days of being horizontal. After a few fortifying breaths, she walked to the supplies trolley and used it for support. There were no suitable weapons, not even a pair of scissors.
She picked up a packaged syringe from the trolley and lamented the fact that amongst all the frills of her nightgown, there did not seem to be any pockets. An experimental wriggle confirmed that she was indeed sans underwear within which she might stash a weapon. Hermione ripped open the packet with her teeth and uncapped the syringe. It would accompany her as she explored her surroundings. Despite the calming apathy induced by the medication she'd been given, she still felt afraid. Anger surpassed her fear, however. There was a particular kind of anger that came with helplessness. It was made of resentment, hate and a feeling of profound, acute, soul-burning injustice.
She gripped the syringe tightly in her first and stepped around the screen.
It was indeed a laboratory and it was about five times the size of the one at Grimmauld Place. There was enough fancy equipment to give Padma happy heart palpitations.
Padma. Where was Padma? She had to find out.
"Hello," Hermione called out, her voice was thin and raspy so no surprise that no one came running out to meet her. No guards, no scientists. It seemed odd that she'd been left alone, but when she thought about it, there really wasn't anywhere she could escape to, was there? She was on a ship in the middle of a fleet that was ruled—likely with impunity—by Alexander Amarov.
There were two things that stuck out in the modern, white laboratory, but Hermione's attention was temporarily captured by the large stainless steel fridge recessed in the wall to her immediate right. Clutching her middle, she limped towards it and prayed that it was not used to house specimens and perishable medical supplies.
She opened it and wanted to weep when she saw the microwaveable meals, plastic wrapped food of every description, fresh fruit individually encased in stretchy foam and unopened, boxed slabs of bottled water. Without further ado, she took out a bottle, opened it (grunting in pain when she realised that abdominal muscles were somehow involved in this process) and drained half its contents in four Olympic-sized gulps. The water was cold, sweet against her chalky tongue and the best thing she'd tasted in her life. When she had had her fill, she screwed the cap back on and then pressed the cold bottle against her forehead.
Her gaze settled over the stack of folders she recognised as the ones Honoria had taken from Grimmauld Place. Dog eared, faded, mustard yellow folders that stood out amidst their modern, white and steel surroundings. Ah, so this was a rival team, intent on beating Project Christmas to a cure. Hermione wanted to laugh. If only they'd asked, Scrimgeour would have shared the information. It wasn't a bloody competition. The whole concept was insane. Who would think to profit from the solution to the Infection?
Amarov. He was…
He was the key to getting the cure to the public in time for the Wizarding Senate's Christmas nuclear deadline. Project Christmas had already lost too many of its key players. Amarov was capable of seeing the cure become a reality. He had a team. He had Malfoy, Padma and Merlin only knew how many others captive in his floating social experiment. Hermione didn't realise she was crying until one of her tears landed on her bare, right foot. She wanted to kill Alexander Amarov. It was a rare feeling for her. Not since Voldemort had she harboured such acute hatred.
The second thing that stood out in the laboratory was something else that had been stolen from Project Christmas, more or less. Hermione instantly recognised Seamus Finnegan's Azkaban maximum security cell design. And she knew that only one other person was intimately familiar enough with its construction, to recreate it.
Malfoy had clearly assisted in creating the cell in the western corner of the laboratory. The construction was bespoke, judging from the mismatched metal girders that lined the corners of the cube and the welded, steel-enforced glass panels.
Safety glass, surely. Because what lay inside the cell was not there by choice.
It moved. And the irony of that smooth motion was not lost on Hermione, who could only walk in a slow shuffle.
The zombie in the cell was not ordinary and quite unlike most of the ones Project Christmas had previous encountered. It was sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing away from Hermione, hunched over, focused on…something.
Hermione placed her palm against the glass and leaned in closer to look.
The thing—the girl (no more than five or six)—turned its head very slowly. It stared at Hermione, blinked and then crawled quickly towards her. The item the zombie had been holding dropped to the floor. It was a raw marrow bone, liberally covered with tiny gnaw marks. There was a split on one end of the bone and the stale marrow, looking like yellow cottage cheese flecked with bits of dark red, had begun to spill out.
Crouching would have proved too much of a challenge and so Hermione simply sat. The zombie child watched her and then carefully mimicked her actions. A minute later, they were seated on the ground, watching each other, separated by several inches of glass.
The creature was in excellent condition, apart from the fact that clumps of its wheat-blonde hair had fallen out and suppurating sores had developed at the corners of its mouth. Milky blue eyes watched her with curiosity. There was a doll in the cell. It was probably the most horrifying aspect of the setup. Hermione wondered if the toy had belonged to the girl before she'd been Infected, or if one of the scientists had given it to her. Either way, it lay on the floor, ignored. The bone was the prized possession.
"Her name is Eloise Withinshaw," said a male voice. "But Malfoy calls her 'Bitey'. She goes mental if she doesn't have something in there to chew on..."
Hermione spun around to face the voice, utterly stunned to find that it belonged to Blaise Zabini. She recognised her old Hogwarts classmate immediately. Being rather genetically blessed, he hadn't aged very much since she'd last seem him, during those final bedlamic months at Hogwarts. Here, he was dressed in baggy slacks and a long-sleeved maroon and grey checked shirt. It was Zabini at his most unkempt. Beside him was a man Hermione recognised as the enormous guard who had boarded the trawler with the rest of Amarov's men. This was the same man who had shot Mercer in the chest to save Amarov's life. Hermione was instantly wary and began backing away along the floor, holding the uncapped syringe aloft.
Zabini dropped to his haunches, holding up his palm in a placating gesture. "It's alright, Granger. Anatoli is…he has an understanding with Desmond, Malfoy and I."
"Does that understanding extend to murdering innocent scientists?"
Anatoli scowled at her. "You put gun in his hand. He carry gun. He shoot." The guard shrugged. "I shoot back."
Hermione turned away, not wanting either of the men to see how upset she was. Anatoli was correct. And Padma had been right all along—it'd been folly to bring Mercer on a combat mission. They had indeed put a gun in his hand. If blame was a cake, Hermione knew that she, Harry, Richards and Scrimgeour deserved several slices. When she had composed herself, she addressed her next question to Zabini.
"Who is Desmond?"
"Desmond is Malfoy's butler."
That was the cherry on top of what had thus far been a sundae of surreal.
"His butler," Hermione repeated.
"Yes. You'll meet him later in the day. He sees to Draco's meals and clothes, though from the look of Draco, it seems he's lost interest in both," Zabini muttered. He held his hand, palm up. "You've been in and out of consciousness for two weeks. Give me the needle. In your state, you're going to fall over and stab yourself."
Grudgingly, she handed over the makeshift weapon. Zabini immediately tossed it to Anatoli.
"Are you being held here as well?" She was aware that 'Bitey' was crawling along the floor inside the cell, following Hermione, almost frame for frame. The zombie child bared her teeth in a little snarl, before attempted to bite at the walls of the cell. Its teeth made painful clattering, scratching noises against the glass. Zabini and Anatoli must have been used to this spectacle, because they hardly spared it a second glance.
"I am. As is my son," Blaise replied. "There are about a thousand other wizarding captives."
Hermione felt the blood drain from her face. She allowed Zabini to help her up to her feet. He motioned quickly to Anatoli, who brought a wheelchair from a corner of the room. On shaking legs, Hermione gratefully climbed into it.
"Are you alright? It would be no trouble to fetch someone."
"I'm fine, thank you. I'm just a bit more unsteady then I thought I'd be."
"It was silly of you to leave your bed without calling for help. Anatoli would have heard you. It's his shift at the moment to watch over the labs. I was just dropping by to seek some Muggle pharmaceutical assistance for my insomnia."
Hermione pushed her hair out of her eyes. She was still processing what Zabini had told her. "Are you really saying that Alexander Amarov is responsible for abducting that many magical people and holding them here against their will?"
Zabini smiled a very cold smile. "He has help, but ultimately yes, he's responsible."
"What in Merlin's name does he want with so many of us?"
"For amusement, for labour, for experimentation." And with that, Zabini pointed to Bitey. "Eloise fell ill with a normal Muggle infection. She was considered too sick to be saved, so Amarov had her deliberately Infected in order that we would have something in this cell to study."
Hermione stared at the zombie, at what used to be a wizarding child, somebody's baby. "My God."
Zabini snorted. "That's what Amarov aspires to be, no doubt. Here, he has the final say on who lives and dies."
"Where is Padma? And Felix Wallen, our colleague?"
"Fortunately for Patil, medical doctors are like gold around here. Amarov's got her doing rounds, treating the Muggles in the fleet. Your lycanthrope friend recovered a week ago. He's being kept in isolation, in the hold."
"What will happen to him?"
Zabini hesitated for a moment. He looked at Anatoli, who shrugged. Hermione had no idea what that meant.
"There are games," Zabini explained, his voice losing some of its earlier aloofness "About every week or so, they pit wizarding citizens against zombies. I imagine adding a werewolf into the mix would be quite something."
Hermione blinked. "These are war crimes," she whispered. "Surely someone has said this to Amarov?"
Zabini sighed. "Thank goodness that you're here, then, Granger. You'll be able to explain to him the error of his ways. Admittedly, Amarov's been very complacent of late. The only reason he even managed to get himself abducted recently was because he was lax with his security."
There was so much of Malfoy in the way he spoke. Slytherins, Hermione thought. They were all the same snooty peas in a pod.
"Are you a scientist as well?" Hermione asked. She didn't mean to sound so incredulous.
"Goodness, no. Amarov tolerates me because I assist the fleet by procuring supplies. And I only have this position thanks to Draco's quick reflexes and even quicker thinking. Speaking of which, would you like to see him?"
Zabini blinked. "Yes, Malfoy. Unless you'd like Anatoli to wheel you directly to Amarov's quarters instead, so you can personally tell our deranged Messiah that you're all better?"
"Sod off, Zabini," Hermione muttered. It was amazing. They were seventeen years old again.
His smile defrosted a little bit. "Come on, let's go wake the dragon."
There was luxurious and then there was the ship Amarov lived on. Actually, maybe luxurious wasn't an apt description. Anatoli pushed Hermione in the wheelchair along carpet so thick that the wheels of the chair made tiny, temporary trenches as they rolled along.
Opulent was a better word. Also, gaudy. Anything that could be gilded, was gilt-covered. If a piece of fabric was study enough to take a tassel trim, it was tasselled, and then some. Hermione tipped her head back, looking past Anatoli's surly expression to stare at the ceiling because maybe, ah yes, there it was—a painted ceiling featuring half-naked Ruben-esque women resignedly swatting away swarms of cherubs.
Zabini must have sensed her train of thought. "This is the ship that good taste abandoned."
"Not to mention sanity, morals and ethics…" she felt compelled to add.
He shrugged. "Those things, I can take or leave."
They entered an elevator and Zabini hit the number '2' button. Apparently the labs were housed in the bowels of the ship. Up they went, and quickly too. Hermione felt her insides unpleasantly lurch just before the lift came to a halt. The painkillers were a blessing.
Malfoy's room wasn't very far from the elevator. They went down one dark corridor, turned a corner and there they stood before two enormous, carved wooden double-doors. Hermione mentally replaced the word 'room' with 'quarters'. Suddenly, the idea of Desmond the butler didn't seem so ridiculous anymore.
Zabini bent down to speak to her. "Like everyone on the fleet with an actual job to do, he's overworked. But because he's Draco, he's especially overworked. We breathe sighs of relief when he does manage to get some sleep, so let's keep all this down to a dull roar, yes?" Blaise Zabini's bedside manner was almost as bad as Malfoy's.
"I'll try to restrain myself," was Hermione's deadpan reply.
That at least earned her a slight tilt at the corner of Zabini's mouth. He opened the doors and bid Anatoli goodnight. "Come back just before six," Zabini said. "That should give us enough time to get her back to the lab."
The guard gave Hermione one last glare, and then lumbered away into the darkness of the corridor.
"He doesn't like me."
"It's not you, it's what we're doing. You seem to be Amarov's latest distraction du jour. Right now, we're effectively playing with Amarov's favourite toy, without asking."
Malfoy's room was mostly dark; the only light came from a single lamp on a table beside the bed. She was surprised to note that Zabini and his son were sharing a room with Malfoy, though you could likely sleep an entire Quidditch team in the quarters, if necessary.
A tiny person occupied the long lounge, hidden under a mountain of blankets. All Hermione could see was the top of his dark head. Her attitude towards Zabini immediately softened. Beside the lounge was a foam mattress on the floor, bearing several pillows and a large quilt. It was haphazard, but looked quite comfortable.
"Home sweet home," Zabini said. He was halfway across the room to his sleeping son, when Malfoy spoke.
"What the hell is she doing out of bed?"
It was amazing how simply hearing his voice still managed to startle her on some level. It was alien to her and ironically also so familiar—a voice she'd heard every day for seven years; refined, precise, always slightly condescending.
"She left her bed of her own accord," Zabini replied. "Anatoli and I found her having a bit of a moment with little Eloise."
Hermione heartily wished they would start referring to her by her name. She was right there, after all.
Malfoy rubbed the heel of his palm into his eyes. "I've told you not to call her that."
"You also said not to call her a 'her'."
"Don't call it Eloise. That thing we're keeping in the lab is not human."
"Neither are you after four days of double shifts," Zabini said, icily.
"He used to do the same thing at Grimmauld Place," Hermione muttered.
Both men looked at her, as if surprised to find her still there.
"Anyway, I thought you two might like to catch up, given…recent events," Blaise gently scooped up his sleeping son, blanket and all. He did this in a single motion, careful not to jar the boy. The child remained fast asleep, his cheek now pillowed against his father's shoulder.
"What's his name?" Hermione asked.
"Henry Miles Greengrass Zabini," Malfoy answered, and there must have been some private joke between the two men, because Zabini actually managed a brief smile of authentic amusement.
"Thank you, Zabini."
"Don't mention it," Zabini said, "but be ready to receive Anatoli at six. He'll take her back to the labs before the next lot of grunts start their shift."
Malfoy glanced at the digital clock on the bedside. "Three hours. Plenty of time."
At this, Zabini looked slightly troubled. He glanced at Hermione and then back at Malfoy, his hand still protectively placed against his sleeping son's back. "Malfoy, it behooves me to remind you that she's in no state to do anything but chat and sleep."
Hermione wondered if she should be relieved that she seemed to have enough blood left in her to manage a raging blush.
"Fortuitously for Miss Granger, I am in a similar state," said Malfoy, "but I thank you for reminding me of my unchivalrous tendencies."
"Where will you take him?" Hermione asked Zabini, inclining her head to his sleeping son.
"There's a lounge and a fold-up bed in Belikov's office. The guards use it occasionally. We'll put down there for the night. I'll see you two in the morning. Well, later in the morning."
Zabini and little Henry left, the doors closing behind them with a soft swoosh against the carpet.
Hermione remained seated in the wheelchair, beside the bed, uncertain how to proceed and unsure what to say. For a moment, it seemed that Malfoy was much the same. But he eventually resolved their dilemma by simply lifting up the covers and holding them open for her. There was no need for preamble.
It was an expansive bed. She crawled across to him; barefoot, in her frilly nightgown, with crazy cat-lady hair and smelling like three kinds of antiseptic. Malfoy has apparently fallen into bed earlier than evening still wearing blue jeans and a plain, white t-shirt. He was a furnace. Hermione wondered how she hadn't realised she'd been freezing earlier. The pleasure of that heat, even if it came with only an illusion of safety and security, was intensely heady. She shuddered, fitting into him as if their assorted shapes and angles were designed just so. There was a minor issue. His belt buckle was digging into her lower back. She shifted once, and then again. On the third move, he grunted, slapped a quelling hand on her hip and sat up. Malfoy undid the buckle with one hand, and then pulled the belt free, tossing it to the floor. It landed on the carpet with a dull klink.
Neither of them was very relaxed after this, however. Not in body or mind. She felt it in the taut weight of his arm around her, which ought to have been heavier than it was, and heard it in the way his breathing was shallow and measured. It was reassuring to know that the tension was mutual.
"I'm going to find us a way out of this," she announced.
There was silence. And then, "Continue."
"Amarov has some kind of interest in me. Morbid, most likely, but I wasn't left for dead and he seems intent on making me well again."
"To what end, one wonders?" Malfoy wondered, although the question sounded mostly rhetorical.
"Nefarious ends, I think it's safe to say." There was no point beating around the bush.
"And how do you plan to get one up over him, Kiska?"
That endearment, not heard since their relatively happier time together with the team at Grimmauld Place, brought a small lump to her throat. She recalled the advice Richards had told her many weeks ago, about capitalizing on Malfoy's interest in her. About using it. She had balked at the suggestion then, but now contemplated if the same move could be played against Amarov. Would it even work? If it could help their situation in even the smallest way…
"If I play my cards right, he may allow me access to people and places in this fleet that others cannot readily get to. Blaise says there are about a thousand of us. That's a small army. We have options, but they've always been too risky. Anything we can do to increase those options must be attempted."
His arm grew slightly heavier around her and his hand had commenced stroking circles into the small of her back. "And if he decides to keep you in a cage for his own personal and private amusement?"
Hermione had considered this of course. She was not one to put herself in danger lightly. The payoff had to outweigh the risks. Otherwise she might as well be Harry.
"In Amarov's mind, the fleet is the cage. He's complacent. He thinks he's untouchable, but the mere fact he was kidnapped is proof that he's as vulnerable as he allows himself to be. Blaise also mentioned that Amarov was only taken by those mercenaries because he got careless."
"He will never trust you."
"He doesn't have to. He just has to believe I'm no threat."
"You are many things, Granger. Meek and compliant are not among them."
She tilted her face toward him. Given that the lamp light was directly behind him, only the outline of his face was visible. "You know well enough how it goes—we become what we need to be."
"And never what we want to be."
"Desperate times," she whispered. It was all kinds of inappropriate to feel like she felt right then. Not when so many people depended on them for the cure. Not when her friends were dead, Padma and Wallen held captive for Merlin only knew what. There were in the midst of such terrible danger, and yet…
It had to be the drugs—allowing certain baser instincts to surge to the fore when she was less able to assign them a much, much lower priority. Compartmentalising was difficult at the moment. She looked at the shadowed, dark curves of his mouth. She wanted to taste this exhausted, complicated man. More than just the heat of her blush spread across her body, pooling low in her belly, and lower still.
"Given your association with Potter, I'd say half of your life comes under the heading of 'Desperate Times'."
She felt his voice reverberate through her body. His hands were at her abdomen, she could feel the warmth of his fingers even through her nightgown.
"What are you doing?"
"Checking your dressing." His lips moved against the corner of her temple. His beard was scratchy. "It's due to be changed later today. I'm pleased you're up and about, though it was foolish of you to come and see me now. Rest ought to have been your first priority, especially if you're hoping to enact this plan of yours."
"Blaise mentioned I've been out for almost two weeks. That's enough rest."
"You don't think much of my plan, do you?"
He unbuttoned two buttons of her nightgown, over the stomach, and slipped warm fingers inside to run along the edge of the dressing. Hermione shut her eyes.
"On the contrary, the more time you spend with Amarov, the more we're likely to know about this device he's using to hold an entire fleet hostage. But more to the point, it will be your best chance to stay safe. Any time spent outside the main holding cells, is time well spent. There is one problem, however."
These were no longer the hands of a doctor. Certainly not her doctor. His fingers now stroked the soft skin of her belly, his rough-padded thumb skimming over the rim of her navel. So much for the Hippocratic oath.
"What's the problem?" Good. At least her voice was working.
"Know what it is you may be required to do. Put that brilliant mind of yours to the task of imagining what Amarov could possibly want with you. And understand that for you to enact this plan, I would have to allow it."
Ah. They'd arrived, inevitably, at the big, pink, woolly mammoth in the room. Or at the problematic chapter in the metaphorical book of Hermione's life, entitled, Feelings and Other Mushy Non-Practical Stuff.
"Amarov said there aren't that many witches being held in the fleet."
"There are enough," Malfoy clarified.
That confused her. "Then I'm not quite sure why he has an interest in another ordinary witch?"
"Ordinary," he snorted. It wasn't a question and not quite a comment, either. "Granger, some lights burn brighter than others, and it's a unique kind of happiness to be around that. The best of us feed that light and our reward is to continue to enjoy its glow. Those like Amarov, however, they are like Muggle hunters who go on safari to hunt the biggest, most challenging game. They are collectors of experiences and trophies. For them, it's about mastery."
"Malfoy," she began, unable to keep the smile out of her voice, "am I the safari game in this analogy? Or perhaps a fluorescent light bulb?"
He rapped his fingers over her hip. She supposed this was what passed for disgruntled.
"Do you have a better plan?" she asked.
"Of course, but I cannot tell you."
"Even if it means your odds of success increase if you enlist more people you trust to help you?"
"Trust is too freely given."
"In your world, maybe," she muttered.
"We live in the same world now, Kiska."
"Does this plan of yours put you in danger?"
"We are all of us in danger as long as Amarov commands this fleet."
Hermione tensed against him. Malfoy swore. It was odd hearing Muggle bad language coming from him, but she guessed he'd picked up a thing or two in his travels.
"So that's the plan," she said, soberly. It was hopeless pretending she didn't know now.
He was angry. "Damn it. Did I mention I am severely sleep deprived? I have had to add caring for an invalid to my many other duties in the laboratory. You are not to discuss this with anyone, do you understand? No matter how much you think you trust them."
While she was not privy to the details of his plan, the big picture made complete sense. The fleet was not the enemy. In fact, it was probably the world's most useful asset at the moment. Remove one man. Preserve the fleet. And then the asset belonged to the people.
"You are very clever, Draco Malfoy."
"I know. Not that it makes you listen to me, most of the time."
"Thank you for saving my life, again."
"Belikov did most of the work."
"When I see this Belikov, I shall thank him, too," Hermione said. "And I'm sorry about what happened when Honoria took you."
"I heard your apology already, Granger," he said. "There was not much to be done about it, given the circumstances."
"Yes, but I didn't look for you."
"It's because I didn't give you any reason to want to look for me."
She stared at him. "You were what we needed you to be—the villain. And you insulated us from Honoria, that time. But not now. Now you need to be something else entirely." She placed her hand against his cheek.
His hand wrapped around her wrist, the grip slightly too hard. "I may not be the homicidal maniac in this story, but make no mistake, I am not Harry Potter. So I suggest you disabuse yourself of any foolish notion of my redemption," he said. "If I had the means to do it, I would take you from this place whether you wished to go or not. I would leave your friends. I would leave Zabini and his little boy. I would abandon the chance of creating a cure. And I would do this without a second glance back, without a second thought. I would see this entire fleet sunk to the bottom of the sea, with innocent Muggle women and children, and all our fellow wizarding citizens still aboard. I would do that if it meant we could walk away, unconditionally. These are my priorities. I am not Amarov, but that does not make me one of you. I will never be one of you."
Silence followed this minor outburst. Hermione rolled away from him, and he let her. They lay on the bed together staring at the ceiling (thankfully cherub-free), not touching. She heard his sigh and thought she could detect contrition in that small noise. If she learned anything from this encounter, it was that they were both completely crap at talking about their feelings, even when their lives were at risk.
"You should save your time and energy for someone more suited to you," he eventually said. It was as close as he was going to get to actually acknowledging their strange relationship.
Hermione took stock of her situation. Currently in recovery from a near-fatal gun-shot wound, she was lying in bed with Draco Malfoy, on a cruise-liner controlled by a modern day Caligula, while all the world outside was battling to survive a zombie apocalypse.
"When all this is over, perhaps I might try online dating?" she said, blandly.
"Perhaps," he replied.
More minutes of uncomfortable silence went by, and her eyelids began to droop. She felt him draw the sheets up higher over her.
"Are you in much pain?" the tone of his voice suggested that 'Dr Malfoy' was back.
"Try and get some sleep. I'll wake you when it's time to go."
There was too much to do, too much to discuss and think about. She blinked rapidly, trying to stave off the sleepiness.
He was psychic. "There's time for all that later. Go to sleep."
"Granger, wake up."
Malfoy's hand was on her arm. All the lights were on, so it took a moment of blinking, squinting and pushing her hair out of her face before she could sit up and see anything. She really needed to brush her teeth. He'd showered and changed into a darker set of clothing. His wet hair was slicked back and the stubble she'd felt against her face hours ago was now gone. Hermione suspected he'd left the bed as soon as she'd fallen asleep. Oh dear, Zabini was going to be cross with her for stealing yet more sleep from the dragon.
"Anatoli is waiting outside to take you back to the lab."
Hermione was insanely thirsty again. And now her wound was hurting. It throbbed. She winced as she swung her feet off the bed. Malfoy appeared at her side with a glass of water and two white tablets. She didn't bother to ask what they were. Mumbling her thanks, she took the tablets. The glass of water was drained before she gave it back to him, wiping the back of her hand against her mouth. She spied the wheelchair in the corner of the room.
"I can walk now," Hermione said, her voice croaky.
"No, you cannot." He pushed the chair over to her and Hermione found she was too sore and exhausted to argue with him. He left her in the chair and went to open the door. Anatoli, who seemed to have grown even bigger since she last saw him, entered the room. It was no surprise when he scowled at her.
"Hello," she said, because as her mother liked to declare, manners cost nothing.
"If Amarov know about this, we are all dead man," Anatoli complained to Malfoy. "And dead lady."
Malfoy spoke to the guard in Russian. Anatoli replied in kind. They went back and forth for another minute or so, before a cranky Anatoli threw his ping pong paddle-sized hands in the air and wheeled Hermione out the door. There was only time for a farewell glance at Malfoy, who wore a slight frown.
Hermione waited until they were in the elevator before she asked Anatoli, "What did he say to you?"
"Weezard ask stupid question."
When it became clear he was not going to elaborate, Hermione raised her eyebrows at him.
Anatoli sighed. "He ask me if you will be safe with Alexander."
Anatoli's answering expression as he stared down at her was a perfect blend of resignation and incredulity.