Safety in the Storm

by jennieslife (jennieln)

Author's Note:  It's been months since I last updated and for that, I apologize. This part is in thanks to two very special reviewers whose emails gave just enough inspiration to get off my lazy arse and start writing again: Gothic Temptress (You have been with me from the very beginning and I appreciate that more than anything) and Nithya (You have no idea how much your email meant to me. Thank you again.)

This part is slightly shorter than usual, mostly due to the fact that I desperately wanted to post *something* and I won't have an opportunity to write until next Thursday.

Happy Reading!

Chapter Nine

"Non Compos Mentis"

(Not of Sound Mind)

The fire's warmth had finally seeped deep into her body by the time Jonathan's footsteps were heard tromping down the stairs.

"I've looked everywhere.  There's not even the slightest hint of a clue that a person had ever been up there," he told her, his voice soft, reassuring.  He peered down on her with a timid cautiousness that made her uncomfortable.

"There was a man.  I'm not crazy."  But she had the feeling that she was saying it more to herself than to him.

He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.  "I'm not saying you are, I just—"  Jonathan shook his head sharply before digging into his pocket and removing a small folded handkerchief.  "Here," he offered.  "Do you know what this is?"

Nervously, Hermione peeled back the folded cloth and examined the small, intensely green leaves that were inside.  After a moment, she looked back up at Jonathan, her mind working through the implications.  "It looks like Alihotsy, but the leaves are too small."

Kneeling down beside her, Jonathan nodded.  "You're right; it's a relative of the Alihotsy family.  It's usually not grown around here because of the wet environment but the reaction it causes is fairly similar in that the oil it secretes—"

"Is known to cause hysteria and fits of paranoia," she finished for him.  "Alihotsy is used in some fear potions."  To be perfectly honest, she was being to feel extremely sheepish.

"And in this case, instead of needing to be consumed, it only needs to have contact with skin to take effect.  This is called Aliroytsy and not only causes hysteria and paranoia but also delusions."  He took the leaves from her and carefully deposited them into the trash.  "I found it in the green house.  You could've brushed up against it without even knowing it or—"  He gently lifted her hand and traced a few of the delicate cuts he had gotten from trying to get the door open.  "Or, more likely, due to the fantastical nature of this hallucination, it got directly into your bloodstream."

She forced herself to stand but as soon as she did, she had to lean against the wall.  How idiotic could she be?  It had all been in her mind.

"It was all in my mind," she whispered aloud, tasting the bitter truth of the words, before wrapping her arms around herself, trying to ward off the sudden chill in the room.  Her foot tapped nervously, maniacally, and it took her a moment to gather her wits enough to force herself to stop tapping.  Once accomplished, she glanced up at Jonathan with a weak smile.

Jonathan hesitated, a pained expression marring his beautiful face.  "I'm afraid so, love," he finally murmured uncomfortably.  "May I suggest no more impromptu trips up to the greenhouse in the future?"

Quickly agreeing, Hermione also promised herself that she wouldn't be so gullible in the future, under the influence of a plant's secretion or not.  Suddenly, the heat from the fire smothered her again and she loosened Jonathan's oversized cloak as she fought the sense of suffocation that was threatening to overwhelm her.  The room was quickly closing in on her and her stomach roiled in objection.

"Air.  I need air," she gasped and she turned on her heel and threw the back door open.  The cold air was a much needed shock to her senses but not enough for her stomach as she soon found herself lurching violently as she heaved up its meager contents.  Hermione could hear Jonathan's footsteps behind her but to her great relief he seemed to sense her need to be left alone and he stayed back.  After a minute, she pushed up off the frozen ground and gratefully accepted the handkerchief he offered, a small part of her wondering just how many he carried.

"I'll be right in….  Just give me a few minutes."

She heard, rather than saw, him nod and he left her to her own devices.  She was embarrassed and unsettled by her reaction to the day's events, but most of all, she was furious with herself.  She should've been the first to realize that something was wrong with her, rather than letting her imagination run wild.

Deciding that she couldn't avoid going inside forever, Hermione forced herself to climb the stone steps and go through the back door that Jonathan had left open for her.  He was sitting at the table, reading through some parchments and sipping a cup of tea.  If he realized she was standing in the doorway, he showed no sign of it and she closed the door as he pushed a mug of coffee her way.

Her head began to throb.  The thing that irked her the most was that she was just causing more trouble for Jonathan and Draco to deal with.  They had enough on their plates as it was, they didn't need her imagining up some more.

She gulped down the hot liquid in a few huge swallows and she felt it slowly burn away all her anxieties.  More likely than not, Jonathan had put some sort of calming spell or potion in it, but for once she wasn't angry or offended at being drugged without her knowledge.  Besides, she could tell by the look on his face that they had more important things to be worrying about.

Finally, she voiced the question she hadn't even realized she had been avoiding thinking about.

"Where's Draco?"

* * * * * * * * * *

A wan moon hung low in the sky as the wind picked up, blowing his hair wildly around him.  Damien was in a silent rage—they were two hours behind schedule already—and the gathering forces were beginning to feel the pressure.  Exhausted both physically and mentally, Draco pinched the bridge of his nose before slipping away from the milling crowd and into the garden maze, losing himself in the tall hedges and taking temporary shelter from the wind.

Ignoring the empty, aching feeling deep in his stomach, Draco sat heavily on a gneiss stone bench and stared out into the small, squared-in garden he had wandered into.  All around him plants were magically in full bloom, unheeding the snow, wind or even the dark.  Although beautiful, it seemed to have lost it's attraction as it defied nature.  It was just surface now.  Not that Draco was a garden kind of guy, because he wasn't.  At all.  But it was a chance to get away and finally let his guard down.

Relaxed for the first time all day, Draco's mind drifted automatically to the one thing he had forced himself not to think about.  Hermione.  He suddenly pictured areas and regions he had not yet explored; he saw the slopes and curves of her body and the silver starlight reflected in her eyes as she vainly tried to figure him out.  His aching fingers itched for that touch of her that seemed eternally so close, yet so far away, and his lips curled themselves into an unnoticed smile as he stared into a garden he did not see.

His mind was consumed by her.

Suddenly, his body was wracked by a violent yawn, slamming him harshly into reality.  He felt a painful longing for sleep.  Instead, he forced himself to stand and took a deep breath in order to compose himself.  As he made his way back through the sheltered maze, he passed a small reflecting pond in which floated several lily pads.  Glancing down, he saw himself reflected, his face illuminated by the flickering orange of the torches that lined the garden.  Then a sharp gust of wind distorted his image in the water and he continued along, rejoining the growing group of death eaters—or, as Damien liked to refer to them as, Puritists.

Draco still wasn't quite sure what would be happening later.  All he could discern was that they were sacrificing something… or someone.  He shuddered at the thought and pushed by a few old classmates with a bit more force than he had intended.

Finally, he spotted Damien talking quietly with Rayanne off to the side of all the throngs of followers.  As much as he dreaded going near the female Bradford, his desire to go back to Jonathan's manor was stronger.

"Malfoy," Damien acknowledged with a curt nod, not seeming to notice or to care about Rayanne's attention suddenly deviating from the conversation they had been having.  She looked Draco slowly from head to toe before smirking.

"I heard you were beat up by a girl," she said wryly, fluttering her eyelashes just a bit.

"Nice to see you too, Rayanne," he bit out.  "Are you staying for the ceremony?"  Although he knew his face remained impassive, he could hear just a slight touch of impatience colour his voice.  When had small talk become such a chore?

"I wouldn't miss it for the world…"  She trailed off as a group of young men walked by, blatantly leering, and her lip quirked in disgust.  Draco had to wonder at the balls those guys had to do that in front of her brother but Damien seemed completely oblivious, lost in the parchments he was reviewing.  "I know they're pure bloods but I wish they would act like it.  They behave like sodding children."  Distaste dripped through her diction, a sentiment he understood perfectly.

"Then again," he offered.  "You dislike everyone."  She favored him briefly with a bitter smile.

"I wouldn't say *everyone*… perhaps only ninety-nine percent of the world's population."

He chuckled despite the sudden aching at the back of his throat.  "And the last percent is teetering on the edge, right?"

"You of all people should know."  She paused as she examined his face and gently brushed a lock of hair off his forehead.  "You look like hell.  Have you been here all day?"

Draco nodded and flicked his eyes back to her brother.  She had given him the perfect lead-in, all he had to do now was ask.  But before he had a chance to even open his mouth, Rayanne rattled on.

"I'm sure Damien won't mind if I take you home for a… shower.  Is that alright with you?" she asked her brother, resting her hand on his forearm to get his attention.

It took a moment.  "What?  Oh, yes, fine.  One hour.  But *you* stay," he added pointedly to Rayanne who pouted accordingly.  "If you go with him, you know you won't be back in an hour."

Damien obviously had no idea that Draco had never and would never touch Rayanne with a ten-foot-pole much less spend an hour alone in her apartment with her.  But, instead of correcting him, Draco winked and whispered, "Maybe next time," before apparating to Jonathan's.

* * * * * * * * * *

Harry could tell that Ron was close to panic.  Not that Harry himself wasn't, it was just rare for his best friend to be so tense and so silent.  In fact, Harry hadn't seen him act like this since his twin boys were left in the care of his twin brothers (in which case, the panic was completely understandable in Harry's opinion).  They had been on their brooms, flying at top speeds, for hours now and he had lost feeling in his toes sometime within the last forty minutes.  Or so he thought.

Again, he focused his attention to the small orb-like compass that throbbed steadily in the palm of his hand.  They were close, maybe only a half a kilometer away, and he contemplated landing early and going the rest of the way on foot in case someone was watching the sky.  After a moment of silent deliberation, Harry raised a hand and signaled to Ron for them to land.  Though Ron's face remained an impassive sort of grimace, Harry could've sworn he heard a sigh of relief come from the large man (which was ridiculous because the sound of the rushing wind had drowned out any attempts at conversation earlier).

Tilting the nose of the broom downward, Harry made a tight descent, all dive and no sightseeing and he sensed Ron doing the same not too far behind.  They slipped through an opening in the tops of the trees and down to the mossy floor below.  Ron's landing was not what Harry would consider graceful and Ron seemed more inclined to blame the dense, woodsy area (he was cursing everything from the bushes to the knats buzzing around his head) than his rusty flying skills.  After silencing his friend, Harry re-oriented himself as his eyes became adjusted to the limited light beneath the trees.  A nighttime wind rustled through the tops of the trees so that ghostly leaf shadows danced over the ground, leaving a foreign, nagging feeling deep in the pit of his stomach.

Shaking off all the foreboding feeling that flooded suddenly over him, Harry swung his broom over his shoulder and nodded down to what, at one time, could have possibly been a trail.  Now it was nothing more than a lull in the closely grown trees and underbrush, but it looked to be the most ideal place to try and travel by.  Ron nodded as he squinted through the trees and he arched his back and cringed when it emitted a chorus of cracks.

Fifteen minutes later, they were battling the overgrown brush—Harry was hesitant to use magik that close to their destination, who knew what wards or detectors were up—and they were attempting to remain quiet but not quite succeeding.  As they traveled, Harry was reminded of the Forbidden Forest that bordered Hogwarts.  It wasn't that it looked the same—this forest was too damp and too… empty.  At least in the Forbidden Forest, you would come across a creature or two: birds, unicorns, centaurs, huge-man-eating spiders, and occasionally Dark Lords feasting on unicorn blood.  But the only thing they'd come across there was an annoyingly large amount of knats.

He glanced behind him to Ron to see if her was thinking along the same lines as he was but found a nasty glare being thrown his way instead.

"Just like old times, huh?" Harry joked lightly, earning a grimace from his friend.

Ron swatted at a fly and almost toppled over in the process.  "Except for the whole jungle safari and the praying frantically to any god that'll listen parts."

"She'll be fine," Harry said and he wished he could swallow the sudden lump in his throat.

She'll be fine.

* * * * * * * * * *

The moment she heard footsteps in the front foyer, Hermione leapt up from her chair where she had been perusing a well-worn book, realized what she had done, and then sat back down just as quickly so as not to appear overeager.  Through the corner of her eye she could see Jonathan shaking with silent mirth and she scowled in his direction while trying to keep her embarrassment to a minimum and keep an eye on the door at the same time.

Draco entered not twenty seconds later and she took in his pale, bloodshot countenance without trying to appear as doing so.  His clothing was wrinkled, his shoulders were slumped, and even his hair looked too tired to stay in place.

"We held dinner for you," she said softly and she watched as his eyes flickered from Jonathan, to her, to the food on the table, and back to Jonathan.  The two men exchanged an indiscernible look that seemed to communicate much more than Hermione would ever be able to understand.

"Thanks.  I'm starved."  He sat at the head of the table, a seat they all seemed to unconsciously avoid for some unnamed reason, and the house elf instantly began serving them.

They sat in silence as the courses were laid out in front of them and Hermione was beginning to feel as though she might go mad until Jonathan cleared his throat.

"How long do you have?" he asked, dully glancing at his watch.

Draco frowned, his eyes focusing somewhere far beyond the run-down kitchen.  "Hour.  You?"

"Same."  Hermione shifted uncomfortably in her seat at Jonathan's lifeless tone.   "And so it begins."

The rest of the meal was eaten in silence.

* * * * * * * * * *

The enormity of the situation had hit Draco the moment he apparated in the dimly lit foyer of the manor.  This was the culmination of so many years of struggle.  It was finally going to come to a head, whether he came out on top or not.  It wasn't until the end of dinner did he realize that something was off with the dynamics of the group.  He first pinned it on his own moody silence but knew that it was something else entirely.

He looked, really looked, at Hermione and could've thrown himself in front of a bludgers for being such a prat.  Her eyes were slightly red-rimmed, but not swollen, and her cheeks were tinted a little. 

Something had happened.

The food was being cleared off the table when she finally noticed his attention. 

"What happened?" he asked quietly, addressing Jonathan but not able to tear his eyes from Hermione.

Her gaze left his and turned inward and he saw her grip her fork tight enough so that her knuckles began to lose colour.  Uncertain, her lips had parted slightly as if to say something before being pressed into a tightly controlled line.

"Hermione did a bit of exploring today and stumbled upon a greenhouse."  Jonathan raised a hand to silence Draco as he opened his mouth to start a long string of obscenities.  "It's nothing big, she just brushed up against some Aliroytsy and had quite a vivid if not terrifying hallucination.  Nothing a bit of sleep won't cure."

Draco forced a claming breath through his body until he felt controlled enough to speak.  She was embarrassed, that much was obvious, and obviously greatly upset.  So, instead of berating her, Draco surprised himself as well as the others by grinning.  "And here I was going to suggest that Jonathan and I try to get your wand back, but maybe that isn't such a grand idea after all.  I mean, we don't want you to start accidentally hexing anything that moves thinking they're the boogey man.  We gotta think about the poor house elves here."

There was a pause and Draco held his breath thinking that he might've crossed a boundary he shouldn't have.  But then she giggled.

"If you say so," she laughed, and Draco was satisfied with the balance that had been restored with her laugh.

"Now, I'm dead on my feet," he continued.  "Do you think you could possibly part with a small portion of your blessed coffee?"

* * * * * * * * * *