"Do you have a ticket, miss?" a man in a tuxedo asks brightly, stepping in front of Hermione.
The man, who is older and clearly part of security, blocks the path to the massive stairway leading to the grand entrance. His voice is too bright, as if his superiors told him to treat everyone at the ball with the utmost respect and gratitude, however insincere. Hermione looks at his brilliant smile uncomfortably. His face is going to split into a jack-o'-lantern if he keeps that up for long.
"Of course," she answers. She is trying to look at ease, not terrified like she really is. "Now where did I… put it…?" The ball gown from Malfoy is a confection of ruffles with a plunging neckline and a tiny empire waist that doesn't allow her to breathe, but whoever designed it didn't think to make pockets! Hermione takes off one of her white elbow gloves, shaking it until the ticket falls out. It takes a moment, but finally, the golden ticket lands in the man's hand.
"There you are," she says triumphantly, but her sense of victory is diminished when she sees the distaste on his face. Perhaps that wasn't the most ladylike thing she could've done.
"Thank you, miss." The ticket man's voice is half-strangled with the effort to keep that smile on his face from slipping. Blushing, Hermione replaces her glove with all the dignity she can muster – which isn't much dignity at all at this point. Her shin is still smarting from the incident with the old lady.
She looks at the guests above them. They stand posing for photographers and chatting excitedly to each other. The stairs are carpeted in red velvet, white rose petals dot them like sprinkles and the petals catch in lady's gowns as they walk up the stairs. Everyone is either a Hollywood starlet or fashion icon, if not some rich old couple dripping in jewels and sneering at the extravagance. The British actor, Gilderoy Lockhart, is signing autographs for a throng of adoring girls. He makes the reporters laugh with a clever joke, tossing back his famous golden hair.
He looks even handsomer in-person, Hermione thinks, sighing with admiration.
The ticket man pulls her out of her speculations. "I'm sorry to say that I've never heard of your name before," he says, confused. His smile fades slightly at the panic in her face, and Hermione's heart starts pounding. He is going to turn her away. She should have known better than to think a bloody ticket alone would get her in the Malfoy Gala. They hailed it the Party of the Century in the Daily Prophet!
"What is the meaning for your presence here tonight, Miss Granger?" he asks.
"I…ah… I prefer not to say…" Hermione has never been good at improvisation, but the disapproving frown on the man's face is telling her she has to do something. Her heart is galloping under the suffocating contraption of a dress that she put on for this ridiculous scheme. It can't all go to hell now, not so soon. But suddenly, she is in a cold, drafty corridor at Wool's and Mrs. Cole is looking down at her expectantly.
I want to hear the story from Hermione… I know she'll tell me what's really happened.
Hermione flinches. Why is this happening now? She doesn't want to remember, she doesn't want to hear the second voice, but it is part of the memory and it is inevitable. She hears it in her head, soft but piercing, like the velvet stairs in front of her – if the velvet was covered in shards of broken glass that is.
How does she remember his voice exactly after all these years?
Lie, he says.
"Miss Granger, are you alright?"
Come on, Hermione. His voice is impatient in her head, just like it was hissing in her ears so many years ago. Do it now and make it good. Her eyes – which she hadn't even realized were closed – open suddenly. The ticket man looks worried, as if he fears that he might cause a delay in the festivities when he has to ring for the ambulance for her.
Hermione smiles innocently at him.
"I'm terribly sorry for the confusion," she says, in a saccharine voice that she has never heard from herself before. "But I was specifically told to keep my family's donation to the Blacks' Costume Institute a secret. My father is rather fond of anonymity, and he was very sorry not to make it this evening and show the Granger's support for the Institute himself. As you can see, he has sent me in his place." She makes herself laugh, touching the man's arm delicately, as if they are in on a private joke. "The truth is… No one is supposed to know that I'm here, because my father wants me to surprise Lord Voldemort."
If the ticket man had looked surprised before, he is stunned now. He seems to struggle to keep his mouth from gaping to the floor. "Mr. Granger is a friend of his, I take it?" he says faintly, fanning himself with her ticket. "Of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," he explains, at her questioning look."No one ever calls him by his name, none except for his closest friends, and they don't even use that name in public." He seems to be talking more to himself now than to her, seemingly in a star-dazzled stupor, like the gushing girls at Gilderoy Lockhart's feet.
"Why is that?" Hermione can't help asking him. She has never been able to keep her mouth shut, especially when it comes to information. The man checks over his shoulder and behind her, as if he is paranoid someone else could be listening to them. He lowers his voice to a hush and she has to lean in to hear it.
"I suppose you wouldn't know, your father and him being so intimate," he whispers. "But shortly before You-Know-Who's disappearance, he made the announcement that his name must never be spoken and that a curse would fall on anyone who used it. Everyone is too paranoid to try it, especially in his presence. They say he has quite a temper," he adds, chuckling nervously.
"It sounds more like he is some sort of god," Hermione says in disgust. The man must mistake her revulsion for reverence, because he nods in fervent agreement. A clock inside tolls, reminding her what she is here for. Not for some self-absorbed bloke who goes by You-Know-Who or impressing the ticket man, but for Mr. Malfoy. She slips back into character.
"Thank you for your help, Mr…"
"Mr. Crouch," he supplies. His smile is genuine this time. "I can assure you that you and your family's discretion will be protected. Please, enjoy yourself at the ball, Miss Granger!" He walks her to the entrance himself, snapping his fingers at the younger staff to get the doors. Before Hermione walks away, he turns to her and adds, "If you tell anyone I said this, I'll deny it, but the other women here don't hold a candle to you, Miss Granger. You look radiant."
Her eyes widen. "Thank you, Mr. Crouch," she replies, touched. He bows to her and walks back to his post, leaving Hermione at the top of the stairs alone. She pauses for a moment to take in the anticipative chittering of guests, the blinding flashes of cameras, and finally, the two men in tuxes holding open the doors for her. She likes the way that Mr. Crouch looked at her, as if she was someone important.
It is a feeling she could get used to.
"Excuse me," she says, stopping a waiter in his tracks. She nods at the tray of champagne flutes in his hand. "May I?"
"But of course," the waiter replies, lowering the tray so she might select a glass. She picks one, draining it in several gulps and setting it back down for another. The champagne burns through her insides like liquid fire. "Thank you," she says, forcing herself not to cough at the sting. "Has Mr. Malfoy arrived yet?"
"His son is inside," the waiter says, referring to Malfoy Jr. "I believe that I saw him in the Egyptian room with the other guests. Will that be all, miss?"
"For now," Hermione answers. She sets down the second glass – empty – and walks into the Metropolitan Museum without looking back.
The champagne is good. Very, very good.
Hermione has only tasted cheap champagne before, the stuff that smells like belching and gives her a headache with a single glass. She had it plenty of times working for Madame Pomfrey's hat shop, her employer believed in keeping a supply of it for special events and long days when it seemed the Great War would never end. Hermione thought she had developed a strong tolerance for liquor after drinking so much of that nasty stuff in Madame Pomfrey's office.
She must have been wrong, because she is feeling just a teensy bit drunk.
"How many of those glasses have you had, dear?"
Hermione looks up in surprise. A lady in a bright pink dress with bows on it is staring at her with concern. Her chestnut hair has been brushed into ringlets. "Your hair is so pretty," Hermione says, reaching out to touch it. "How is it not frizzy? My hair is always frizzy." The lady's friends all glance at each other, bewildered, and a woman with black hair and hooded eyes snickers behind her hand. But the lady only smiles, pulling Hermione's hand from her head gently.
"I think you have had enough champagne," she says, not unkindly. Her English is very good, but accented. She nods at the man with black curly hair beside her, he immediately takes the glass out of Hermione's fingers without so much as a hello.
"Well, excuse me," Hermione says indignantly. "You could have at least introduced yourself first."
They all laugh at her again and she turns sullen. This is beginning to feel just like Wool's. "You're right," the pretty lady says, her eyes sparkling with amusement. "We are in the wrong for being so tactless. My name is Helena Ravenclaw and these are my friends. This is Bellatrix Black-" She points at the woman who laughed at her. Instead of saying hello, the woman merely sips her champagne, looking bored. "- and this is her fiancé, Rodolphus Lestrange-" A man with a surly face nods at her in greeting. "That girl over there is Narcissa Black, Bellatrix's sister."
They all look at a beautiful woman dancing by the exhibition. She laughs freely in the arms of her partner, as if she doesn't even notice they are about to collide with the giant excavated ruins of Ancient Egypt around them. The man dancing with her is no one other than Malfoy.
Hermione sobers instantly at the sight of him. Or at least, she sobers a little bit.
"Who is that dancing with her?" she asks, just to be sure.
"Lucius Malfoy, of course. He's completely taken by her," Helena says, smirking. "They shall be married by the spring."
"They aren't even engaged yet," says the woman with hooded eyes, Bellatrix. She looks annoyed by Helena's posturing. "This fellow who took your champagne is my dear baby cousin Regulus," she announces, taking over the introductions to force Regulus into the limelight. The dark-haired man is already staring at Hermione with a strange look on his face, but he says nothing.
"He isn't much of a talker, our wittle Reggie," Bellatrix adds. She tries to pinch his cheek, but Regulus steps out of her reach without looking at her, as if this is a predictable move on her part. Bellatrix pouts at him, like a put-out child.
"And what about you, dear?" Helena asks, reclaiming the role of hostess, and turning to her. "What is your name?"
"Hermione Granger." She hiccups. Ah, that's the rosé.
"Well, your dress is simply stunning," Helena says, looking her up and down. "You simply must tell me who designed it!" That sets off a circle of the others eyeing her too, and Bellatrix's gaze is decidedly the least impressed. She rolls her eyes and saunters off, leaving Rodolphus to excuse them and quickly walk after her. Helena looks pained as she watches them go.
"You'll have to forgive Bellatrix," Regulus says, speaking for the first time. He stands closer to Hermione, although she doesn't remember seeing him move. "Even if she is my older cousin, she tends to act the child." He looks at her and smiles, which makes him suddenly attractive. He has the same dark hair as Narcissa and Bellatrix. "What brought you to the Gala?" he asks.
"I… love art," Hermione answers, which is probably the biggest lie she has ever told. Regulus looks skeptical, but Helena eagerly puts in, "As do I, Hermione, as do I! Let me show you my favorite exhibition in the Museum." She seizes her arm, as if they are the best of friends, and steers them away from Regulus, who they leave alone and staring after them on the floor.
"Careful of that one," she says in an undertone, when they are out of Regulus' earshot. Hermione looks at her in surprise.
"Why? I thought he was alright," she says warily.
"Oh yes, yes, Regulus is kind enough..." Helena glances behind them – to check that Regulus isn't following them perhaps? "He may be cute as Clark Gable, but he is nearly as bad as his cousin. Not Clark Gable's cousin, I mean Bellatrix. At least she will tell you to your face that she hates you. Regulus would pretend to be your friend until suddenly, you wake up one day and all of your most private secrets are in the public. Such a little spy." She laughs airily, as if Regulus being a traitor makes her fond of him.
"It sounds as if you don't like your friends," Hermione says, glancing at her. "Why are you friends with them anyway?" She blames the champagne for making her speak so freely to a woman she has just met – that and there is something about Helena Ravenclaw's girlish nature that makes her want to feed into the gossip. She has never had a friend like that before. Or any friend besides...
Never mind that.
"They are my beau's companions, I want them to like me. Can you tell that I hate them?" Helena says anxiously, stopping them abruptly. They are far away from the Egyptian room now. Some of the other guests pass by them without a glance in their direction, walking toward the Pharaoh's tomb exhibit.
"Oh no, not really," Hermione reassures her, because Helena is looking ill-at-ease at the thought of being found out. She doesn't look appeased. "Your accent is so lovely," she says to distract her. "Where are you from?"
"Berlin," she says, still gnawing her lip in worry. "I am only here for the Gala and then I will stay for a few weeks before I return home. I came here for my beau, he is one of the artists."
"That sounds promising," Hermione says, eager to stay on a positive subject. "Which one is he?"
"I shouldn't say." But Helena's eyes glaze over with what can only be love. She pretends to be dizzy and sits down on the glass hieroglyphics display, although Hermione is fairly positive they aren't supposed to touch anything. She is about to say so when Helena speaks again.
"He is only the most brilliant and handsome man alive," she says reverently, clutching her heart. Hermione raises a brow at that, but Helena isn't looking at her. "I met him in Europe during a family trip to the mountains, my father always insists on taking our vacations in nature, and I usually hate the difficulty of living outdoors; all the climbing, having to cook your food in a fire, sleeping on an uncomfortable roll – even if we do camp in a resort." She makes a delicate sneer at the air and Hermione wonders what is the bad part of all that, but then Helena's scowl is replaced by a soft, faraway smile.
"Then I met him. It was such a coincidence, almost like destiny. He was staying at the resort, too, he checked in the same day as we did. He even helped me with skiing." She laughs at a memory, looking at Hermione. "I was terrible, but he was so patient with me. I didn't realize who he was at first and I think that's why he liked me. We've been seeing each other ever since – in secret, of course."
"Who is he actually?" Hermione asks, intrigued despite herself. I should be out there, finding Malfoy and questioning him. But she isn't tracking down Malfoy. Instead she is in a dark, shadowy corner of the Metropolitan Museum with Helena Ravenclaw, a woman she didn't know until thirty minutes ago. Most surprising of all, she doesn't mind it.
"Oh, you'll never believe me, Hermione."
"Of course I will. Who is it?"
Helena stops and stares at her hesitantly, building the anticipation. "Oh fine," she says, bursting with excitement. "It's You-Know-Who! I saw him during his retreat in Albania and he says that I'm his muse. It's so romantic, isn't it?" She is giggling with unrestrained joy.
"Wow," Hermione says, impressed. "Isn't he coming tonight?"
"He is." Now that the secret is out, Helena can't seem to stop smiling – or talking. "I came to America with him a few weeks ago, we've been staying in Long Island. He says that he has a special announcement to make tonight and - I know I shouldn't dare hope for it but – I think he is going to propose!" Her grin fades. "I know it's silly-"
"It isn't silly," Hermione interrupts, taking Helena's hands in hers. She smiles at her. "It's wonderful. He would be a fool not to fall in love with you. Look at you!"
"Thank you, Hermione," Helena says, looking away modestly. "I'm glad we met tonight. Perhaps we can find you a suitor, too. I'm quite good at matchmaking, you know."
"Oh, that's alright…" Hermione has only one man in mind for tonight after all, and he is in the ballroom behind them. "But we should return to the ball. Have some fun before the night is out."
"Of course, you're right!" Helena gets to her feet, checking her poofy gown for imperfections. "How do I look? Any wrinkles in my dress?" She turns in a circle for Hermione.
"You look perfect," Hermione says, and it isn't a lie. Helena Ravenclaw truly is beautiful. The diamonds at her throat are enormous, and Hermione wonders what sort of family she comes from... She shakes the thought off. Later.
"You are so sweet, Hermione. Now let's have a look at you!" Helena takes in every inch of her, and Hermione has to fight the urge not to hide behind one of the exhibits. She is expecting Helena to say something awful. Your hair is so frizzy. God, where is your jewelry? Nothing we can do about that face… She braces herself for the worst.
"Everything is perfect… except for one itty-bitty-little thing," Helena murmurs speculatively, walking in a circle around her. "You asked what I use for my hair and I'll tell you a secret. Mine looks just like yours, but I use this!" Suddenly, she pulls a tiny bottle out of her pearled clutch. Hermione cranes her neck to read the label.
"'Sleekeazy Hair Potion'?" she says, bewildered.
"It works like magic," Helena says, squirting a tiny mountain of it on her hand. "And it smells like peaches!" She reaches for her, but Hermione ducks and backs away from her quickly.
"I don't know… My hair is very temperamental…" she hedges, glancing at the empty corridor around them. If only there were someone to help. Would anyone come if she screamed?
"Trust me," Helena says sternly. The goop is all over her hands. "You're going to look like Cinderella by the time I'm through with you. And this product is very expensive, don't make me waste it!" It is this last threat which finally makes Hermione stand still, although she clenches her eyes shut so she doesn't have to see the horror that Helena does to her.
After a moment of tugging and Helena cursing, she stands back with a deep breath of exhaustion. "There," she says. "I must be a witch or something, because you look absolutely-"
"Horrendous?" Hermione guesses.
"-Fabulous!" She claps her hands in joy at her creation, squealing. "Have a look there, in the reflection of King Tut." Helena shoves her to stand in front of the polished golden tomb and Hermione almost doesn't recognize the blurry reflection. She sees Helena, looking beautiful as always, but standing next to her is a woman with silky curls and bright eyes in a blue ball gown. It's me, she realizes with surprise.
"You are a witch," she breathes, reaching out to touch the reflection in awe. Before she can, Helena loops her arm through hers and pulls her away.
"Now now, you know we aren't supposed to touch the exhibits," she says, winking at her. They both laugh. Helena flags down a waiter in the corridor, plucking two flutes of champagne from his tray. "One for you and one for me," she announces, placing the other in Hermione's hand.
"I thought you said I shouldn't drink any more," Hermione says doubtfully.
Helena tips her glass back and smirks. "I've changed my mind. We are at the 'Party of the Century' after all. Why not show these old bats what a real good time looks like?" At the face Hermione makes, Helena rolls her eyes and tips the glass forward for her. Hermione quickly gulps the champagne before it can get all over her dress. "Oh waaaiter!" Helena calls, waving her gloved fingers at the man, who is walking away.
The waiter stops and looks back. "Miss?" he says, confused. He is rather young, young enough to have a few sparse hairs on his lip instead of a mustache. Helena smiles wickedly, sauntering to his side and dragging Hermione along with her.
"We'll let you know when we are finished with the champagne," she says devilishly, taking another glass. She glances at Hermione, and she follows suit. Why not get drunk on the best champagne she has had in her life? She did pay for it. (With the money from selling off Malfoy's clothes, but still.) "When this tray is done, you can go get us another, dear." She winks at Hermione, who bursts into laughter. Why is everything so funny?
"Yes, Miss Ravenclaw, but the announcements are about to begin in the Egyptian room," he answers. Helena almost chokes on her champagne.
"Why didn't you say that before?" she sputters. "Quick, take us back. I can't seem to remember the way." She starts giggling when the waiter turns his back, guiding them back where they came. Her arm is still laced with Hermione's, she leans over to whisper in her ear. "I have to be there for my beau to propose to me, don't I?" She explodes into giggling again.
"Will he be alright seeing you like this?" Hermione asks dizzily. It is a bit difficult not to slur her words, but it isn't as if she is drunk. She is very sober. Her thoughts are clear as crystal. Her belly is just boiling like a tea kettle, that's all.
"I'm inesciated, not ugly," Helena replies cheekily. "He'll like me well enough."
"You mean inebriated."
"Oh yes! You're right."
They look at each and start laughing all over again. But when they enter the Egyptian room, they quiet to a hush of giggling. Everyone is silent with expectation, the guests stare at the enormous stage that has been erected for the event and whisper conspiratorially. Hermione recognizes the man standing up there through her daze. Lucius Malfoy, in a black tux with his bleached hair swept back from his pointy face into a low ponytail. He looks at ease behind the microphone where everyone can see him. Standing slightly behind him are Regulus and Rodolphus.
They find Narcissa and Bellatrix at one of the round tables closest to the stage. Helena sits down between them, whispering in undertones, and Hermione stands there awkwardly wondering where to go. Then Bellatrix hisses at her. "Oh, just sit in Regulus' seat, would you? You're blocking the stage!"
She flushes and quickly sits down in the seat with an elegant table card reading Regulus Black. "Is he going to be mad at me for sitting here?" she mutters to Helena, who begins to answer, but then Bellatrix silences them both with a death glare. Hermione sits back quickly.
Suddenly, the orchestra stops playing.
"Welcome, welcome everyone," Malfoy says, his deep voice booming through the hall. Hermione never realized that he is British. Where are the Malfoys from anyway? "I am pleased to see you all at the very first Malfoy Gala!" he announces. As if cued, everyone bursts into applause at this, and Hermione follows suit. The room is spinning around her in a kaleidoscope of flower centerpieces and smiling ladies in elbow gloves. She snatches the glass of water from the table, ignoring Bellatrix's evil eye when she drains it loudly. Malfoy is winding up to the end of his speech now.
"You have all come here for the benefit to raise funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will soon be renamed the Malfoy Metropolitan Museum of Art-" He pauses, smiling at the next wave of applause and bathing in it for a moment. Narcissa looks proud as she claps for him. "Yes, yes thank you. Now, it is because of people like you and I that art will never go out of fashion – and my father, of course, who some of you here know rather well... which is fortunate or unfortunate, depending on the mood he was in." He winks at an old man with ruddy cheeks in the crowd, who booms into loud laughter in response. "All jokes aside, Malfoy Sr. is not here tonight but hunting lions in Africa, though he sends his warmest regards. He has always had a thirst for adventure, which we emanate tonight at this very ball.
"This night was made possible with the help of Mr. Black, the chairman of Black Costume Institute," Malfoy continues, pausing as Regulus steps forward and bows at the crowd, who applaud for him. "-and Rodolphus Lestrange of the Lestrange Arts Foundation." Now Rodolphus steps forward, looking stern and awkward in the spotlight. Malfoy resumes the speech. "But it isn't only our sponsors that we thank here at the Malfoy Gala, but all of you," he says, voice ringing with sincerity. Hermione can't help thinking that Malfoy is laying it on quite thick with the sappiness.
"I am very proud to announce that your generous wallets – er, I mean hearts!" The crowd chuckles at that, Malfoy goes on, "But truly, it is thanks to your generous hearts and donations that we can say the first Malfoy Gala ever was able to raise over $50,000 for the museum! What a number!"
The crowd cheers harder than before. Many people move to their feet, clapping and hooting. Hermione sees an older woman yawn into her napkin, she is dressed outrageously in feathers and a giant hat with a stuffed bird on it.
"Not only that, but I have another special surprise for you all tonight," Malfoy says mysteriously, waiting until the audience is quiet and buzzing with anticipation. It is the moment they have all been waiting for, Helena is squeezing the ivory tablecloth so tightly her fingers are red around it. Even Bellatrix looks less bored suddenly.
Hermione squints at Malfoy in the spotlight of the stage, so bright and powerful that it brings a dew of perspiration to his face. He dabs at his brow with a green handkerchief, managing to still look good while doing it. She realizes that Regulus and Rodolphus are fidgeting behind him. It almost seems as if they are nervous, but they didn't seem to have stage fright before. What are they so antsy for? she wonders.
"It is with honor that I present the founder of Dark Arts to you tonight. He came to us straight from London five years ago, inventing a new style of art that has taken the world by storm, and he became a legend to us overnight. Without him, the world would not be what it is today, and I can say that I would not be the man I am without his guidance. He is the youngest artist of the century to change the world of art so quickly, so drastically, and he is my dearest friend. Now he rises again." Malfoy pauses for effect, letting everyone take in the drama for a moment. It is a strange choice of words, Hermione thinks, a little bizarre. He rises again.
Then Malfoy grins and shouts, "I present He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord himself returned to us at last!"
The crowd roars.
Clapping with the others, Malfoy steps off to the side, standing with Regulus and Rodolphus. The crowd turns as one to see the man stepping out of the shadows. He walks until he reaches the microphone, where he pauses and doesn't react to the adoring crowd, some of whom are screaming his name in joy and stamping their feet. Voldemort seems indifferent to his glory, or perhaps removed from the world entirely. But it isn't until he speaks that Hermione is sure the sight before her is real and not some kind of sick, twisted vision.
She wishes it was a vision.
"Welcome," Tom Riddle says quietly. "It has been two years since last we met. Yet you welcome me as though it were yesterday." He breaks the ice with a cool smile that could melt it. The sound of ladies swooning and sighing lustily is obvious without the orchestra playing. Tom Riddle has always been good at that sort of thing. It clicks in Hermione's head all at once, a second later than it normally would on account of the champagne.
"Oh fuck," she whispers.
AN: Thanks for reading! Reviews give me wings. ;)