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The Courage to Change by fictionletsyoufly
Chapter 5: Discoveries
Chapter Four: Discoveries
"We discover in others what other hide from us, and we recognize in others
what we hide from ourselves."
- Marquis de Vauvenargues
Hermione and Ginny were sitting in the Gryffindor Common Room, books scattered all around them, tattered pages opened to random numbers. For the past week, they had been spending late nights reading reference books on the founders of Hogwarts, but they hadn't found anything of interest, save for the fact that apparently Salazar Slytherin had been quite flighty with women in his day.
Hermione's fingers ran delicately under the first line of yet another page. It seemed like the empty words never ended, going on forever and never answering any of their questions. But out of the dozens of books they had lent from the expansive Hogwarts library, surely there were a few with information they could put to good use. At the moment it wasn't looking promising, but perhaps they would come across something soon.
Ginny's eyes were pried from Hogwarts: A History as the steps to the boys' dormitory creaked. Ron descended, looking tired, and came to take a seat next to the girls. When he didn't say anything, Ginny turned silently back to her reading. He looked around at the sea of musty books, wondering how Ginny and Hermione could possibly stay up this late reading. His brain shut down at the prospect.
"Haven't you two found anything yet?" he said impatiently.
The girls did not answer, their noses buried in the fold of thick pages, and, with no reply, he rose, deciding to see if he couldn't uncover something himself. As he stepped forward to pick up a small, fragile hardback, his foot caught on another's loose binding, and he fell, pages tearing from the ancient manuscripts and flying everywhere. At the sound, both girls jumped from their seats, dropping the books they held.
"Ron!" Hermione exclaimed worriedly, scurrying around the chairs to where he lay on top of at least a dozen books. "Are you alright?"
Ron glowed on the inside at her concerned tone, as she helped him to his feet and brushed the dust from his broad shoulders.
"Yeah," he replied, blushing as he gawked at the mess he just made. "I'm fine."
"Hermione, look!" Ginny squealed happily.
In her hand she held a faded page from the book Ron had just ripped apart. She handed gingerly to Hermione, who grinned as she scanned over it. It was an illustration - moving, of course - of the Founders in the library. At first glance, it seemed to be an ordinary magical drawing, but a closer look disproved this theory. Twisted gracefully around Salazar Slytherin's wrist was a long chain, on the end of which dangled a large, emerald stone.
"That's the Locket of Slytherin there," Ron said, seeing it too and placing his fingertip on the medallion.
Hermione nodded, examining the sketch even more closely. Slytherin was leaning casually against the wall, shockingly similar to the way Draco did, with one foot against a bookshelf. He was admiring the emerald rock that was wound about his forearm with a disturbing passion, almost as if he was in a trance. Occasionally, his black pupils would flicker to the others suspiciously, as if expecting them to steal his precious necklace. Rowena Ravenclaw was sitting at a table in the center, a book lain open before her - as was expected of the intellectual woman - but her eyes were not focused on the book. Instead they lingered on the tiara she wore on her head, filled with fear, as her hand gripped the diamond circlet. Helga Hufflepuff sat beside her, sipping every now and then from a ruby-studded goblet, both her hands clutching the cup. Her eyes were focused straight ahead, but she seemed unwaveringly aware of Salazar eyeing her from the corner of the room. And finally, partially unsheathing his famous sword and appreciating the yellow glint it created against the candlelight, was Godric Gryffindor. He seemed fully in control, not noticing - or possibly not caring about - Salazar's untrusting gaze upon his weapon.
"The other Founders have objects, too," Hermione pointed out suddenly.
"Gryffindor's sword is not a horcrux..." Ginny said, leaning over Hermione's shoulder. "It's hanging on the wall behind Dumbledore's desk, and if it were one, I think he would have figured it out and destroyed it."
Hermione nodded, deep in thought, "I think you're right."
"Well if the sword isn't a horcrux, how can we be sure that the crown and the cup are?" Ron asked.
"And where are supposed to find them?" Ginny added.
The three of them sat down, laying the drawing on the table between them, as they thought intensely, wondering what they should do. After a few minutes, Hermione stood, an idea flashing behind her eyes, and she snatched up the worn copy of Hogwarts: A History that lay at her feet. In a frenzy, she ripped through the pages, searching frantically for the page she remembered reading about Rowena Ravenclaw. Only a few seconds passed, and she came to it, the chapter titled after the Founder herself. She had read it so many time before that she wasn't surprised to recall the passage now, but unlike the previous times she had read it, this time was important.
In her excitement Hermione recited aloud, "'Throughout her adult life, Rowena Ravenclaw was the owner of a silver diadem - an heirloom, passed down from generation to generation. It was an extremely prized possession of hers, rarely ever leaving her sight. She claimed it had powers that inflicted great intelligence upon the wearer and donned it often to render herself more clever even than she was naturally. In her house she had a single daughter by the name of Helena, and envious of her mother's attention, she stole the diadem in hopes of becoming keener than her mother. Afraid of Rowena's reaction to her evil deed, Helena fled to Albania and concealed the diadem in the hollow of a tree. It was ironically beside this tree that the Bloody Baron, sent by Rowena to return Helena to her home, discovered her. He asked her to come back with him so they could marry, but horrified of her mother, she refused. The Bloody Baron then murdered her in his anger and, seeing what he had done, killed himself as well. After her death, Helena became the Ravenclaw house ghost , calling herself the Grey Lady...'"
Ginny and Ron exchanged glances as Hermione looked up, her brown eyes darting between the two of them. Both of the siblings knew what Hermione was getting at, and the smiles that gleamed on their faces confirmed it.
"Hermione!" Ron proclaimed happily. "You're a genius!"
"It really is a brilliant idea," Ginny agreed. "Do you think she still remembers where it may be?"
"It's possible..." Hermione said slowly. "Worth a try anyway."
"Where is the Grey Lady at this hour?" Ron wondered.
"Most of the house ghosts stay near their house entrances at night, don't they?" Ginny said.
Hermione nodded, "Yes, and they are rather hard to find at any other time. Maybe it would be better if we visited the Ravenclaw tower tonight."
Her eyes flickered to Ginny and Ron, watching for their approval. She knew they wouldn't be able to get into the tower itself because of the password, but perhaps the Grey Lady would be hovering elsewhere nearby. However, then, even if she was near the tower, it was unlikely that after all these years, she would be open about the whereabouts of the heirless tiara.
"I don't know, Hermione..." Ginny said, giving the plan a second thought. "It is extremely late, and it would be absolutely horrid if someone were to find us breaking curfew. Luna Lovegood is a Ravenclaw and presumably knows the Grey Lady better than any of us. Perhaps I could ask Luna to speak with her. With her unusual charm, Luna could talk anyone into anything."
Hermione considered it for a moment, then nodded, "That's a great idea, Ginny. Luna would be perfect for the task. Would you mind asking her about it tomorrow?"
"Not at all," Ginny smiled.
Silence befell them, the only sound the popping of the fire and the turning of pages. In the quiet, their minds wandered, lingering on very different thoughts. Ginny was repeating to herself to ask Luna their favor so she wouldn't forget. Ron wanted to destroy horcruxes as soon as possible, and Hermione thought absently of Draco. She was no longer heavy-hearted for betraying Ron, at least not as strongly as she had been the first few days. Now it was simply a dull twinge in the back of her mind, warning her of danger but not preventing her from diving deeper into it. Relinquishing the news to Ginny had been the best thing she could have possibly done to make herself feel emotionally better, but since then, Ginny had not specifically asked about Hermione's relationship with him. Occasionally she would ask Hermione casually about how it was going, but it never went further than a brief update - nothing too personal. Besides, she didn't want to say too much anymore. Draco had warned her that Carrow had been studying him unnaturally closely since the beginning of school, and he didn't want Carrow, of all people, to discover them.
A strip of wood shifted in the fireplace, making a shuffling sound. It pulled Hermione back into the present, and she turned her eyes to Ron, who was staring hypnotically into the fireplace, his pupils slightly fuzzy. Ginny was already asleep, her head leaning awkwardly to the side and her hands placed on the pages of a book. Hermione sighed as she stood up, dreading the cleaning of this room, yet, she reached down and began to gather books in her arms and lug them back to the library.
Draco sat amongst his new enemies at the Slytherin table, feeling unwanted but feared. No one would tell him to move, but no one would insist that he stayed either. He was securely in the middle, safe from their words but not from their disgruntled presence. He rather liked thinking in peace, without the idiotic interruptions from his worthless friends. Hermione had not paid him much mind earlier that day, and now she sat with her back to him. Draco didn't mind though. He wanted her to be happy, and although he would much rather be with her, he respected her need for other, more relaxed friends. However, upon glancing at them across the room, they seemed anything but relaxed. In fact, they were abnormally tense, as if they were expecting something but not knowing from what direction it would come. Draco observed as the Weasley girl - whom Hermione had mentioned was called Ginny - continued hurrying back and forth between the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables. He was curious, but did not say anything as he recalled who surrounded him, the heartless monsters.
He looked to his left and right and saw that the seats were unoccupied. None of the cold-blooded snakes wanted to sit with the traitor of their parents' merciless leader. None of them desired to be seen with him. He shivered as he realized that he was already being shunned by his housemates when they didn't even know the worst of the story. Shunning now would be violence later if they ever knew the truth behind what he was doing. No one would be on his side then, and no one would be left to take the blame.
Pansy was glaring at him with hate-ridden eyes a few seats down the table, a lock of her dark hair dangling in her face and hiding one of her intense eyes. Unfortunately it did not lessen the uncomfortable effect the pupils cast on him. It honestly didn't bother him that she disliked him more than everyone else did, seeing as that was what he wished she had done long ago. What did bother him was being alone again, in a place that he had thought would repel his loneliness, but instead, it had followed more closely.
Because of this, he was thankful for Hermione Granger. He wondered if she knew she had saved him. Probably not. Little knew of the intensity of his pain, of his being at home, and no matter how many times he tried to explain his emotions to her, she would never understand either. Nevertheless, she connected with him and helped him wash those memories away for a time, and perhaps that was the closest she would ever get to comprehending his anguish. She could never tell what it felt like to receive the Dark Mark, to smell the burning of your own flesh, nor to watch it slowly become an evil scar. Her life was vacant of a severe father, a father who did nothing but tear you down to build you up the way he wanted you to be, and she would never be able to relay exactly what it felt like to be responsible for someone's death, to hear their painful silence and know it wouldn't have been possible without her help.
And a tear dropped to the table as he realized that he could speak of those things with experience, that he knew what emotion each of them entitled. He felt the laughing eyes along the length of the table, and he knew they were watching that solitary tear, as if that drip of saline meant he was defeated. He heard Crabbe and Goyle laugh mockingly somewhere beside him, their eyes burning into the side of his head. Then, against his wishes, another tear slipped between his lids, joining the first in a small puddle on the table, and embarrassed, he escaped through the Entrance Hall.
"Did you ask Luna if she would talk to the Grey Lady, Ginny?" Ron said quickly, eager to take down part of the enemy.
Ginny smiled, "She said she would love to help us out."
"Excellent," Hermione grinned, as she pulled a sandwich from the stack floating in front of her. "Now all we have to do is wait for a reply from her."
Ginny and Ron nodded as Hermione took a bite of her ham and cheese sandwich. Her eyes were not focused on anything in particular, but her mind was. She thought about Harry, her best friend, off fighting who-knows-what in the wilderness, and she beamed at the idea of helping him from the safety of Hogwarts. She knew he would appreciate it because although the Order was very diligent and strong about protecting him, Harry was not much without his best friends. Even he knew that, and she was positive that Ginny missed him the most. She saw it every single time she looked in her eyes - that emptiness, that hole he usually filled - and she was so good at keeping it hidden. Hermione longed to be able to cover her feelings like Ginny did. Maybe then loving Draco would be easier...
She looked up, hoping to see him for just a moment, but he was not sitting where he normally was. Her eyes scanned carefully up and down the table, but to no avail. Draco was not there. Then she spotted the door to the Entrance Hall swinging solemnly on its hinges. Concerned, she rose from her seat quietly, feeling Ron's suspicious eyes fixated on the back of her scalp, but to her relief he did not make a move to follow her. Ginny watched her walk out the door, letting her go for she knew who sat on the other side. She could not stop Hermione from loving him so she did not try anymore.
Hermione clutched the heavy, iron door handle. It was cold, and something told her the sight on the other side wouldn't be much warmer. She stepped into the deserted Entrance Hall, the only sound an echoed gasp, a hiccupped breath, a crying boy. She hurried around the steps, looking for him, and she turned swiftly to find him sitting on the marble stairs, his robes spread around him like a pool of black water. His hands and face were drenched in tears, and he did not look at Hermione as she sat down softly beside him. She placed her hand on his back, rubbing it soothingly, as if she could wipe the pain away with the brush of her dainty fingers, but he continued to sob and her heart continued to ache for him. Even after the weeks they had spent together, Draco Malfoy remained a mystery to her. She had no idea why he cried now - or any other time for that matter. She couldn't tell you how he felt or what he thought would happen to him when he returned home. But something - perhaps all of it - was torturing him to tears, and she couldn't bear to see him this way.
Draco could feel her fingertips caressing his shoulder blades, trying to comfort him, and he had to admit, he did find his pain slightly subsided. However, it was not enough to heal him completely. He was still alone; he was always alone. Hermione was his only refuge now, his only true ally, and although the idea calmed him, the tears still fell, pounding his chest and wetting his robes.
"What is it, Draco?" Hermione said, swiping one of his tears aside.
He sighed, "Ever since I left home, I've been having nightmares, Hermione. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's true. I see the faces of every person I have let die since becoming a Death Eater. I see them scream just like they did when he killed them, their voices reverberating in my head. Watching someone die in front of you and knowing you could have stopped it is like killing them yourself. It feels almost as worse. Though perhaps it isn't all that bad or people who actually condone murder, but... for me, it's always been different."
"Your father doesn't enjoy that I would guess..." Hermione said, laying her head on his arm.
"Not at all..."
"Does that bother you?"
He whispered, as if reluctant to tell her, "He and my mum get in rows about it all the time."
"I've never met your mum..." Hermione speculated. "What is she like?"
"Nothing like my father," Draco said sadly. "She is avid about purebloods, but she is much more uncertain when it comes to Voldemort. I'm almost convinced she hates him actually... She is the only real parent I've ever had. Or the closest either of them is going to get to being a real parent."
"I'm sorry," Hermione said sympathetically.
"Look, Hermione," Draco said a bit forcefully, "I know you feel the need to be sad for me, but I honestly don't want you to. I'd just as soon forget about both of them than have you pity me. Besides, I'm probably never going back home anyway."
"What do you mean?" Hermione asked, concerned.
"I've been thinking about it for a long time now, Hermione," he admitted quickly. "Don't think it's because of you. But I believe I'm ready to leave home; I need to. It would be better for me. The only reason I've delayed this long is because of my mother. I don't like the thought of leaving her by herself with my father. I don't trust him."
"Because of their fights?"
Hermione stopped asking questions, her mind whirling with new information. She never imagined how brutal Draco Malfoy's life really was, and seeing it now was eye-opening. She wished others could see this side of him - this vulnerable, troubled side. Maybe then they would not scorn him for being the strongest of them all, for rising above everything he had been taught and throwing it all away for something new and worthwhile. This is who Draco was, not the young man his father had forced him to be, and one day Hermione prayed people would know that.
Luna wore a lopsided smile as she approached the Ravenclaw tower. She knew the path well, seeing as she traveled it multiple times everyday - the fifth tower from the Entrance Hall was the one. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the earthy aroma of the night air. Her neck strained as she gazed to the top of the tower, where the Grey Lady would sometimes sit on the pointed rooftop, her classical gown flowing down the sides, but she was not there tonight.
The stars were not visible on this dim, cloudy evening, and Luna shuddered in the darkness of the moonless night. An owl cooed hauntingly in a distant tree, waking a hungry wolf who howled morosely across the Grounds. Suddenly, she wished nothing more than to turn around, but she knew that Ginny would never back away from a challenge. And this pushed her onward.
Ginny Weasley had approached her at lunch earlier that day and given her a mission - to find if Ravenclaw's diadem was a horcrux and, if so, where it was hidden. She delighted in the idea of helping Harry Potter succeed in his endeavors to ruin You-Know-Who, and so in the task which was placed before her. Of course, she was slightly nervous, for even though she had spoken to the Grey Lady on several occasions before, she wasn't sure this topic was exactly something to discuss with the angry spirit of an heiress.
She wandered into the woods, hoping to find the ghost sitting against a tree as she sometimes liked to do. Sometimes, the Grey Lady would go so far as to rummage through the holes in the trees, searching wildly for something that was never there. Luna absently wondered if the ghost was insane or living in the past. After all, Luna had heard the stories of the lost diadem. The Grey Lady had stolen it from her mother, and no doubt she was searching for it in the trees of Hogwarts, hoping to find her mother's favor once more. Luna pondered whether or not she knew it was much too late for that.
A figure flashed between the trees fifty feet ahead of her, the tail of a dress swishing behind a tree. Luna edged nearer, the wolf baying loudly now, filling her ears with its ugly melody. Cautiously, she came to the other side of the tree, and when she looked at the ground, she saw her, staring blankly ahead. She was beautiful. Her face was pale and chiseled with the features of a princess, and her nose was like a gorgeous snowy mountainside, sloping downward. Her eyes were dark and dancing, matching well with her elegant brunette hair tied halfway up with a light blue ribbon. But her body was translucent, the dirt and grass partially visible beneath her and the bark of the tree seeable behind her.
The Grey Lady glanced up as Luna approached. Her expression did not change as she looked at her - the ghost's eyes boring into her. Luna shivered, feeling a bit uneasy, as she maneuvered in front of the ghost so as to speak to her.
"Miss Grey Lady?" she whispered cautiously.
"Yes, girl? You look familiar to these ghostly eyes. Are you not in my mother's house?" the spirit said, her silky voice echoing even through the trees that surrounded them.
"Yes, m'lady. My name is Luna Lovegood."
A dash of recognition ran across her stunning face then, "Ah, Luna Lovegood! Of course! How could your face evade me? We have exchanged words before! Well, Luna, whatever can I assist you with on this fine evening?"
Luna smiled, "Actually, miss, I was hoping you could tell me about your mother's diadem..."
Luna flinched as the Grey Lady's elated features shifted instantly into terror. Luna feared that perhaps she had approached her question in the wrong way. Surely the Grey Lady had tried to forget her crime, and here this tiny girl was, shoving the remembrance back into her brain. It was few seconds before the ghost responded.
"Wh- why ever would you want to know about that?" she stuttered.
"I'm sorry, miss, to bring it up," Luna apologized quickly. "It's for the benefit of a friend."
"Depending on which friend you desire to benefit, I may answer your query, young child..."
"Harry Potter," Luna replied smugly, knowing the Grey Lady would cave in at that name.
She gasped, "Harry Potter, you say! And why would the Boy Who Lived require to know the location of the Ravenclaw family heirloom?"
"He believes it contains a bit of You-Know-Who's soul and was going to go about destroying it, actually," Luna replied bluntly. "I highly doubt Harry would want to wear it, but perhaps I am mistaken and he would enjoy waltzing about in a tiara..."
"He is going to destroy it, is he?" the Grey Lady said, raising her thin eyebrows. "Well I would think that would be doing us both a rather large favor. He can have his bit of soul and I can bring to a close the reminders of my malicious past."
"Right," Luna nodded. "But first, I must ask you. Did a boy by the name of Tom Riddle ever confront you about the diadem?"
The Grey Lady put her index finger to her chin and lifted her eyes to the blank sky, trying to recall if such a thing ever happened. It took a few minutes, and Luna began to wonder if the ghost remembered much of her human life.
"Well it seems like a young boy did come asking me about it at one time or another..." she said suddenly, "although I'm not sure of his name, and of course, there have been many children ask me to tell the story over the years - an offer which I have openly refused scores of times... But this boy was the first to ask me where it might be hidden. It seemed an innocent enough question to ask. After all, what would a boy only about a year older than yourself be wanting with an old, rusted tiara? I told him that it was still concealed in the trunk of the tree where that filthy rat, Bloody Baron found me, thinking it would be safe to disclose this information, but the next time I went to make sure it was still tucked away inside that tree, it had vanished - stolen, no doubt by that little, mischievous boy..."
"Where do you think I could find it now, miss?" Luna asked.
"Oh," the beautiful ghost said maternally. "I haven't the faintest idea, dearest, but if there was anyone who would know, you might try finding that boy and asking him..."
Luna almost laughed, "I don't think I will be doing that, m'lady. I'm sure he would not be very pleased with me."
"Well, shame. I rather hoped you could bring him here and I could teach him a lesson or two about tampering with ghosts' things... No good busybody, troublemaking..."
Her voice trailed off as she floated away, leaving Luna with at least half of her question answered. She disappeared as she edged to the end of the wooded area, and Luna turned around, going back to the Entrance Hall where Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were waiting for news. She was glad that the conversation had been fairly short, for Luna had become cold in her time outside. She hurried indoors, where the candles on the walls radiated heat and she could warm herself.
"So?" Ginny said enthusiastically as Luna stood on her tiptoes to warm her hands against a torch.
"She told me that there was a boy that asked her where it was once, but she couldn't seem to recall his name. I'm assuming, however, that it was indeed Tom Riddle. When I asked her where it was now, she claimed to be ignorant, and so we have only one piece of the puzzle..."
"But where to find the other?" Hermione wondered out loud.
"You-Know-Who would not have returned it to the tree after making it a horcrux," Ron observed. "It would be too obvious."
"He was in school at the time..." Hermione pointed out. "He couldn't have gone far."
"Actually, Hermione," Luna interrupted her thoughts, "the Grey Lady told me he was about a year older than me, which would make him a seventh year when he asked her about it. Surely he did not get the chance to travel to Albania during his schooling. I could be misguided I suppose, but..."
"No, Luna, you're right," Hermione said, frustrated with their lack of answers. "It could be anywhere."
"We can't find it until we know where it is..." Ron said dumbly.
Hermione, annoyed, spun on him and cried, "Wow, Ronald! Brilliant observation! Thank you. You have solved all our problems, honestly."
"Good Merlin, Hermione," Ron said in surprise. "Sorry for trying to help. I'll be sure not to do it again."
Then he walked slowly up the steps, leaving the three girls behind to discuss the perplexing matter. They did not talk for long, simply stating and restating facts they already knew, and soon, becoming bored of repeating themselves, the girls went their separate ways. The front door shut loudly behind Luna as she headed off to the Grounds once more, as Hermione lifted her foot onto the first step of the Grand Staircase. However, it did not stay there for long. In a matter of seconds, her hand was around Ginny's wrist and they were headed into the dungeons. She had an idea.
"Where are we going, Hermione?" Ginny yelled as Hermione dragged her down the uneven steps. "We're not supposed to be down here!"
Hermione ignored her as she tried to remember the directions Draco had given her to get to the Slytherin Common Room. Two rights turns and one left? One left turn and two rights? What had he told her? She tried her hardest to recall what he had said, but it was all one jumbled mess. Perhaps he had kissed her afterward; that usually erased most of her short-term memories. She shouldn't have come into this foreign place with being confident she knew the way. Now she and Ginny were walking aimlessly through the dungeons, looking for a painting or anything that resembled a door, but there was nothing but rocks and dripping water in this desolate dungeon.
"What were you wanting to do down here anyway?" Ginny asked.
Hermione still did not answer. She squinted her eyes for she could have been sure there was someone walking ahead of them, and as she moved closer and saw the back of his blonde head, her heart leapt with joy. Why was it that he always around when she needed him most?
"Draco," she whispered fiercely, trying to get his attention.
He spun around quickly, his face a mask of alarm, but it swiftly melted into elated surprise as her face caught in the light of the torches.
"Hermione?" he said, laughing a bit.
"Oh, Merlin..." Ginny mumbled as Hermione pulled her towards the boy.
The two of them embraced tenderly and he kissed her right ear. Something shot through Ginny then, a sort of fear - a fear for her brother. Hermione had been telling the truth; Ginny could see the ferret's face drowning in a flood of happiness, caused by Hermione unexpected presence. But perhaps he was only a good actor...
"What are you doing down here? I thought Hermione Granger didn't break curfew," he smiled.
"Yeah, Hermione," Ginny said showing a bit of an attitude. "What are we doing down here?"
"I need to ask you something..." Hermione said, pulling herself onto her tiptoes and playing with his collar.
It was strange to Ginny to see the two of them in such a tender position when only a few year before, the had been bitter enemies. Hermione had punch him square in the jaw during their third year for goodness sake! She kissed him briefly on the lips now, and Ginny thought she might be ill from the mushy sight of them. She prayed that she and Harry didn't look like this when they were together.
"Anything you want," he whispered, glancing up agitatedly at Ginny.
"Last year when you were in the Room of Requirement, repairing the cabinet, were you in a room full of useless things?" Hermione asked.
Draco cringed at the recollection of the previous year, "Yes."
Ginny smirked, knowing where Hermione was going with this now, and she spoke next.
"Did you happen to see a tiara when you were in there?"
"A what?' Draco said, taken by surprise.
"A tiara," Ginny snatched the opportunity to mock him. "You know, a pretty crown. You wear it on you head and - "
"I know what a bloody tiara is, Weasley!" he snapped. "And no I didn't see one, but there were a lot of things I didn't see in that room. I was sort of... preoccupied."
"Oh yes you were!" Ginny retorted angrily. "Readying your Death Eater comrades to come and kill all of us is what you were preoccupied with!"
"Ginny..." Hermione said, pulling away from the Death Eater to gently clutch her best friend's arms. Then she whispered so quietly that Draco could not hear, "Please don't. Those days are long behind him. He needs to forget about it."
Ginny glared evilly over Hermione's shoulder, watching with disdain the boy who was slowly creeping into her life by way of Hermione. She would have to repay her for that later, but now was not the time, and this was not the place. The fiery red-head decided to trust Hermione this time, believing reluctantly that Draco Malfoy's life as Death Eater had ended, and as she did this, the rage in her blue eyes faded.
"What in the bloody heck is the problem with Gryffindor girls and their tempers?" Draco said, exasperated. "Why she tag along behind you in the first place? No one was supposed to know about this remember?"
Ginny did not say anything as she folded her arms across her chest, and Hermione turned to Draco Malfoy once more.
"Well obviously you're a better keeper of secrets than I am, Draco," Hermione replied cynically. "I had to tell someone or I was going to explode. I know you can empathize with that feeling."
He was silent as the words sunk in, and he glanced nervously at Ginny as he spoke, "Alright. It really doesn't matter anyway. So why do you need to find this tiara again?"
Ginny glanced worriedly at Hermione, whose eyes were locked on Draco's. Was she honestly going to tell him about it? Ginny would admit, the boy was more civil with her than she could have ever imagined, but she still didn't trust him.
"I can't explain it now, but it's important," Hermione replied carefully.
"I believe you," Draco said, their noses rubbing.
Ginny rolled her eyes, tired of their gooey kissing and hugging.
"Ahem!" she coughed loudly, making the couple jump. "We really should be going to find the tiara now, Hermione."
Hermione nodded, blushing, "Right."
But her hand was intertwined with Draco's, and Ginny knew she was not going to divide them tonight. She graciously let the happy couple follow her upstairs and into the Entrance Hall. They went up the floating staircases to the seventh floor, at which point Hermione and Draco were still holding hands, and he was grinned stupidly over her head. Ginny had never noticed it before, but he was unnaturally tall.
"Why don't you open the door, Draco?" Ginny suggested. "Since you've opened it so many times... I think I'm going to go to bed."
Ginny was positive she could open it herself, but she didn't like watching Draco and Hermione coo over one another. In fact, she almost hated it. She wasn't jealous or angry. She was simply frustrated that Hermione was not listening to her warnings. There was no doubt that Draco had her wrapped around his finger, and it would take only one false seduction to cut the string.
"Is something matter?" Hermione said, worried.
"No, it's just been a long day..."
And she walked down the corridor towards the Gryffindor Common Room. Hermione was afraid that she had upset Ginny. Perhaps she and Draco should have taken it easy since Ginny was not used to them being so close yet.
"Go ahead..." she said to Draco.
Draco nodded and thought hard about the vanishing cabinet, his insides shaking as he tried to remind himself that he was not entering the room for the same reason as before. When he had passed the painting for the third time, the invisible door clicked open to their left. He stood outside, allowing the girls to step into the ever-changing room first.
When they entered, they were instantly overwhelmed. Before them stood a room full of useless junk, a storage for sneaky students gone by. If any of the items in this room were a horcrux, she would never know it, and it would take days - weeks even - to search through all of this rubbish. But she was determined to help Harry, and if she felt in her heart that there was a horcrux contained in the stomach of this room, then she trusted that there was and vowed to find it.
She began to rummage through a trunk, trying to make contact with everything. She felt for a differ in temperature, or perhaps some sort of pulse. And she was so preoccupied that she hadn't noticed Draco had stopped following her when he stepped over the threshold. He now stood at the entrance - which had already sealed itself shut - his eyes locked on a tall cabinet that stood to his immediate left. It was covered in a thick layer of dust, but it was the same as he had remembered it - ornately designed and pointed at the very top. How many days had he spent in this exact room, trying to repair that stupid piece of furniture for the benefit of, what? His father? The Death Eaters? Voldemort? And where had that gotten him? Not anywhere he particularly enjoyed. Indirectly, he had killed someone that night, or at least set in motion the events that caused the death. That fact hit him hardest now. He didn't deserve Hermione any more than a snake. He was cheating himself, taking what was never destined to be his, by loving her.
Hermione looked up now, her face still beautiful despite the dull lighting in the room. She looked at him, following his eyes to the magical cabinet that stood eerily in front her, like a soundless monster. His silver eyes were lost, remembering something from long ago that, perhaps, he thought and wished he had forgotten. She thought she saw a tear run down his pallid face, as the painful recollection swirled in his eyes.
"What's wrong?" she wondered out loud, ceasing her search for a moment.
"Nothing..." he said, finally turning from the cabinet. "What are you looking for?"
She hesitated, trying to decide whether or not she should tell him about the horcruxes. She wondered if the Death Eater even knew about Voldemort's soul-splitting. It was likely that he had never told them; he didn't seem like the type to sit a circle and share feelings.
"I'm not sure..." she said honestly, for she had no clue what the horcrux might be. "I'm just feeling items for something different."
He narrowed his eyes, "Something different. Okay..."
And he began to look in a heap of junk against the wall. This aimless search went on for some time, Hermione finding odds and ends like abandoned books, rare potions ingredients (which she shoved in her robes for future use), several bottles of mead, and at least twenty old, musty robes, among other things.
She was becoming frustrated and almost quit when something suddenly caught her eye - a tiara, placed atop a manikin's bald scalp. It shimmered brightly, even with no light in this forsaken room, and something about it eerily drew Hermione to it. Jewelry hung around it, hanging from the manikin like a cascade of diamonds, but the tiara still governed her view. She extended her arm, her hand hanging limply from it, and she knew this was it - the horcrux she was looking for. Her fingertip had barely swiped the silver metal when it stung her. The metal was burning white-hot, and she almost yelped as her index finger throbbed painfully. She drew her wand, hoping that a simple spell would suffice for she had no idea how to destroy a horcrux.
"Confringo!" she cried, aiming directly at the tiara.
As the spell clinked with the sparkling metal, many things happened at one time. The spell she had cast brushed over the headdress, flashing white, and then the metal exploded into thousands of tiny bits. At the same time, her ears filled with screaming, some coming from unknown places, but one in particular originating from somewhere beside her - Draco. The rushed around the corner, holding her ears for the overwhelming shrillness of the tiara's screeching, and she saw him doubled over on the floor, grasping his left arm.
She rushed to his side, her arm hovering over him but afraid to touch him and cause him pain. Then she glimpsed the end of the snake, writhing on his arm, the burnt flesh moving underneath his robes. Her destroying of the tiara must have set off some sort of trigger, causing the Dark Marks to move agonizingly on the bearer's skin. Although, she was dreadfully sorry for hurting Draco, she couldn't help but feel a bulging sense of accomplishment for destroying part of the enemy.
"What in the bloody heck did you do, Granger?" he said through clenched teeth.
"I found what I was looking for..." she replied cryptically.
Draco roared once more in pain before saying, "Are you going to enlighten me on what that is since it's causing me physical pain?"
"It was a... tiara... that... uh... had a piece of Voldemort's soul in it?" she said, hoping he would believe her.
The burning in his forearm had stopped now, reduced to a numb feeling. He was still holding his arm though as he stared at her through his white lashes, perplexed at this information. He had known there was much Voldemort kept secret, and this seemed like something he would try to refrain from disclosing.
"It what?" he said, trying to comprehend.
"It's called a horcrux. It's a rare form of dark magic in which the caster can split his soul into pieces and become virtually immortal. The only catch is that you have to murder someone before doing it. They say that murder mangles the soul, rips it apart, and therefore, that is the only way to split yourself in twos or threes or... sevens. Then the fragment of soul is enclosed in an object, in this case a tiara, and only when that object is destroyed is the bit of soul released and killed..."
Draco stared at her with a blank expression, "Well I'm still completely confused, but thank you for the explanation, Granger..."
"Well, someone is in an ornery mood..."
"Yes, I've heard that feeling like the skin is being ripped from your body can usually have that effect on you," Draco drawled sarcastically.
"Sorry about that," Hermione apologized sincerely, helping Draco to his feet.
He sighed in return, but he didn't make a move to leave. Instead he stood still, his eyes lingering on Hermione, assessing her angelic face, her brown locks that cascaded in ringlets down her thin back. He thought about her compassion, her intelligence, and her bravery, and he suddenly felt guilty for everything he had ever done to betray those innocent truths.
"What?" she giggled, blushing slightly pink.
He shook his head, feeling a wave of depression rolling onto his desolate shore, "I don't deserve you, Hermione. You must have done something seriously pitiful to have won me as your prize."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I'm not a good person, Hermione!" Draco said loudly, his voice cracking. "I've done things that should never be done, spoken lies that should have never escaped my lips, and recklessly wished for something desirable to fall into my lap. But now that she has, I don't think I'm worthy enough to claim her. All my life, I've let trophies plummet into my hands with no indication as to how they got there or how they were won, and all along it's been something that I am ashamed of, something I should have never been proud of. But that's how I was raised, Hermione. I was raised believing in the superiority of purebloods and in the ruthlessness of Voldemort. That's all my father ever talks about - how he wants me to be the strongest Dark wizard alive, how he wants me to succeed in all my evil endeavors. He's never seen me as anything more than a symbol of the family, an award on display for my so-called "excellent upbringing". I'm his boasting rights, his medal of honor, but not his son, never his son... You don't want me, Hermione. You don't, I promise."
Hermione kneeled down beside him, deeply saddened by his hopelessness in himself. She placed her hand on top of his, as he stared at her with tearful eyes - eyes that had seen much hate and little love, eyes that had hoped to gain the world but lost so much in the process. They told his story now, a series of tragedies strategically placed in the perfect times for his failure. Now she understood. All along, her guesses of what was causing his troubles had been mistaken. He didn't fear the Death Eaters or being alone or even Voldemort; he was afraid of becoming his father.
"Draco..." she whispered. "Don't ever, ever say that. Everything happens for a reason, and you are here with me now, not because of a game you never won, but because you are meant to be here with me. We are meant to be together, Draco. Everything that has happened and will happen in the future is supposed to be, and we can't let that stop us from moving forward, from loving each other. It means too much..."
"I know you're right..." Draco admitted. "I just... I'm afraid."
"As am I," Hermione agreed.
"Don't be," Draco said comfortingly. "I'll protect you, Hermione Granger. I can promise you that."
And they sat there in silence for a long time - longer than either of them had anticipated - as the time ticked away. The footsteps outside their door, but they did not hear through the silence that seared between them. It seemed that this was a moment when the quiet said more than words ever could. It whispered noises of security and passion between their lips, efficiently replacing the words that would only lessen the power of the thoughts that lingered in each of their heads.
Ron stood outside of the Transfiguration classroom on his way to find Hermione and Ginny and see how Luna's investigation had gone. Minerva McGonagall watched him with thoughtful eyes as she made her way to her quarters. She heard Ron behind her, and found that he looked rather perplexed. Professor McGonagall was surprised, also, that Hermione had not bothered to show up to her lesson earlier that day, but even more shocked that Draco Malfoy had not attended either. Although it was not uncharacteristic of Malfoy to skip class every now and then, it was utterly unusual for Hermione to do so, and to notice both of them miss class on the same day was something of a bother to Minerva.
"Can I help you Mr. Weasley?" she called from the shadows of the hall.
The boy jumped a bit and said, "Actually, professor I was looking for Hermione."
"Ah..." she replied. "I'm sorry to say, Mr. Weasley, but Miss Granger regretfully have not seen her today as she did not attend my class this afternoon. I was quite unpleasantly surprised."
"Oh, that's a bit odd, but thank you Prof -"
"Ronald?" Professor McGonagall said, interrupting him.
"I would like to ask a favor if you wouldn't mind?"
"Not at all..."
"Make sure Miss Granger is alright. As you probably know, she and Mr. Malfoy are Head Students, and they were both absent today. I'm slightly concerned, although it could be purely coincidence, but I fear they could have planned to skip together. Malfoy may be the most inattentive pupil I have ever had the misfortune to teach, but he is never absent, Mr. Weasley. Will you be a dear and assure she is not receiving an unhealthy influence by him?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Ron nodded, trying to remain enjoyable while rage burned deep inside of him.
"Thank you," McGonagall smiled.
Then he turned from the doorway, his robes trailing behind him like a cloud of unease. Swiftly, he came to the painting of the Fat Lady who guarded the entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room. As he approached, she began to ask for the password, but he mumbled it during her attempt at courtesy. She huffed as she swung open her painting to allow him to go through. Inside, there were many people chatting. Ginny sat at a desk in the corner, writing a letter to Molly Weasley.
She looked up as Ron approached, her eyes widening at his angry demeanor. He looked purely livid, and she prayed that he did not take it out on her for she was not far from his heated mood. She had come into the common room and began to write a letter to her mother, explaining that they had found and destroyed a horcrux at Hogwarts. She had written the note in an attempt to brighten her mood, but it did not seem to be working.
"Where is Hermione?" he said through clenched teeth.
"Room of Requirement. She just destroyed a horcrux," Ginny answered blandly, "but I wouldn't interrupt if I were you."
Ron narrowed his lids, his dark blue eyes merely slits, "Interrupt what?"
"If you go, you'll find out I suppose... but I don't recommend it. I had to leave because of it."
Not particularly caring what he saw when he arrived at the Room of Requirement, he stormed down the corridor, searching for that dumb painting of trolls. What could Hermione possibly be doing in that room if the horcrux hunt was over? Why would Ginny trade destroying a horcrux and being with Hermione for sitting alone in the common room? His head was spinning as he walked past the door for the first time, thinking without effort of what Hermione was up to. For the second and third time he passed the door and it clicked open softly, but suddenly, Ron was doubting himself. Did he truly want too know what Hermione was hiding behind this door or was he invading her privacy? But then again, they were best friends, and best friends shared secrets, didn't they? Unwillingly he put his palm on the cold stone, pushing the door silently forward.
Upon first glance the room was empty, but Ron heard breathing and movement to his right. He spun around, hoping to find Hermione browsing over a pile of unwanted items, but the unwanted item she was browsing was not exactly what he had had in mind.
Her hands were on his neck, wrapped around it like a charmed snake, and she was kneeling by his side, her knees collecting dust on the floor. Her eyes were closed, but Ron didn't need her eyes to tell him that she was enjoying every last breath of it. She was leaning passionately into him, so close it was almost uncomfortable, and he was holding her protectively around the waist, his long hands almost meeting at her back. Ron was so shocked that he couldn't move. His words were stolen from him by that ugly Death Eater, and every time he tried to speak, his words were blocked by a barricade in his throat. Tears gathered in the corners of his pleading eyes, as he tried to believe that the image before him was a result of his imagination, but his senses observed differently. He was numb, his body gone cold from the sheer picture of their lips melded together. He could not hear or speak or move; the only thing he was capable of doing was watch them through blurry eyes.
Ron barely remembered Draco's left eye opening a single millimeter and his body pulling away from Ron's best friend. He scarcely recalled Hermione's head snapping in the direction of Draco's gaze as she saw him standing there, tears spilling down his frozen face. After that he didn't remember anything, just yelling at the girl he thought loved him, the girl he thought knew better than to love Draco Malfoy. And as he tried to forget about it, there was one thing he knew was true : he didn't want to remember it ever, ever again.