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Chapter 2: Part II
There was something to be said for having a complete lack of competitive spirit. In such an instance, Hermione could have been settled at home perusing her newly acquired edition of Numerology and Gramatica. Instead she was, now feeling rather bedraggled, prowling around unending corridors in a manor which was creepy beyond her powers of description.
And she had always prided herself on being rather articulate.
In the past half hour or so, she had encountered a smorgasbord of strange scents, sinister noises and inanimate objects, which were, lamentably, quite animate. Take the ornate chaise with the brocade covering, which she had only recently stumbled upon. The one that proceeded to use its well-turned legs to chase her down one of the aforementioned unending corridors. In fact, she’d never been chased by quite so many different things in such a short space of time in all her life. Given that her life included 9 months on the run from Death Eaters, this was saying something.
Presently, Hermione was tucked in the corner of a small foyer that led back to the main staircase in the vast building. From what she had ascertained, there were in fact several other staircases leading in a whole host of new and un-chartered directions. The only magical dwellings Hermione had actually lived in for any real amount of time were The Burrow and the Hogwarts Castle. She was beginning to have a real appreciation for the wizarding homeowner’s propensity for building houses with unexpectedly diverging corridors, staircases and doorways.
In fact, she thought it was little wonder anybody managed to navigate their way from one room to the next. It gave her an immediate appreciation for her comfortable and rather modest flat, in which all routes and fittings remained exactly where they ought.
It was positively icy in this part of the house, she mused. Navigating from the cellars to the general area of the Manor had been challenging enough. It didn’t matter that she could see where she was going now, because the obstacles were aplenty. She firstly had to contend with other contestants, because every time someone heard her, they came charging. Not unlike possessed hippogriffs.
Furthermore, George had not been joking about the strange things they would find. Although Hermione wouldn’t really call a long-bearded dwarf all that scary, when he chased her with his little feet pat-pattering, she’d found it quite disturbing. Fortunately, however, she had managed to outrun the maniacal creature and so was presently somewhere on the second floor of the house.
And, most importantly, she knew where she was headed. The attic seemed the most likely place to be hiding the treasure. Although realistically she thought the word treasure was a bit generous, it gave her a bit of a thrill nonetheless. According to the clue, the location was at one of the extremes of the house. Hermione had been rather peeved by the total vagueness of this information, but she’d broken it down now. She wasn’t entirely sure why she thought the attic was the place to go, but perhaps it was because she’d already been to the cellars and felt no need for a return journey.
In any case, with as much stealth as she could muster, she began to creep across the landing, passing by the sweeping staircase and heading to the left wing. The house was, truly, a maze. She couldn’t fathom how its former residents had managed to find the bathroom at particularly stressing moments.
It was silent now, rather eerily so. Having walked into a narrow corridor that diverged left, the direction she was certain she ought to be headed, she was fairly relieved to note that no one else was around. One thing was certain; Hermione had lost count of the number of corridors she’d wandered down in search of a way to get to the uppermost floor.
By method of deduction, she could only assume that the narrow corridor, in which she was currently located, was the only possible way to get to the attic. Of course, a quick glimpse out the window on the other side of the house had shown her that the roofline was higher in this wing. Such reasoning was all well and good, but now she had to figure out how to actually get up to the attic. No mean feat when she didn’t have a wand at her disposal and there was no neon sign indicating an obvious point of entry. Was she supposed to crawl out the window and climb up?
‘Ridiculous place,’ she muttered to herself, casting a furtive glance in her general area.
‘Perhaps it just doesn’t like you. Not all that hard to fathom really.’
The drawled tones caused the fine hairs of her neck to stand on end. The last thing she needed was for Draco Malfoy of all people to creep up behind her in a scary house. Aside from the fact that his presence was rather inconvenient, she just thought it completely unfair that she was being hounded by annoying people. After all, where were Ginny and Neville?
She turned around to appraise him.
‘Were you following me?’ Her gaze narrowed at him before flicking over his shoulder for signs of anyone else.
‘Believe me, it’d be no reflection on my skill as a stalker. You might as well have brought a full orchestra to set up in here for all the noise you made.’ He smirked.
‘Go away, Malfoy. I was here first. It’s called cheating.’
‘It’s not called cheating when I actually have the same clue as you … only I know how to access the attic … and you clearly don’t.’ The look of amused triumph positively gleamed in his eyes and she tried to dispel the dismay at his words.
It would stand to reason that he’d know. He was the silver-spooned heir of Malfoy Manor after all. She’d been there before and damned if that place wasn’t bigger than this. Creepier too, in spite of the lack of disrepair and strange creatures. Then again, one never knew what Lucius Malfoy might keep for a pet.
‘Well in that case, I’m not leaving.’ She crossed her arms in front of herself, completely prepared for a debate.
A strange knowing look seemed to linger about his features for a moment before a wry expression curved his mouth. ‘Didn’t think you would.’
Well that threw her off. She wasn’t accustomed to him not trying to aggravate her. Something was most assuredly up.
‘So you’re just going to let me watch and follow you. Seems very out of character.’
He turned to look at her. ‘Contrary to what you think, Granger, you aren’t actually the primary concern of everyone around. I don’t consider you much of a threat.’ He turned back to gazing at the bare wall. She saw red.
Malfoy didn’t seem to notice the flush that rose across her features and the clenching of her fists. He was too busy pressing his palm against the wall and muttering to himself. Definitely a crazy one, she thought.
Hermione was wrong though, because whatever weird behaviour Malfoy had exhibited, it caused a crease to form in the wall. The two sides seemed to split and peel back, revealing a winding staircase just beyond. She forgot her annoyance at him for just enough time to be very intrigued about that.
He stepped onto the staircase and she rushed to follow him.
He leaned in conspiratorially, ‘Still plotting my demise, hmm?’
She was actually. But she smiled sweetly, and noticed the immediate expression of distrust light his features in response. As soon as they were off the staircase, she was gunning for it. Not a second would be wasted in talking to Malfoy.
As the moving staircase slowed, Hermione squeezed forward so that she was standing right next to him. He looked down at her with what she could only assume was exasperation.
Slowly the wall peeled back, as it had downstairs, and off they went. His legs were longer than Hermione’s, but she had a gritty sort of determination heretofore unseen. They both spotted the innocuous looking trinket box in the far corner of the dusty attic. Though they both lunged with the full force of their bodies, neither of them quite managed to reach the small gilt box. In fact, neither managed to hit the floor at all, because they had been so focused on the prize that they’d forgotten it was all too easy.
Before she could blink Hermione saw white all around her. Huge strings of sticky substance had sprung from the walls to wrap around her and Malfoy, pulling them up from the floor and binding them together. Her eyes snapped to his, wide and alarmed. He swore. She refrained but in her mind it was a whole other matter.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Fuck me.’
He was unfathomably close to her. In fact, so close that their noses almost brushed and she could see right into his eyes. Given the fact that he was a fair bit taller than her, this was an entirely new experience. She didn’t know quite what to make of it.
‘Cosy,’ he muttered. Master of the understatement.
She closed her eyes and blew out a sigh. ‘I can’t believe this. So close! And now I’m stuck here with you.’
‘It’s not all bad,’ he said by way of response.
She looked at him uncertainly. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Well … it’s not like your aversion to me lasts all year round, is it?’
Her eyes widened and she didn’t respond. Mostly because she didn’t know how to respond.
‘Granger,’ he said in a slightly singsong voice that made her wonder if he had a dormant penchant for yodelling. ‘You’re thinking very hard now, aren’t you? Hoping I’m not talking about what you think I’m talking about.’ The grin that curved upon his lips caused her heart to sink down to her ankles.
He raised a brow.
‘Shut up, Malfoy. I’ve no idea what you’re referring to. And I want to get out of here now.’
She was extremely uncomfortable. There was nowhere to look but at him, which she very much did not want to do. And her cheeks were starting to get itchy, because she knew her hands had no way of reaching them. Goodness only knew how long they would have to wait. Until the least stupid person arrived to claim her prize, was the best bet.
‘You know,’ he mused, ‘we could eat our way out. Got a sweet tooth, Granger?’
Just the thought was enough to make her stomach turn. She’d never been overly one for sweet things, and George’s edible cobwebs were nothing more than spun sugar, with an absurd strength and stickiness inbuilt.
‘Try if you want ... but there’s no way even you would enjoy the taste.’
He shot her a look that went straight to her core. ‘You’d be quite surprised at what I find tasty.’
‘Children’s hearts, perhaps?’ she quipped.
‘Surprisingly delicious when served on a bed of sprouts.’
He smirked lazily at her and she very much hated his cool reserve. She was just impossibly uncomfortable in this situation. Firstly because, well, being bound like this in glorified candy was hardly meant to be a cosy situation; and secondly because all she could see was Malfoy’s mouth. At first she’d thought it safer to look at than his eyes. As it turned out, she was completely wrong. It was definitely the greater of two evils.
The memory of how they framed her own, of the heightened state she’d been in at the time, and her continued close encounters with him since had done something very unusual to her system. She needed an immediate escape from her strange situation.
Hermione turned her head to cast her eyes toward the entrance, willing someone to come forth and call it all a day.
‘So, I’m curious. Indulge me.’
‘What?’ she queried turning back to him distractedly. Her dark eyes clashed with his and she caught the glint, which sent a shiver of apprehension through her.
‘I can’t imagine you thought the conversation would never come up.’ He raised pale brows at her and she shook her head in bewilderment. The infuriating man spoke in riddles, assuming everyone else on the planet was following his inane tangents.
‘For goodness’ sake, Malfoy. I’ve no idea what you’re harping on about.’
‘I’m not harping,’ he muttered. ‘And I’m referring to the time when you accosted me in the cloak room. Or have you done that a lot lately and can’t quite narrow it down?’
Her heart stopped and her eyes must have been comically wide as she looked at him. Horror descended and if she’d had access to her hands, she’d have used them to cover her flaming cheeks.
‘Well, yes ... on this occasion you did. Got a pretty vivid memory of it, actually.’
Oh, Merlin. She wanted to die.
How could he have known? She’d been so sure that it was too dark. And once she’d seen him around the office without any change in his behaviour, she’d just assumed he’d had no idea.
‘It was an accident,’ she croaked. Her eyes were closed now, because cowardice was definitely warranted in that moment.
‘Ah ... I suppose your hand down my trousers was an accident as well, hmm?’ His breath tickled her cheeks and she could positively feel the vibrations of mocking amusement coming from him.
‘Right,’ she muttered. ‘I didn’t know it was you!’
‘I find it very hard to believe that at any point you could have had me confused for someone else. Weasley, I suppose?’ He blanched visibly at the prospect before muttering under his breath. ‘Terribly insulting.’
Please, she thought, let him stop.
‘And then when you joined my department ... I’ve had to be careful ever since, you know. I was dead concerned you’d drag me into a closet somewhere and have your wicked way with me.’ Her eyes flew open in indignation again, but he continued on in a low voice. ‘Though, truthfully, I think you’d have found me quite cooperative.’
‘Er … what?’ She looked at him askance.
‘I already told you I have unusual tastes.’
‘I spy with my little—’
‘You don’t seriously expect me to play this game with you?’
She clenched her jaw. Well, it wasn’t as though they had a million and one thrilling ways to pass the time.
‘And I suppose you have a better idea, do you?’ She arched a brow at him challengingly.
‘If my hands were free … most definitely.’ The small smile that hovered on his lips and the funny little glint in his eyes gave her pause. She was fairly certain that there was an indecent suggestion wrapped up in that comment, but she was hardly going to embarrass herself further by acknowledging it.
In fact, she wanted nothing more than to pretend that this night and the entire year preceding it had never occurred. However, Hermione had the distinct impression that her companion wouldn’t allow for that. After all, he basically held knowledge of the single most mortifying moment in her life, and there was no one alive who would relish the chance to exploit it quite like him.
She changed the topic entirely.
‘What I want to know is how come George decided to make this the end location. I mean, really, how is anyone supposed to get up here? That’s very unlike him to—’
‘—such blatant favouritism toward over-indulged purebloods with their large—’
‘—but if you’d actually stop and—’
‘—no doubt abusing their house-elves too. Really, I think—’
‘Merlin, shut up.’
She paused in her tirade and glimpsed the pained expression on his face. He was just so impossibly rude that she sometimes wondered whether he had some sort undiagnosed personality disorder.
‘Don’t tell me to shut up … you’re so obnoxious!’
He muttered under his breath for a moment and she could see the irritation flashing red across his cheeks. It wasn’t often he lost his composure in quite this way, and she was going to relish this unexpected opportunity.
‘If you would stop talking for one moment and listen, you would know the answer to that. And it’s not because your red-haired behemoth friend wants to go on a house-elf killing spree or whatever you were suggesting.’
‘I wasn’t saying—’
‘Again with the interruptions!’ She paused then, only because she didn’t want to enable him to make his point. He seemed to realise this because there was a knowing looking his eyes. ‘If you look to the far corner, you’ll see another doorway.’
She craned her neck until she saw the entrance to which he was referring, one which was not the same as the one they’d come through.
A rather smarmy expression lit his features, and she suspected this was some opportunity of his to show off his amazing prowess at some such thing. Men, she thought, could be rather basic at times.
‘The entrance is concealed by the large portrait of a fat man with an even fatter dog, which you ought to have seen downstairs.’
‘How did I not notice that …’ she muttered to herself.
‘You’re exceptionally unobservant, despite the hype.’ She cut her eyes to him in irritation.
‘So how did you do your little trick then, with the wall?’ She hated asking the question, but the need to know was excruciating.
‘Walls are malleable in magical dwellings. You just need to find where the wall is thinnest and politely request that it lead you where you wish to go.’
She looked at him uncertainly. That was either absurd or very interesting, she couldn’t quite decide which. Either way, she had every intention of consulting her books the minute she got home.
‘So, if that’s true, and you knew where the real entrance was … you were just showing off.’
He smirked. ‘You know what they say … with knowledge comes power.’
He was far too irritating for his own good. Truly.
‘For someone determined to prove herself completed unattracted to me, you’re going about it the wrong way.’ His drawled tones interrupted her reverie enough to make her colour a little.
‘You’re staring at my mouth … it sends a certain message.’
Oh. Well, that was true; she had been staring at his mouth, but not with lascivious thoughts at all. In fact the primary concern she had at the moment was the intense rumbling in her stomach, a bone deep yearning for food.
‘I’m hungry,’ she said by way of response.
He grinned. ‘I can see that.’
‘Ugh! Not for you … so conceited, honestly. I want food.’
Annoyingly, he didn’t look convinced. But then again, someone with the strength of his delusions regarding his power of attraction would probably always remain unconvinced in such a situation.
Okay so maybe she had snuck a few seemingly covert looks, but it was mostly a craving for something digestible as opposed to ravishment from him.
Malfoy was about to say something in response when the thudding of footsteps caught their attention. Someone had finally managed to find their cosy hideout. They both turned immediately toward the entrance and watched with beady eyes.
A blond head emerged and Hermione’s heart sank. Of all the ways to cap off her evening, Zacharias Smith had to be the one to stumble upon them first. A slight growl reverberated in her throat and her gaze narrowed in his direction. She could see out of the corner of her eye that Malfoy had turned to her with raised brows.
‘I dislike him more than you,’ she said by way of explanation.
His voice was low when he responded. ‘I think you dislike a lot of people more than me.’
She was so not going near that one.
‘Well, look at this,’ the whiny voice of her insipid nemesis carried in the attic as he ventured closer, taking in the spectacle that was Hermione, Malfoy and the webs. ‘Keep besting you … don’t I, Granger?’
She wanted to hit him. Apparently so did Malfoy because she was fairly certain he muttered something to that effect under his breath.
His pale gaze danced between the two of them, sheer cockiness personified. She watched as his slow amble toward the small box became something more of a strut. The whole time all she could think was that she’d like very much for him to trip.
‘This looks cosy … sorry if I’m interrupting something …’
‘No, you’re just—’ Hermione never got to finish that because Malfoy jumped in quickly.
‘Actually, yes … you are. So if you’ll be on your way …’
When her hands were free she was going to hit him, but in the meantime she wanted nothing more than for the slimy Smith to take his prize and go. The sooner that happened, the sooner she and Malfoy would be freed from the constraints of the webs. After all, she was seriously beginning to cramp up.
When Smith finally did saunter back down the staircase, box tucked under his arm, Hermione breathed a sigh of relief. No matter that she had, yet again, lost out to him, the prospect of freedom from the confines of the webs, and the tantalising thought of a drink with far too much alcohol held a higher appeal.
It was barely ten minutes later when she felt the tingling sensation creeping over her limbs and the sudden release from the bindings. Awkwardly enough, when Hermione and Malfoy were finally released, they fell in a graceless pile of limbs and each other. The air rushed from her lungs when she opened her eyes and saw his barely a breath in front of her. She was draped over his lengthy frame, and couldn’t help but note that one of his hands was caught in a rather inappropriate place.
‘Uh … sorry about that,’ she said as she made to detangle herself from his person.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he whispered back, a brief smile curving his lips. ‘This is much more comfortable.’
She rolled her eyes and tried to repress the inexplicable urge to smile at his comment. She really had to remember how irritating and obnoxious and inappropriate he was. In fact, when she got home she was going to write a list. The many ways in which Draco Malfoy’s clear personality defects were not in any way charming.
‘Admit it,’ he said. She raised a brow at him, still keenly aware that neither of them had moved. ‘You want me to kiss you now, don’t you?’
That right there was going to be dot point number one on the aforementioned list. She rolled her eyes in irritation. ‘I do not, and for your inform—’
She never did inform him of anything then, because the extremely presumptuous and rather frustratingly perceptive man decided that regardless of her opinion on the matter, he was going to kiss her anyway. With gusto.
It took her a few minutes to recall that kissing him was not something she ought to be doing, and by that stage her lips were rather tender and her tummy rather tingly.
‘I don’t think—’ she mumbled.
‘Oh, if only that was true … life would be simpler.’ He cocked a brow and seemed to enjoy the flush that grew upon her cheeks. Annoyance at him, she’d call it.
She pushed herself up then, pointedly ignoring the slight case of wobbly-knee, which had struck her in the last few minutes. He followed suit. They stood there, dusting themselves off when she looked at him with her most pragmatic expression.
‘That was, of course, an accident. It won’t happen again.’
‘Right … very accident-prone, aren’t you?’ His mouth curved in amusement, at her expense, and she couldn’t help but wonder why he’d never smiled so much when he was younger. It did nice things to his face, and consequently flip-floppy things to her stomach. She supposed given his childhood, that wasn’t altogether surprising.
‘You’re incorrigible,’ she said, and really hated the slight hint of endearment that coloured her tone. He noticed it too and the slight smile grew into something more like a grin.
’It’s okay, Granger. I’m also a quick learner … so fear not. I’ll be more than prepared for the next time.’
‘There won’t be a next—’
‘You’re a creature of habit, and it’s already in motion. I just wonder where it will happen next time ... closets and attics are hard to compete with.’ He grinned down at her and she rolled her eyes again.
He really, truly, was exasperating.
‘You know,’ she said, looking at him with puzzlement written clear across her features. ‘What I don’t understand is why on earth you’re acting as though you’ve a sudden … attraction to me.’ She whispered the words because it was such a strange thing to say, particularly to him.
He looked at her with raised brows.
‘We don’t get along at all … in fact half the time we’re in the room together, I want to throttle you, and I know for a fact you harbour secret wishes of throwing me out a window. Don’t pretend otherwise.’ She hadn’t realised that she’d moved closer until her pointed finger was repeatedly jabbing against his chest.
He snatched her hand away and muttered something under his breath in a tone of exasperation. What he had to be exasperated about, she couldn’t fathom. After all, he was the one that was behaving totally out of sorts and was thoroughly confusing her. Really, she needed to get back down to her friends and away from him and this room.
She was obviously suffering some sort of variant of the Stockholm Syndrome … excepting, of course, the fact that he hadn’t quite abducted her. But she still thought the principle applied.
An inconvenient little voice in her head suggested that this wasn’t strictly true, that she had harboured some unacknowledged interest in him for a while. Naturally, however, Hermione liked to disregard all inner voices … given that they signified insanity at best.
It took her a moment to realise that he was talking again.
‘—can’t really blame me, what with your incessant need to talk about the most ridiculous things. I should get points for self-restraint actually … given that I haven’t yet thrown you out of one. A window, that is.’
She narrowed her eyes at him.
‘And really? You’re applying logic to this situation? That’s always been you’re problem, you know? Life isn’t logical … it’s full of fucked up connections and strange patterns that no one can make sense of—’
‘Now you aren’t making any sense!’ she interrupted.
He looked skyward and pulled in a harsh breath. ‘My point is that despite me finding you to be completely frustrating, absurdly ignorant and bossy … I still find you …’
For someone who constantly went on about his impeccable breeding and manners, she really began to wonder where on earth he learnt about how to woo a woman. Someone ought to have pointed out that a thorough character assassination was not the best way to start. Of course, she was always doing the same thing to him, but that was thoroughly aside from the point.
‘You find me what, exactly?’ She pushed her shoulders back and tilted her chin. Haughtiness personified.
He didn’t say anything at first, just stared at her for rather a long period of time. Certainly long enough to make her dignified appearance crack a little, and for that wretched wriggling sensation in her stomach to start up again.
A wry expression curved his mouth and he muttered. ‘I’m clearly a glutton for punishment.’
She coughed discreetly, rather agreeing with the sentiment. He wasn’t at all like the other men, or boys really, that she had liked. He didn’t have their endearing qualities and warm softness. He was all prickly and hard to read. That, she supposed, was probably part of what drew her in. That wretched intrigue she’d always had for a riddle, a challenge.
Her open features must have once again revealed what she was thinking, because he seemed to read something of acquiescence in the plains of her face. He tugged the hand he still held within his own, and she almost collided with him.
Now would be the time to embrace a certain sort of cowardice to which she’d never really aspired. It would be totally understandable under the circumstances, of course. Staying in this attic and pretending that something … anything … good could come of this was absurd.
And yet, as his hand braced her hip just so, and his nose brushed against her own, her breath caught in her chest, she rather thought she might be up for just one more adventure.
After all, life really had been rather tedious of late.