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Prey by Elysium

Format: Novel
Chapters: 16
Word Count: 52,647
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Mild violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse

Genres: Drama, Romance, Angst
Characters: Hermione, Blaise (M), Draco, Ginny, Pansy, Seamus
Pairings: Draco/Hermione, Draco/Pansy, Other Pairing

First Published: 05/27/2006
Last Chapter: 06/01/2015
Last Updated: 06/01/2015

Summary:
Banner by Me || Prequel to 'The Shadow and the Soul'







Hermione is back at Hogwarts for her final year, only this time it is without the company of Harry and Ron. As well as completing her NEWT's Hermione is to watch closely the son of renowned Death Eater Lucius Malfoy and her sworn enemy - Draco Malfoy - to gather what information she can about Voldemort's activities. However, she never planned on him finding out, but he did. And now his mind is set on catching his new prey.


Chapter 1: Prologue
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A/N - OK this story has been around and completed for almost a year now, but having read over some of the earlier parts I'm not happy with the writing. As such I'm doing an overhaul and you will find some new things in here :)





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Prologue


Six years had passed since Harry Potter had first arrived by Hogwarts Express to the castle he would soon regard as his true home. He had never considered where he would go or what he would do when his time there ended.

Little did that small, messy-haired boy know that this choice was never destined to be his own. Indeed as the many bright witches and wizards, both pure-blood and Muggle-born, boarded the scarlet engine, the 17 year old Harry Potter stood many hundreds of miles away gazing at the granite headstone which guarded the graves of his long dead parents.

For Harry Potter there would be no Hogwarts this year, no Quidditch Cup, no trips to Hogsmeade or games of exploding snap by the fire of the Gryffindor common room. But more poignant still – there would be no Hermione.  

It had been decided over the summer that Hermione Granger would remain at Hogwarts for her final year whilst Harry Potter and Ron Weasley went to Godric’s Hollow to prepare for the impending war. The Order of the Phoenix had voted unanimously that the trio be split. After all, they each represented one third of the force that would eventually try to destroy the Dark Lord, Voldemort. What would happen if they were ambushed? No, the trio had to be split, for the peace of mind of all involved.  

The wizarding community had long heralded the young Harry as their saviour, the “Chosen” one. Little did they know Harry was not the only one to have his or her fate predetermined, but rather, that many of the people Harry knew best were destined to play an important part in the war – on both the sides of the line. It was in fact known to the Order that Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger would represent Harry’s personal guard. It was not a task he had wished upon them, but they took it up nonetheless. They understood that it was Harry who would need to raise his wand to defeat the despot, and they could only strive to give him that opportunity.   

Of the two, Hermione Granger would be of particular importance in the downfall of the Dark Lord. She was the brightest pupil to have past through the halls of Hogwarts in centuries, excepted only by Dumbledore, and Lord Voldemort himself. For this reason it was deemed necessary that she spend her final year in the safety of the castle where she would practice honing her skills, shaping herself up to be the secret weapon that they so desperately needed. After all she was a Muggle-born – the very last thing Voldemort would expect. 

Harry and Ron on the other hand would spend the following year training as well as studying their enemy methodically. They had to find the horcruxes and they had to do this without causing a ripple effect that would draw Voldemort’s attention. The Order of the Phoenix would be gathering the infantry in secret meetings behind closed doors, whilst the Ministry of Magic presented an image of utter chaos. The Death Eaters would not be anticipating their attack. But they would know it when the time came - that Harry would ensure. 

Harry felt a hand clap his shoulder and he nodded his final respects to his parents before turning to face his companion. Ron was pale and his eyes had a strained look to them. He was worried – like Harry – about their friend. She would be facing the following year without them, or more to the point, they would be facing it without her. He could not think how they would manage it.  

The only comfort Harry had in Hermione being at Hogwarts was the knowledge that she was surrounded by those she knew and trusted, people with the same goal as her. Former members of the DA: Luna Lovegood, Ginny Weasley, Dean Thomas, Seamus Finnigan and Neville Longbottom had all been inducted into the Order despite their youth. They would be her protection, he knew. He could only hope it was enough. 

It was not that either Harry or Ron were concerned that Hogwarts would be overrun with Death Eaters at any given time but it was instead one person’s continued presence at the school which unnerved them.  

Malfoy. 

They knew he was back at the school and as Head Boy no less. This discovery had been made after Hermione had received her Hogwarts letter informing her of her new role as Head Girl and revealing, much to her dismay, the identity of her fellow Head of school.  

Malfoy.  

Harry shook his head in disgust. The family was full of Death Eaters. They were, in his opinion: cold, spineless and utterly evil. Despite his hatred of the boy, Harry knew and understood why he had been chosen. It had been a deliberate venture from the new Headmistress, McGonagall, as per instructions from the Order.

They had decided it would be beneficial to their cause if they could garner information from him. Lucius Malfoy was a Death Eater and they felt sure that Draco would eventually join his father’s ranks. Any information they could glean from him that would alert them to Voldemort’s whereabouts would help the Order immensely.  

Unfortunately the only person who would be able to do the job properly was Hermione. As Head Girl she would have access to Malfoy that no other Order members would. It would be difficult nonetheless. They knew Malfoy to be calculating and cold – he would not reveal anything if he could help it and certainly not to a Mudblood like Hermione; but it was their only option.  

Sighing heavily, Harry, allowing his shoes to sink deeper into the soft earth underfoot, followed his friend out of the cemetery. He hoped that the nagging feeling in his mind was just over-protectiveness of Hermione and not a bad omen.

All he could do was pray.


Chapter 2: From the Darkness Comes Light
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A/N - This chapter like the previous one has been re-written. The story hasn't changed but much of the writing has.




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Narrow slivers of light pooled across worn stone in the highest most tower of the castle, but night's shadow reigned supreme. It called in hollow whispers to the slender figure hidden within its chill embrace. The girl was seated precariously by the open window ledge, though she seemed unfazed by its height.

Her thoughts were now adrift.

Fingers moved in soothing circles across the century old stone as the girl gazed at the liquid light of the moon. It fell in partial slants across her open features, curling in tendrils with her hair, reflecting in her wide and turbulent gaze.

She revelled in this stolen moment of still tranquillity, drinking in the calming silence she so craved in the light of day.

She uncurled her legs as her shifting thoughts travelled to matters she dared not ponder in moments except these, when she was all alone.

And Hermione Granger had much to think about.

She thought of her friends who were no longer with her, but who instead faced unfathomable perils beyond the haven castle walls. She thought how much she hated being here when they were not. Yet such thoughts, she knew, would cause her only pain.

Hermione was perfectly aware of the reasoning behind her continued presence in the hallowed grounds; she understood completely and yet it did very little to ease that hollow part of her which yearned in silence for their comforting presence.

As puerile a notion as it was, she felt certain that she would have been more secure if she were by their side, no matter the dangers she would face. She would be with Harry and with Ron. And they felt as much like home to her as two people could hope to be.

It was not weak of her to miss them in this way, and yet she felt guilt for her selfish thoughts. After all, she was not completely alone, not the way they were. She had this familiar place from which draw comfort. And she had her other friends.

Her gaze followed the circular movement of her fingers that danced across the stone as she reflected upon the week since her arrival on the scarlet engine.

The time had passed slowly, and she was caught only in the maelstrom of study and expectation. Though this was nothing new. If she were being truly honest, she would admit that she drew some level of comfort in the daily routine. It helped her think at times that the world in which she lived was a simpler place. But it was not. Ron and Harry's absence was testament to that.

The only other significant change in her circumstances was the benefit of a private dormitory. According to the Headmistress this was a tradition that had not been employed in over 200 years as the moral code of students had gradually... loosened. She thought it remiss of scholars to not mention something so significant in their writing of the revered pages of Hogwarts: A History.

Hermione was not silly though. She understood exactly why the newly inducted Headmistress had seen fit to reinstate such tradition. It was because of her, and all the many things she was expected to accomplish this year that had nothing to do with school work.  Space and privacy were things to be coveted when one had spent six years in shared quarters.

However in her case the additional space was intended as a way to help her prepare for the unknown things she would face when war came upon them. She did not know how near or far the prospect was. But she did know that the Order had left her with a mission, and they intended to use every advantage they could to help her complete it.

Her finger lifted to trace the curves of a narrow band that hung from a simple chain around her neck.

Hermione knew that though she could not help Harry in his current venture, she would do everything within her power to help him when the time to act arrived. She would be no burden on her friends.

In the meantime all she could do was focus on her current duties, a seemingly endless list. Her appointment as Head Girl was the crux of the issue. All through her schooling she had aspired to such a position; but she now recognised the title would do her little good in the path she was sure to take.

And yet it was exactly the thing that she hoped would help her with the task that eclipsed all others of importance for her this year - the one that would involve the study of a whole different subject matter.

Draco Malfoy.

A frustrated sound mixed with the hush of her breath as she thought of the boy who was to cause her so much grief in the coming year. She had pondered her situation for endless hours and was still at a loss as to how she was supposed to properly observe him, which was exactly what the Order expected her to do.

She did not think they could have given the task to a less ideal person. To say that her prior dealings with the boy had been volatile would be an understatement, and yet despite their mutual dislike, she could honestly say she knew very little about him.

Hermione knew of his background, which she rather thought spoke for itself, and his behaviour at Hogwarts. Yet there was no way to ascertain how much of that was a show for the amusement of his housemates, for the benefit of his reputation rather than the truth of who he was.

And in the past year her suspicions of the former had increased almost without her knowing so.

To Hermione he was an unknown quantity, a mystery. But not the kind one loves to sink their teeth into.

No.

Malfoy was the kind of mysterious someone to be avoided at all costs.

And he was precisely the last person she wanted to be spending her year thinking about, but her arguments had been fairly futile. She could not deny that as the son of notorious Death Eater, Lucius Malfoy, and nephew to one Bellatrix Lestrange, he could be a veritable minefield of information.

And if by any chance he were to inadvertently let something slip, it was Hermione's responsibility to soak it all in.

Shifting her weight again, Hermione acknowledged for the first time, how truly exhausted she was. With a final wistful glance at the shadowed view from her ledge, she pulled her tired legs against her stomach to stretch the knotted muscles they held.

Her hand brushed back some of the rebellious curls that fell across her line of sight, as she collected her effects. The marauder's map and the invisibility cloak - both bequeathed to her by Harry at the insistence that she put them to good use - had thus far only helped her to escape to this quiet place to think.

In bringing them tonight, she could not have known how significantly they would alter her world.

As had become her custom, she carefully unfolded the worn parchment to scan its contents for the caretaker and his feline companion. Finding the path to her quarters unhindered, she was in the act of folding the map closed when a suspicious movement caught her eye.

Her breath paused for the slightest of seconds as she eyed a dot speeding through the entrance hall - just the dot she had been ordered to follow. Draco Malfoy himself.

Her mind whirled and her heart hammered a heavy rhythm in her chest as she considered the implications. Pressing her form against the chilled stone, she covertly peeked her head out of the shadows to track his steps.

Far below the place where she was hidden, a shadow crept silently out of the castle doors. Even without the aid of the map she knew she would have recognised him. His unnaturally blond hair and pale skin shone unearthly silver in the moonlight.

There was a ghostly sort of beauty to him as he slid further into shadow.

Hermione paused only for a beat before pulling the flimsy fabric of the cloak over her form. With as much stealth as she was capable of, she ran through the door, down the staircase and passed the corridor that housed her quarters. She ran further from the unquestionable safe haven and through the remaining twists and turns in the castle halls until she stumbled into the biting cold air that breathed upon her cheeks.

She clutched at her chest, drawing ragged and beautiful gusts of air through her lungs as she glanced back down at the curling parchment. She almost stopped breathing at the sight.

Two small dots had joined her quarry at the edge of the Forbidden Forest - two dots that made her hurry forward.

Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange.

She glided passed the black, crystalline lake, willing the rustle of wind in the trees to conceal the sound of her footsteps amidst the dewy grass. She eventually came to a halt near a large tree at the forest edge, close enough for their words to carry but not so near that they should hear the unsteady catching of her breath.

"- you have to be careful, Draco. It's not safe here and you know that. If anyone finds out... don't let anyone find out," Narcissa breathed anxiously.

Draco Malfoy opened his mouth to say something rather indignant but was interrupted by his Aunt.

"Be safe?" The dark haired woman all but screeched. "Cissy, we did not risk this trip to warn him of his safety! If that were the priority he would not be here and you know that. Certainly, Draco must take care not to be caught. After all, how is he to gather information for the Dark Lord if he is? But he cannot remain huddled in his room just to ease your maternal instincts. He will be of no value to the Dark Lord if that were the case."

With this last assertion she grabbed his left arm and roughly pulled back the sleeve of his robe. Despite the density of the foliage above, a sliver of moonlight was enough to reveal the dark tattoo imprinted on his pale skin.

Ice clutched at her insides and caused Hermione to gasp in ill-concealed shock. Out of instinct she grabbed at the delicate chain around her neck - too tightly it seemed, for the link crumbled like dust allowing the ring to fall silently to the ground.

Fuck. The word reverberated through her brain as she watched the blond boy's head snap upwards; his eyes narrowed right at her. It was a cold sort of a stare that welded her in place, one that a boy his age should not possess.

"You both need to go. Now. There's no good in you both getting caught here. GO!" He had only whispered the directive but the voice brooked no argument from either woman.

Hermione too read the warning in his words, and as he spoke she moved as quietly and as speedily as she could in the direction of the castle. Once she was far enough away to risk the sound of footsteps, she ran.

Adrenaline sang in her blood and pounded in her eardrums so she could hear no other sounds. There was only one truth in her present situation: she had to get back to the Head's corridor first. After what she had witnessed, she could not even contemplate the outcome if Malfoy discovered her.

As she careened down the last intersection and into her corridor, she almost collided face first with a wall. Breathing properly for the first time since seeing Malfoy's mark, she looked down the corridor to ensure that it was empty. According to the map he was still walking back to the castle, rather slowly in fact.

It was a disconcerting thought.

Gasping for the cool relief of air, she whispered in hushed tones the password to the portrait guarding the entryway. And surveying her common room she heaved a sigh of relief before trudging up to her bedroom - glad, not for the first time, that the Heads each had their own private living quarters.


****

Sheathed in the protective shadow of darkness, Draco Malfoy stood at the periphery of the forest. The scene was still and silent now that he had bid his companions adieu. But the absence of noise gave him little comfort.

Tension lingered in the breadth of the boy's shoulders as he scrutinised the space where - unbeknownst to him - the Head Girl had stood mere moments before. Despite the stillness he gripped his wand more tightly. Or perhaps it was because of it.

As he scanned the area for the final time, he wondered whether the sound he was so sure he had heard had been a product of his paranoid imagination. He had all but decided that this was entirely plausible when a glint of silver nestled among the autumn leaves caught his eye.

His gaze narrowed and the realisation that he had been correct was not a pleasant one. Draco reached slim and pale fingers for the cool metal and on closer inspection discovered it to be a ring that was threaded onto a fine silver chain. The band of the ring consisted of three narrow strands of silver intertwined.

He smoothed his thumb over the unforgiving metal before noticing an inscription on the inside of the band. The words had been engraved in cursive, and though they were foreign he made a rough translation.

Dall'oscurità viene la luce.

His fingers clenched around the metal and his eyes closed as he fought to calm his raggedly drawn breath. He sought clarity though none would come.

As he opened his eyes, a dark realisation lingered in their depths.

Someone had been there. Someone knew his secret.






Although latin would have been a more ideal language to use, I unfortunately don't speak it lol. Hence my use of Italian. Dall'oscurità viene la luce means from the darkness comes light

Please review!

Chapter 3: All in the Gaze
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The drum of fingers on wood grew louder, faster in tempo. Ordinarily it was a sound that irritated her, one that reeked of impatience and she had little tolerance for such a thing in this place.


 

Things happened slowly in the library. Methodically. That was how she liked it. Perhaps if it had been someone else, anyone else, it might have irritated her on this occasion too. However, it wasn’t and so it didn’t.


 

Hermione tried to keep her gaze steady on the parchment, her fingers loose and fluid as they guided the quill in its eloquent strokes. She bit into the side of her lip because he, Seamus, was undoubtedly trying to catch her attention and she was trying best as she could to be stern and disapproving.


 

In actuality it just made her want to laugh. And given the many times she had discussed, though some might have said lectured, with him the importance of study, she didn’t think she wanted to prove him right by laughing aloud.


 

Instead she glanced up at him and rolled her eyes, but she knew he saw the amusement there. In any case, he stopped tapping his fingers because he now had what he had sought: her attention.


 

He grinned his easy grin.


 

"Yes?" She said the words primly and he let out a bark of laughter. Impossibly, he seemed to read her thoughts so well: impossibly, because in truth they had not been friends in this capacity for very long at all.


 

Hermione had always considered Seamus Finnigan to be an acquaintance, just the same way she viewed all her other housemates. And she had been especially disenchanted with the Irish boy as a result of his behaviour to Harry in their fifth year.


 

He had redeemed himself since then, though. He had become a great advocate of Dumbledore’s Army and in turn, the Order of the Phoenix. Though his mother still did not completely approve, he had decided that doing the right thing just might be more important than soothing her fears.


 

In this instance she was more than relieved because he had become one of her closest companions over the long summer and she needed his friendship now, with the absence of Ron and Harry, more than ever.


 

He had taken up the mantle superbly.

 


"Yeh’ve had yeh nose in those books long enough. Let’s get on before we miss lunch." He rose from his seat and looked down at her, ready and waiting for her reluctant response.


 


She almost gave him what he was expecting just to serve him right. Instead though, she acquiesced and began gathering her effects. When she straightened her spine and glanced at him she could not help giving him a small smile as he watched her with amused eyes.


 

They wandered down the corridors and ever changing stairways in the direction of the Great Hall. Seamus was chatting away lightly, commenting on various amusing things which had happened in their first period Charms class that morning.

 


Hermione smiled and laughed on cue but in truth she was highly distracted. Her thoughts were still in a bit of a scramble after the incident of the previous night and all that she had witnessed.


 

She could recall with clarity the erratic beat of her heart and the flow of adrenaline that caused the blood to pound in her ears. Never in her wildest imaginings had she thought she would come across such a revealing display.


 

More to the point, she would have never guessed that Draco Malfoy himself was so deeply involved. She, like the Order, had assumed that he would have some knowledge about his father and his aunt’s whereabouts and perhaps some information gleaned from eavesdropped conversations.


 

But clearly he knew far more than they had ever anticipated. And Hermione had fallen upon the opportunity quite unexpectedly.


 

But now, in the light of day, she was not sure which step to take next. She had lost her ring the night before and when she had hurried out to the forest before light this morning, it had not been there. She did not like to think of the prospect of his having it.


 

One thing she knew for certain, he had heard her there last night. He knew someone had been listening and, given what he had revealed, she felt certain that he would not settle until he had found the culprit.


 

He was, she reflected, no longer the spineless coward he had always been. Now he was an unknown quantity and all her previous thoughts of what he was capable of had flown out the window.


 

Time to start afresh.


 

It was in this state of introspection from which she was jolted at a disgusted noise erupting from Seamus. Hermione glanced ahead and felt the prickling heat of anxiety as her eyes clashed with the mercurial gaze of the boy himself. Malfoy.





*


 

The dormitory was sheathed in darkness but for the small burst of light spilling from a wand laid carelessly on the sleek quilting of the bed. It was enough light to help the boy make out the lines of furniture in the room and that was all he cared to see in any case.


 

He lay languorously beside the narrow strip of wood, gazing up at the ceiling of his opulent four-poster bed. The drapes of fabric which ordinarily lined the majestic bed had been pushed back to reveal the dark and open space beyond.


 

Draco Malfoy did not like closing the drapes. It was too claustrophobic. He just wanted to breathe.


 

It was very early morning: too early to be awake, but likewise too late to attempt sleep. Such sleep had evaded him anyway, a result of the heavy weight of his thoughts throughout the night. He had not minded in any case, he found the silence of this time of the day allowed him to think.


 

He thought about this very room and the bed on which he was sprawled. That he had been elected as Head Boy had, at first, seemed entirely surprising and if truth be told Draco could not deny the immediate rush of triumph which had imbued him. The glow had lasted scarcely a minute before he had realised what it meant, and why. His father had drawn the same conclusion upon hearing the news.


 

That the late Dumbledore’s merry band of muggle-defenders had overrun the school had been undeniable, but it seemed quite clear to the Malfoy family that their son’s receipt of such an honour could only have been to ensure that he would always be close at hand. Whether this was because the Order planned to glean information from him, or whether they simply wished to keep him under close watch, they had yet to ascertain.


 

It was for this very reason that Draco had been instructed to keep a low profile in his final year of Hogwarts. It was something he had fully intended to hold true to; that was, until last night, the ramifications of which could bring down everything that had been worked for.


 

He had not endured such a summer to come unstuck at the first hurdle, his master, he thought rather bitterly, was not known for being all that understanding of such lapses in judgement.


 

Draco sighed, and carded an agitated hand through his hair. The circumstances of his final year at Hogwarts were very strange indeed. Many of the faces of which he was accustomed to seeing were no long in residence. The most notable absences were, of course, Weasley and Potter, a point of much interest to inquiring minds. That their beloved mudblood, Granger, had remained was all the more curious.


 

He felt confident that he would get to the bottom of such loose ends though, for his own sake and his family’s, he had no other option.


 

Chasing that ominous thought was the remembered fumble of the night before. He cursed both himself and his mother and aunt for allowing such a situation to occur. The fact that there had been a witness to their meeting was, he reflected with distaste, highly unnerving.


 

Without inclining his head from its resting position, Draco lifted a hand carelessly in the light and noted the way the pale gleam reflected on the fine silver band he held.


 

What the ring meant and to whom it belonged were not yet facts he knew. He would though, he felt assured. He would discover the eavesdropper and would guarantee their silence. There was no other alternative.


 

His finger traced the fine lines of curved metal. It consisted of three very narrow bands of silver interwoven into one solid ring. At first he had assumed the culprit was a young boy, the most likely sort of person to be wandering the grounds at such a late hour. If it had been a teacher, they would have reacted immediately.


 

But no, it was neither of these possibilities.


 

It was a girl, age unknown.


 

The delicacy and size of the ring suggested as much. And Draco was relieved by this fact. A girl he could work with, intimidate. Ultimately, though, Draco knew that it would serve no purpose to try and ascertain the girl’s identity by process of elimination. Truth be told, it could be any one at Hogwarts, and that left the field wide open, far wider than he would have liked.


 

He lay supine with thoughts running through his mind in a whirl of colour and sound, elusive to his attempts to hold them firm. As the hours passed in slow succession, the weak morning light began to filter through the warbled window panes, eventually breaking into his reverie.


 

His muscles ached and his joints were stiff, but Draco ignored the discomfort, glad for the opportunity to escape the confines of his dormitory at long last. He finally lifted his lithe form from the bed and moved methodically about the room, changing his attire, smoothing his hair and schooling his features.


 

At long last he ventured toward the large gilt-framed mirror to gaze at his reflection. Piercing, cool grey eyes stared back at him as he lifted the fine chain over his head to let the ring fall gently against the folds of his robes. A thrum of energy reverberated through his being which seemed to emanate from the small metal band.


 

Glancing once more at his reflection, he quirked a brow, a mark of his piqued curiosity.


 

And then he left the room.






*





The day was passing slowly and in a whirl of introspection for the pale-haired boy. By the time lunch had arrived and signalled the end to his monotonous History of Magic class, Draco felt sure the day would never end. He was just reflecting on this most dismal thought as he wandered along the main hallway leading to the Great Hall when he spotted something that brought an instantaneous sneer to his smooth features. The sniggering from his fellow Slytherins which sounded from behind him was perfectly timed.


 

The subject of their amusement was one Hermione Granger, she of his early morning musings, who was headed precisely in his direction. She was, as always, surrounded by her ever present band of hopeless Gryffindors. However, there was one in particular who appeared to have taken a special interest in the newly instated Head Girl. Draco could not help but notice with derision the way the Irish boy, whose name he had never bothered to learn, had his hand pressed almost possessively against the small of her back.


 

Both appeared to be enjoying their cosy little moment until, with a jolt, the girl glanced suddenly in his direction, as though she had felt his presence.


She did not look directly into his eyes at first, though. Her gaze lingered a beat too long on the narrow band of intertwined silver that hung from the chain around his neck. When she raised her gaze to his it contained no emotion – no fear, no anger, no shock. She had a look about her face which seemed to suggest that she had deliberately wiped any and all revealing emotion. It was in actuality, far more indicative of her thoughts than had she not reacted at all. She held his gaze nonetheless. 


As the wild-haired girl reached level with him, Draco felt the ring start to vibrate more significantly, felt a rush of giddy warmth imbue his body. His eyes darkened in realisation and as he stared back, the ghost of a smirk haunted the curve of his lips. He could almost feel the breath leave her body with an audible and delicious hiss.


 

Though he could not see her expression any longer, Draco felt most assured that it reflected the horror she was undoubtedly feeling. He soaked in the feeling of triumph that came with the knowledge and enjoyed it for a flash.


 

It was in the moment which followed that Draco truly processed the ramifications of the previous night. That Granger, very much in Potter’s pocket as she was, had discovered his secret was very bad indeed. 


Chapter 4: A Shadow Of Doubt
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Noise, a cacophony of sounds, rose and fell in the small classroom of the northern tower: laughter, inconsequential chatter and a musical symphony of scratching quills and turning pages. When the sounds grew higher in pitch it was enough to garner the girl’s attention for the slightest of moments. Eventually, though, she would sink back into distraction.

Physically speaking, Hermione Granger was very much present in her seventh year Charms class. She was seated on the rough-hewn, wooden seat in the very first row of the classroom; she could feel the scratch of it beneath her heavy robes. Mentally, however, the girl was in another place altogether. It was a place where all sights, sounds and thoughts zoomed and buzzed around her, creating an abstract vortex of colour and noise.

And she was lost.

Such was her level of distraction that day that she failed to take note of a single word Professor Flitwick had said on the topic of Metamorphosis charms. For a girl with her inquisitive nature it was strange indeed. If she had taken the time to reflect upon that salient point, she would not have had much cause to worry anyway, for she had already perused the topic over the summer. 

Without conscious thought, Hermione reached to brush a finger across the chain that took pride of place around her neck, before recalling its absence. As her eyelids fell closed to shield her view from the present, she saw the image of his piercing gaze burnt into her retina.

Recalling her predicament caused something to clutch at the girl’s stomach, the nausea was overwhelming. It was the faintly knowing smile tugging at the corner of his mouth that had caused her heart to stop.
 
He knew. And he wanted her to know it too.
 
The taunting nature of his expression was what had alarmed her most; the lack of concern and the relish of a prospective new game had lingered across the sharp angles of his face. She did not want to play with him, she knew. She wanted, more than anything, to return to the comfort and normalcy of the year before: at time when she only had to worry about school and friends and Ron. The backdrop of an impending war had always lingered, tainting some of their fonder experiences, but still seemingly far off.
 
She was on the precipice now and it loomed ever closer.

In reflecting upon such notions, Hermione could only be certain of one thing. She needed to retrieve her ring immediately. The narrow silver band was more than merely a token, for it served a higher purpose. The ring was one of three; its complements presently garnered the necks of her close friends, though they were far away. She liked knowing that she was still connected with Harry and Ron in some small way, and it disconcerted her greatly to know that was no longer the case.

The cool metal had been imbued with a very ancient form of magic. It was the sort of magic that succumbing to the lure of the Restricted Section of the library could not reward with explanation. Just as Dumbledore had emptied its towering shelves of the tomes in honour of the darkest of magic, horcruxes, so too had he relieved them of other volumes: less sinister in nature, perhaps, though no less important.

Over the previous summer, Hermione had learnt many things about magic, the older, purer forms that many had forgotten. She understood now that despite what many thought, magic itself was rooted in neutrality; it was merely how the spell was harnessed that shaped its nature. She wondered very much about the person wielding it, her ring, at that moment. 

Draco Malfoy had not always struck such an inscrutable figure. Indeed, for much of Hermione’s youth, and consequently his, he had appeared to all accounts nothing more than a spoilt, little boy. He had been overindulged, had a disproportionate sense of entitlement and a constant bitterness of anyone that one-upped him. Initially, in her naïve youth, when she had believed in the good of people, she had thought it all for show. It had become apparent though, after much observation, and the cynicism that comes from experience, that this was not the case. He had not been forced to behave that way; he had genuinely believed that pureblood lineage was superior, could not fathom how a Muggle-born like Hermione could have an ounce of intelligence or magical ability. 

She had supposed that it was that resentment accompanied by her station as Harry’s friend that was behind his particularly vindictive treatment of her over the multitude of other, less than pure, pupils at their school. 

He had only ever been a bully, a narcissistic little boy cocooned by the shelter of his important family and the fear evoked by his last name. Hermione certainly had never feared him then and she was not entirely certain she did now. She ought to, she knew. But she could not seem to reconcile that silly and ignorant boy who got his kicks from mocking others, with the person he had seemingly become. 

A threat.
 
He was though: a threat to her and to Harry and to their cause. In what capacity he could endanger them, she was uncertain. She simply knew that the seemingly straightforward task of keeping tabs on him would now be infinitely more difficult. 

She had an additional quandary to ponder. The debate as to whether she should tell the headmistress of her discovery had raged constantly at the forefront of her mind. It was, of course, the obvious action to take. Hermione had only ever deferred to the experience and authority of her teachers, knowing that they always had the right answer. She did worry though, about this, because she did not feel she knew enough. She needed the context for her information, needed to understand what it all meant and the implications before hasty action was taken.

Malfoy was a Death Eater and yet had remained at school, seemingly of no purpose to Voldemort’s campaign. It made little sense unless one considered that he had some other purpose for being there. Why else had his mother and aunt come to meet him on enemy territory?

The Order could make no use of her discovery without the whys and wherefores of the situation. If she were being completely truthful, she also knew that she hated the prospect of admitting her bungle to them. It was less than two weeks into the school year and already she had lost that which she had been instructed to protect. She knew she would have to recover the ring first, before any other steps were taken. 

Agitated at the prospect of holding her tongue, Hermione ran a hand through the rampant tumult of curly hair secured at the nape of her neck. Strands tumbled in rebellion, springing from her hairpins to frame her face in a cloud. She wished most fervently that Harry and Ron were with her or that she could, at the very least, write to them.

It was hardly possible though, for she had no idea where they were and could only imagine the result of an owl being detained for searching. She would be patient. She would hear from them soon and in the interim she would have to trust her instincts with respect to Malfoy. It was a realisation that left her discomforted. 

Hermione had never considered herself to be especially intuitive. She placed her trust and reliance in fact, which was sorely missing from the shadowy landscape of her present situation. Her musings fell on their primary subject once more as she tuned the class out again.
 
She only hoped that her instincts would kick in soon, for she was at a complete loss as to how she ought to handle the boy. Yet, even if she had not known of his recruitment, her observations of him could not have missed the changes wrought.
 
She had noticed at the start of the year simply because it was the first time in a long time that she had stopped to really look at him and see more than he had always been. There was a harshness in his features that struck her. His face was all sharp angles and piercing grey eyes. The roundness of his cheeks in youth accompanied by the fair complexion and hair had rendered him almost cherubic in appearance, when one ignored the perpetual sneer that often marred his features.
 
There was nothing of the sweet or angelic in him now. There was a murky darkness in his gaze when it fell on her, and she could almost sense it running through his veins like black ice. His coldness alarmed her because she had never seen it in one so young. It made her wonder what he had seen and done to make him like that.

She wondered at what he concealed in the privacy of his thoughts. A dark soul, if indeed he had one any more. It saddened her to think of how circumstance had changed them all. The innocence of their youth had been lost. It was irretrievable. Yet, the knowledge that they could end it and make things right was what drove her to continue and to cope, regardless of the harshness and surrealism of her final year.
 
Somehow she had to glean more from Malfoy, in spite of the fact that she could not hope to read him. 

The previous night was a blessing for her, and a curse. She had learned more than expected, knew the new status quo. So, unfortunately, did he. What was very clear was that in a matter of 24 hours everything around her had shifted. It almost made her laugh because the week and a half that had preceded the incident had been entirely without consequence.

She had only one class with him, Potions, but she had seen him on numerous occasions for prefectorial meetings and conversations with the Headmistress. He had not spoken a word to her in all that time; however, the slight sneer that curved his mouth showed his acknowledgement of her presence. 

Hermione wondered at his behaviour on the next occasion on which they would encounter one another. She did not like to think of it. She wanted, if anything, more time to reflect and to prepare - if preparation for such a thing was even possible. 

A voice reverberated through the foggy realm of her thoughts and she blinked dazed eyes before glancing up. The culprit, or saviour depending on one’s perspective, was Seamus. He was looking down at her in feigned indignation and she smiled a little in response. 

“Sorry, Seamus, I didn’t… er – hear you.” She glanced at her table and noted that her things were still in her book bag. That Professor Flitwick had left her to her musings without comment was most unusual. 

Seamus chuckled, shrugging easily. “C’mon then, we’d best get some dinner.” He stepped back to allow her from her chair and nodded his head in the direction of the door. 

“Right. Sorry. I was…. distracted.” She sighed as she hauled the bag over her shoulder, following the boy out of the now empty classroom. 

“You don’t say?” She grinned at him apologetically. She liked Seamus and his ability to un-complicate matters. Their companionship was easy, different to her friendship with Harry and Ron, but one for which she was most grateful. 

“You look exhausted actually.” He observed and when she merely shrugged by way of response, he dropped the subject. She was highly grateful for that too.

Shortly thereafter, they follow the crowd of students steadily filing into the Great Hall. Hermione spotted Ginny sitting with one of the other girls from her year level, and plopped down on the seat beside her. The atmosphere at the table was raucous and the clanging of cutlery and constant peals of laughter swam around her. 

Methodically, she moved her fork around her plate, pushing the peas away from the pumpkin as neatly as she could. A strategic nudge to her ribs gave her pause.

“Try not to overwhelm your digestive system with the amount of food you’re eating there.” Ginny gestured to Hermione’s plate. 

Hermione merely inclined her head and was about to make a response when Headmistress McGonagall silenced the hall. Her words did not have the same effect as her predecessor, but her tone was enough to command attention. She stood from the seat at the centre of the teacher’s table; her hands were clasped as ever, her imperious gaze surveyed the mass of pupils before her.

“Students please return to common rooms as per usual. However, could Miss Granger and Mr Malfoy please stay back for a word?” She promptly sat back down.

Hermione felt a momentary relief for having not eaten. The thought of food shifting around in her stomach made her queasy. She found it inexcusably ironic that of all the days their Headmistress could summon them, she did so now when Hermione was least equipped.
 
She raised dark eyes to the farthest table in the hall and saw him immediately. His ethereal glow cast against ink-black robes was striking. His gaze burnt intensely into hers and she looked away again quickly. 

As other students made to leave, Seamus, having extracted himself from the bench, leaned over to whisper in her ear. His voice was low and sincere, and it tickled the fine hairs at the nape of her neck. A hand squeezed her shoulder. 

“Want me to wait for you?” She glanced at him only to see him surveying the Slytherin table. “Wouldn’t trust the git as far as I could throw him.”

She smiled lightly and placed her hand atop of his to squeeze it gently. “It’s fine. Thanks.” She could see clearly that he meant to argue the point, but obviously decided to listen to her and he left the hall, muttering under his breath. 

Hermione grabbed her things and walked the length of the hall to where Draco Malfoy was standing over the aged, though no less intimidating, Headmistress. It made her wonder if her decision to withhold her information about him was an astute one.

As she came level with them she glanced at the tall boy who was, at present, looking at her with a disturbingly unfathomable expression. She did not like to reflect upon the hint of black amusement in his gaze. 

“Decided to grace us with your presence, have you? How fortunate we are.” His drawled tone, and the delicate emphasis placed on the word fortunate did not escape her. 

McGonagall cast them both reproving looks. “You ought to consider an attempt at civility in your current positions.” They both fell silent to look at her before she continued, “Firstly, I wanted to see the patrol roster. I trust you have it?” This she directed at Hermione, who rewarded the question by pulling out a neatly folded scroll of parchment. “You also need to be aware that we will not be arranging the traditional trip to Hogsmeade for Halloween. I think it goes without saying that the security required for such a thing would outweigh the excursion.”

She looked sternly at them both and Hermione noted the weariness beneath it. “Instead, we will have the usual feast, perhaps more formal. Dress robes, of course.” She paused in contemplation. “This will need to be arranged in prefect meetings over the coming weeks.”

She made to say something else and was distracted by a most humbly attired Mr Filch, who was heaving and wheezing from the entrance door. She sighed in resignation, wished them both good night and swept off to see to the man’s various irritations. 

Hermione squeezed her leather book-bag more tightly, before casting a glance at her companion. His hair gleamed yellow in the fading candlelight. His expression was intent and so she did what any rational girl would do when caught alone with him in a room with candles burning to their wick; she turned on her foot and marched out. 

She thought she heard a low chuckle from behind her, but supposed that to be mild paranoia disproportionate to the circumstance. He was hardly going to curse her in the middle of the castle with the Headmistress only minutes away. Instinct told her that she ought to get away, to fight her battle on a day when she was, perhaps, less rattled. She might have considered staying had she been naïve enough to think that a polite request would see him hand back what was rightfully her own. 

It was a tack she might have taken years before, but she was aware that the stakes were higher now. They may have still been students, but they each represented something else entirely. It was something bigger than both of them.

She reached the entrance hall bereft both of life and light and made to walk toward the staircase before she stopped, noting only then the absence of other footsteps: Malfoy’s footsteps, to be specific. 

Hermione glanced over her shoulder and saw nothing but the steadily fading pool of light from the hall. She turned back and took a step forward only to nearly collide with the solid wall of his chest. Her breath left her in a muffled gasp and she struggled not to clutch at her heart from shock. She decided that it was better to know where he was than to fear him lurking around in the darkness.

Though how she had neither seen nor heard him was alarming. The slightest noise always carried in the vast halls and entry ways of the castle. 

He stood mere inches away, so uncomfortably close that she risked his mocking tone and took a step back.

“What’s the rush?” His voice was low and languid, almost conversational and were it not for the hint of a smirk lurking around his features, she might have confused him for someone else. “Afraid?” he whispered.

A little, she thought, but felt it entirely unnecessary to share that minor detail. He was exactly the sort of person that thrived on fear. It was clearly a quality he shared with his father and other men of that ilk.

She pushed her shoulders back and tilted her chin. “No,” she said instead, “I just wanted to get back.” She made to walk around him and was stalled as he grabbed her wrist with alarming agility. 

“No manners at all.” His tone was mournful and malicious. “You don’t just leave when someone is talking to you.” Hermione pulled her arm and felt the strain cause her muscles to ache. She narrowed her gaze at him, not at all in the mood for his scare tactics.

Tilting her head defiantly, she said quite brazenly, “Neither you nor your attempts at bullying scare me.”
 
Malfoy yanked her wrist hard, pulling her closer. He took her by surprise when his other hand gripped her shoulder painfully. Verbal attack was his usual modus operandi; she could not deny she was alarmed at his aggression. She was even more perturbed by the gentle brush of smooth cashmere, his robe, against her cheek.

Hermione did not dare to draw a breath as he lowered his head in the darkness, letting pale strands drift across her forehead.

He was disturbing this close to.

Malfoy’s breath tickled her ear and she could almost have sworn that she felt the slightest brush of his mouth against her skin. She shivered with disgust and nervous energy.

“You know that old adage about curiosity and cats?” His voice was a low and taut whisper. She made to pull back and felt his grip on her shoulder tighten enough to bruise. She could just imagine Seamus’s reaction if he saw the purple bloom of colour on her milky skin. “If I ever catch you eavesdropping on my conversations again, you’ll be begging for those nine lives.”

She stood stock still as his hand released her shoulder to grip her chin. His hand flexed tauntingly across the fragile contours of her throat until his thumb barely grazed her mouth. Hermione’s gaze widened and the first trickle of fear seeped into her blood like a poison. She dared not move as his palm pressed its weight against her larynx. His expression was hidden beneath the pale gleam of his lashes and she could feel his breath against her cheek, slow and steady. 

He was watching her closely now, tracking her reactions with an eerie sort of calculation. His thumb grazed in deliberate strokes across her lower lip before tugging minutely on the indentation to press against the moist warmth within. She could taste the subtle salt of his skin. It would seem he had learned a few new tricks in the art of intimidation. She was certain she had Lucius Malfoy to thank for that too.

She turned her head sufficiently to evade him. Her voice was strong and clear in spite of her fumbling limbs. “Let go of me or I’ll-”

“You’ll what? Tell the teachers and have me put in detention?” The ring of his mocking laughter gave her shivers. 

She was not entirely sure who he was, or what had made him the cold and spiteful creature she saw now, the one that made her forget he was only 17. He was though, and despite her disconcertion, she refused to be manhandled by someone of his ilk: someone who was, in her opinion, so inherently weak.

“Intimidate me all you like,” she whispered and he stared at her intently, “you’re nothing but a puppet for your father’s agenda.” Her bravado was quite impressive considering she very nearly goaded him into strangling her.

Instead, Malfoy jerked away and loosened his grip on her chin. She made to pull free but his hand moved lower to trace the gentle curve of her neck, resting now with threatening accuracy on the fluttering pulse point. His voice had lost its cool composure. The rough edge rasped at her, “Puppet or not, if I hear so much as a fucking whisper of what you heard last night breathed within this castle… I swear I won’t hesitate to kill you.”

She felt a subtle pressure on her throat, causing her breath to catch, before he released her and walked away. Confusion warred with horror and indignation. She was not entirely certain she disbelieved him. 







---


He stood in the darkened hall, slumped against the cold stone of the aged castle wall. He watched as she walked away as quickly as she could without running. Most girls would have fled under the circumstances, but he had the distinct impression she knew he was still there.

In any case, the girl held her wand tightly in her right hand, quite clearly taking no more chances. Draco was surprised at her very poor survival instincts. Potter’s paranoia had clearly not rubbed off on his friend.

He blew out a sigh of frustration. He had been backed into a corner from which he could see no obvious solution. Whilst he felt he had the upper hand in that encounter, her defiance had goaded him into losing his calm. It was the very thing his father had told him never to do. He could not allow a repeat performance.

Still, Draco had a few cards up his sleeve, and he had every intention of taking advantage of them. He recalled the derision ringing clear in her tone. She thought she had him all figured out: had him reduced to good or bad or irrelevant. It was just what someone as ignorant as her would be expected to do. 

Draco Malfoy, she would learn, was none of these things. She could not hope to understand his motivations. 
 


Chapter 5: Midnight Rendezvous
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Chapter 5: Midnight Rendezvous

 

The longer evenings of summer had passed, as sunlight caved to the encroaching darkness beyond warbled panes of glass in the windows of the castle. The orange glow of firelight danced in the reflection of one particular window, the room into which it looked was nestled high above the ground in the northern tower. The room was silent but for the hiss of flame consuming the rough chunks of wood within the hearth, and the steady thrum of one heart beat.

It belonged to a person who, despite his relative youth, had all the markings of weary exhaustion. He sat on an elegant sofa placed directly before the fireside and though he made no other noise, the weight of his thoughts rang clear in the expansive room. He was not entirely certain how long he had been sitting there, before the fire, watching as the copper-tinged cinders reflected off the cool metal band that rested in his open palm.

Minutes possibly. Hours perhaps.

Time had seemed to lapse for that period as he gazed at, without really seeing, the ring. He longed most fervently to know its secrets, the truth of its purpose. What was sleep if not a waste of his time in the face of such elusive knowledge? And elusive, it most certainly was.

It had been precisely three weeks since Draco Malfoy had made that fateful trip to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Three weeks since he had discovered the token nestled in the dewy, green grass underfoot. Three weeks since he had realised that he had acquired not nearly enough information about one Hermione Granger, the previously underestimated mudblood friend of Harry Potter.

The time since had been spent primarily in rectifying that mistake. Draco had spent countless hours perusing the extensive shelves of the library, including an unfruitful visit to the restricted section, which almost always turned up something of value. Part of the problem, he knew, was the fact that he had so little to work from. The ring itself bore no marks of obscure magic. In fact the only indication of any magical influence at all was the strange thrumming he had felt when he put the chain around his neck, and again when he had been in such close a proximity to Granger.

His thirst for answers was two-fold. The obvious reason being reluctance to admit to his father, and worse the Dark Lord, that he had been found out unless he was able to counteract that revelation with something supremely helpful. If there was any way his discovery of the ring could be made useful to his purpose, he would find it. The second cause was pure and unadulterated curiosity. Instinct told him Granger would not have been spying on him were it not for Potter, and it told him that her reaction to his having the ring meant it was of importance above sheer sentimentality.

Hermione Granger struck him as many things, but being overly sentimental - particularly in times such as these - was not one of them. Draco had never taken much time to consider the Gryffindor girl from the perspective of an opponent. He had always dismissed her as the more intelligent companion of someone he grossly detested. She had, in his youth, served no greater purpose than as the reluctant recipient of his insults.

If he had paid closer attention to her lack of concern over the jibes, he might have credited her with a more resilient spirit than he had. It was further reminder of quite how much he had underestimated her. He had learned to make certain assumptions about people from his father. He considered his ability, unlike his father, to readjust these preconceptions to be something in his favour.

In any case, he had spent much time - that which was not used in the hunt for information - in observing the girl he knew so little about. He watched her closely, studied her in much the same covetous way he sought knowledge from the dark, leather bound books in his father's private study. He absorbed and categorised every memory of every action, every gesture and look for later reflection and perusal.

All those little details that he had gleaned did not fit with his previous conceptions of her personality. It would appear that without Potter and Weasley around she had become rather introverted. Or she knew that he was watching.

It was of little matter for if there was one characteristic that he had finely cultivated, though it went against the grain for him, it was patience. And he had waited patiently, taking note of all that was necessary over the previous three weeks. The time for patience was drawing to a swift and shuddering halt.

Draco was pulled from his reverie by the high echo of a throaty laugh rising from the hallway beyond his door, the mocking tones of which rang clear.

Pansy was punctual as ever.

 

---

 

In a similarly appointed room across the sweeping corridor sat the very girl about whom the young Death Eater was so uncertain. She was seated on a plush cream stool that rested before an exquisite mahogany dresser, gazing at her appearance with scrutiny. She sought out the marks of her exhaustion, which lingered in the taut skin around her mouth and eyes.

She rolled her shoulders back carefully, wishing most fervently for the bunching of knots that gathered there to fall out like creases in a cotton sheet. They refused. Hermione sighed in resignation at the image reflected back at her and brushed her hair back off her face. Her frustration was increasing by each passing second. As if to demonstrate the riotous nature of her thoughts, a stray curl bounced back across her eyes in an act of unruly rebellion. When an upward blown puff of breath failed to budge the persistent curl, she threw her hands in the air and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply as she did so.

In spite of her very tangible sense of irritation, Hermione felt relief as the fixed expression of polite interest relaxed from her features. That she was weary from the charade was painfully evident. The primary cause for this all pervasive sense of unease was the increasing build up of expectation that surrounded her. Hermione did not believe in falling below the standard expected of her, but she was beginning to wonder if she had taken on more than she could handle.

The most literal manifestation of this worry was her duty as Head Girl, and the increase in both patrols and meetings which came with the position. She had aspired to the role almost since she had first stepped foot in Hogwarts' illustrious halls; but she found it difficult to place a value on something so mundane in comparison to the very real dangers that her friends were facing without her.

She felt guilty. She should not, but she did anyway.

To further compound her situation, she was completely unable to accomplish any of the instructions gifted her by the Order of the Phoenix at the start of term. She was expected to take advantage of her private quarters in order to study, to practice and to self improve. She knew what was looming ahead, and she knew that if she were to be of any value to her friend she had to be battle-ready, so to speak.

But her hands were tied. Practicing run of the mill spells and charms were not going to suffice considering the opponent they faced. That was why she needed her ring. And that was the primary cause for her sense of ill-ease. She feared nothing greater than letting Harry down.

Following that thought, she cast her gaze to the single photo frame placed on the edge of the dresser. The only unusual thing about this photograph, to anybody who might have paused to look, was the conspicuous lack of movement from its subjects. It was a photograph of her standing between the two boys, both of whom fairly towered over her by that stage. Her mother had given her a muggle camera for her birthday the year before, and she had insisted on taking rolls of film with it. Hermione cracked a smile when she recalled seeing Ron poke the unmoving final product, his expression deeply disturbed.

She brushed a finger across the glassy surface of the frame, before resolutely looking away. No matter how much she longed for their companionship, it would not resolve her present dilemma. That she would have to do all on her own.

Something indefinable sang in her veins as she thought of the boy at the very centre of her problems. She still had not made up her mind about how serious a threat he really was. She simply knew that her ability to make such a judgement would be far more concise once she took the obvious element of risk out of the situation. If she could conceive a way to get the narrow silver band back from him, she felt certain that he would become infinitely less of a concern.

That was assuming she got it back before he figured out just what he held so close. It disconcerted her greatly to know that despite his seeming lack of success, it was not due to any complacency on his part. Draco Malfoy was paying uncomfortably close attention to her of late. She could feel the slow burn of his stare on her almost everywhere she went, and yet she had never once caught him actually looking her way when she turned around. Stealth was clearly one of the refinements taught to Slytherins in first year.

If she thought the staring game was simply a ploy to intimidate her she would have been less concerned; instead it was the calculating and methodical way he seemed to be assessing her that disturbed her most. She did not like to think what was going through his head.

Nor did she like that so much of her time was consumed with thinking about him in general. She had known what was expected of her at the start of term, but she had sorely underestimated just how mentally taxing the suspense would be. Her first worry had been that he might tell his father or any number of intimate acquaintances about his suspicions. He was clearly wondering the same thing. It was futile though, he must have known she would not tell, regardless of his threats that night. He had insurance for the time being. Not for long, she swore.

Hermione simply had to stick to her present game plan: stay low under the radar until an opportunity presented itself. She did not have Harry's instincts or his innate courage, but she was a Gryffindor too. Surely that counted for something. In the meantime she was going to be smart, weigh up her options and above all else, avoid anything rash. After all, irrespective of how much stock she put in the promises of Draco Malfoy, she had to trust in the very real truth conveyed by the inky black mark on his forearm. He may be a student, a seeming youth, but he was still one of them and that counted for something too.

When the time came for her to deal with Malfoy she would not let him take her unawares, she refused to show fear. He would thrive on that, she was certain. His fatal flaw was an inability to recognise her as a worthy opponent, but that suited her perfectly. She would take him by surprise. She had no other choice.

A noise from the hallway beyond her dormitory called her attention to the present, and with a quick glance at her watch she realised she had to go. She was due to meet Ernie McMillan in a matter of minutes in order to complete their patrol of the northern tower.

When she stepped discreetly out of the portrait hole that concealed the entry to her dormitory, she raised a brow at the sight that greeted her. Pansy Parkinson was glaring at the opposite portrait, demanding entry in a voice which bordered on screechy. Hermione's nose wrinkled in immediate distaste. If there was any one person in the school that Hermione could so little respect, it was that one girl. She knew very little about her as a person, except that she had a wonderful ability to shift in character at the slightest provocation.

Around the majority of people Pansy Parkinson encountered the look of perpetual disdain that marred her features was immovable. If it accommodated her, however, she could simper and smirk and smile indulgently with the best of them. The art of the coquette was clearly something her mother had taught her, Hermione had thought more than once, and was particularly evident in the other girl's behaviour around Malfoy.

She supposed that was why the loathsome girl was presently loitering in the Head's corridor, instead of in the dungeons where she belonged.

"Let me in, Draco." Pansy paused at the lack of response before narrowing her eyes at the portrait.

Deciding she had seen enough, and out of irritation at the girl's mere presence, Hermione interrupted. "Parkinson, exactly what are you doing here? It's practically curfew."

The other girl whipped her neatly coiffed head in Hermione's direction and sneered. "What's it to you, Mudblood. Run along now... you're polluting the corridor." It was more the malicious expression on her face that made Hermione's blood boil than the actual insult.

She inhaled deeply in an attempt to calm herself before responding coolly, "If we're going to get technical, it's actually my corridor to pollute and I'm afraid," she glanced at her watch before continuing, "tick-tock, time's up. It is 9:30 and you are out of bed. 20 points from Slytherin, Parkinson."

The other girl lived up to Hermione's assessment of her by letting out a string of obscenities, enough to distract both girls from the blond-haired figure which emerged from the previously sealed portrait. His languid form came to rest against the wall as he observed the scene before him.

"DETENTION!" Hermione's voice rang clear in the near empty corridor; she was entirely sick of the Slytherin girl.

"Now, now - that's not very nice, Granger," said a low and decidedly masculine voice.

Hermione whirled around to see his cool, grey eyes boring into hers, his smirk laced with amusement. She broke her gaze from his, feeling slightly dizzy.

"Go to bed Parkinson. I'm late for patrol." With that she spun on her heel and walked determinedly towards the Prefect's meeting room, refusing to look back once.

 

---

 

Draco turned his pale head to take in the sight of his late night visitor. "Detention, Pansy?" He raised his brow in question.

Her reaction was just as he had anticipated. They were nothing if not well rehearsed. Her voice lowered to take on the throaty quality he knew best, "It's completely unfair, Draco. But enough about her." She reached up to press cool lips to his cheek, before bypassing him and sauntering into the dormitory. "I thought I was never going to get an invitation."

"You didn't," he corrected. She ignored the minor detail.

She danced manicured fingernails along the back of an armchair before she spoke. "We haven't... talked in a while, Draco. You seem to have been distracted." She had her back to him but turned around to scan his impassive face. "Your mother is concerned..."

Truthfully he was not in the mood for explaining himself to Pansy, but he knew that the simplest way of dealing with her was to comply. He gestured for her to take a seat as he relaxed his frame into the cushiony surrounds of the armchair. He leaned back, his expression passive, to observe her. He understood Pansy in a way that many did not. He knew she was not the vapid creature she played; she had an inherently calculating mind and an innate ability for manipulation.

That did not concern him; they both reaped the rewards of their acquaintanceship. She had protection and a certain social standing in being associated with him, it seemed cold to put it that way, but they both knew the score. As for him, he enjoyed Pansy's company from time to time.

He would never say that he was attracted to Pansy, in the strictest sense. She was no beauty, but it mattered little because her body was supple and soft. He knew it well. He leaned back carelessly in the chair, pretending to listen as she talked at length about the goings on of the Slytherin common room. She knew he was not listening, knew he was watching closely the way her legs would shift to reveal the contrast of black lace against creamy thigh.

She eyed him questioningly and when he nodded his head, his intense gaze upon her, she let her red mouth curl in a small smile of triumph. She stood then and walked slowly toward him. When she was close to, he leaned forward and gripped her hips, his thumb carelessly smoothing a pattern across the taut white skin found beneath the bottom hem of her shirt.

His expression was stoic but for the steadily darkening hue of his irises as he surveyed her. A quick tug saw her fall astride his legs, and she braced her hands on his shoulders. His hand moved deftly over the small buttons of the shirt, releasing each from its catch without concerted effort. One hand lowered from her hip to scoop her closer, she rolled her hip in response and the corner of his mouth curved upward. His other hand, now free to roam, moved over the bare skin of her abdomen to brush against the black lacy confection confining her breasts.

His thumb brushed tauntingly over the material, allowing it to scrape against the sensitive skin. She swallowed in response and wet her lips. She was nothing if not responsive. It was Draco's favourite part. He traced his fingers over the curve of her hip and down to her thigh, pressed against one of his own. The hand flirted beneath the edge of skirt before gripping the bare skin and inching further up its length.

He leaned his body closer now, the time for observation over, and pressed firm lips against the sensitive skin beneath her jaw line. Her pulse fluttered, the pressure of his mouth suckling her skin causing it to dance erratically. His mouth moved lower, his tongue carefully tracing the line of lace against the softness of her breasts. At precisely that moment the dormant hand squeezing her thigh gently brushed teasing circles just the way she wanted, higher and firmer.

He decided right then that a taste of Pansy was exactly what he needed.

 

­---

 

The sounds of clanging plates and errant cutlery, of chirping owls and chatting voices was the harmony to which Draco ate his breakfast the following morning. He surveyed the students milling around before glancing at his companion, Blaise Zabini. He was, in Draco's opinion, completely untrustworthy and thus inherently Slytherin in nature, but was regardless a vast improvement on the mute ineptitude of Crabbe and Goyle.

Draco had awoken early that morning and, after escorting Pansy to the door, had taken a moment to reflect upon his recent strategy with regard to the situation of one Hermione Granger. He had noticed that her initial trepidation around him had dissipated somewhat and her composure had regained its strength in a way that irked him immensely. He liked to think that had something to do with him not cornering her in dark pockets of the castle in the last couple of weeks.

He had decided, in any case, that he was growing tired of the passive stance he had taken.  He was far more interested in pushing Granger to a reaction, preferably one which might shed some light on the current situation. He glanced up from his breakfast to see her looking at him. Her gaze narrowed fractionally before she looked away. Draco was most intrigued.



---

 
The day had been long and tortuous, and Hermione could not hide her relief that the week was finally drawing to a close. Upon entering the dormitory, she carelessly dropped her book bag, wandered into the bedroom and plopped quite ungraciously onto her bed. She sat up again quickly though, when she felt a sharp point prick her shoulder. The offending article was in fact a letter with no obvious indication of whom it had come from. The strange twisting sensation in her stomach told her she knew who she thought it was from.

She slid a finger beneath the seal to open it.

 

Meet me in the Astronomy Tower at Midnight tonight. Alone. We each have something the other wants.

D.M.


 

She felt her breath catch and her heart splutter for one second before they resumed normal behaviour. She had expected some sort of move from Malfoy, but nothing quite so direct. She was entirely uncertain as to how she ought to view the summons, for that was exactly what it was. She could not fathom why he thought she would actually meet him under circumstances which would not be at all in her favour.

Yet at the same time, in spite of how ridiculously stupid it would be to agree to such a meeting, she could not deny her curiosity was piqued. She imagined that was exactly what he was counting on.

Her plan that evening had been to visit the Gryffindor common room in order to spend some time with her friends. She had scarcely seen them outside of class, and her level of distraction had been such that she really was unaware about the goings on in her former place of residence. She was already thinking about packing the map and invisibility cloak when she went out, just in case she did decide on a late night jaunt to stargaze.

She knew that Harry and Ron would be horrified if they heard what she was planning. That was only because she was a girl, she surmised. After all she was infinitely more capable with a wand than Ron and more knowledgeable about spells than Harry... and yet both of them would go under the circumstances.

Swiftly, she made up her mind. Seamus would not like it if she told him, which she would not. The Order would think it dangerous as well. Hermione decided, however, that given the extreme lack of danger she was facing as compared with her friends, that an element of risk in order to glean something of use was a good idea in this instance. Besides, if there was one inevitable fact that Draco Malfoy had known and about which he was correct, it was that she just had to know.

She flounced off the bed and gathered her various requirements before heading toward her old common room, a place of many poignant memories. She was greeted at the portrait by Seamus who carelessly threw an arm around her shoulders, hauling her against the comforting warmth of his body. He whispered an intimate hello into her ear and stomach flipped just a little.

She heard several voices calling her and Seamus as they walked further into the room. It was exactly as she remembered it: warm and alive with laughter. The duo made their way over to the fireplace where Ginny and a smattering of sixth and seventh years were gathered. Curling up in one of the overstuffed sofas, Hermione scanned the assemblage of welcoming faces. She felt a twinge of sadness at the fact that she had been locked away in her dormitory, hiding. Her gaze finally rested on Ginny.

She had been so preoccupied with the Malfoy situation that she had completely neglected the younger girl. It occurred to her then, that whilst she missed her friends terribly, Ginny's sense of loss would be just as acute. She hid it well, but Hermione thought she recognised the slight fracturing of her composure. She squeezed her hand comfortingly and smiled, a silent promise to talk later. Ginny nodded her appreciation.


---


Narrow beams of light fell in shafts across the landing of the Astronomy Tower, pooling into the centre. It threw the darkened edges into sharp relief. It was here that Draco waited with an eagerness which was irrational given the circumstances. The person for whom he waited had yet to arrive, despite the clock striking midnight several minutes earlier. He was unconcerned, though. Draco felt confident that he could rely on Granger's unbearable curiosity and sense of obligation to Potter to ensure she accepted his invitation.

As if to reward his patience, this thought was interrupted by the scrape of a door separating from its hinge, which rent the still night air. Silence persisted and he knew that she was taking the stairs very slowly indeed. He stepped forward into the light, his gaze intensely focused on the mouth of the staircase, awaiting her arrival.

After a minute or so passed without revealing Granger, Draco's gaze narrowed. Suspicion and a sense of unease pooled in his stomach. He could not see her lurking in the shadow of the entry way, but could feel the awareness of being watched prickling his skin. He did not like it.

The softest of sounds, like cloth shifting in the whisper of the cool night breeze, made him whip his head around. She stood there, a slightly smug expression caressing her tired features. Her wand was held with a deceptively relaxed grip, but Draco was not deceived. He knew well enough that she was a quick draw, but fortunately so was he.

"Nice trick, Granger," he said after a beat. She acknowledged the comment with an almost polite tilt of her head. How civilised, he thought with amusement. "Potter left you a present, did he? How thoughtful."

"Ah, yes, the joy of having friends... a foreign concept to you, perhaps?" She smiled quite poisonously and Draco was more than a little surprised at her malice. She had shown far more venom in the last two days than he had previously thought possible. Given other circumstances, he might have appreciated it more.

Instead he chose to ignore the slight, seeing it for what it was: a woeful attempt to distract him. She would have to try harder than that and an invisibility cloak to really get one over on him.

"Granger," he acknowledged.

"Malfoy," she said by way of response, "what, exactly, do you want?"

He smirked, "Do you always ask such... open-ended questions?" His gaze scrutinised her deliberately, and her discomfort was delightfully evident.

She swallowed quickly and squared her shoulders, clearly not liking his attempts to control the conversation. "You know perfectly well what I mean. Why this little gathering? Surely you have no need for it."

He stared at her intently for a moment, watching to see if her regathered composure would crack.  It did not.

He spoke finally, delighted at the opportunity to bait her into a reaction. "Would you believe me if I said it was about the Halloween feast you've been so tirelessly working on?"

Her eyes narrowed. "No. I think it more likely that you plan to pitch me over the ledge." Her head nodded in the direction of the wide arches in the stone walls, beyond which was a fatally long fall to earth.

"Come now, Granger. You really think I'd make it that quick for you?" He sneered, before continuing, "No, you would warrant a slow and sticky end if I were going down that route." Draco enjoyed the slight blanching of her expression, yet another mark of her inability to conceal her thoughts.

"As it so happens," he said, "I have no intentions of anything of the sort... yet. I just wanted to have a chat, so let's play nicely, shall we?" He ignored her raised eyebrow.

She tilted her head in that righteous way of hers before responding. "You make a lot of threats, Malfoy. I just wonder whether your follow through is quite as common."

He grinned, quite without meaning to. Detest her, though he undoubtedly did, Draco could not deny she had backbone. "I'm going to assume you didn't intend that as an invitation to demonstrate, and instead get to the point." She nodded in agreement.

"I want," he said, lowering his voice slightly as he walked deliberately toward her, "to know what you were doing in the Forbidden Forest that night."

Her response was succinct, and he felt certain, rehearsed. "Honestly, I was looking out the window and saw you heading into the forest alone after curfew."

"And you just thought you'd tag along as well, is that it?" He asked softly.

She shrugged her shoulders. "It was after curfew, and the forest is out of bounds. What can I say? I'm a stickler for the rules."

"Indeed. You always were a know-it-all." She started inching around him, clearly sensing the merit in the flight versus fight response to their deteriorating conversation. Unfortunately for her, he found that rather unaccommodating and so stopped her with a firm grip around her forearm. "I don't buy it."

She gazed up at him then, eyes wide and searching. He was momentarily thrown off balance by the intensity of her stare, particularly as she had been practising avoidance for as long as he had known her. She seemed to sway closer to him and Draco stared back, utterly bewildered by the sudden change in atmosphere. When she moved closer, resting flat palms against the fabric of his robes, he should have pushed her away. He probably would have, if he had been breathing and thinking clearly.

As it was, he was too pole-axed by her sudden closeness, and the gentle and unexplained creeping of her hands up to his shoulders. If he had been paying close attention, he might have felt the slight tug at the back of his neck, or heard the soft snap of small metal links breaking.

All he heard was her sharp intake of breath and whispered words falling from her lips. "I hope you got what you came for. I did." It took him a second too long to process what she said, and more importantly what it meant. That was enough time for her to pull away and bolt.

His sluggish brain snapped back into action and he felt for the chain around his neck. It was gone.

"Fuck," he cursed before flying down the stairs after her. When he wrenched the door open and gazed down the length of the corridor, it was empty. Black dots popped behind his eyes as rage burned within him. His fist collided with the stone wall and he cursed again, this time at the physical pain.

 

---

 

The sound of her heart beat and his pounding footsteps rushed in her ears. Her body was flat against the stone wall of the corridor, a mere metre from where he had lashed out. Adrenaline and fear coursed through her veins and she could feel the shaking symptom of that tingle all the way to her fingertips.

She stood still, watching him survey the corridor, his features contorted in a way that would have scared anyone, for almost twenty minutes. Even after she saw him enter his dormitory she refused to move for ten more.

Hermione felt relief seep into her body, and she closed her eyes and took in the first deep and dizzying gulp of oxygen she could risk since her flight from the tower. Later, in the safety of her bedroom, she would congratulate herself on retrieving her ring against all odds. She would wonder at the very strange stillness of the moment which preceded it, and Malfoy's inaction.

One way or another, she did not relish the thought of their next encounter.


Chapter 6: The Butterfly Effect
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The Butterfly Effect


 

Throughout the castle many of the students lamented the miserable quality of the weather that Saturday afternoon. As the days crept closer to winter bleakness, the opportunities for weekend afternoons spent playing Quidditch or wandering the grounds became all the more rare. There was one student, however, who was entirely unconcerned about this fact and indeed revelled in the opportunity to stay safely nestled within the privacy of her rooms.
 

Considering the eventful night one Hermione Granger had experienced, and the resulting lack of sleep, some time spent in seclusion was exactly what she wanted. The harsh pumping of adrenaline which had coursed through her veins the night before, continued to pulse in her mind even after all physical manifestations had faded.
 

She was highly conscious of the rather audacious manner of her actions, and truth be told felt a small measure of pride at a deviousness she had not known she had. She had lain in bed for hours, gazing up at the canopy roof. But instead of her eyes tracing the ornate detail in the wooden structure, she had seen his face and the twisting expressions flickering like Muggle film. Hermione had only really caught these expressions once hidden beneath the comforting embrace of the Invisibility Cloak, for she had not had the time to stand and watch for realisation to light his features.
 

She recalled the visceral quality of his response upon finding her gone, and the ring, which he coveted also. He had lashed out with a violence that had only been hinted at in their past dealings, but that which he usually kept under cloak of composure and disdain. She could think only of the relief she had felt that he had not caught up with her.
 

It was not only her feelings of triumph, the adrenaline and small measure of disconcertion regarding his inevitable retaliation which had kept her up. It was the recollection of that strange moment before she fled, when she had reached for the chain around his neck and felt the uneven beating of his heart. The lack of drawn breath and the piercing quality of his eyes, so close to, had almost made her forget why she was there in the first place.
 

That he had somehow forgotten also, or indeed been so taken aback as to not immediately push her away, was all the more perplexing. It was a strange development in their interactions of late, the very physical nature of them. For she had only touched him once before, to lash out in unexpected violence in their youth, and he had certainly never wished to come near her: dirty as she apparently was to him.
 

It was these very thoughts and others like them which haunted her every minute that morning. She had given up all attempts at further sleep, and elected to shower, dress and make some effort at using her day productively. She knew inherently that she had no intention of leaving her room if possible. Perhaps it was a cowardly measure, but in her opinion, given the potential wrath from Malfoy, an astute one.
 

She was seated, as she had been for some time, before the richly glowing fire which blazed a dancing glory in the hearth. Spread across the small wooden table before her were innumerable tomes and texts, of varying sizes and age, in addition to her own notes, which were splattered with ink from her writings. The majority of the material had been left on one of the bookshelves in the bedroom of her dormitory, courtesy of McGonagall and on behalf of the Order of the Phoenix.
 

She had spent much time in her first few weeks at Hogwarts poring over the literature, shaping her thoughts and trying to glean as much information about the kind of magic she was dealing with as she possibly could. Hermione had never been one to jump straight in on the advice or information of others, even authority figures like Lupin who knew much about old magic. She had always placed her trust in theory, and the knowledge she could glean from books. It was something that her professor had understood about her, knowing clearly that for her to do what had to be done, she had to do her own research.

 
That was all well and good, but it had become increasingly apparent to her that this particular kind of magic was far more intuitive than she liked or had previously dealt with. No amount of book reading would assist Harry, but she would persevere nonetheless because at the very least if she knew all she could about it, then it would help her master the ring. And that was what she was going to do: Harry’s success and their whole livelihood depended on it.
 

It was a heavy burden she knew, and not one that would usually be entrusted to students but Harry was far more than that. And both she and Ron had to be as well, for him.


Of course, despite consciously trying to do the best for Harry and their cause, she could hardly deny that her methods thus far had been more rash and risky than he would have liked. Following Draco Malfoy to his secret meeting with known Death Eaters, and then meeting with him under those circumstances was foolhardy. But it was a war, and she knew she had to hold up her end of things.
 

Besides, Draco Malfoy was a better opponent to face than Voldemort. This thought brought her little comfort, though.
 

It was a moot point at this rate. She had her ring back, and so far as she could tell, Malfoy had gleaned little about it in the time he held it under his care. That he knew it was important was easily discernible from his sudden interest in her behaviour. She could only hope that this would not be enough to reveal the Order’s plans should the information be divulged to either his father or Voldemort.
 

Her hand lifted and pressed against the warm weight on her collarbone, relishing the ring’s presence there once more. No amount of vengeance from Malfoy could counteract the relief she felt at having the token back.
 

She glanced at the array of books spread before her, and made a quick decision. She had spent so much time pining for its return, and yet she had never once made an attempt to familiarise herself with it. Ultimately, according to Lupin, the only way she was going to master this was to wear it. Not all the time, for the resulting magic was far too volatile in the beginning, but she was never going to reach that stage if she simply continued to read about it.
 

With this borne in mind, she reached for the fastening at the nape of her neck, removed the chain – which she had only just repaired this morning – and placed the small silver band in the centre of her palm. The increased thrumming of the ring was like a pulse against her skin. It made her forget it was inanimate, for it felt so very alive. It was alive with magic. That was the difference.


Lifting her palm closer for inspection, Hermione ran an errant finger along the curved band, noting the way the light seemed to chase the action. She pulled in a deep breath then, the kind that ought to be soothing, but she was tense with anticipation. When she did slip the cool metal onto her finger, noting its perfect fit and the way it continued to hum, she was distracted enough not to notice the absence of anything happening. If truth be told, she didn't feel any different.

 
She blew the hair back from her face and reached for her wand.  The only real way to test, she surmised, was to go straight in. She stood, now armed with her wand, and gazed about the room. It was several seconds before she realised the difference, the warmth which was rising up within her. It was magic. The kind that made her think back to her childhood when she was giddy with excitement at the thought of unicorns and princesses and witches. She was a witch, and yet this was a primitive kind of magic she had never felt before.
 

Hermione’s fingertips tingled as she toyed with her wand, mind skipping to any number of small spells she could try out. A summoning charm seemed to her the least destructive and so with a whispered incantation and the well rehearsed flicking of her wand, she watched the general vicinity with rapt attention. When no object was forthcoming, she made a second attempt, slightly perplexed that she could have gotten such a simple spell wrong.
 

She tried to ignore the bubble of anxiety that was starting to form in the pit of her stomach, the inexplicable feeling of inadequacy, when she failed yet again. And again. And again.

 
She was caught so swiftly in a blind panic that she was not fully conscious of the sweeping gestures she made with her wand and the increasing imprecations that tumbled from her lips. She only knew the sudden irrational fear that something was wrong, with the ring, with her. And she could not afford to fail Harry, not in this. As the thoughts consumed her, she aimed hexes and charms around the room, causing the colour to pop across her retina like shooting stars.
 

She could actually feel her frustration and anxiety seeping, like poison, through her blood stream before manifesting into hot, fat tears that slid down her cheeks. Eyes closed, and her wand arm waving frantically before her, an aggravated cry reverberated outside the barriers of her membrane and bounced around the flat surfaces of the room. Thunder seemed to echo in her ears as the sound of splintering wood and smashing glass began to register in her brain. She simultaneously opened her eyes and yanked the ring from her slim finger, letting it drop carelessly to the floor.


Hermione blinked furiously as she attempted to draw in a deep and ragged lungful of air. Her eyes, still watery, scanned the debris that littered the room, and widened in utter shock and disbelief at what had just occurred. The sofa, on which she had been seated moments earlier, had been thrown unceremoniously across the room destroying everything in its wake, which comprised of half the furnishings. Her horror was all the more acute upon realising that her copious notes and the aged tomes from which she had derived her research were strewn about the floor.
 

Her bow-shaped mouth fell slightly open as she gazed from the wreckage to the ring and back again. Her mind was in freefall at the sheer damage she had caused, yet she refused to indulge the desire to analyse what happened until she had remedied the situation.
 

Shortly thereafter, with the ring harmlessly located on the small table and the furniture returned to normal, Hermione ran an agitated hand through her hair. Her thoughts were a jumble.




There was a bitter sort of irony, she mused, in the fact that the overwhelmingly intuitive power of the ring had destroyed all of her attempts at applying logic and reason to figuring out its secrets. That it had fed on her feelings of anxiety was clear, and yet it had seemed to exacerbate those emotions at the same time. Hermione liked to think of herself as being level headed and practical in situations such as this. She concluded that such a strong reaction could not be entirely down to her.
 

One thing that was evident was that the strength of magic tied to the ring and her ability to use it effectively, depended on a surge of emotion. Controlled emotion. How one could control that which was the very antithesis of composure, she could not fathom.
 

It made her think of the Muggle breathing practices that expecting mothers had to do in order to calm themselves. Whatever it took, Hermione was going to have to find a way to centre herself and take things in small steps. She had to get used to wearing the magical object for a few minutes at a time, without holding her wand, before she could start using magic with it. The process would take far longer than she had anticipated, and this was something that concerned her greatly. This was not like normal school years, in fact she had no idea how long she would be in Hogwarts, could not guess when the time for action would be upon them.
 

The sound of knuckles rapidly knocking on her door pulled Hermione from her introspection. She tensed instinctively, her breath catching in her throat.
 

“Hermione? Are you there? It’s me… Ginny.”


Relief surged through her and, as she walked to the door, she mentally scolded herself for putting too much stock into Malfoy’s threats. She held open the door to reveal the other girl, but could not help the quick scan her eyes did across the empty corridor behind her: an act which did not go unnoticed by her astute companion.


“Ginny, sorry… I … thought you were someone else. Come in,” she stood aside to let the petite red-haired girl through.


Ginny merely raised a brow at the remark, but waited to comment until they had both sat on the newly mended sofa by the fire. “And who, exactly, did you think it was?”


Hermione looked at her steadily, deciding that an element of truthfulness was in order. Aside from which, she was noted as being a rather poor liar.
 

“Malfoy.” Ginny Weasley’s eyebrows shot right up at that, an understandable reaction in Hermione’s opinion.


Hermione gave the girl a slightly edited version of the events that had occurred thus far, omitting the fact that Draco Malfoy, himself, was a Death Eater, and choosing to disregard some of their more intimate encounters – if one could call them that.


Although she gave Ginny the general idea, she was unsure why it was that she felt the need to keep certain details to herself for the time being. Much to Hermione’s relief, though Ginny listened carefully and made more than one questionable face in response to her words, the younger girl elected to keep such things to herself.


“Well…all I can say is that you need to be careful, Hermione. I won’t tell you to stay away from him because I know that if you feel that you’re possibly helping the Order, you won’t listen anyway.” She paused and glanced toward the window before continuing, “Just like Harry.”




Hermione wanted to say something then, to refute the comment but the both knew it to be true. Instead she promised the girl that she would indeed be careful. It was a promise she fully intended to keep.


After a prolonged silence, Ginny gestured toward the heap of notes strewn across the table. “I take it that isn’t Charms homework then?”


A grin tugged at the corner of Hermione’s mouth and she shook her head. “No. If only it were… then I might have made some more head way. I’ve just been doing a lot of reading and to be honest… I’m not really sure how things are going.”
 

Ginny looked toward the seemingly innocuous ring, which was still sitting on the coffee table. “Have you actually tried it on yet?” The hint of trepidation and curiosity in her voice was poorly concealed. This was hardly surprising; the ring seemed to draw attention to itself with ease.
 

“I did actually,” Hermione said by way of response. “Just before you came by. It was… a mess, really.” She blew back the errant strands of hair from her face, her frustration evident. “I almost blew up all of the furniture.”

 
“Er… how?” was all the response her friend could supply at that time.


“To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. All I know is that wearing the ring seemed to… heighten my emotions and made the magic more unpredictable.”

 
“Like when you’re a kid… before you come here and learn to control it…”
 

“Exactly,” Hermione exclaimed, feeling as though that innocuous comment had somehow shifted her thoughts into place. She looked at Ginny, her heart rate accelerated and feeling rather breathless.
 

“Do you remember what Dumbledore used to always say to Harry, about Voldemort not understanding love and human emotions? Well, if our powers were being fuelled by our own emotional force… then that could very well be something that he would not recognise or anticipate.”


The other girl pushed her shoulders back, and seemed to be more than a little sad at something Hermione had said. It took her a moment to realise.
 

“Harry never talked to me about those things…”


Hermione spoke softly when she responded. “Can you blame him? You were the one really good thing in his life, something that had nothing to do with all the rest of it.”


The two girls talked for a while and Ginny spoke to Hermione about Harry for the first time since he had left. She knew it must have been awkward for the younger girl. Though they had always gotten along well and had become quite close, the distinction of Hermione being strictly Harry’s friend and her brother’s friend had always been there. Perhaps that would change. After all, they were here alone together and both felt the missing two acutely.


“I understand why he went, honestly, I do. In fact, I wanted him to go – he’s Harry Potter for Merlin’s sake. It just wouldn’t be him if he weren’t hell-bent on saving the world one more time.” She smiled reminiscently, “I just wish that for once we could all just stop. Stop planning and preparing for a war and an outcome we can’t guarantee will be positive.” She sighed and closed her eyes for a second before looking at Hermione, the light in her eyes now fierce. “I waited a long time for Harry – I won’t give up on him now.”


Hermione gave her friend a warm hug and a nod, “I know,” before the young girl left her once more to her thoughts.

 
*
 

The hours between early afternoon and the fall of dusk were whiled away deep in thoughts for the Head Girl. And when she had found her head too full of all these recollections and revelations, she spent her time reading. The sound of crackling flame upon wood and the crisp turn of pages caused her to be more than a little bit drowsy.
 

It was in this frame of mind from which she was pulled at the soft tapping sound against one of the window panes. Hermione reluctantly put down her book and turned to see a small brown and white speckled owl hovering outside the window. The howling of the wind showed, quite clearly, that the small creature was fighting rather a large battle against the elements.
 

Hermione’s fingers gripped the small brass knobs at the base of the window, heaving the sturdy structure up enough to allow the frazzled bird to gain entry. His eagerness to return to the Owlery was clear, because a small parcel was deposited on a nearby lamp table, and he was gone again before she could offer him a treat.


Forgetting the bird, Hermione turned her now piqued curiosity toward the innocuous brown parcel. She knew quite acutely whom she hoped it was from, but any kind of correspondence from her friends would have been sent via the Headmistress. She tried not to keep her hopes up nonetheless.


As the paper wrappings fell away, a piece of parchment and a small gauzy pouch were revealed. With brows raised, Hermione focused her immediate attention on the slip of parchment. The cursive was impeccable, the eloquent sort of hand one only ever found in letters of old. She was both intrigued and perturbed by a gnawing doubt as she read its contents.


A butterfly’s beauty lies in its delicacy, its fragility and its vulnerability to predators. Not all such prey is so defenceless.
  

Her usually quick mind read over the words repeatedly, trying to process both meaning and intention. There was neither a signature to indicate from whom the missive was sent, nor indeed if she was the intended recipient. Owls had been known to delivery their packages to the wrong person when particularly stressed. She found it more than likely that this was such an occasion, for aside from the riddle-like quality of the message, there was a tone of intimacy which she felt certain was not directed toward her.
 

As she placed the piece of parchment on the table, her gaze shifted almost hypnotically toward the semi-transparent pouch, so neatly tied with ribbon. She knew that if this was someone else’s business, she should not pry, but the words across the parchment had so intrigued her.
 

Her heart rate accelerated, as she decided to ignore the small voice somewhere within which told her not to indulge her interest. Slim fingers drew the ribbon strands apart, allowing her to peer within the confines of the fabric. It appeared to be a brooch of some kind, the sort that she had only ever seen in old photographs of wealthy women from bygone eras. Her eyes widened with appreciation when the brooch fell into her hand. It was decorated with an exquisite ornamental butterfly, strikingly azure in its colouring. She had only a split second to admire the jewelled specimen’s delicate beauty before a familiar tug pulled from behind her navel.


Her last thought before the colour began to whirl around her, was one of dread.


***


The rhythmic ticking of an old clock drew the constant attention of the room’s only occupant. Draco Malfoy reclined against one of the antique arm chairs which made up the suite in the general area of his dormitory. There was a cultivated air of confidence and calm which rang clear in his relaxed posture. And yet he was, in fact, extraordinarily tense at that moment.
 

He was waiting, as the saying went, with bated breath.

 
The previous night had been a revelation to the youngest Malfoy. He had thought, in his previous study of Granger’s character, that he would not be taken unawares again, and yet she had somehow managed to get one over him the night before. It was both humiliating and perplexing, for he had yet to determine precisely how she had done it.

 
One thing that was very clear to him was that with or without her companions, she was gutsy. He found that irked him immensely. It was a tried and true technique to breed fear into one’s opponents, and given his conditioning all through childhood, it was one that Draco had learnt the value in very quickly.

 
He had seen the fear shimmering like gossamer in her eyes that night when he had cornered her, had felt it in the shaking of her limbs which she tried valiantly to conceal. And yet, only just the night before she had proven a worthy adversary, though he had only ever been taught that she was nothing of the sort.

 
It seemed quite clear to him that in the absence of him on her shoulder intimidating her, she had decided that his threats were empty and he was therefore not to be feared. The threats of murdering her were, at this point, very much empty. He could hardly curse the Head Girl and get away with it; he could not afford to anyway, there was something she knew which he did not. He would find that out. In the future, however, when war was upon them and they were in the battlefield, he would do it then. He would raise his wand and watch the light leave her eyes. There was no choice.
 

Something caught in his throat at the thought of it, of killing anyone and especially killing her. He had never taken a life, but knew what was expected of him when he took the mark. It was his birth right and his obligation. But it was a worry for another day.

 
Right now he had to focus on the task at hand, and that was teaching Granger a lesson. He needed, at the very least, to take the gloss off her triumph. And after what he had seen from her the night before, he thought he knew just how to do that. The prospect of touching her again in any respect had him thrown. She was a Mudblood, and the stain of her skin on his being was something to be reviled.

 
And yet her touch against the fabric of his robes had been gentle and confusing. Her clear, wide eyes and the scent of her around him had seemed other-worldly, like a torrid dream to be forgotten. But he had learnt a few things now in his dealings with Granger. Although she may have been more intelligent than most, she was still just a girl. Words, threatening or otherwise, would not scare her, but it was the physical intimidation of him which had left her rattled. He would use that, whether it stained him or otherwise.
 

Draco had not slept the night before. His mind had run through the scene over and over, attempting to pin point the moment when he should have realised what she was doing. He should have known that when she came so close to him - reached out and touched him of her own volition - she was reaching for the necklace. And yet somehow he had been caught up in the distraction.  It was intolerably weak of him. And he vowed then that he would allow her no such chances for surprise again.
 

She had come to neither breakfast nor lunch, just as he had anticipated. She had what she had come after, but she was likely also trying to keep a low profile for fear of angry outbursts from him. If that was the case, then she did not understand him at all; it was a delicious thought because he was beginning to read her with far greater success. Draco could have a subtle hand when it suited him, and although patience was not something he enjoyed he could wait when the trap was set.
 

It was.
 

And he felt fairly confident that it would work. For if there was one thing that the Head Girl could never seem to deny, it was her unabated thirst for knowledge – even at the detriment of her personal safety.
 

Courtesy of some very clever magic, more advanced than many appeared to think him capable of, and a few lessons from his aunt, he could expect Hermione Granger to appear before him very shortly. Illegal portkeys were no longer so difficult to manage within the grounds of Hogwarts. Wards stronger than the Dark Lord could breach were no longer in place to protect the school.
 

Dusk consumed the grey light which had filtered through the windows into the room, so that now the light of a crackling hearth and a few gas lit lamps was all that kept the darkness at bay. Draco waited, sitting comfortably and watching those dancing embers with eyes of cobalt grey. He stayed in that position until he felt the signs of her impending arrival.


He glanced to the far corner of the room, watched her back straighten and the small brooch slip from her grasp to hit the floor underfoot. Although her back continued to face him, he noticed with relish the way her hand seemed to be reaching in vain for her wand. He could see quite clearly that she did not have it, had counted on the fact, because she wore fitted Muggle trousers, which left no hiding place for such a necessary weapon.


“Ah, I see you found my invitation.” A smirk curved upon his lips. “I’m delighted you could join me... but I must say I’m rather appalled at your manners. Did they never teach lowly Muggles to greet their hosts properly?”  His tone was conversational, all the better to get a rise out of her.
 

The brunette slowly turned around, her features impassive but her eyes sharply alert. “Clever, Malfoy. I never would have credited you with such… forethought.”


He nodded, “It was, wasn’t it? After all, it got you here… in my domain.” She bit her lip nervously, and he relished the transparency of her thoughts. Eyes aglow with triumph, he gestured toward a chair and said, “Why don’t you… make yourself comfortable.”


“I’m fine right here,” she said before glancing toward the door – no doubt calculating her chances of an escape.


Draco laughed a low, deep chuckle. “Oh, Granger, you underestimate me so. Did you honestly think I would go to all the effort of inviting you here only to have you run away again? The door is magically locked… therefore you will need a wand to open it and correct me if I’m wrong but I do believe you are currently without that particular item of inventory.” His tone held considerable mocking, and he thoroughly enjoyed the dismay that she fought to keep from her features.

 
He fully intended to let her go, relatively unscathed. She did not know that, however, and that was entirely the point. The fear of the possibility, and her realisation that he was capable of more than she had perceived, would be enough for him today. This was war, and one fought their battles one day at a time.


Granger tilted her head, the cascading curls tumbling around her shoulders. Her brain was working overtime; he could see it in her pursed lips and crinkled brow line. Still she was quiet, considering her options, he assumed.


“You won’t escape so easily this time,” he murmured, the menacing undertone unconcealed in his words. He rose from his chair and strolled toward her.
 

She tilted her chin in defiance.


“You’re playing a dangerous game, Granger,” Draco said, his voice rising barely above a whisper. He knew she was listening closely. Draco walked slowly towards her, stopping only a metre away before continuing, “But unfortunately for you – it’s too late to back down now.”


She stood firm and elected to his ignore his statement once again, preferring to stare at a point above his shoulder instead. Draco watched her, his eyes steadily narrowing in impatience.


“Did your dirty, Muggle parents never teach you to look at someone when they’re talking to you?” he uttered scathingly.


The only sign that she had heard his question was a slight tightening of her mouth before she turned her gaze toward the window.


“Yes, they did… though I don’t feel that it counts as being rude when the person is worthy neither of my courtesy nor my respect, Malfoy.” She said, her eyes finally coming to rest on his as she whispered his name somewhat venomously.


He could feel the heat from his blood rising to an angry flush upon his cheeks, and tried in vain to control it. The insinuation that he was the inferior being in the room caused his eyes to flash and his jaw to clench. It might take him some time, but he felt confident that before she left this school for good, she would be forced to acknowledge the inaccuracy of that suggestion. That moment seemed to be an appropriate time to give her a demonstration.


“Poor form, Granger… now I’m upset,” he said in a low voice. He moved toward her in a single, sinuous movement.
 

He could not deny the heady rush he felt at knowing she was quite this defenceless. He suspected he would not catch her so unawares again and felt quite determined to make the most of the opportunity. Her expression seemed to suggest she had guessed as much. Delightful, he thought.

 
She had, until this point, avoided backing down in any respect, but a flight over fight instinct had clearly kicked in because she began to back away from him slowly. That was fine by him, she had nowhere to go.

 
A grin of triumph unfurled across his lips as she continued to back herself into a corner. Eyeing his expression wearily, the dismay showed in her eyes when her path was halted by a door from behind her. He watched her hand reach behind to fiddle with the knob.

 
“It’s locked… though I can’t imagine what you were planning to do in my bedroom even if it wasn’t.” She was trapped like a fly in his neatly woven web. He rather adored the poetry of the moment.
 

He was close now, enough to see her discomfort and her uncertainty beneath the veil of defiance. He pressed a palm flat against the door, just beside her head. Errant strands of deceptively soft hair tickled his skin and he tried not to focus too closely on that. The goal here was to show her that no matter how many clever spells and magical objects she had up her sleeve, he could still overpower her when it counted.
 

And despite the rigid line of her shoulders, and the strong jut of her chin, she seemed so very small and breakable then.

 
He was very still, as was she. There was something about the anticipation before the fact that always evoked the most fear. Draco watched as she raised large, dark eyes to catch his own. It made him think about the night before, when they had stood this close to one another, and he had found distraction in them then. It was an easy thing to happen. This realisation disconcerted him greatly.
 

She jumped a fraction when his hand moved unhurriedly to trace the fine bones along her jaw. “Are you scared of me, Granger?” he asked in a low and gravelly tone.


“No,” she whispered back her gaze unwavering, despite the fact that her breathing was clearly very shallow. As was his own, for he tried valiantly to ignore the lightly floral scent of her which invaded his senses.


“Well, you should be.” He moved quickly, and although she had obviously been expecting him to attack, her reflexes were slow. Swift hands moved to catch her wrists, pressing them above her head in one fell swoop. His grip was firm, but not so rough as to hurt her. The purple bloom of bruises on her skin would help neither of them.
 

She wriggled instinctively, and in response he pressed himself against the soft warmth of her body, moulding her to the door. A knee slipped quickly between her thighs to prevent any retaliatory kicks.
 

She was pushing against him, wriggling in motions intended to free herself. They would not work. They did, however, cause him some discomfort. A sharply drawn intake of breath, and the need to focus on something other than the feel of her, was vitally important.
 

The body could not tell the difference between pure and tainted blood. It knew only the sweet smell and yielding softness, both of which were inviting. They should be nothing of the sort. This was punishment for her, and suddenly it was for him too.


“I’ve got you now,” he whispered in a crow of exaltation which concealed his perturbed frame of mind. He pressed his hips more firmly against her as his hands shifted the weight of her wrists so that they were both held firmly in one of his. The other was left free to roam. Her eyes were wide and her breath ragged. It made him wonder whether she had ever stood like this with a boy before, ever felt the inherent differences between male and female quite so acutely. With so many male friends, he would have thought so.
 

Perhaps not.
 

He watched her face for flickers of movement, as his free hand traced the thin fabric of her jumper, down the length of her arm. When the errant fingers brushed down her side, she squeezed her eyes closed instinctively. Draco was fascinated by the way her lips parted fractionally when his thumb brushed across an exposed gap of flesh just above the top of her trousers.
 

His thumb traced over the curve of her hip and felt the slight shiver that tickled her skin in response. Her rich ochre-hued eyes snapped open, holding his, their expression intense.
 

He swallowed discreetly, and forced his very distinctive smirk to grace his features as his hand slipped under the flimsy fabric. He could feel the tiny sensitized hairs stand to attention. Her skin was warm from the flow of blood beneath it. His travelling hand traced the gentle swell of her stomach and came to rest on the narrow curve of her waist. In chorus with this movement, Draco lowered his head to her neck, his warm breath fanning her bare throat as his nose and inhaled the slightly intoxicating scent of her perfume.
 

It had gone far enough he knew. He should step back and let her escape to the safe knell of her dormitory. He found, somehow, that he could not. An urgent sort of curiosity had come over him, a compulsion he could not fight. He would find justification for it later, enough to excuse his actions. But in that moment he hardly cared at all.


He was crazy. He had to be.

 
When Draco’s nose brushed against her heated throat, and his senses were clouded, all logical thoughts seemed to dissipate for a time. His lips moved in a whisper across the exposed pulse point of her neck, and he felt its rhythm jump erratically as he pulled the skin taught between his lips. Draco allowed his tongue to slip past his teeth to lightly scrape across her skin, tasting the sweetness it held.


His errant hand smoothed taunting circles across her skin, revelling in the warmth. He could hear the raggedly drawn breath; he could feel the blood pulse in her throat and her wrists. A stifled whimper issued from her lips, which drew his immediate attention. Her gaze was heavy lidded and confused. It held his own before dropping, no doubt against her will, to his mouth.
 

The surge in the pit of his stomach was both euphoria and a curse. He would suffer for this later, he knew.
 

She seemed to guess at his intention almost before he did, and pressed her lips firmly together. His hand moved from the downy skin of her abdomen to take a firm grip of her chin, his thumb moving upward to tug on the indentation of her mouth. She shook her head. Her mouth was soft beneath his when he finally lowered his head. His lips grazed hers gently, teasingly. Her bottom lip was plump and sweet between his teeth, softened against his assault. When he pulled back fractionally, felt her moist lip cling to his and glanced at her closed eyes, he kissed her again.
 

This time her lips parted in unconscious acquiescence. Draco’s tongue brushed against hers, butterfly light at first before delving into the moist warmth she so protectively guarded. The taste of her was a heady rush to his body, a confusing torrent of feelings he would try not to analyse too closely.
 

His grip loosened instinctively upon her wrist; his hand falling to brush across her collarbone. She did not pull away, instead sank a little further into him. The situation was spiralling steadily beyond his control. He pulled back then, noting the way her body sagged slightly before she bolted upright in realisation.
 

Draco’s hand was still pressed against her collarbone, and she seemed to feel the pressure increase when her eyes flew open and horror flooded her features. Her breathing was harsh and a violent flush spread across her features, while he schooled his own. He stared at her intently, and when he finally did speak, the ragged quality was replaced by calm.


“I told you not to play with me… don’t think that you’re safe because you’re on school grounds. You aren’t.” He paused before leaning close to her, so that her gaze was filled entirely with the dark glittering of his own. “I will find out what you’re up to, and why you were following me, don’t you worry. That,” he said emphasising what had just happened, “was just a sample. Take care, Granger.”
 

To reiterate his point, Draco slammed his palm flat against the door behind her, making the room reverberate with the sound. She jumped.


He pulled back then and withdrew his wand from beneath the folds of his clothing, and with a muttered incantation, unlocked the door to the hallway. Clearly feeling no need to act in rash defiance, she bolted from the room without a second look at him.

 
The door swung closed and when it did, Draco slumped against the wall. He had intended to teach her a lesson, to intimidate her. But what had happened there was far more damning.


Chapter 7: The Hearts of Lions
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The castle, set against the fierce beauty of the Scottish landscape, was architecturally striking. This gloriousness came not from a wondrous perfection, but from its ever increasing character, size and the thrumming magical quality that sang in the air surrounding. It had been built in a multitude of evolving architectural styles. As centuries passed and the capacity of the school increased, so too did its vast structure: a confection of high stone towers, topped with snarling gargoyles, vast corridors and mullioned windows.



From one such window, a fair haired boy stood like morning glory in the grey light from above. The view from that window afforded the eye a scene of immense unruly beauty: the green rush of forestry that threatened to encroach ever closer on the grounds, and a brief aspect of the black, crystalline lake below.

 

There were many times that Draco Malfoy stood and gazed at the vastness beyond his window pane. Mostly he did this when he was thinking, because there was something of clarity to be sought in the startling enormity beyond. He rather thought it helped to put things into perspective. 







He had taken to spending an increasing amount of his time in this activity, as the mass of concerns crept ever higher around him. Draco, in his youth, had never been the sort of person to work towards a goal with the sort of all consuming passion one could find in some people. This was because, he supposed, he never had to. He had been born into a life in which he was confident that every whim was a divine right. He was of the natural order.   


Because of this inclination to believe all others unworthy and himself immensely entitled, it had caused his mind to gloss over several realities which it now had to face. It was easy for one to believe in the mantra they had been fed from birth, when all knowledge and proof seemed to indicate that it was true. The challenge on one’s faith came when the question was posed, in whatever form that could be.
 


He tried very hard not to think about a certain girl in that context. She should not be the one to have him wonder at his world and his purpose, because he had only ever known her to be a blight on those very things. Draco had an increasing suspicion that this was precisely what she was. An illusion from some unknown force to throw him off his task, make him wonder at things he shouldn’t, make him question those truths that he had always held so close.





He still held them, to be sure, but the wavering of his certainty somewhere deep within was stirring. And it caused him great fear, for one could not be in his situation, and answer to the man he did, and have such burning doubts. It was a death sentence. And there was nothing on earth that Draco felt more strongly about than the preservation of his life and of his family. That was truth, he knew. The rawest, purest kind.
   


This was the integral difference he witnessed between himself and those people he grossly detested: the Potters and Grangers of the world. Those people were so willing to thrust themselves forward as a sacrifice to some cause, some greater good that was beyond reckoning and beyond attainment. There was no greater good, he knew. Because it too was the natural order of things, the balances struck in the cosmos. That illusory thing called goodness only existed in its contrast to the rotten, dank form of hatred and evil.
  


A person picked the side that was safest, closest to what they knew and just like a flip of a galleon, it could be one or the other. Draco knew his side, understood that he had been born into it regardless of personal thoughts and desires. He also knew that, irrespective of the crimes he would or would not, could or could not, commit, that he was there on his side of the line and it wasn’t possible to change. There was poison in those ranks too. This was war, he knew, and there would be no winner.
 


Thoughts of this nature had been increasingly present in his mind this year. Perhaps it was the weight of the branding on his forearm, the real knowledge that something torrid lay ahead, or perhaps it was just life creeping up on him that made him see what wilful ignorance and indulgence in his youth had prevented.
 


It made him weigh up his options and know that, regardless of other considerations, he wanted to be the one further from the pit when this all ended. The only way for him to ensure that was to capitalise on opportunities, to make certain that his was the side that came out trumps.
  


And that people like her did not. In fact, she was the primary reason for the tumultuous nature of his thoughts. Because of those questions that she raised.
   


She should not be intelligent, or savvy; she should not wield a wand with such force. She did, though. In spite of all he knew and had ever known, she was the burning contradiction. Knowing this, acknowledging that terrible truth, was dangerous because free-thought and doubt meant death. And he could afford neither. He had to remind himself that she was a pawn to be used to his benefit and flung aside because she was dirty.





The insidious reminder that she did not taste dirty clawed again like a poison at the back of his throat. She would not be the one to sway him from his path. In that, he would stand resolute.
 


Draco pulled away from the piercing light of the window, as the realisation of time and commitments dawned once more. Such introspections could be saved for only moments like that, between the snapshots of reality that existed when he was not alone. In those moments he would steel himself and he would not ponder questions.

 

That time was now.

 

He pushed back the tight line of his shoulders, attempting to unravel the tense coil of knots that resided there. He knew that he was late, the prefectorial meeting would have started already, but he had been far too deeply entrenched in his morbid meditation to be concerned about that fact.
  


It would be the first time he would see Granger close to in a while. After the strange occurrence in his dormitory some weeks ago, they had avoided one another entirely. Of course, he had stared her down from across classrooms and corridors, in order to continue the intimidation. Mostly, however, he was doing this in the hope that he could somehow figure out how it had happened. What was it about her that had so ensnared him that evening? He could not see what it was that made her anything special, anything other than ordinary.
  


The girl in question was a curious one. In addition to all the other thoughts that had been flittering through his mind was this very salient one, which he constantly came back to. It was the why amongst the many strange incidents. He had come to assume, quite quickly, that she was intending to spy on him, and that she had most fortuitously uncovered his own secret in the meantime. He found it incredibly hard to believe that she would have accepted coming back to Hogwarts without her friends, even in spite of her aspirations for scholarly excellence, without good purpose.
   


Then there was that ring, of which he could still not discern the intention. The one thing, of which he was conscious, was that whatever magic was used to forge its metal was old and obscure and powerful. It had fairly thrummed through him. He did not need to slip the metal around his finger to know this.  Aside from the sheer issue of its size, he had grown up around dark magical objects and had learnt a thing or two about toying with something one did not fully understand.
   


He craved fervently to know why she wore it, and what it meant, because he felt certain that it was somehow very relevant to what would come ahead of them. It burned like a red-hot brand against his skin to know he had lost it. And after the revelation in his dormitory, the vision of her flushed and heated beneath his grip put that whole incident into disturbing perspective. He had reacted to something so deeply entrenched that he had not even known it existed. And now he wanted nothing more than to purge the searing memory, that strange clawing in the pit of his stomach, for good.

 

He swore softly before raking a hand through his hair in an unseen act of agitation. There could be no further delay; the last thing he needed to contend with was a complaint to reach the ears of McGonagall. The thought of Granger racing to reprimand him over poor performance of his duties was amusing, if only because it all seemed rather trivial. Surely it was to her also. Attempting to one up Granger and her friends was no longer on the agenda, no longer remotely relevant. And yet the desire to trump her never seemed to cease.
 


Perhaps he was petty. But Draco felt one had to get their kicks where they could in times as dark and burdensome as these.
 


He swiftly moved toward his room, intending to fetch his cloak before heading to the meeting. It was then that he noticed a missive, neatly bound and placed on one of the small coffee tables. The red-wax seal held the Hogwarts crest and so it was immediately apparent whom the letter was from. A brow quirked, disturbing the coolly disinterested expression upon his face when he read its contents. The Headmistress had requested both he and Granger pay her attendance after their meeting in order to discuss the particulars of the Halloween Feast.





He could not quite decide whether this was an opportunity or something to be dreaded. That fear of the unknown which she presented, and the knowledge of the reactions she had previously evoked, was one that he would have to overcome.
 


Forgetting his cloak entirely, Draco pocketed the parchment and strolled out the door.

 


****






The sound of raucous laughter, scratching quills and inane chatter rose high in the room, which had been designated for the prefectorial meeting. The suggestions previously uttered by some of the more unruly leaders of the school had Hermione grinding her teeth in frustration. She had snapped at more than one student in the past half hour since the meeting had begun, and it seemed that her disinclination to be there was only going to make it all worse.

 

Hermione liked to think of herself as a fairly tolerant individual. After all the years of putting up with the nonsense of Ron and some of the other boys in Gryffindor, she rather felt she had the patience of a saint. This was apparently not the case today. She thought she knew why, though. She was feeling extremely apprehensive about having to spend any amount of time in close quarters with Malfoy again, regardless of how many people would be around.
 


It was the latent feeling of disconcertion that continued to linger somewhere in her stomach after everything that had ensued between them in the past few weeks. It was strange to think how quietly the year had started, and her original concerns that she would have very little opportunity to be around him enough to uncover any truths. Now that she had some, she did not know what to do with either. And she only wished she could have some time away from his watchful grey eyes, time enough to collect her thoughts and steel herself.
 


The remembered feel of his lips on her own, the way she had yielded to his touch, was something which had haunted her ever since. It was worse when she closed her eyes and willed other visions to swim across the thin film of her eyelids. This was the only reason she could presume that he had done it. To throw her off. Hermione was not a very experienced girl, she was only 17 and the one boy that she had ever wanted before now had gone away and nothing had ever come of it. She had kissed Viktor at the Yule Ball in her fourth year, a clumsy affair.
 


She knew perfectly well that Malfoy had seen fit to use physical intimidation, since it had worked so well the first time. She did find it strange that he, the very boy who used to cry out in horror when she would come close, suddenly felt safe enough from her pollution in order to touch her so boldly.

 

It would do her no good to ponder such things. She simply knew that she had to avoid him at all costs. There was little to be gained from toying with the young Death Eater, and he had proven his mettle already. She had what she needed from him; she would try to glean whatever else she could from a safer distance.
 


Hermione cast her gaze around the room, noting his continued absence, but acknowledging that he would undoubtedly turn up to bait her shortly. The room had dissolved into increasingly absurd suggestions and even louder laughter, which grated against her.
 


She intervened. “For goodness sake! No pyjamas or anything of the sort! If you’re so determined to see a girl in her knickers, Boot, I suggest you focus your attentions on finding a date. Though given your lack of creativity here, I wonder whether you’ll have any chance of success.”
 


The rather caustic response received a few snickers and more than one gasp. Terry Boot sat tight lipped then, glaring at his friends mutinously for having found amusement at his expense.

 

 “So,” she continued, before pausing with distraction at the sight of a tall, fair-haired boy making his debut at the meeting. The elusive Head Boy sneered somewhat maliciously at some of the younger prefects, who had looked ready to complain about his lateness. Malfoy sat himself down in a seat directly in Hermione’s line of sight, though she chose to pointedly ignore his presence. “Could we now have a few serious suggestions?”

 

 “Well, I think we should keep to a formal dress code… so everyone can get dressed up.” The suggestion came from one of the only sensible people in the room: the other Ravenclaw Prefect, Mandy Brocklehurst. “But we should have the hall really well decorated and use different tables… not the long ones we sit at every day.”
 


 “Actually that’s a rather good idea, Mandy,” said Hermione, relieved at finally having some cooperation. “Simple is always best, and everyone did enjoy the Yule Ball… well those of us who attended anyway.” She paused from her note-taking to look about the room. “Alright, let’s talk decorations.”

 

The students prattled on at the meeting for a further 20 minutes, after which the Head Girl felt confident that most of the main issues with regards to the ball had been stamped out. In fact, Hermione was rather pleased with the cool head she had kept throughout its duration. This was in spite of the holes burnt through her skin from the heavy gaze of one, Draco Malfoy, who had felt the need to contradict her opinion on more than one occasion.
 


The sound of scraping chairs and stomping feet echoed everyone’s approval at having the rest of the afternoon free. And as the rush of students made to leave the room, Hermione was determined to be lost in the throng. She had every intention of making her way to the Gryffindor common room to spend some free time with her friends. She also had every intention of fleeing the general area occupied by her nemesis.
 


She was so confident of her evasion that she did not notice a presence close behind her, until a voice whispered in her ear. The tone which suggested he knew her intentions was frustratingly apparent.
 


 “Granger, you wouldn’t be shirking your duties now, would you?” She turned around swiftly to see him standing very close before her, but she resisted the temptation to take a step back.

 

She narrowed her gaze; anger was a comfortable train of thought. “And you would figure this, how? If I recall you were late… and in any case, the meeting is over. I would know since I’m the one who-”

 

 “Oh do go on, Granger. Regale me stories of your good behaviour.” There was a low quality to his voice that made her stomach churn uncomfortably. He held up a slip of parchment before her. “McGonagall wants to see us. Now.”
 

Her stomach dropped, because the Headmistresses office was in an entirely different part of the castle. “Why?” she asked, instead.
 

A low and darkly amused chuckle fell from his lips. “Honestly, Granger, with that tone one might think you were reluctant to be alone in my company. Have no fear, I know better.” A knowing sort of smile lingered at the corners of his mouth, seeming to taunt her with the suggestion of his words.
 

The sudden roaring desire to hex him and be done with it came upon her, and she was rather taken aback with the violent sort of urges he evoked in her. The recollection of his fingers brushing the downy skin of her stomach, his tongue tracing circles on her neck, made her want to bring nails to his face and claw at its mocking expression. She had known he would use her reaction against her, even as she had hoped that he would wish for nothing more than to forget it all himself. 


She pulled in a heady gust of oxygen and instead of acknowledging him, pushed ahead, determined to take the longer, more populated route to the Headmistress’s office. 


They walked in silence with a smattering of fellow students surrounding them until they reached a widening in the hall which diverged into three separate corridors. The other students dispersed through two of the passageways, leaving empty the third, which Hermione knew led to a staircase which in turn led to their destination.
 

She looked almost longingly toward the other exit, the one that was not so deserted. Clearly having seen her weigh up her options, the fair-haired boy whispered tauntingly in her ear. It was a startling reminder of his proximity.

 
 “You’re hesitating. And here I thought Gryffindors had the hearts of lions.”
 

She jumped at the barest whisper of his mouth brushing her ear when he emitted a sultry sort of purr to punctuate his words. He strolled ahead of her then, and the sound of a chuckle carried in the empty corridor, taking on a sinister quality in the otherwise silent area. He did not pause to look back at her, and must have known that his words were, to her, a gauntlet thrown down. She followed. 


The pair continued thus until they reached the legendary gargoyle, which guarded the entrance to the newly instated Headmistress's office. Hermione had never liked the liberal use of dark stone gargoyles around the castle. They seemed to stare at her with a viciousness that was startling. She knew that they were indiscriminate, had read all about them in Hogwarts, A History and yet still felt absurdly uncomfortable in their vicinity. The stone creature shifted, revealing the hidden passage of moving stairs that lay beyond. 


The two students stepped onto the spiralling staircase, and Hermione was keenly conscious of how confined the space was. The unfortunate lack of room on the stairway meant that there was literally nowhere else to look but into the face of her escort. As she had stepped onto the staircase first, she was raised higher and so this involved no straining of the neck.


It was a strange moment, and one that she revelled in. It was like a free pass to track the expressions upon his face. She gazed impassively at his visage. He was not smirking or sneering now, the way he normally would, particularly when his gaze was resting upon hers. There were only two occasions when he had not: when she had relieved him of the ring at the top of the astronomy tower, and more recently when his eyes had been dark like obsidian boring into hers from mere inches away. 


This time was altogether different. He was not looking at her, was instead gazing down so that his lashes fanned over the smooth and pale skin above the hollow of his cheekbones. There was something quintessentially regal in the arrangement of his features. He was all angles and soft white skin. A deceptive sort of innocence graced his features, a seraphic beauty that seemed other worldly. He was, if one considered him in a purely artistic manner, quite breathtaking. 


It was entirely possible, she mused, that this was enhanced by the darkness that his very presence seemed to emanate. She wondered what it would be like to have the freedom to touch him and know him beneath whatever façade he wore. She could scarcely imagine him in any other context. And yet somehow the thought of knowing what secrets lay shielded beneath his gaze was rather intoxicating.


She reminded herself swiftly of the black ink which marred his otherwise milky skin. She knew what that stood for, what he represented. It was not about school rivalries and name calling, bloodlines and the bullying of others. It was evil, in its purest form.
 

This was a young man, she knew, who would be standing on the other side of that metaphorical line. When the time came to raise wands and face one another, she knew that he would, unquestionably. And she would do the same; though, she was loath to think of taking a life, any life. It was war and she would steel herself against the horror. She had no other choice.
 

She was digesting this thought, pondering the possibility of raising her wand to him, when he looked up at her finally. It was not a passing sort of glance. There was intent behind the look and its piercing quality struck something within her. She fell. A crumbling of resolve and a curious sort of confusion fluttered in her head. The intensity of his gaze seemed to pin her in place and at the same time knock the wind from her body. He had the most unusual eyes she had ever seen. They were white rain on pools of liquid silver; they were an abyss of rippling darkness and swirling light. Such depth could cause a soul to drown, she thought.

 
She would not. 


It had felt like an eternity, as the slowly moving staircase wound its way upward toward the large mahogany door. With relief, Hermione stepped back from the startling closeness of him, and back into reality, the realm in which she was comfortable and knew exactly who she was. There was a moment there, when she feared the potential to forget.


It was an entirely new peril to consider.  



*
 

The meeting had run long and at its close she had little time to worry about Malfoy before he bolted from her company. His absence seemed to cause the air to rush back into the room. It was suddenly very easy to pull between her teeth and to her lungs. She had not quite realised that heady rush about her senses was nothing more than deprivation. 


She had not felt like dinner, and chose instead to while away the time in her dormitory. Once the time for eating was over, and she knew that her friends would be arriving back to their common room, she raced there herself, desperate for the obnoxious sound of youthful laughter and distraction.

 
Hermione ambled her way to the portrait, and felt the glow of the hearth coat her skin when she stepped into the familiar space. It was all colour and memories. She scanned the room for someone familiar before warm hands closed over her eyes and a familiar voice tickled the hair near her ear.
 

 “Guess who?” it said from behind her, and she felt a certain rush of contentment and relief at the sound. The tone was familiar and it imbued Hermione with an inexplicable feeling of comfort and relief.
 

 “You,” she said laughing, the feeling of lightness was suddenly overwhelming.
 

The voice laughed back before responding in the usual teasing tone. “It’s cheating if yeh don’t say my name.”
 

 “Seamus,” she said, and moved to turn around and smile at him. His hands fell away from her face and he looked at her with a suddenly very questioning look upon his face.
 

His voice was slightly gruff when he responded, throwing an arm around her shoulder. “Yeah, it’s me.” 


She must not have noticed the chill which had crept in around her, numbing all extremities, because they seemed to thaw in glorious contentment when she leaned into the embrace.
 

The pair flopped down with exaggerated contentment onto a vacant sofa by the fire. He was prattling away about something that Dean had done earlier in the day, and she listened to the steady rhythm of his voice, watching the crackle of flames from the fireplace which induced her to drowsiness. 


 “Hermione.” Seamus said her name, turning his head to look at her as he brushed a stray curl behind her ear.
 

 “Hmm,” she mumbled by way of response, before turning to look at him questioningly. He seemed a bit uncertain, was watching her for a beat before responding.  


 “Any chance yeh’d come to the Halloween Ball with me?”
 

The natural order, she thought. It felt right and he felt warm. 


She smiled up at him, before resting her head against his shoulder, soaking in the familiar scent which she had never really paid much attention to before, but suddenly found comfort in the notes.


 “I’d love to.”


He said nothing, but she liked to think he was smiling. Seamus always smiled; it was one of the things that endeared her most. It was a cocoon of these thoughts that wrapped around her as she hovered on the brink of unconsciousness.


Chapter 8: All Hallows Eve
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High up above the vast castle grounds, a girl stood gazing at the stormy beyond, her face a vague reflection on the rain splattered glass. The night had arrived, after weeks of planning and preparation, yet she felt strangely reluctant to venture out of the safe knell of her room to what lay beyond.

 

Her restless hands smoothed the confection of claret-hued silk and chiffon, her gown for the evening’s festivities. It was quite exquisite, and in any other situation, she would have loved to be wearing it, dancing with Ron and sipping away on pumpkin juice, laughing with her friends. That was how it should have been, her final year and final ball, but things did not always turn out as one expected.  It was a lesson that made some part of her ache with longing.

 

Tonight, however, she felt a degree of self-consciousness and anxiety to which she was unaccustomed. The dress, so vibrantly red, would draw attention to her. Just whose attention she subconsciously wanted to seek, was something she tried valiantly not to think about. Gazing back at the window, she focused on calming her features, clearing the tell-tale signs of her inner most thoughts like creases from fabric.

 

Her scrutinising gaze took in the graceful curve of her neck that swept upwards to where her hair, dark and gleaming in this light, was elegantly twisted and coiled. She shouldn’t be concerned with the result. After all, she was spending the evening with Seamus, her friend, who cared about her even when she had a quill tucked behind her ear and ink smudged across her fingers.

 

It was the strangeness of the night that had her feeling so unsettled, she mused. Her eyes glazed over as she watched the liquid pearls outside cascade against the glass. The last time she had been in this position, readying herself for a ball, was some years prior. She had been angry then and determined to prove to Ron that she was in fact a girl and well able to find a partner to attend with.

 

Those few years felt like decades, given all that had happened between that night and this. She had always assumed it would be her red-haired friend who would take her to the next such event, whilst reality had determined otherwise. She missed them. Harry and Ron. So much had occurred in the weeks since her arrival at the castle, yet it was really in that moment that she was hit with the full force of their absence. Off chasing villains and hunting horcruxes in order to save the world, while she stood placidly, dressed in her finest and waiting to attend a ball.

 

She couldn’t help feeling slightly superfluous. Clever Hermione protected by the castle gates. She laughed rather bitterly at the notion. Her feelings of displacement and uselessness were compounded by the fact that she had yet to make much progress with the ring. Adding to that were her conflicting thoughts of him, the boy who was her enemy, yet had somehow become the riddle she couldn’t quite resolve. Her attention shouldn’t be focused on him, on thinking about his intentions, his plans, and attempting to read meaning in his actions. She should instead be accomplishing her side of the deal, as at least that would be something to help Harry.

 

Yet all she had accomplished was to wage an internal battle with herself.

 

She glanced down at her hands, her head nodding almost imperceptibly. She would address that situation. She had to, and she had no way of knowing how much time was left on the clock for her to do so. The problem certainly wasn’t a lack of application. She had practiced many times wearing the ring and with little progress. Having learnt from past mistakes, Hermione had taken care to calm herself before each session. Yet each time she placed the silver band around her finger her stomach would clench strangely and she would be overcome by a rather unfamiliar and exceedingly overwhelming sensation. She was confused, utterly confounded.

 

Shaking herself, Hermione breathed in deeply, once more smoothing the delicate fabric of her dress as the knock on her door resounded in the room, which had been silent but for her thoughts.

 

****

 

He entered the room, late as usual, the better for both making an appropriate entrance and to afford a greater view of the scenery, and more particularly, the gathered collection of people. Studying the vast space, he tilted his head, affecting the posture of the supremely composed aristocrat. Feigning composure was not something he had ever really had to do before.

 

As his gaze swept the room, he noted the poignant, haunting atmosphere that had been created. The vast space of the hall was dimly lit with blue-tinged flames, which danced high up toward the ceiling, casting an eerie glow on the students mingling below.  Mist hung low on the flooring, created so that it would swirl around the feet of those dancing there.

 

Draco had not bothered getting involved in the decorating of the hall, having very little interest in such frivolous things. She had done a decent job though, he though rather grudgingly. Whatever else about her, and though he was loathe to actually admit it, she usually did.

 

As his thoughts strayed to the girl in question, as they had taken to doing of late, he saw her glide into his line of sight. She stood amid the mist and dim lighting, a vibrant burst of colour in the unearthly light. He felt his throat constrict and his breathing hitch as he watched her, remembered moments flicking across his mind.

 

The effect on him seemed to go unnoticed by the general populous. She looked up though, possibly having felt the heavy weight of his gaze upon her. It was a strange thing, how one person could be so consuming as to block out all else. On some conscious level, he knew the hall was full of silly girls gossiping and boys awkwardly trying to talk to them. Yet it all felt so juvenile, so insipid, compared to the charged look that passed between the two of them.

 

Everything about this girl, so wholly wrong and imperfect, was seared into his memory. How, he mused, could the ethereal creature before him be as she was, what she was? Impure. The word left a bitter taste in his mouth, and seemed to scorch across his vision in scalding letters engraved across the very image of her.

 

Draco had no idea what kind of hold she had over him, what intrigue she had sparked, and was fairly sure she didn’t know either. One thing he did know for certain, he had been infected somewhere along the way. The taint and poison of her pulsed through his veins so that at times he wanted to pierce the thin veil of his skin and drain himself of her. To cleanse himself and renew all that he’d formerly known and trusted. Yet despite all of this he would not avert his gaze, even after she looked away.

 

He was called back to the bustling sounds of high voices and the tinkling of glasses when a hand came to rest on his upper arm.

 

“Pansy,” he said by way of greeting.

 

“Draco,” she murmured in response, her lips red and curved.

 

“Shall we?” he asked, before leading her toward a far table around which his fellow Slytherins had gathered. Safe from his thoughts, for the moment.

 

****

 

Hermione felt dizzy from the intensity of what had passed, and the strange look on Malfoy’s face as he watched her. Not malevolent or threatening, as was his tendency, but instead slightly exposed. She turned her gaze back to Seamus and forced a smile as she attempted to grasp the thread of the conversation. It was lost to her entirely.

 

Instead she said, “Shall we head over to the table?”

 

Seamus looked at her oddly for a moment, as though uncertain. Had he watched her? Had he seen the torrid exchange with Malfoy? After a second or two he smiled, rather suddenly, and steered her toward a table where their friends were congregated.

 

Ginny, Dean and Lavender, Parvati and some boy from Ravenclaw, as well as Neville and Luna, were all seated. She greeted everyone and settled down. There was warmth and comfort here, in this circle, the familiarity of her friends was much needed. While outwardly she felt she was containing herself rather well, inwardly she felt she was blindly groping for some strand of clarity to cling to. It was ridiculous, she knew, but Hermione felt as though she was being pulled back and forth between two magnetic beads of light.

 

She also knew that being seated there, with her people, was right. It was her place.

 

And yet her body felt sluggish, a hazy aftermath of the violently thrilling torrent which had ripped through her for that strange moment when his gaze had seemed to own her entirely. There was something fiercely disturbing about the weariness and exhilaration she still felt after the exchange. She did not understand it.

 

There had been something thrilling about that heightened state. She had felt every nerve ending, was conscious, it seemed, of every cell in her body, which hummed with that strange sensation of uncontrollability that she only ever felt when wearing her ring. A mind searing clarity before she plunged into the depths of her own confusion.

 

No. She certainly did not understand.

 

Her recent awareness of him, on a level previously unknown, concerned her greatly. He had always been hard to ignore, given his very nature, tendency to cruelty and the particular vindictiveness he had always directed at herself and her friends. This was different. She found herself contemplating him in an entirely new way, wondering at the volatile nature of his moods, at the intent and meaning behind each word and look. She wondered, with increasing regularity, just how it was that he had gotten under her skin, breached the barriers that had always existed between them. And, more specifically, how she had let him.

 

She knew she hated him with every fibre of her being, and yet he need only glance at her and she felt aware. Alert. Awake. As though she had resurfaced from the depths of the ocean and gasped in the dizzying oxygen of which her body had been so deprived.

 

But he was Draco Malfoy and she was Hermione Granger. And in this world, with all that had happened and was to come, they each represented so much more than their own choices. What good was that heady rush if she would only be polluted in the process? Nothing good would come from this fixation, and yet, she realised, he had consumed her thoughts once more.

 

She needed distraction, a call back to reality, and not the tenuous thread of thoughts that beckoned to her constantly. Hermione turned to Seamus, feeling guilty once more for indulging in unbidden thoughts and neglecting him. He was real. He should be the sole focus of her thoughts this night.

 

He looked at her curiously, his easy grin coming slow to his features. He held his hand out and she felt her own smile tug irresistibly at her features. She slipped her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the centre of the hall, currently adorned with many charming looking couples.

 

****

 

She was spinning gracefully in his arms. For the moment, at least, she was here. She was with him. Smiling and laughing. Here.

 

The boy gazed over the girl’s shoulder to a table in the far corner of the hall where the blond boy sat leaning back in his chair. A girl sat beside him resting her hand rather suggestively on his leg as she spoke. The boy inclined his head in agreement but his gaze was otherwise diverted.

 

The boy with the roguish smile twirled the girl in his arms once more before pulling her back, protectively, into his arms. He glared warningly at the blond who smirked assuredly back at him.

 

He had never trusted Malfoy.

 

****

 

Several hours later Draco walked along the corridor, cast in shadow, such that the meddlesome Gryffindor walking in his direction did not notice his presence. The ball had ended and he had shaken Pansy off, determined to sit in the quiet of his dormitory. He did not need her voice competing with the noises in his head.

 

A shimmering gossamer image was resting against the wall ahead of him. Granger was out of bed and very much alone. He doubted Finnigan knew she hadn’t obeyed his no doubt strict instructions that she go straight inside to bed, lest she be accosted by the villainous Slytherin.

 

She looked far too untouchable resting there, her thoughts clearly far away. He slowed to a stop directly across from her, leaning his back against the wall, watching. The only sign that she noted his presence was a slight stiffening of her body as she raised her head and allowed her gaze to wander from his shoes upwards, averting it before it reached his. She straightened her posture, turning as though to slip discreetly into her dormitory, but was halted by his body, which suddenly and swiftly appeared inches from her own.

 

Neither moved and still she refused to look at him properly. He could see she was breathing shallowly, as was he. Neither spoke, the moment feeling to fragile, and the knowledge that words would somehow break it, act as a reminder of why they should not be there breathing one another in.

 

He didn’t want to touch her for fear that she would burn him, and yet there was very little he could have done to stop himself. He lifted one hand to graze her lips in the same way his puffs of breath fanned and stroked her cheek. Her eyes were on his lips and she still would not look at him. Yet she didn’t move, she didn’t run. It seemed she was pinned in place by the same weight that held him.

 

His nose almost touched hers as he tilted his head, his mouth a mere breath away from hers. His hand traced over the bare skin of her shoulder and the back of her neck, cupping the weight of her head, which seemed to sag as though it were too heavy for her to carry alone.

 

“Look at me,” he demanded, his voice rather more hoarse then he would have liked. She trembled and closed her eyes. This was a side of her he had never seen before, vulnerable.

 

“Look at me,” he whispered this time, a ghost of a whisper. She looked up.

 

The silence in that second was marred only by erratic heartbeats and hitched breathing. What came next was a blur, moving hands and mobile mouths. Fuelled by anger, frustration, confusion and Merlin knew what else.

 

He could not think.

 

She met him touch for touch, kiss for kiss. She pushed him against the wall – never one to be submissive – he pushed her back. Wrenching her lips from his she leaned back, not bothering to conceal her ragged gasps for air as she looked up at him angrily. His hands were pressed against the wall behind her as he looked down at her. His thoughts bounced from one erratic question to another. What was he doing? Why? And how could he possibly stop?


 

He knew why. She had haunted his dreams at night and lingered in the crevices between each new thought during the day. A montage of images flickered like a reel of film in his mind: her body pressed against his in the astronomy tower, her flushed cheeks after he kissed her in his dormitory, her dancing with bloody Finnigan at the ball, and her in that moment pressed once more between him and a wall.

 

Her lips were swollen from his kisses, her hair tousled from his touch. Her eyes ablaze with the very same loathing and self-disgust he felt at that moment.

 

He leant down, his mouth brushing the softness of her earlobe as whispered in her ear. “I fucking hate you, Granger. You know that.”

 

She looked darkly at him for a long moment and shook her head, “You don’t know what hate is; you only think you do.”

 

He turned that one over in his head, thrown off slightly by the intensity in her voice. She pushed away from him then, slipping through the portrait to the safety of her dormitory. She left him there, consumed by conflicting thoughts, acute frustration, and a desire to haul her back out.

 

There was only one thought that repeated itself clearly amid the rest. He was more infected than he knew.

 


Chapter 9: Meeting of Minds
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The light that filtered in through the window was weak, the first pale glimpses of proper morning. The boy paid little attention, for he could not discern quite how long he had spent pacing the length of his bedchamber, his stride wooden and his body tense. He inhaled slowly through his nose as he once again passed the antique mahogany bureau which adorned the right side of his room. Yet, despite his best efforts to regain some semblance of control over his thoughts, to keep his frustration in check, Draco Malfoy could still feel the swell of molten anger and distaste bubbling in his veins like a lethal toxin.

 

You don’t know what hate is, you only think you do.

 

His gaze narrowed, the skin around his eyes tightening, as the words echoed in his head, seeming to dance around the silent room. An endless taunt. She knew nothing. It wasn’t merely the words, but the vehemence with which Granger had said them, which sent a quiet fury through him. How could she presume to speak to him of hatred? He knew what it was. He had seen it burning across the faces of those who stood against the Dark Lord, against himself. It was not fear that flashed in their eyes mere seconds before the light fled them. It was hatred, the very purest kind.

 

It was the look Granger gave him when he touched her – unadulterated, burning hatred for the fact that, for once in her life, she was not in control of everything. And more importantly, not in control of herself. He knew. The expression in her eyes in those few stolen moments reflected every thought of her that consumed him. How could she think he didn’t know what hatred was?

 

She was hatred. The epitome of every trait or idea of a person or thing that he disliked most, all combined and encased in her slight frame. She was deception. He hated her mass of curls, all messy and spiralled, uncontained, and yet so unexpectedly soft. He hated the very scent of her which seemed to hover precariously in the back of his mind, waiting to drown him in its cloud. She was intoxication.

 

Yes, the young man knew what hatred was, knew it with an intensity that seemed to burn away the layers of his skin. Inside, then out. He longed for that time when her presence was but a mere irritation, a scratch to be itched, but only when she was before him, impressing upon him her need to be all that was right and just in the world – in her world. She did not haunt him then. She did not follow him to his dreams, his nightmares. Her image was not seared into his brain, did not flash before him each time he closed his eyes, even only to blink.

 

But she did now. He longed for that indifference, and it only made him resent her even more. Draco stopped walking and stood before the large gilt frame of his mirror. He stared at the reflection for an indistinguishable amount of time. His expression, stoic. He looked unaffected, but he wasn’t.

 

Draco raised his hand and pressed his palm against the place where his face had been reflected. His fingers left a faint mark against the cool glass. Then, pulling back his arm, he allowed his fist to collide with the mirror with a sickening crack. The broken shards of his reflection fell, staggered around the floor. All the many tiny fragments of him that made the whole. Draco was not sure they would ever fit back together the way they once had.

 

He gazed down at the crimson river splashed over pale skin. He was entranced as the deep red ink seeped in, absorbed into his skin like dyed cloth. Blinking suddenly, he muttered scourgify under his breath and, with the wound now clean, inspected the damage.

 

The skin over his knuckles was torn like ribbons, wafer-thin and transparent. Fortunately, his moment of spiralling lack of control hadn’t done any more significant damage. Conjuring some bandages, Draco set to work wrapping them around the injured hand. This was not the first time he had done this.

 

His ears pricked up as he heard a sudden disturbance in the still air of his common room. Walking out of the bedchamber and into the main room, he spotted a sleek black owl with watchful amber eyes, perched on the window ledge. Taking the neatly wrapped scroll from the bird, he recognised the seal immediately. It was blank but for a small indentation that had been made into the wax before it set. Draco swiftly moved back into the bedroom to retrieve one of the shards of reflective glass that was scattered across the floor.

 

He pressed the glass firmly into the skin of his forefinger and held it over the seal, allowing one drop of blood to fall into the small indentation. The wax flashed black before unsealing itself. It was a message from his father, one that could only be unsealed by the spilling of pure Malfoy blood, willing given. It was an ancient magic.

 

Draco,

It is time for you to report any findings to the panel. You must come at 12:30 to the usual place. Your escort will be waiting there.

Your father.

 

His thoughts quickly flashed back to Granger, and all that had happened – all that would have to be concealed.  Then there was the small matter of the ring, which had, amid everything else, somehow become a secondary concern. He had yet to decide exactly what to do about that. Revealing that he had discovered it, had been discovered himself, and then subsequently lost the ring would not be well received. Time will tell, he decided. Time will tell.

 

****

 

No matter how many breathing exercises she tried, attempts at distraction, and her determination to focus on other things, Hermione could not manage to clear her mind of its endless stream of unwanted thoughts. Hermione shook her head in a futile attempt to keep the bombardment of images, all unwanted, at bay. While none of this was proving effective, she was grateful at least that while he haunted her thoughts, he wasn’t before her at present. The corridor outside of her dormitory was blissfully empty.

 

She sighed deeply and headed out of the corridor and into the main stairwell in the direction of the Great Hall for breakfast. She was exhausted, could feel the lack of proper sleep, the strain of everything, in the weariness of both her mind and body. She was quite certain it showed too. Hermione was good at riddles, thrived on finding the answers to the seemingly unsolvable questions, and yet this mess was beyond her ability to unravel. Her actions made no sense, and her reactions even less. No matter the hours of analysis and self-exploration, she simply could not handle the explosive mess that was the blueprint of her thoughts.

 

This had become rather a routine for her over the last week or so. Truthfully, she wasn’t completely sure of her place in time. It seemed as though she was putting all of her energy and effort into avoiding seeing him, talking to him, and attempting – rather unsuccessfully – to not think of him, trying desperately not to fall into that hole of mindless confusion. And yet she was stepping ever closer to the pit.

 

She awoke early every morning, convincing herself that this was only because it gave her time to clear her head of all grogginess in preparation for that day’s classes. She would spend an illogical five minutes staring at her door, reaching for the antique knob and then stopping to adjust her book bag or to run back for some unnecessary item which her deluded conscience convinced her she needed.

 

Stalling. And for what? She would spend the entire walk down to breakfast arguing with herself about her ridiculous behaviour and then, after realising she was once again conducting a heated debate with herself, would resort to meditative techniques to clear her mind. This was precisely that point in the cycle.

 

Breathe in slowly, she told herself. Inhale through your nose. Warm and spicy, he smelt of oranges and browns. He smelt of earthy vibrancy, but he was unearthly silver and grey. All the indefinable shades that seemed to fall between white and black. Stop, she thought again, just stop.

 

Keeping her gaze lowered, she descended the final staircase and walked through the smattering of early morning risers to take a seat on the brushed wooden bench at her house table. Another morning arrival completed without a hitch. She wasn’t really hungry, though she ate nonetheless. Her body was weary from sleep deprivation and frustrating training sessions. She needed to keep her energy levels up. She needed to drink in the oxygen around her. Inhale deeply, without fear of drinking in the toxins. Without drinking him in again.

 

Him. It was funny, she mused, how she deliberately thought of Malfoy in that way. She focused so intently on not using his name, even in her head, lest it conjure images she was unable to erase. Just as Hermione was in the process of pouring herself a second glass of pumpkin juice, a tightly wound scroll of parchment materialised in front of her. Looking around to see if anyone was watching, she deserted her prior task and broke the seal.

 

Miss Granger,

Please come to my office at 11:00 sharp this evening in order to discuss your studies. I am concerned your grades are slipping.

Sincerely,

Headmistress McGonagall.

 

Just as her eyes traced the signature, the piece of parchment melted into nothing more than stray air particles left to flutter listlessly above her. Hermione’s head buzzed for a moment. She was quite aware of which ‘studies’ the professor was referring to.

 

Lost in thoughts of the impending Order meeting – the first one of the year, she did not notice the presence of someone at her elbow. Looking up from her breakfast plate she saw Neville positively quaking with excitement and or nerves – she wasn’t sure which.

 

“Morning, Neville. Did you sleep well?” she asked with a slightly raised brow.

 

“Sleep? Oh yes. Yes, very well,” he said cheerfully, and leaned toward her. Lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner, he continued, “did you get the… you know… about the thing?”

 

She looked blankly at him before processing what he meant. With Neville as such a stealth operator, the Dark side would definitely have trouble getting information from eavesdropped conversations. As she nodded her head, somewhat imperceptibly, she glanced up in time to see Him taking his seat at the Slytherin table.

 

“Well I have to go to the library quickly before Arithmancy. If I don’t see you at lunch then I will see you in Charms later,” she said rather hurriedly. She gathered her things and, in a rush to escape the suddenly claustrophobic air of the Great Hall, she left.

 

*

 

Later that night Hermione sat quite rigidly in her chair, gazing at the almost rapturous looks of anticipation that lit the faces of her fellow Order members, fellow students. Her friends. She felt treacherous. She felt… sick. She was supposed to be focusing all her efforts on training, on helping the Order and more importantly helping Harry. This thing with Malfoy – whatever it was – was getting in the way. Her instructions were to study him, watch and learn about him.

 

Not to talk to him or touch him and certainly not to spend her hours thinking of how he had tasted when he kissed her or the way the pressure of a mere fingertip on her skin burned a trail she could still feel. She was supposed to study him objectively. No emotions involved. And yet she was positively swimming in emotions. She felt anger at herself and loathing for him, she felt guilt for her friends and fear for Harry and Ron. All she did now was feel.

 

She was supposed to be reliable, her thoughts uncluttered. But she was floating in the debris that Malfoy had created, and a small part of her knew that she wanted to swim in the messy, dirty sinfulness of it all just once more. Admitting that only made her angrier with herself and caused her to loathe the sight of him even more. She was smart and strong and would not allow herself to be made weak by him.

 

She wouldn’t.

 

Hermione closed her eyes for a split second before reopening them. Her focus was, once more, on the room.

 

“Now that everybody is here, we can start this meeting first with a debriefing.” McGonagall’s voice carried over any other noise in the room.

 

When it came to her turn she spoke with a confidence and clarity she was no longer sure she knew. She told them almost by verse what she had told Ginny some weeks ago. She spoke of Malfoy and of the ring. McGonagall’s lips were pursed throughout the whole speech.

 

“Very well. It is clear that Draco Malfoy knows something of the Death Eater's plans – otherwise his mother and aunt, both recognised supporters of Voldemort, would not have visited him.” She winced slightly when uttering the dark wizard’s name. “Continue with your observations but I stress be careful. I do not want you confronting him or talking to him unless on Heads’ business. We do not know how much he knows. In fact, we know very little.”

 

McGonagall continued on in this way, urging the others to band together. They were all to continue practising what they had been taught by Harry in their fifth year and, for some, fourth year. She also insisted that Hermione have some assistance during her training sessions with the ring. Seamus, of course, volunteered.

 

Just as the various young witches and wizards began to depart the Headmistress’s office in intervals, McGonagall stopped Hermione and Ginny, handing each of them a scroll.

 

“They are from Mr Potter and Mr Weasley… and yes, they are both safe,” she answered the question which had quickly clouded both girls’ expressions.

 

Hermione hurried back to her dorm in an eager rush to read her letters. So eager, in fact, that she did not notice the pale eyes darkened by the shadows that surrounded them, watching, intrigued. Nor did she hear the footsteps that signalled their departure as a boy slinked down the hallway in the direction she had come.

 

****

 

He did not sleep that night. Nor did he dream – a relief he had long been craving. Instead he let the moments sneak by as he reflected on that evening. Leaving the castle unnoticed had been relatively simple. The only disturbance on his journey had been a very near run in with Granger. That, however, had been a welcome intrusion. Her trekking back to her room at that hour and without the excuse of patrol duty only served to confirm his suspicion that she was involved in more than just her studies.

 

It made sense anyway. Neither Potter nor Weasley were at Hogwarts that year, a point he had not failed to notice and report. He seriously doubted Granger would have allowed the simpletons to miss out on graduating were they not working for a higher cause. It was quite laughable really. Potter was preparing for his defeat against the Dark Lord, and with Weasley assisting, no less. Besides, if all of this were true then there was no possible way Granger wouldn’t be equally involved.

 

As much as he hated to admit it, she was smart – too smart, in fact, for her own good. And definitely a lot smarter than her friends. Not, he mused, that that was a particularly difficult achievement. And then there was the situation about that ring. He was fairly certain he had never seen her wearing it before, not that he had studied her in particular detail in the past, but it was rather noticeable. And it was important. So important that she had risked meeting with someone she knew to be a follower of the Dark Lord at midnight to retrieve it. The ring was quite a powerful tool; he had felt that quite clearly. A tool for what? That was the question.

 

The meeting had done nothing to clear his thoughts. Instead he had to listen to the incessant bickering between his aunt and his father and his aunt and Snape, for that matter. He had felt purposeless. Rather than being as exciting as he had visualised, it had, for the most part, been fairly mundane.

 

There was, however, one moment when Draco felt his body seize up. After he had shared his information he had been told to watch the “Mudblood” closer. To “break her” if need be. But he did not think Hermione Granger could be so easily broken.

 

His eyes had flashed at his father's comment. He didn’t mind the thought of Granger in pain, mental or otherwise – so long as he was the one to cause it. To make her cry and scream and kick and yell his name in hatred or in hunger. It seemed that when it came to the two of them this year, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two. He wanted no other name on her tainted mouth. As sick and twisted as that notion was, he knew it was unlikely to change anytime soon.

 

Rubbing his eyes and unfolding his tall frame from its position on the plushly-furbished chaise, he straightened up. Draco needed a scalding hot shower to scrub the thoughts of her away. He needed an ice cold shower to calm the blood that pounded through his body. And he needed them in quick succession.

 

*

 

Not long after freshening up, Draco strolled towards the Entrance Hall in the direction of much needed sustenance. His mission was halted by something hard, which collided with his chest. Draco focused his piercing gaze on the interruption to his thoughts. It was a boy, or man, depending on how one looked at it, roughly the same height as Draco. However, the boy with the scruffy hair and imperfect features was of a stockier build than the Slytherin.

 

“Finnigan. Did you want something or are you just so incompetent that walking straight is a challenge for you?” Draco queried, finding the Gryffindor to be quite tiresome. He really had no interest in the Irish boy.

 

The boy pushed him back rather aggressively. “Stay away from her. Do you hear me? If you so much as look at Hermione again I promise you won’t be looking in a mirror again for a long time.”

 

Draco laughed coldly. “Even if I were to heed your threats, they wouldn’t stop her looking at me. Did it never occur to you that the little Mudblood’s taste runs to darker things?” He smirked. “I doubt she’s even aware of your presence. I doubt that it’s you she thinks about up there in her private room. And I know for a fact that it isn’t you who makes her, well… let’s not go into the sordid details…’ He laughed at the look of blind murder on the stupid Gryffindor’s face.

 

“Oh yes,” he continued, “she might hate me, but she does see me as more than just a prop to hold her books.”

 

He knew he should not have pushed so far, but he had grown tired of seeing Finnigan walking around like a neglected puppy. It was quite tragic. Besides whatever madness was happening between him and Granger, indefinable though it was, had nothing to do with Finnigan. Draco had never mastered the art of sharing.

 

Neither did he get involved in brawls. He used his brain and his wand to overcome a foe – not his fist. Not that he was incapable; he clearly had no objection to punching inanimate objects in private bouts of uncontrolled rage and frustration. But an all-out brawl with a bloody Gryffindor, and in public? No. That was far too pedestrian. He believed in keeping his composure, and his frustrations in check, in public at least. It was too emotional, too exposed. Over Granger no less. He was a man who took pride in his impassivity. Besides, Slytherins did not stoop to getting their hands dirty.

 

It was a pity then that the moronic fool attempted to fight him for the Head Girl. Draco quickly whipped him around and pushed him into the wall, pressing his wand to the other boy’s throat.

 

“Don’t think for one moment that I will hesitate to kill you should you try something like that again. And don’t think you’d have a chance at stopping me. That would be a grave error on your behalf.”

 

He then muttered a much loved curse under his breath and stood back as the boy winced and clutched his heart in silent pain, before crumpling to his knees. Draco whirled around as the sound of a half restrained gasp filled the corridor. It was her. Staring. Her eyes wide as her plush lips formed a perfect ‘o’. She noticed his gaze move to her and she spoke more words in one look than she could have in an entire monologue.

 

He moved to stand directly in front of her. His hand blazing across the skin at the base of her throat as she croaked, “Don’t you dare touch him.”

 

He did not smirk or mock her that time, but just gazed at her silently. He then sighed before letting his hand fall to his side. “Tell your lap dog to stay out of my way or next time I’ll do more damage.” He leaned in closer to her ear, his breath tickling the soft flesh of her lobe. “And I assure you, I will enjoy it.”

 

With that he stalked down to breakfast, hoping rather desperately that he would make it on time. Such ordeals always made him hungry.


Chapter 10: The Hunter and The Prey
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Hermione surveyed the cavernous room in distaste. It was white, always so white. She hated hospital wards – whether they were of Muggle or magical origin. She detested them. She always wondered why the walls, the ceilings, the beds, everything, was so clinically white. How could any patient hope to seek comfort and wellbeing when housed in a space so stuffy and sterile?

 

One couldn’t simply awaken from their sickness-induced slumber and find distraction in their environment. It was too honest, too blunt for her liking. The patient could not wake up and be granted that delicious moment of confusion before realising who they were, and why they were there. Instead they were greeted with the whiteness, the scarceness of their world. No, indeed, Hermione Granger did not like the hospital wing. There were too many memories locked within its solid walls. Nostalgia seeped from the air and laced her skin with a heavy coat of memories. She recalled – all too accurately – times when she had been the one coiled neatly under the scratchy sheets of the hospital beds, awaiting diagnoses.

 

This time she was not the patient; he was lying tangled in the white starched sheets of his cot, even breaths escaping each time he exhaled. This time she was a visitor, though she felt just as vulnerable. Hermione Granger was seated on a vacant bed at the far end of the Hospital Wing, situated beneath a large window and a clear night sky. Although the hours had stretched her beyond capacity, she found no temptation to curl into the covers of the spare bed. Instead, she found comfort in gazing at the smattering of lights that littered the otherwise inky ceiling, stretching for days beyond the window.

 

Usually there were no visitors in the Hospital Wing at that hour; however, under the circumstances, Madam Pomfrey had been more lenient than usual. Hermione had attended all of her classes that day, as was expected of her. This was probably for the best, as it gave her something to do, some distraction that prevented her from fixating on the horrific incident she had witnessed that morning. Ironically, it had taken Seamus being rushed to the Hospital Wing for her to go into some sort of shock, achieving the mental blankness she had so craved for weeks. However, as soon as the day’s classes had ended, she had flown back at hair-curling speed to see her friend.

 

He was awake when she entered, a pained expression flickering across his face as he smiled rather weakly. They had said very little to one another, though she stayed by his side. That was several hours ago and though he slept, she knew she could not. She was, therefore, left to make her own music in the silence that had settled. And it was in that silence that her thoughts revisited their favourite topic of late. Him. Draco Malfoy.

 

She knew he was dangerous. She had been told that many times, by herself, and by others, by people she ought to have listened to. Yet she always chose to think of him outside of the context of their lives.

 

It seemed not to matter how many times she acknowledged the aura of dark magic that surrounded him; above all else she had thought of him as a coward. Someone who made threats but did not act on them. Maybe that was what he had learnt from his ‘Dark Lord’.

 

This morning, however, her delusions had been shattered. Yes, he was dangerous and the danger was real. Seamus lying in a hospital bed was proof enough of that. What had she been thinking? He was a Death Eater. Not just any Death Eater either. His family had a long legacy of dallying with the Dark Arts.

 

She knew this, had always known it, and yet she never truly absorbed the consequences of being involved with Malfoy. Sure, she had started out with a mission, a reason to put herself in his path, yet even then, she was supposed to remain stealth. She was the observer and now the observed. Was the hunter but now the prey. And she couldn’t quite figure out when it had happened. Or how.

 

They hated one another, always had. As far as the pretentious Pureblood was concerned, she was a Mudblood, the best friend of Harry Potter and smart enough to take him on. Therefore highly expendable. But they weren’t children any more. There were very real reasons for the divide that never should have been blurred, and it went far beyond the dislike of their respective natures.

 

Yet he had kissed her when he should have killed her. Hermione nibbled anxiously on her lower lip as she pondered once more the game he was playing. She had seen the way his eyes darkened, his pupils dilated; he had not seemed so wholly unaffected. Yet she knew Malfoy to be calculating, cold – never one to give into heightened emotions.

 

He was entirely contradictory, and she craved so desperately to understand his intentions. After all, she had always hated him for his less amiable personality traits, his cruelty, and his firm allegiances with the worst kind of people. He, however, had always hated her for the most base of reasons, not because she annoyed him, but because she, Muggle-born that she was, simply existed. To sway from believing that her presence was a form of pollution to actively seeking her out, to kissing her, was extreme. Though she couldn’t fathom how she herself had let it happen, had allowed this crazed fixation to occur, his change in behaviour towards her over the past months was all the more extreme.

 

Perhaps it was part of this twisted game he seemed to want to play. They kept circling each other, taking swipes here and there, and dodging each blow. It was a game he seemed to enjoy, and one he had clearly turned to as a way of finding some sort of vulnerability in her. He had too, though she hated to admit it. Whatever else he might have thrown her way, this was something she hadn’t been equipped to deal with. And, judging from his own reactions, neither was he.

 

She ran her fingers through the tangles of her curls in a brief display of agitation. It would be easier for her if he were faking. Gazing around the room, she knew she too needed to be clinical. Unemotional. Surgical. She had to remove the stain of him from her body before her immune system crumbled entirely.

 

This was a game, she now knew. And Hermione Granger refused to be anyone’s toy. She would play his game, and she would win. After all, it was not just her life at stake. Her gut twisted at the thought, fear scorching her skin. What made her think he would hesitate to kill her? He had said it himself. I assure you I will enjoy it.

 

Her skin tingled as anxiety licked her spine, preparing to engulf her entirely. She did not know what blood stained his hands. Hands that had touched her, smoothed over her skin. A whisper of a touch but a touch no less. Had he branded her with the murky residue of his crimes? But no, that was far too messy for a Malfoy. Avada Kedavra was clean. There were no stains of death to mark one’s passing. Clean and calculated, like him.

 

What did it matter what his methods might be? The question was whether he was actually capable of such a thing. She still wasn’t entirely sure. What was the purpose in her contemplating his shades of evil? She knew why. Telling herself he was lost in that shadowy space between good and bad made it so much easier for her to digest everything that had happened between them. All that was said and unsaid.

 

Hermione shook her head, her dark lashes curling onto the high curve of her cheekbones to catch the lone droplet, which had rebelled against her will to stay unshed. She had never felt quite as lost as she did now. Had never felt so void and yet so full of thoughts. She turned her gaze back to the figure lying stiffly in the small bed on the other side of the expansive room.

 

Breathing evenly, he was still asleep and at peace, she hoped, for tomorrow would not spare him the confusion and the anger. He would want answers to questions he could not pose, answers she knew she could not give.

 

Her hand unconsciously slipped into the pocket of her robe, smoothing over the worn parchment it found there. The paper was soft like tissue now from constant creasing and folding. She opened the scroll once more, her eyes glazing slightly as she took in the scrawl of her friend’s penmanship. Harry’s handwriting had always been a touch illegible. She had read the letter so many times that she was no longer sure whether the words came from mere memory or the paper itself. Either way, she basked in the familiar tone as the words rolled gently over her.

 

Hermione,

 

Please don’t worry about us the way you probably have been. We are fine. In truth it’s more your safety than ours that worries me. I don’t trust Malfoy, and it’s not just about a schoolyard grudge. I really think he might be dangerous, more than we thought.

 

I know you always take your responsibilities seriously, but for once please don’t put the extra credit into an assignment. I know you were told to watch him but we both know he isn’t stupid, and he will notice eventually. I don’t want to think about what would happen if he does. Whatever you do try not to draw his attention to you anymore than necessary. Be careful and I promise I will too.

 

Harry.

 

P.S. Watch over Ginny for me, please. I wouldn’t ask but you know she’s as hot headed as her brother.

 

 

Ron’s letter had read more like a list, colourfully detailing the things he would do to the Slytherin Head Boy should any harm come to her. Whether directly or indirectly caused by the blond. The irony was her undoing. The warnings, though pertinent, had come a few months too late. She smoothed her finger over the parchment as she mused further over Harry’s letter.

 

He had grown up so much in the months following his mentor’s death. He was warning her not to be brave when usually it was the other way around. Unfortunately for Harry, he’d had no choice but to grow up. No time to mourn his losses.

 

She missed him; she missed Ron. She missed them both so much she ached with the longing. The longing for the familiar, for things to return to the way they had been before, to routine and safety, to the time when she knew herself. Or maybe, she pondered, she had never really known herself at all. Maybe this was her. This insecure bundle of nerves and nerve endings. This socially aware version of her former bookworm self. Maybe this was who she was.

 

The thought gripped her with fear.

 

****

 

He sat with an air of such casual repose that he knew it would only serve to irritate the old woman further. Excellent. He brushed a few stray locks out of his eyes and gazed up from a close inspection of his fingernails. Headmistress McGonagall looked unimpressed. He smirked.

 

“Mr Malfoy.”

 

“Yes, Headmistress?”

 

She pursed her lips in response and Draco could not help but notice the additional hundred or so lines that carved their way into the skin around her mouth.

 

“Mr Malfoy do you understand the seriousness of your actions?” Her eyes bulged slightly. “What did you think you were doing, attacking a fellow student? Your position as Head Boy entitles you to dock House points and hand out detentions as punishment for students. IT DOES NOT ENTITLE YOU TO HEX THEM!”

 

By this stage the old bag was flashing from white to red and back again. Draco could feel black spots appearing behind his retinas; his dizziness caused by the fluctuating colour of her flushed features. He paused for a few seconds, giving the impression of one preparing themselves for an intense session of grovelling for forgiveness. Malfoys did not grovel, and they certainly did not repent.

 

“I was merely defending myself,” he began slowly, as though he was searching for the right words. “Do forgive my ignorance, but I was unaware that such an act had become a damnable offence.” His calm demeanour only enraged her further. Her mouth was clamped shut and she looked as though the pressure of restraining herself from hexing him was about to cause her spontaneous combustion. He was suitably amused.

 

She raised her hand and pointed towards the door of her study and simply said, “Out,” in a rather hoarse voice. The Head Boy extracted himself from the rigid chair and bowed his head graciously before sauntering out through the large mahogany door.

 

Although disinclined to question her reasoning, Draco had to admit he was rather curious as to why he had received no further punishment: no loss of points, no time to be spent bonding with Filch over detention in the Trophy Room. It was curious indeed. He reconciled the necessity to ponder such thoughts to a more suitable time. At the moment, he had far more enjoyable tasks to accomplish.

 

So with that notion in mind, Draco found his lean legs steering him in the direction of the Hospital Wing. He had a very special guest to visit. After sauntering down and past the necessary corridors and hallways, the Slytherin found himself standing in a hollow crevice in the wall just opposite the entrance. After ensuring that his tall frame was indeed blanketed in the surrounding darkness, he checked the time. Seven minutes early. Perfect.

 

He knew for a fact that his quarry was currently seeking refuge behind the large wooden doors. She was – he had no doubt – there under the pretence of comforting her tragically injured friend. Such a good, supportive friend she was, he thought, his head ringing with the sound of his own mocking laughter. So caring, so devoted.

 

Indeed, she had spent all evening in that room, mopping his sodden brow, no doubt. In the past Draco would have rolled his eyes and made some derogatory remark about the melodramatic tendencies of Gryffindors – truly they could be a touch theatrical for his liking. A common cold did not necessitate an army of mourners and a good bed side manner.

 

But he knew better now. Or more to the point: he knew Granger better now. She had not sought approval from the pesky Madam Pomfrey to stay in the Hospital Wing past normal visiting hours just to overlook the improvement of Finnigan’s condition. No, indeed.

 

She was in there plotting, planning and of course, analysing. Oh yes, she was doing what she did best, thinking up solutions to never ending problems. And he, Draco Malfoy, was undoubtedly number one on that list. Just the way he liked it. After all, Draco did not believe in second place. He sighed contentedly as he checked the time once more. Two minutes to go. Tick tock, Granger.

 

It was time to play this game his way. No more mistakes, not on his behalf anyway. There had been enough of that already. He was willing to admit – only to himself, of course – that she had knocked him back a few steps, surprised and overwhelmed him. Draco Malfoy did not like surprises, particularly when they increased the odds in his opponent’s favour.

 

She had tapped into a weakness, one embedded so far beneath his skin that he had not known it existed. But he did now, and he would use it against her. He did, however, remain convinced of his earlier surmise; she would be hard to break. She was shrewd, far more so than he had ever given her credit for. But he was a Malfoy to the core and nobody could out-manipulate him.

 

This time he had done his research. Weeks and months of watching and observing, noting and digesting her habits and expressions. He was learning to read all over again, only this time he was reading Hermione Granger, page for page. And he knew he would not give up until the story had ended and each chapter was closed.

 

It would take time. He had to wear her down. But he knew, eventually, that he would break her. Until all she knew was his name as she spat it venomously from her lips.

 

He felt, rather than heard, the door creak open as he was jerked from the sordidness of his thoughts. His heavy gaze washed over her slim form as she peeked her head around the side of the door.

 

Tick tock… times up, Granger.

 

****

 

Hermione could not help but feel slightly uneasy as she slipped, quietly, she hoped, through the gap in the doorway and out into the darkness of the corridor. The air was still, as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of the space by someone holding his or her breath in anticipation. Yet there was not a sound to be heard.

 

She pressed her back against the heavy door and scanned the area, allowing her eyes to adjust slightly as she reached her hand into the pocket of her robes. Once she had extracted her wand from the dense fabric, she held it tightly in her fist and inched her body sideways until she was pressed against the stone wall – far better than a potentially creaky door, she thought.  

 

Silence hung in the air. A silence so dense she could feel it, hear it buzzing in the recesses of her brain. She was paranoid. Understandably so. She wasn’t sure whether she was going insane or whether it was a symptom of too much thinking, but she was sure she could sense his presence. It was the silence that scared her above all else. If he was there, lurking, as he often did, in the shadows then what was he waiting for? From what she knew of Malfoy, he did not like to hide for long. And when the time came for him to make his presence known, he made it known. But he never waited this long.

 

He was toying with her, the bastard. But she had to admit his tactic was rather effective – she was so consumed with fear and paranoia at that moment that she could barely think, let alone defend herself. Breathing slowly and silently through her nose, she continued sliding along the wall. She repeated the same process until she reached the point where her corridor intersected with another. She paused to observe the cavernous hollow in her pathway. She had to cross it to get to the dorms.

 

She did not like it at all. It was too… exposed. She desperately wanted to light her wand but she knew to do so would only concede her defeat. It would also highlight her location – if it wasn’t already known. Merlin, how she wanted to run, and she would if she thought she could make it. After all, she’d seen him curse Seamus mere hours earlier. She didn’t like to imagine what sort of torture he might actually inflict upon her.

 

Taking a deep breath, she continued sidling across as though the wall were still behind her, though she knew it was not. She had never been more conscious of her vulnerability before this moment. Harry need not have worried – she wasn’t feeling brave at all.

 

She was halfway across the intersecting corridor when she heard it. A low mocking laugh, it was so quiet and so intangible that it sounded more like a husky expulsion of breath than anything else. But it was enough to cause her spine to stiffen and her eyes to snap back into focus, scanning the darkened area for a sign of life. That was when she felt it, a sharp object pressing into the back of her neck. Checkmate.

 

She didn’t move, in fact she wasn’t sure whether she could have if she tried. The fear-induced paralysis was spreading through her limbs like wild fire. The only sign that she had acknowledged the wand at the nape of her neck was a shiver that racked her spine, causing her to quiver almost imperceptibly. He noticed. He was trained to notice.

 

“The first thing they teach you in a war, Granger, is to always, always watch your back.” His voice, like his laugh, was little more than a rustling wind in the empty corridor. However, he was solid. Very solid. “It seems I’ve rendered you speechless… or are you just too afraid to talk? Has all that Gryffindor bravery deserted you?”

 

He paused for a split second before laughing in that haunting manner once more. This time she could feel his presence behind her. He was closer now. His breath tickled the outer shell of her left ear as he continued taunting her.

 

“But no… I had you pegged all wrong, Granger, didn’t I? If you really were brave, you wouldn’t be here, at this school, playing games you don‘t even know you‘re playing. You’d be off with your little friends planning to save the wizarding world from indescribable peril. Tell me, Granger, are you afraid, or do they just not need you anymore?”

 

He was trying to push her buttons. He was succeeding. As much as she knew she should ignore his taunts she could not help but acknowledge the truth in his words. Or at least the truth in her fear of them. She gripped the wand in her hand tighter and made to move her head quickly away from his aim.

 

“I don’t think so, Granger,” he drawled as he pressed the wand further against her neck. “Here I am thinking we could have a nice chat and you’re trying to be tricky.” He clucked his tongue in mock disapproval before swiftly muttering a body-bind curse.

 

At any other time, she would have been in awe of such excellent spellmanship. At that moment, however, she truly was paralysed from the neck down. She could hear him chuckling to himself in appreciation. At the same time, she felt the tip of his wand drag like slow torture down her spine.

 

It was agony. The shiver she normally would have felt was unable to manifest itself in tingles on her skin. Instead, each minute shiver seemed to implode inside of her. Magnified, the mini eruptions felt like a pre cursor to something bigger. Something beyond her capacity to even conceive.

 

The wand tip traced the length of her arm and around to her collarbone. The flash of his grey eyes – darkened to obsidian in the shadow of the corridor – cut through the haze of unfamiliar sensations, and then she made out his form. He was smirking, as usual, but there was something far darker than normal etched in his features. Far darker than she had encountered before. She did not like it.

 

Her lips parted slightly as his wand dragged lower across her skin to the centre of her collarbone, pausing, ready to dip into the valley below at any moment. He did not wait long to strike.

 

“I told you once not to mess with me, Granger. You really should have listened.” His voice was rasping now as his darkened gaze watched her brows furrowing, her teeth gnawing on her lower lip.

 

The tip of the wand traced lower and her eyes rolled back unconsciously as it dipped in and out of her belly button, before pausing and then slipping just slightly under the fabric at the top of her woollen skirt. More tingles, explosions, unfamiliar sensations. She couldn’t breathe from the intensity of it coursing through her bloodstream. Her eyes darkened as she arched her head back, whimpering softly. Oh Merlin, she thought, I am going to die.

 

And just as the sensations caused her nerve endings to explode internally, she had one final thought before her world went black.

 

*

 

Amidst the groggy recesses of her mind, Hermione managed to reign in some form of conscious thought. The realisation that she was alive was the first.

 

Her head jerked up from its lolling position and she realised with a start that she was still in the empty corridor. Her body felt weak and yet it was upright, the body-bind clearly still in effect. Malfoy was still there, staring at her with an intensity she could not begin to fathom.

 

La petit mort. Little death,” he whispered somewhat hoarsely at her before continuing, “but you don’t have to worry – I won’t kill you really. Not yet…” With that parting comment he turned and began to walk down the corridor she knew lead to the dormitories.

 

He turned back and said, almost as an afterthought, “That bind should wear off in about 40 minutes or so… I hope you’re not too afraid of the dark.”

 

And he was gone, fading into the darkness as he always did. Only this time he had left her behind, more vulnerable than she ever had thought possible.


**********

Author's Note: La Petit Mort literally translates from French as "The Little Death". Just to alleviate any confusion this term (now popularised in modern culture) refers to a post orgasmic fainting spell, not death itself.


Chapter 11: Stains of War
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 The usually inquisitive girl, sitting deep within the comforting embrace of an armchair by her window, was absorbed only by the erratic and flushed contents of her mind. Her fingers traced absentmindedly in swirls over the fabric of the chair, soothing and placating herself in ways she did not realise. She had spent yet another weekend holed up in her residence, highly reluctant to see anyone else for fear that they might read her thoughts clear across her face. She needn’t have worried. Her thoughts were so intense and yet so fleeting that no soul could have hoped to divine them.




Resting on a small lamp stand to her left was her ring. Each time her restless gaze fell upon it she would sigh. Running a lightly shaking hand through her tumultuous mass of hair, she pondered her predicament. She had, for the first time in a long while, actually removed it from the safety of the small wooden box in which it was kept. She had decided that, after what happened that Friday night, she needed to motivate herself. She needed to be prepared. Constant vigilance and all that. She had spent the last two nights thinking of the danger of the situation in which she had somehow landed herself. Had Malfoy wanted her dead it would have been far too simple.
 

Evidently, that was not his intention, irrespective of his words to the contrary; it was clear from the slow burn of his gaze as it had held her own in those few alien moments. Even drawing that image to the forefront of her mind caused her body small shivers, faint echoes of what she’d felt that night. Above all else, the whole situation left her more confused and angry than ever. Her anger was directed at herself, for her naiveté, and at him for exposing her the way he had.

 
His presence was claustrophobic and she found at times she could not breathe with the thought of him. It was as though his mere presence in her thoughts sapped so much energy that her body was incapable of completing minor yet essential tasks, like breathing. He made her so angry that she wanted to claw at his perfectly smooth brow, to dismantle the symmetrical structure of his face. The face that had haunted her behind closed eyelids. When even sleep could not relieve her of his presence. It was the look on his face before the darkness had swallowed her, before his composure returned. His fair-lashed gaze wide and intense, haunted. Though his actions had been his way of one upping her, she felt certain the torture had not been hers alone.

 
She wanted to hurt him – really hurt him – and she had never felt that overwhelming desire to inflict pain on anyone before. She wasn’t like him; she didn’t thrive on fear the way he did. She recalled the trembling vibrations that had wracked her body, the strangely exquisite torture. Her fear had been palpable; she had never felt so exposed and so vulnerable. And he had left her like that, in the darkness for over half an hour after his departure. It had felt like a year. In those quiet moments, she knew fear.

 
He may have seen it as a game, but it was real to her. Too real. He had taken steps to be in control, he broke down her defences without permission. She was in a losing battle – and she did not have the experience to fight his way. She had stood alongside Harry year after year facing a vast number of dangers. She had fought Death Eaters, looked down the barrel of a wand so to speak, had faced death itself, and never been so shaken.
 

But she now knew the distinction between her previous battles and her current one. She knew how to handle evil, truly evil people. She knew where she stood with them. But Draco Malfoy was something else entirely. Despite everything he had inflicted upon her, she knew she had never been so wholly affected. Something in him, the strange and layered riddle that he was, called to her in a way she could not define or remotely understand. It felt as though he had made her fall into some endless pit of shadow and uncertainty. It was unfathomable for such a change to be wrought in only a few months of interaction, compared to the many years she’d known him. What was clear, however, was that with the onslaught of physical and mental sensations being in his presence brought upon her, she could never again be completely cold and removed from him. He’d marked her in some way. Just as she had him.
 

The shadowy outline of his features had shifted in her mind; he was not just another face beneath the Death Eater’s mask. Draco Malfoy had always been a constant in her life. For as long as she could remember, Hermione had been forced to defend herself against his attacks, even as a child. As a result, she had built some form of immunity to him and the petty nature of his insults.
 

Then he changed. He wasn’t the bratty child of years past, but an entirely different beast altogether. His tactics changed, his intentions too – though she wasn’t entirely sure he knew what they were either – and now he was attacking her in new ways, ones against which she had no defence. She had never felt such a lack of control over her own life and the path down which she marched.
 

She shifted her turbulent gaze toward the high panes of her window, staring out at yet another grey day. The rain slapped violently against the double glazed window as she traced a finger over the grooves of the stippled glass. Hermione gently pressed her forehead to the cool matter and let reluctant tears leak down her cheek, several catching in thick lashes and blurring her vision further.


In her room, where it was quiet, private, she would let them fall to ease the turmoil churning inside her. The release of tension was much needed, though she knew she could not allow it to happen outside the confines of her dormitory. Despite her anxieties, she knew to crumble before the watchful eyes of those beyond her guarding portrait would be to announce her defeat. She would not, could not allow that to happen. No matter how the edges of her strength began to fray.


So she cried as she hadn’t in a very long time. She cried for her friends and for their youth. Youth that was marred by war and hatred, by discrimination and by power. A war from which they could not escape. A war that ran rampant both within the solid castle walls and beyond. She cried.


She cried until the tears no longer ran unchecked from beneath her lashes. Then she stood and steered her weary form to her bathroom, where she would shower and scrub away all the signs. She would scrub away the layer of uncertainty she felt sure coated her skin. That’s what one had to do in a war. Clean away the residue of prior days. Heal the wounds and start once more.


***

 
At precisely the same moment in another room across the hall, hidden behind the portrait of a young man with white hair and an aristocratic sneer, were three people, each absorbed by their own thoughts. Draco Malfoy had his back to the two unwelcome visitors. He gazed out at the darkening sky in much the same fashion as the object of his thoughts.

 
Behind him, a dark-haired girl rested against the plush fabric of the chaise lounge on which her lithe body was strategically draped. The girl appeared to be paying little attention to the interactions of the other two. But Pansy Parkinson was far more observant than anyone had ever acknowledged, or indeed, recognised. Her sweeping gaze paused momentarily on the other figure in the room, whose form was currently resting against the frame of a second chair.


Blaise Zabini gazed steadily at Draco’s back awaiting an answer to his silent question. Finally, the other boy turned away from the window ledge and looked back into the sharp blue eyes of his fellow classmate. Pansy glanced back down at her cuticles as his stare swept meaningfully over her.


“What is it, Zabini?” he asked softly. “Perhaps this conversation can be shelved for a more… appropriate time.”


The darker boy ignored the nod in her direction. Instead he spoke, in an equally low voice, “I’ve seen you watching her.”


Pansy’s eyes flew up to catch sight of Draco’s gaze narrowing in the direction of the other boy. She watched, waiting for his reaction, but he merely pointed a finger toward the general direction of the door and said, “Out, Pansy. Now.”


With a last look in their direction, she escorted herself out of the room and down the corridor, not before bestowing a final, scathing glance at the portrait on the other side of the wall. Indeed, Pansy had always paid far more attention than she had ever been credited with.


***


He continued to hold the gaze of the boy opposite him even as he heard the sound of footsteps leading softly into the distance. “Zabini.”


“What are you doing, Malfoy?” The probing eyes never once left Draco’s face as they scanned for any hidden ticks that might give the blond away. They would find none.


“I fail to see how any of that is of your interest.”


“You watch her every move, thinking that no one else can see. I suppose you are mostly correct… except, I have. As did her bodyguard. Are you going to send me to the hospital wing like you did Finnigan?” He arched a single brow in question.


Draco merely glared at him.


“You are treading on dangerous territory. I would be very careful if I were you. Just some friendly advice…” He inclined his head in a gesture of goodbye before tracing Pansy’s footsteps out the door.


Draco expelled a rather large amount of air as he turned his back to the sheets of white rain currently cascading around the grounds beyond his window. It was still mid-afternoon and darkness was settling, enticing him further under its blanket.


*


He went down to dinner that night for the first time since the incident two nights ago. He’d been closeted in his room for the entire weekend in order to stem the flow of thoughts that corrupted his already jaded mind. As he seated himself next to Zabini, he nodded his head slightly in acknowledgment. He didn’t as much as glance in the direction of the Gryffindor table.


He did not need to. He felt, rather than saw, her presence there. After what had occurred the other night, he knew he would never quite escape her image in his mind. It had most definitely not been his intention for the events of that evening to escalate quite as they had. In truth he had simply wanted to toy with her a bit more, but the expression in her eyes as they began to glaze against her will, and the subconscious parting of her lips had been too intense a sight to ignore. He had lain in bed with the curtains drawn, drowning in the darkness for two days because of it. Because of the ache, the dull pulse, which it ignited within him.


No matter how hard he worked to break her down, to win, she continued to assault his senses and infiltrate his very being. It was entirely reactive and it was entirely his fault. Without even realising it she was fucking with his head and he was the one who went back for more, just to prove he was not alone. That he was not the only one being ripped apart by this thing between them. He could see it in her eyes each time. She was just as sick as he was.


Ignoring the conversation swirling around him, Draco looked up from his plate as he reached for his glass of pumpkin juice. His eyes clashed violently with a pair from across the hall. The eyes flashed darkly at him before turning away. Finnigan. Naturally. He scanned the room impassively, though his watchful gaze did not fail to see the two seventh year Gryffindors who slipped out, and the boy’s hand placed on the small of her back.


Clever girl. She appeared to have learnt from her previous mistake. He would address the issue of that particular surge of anger at the sight of Finnigan’s hand on her at a later time, in a less public place. He suppressed such thoughts as he noticed another Slytherin’s eyes on the departing couple before they slid to him. He had the distinct impression that Pansy was an entirely underestimated entity.

 
***


“Wow, it’s something else in here. Can’t believe it took you that long to invite me up.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and Hermione had to work hard to suppress a groan. She rolled her eyes instead and threw a cushion at him.


Seamus laughed softly, before sitting down. She couldn’t deny she was relieved at his light-hearted approach. Though she knew it was a façade, much like her own.


“Shall I go get it then?” she asked, before heading into her room. She heard his reply of assent as she riffled through her drawer for the box in which she kept the narrow silver band. Hermione gently slipped it from its case and gazed down to where it lay in the centre of her palm.


She glanced at her reflection in the mirror. She looked tired, as though the constant passing of moments was wearing away at her mask. She shook her head to remove such thoughts and headed back out to her companion. Seamus was seated exactly as he had been moments before. Upon Hermione’s return he jumped from his seat to join her in standing.


“Okay, so… what way do you want to do this?” Seamus asked, looking more than a little uneasy now that the time had come.


“Just as McGonagall said. I need to practice my wand work while I’m wearing it. I think I’m beginning to control the, uh, emotional side effects a bit better.” She bit down anxiously on her lip before continuing, “The problem is I really haven’t gotten very far in the way of doing actual magic.”


“So we’ll duel then. I just – I don’t want to hurt you that’s all...”


“Seamus? Really….” She shook her head in bemusement.


He laughed somewhat jerkily and said, “You’re right… who am I kidding? I should be more concerned about my own safety.”


The pair carefully moved the various arm chairs and other furnishings, which presently adorned the room, in order to clear a sizable open space. Hermione took several steps back, inhaled an inordinate quantity of air and then slipped on the narrow silver band.


“Okay, Hermione… you ready?”


“As ever.” As she said the words, she felt the familiar tingling of her skin, the slightly erratic beating of her heart, the gentle vibrating hum, which imbued her.


***


He looked on, mouth slightly agape, at the girl across from him. She was live static before his eyes. Glorious indeed, but quite terrifyingly so. She was crackling. No, she was vibrating. Even though she didn’t move a muscle as she stood there, soaking it all in, he could feel the vibrations emitting from her.
 

She was bigger than him, he could see. The young man, handsome in a scruffy, roguish sort of a way, was disheartened to say the least.


***


Hermione clenched her teeth as the inevitable bubble of emotions began to swallow her. “Come on Seamus. I can’t c-control it!”


“Right. Shit. EXPELLIARMUS!” he roared, waving his wand in such a timid manner as to contradict the violent enthusiasm of his voice.


At precisely that second, Hermione cried out her answer, Impedimenta, watching with mild horror as the corresponding bead of light first absorbed his spell and then proceeded to send him crashing against the far wall with a sickening thud. She flew to the other side of the room, thinking it unconscionable that he should once more be taken to the hospital wing because of her.


‘Oh Merlin, Seamus… are you all right. Are you breathing, can you—?” She continued in this way, her concern palpable.


“Calm down,” he winced slightly as he said it, “I’m okay, a bit bruised, I’d wager. But I’ll live.” He chuckled softly despite the pain he was masking and rubbed the tender skin of her palms soothingly, methodically. As though she were the one who had been slammed against a solid stonewall.


He always seemed to do that. His selflessness at a time like this was unforgivable. It appeared to work, however, as her breathing began to even out. She felt the vestiges of her inner anguish subsiding, and allowed a small smile to creep out again.


They practiced for another half hour or so, focusing on less damaging spells so she could get used to performing magic with a degree of control. Afterward she felt better than she had in weeks. While there was a lot of work to do, somehow Seamus’s presence had a calming influence and she seemed better able to compose herself and focus on her magic.


They were now sitting on the floor in the centre of her room, enjoying a comforting silence. She gazed down at the ring still entwined around her finger, and slipped it off, settling it on the floor before her. That was by far the longest period of time for which she had worn her ring, her burden. Though it may not have been a moment for celebration, she had certainly made some progress.


Her introspection was interrupted by the weary tone of her companion’s voice. “So…” the combination of hesitation and determination in his tone caught her attention, “are you going to tell me about Malfoy… or should I draw my own conclusions.”

 
His question hovered listlessly in the vast space of the room, caught between pockets of air and dust. Unanswered.


“Hermione.”


She turned to look at him and sighed. “I don’t know, Seamus. It’s complicated… and I can’t explain it either. I’m not… sure, what to do.” Her voice sounded feeble, as though her mouth was full of cotton wool.


“Just stay away from him. Whatever it is… his hold over you,” she could see him visibly blanch to say it. “Whatever it is – is it worth it? You don’t need me to tell you he’s dangerous but…”


She looked at him squarely before nodding her head in assent, “I know.”


They fell back into silence for a moment before he continued, “I just don’t like the way he looks at you…”


It seemed that no matter how much she thought she could prevent the toxins of her internal war with Malfoy from bleeding through each page into the rest of her life, she could not. That was the trouble with war. No matter how many times you cleaned the wound, it would never cease to fester.

 


Chapter 12: Room To Breathe
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Gripping the worn grey stone with cold fingers, the girl leaned forward gulping in heady amounts of oxygen. Her mass of untamed curls flew about her face in symphony with the icy wind that blew through the open spaces of the Astronomy tower. She ignored the chill that gnawed at her cheeks and made her fingers stiff. She needed clarity; she needed answers. She only wished this place would provide them.

 

Hermione Granger had spent her days gliding in and out of a reverie so fixed that it haunted her steps. As each sliver of sunlight melted to dusk and back again, she felt she was slipping in and out of herself. Who that was right now, she could not begin to fathom. Her bizarre conversation with Seamus on the floor of her dormitory area now seemed so long ago. She felt jaded when she recalled it, as though her admission to him about her uncertainty with regards to Malfoy had suddenly made everything suffocatingly real, had infiltrated her reality beyond her comprehension.

 

Hermione was not even sure she could say she hated him anymore, at least not in the direct way of the past, which was so much more easily defined. She was at once intrigued and repelled and it scared her to reflect upon just how long she had been feeling that way. Draco Malfoy was indefinable and it tortured her endlessly to think that he, so young a man, was capable of wreaking such havoc on a woman – more specifically, a woman like her. She recalled so many months prior the way she had looked upon him dispassionately, feeling empathy for his previous victims.

 

She was a girl who had always craved security, had always needed the answers before she asked the question. And yet here she was. A place where she had dived full bodily into the unknown. And it was in that inky dark place that she had been treading these last few months, desperately trying to break the unreachable surface. To breathe in the clear air of which she had so deprived herself.

 

****

 

In another part of the vast castle, a tall figure radiating a pale white glow in the surrounding darkness, stalked without his usual grace, around the corner to the corridor on which is rooms were located. As the fair-haired young man raised his head, weary from lack of sleep, he noticed a svelte figure reclining against his door. The pose gave the appearance of having been mastered through many hours of practiced study. When he noticed the distinctive dark hair and sharp blue eyes, he sneered slightly, knowing perfectly well that it had been.

 

“You took your time,” she said softly, a cultivated huskiness evident in her tone.

 

“Pansy…”

 

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Draco Malfoy looked at the girl before muttering the requisite password under his breath, lest she get any ideas. Entering the spacious rooms, the agitated muscles in his legs cried in complaint as they directed him to the single chaise chair, which had been pushed directly in front of the fire. He had sat there staring at its flames, lost in thought, many times before this night.

 

He sank his form into the soft velvet cushion, allowing his elbows to rest against his legs as he gazed at the now burning embers of the hearth.  

 

“Draco… it’s been a while.” She said it as a statement of fact. She was right.

 

 He continued to stare at the raw orange light as it savaged the charred wood in its grasp. “Indeed,” he finally muttered. Draco could hear her slinking around the room and tried to ignore the feeling. Pansy Parkinson was very pleased with herself about something; he could hear it in her voice, could imagine the bright glint in her eye.

 

“Tell me, Draco, why does she still stare at you?”

 

His chest tightened, but did not betray the nonchalant tone with which he replied. “Who are you talking about, Pansy. Plenty of people look at me… and we both know that you’re one of them.” He turned his gaze evenly towards her. She had his attention now.

 

She flushed slightly. “You know who I mean, Draco. The Mudblood. Why?”

 

“How should I know?” But he did know. He did know that she had been watching him, much as he had watched her in the past. He was certain that she burned with the same bizarre and intense fixation as he did. Only he saw very little of her during the day. It was at night when she visited him, behind closed eyelids in his private dormitory, his private thoughts.

 

It was in those moments that he gave up the struggle of understanding the meaning of it all. He simply let it wash over him. He drowned willingly in the thoughts of her and the thoughts of him. When he could almost feel the heat of her hands pressing against him, could recall thoughts of her sweat slicked legs tangled in his. He nearly drowned in her each night.

 

And then in the morning, she could haunt him no more. He wouldn’t let her. During those hours, he would not look in her direction. He could not. Pansy was always watching and waiting intently. To be caught staring at a Mudblood was deemed unforgiveable, and he had don’t it often enough.

 

It was obscene. Yet all the while, he knew she was there. In his Potions class, sitting at the front of the room her curls plastered to her neck, at meals sitting on the opposite side of the room to him. She was always there. Draco recalled many an occasion when she had not been so easy to locate.

 

“Draco.” The voice whispered in his ear, drawing him out of his reverie. A hand slowly travelled the breadth of one shoulder, massaging the tense muscle it found there.

 

He swallowed and closed his troubled gaze to the burning embers. The hands continued their descent down the lightly sheathed skin, nimble fingers slipping the black robe from his shoulders. They tickled the fine skin of his throat. He was sensitive there. She knew that.

 

He felt a presence before him and knew that she had kneeled in the gap between his legs. She raised her body up and pressed against him. She was warm and he greedily soaked it in. Her flat palms rested on his shirt as fingers sneaked through the buttonholes. Draco gasped at her touch on his bare skin. Her nubile tongue skittered over the tender flesh behind his left ear before lowering to dance across his pulse. She was practiced, was Pansy. He ought to know.

 

As her mouth honoured the strong line of his jaw, her knowing hands moved down to rest on clothed upper thighs, satisfied as the muscles bunched beneath her touch. Her cool breath fanned the soft strands from his face and pliant lips pressed into his. They were both firm and soft and she used them to prise his own open. Eyes of burnt sienna flashed behind his lids – eyes, which owned him in this room.

 

In a reflex action that left the dark haired girl sprawled on the floor, he jumped out of his chair muttering to himself in agitation. His long fingered hands tore through his hair as his clouded gaze cleared, taking in the sight of Pansy eyeing him, disgruntled. He kicked the chair with a suddenness, which caused her to gasp and jump back. She watched him, from a distance, repeating the action. She had never seen this level of ferocity from him. Draco was, above all else, in reign of his emotions.

 

He turned to her once more, shaking. “Get out. Get the fuck out, NOW!”

 

She did not need telling twice.

 

He continued his crazed actions before slumping gracelessly to the floor, exhaustion racking his bones. Draco gasped for breath, completely bewildered by his actions. His eyes smarted as his head dropped to hang between his raised knees, before he closed his eyes. A desperate bid to block it all out.

 

 

*

 

The following afternoon, Draco stood staring at the many shelves in the darkened and slightly mildew-ridden corner in which he had found himself. It was the restricted section, and as he blanched once more from the overwhelming smell of decay, Draco quite understood why. He had arrived at this secluded section of the library searching for answers to his unasked questions.

 

Retrieving yet another volume from the slightly rickety shelf, a look of mild horror marred his features as he surreptitiously wiped clean his hands. At a gentle rustling sound from the next aisle over, his sharp grey eyes cut upwards. It was most likely a foolhardy first year sneaking into the unknown area on a quest for notoriety amongst his peers. Draco waltzed immediately around the corner to frighten the disillusioned student.

 

He instead ambled upon a girl disguised by a cloud of unruly curls and a large tome. His breath seized in his throat as he acknowledged that it was in fact the first time he had seen her this close to in a very long time. He ought to have left then. He didn’t. He felt compelled to stay there in that damp and dark place with the girl who by all rights was fit only for such surroundings. Not like him.

 

“So this is where you hide.”

 

She jumped, visibly shaken from her own intense contemplations. He noted her eyes as they widened with recognition and something less definable, before they became shielded. His gaze followed her pink tongue as it moistened her upper lip; it was clearly an unconscious act.

 

“Malfoy,” she said finally, her gaze flicking quickly over his shoulder as though she were deciding whether he would attack her again, as he had that night so many weeks ago. The night that still tortured him with images of parted lips and glazed tawny eyes.

 

He still did not understand quite how that night had escalated the way it did. He had aimed to scare her, and though he was quite sure he had, he had caused himself a more enduring pain. Draco feared he had revealed too much to the Head Girl in the last year. And yet each time he was near the infernal know-it-all his brain would disconnect. It was ridiculously plebeian in his opinion, and he resented her for it.

 

“What are you doing here?” she asked him rather guardedly.

 

 

He ignored her question and chose instead to watch her through now heavy lids. She was irritated and uncomfortable. She made it painfully clear as she twitched under the full onslaught of his gaze. Yet she held it. Reluctantly, he knew. But she held it nonetheless. How long they stood there staring intensely at one another, he wasn’t sure.

 

“Right,” she finally muttered before making to walk by him in the narrow aisle. As she did so, his hand swiftly caught her arm and swivelled her around, so closely to him that he had to look right down his nose to hold eye contact. He shouldn’t have touched her. The mere act left a scorch across his skin. She blinked but did not move.

 

 Draco could see a very faint sprinkling of freckles across her nose. They were almost the same shade as her skin tone. He wondered how many other people had seen them this close. Finnigan… Weasley… Potter. He chose that moment to stop thinking about it. They stood so unbearably close together in the narrow aisle that it would no doubt look intimate to onlookers. And it was, in their strange way. The moment bled uncertainty and curiosity and discomfort in the shared knowledge that of all the people they should have stood so close to, it was not the person in front of them.

 

“Fuck,” he breathed. “What the fuck have you done?” Her eyes narrowed in response.

 

“What have I done?” she whispered venomously. “What have I done? You sick, twisted bastard… I have done nothing! This is you, this is all you.” She reiterated her point by pushing hard against his chest.

 

He clenched his jaw, in an attempt to control the torrent that simmered so painfully close to the surface. Instead, he barked out a malicious laugh.

 

“Do you honestly think that I want to be standing here? You think it’s about choice? I just decided to let you screw with my head?” He shook his head, wondering wildly at the turn of conversation. “Well you’ve done a fucking brilliant job,” he muttered.

 

She slapped him clear across the cheek. His skin burned from the contact and he looked at her in shock. Her expression was fierce, then uncertain, as though she hovered on the cusp of something. He wanted to lash out then, to say something, anything to turn the tide. His thoughts stopped when she pushed forward and pressed her mouth to his.

 

 

Before he could form a cohesive thought amid his bewilderment, she pulled back, a look of shock lingering across her features. They must have mirrored his own, not simply at her audacity, but at the fact that she had actually kissed, had instigated something this time. It felt like an admission on her part, and left him feeling simultaneously relieved and perturbed.

 

Before she could change her mind, he was going to make the most of it, this single stolen moment. She was a wicked indulgence he couldn’t afford, but he’s already crossed this line more than once before. Yet, somehow, this was different.  

 

A strange guttural sort of noise seemed to claw at his throat as his hands sank into the depths of hair He hauled her slim frame upwards against his and she grasped at his collar, pulling him closer. He all but died.

 

He slid one free hand down the line of her clothes until he found the delicate nook behind her left knee and drew it up, pressing her intimately against him. Their kiss was not reverent. It was not gentle. They ravaged one another’s mouths with a desperation that burnt through the layers of fabric, thoughts and logic. 

 

She was like velvet, he decided as his palm swept the expanse of her arched leg. And her mouth, at once gentle and urgent, belied an experience he felt sure she did not have. Her fingers raked through his hair, tickling the delicate skin upon his scalp. The sound of his own stifled groan caused him to start suddenly. He pulled her head from his, taking in the swollen red lips, flushed cheeks and darkened gazed. He was insane.

 

After another ragged gulp of air, he shook his head, as though to clear the vestiges of his arousal, which pulsed like poison through his very being. He failed. Draco pulled his hand free from the entwining curls and she slipped back down to her feet. She eyed him in shock and confusion and Draco could not stand to see what was reflected in her gaze a moment longer. Shaking his head once more, he backed away from her as though branded. He didn’t wait for her reaction as he left her there, in that darkened space. That place of ill-formed decisions and mistakes.

 

He had to think. He had to breathe.  


Chapter 13: On The Periphery
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The room was silent but for the gentle thrum of inquisitive fingers which danced over the brocade covering of the sofa, and the crackling hearth which whispered dark thoughts into the ear of the boy who sat there. Long and slim fingers raked through the silken strands of hair as the boy clenched and unclenched his jaw. He was far too absorbed by his agitation to notice the chime of the grandfather clock which joined the musical assembly.

 

Draco Malfoy was busy reflecting upon his father’s latest correspondence. The letter lay open on the small lamp table to his right; the blackened wax seal had crumbled upon the parchment and litter the floor surrounding. He had been summoned to another interlude in the forest, this time to meet with his Aunt Bellatrix and his former Head of House, Severus Snape. To say that he was not looking forward to the meeting was an understatement. If he were being truthful, he was anxious, consumed by conflicting thoughts about all that lay before him.

 

He had no desire to die and yet was dimly aware of the possibility that he would. His fist closed in agitation and pounded unexpectedly against the plush fabric. He had made his decision a long time ago. Not that, he reflected, he had much of a choice. Even still he knew he would not have changed a thing were he to do it all over.  Only now he was beginning to see the repercussions of such decisions, the climax of this war was coming and soon it would be his time to participate. Would it be Potter and his merry band of morons or would it be the Dark Lord who reigned victorious? He could not even begin to conceive the possible outcomes.

 

In truth he had never really thought about the war and its aftermath. The whole notion had seemed abstract and distant, something to be anticipated but not experienced. A grim smile graced the curve of his lips. It had all been so easy when he was within the castle walls fighting internal wars. Wars which by rights he should have been in command of – but even then he was not. His anxieties had nothing to do with backing out, because he knew he would not. Not this time. He had so much to prove, and yet he could honestly say he was unsure of the outcome he wanted. One thing was certain, for the first time in his entire existence he would not get the desired result.

 

Draco finally glanced at the clock as it chimed its final warning and groaned in irritation. It seemed ridiculous, given all that was to come, to hold onto the façade of education and classes, as though they had some meaning. They could all be dead within the coming months and knowledge of runes and potions and astronomy would have no impact on the outcome. Raising his weary form from the comfort of his chair, Draco shrugged his robes over the breadth of his shoulders and departed for breakfast. It would be, he knew, a very long day.

 

 

****

 

Hermione Granger was uncomfortable. She was seated on one of the stiff backed chairs which had been conjured by the Headmistress in order to facilitate the latest Order meeting. She fidgeted with her hands as she glanced around the room, only to see the same expression of bemusement mirrored in her peers’ eyes. McGonagall had called a short meeting with the junior members of the Order of the Phoenix that evening, much to the dismay of all involved. They had been occurring with increasing frequency over the last few weeks, clearly building to a climax. It was a highly concerning realisation.

 

Hermione was rather surprised upon entering the Headmistress’s office to see Kingsley Shacklebolt there also. He had smiled warmly at her and gestured for her to join the others in sitting. After a few moments of muttered whisperings, McGonagall called for attention.

 

“Quiet, please. We have news and shall make this meeting as quick as we are able.”

 

Kingsley’s slow and deep voice resounded then in the small room. “We have received information,” he paused, “Everything we have worked for thus far will reach its pinnacle in the coming month or two. Weasley and Potter have been in contact with us and will be likely to join you at the safe house in a month or so.’

 

“The Burrow?” Ginny asked, clearly perplexed.

 

“Briefly, yes. Though you will then be moving on to another location for protection once the school term as ended for Christmas. There you will help the Order where you can and, more importantly, you will begin preparations for what is to come.”

 

Hermione’s eyes widened in surprise at this announcement, she covertly looked toward Seamus who appeared just as baffled as she was.

 

“Those of you who do not wish to take this final step please raise your hand. You must do this only if you are committed.” He looked almost beadily around at them. “It is a big ask, I know,” he said, his voice softening. He needn’t have worried; not one hand was raised.

 

“You will receive more information within the week.”

 

With that final proclamation, the students filed out of the room whispering frantically to one another. After bidding goodbye to her fellow Gryffindors, Hermione strolled aimlessly toward the corridor, home to her dormitory. She was lost entirely to her thoughts.

 

The gentle tap of her footsteps as they echoed off the vast walls soothed her weary mind. She gave herself those few stolen moments to muse over the abundance of thoughts which had taken to following her steps these last few weeks. She felt as though she had been laid bare for all to see. She was vulnerable and she was unsure as to whether that made her freer or more suffocated than she had ever felt before. The whole year had thrown her off her balance. She had made unexpected friends and had many unexpected experiences.

 

Her entire belief system had been thrown into turmoil. Everything she had thought she understood to be right and wrong had blended, leaving her to hover in their shadow. Hermione had always focussed a vast amount of her energy on other people’s lives. The happiness and security of her friends had always been a huge weight on her mind, but she had never begrudged any of them that time.

 

Without Harry and Ron with her this year there had been such an extraordinary internal focus for Hermione, such that she felt somewhat out of touch with who she had previously been. She didn’t know the intricacies of her friends’ lives now, as she had before. She had lived in part, for them and for school. And for what? Soon enough her schooling career would be complete, and her friends would intersperse wherever their lives took them. And she would be glad for them.

 

But what of her? She had hovered on the periphery of her own life for so long that she almost felt as though she had not known how to live it. She had played it safe, had never taken risks – she did not mean the risks of danger, like those she experienced with Harry – she had never experienced any emotional risks, had made no gambles. Yet in the eyes of the wizarding world she was an adult.

 

Why on earth had she waited so long to make a mistake? And now she appeared unable to stop making them. Whether it was because she now had the space to do so, she wasn’t sure. A very small part of her had felt less confined this year, freed from her friends’ opinions of her. She had left her comfort zone and had followed Draco Malfoy down his dark tunnel of shadow and sin. She could not regret it. As bizarre and frightening, as bewildering and disturbing as the whole situation had become, she felt she was different now because of it. She was more aware of herself and of every fibre in her being, than she had ever been before.

 

Malfoy had pushed her, scared her, hurt her and invaded her mind and being. Yet she could not hate him, not in the same way she once had. He was a bastard, she knew, but her strange enthralment of him was something quite beyond her control. There was an attraction. It was undeniable.

 

Hermione flushed slightly, increasing her pace as she recalled their interlude behind the shelves of the restricted section. She felt quite sure Malfoy had been just as thrown by her behaviour. She kissed him. Freely and without any concern for who they both were.

 

She had completely changed the dynamic of their relationship, if one could call it that. Hermione knew quite well that whatever would happen later in her life, it would trace back to that year, to that moment when one man had changed her irrevocably. Though perhaps it wasn’t him at all, she reflected. Perhaps it had been inside her all along and Malfoy had been the one to simply draw it out.

 

Either Ron or Seamus would have been the safe options. Instead she had inadvertently thrown herself into the path of a man who was singularly the most complex person she had ever met. But she saw him now, saw him in a way she never had before. Not as the weak little boy who taunted her or the intimidating wizard he was set to become. He was those things and more all hidden beneath a carefully cultivated façade.

 

He was raw and he was real. Yet she also knew that despite her altered perceptions and wild flights of fancy, she would never get to see him without his partial mask. He was Draco Malfoy and he lived in an entirely different world to her once they stepped beyond the castle gates. If and when Harry won this war – and she had to believe that would be the case – Malfoy would be cast into darkness. He would be killed or imprisoned for the decisions he had made. She knew well enough that there would be no satisfactory end to what had started.

 

****

 

The forest was still but for the rustle of dead leaves which tickled the ground underfoot. Draco Malfoy stood perfectly still, his disillusioned form pressed against the wide trunk of a tree. He waited.

 

Hearing movement not too far off, he was careful to control his natural impulse to point his wand. Bellatrix had amazingly agile reflexes and he had no desire to be on the receiving end of one of her hexes.

 

“Draco,” A familiar voice whispered in the heavy darkness.

 

Snapping his head around, Draco spotted the former Potions Master. Muttering under his breath, he felt a warm sensation lick his skin, which signalled his release from the charm.

 

“Here.”

 

“Ah, Draco. We’ll keep this quick.”

 

He waited expectantly as his aunt completed her survey of the area and bared her teeth in a smile. Snape took this as a signal to continue.

 

“The time has almost come. You will meet me here on the evening before the Christmas Break. We do not want you travelling via train. You will receive another letter from your father dictating the time and so on. Ensure you are prompt.”

 

Draco’s eyes flashed. “That soon?”

 

“Yes. Do you have an issue with these arrangements?” Bellatrix turned her intent gaze from the foliage to stare sharply at him.

 

“No. I was merely surprised. I’ll be ready.”

 

 “Will you?” Draco’s head snapped toward Snape; he was mildly perturbed by the curious gleam in his old teacher’s gaze.

 

Masking his thoughts from any intrusion he responded steadily, “Yes.”

 

Silence reigned for a long moment before the older man nodded his head, the dark curtain of his hair hiding his expression.

 

“I need to get back to the castle now.” He clenched his jaw before casting the disillusionment charm upon himself once more.

 

“And Draco… pack everything. You will not be returning.” The sentence was left to hang in the dense silence.

 

Without turning back he carefully picked his way across the front lawn and past the vast black shards which formed the great lake. Snape’s strange behaviour weighed heavily on his mind.


Chapter 14: Scent and Sin
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Silence reigned over the room, as the slender form of the Head Girl rested against the closed door. Hermione Granger had just said her farewells to her scruffy haired friend, before taking a moment of quiet repose. Moments later, when the calmness had imbued her, she ambled back into the place which had been her primary refuge in the months gone by. Sparing a momentary look around her private dormitory in search of anything that had been left behind, Hermione reflected on the day's events.

 

Seamus had spent numerous hours with her, helping her to pack her things. A task which had drained her more than she had thought possible. Despite the residual nostalgia they had managed to duel for an hour or so – the improvement in both was evident by the lack of damage to the room and to them. As she glanced around the space, she couldn’t help but feel the melancholy lap at her skin at the thought of leaving this place, this home.

 

Two days. That was all the time she had left before she would leave this sanctuary for good and enter into the world beyond. A world of fear and of hatred. She did not relish the thought at all. Hermione had been consumed with ideas and thoughts of what loomed perilously close. Yet she had never truly considered how it would all play out: the ensuing consequences. For there would be many.

 

She knew she was entering into a new phase, a phase in which she would have to act on instinct, without the luxury of time spent assessing, analysing the next move. Her life and so many others depended on her ability to see this through. She felt, as her friends did too, that they just weren’t ready. That was the thing about war, she mused. No one ever was really.

 

Standing in the doorway to her bedroom, she looked around the now desolate space. She ran a slim hand through the tangle of curls that adorned the crown of her head, a sigh of resignation passing her lips. She sat down in the small ornate chair by the dresser, the one she so very rarely used. Except in moments like this, quiet moments of reflection and repose.

 

It was the first time in many months that she had sat down and truly looked at her reflection. Her features were the same: the upward tilt of her mouth, the straight line of her nose and the curve of her cheekbones. Yet she looked so very different. Her eyes had been darkened by secrets, by fears and anxieties that a girl her age should never have had. Life, she had discovered, was not quite as fair and just as she had once idealised.

 

She wondered whether Ron and Harry would notice the change the way she did: the subtle and jaded hue to her expression. It had been an exhaustive and exhilarating six months for her and no doubt for them also. She just felt so removed from it all. And truth be told she was scared. Scared of the unknown and impending changes that her life would take. No analysis, no calculation, no books could forecast what lay ahead.

 

But despite her fears she knew she was braver than she felt in that moment, because despite her admissions of trepidation there had never been any other consideration for her. She would fight by her friends until the end. She knew it and had never doubted it, no matter what other misgivings she may have had in the past. That was not one of them.

 

And yet there was one thing, one thought that gnawed her right through. Malfoy. Draco. The word tasted foreign on her lips. Hermione knew that without a doubt she would never see him again after she left the cosseted shelter of Hogwarts. Except when in battle. And she only prayed that that would not be the case. She could not have her will tested in such a blatant way.

 

As absurd and as crazy as it seemed, she knew she wanted to see him just one more time – not that anything good would come from it. Seeing him would hardly help her resolve. But she knew, as surely as she had known anything before, that she needed it. There was no logic and no reason behind the urge. And that, in part, was the basis for her compulsion. She had no idea what hovered on the cusp of her future. All she could focus on was this moment: this strange suspended reality in which she resided. And it was in this place of unreality that she could allow herself to revel in the madness, indulge in secret wants couldn’t say aloud. To drown in his gaze just one more time.

 

It was unhealthy and illogical. But she had lived her life by measures for far too long. As much as she didn’t want to acknowledge the possible shortness of her future, it was a possibility she had to face. All she wanted was one untarnished memory to hold onto when she was in that battle. A moment of spontaneity and of life, of youthful recklessness that no one else would see but her.

 

And when she faced the danger ahead she would have that recollection, that moment when there were no thoughts of other lives and other worries. Only her own. And if she lived beyond this war she would have that secret with her. For she knew now how much she needed it.

 

***

 

Draco Malfoy stood in the small inlet at the southernmost point of the castle, sheltered briefly from the downpour. His body was soaked through with the rain, his pale skin glistened and his fair hair gleamed darker than usual as it clung to his forehead and lower neck. He did not feel the cold though. Not really, anyhow. Adrenaline ran like liquid heat through his blood, keeping the biting chill at bay.

 

His stiff fingers clenched around the dampened piece of parchment held within their grip. Squaring his jaw, he squeezed his eyes closed before frantically opening them again. The words he knew now by verse, but he had to see them again to be sure.

 



Malfoy,

The script was shaky and uneven, so unlike the person it belonged to.

It would be a mistake to see you again after everything that has happened. Possibly a very dangerous one. I know that. But I think we need to make this mistake. Or, at least, I do.

No matter that you think you are above it all. I saw through it. You can prove me wrong by ignoring this letter and I will do the same. Or we can find out how this really ends ourselves. It's time for you to make a choice.

Hermione Granger

 



His heart thrummed with anger at her assumptions and frustration at their accuracy. And sheer surprise at her forthrightness. She had to be stupid to lay herself bare and vulnerable in that way. But if he were being honest, he could not deny the truth in her words. They both knew how it was and how it had been between them – even if they had denied it until this point. They were both lost to this torrent, this deluge of stupidity and compulsion.

 

He had signed himself over months before. When he had taken his first taste of sin he had known there was no going back. No denial of the Mudblood's effect, however unwanted it may have been. This was closure. Only he knew that going and seeing her again would merely open the floodgates. It seemed that despite his best efforts, he had no immunity to her. Her blood, her skin, her scent, her taste had intoxicated and poisoned him from the start.

 

It was inevitable that this thing between him and Granger would come to a climax. He knew what he would do: assuage this obsession with a final taste of her poison. He would still fight her when the time came though. He had to. Or he would die in her place. Nobility was not a character trait from which he suffered.

 

Scrunching the parchment in his fist, he swallowed dryly and thrust the crumbling fibres into one of the pouches of his cloak.

 

It was now or never.

 

*

 

He had walked the grounds for nearly an hour trying to convince himself of the many reasons why he should not be standing where he was, in front of her door. And there were many indeed. Not least of which was the possibility that this invitation was an ill-concealed trap.

 

But he found he could not believe that it was. And even if he was wrong, he found he could not stay away. Whatever possibilities lay beyond her door, he knew he was to be forever doomed because of this decision.

 

He knocked once. The silence was absolute. He did not breathe and his heart paused in urgent response. Then the door opened, slowly, hesitantly. And she stood there, one small hand resting on the broad frame of the door. Relief shone in her eyes at his arrival, and resignation at the same time. She could not mask her thoughts at all.

 

Though perhaps he recognised them purely as a reflection of his own thoughts. It was not a trap. Yet perhaps he was in more danger because of it. She said nothing but watched him with silent and weary eyes, as though waiting for an attack. When her gaze collided with his he held it.

 

“This won't end well,” he said, his voice low and barely recognisable as his own.

 

She ducked her head down, shielding her gaze as she nodded. “It was never going to.” She whispered the words with a smile of bitter amusement lingering in the corners of her mouth.

 

She stepped back from the door, wringing her hands for want of something to do. He both pitied and understood her feelings of misplacement. This moment was not and never could be real for either of them. Whatever had caused him to be standing there, welcome in her dorm, was a culmination of so many events that never should have taken place. He never should have touched her that first time. But he did. And he suffered now because of it.

 

He pushed himself over the threshold and into his own personal hell. Divine and terrible all at once. Closing the door behind him, he took the step to plant himself in front of her. There was a small space between them and they stood like that, breathing shallowly, neither wanting to take the step over the final boundary.

 

They had been here before, in this moment of indecision and want. But never had it been planned. Never had it been a choice as it now was. As though making her decision, Granger raised her head to look up at him. She seemed so small and breakable in that moment. Her feet bare, her hair a wild mess and her frame slight compared with his own.

 

She raised a hand and pressed her open palm against him and Draco was sure that she could feel the treacherous beat of his heart pounding beneath the layer of his robes. Breathing in deeply, her scent clouded around him and he ignored his better judgement yet again. Slowly he raised a hand to rest on her shoulder, moving upward to cup her neck and brush through hair that was deceptively soft. But he had already known that. He had succumbed to this weakness before. But not so completely as he would now.

 

She shivered under his touch and he bundled her closer, his other hand falling to grip the swell of her hip beneath the skirt of her uniform.

 

She licked her lips in unconscious invitation and he responded in kind. Lowering his head, he traced his hand along the length of her body, his palm grazing the side of her breast as he did so. And then he was cupping her face in a way so gentle he knew his father would cringe to see it. But she was so very fragile to him, and he would not harm her this night, not in this room. That would come another day.

 

His forehead pressed against hers and he could taste the gentle puffs of air as they escaped her lips. She lifted her lashes to hold his gaze and he felt her fist clench the fabric of his robe. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes dark and expectant. He knew this image would haunt. The moment was tense, laden with the knowledge of what had passed and what now would. And he was but a slave to the feeling.

 

He kissed her then. Or perhaps she kissed him. He wasn’t sure, as it happened so quickly, and the deluge followed thereafter. There was only the touch of her lips beneath his, the taste of her skin and mouth, the sound of her whispers, her breathing. It was his world.

 

He allowed her to push the cloak off his shoulders and move her hands beneath the damp robes to the heat they avidly sought. She uttered a breathy sort of sound as he pulled her against him and something broke within him, a desperate clawing need to hear that sound again. He pulled her up against him, his hands anchoring her frame as her legs wrapped in instinct around him. His whole body seared with the heat of her. Her mouth opened to him and he plundered.

 

It was frustration and heat, exquisite and agonising all at once. He carried her slight and fevered frame into the room which by rights he never should have seen.

 

***

 

It was dark and cold, and yet she craved the chill of wind and reality. She craved the clarity it brought.

 

Her thoughts were strangely silent; they slipped in and out of realisation in gentle laps. Soothing and placating. She knew the torrent would come though. She only willed it to stay at bay for just a few moments longer.

 

He had gone an hour or so earlier and she felt him leave the bed. Feigning sleep she knew that he had stood for many long moments watching her before he had left. The nature of his thoughts, the expression on his face, the hunger to know these things would haunt her. She wondered how she would face him the next time, a month or so from then. When she would be expected to raise her wand and kill him. She knew she could not do it.

 

She was valiant; she was strong. But she was only human. Hermione knew that she had given a part of herself to him that night. She knew she should not have, but it was a mistake she had wanted to make. And she could not regret it. She would not.

 

Glancing beyond the windows to the darkened sky, she gathered her once comforting bed sheets around herself. The room smelled of him and so did she. It was, she feared, a scent that would never wash away.


Chapter 15: The Broken Goodbye
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The restless thrum of fingers on wood echoed softly in one of the many darkened rooms that adorned the hidden Mansion at Grimmauld Place. The room reeked of disrepair and neglect, despite many months of cleaning attempts to combat the residual dankness. And yet despite the uninviting atmosphere, the room had managed to gain the occupancy of one Hermione Granger, who had taken to sitting on the only dust-free sofa there whenever she found she could slip away.

Those moments, though infrequent, were the very ones that kept her whole. She had not expected to be back here, with Harry and Ron, with the members of the Order. Back in this house of bitterness and memory. And yet she was, and had been for almost three weeks now. The claustrophobia and constant company all but drove her insane.

She had departed Hogwarts with the other DA members, knowing they would be coming back to the old house, and knowing that their departure would signal the last time they spent within the hallowed halls of the castle. She felt as though she had lost a dear friend with the passing.

Despite the melancholy, she had been eager to see her two friends, so long missed, and yet when the time had come, she found herself feeling more than a little removed. As though the fibre of her emotions, her very core, was being kept elsewhere. Outside of her body and in somebody else's. It was not something she liked to think about in too much detail.

There were times, few and far between, when she found the opportunity to sink into herself. To drown in her thoughts, her morbid recollections. Memories of stolen moments that ought to be forgotten, but that could not possibly be. Not for her. She fed on those thoughts. Thoughts of him. And though she knew that she ought to have let him go, for he was so very unhealthy a fixation for her, she found that she could not.

It was the hardest at night, when she lay between crisp sheets, recalling another night, seemingly a long time gone, when she had been twisted in other sheets, smoother sheets that caressed her skin the way he had.

Skin on skin, smooth legs and firm thighs. Skin so pale, she had thought she had lain with the ghost of him, that he had only been a figment of her imagination, as he now was. She thought perhaps that was all he had ever been. A ghost, and she was to be eternally haunted. But he had been real, that night had been so very real that the memory of his touch, his taste, would wash over her so that the lines between reality and recollection would blur and she felt herself being pulled at both ends. But then the dawn would break through the mist of reverie and dream and call her back to her place in time.

And her place was here, in this musty house plotting and planning and hoping.

And how she wished that it was not.

Harry and Ron had commented on the change in her, the reservation that had never been there before. But they put it down to fear and anxiety of the war ahead. No more, no less. She could not blame them for their oversimplification of her situation; they knew nothing of how her year had passed and the changes it had wrought in her. Seamus, loyal as he was, never said a word.

All in residence at Grimmauld Place had spent their days reading, discussing and preparing in whatever small way they could. And now it was all to come to a climax. Tomorrow. The word wrought small spasms of apprehension and anxiety. It wrought anticipation, and the smallest part of her, tucked deep inside, would ask the question she refused to voice. Would she seem him there? Did she want to?

Hermione was pulled from the weight of her distraction by the slim red-haired girl who ducked her head around the door, an expression of mild bemusement marring her features.

“Hermione… come now.” She spoke the words softly, as though to a child and the curly haired girl heaved a silent sigh before following the former out of the doorway.

 



***

 

Draco sat at the mahogany edge of his bed, gazing around the vastness of his room, uncertainty clenching at him, threatening to swallow him whole. He was not even sure what it was he feared most above all that preyed upon his weary mind. Despite the questionable circumstances of his family and their dark associations, he had lived rather a sheltered existence

And now he feared death. The smell of it followed him, warning him of what was to come, and what had already passed, and he wondered how he had never caught its warning scent before now. He did not want to die. No matter how noble his cause may be deemed to be, was it worth it? No, it was not. Not for him. Yet he knew, with a certainty that was unrelenting, that he would go out there the next day and fight, because that was what he had been raised for.

 

A muffled sound at the door called his attention to one Pansy Parkinson's entrance. She looked at him for a moment, resting her form against the frame of the door, uninvited and unconcerned. Her expression was carefully blank; a look he knew well for it was his dearest friend. What she said next would be significant, of that he was most certain.

“I understand you better than you think, Draco. I know for instance where you are going tomorrow, what you will be doing.” She paused and gazed at him intently then, her voice not concealing the force of emotion behind her continued words. “I also know what you think of her. I've seen it myself, you know. Why bother, Draco? Why soil yourself with a Mudblood? She'll be dead tomorrow anyway…”

Light popped behind his retina, blurring the image of her staring at the clench of his jaw which replicated the motion of his fist.

“I won't say anything more… I just… wanted you to know what I thought…”

When he did not respond to her comment she slipped out of the room, leaving him to calm the blood that simmered all too closely to the surface. With the closing thud of the heavy door, Draco let his body sink back into the pressed bed coverings. He gazed at the ceiling, attempting to dispel the ache that resided deep within.

Velvet. That was how she had felt. If he closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to drift beyond the cage he had created, he could almost feel that velvet skin against his, revel in the taste of her that still lingered on his lips.

It was so terribly wrong, so sordid a thing and yet he was so far gone with his infatuation he could not remember why.

 



***

 

The green of leaves and the black of night blurred her vision as she ran. Branches scraped her skin, reaching for her as she willed her legs to hold their hurried pace. She was in the Forbidden Forest – in which part, she did not know. She had been separated from the group earlier in the evening. Hours had passed and yet she ran in circles amid the large clawing trees; the screams of triumph and defeat were both beacon and warning to her.

 

Fitting, she had thought, that it would all end here, where it had begun for her so many months prior. Caught in her reminiscences, she did not notice the uneven ground until she felt her foot catch on something and her knee gave way beneath her. Restraining the yelp that curdled within, she pushed back the hair plastered across her brow whilst glancing around anxiously.

A distant vortex of screams and curses rang out overhead, but she knew them to be coming from the main fight, a good distance away from her. A crunch of leaves and the high cackle of a woman brought her attention to the sound of whispered curses and flashing lights over her shoulder. Gasping as instinct coursed through her, Hermione swung back to see one Alecto Carrow spread-eagled on the matted soil. A hushed tone called her attention away from the twisted form of the Death Eater.

“You didn't really think I'd let someone else have the honour, did you?” Something once indefinable seared in the pit of her stomach, and licked at the base of her spine. She recognised the symptoms and so was not completely surprised when she whipped her head around to see him.

“You,” she breathed the word nonsensically, her eyes widening as she took him in. She had thought about this moment, when she would see him again. The memories of their last encounter threatened to overwhelm her but she could not let them.

“Yes,” he said, his wand pointing at her, gripped with knuckles whitened by the strain.

So this was what it had come down to. It was as she had always known it would be, wands pointed at one another on either side of the battlefield. She had thought she would feel more conflicted in this moment, but she did not. She found a mind-searing clarity then, and she knew very well that no matter how important her cause was, there were some things she just could not do.

Her body sang with adrenaline as she took a hesitant step forward. The blond boy narrowed his eyes in response and tightened his grip on his wand.

“Granger, what are you doing?” The words were bitten out, as though forced against his will and the strain he must have been feeling.

“Are you going to kill me?” She whispered the words for fear that had she spoken any louder, the crack in her voice would have given her away. She held her wand steady but knew it was futile, she would not use it against him. But she had to know the answer to her question. And that had always been her downfall.

“It's something I’ve been waiting seven years to do. Would you deprive me of that now?”

She tried in vain to hide her fear. Fear of his decision and of her stupidity. Fear of the insanity of the world in which she lived. But she was laid bare; as she gazed at him she made her decision. With wavering hands and shaking knees she allowed her wand arm to drop to her side. It was surrender. And she was not accustomed to it.

“What are you doing?” He hissed the words, the horror clear on his face.

“I can't,” she shook her head as she said it, refusing to crumble under the intensity of his gaze.

Desperation etched itself across his brow, the usually clear grey eyes clouding with disbelief and resignation. “This isn't a game, Granger! It's a war, a battle. Raise your fucking wand.”

She flinched slightly at the harsh inflection of his words, but took a step closer. His wand wavered before he tightened his grip once more.

“Move back. NOW.”

She stood close enough now to feel the light pressure of his wand shaking against her, the cold puffs of air that escaped his lips.

“I don't think you can do it.”

He raised his wand and pressed it to her neck defiantly.

“You don't know that. Fuck, you don't know anything.”

Swallowing jerkily, she held his blazing eyes with hers. And in that long moment all she knew was his gaze on hers. No more. Amid the screams and cries her world had centred itself on him, as it had taken to doing. She wondered desperately if that would be her last memory of him, holding his wand to her throat with the weight of her previous decisions held in the palm of his hand.

She noted the erratic clenching of his jaw, thinking how it echoed the beating of her pulse. His lips were pulled firm in concentration, but it was his eyes that held her. That had always held her. The look held far too much for her to absorb. This man, this boy that had always hidden everything behind cold glances, was just as vulnerable as her in that moment.

She felt herself sinking into his gaze, it was dangerous territory but she had already given herself over. There was no backward step from here. Her heart stopped when the pressure of the slim wood pushed further against her pulse. And then it was gone. He dropped his hand to his side and stood there with a stillness she could not hope to replicate.

And all she could do was breathe him in, as he did her. They did not touch; they did not need to.

“Fuck, Granger,” he murmured, his voice husky with things unsaid.

Then her world shifted again. The scene moved so fast and so slow that she was caught in the crush. Utterly immobile.

“Hermione!” The call rang out from her far left, shattering the moment irrevocably.

Light flashed and she caught the final expression in Malfoy's gaze before the force of the curse had him flying back against a tree. His body lay there slumped in inertia. The sight of him stunned her into action and she ran towards his body. The moment stretched too long, the distance seemed too far.

A swift body intercepted her, hauling her back and whispering words to soothe what was thought to be fear and relief. A shock of red proved her rescuer to be Ron. But who had he saved her from? Draco or herself?

“It's okay, I got him. I got the bastard. You're safe!”

She let herself be dragged by Ron through the forest and debris, feeling nothing but a numbness which settled through her entire being. Everything moved fast then, and at every glance she saw death. How it had ravaged them all. And at every corner she feared more had been taken from her. Each shot of dark hair gave her pause.

“It's time, Hermione.” Ron whispered to her as they trekked

They had done it. They had killed the snake, Nagini, and who knew how many others. And she had not been there. She had been off in her own world, a world she could no longer escape to. She knew she needed to let him go, for the moment at least, and focus on Harry and the task ahead. Her time for pain would come later, if indeed it would come at all.

She had to do her part for Harry, whom she had selfishly forgotten. But he was safe for the moment she knew. With every forward step she took she could feel her ring humming faster, an answering call to his own. It rang with the rhythm of an old magic they had never quite understood.

Hermione felt his life force as strongly as she felt her own and Ron's, but it was of little comfort to her. She had been caught up in Malfoy the whole time – had spent the hours gazing among the duelling partners, searching for a flash of white gold hair.

So much had happened. So many people had died, and yet she had remained oblivious to it all. Her thoughts were fraught.

“This way, Hermione,” Ron said, his voice and his grip on her wrist leading her through the trees in search of their friend. They found him moments later, hidden in a hollow large enough to stow four grown men. Harry was in there with Kingsley Shacklebolt, speaking in rapid and hushed tones.

Hermione's gaze, however, found other points of interest. Namely the large angry gash that stretched the length of Harry's left cheek.

“Har—”

“It's okay. I'm okay,” he said, despite looking more than a little shaken to her. “Are you ready for this? Because I understand if—”

She silenced him quickly. “Harry, we all signed on for this. Don't start questioning that now. Let's just go.”

He looked at her with a measure of uncertainty for a moment and seized her upper arms to inspect her more closely. His startling eyes wore an expression of deep gravity which caused her to feel wearier still.

How she wanted it all to be over. A swift and clean ending. She almost begged for it. For them all. But she could not give in, no matter the strength of the temptation. Harry had fought dangers already, and he had more to come. How could she have so easily forgotten?

She impulsively embraced him and Ron, receiving an awkward pat on the back from the latter. Leaving the shelter of the hollow tree they began the walk to the clearing in which they knew Voldemort to be camped. He would be waiting for them. Left and then right, and left again. She guided her feet down the trail, choosing to focus on them rather than the hordes of crumpled and stilled bodies that were strewn in their path.

They passed many of their comrades still fighting valiantly. Some stayed to fight their battles whilst others joined their march. Hermione had not seen Seamus for hours and only now realised just how much that thought had plagued her. They trudged through tangled vines and bush as more and more Order members joined them; they would be needed to distract Voldemort's entourage.

As they reached the clearing, Hermione realised with no small amount of horror that they were in fact very close to where she had initially been when it had happened. The group stopped silently, aware that the Death Eaters would be expecting them. Disillusionment charms were cast abound and the wizards and witches fanned out, taking silent aim at the surrounding Death Eaters.

A cry rent the air and they knew it was time. She spared a look at her friends, committing their faces to memory before the swell of nausea overtook her.

 



*

 



Screams resounded in her head, an accompaniment of flashing lights followed and then dissipated in the wake of new sounds – the muffled buzz of discussion. She listened to the sounds of life, of reality, and wondered how far away she was from it. Had she survived this anarchism to see another day?

She found no matter the answer, she could not draw relief from it. Her mind was disorientated, her eyes glued shut. Wherever it was she now floated, it was neither life nor dream. And yet in that place of transient reality, amid the cloud and fog of her mind, she recalled the closing moments.

They had all crept forward to greet their ending, whatever it was to be, with Harry at the helm. Silence reined in the clearing and the tension shifted. But they held their stances strong. It was then that they had emerged, Voldemort and his many others. Hermione had felt the fear begin to paralyse her then, but she had broken through it. There had been no other option. Slipping the narrow band over her finger, Hermione breathed deeply to centre herself.

They had all been given jobs. Harry's was to defeat Voldemort, to duel him, as they had always known it would be. For Ron and Hermione the task was to protect him as best they could. Despite Voldemort's belief in his own invincibility, they had known that should something go against his favour, he could very well order one of his Death Eaters to intervene. They could not allow for such a possibility.

So Ron and Hermione were to shield them, using a more advanced version of the protego charm, one that would effectively cage Harry and Voldemort from outside influences. The risk being that Harry was entirely on his own. It was a simple enough charm when used on a small scale, but to achieve what they must, they had to use the full force of their power, of their emotion, of their will.

The rings, so long an enigma to them, were the tools to focus their magic. In theory it was a wonderful idea. Hermione had only hoped that the weight of her emotions would be enough. Her last recollection was of the throbbing which had imbued her, of the strain of holding herself together when the colours popped behind her eyes and her body lifted and sagged.

And no more.

But now she was here, in this strange plane of non-existence and thought. Was she alive, were they all alive? Warmth surrounded her, the warmth of arms lifting her, raising her back from the depths of fatigue. Whispered words of comfort called to her and she felt reality settle once more. Cracking open an eye, she squinted in the overly bright force of day. She experienced a beautiful moment of denial, where what she knew to be truth became dream and nightmare. And then it all crashed around her once more.

She blinked rapidly and began struggling in the arms that held her firm.

“Hermione, settle. It's me, Seamus. You're okay.”

She glanced up at him and stilled, allowing her weary and disorientated form to sag against him.

“Where were you?” she croaked.

“Looking out for you of course.”

She tried to smile but found she could not work her muscles into submission. “What happened? Where is—”

“He did it. Harry did it; You-Know-Who is gone. This war is over.” His gaze seemed to glaze with recollection. “It was…” he seemed overawed.

Relief and disbelief seared her to her core. But it was too easy, she knew. Every war had its losses. This would be no different. “Where is he? And Ron?”

She raised her head to glance around at the media-wizards running frantically between the injured. It was a blur of faces.

“I was just about to bring you over. The Healer gave you some sort of potion, but you probably shouldn't be walking around much anyway. As for Harry, he's in the big Marquee over there and he's fine. A bit dazed I'd wager – been surrounded by fans.”

He grinned in amusement and she could not help but envy him his ability to make light of every situation.

“Ron's still unconscious,” he saw the flash of fear in her clouded gaze and hurried on to continue, “He’s fine – just fatigued according to the healers. Actually I'm more concerned about you.”

He stared intently at her then, and she ducked her head from the onslaught of questions held within his gaze, choosing instead to respond with one of her own.

“Who…” she swallowed dryly, “did anyone else we know…” She let the sentence hang and he looked away for a long moment before returning to hold her gaze.

“A lot of people died, Hermione.”

Her stomach dropped with the weight of meaning expressed in his gaze. She pushed against Seamus, struggling to break out of his firm grip before running out of the clearing and into the forest. She was still disorientated but found that everything looked clearer in the light of day. She could hear Seamus's footsteps and her name upon his lips. She ignored him.

Hermione knew that she should not have even been standing after everything that had happened, that she should heed her Healer's advice. But she could not. Not until she knew for sure.

She ran through the trees much as she had the night before, but things were so very different now. Her breathing was ragged and her sides ached, yet she continued on.  Upon approaching the spot she swiftly noted the dried smear of blood on the aged trunk. The loose soil indicated the exact position where his limp form had been strewn. But he was not there. She blinked.

“Hermione.” Seamus came to stand beside her. “He's gone. Ron said you were there when he hit him – said he saved you from him… did he?”

She gazed at him unable to formulate a response.

“The Death Eaters must have taken his body… they did that with a lot of them.”

She glanced back at the spot where he had been and felt her insides crumble. She fell back into Seamus's open embrace and allowed tears to fall freely down her cheeks. Her body shook, racked with pain she had held back. But now it engulfed her completely. She cried endless tears of grief and anguish, of relief. And he held her through it all.


Chapter 16: Epilogue
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Three years later

 

The room was silent but for the hypnotic crackle echoing from the hearth. The flames licked at one another, fighting for dominance over their wooded quarry. The firelight danced in the eyes of the only person residing there. The slight form of a young woman was curled up within the embrace of a rather careworn sofa. Her signature cloud of curled tresses strained against the band holding it back from her face, which glowed warmly in the soft light.

A pensive look that spoke of times gone by, lingered in her furrowed brow. It was a face that had seen many horrors and remembered them still. And indeed, Hermione Granger felt sure she could never forget.

Before her lay a fairly sizable volume which had as yet gone unread; for she was consumed instead in the activity of her thoughts. At the tender age of 17 she had faced her demons and fought them. But she had lost what she had not known she wanted, and now, three years on she suffered quietly for it.

She was happy, for the most part. Her life was rich and full; with work which was both rewarding and a needed distraction, a family that loved her, and friendships which had strengthened. But there was a small and hollow part of her that festered at times. It echoed with the sting of memories unforgotten and thoughts of one time, long passed. One person, long gone.

Yet she refused to cower to them, not until night swallowed her boundaries. When she was safely ensconced in her modest house, seated as she was on the overstuffed sofa with a book in her lap and small glass of elf-made wine in her hand. It was moments such as these, when she felt most relaxed, her defences crumbled and her weary form susceptible, that the haunting of those thoughts was most potent.

Hermione would sit still, sinking into her recollections, reminiscing over her darkest and most pulling hours. The details were preserved; the memories were unequivocally the clearest she held.

She knew well enough that it should not have been that way. She should have given up, accepted the seemingly inevitable outcome. Just like everyone else. But she could not.

Not when the element of doubt existed within her. Not when even the smallest part of her had not accepted that he was gone. And no matter how strongly she wished she could let go, that part of her would not allow him to relinquish the hold he had on her.

There were times when she would sit in her chair, deeply absorbed in her introspection, when she would feel a frisson tingle the base of her spine. It was a sensation she knew well, and recalled with searing clarity the person who had caused it. She had only ever felt that level awareness all those years ago, when it had been his eyes which traced her steps, long before she knew what it meant.

She would glance around the room, her eyes falling on the glazed window panes that shielded her from the blackened abyss beyond. This was one such night.

There were other occasions too, when she would wander through the small house and was almost sure that she could feel him lingering there. Whether his presence existed in a reality of which she could not conceive, or was a figment emerged from the crevices of her mind, surfacing amid the cloud of memory and illusion, she was unsure.

Regardless, she would stand there and drown in memories so vivid and so real that she knew she could not have dreamt it all. It bewildered and intoxicated her all at once.

But Hermione Granger had ever been the logical one, and as such she would berate herself for hours afterward. It was the price she paid for thinking of him. It was a price she paid without question. She had studied the news vigorously for months since it had happened; the night that had changed everything, not merely for her and for him, but for everyone in her world.

Only she would remember it for something different.

The papers had sung words of praise and adulation for her best friend, deservedly so, for he had saved them all. But of the person she most wanted to hear about, no words were said. Even his mother, now reclusive since the imprisonment of her husband and death of her son, would tell nothing of his demise, or of the location of his body.

Hermione had collated every article she could find in those first few years. And she likely would have continued to do so had Seamus not realised what she was doing, and insist that she burn them all and move on. It would have been a symbolic moment, a way out for her. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she tucked them away, a secret locked within, and told him she was done with all of it.

She continued to reflect without recourse. It was something her friend had never understood. He had tried, she knew, to see where it had all stemmed from. But he could not. No one could. Except him. And he was gone.



*
 

The small house was located some 20 miles outside of London. It resided in a pleasant and respectable neighbourhood, one free of lurkers and troublemakers. Except on nights like this, when he was there.

The young man was very careful to keep his face in shadow; in the unlikely event that a neighbour should spot him, he would be unrecognisable. It was so very important that he be forgettable.

The length of his body pressed against the immovable brick wall of her living room. The flash of light from a passing car moved swiftly passed him. He was invisible. Once the momentary light had dissipated he was swallowed up by the comforting blackness of night once more. A pale hand rose to trace across the condensation forming on the glass. It was warm inside; he could see the firelight glinting off her hair.

She looked the same as he remembered. The young man cursed under his breath. He ought not to have been there, standing outside her window as he had taken to doing. It was dangerous. And it was addictive. She was and ever had been addictive. That was the crux of his problem.

But he had never forgotten the scent of her, the delicious taste of wrongdoing, the curve of her lips and the ridiculously soft and chaotic curls that erupted and spiralled around her. She was so very bad a thing for him. Yet he could not stay away.

The pale hand pressed firmly against the unyielding glass as the man watched the young woman on the other side, sitting in thoughtful silence. He would wonder what she was thinking. Did she remember him the way he did her? Had she mourned him when he disappeared?

They were questions he would give almost anything to know the answers to, yet to discover them would mean the forfeit of his life. There were too many moments when he would stand there drinking in the nearness of her, fighting the urgent and violent desire to walk through her door and accept all consequences that would come with such action.

But he could not, because to do so would mean to spend a lifetime repenting his sins. Punishment for the stupidity and naiveté of his youth – he may have been guilty of that, but no more. So instead he chose these stolen moments. They were all he had, all he would ever have.

It was a truth that would prey on him eternally.

***


A/N: If you've read this far and want to know what happens next, I've officially begun posting the sequel (there's a few chapters up already). It is a novel, more plot driven than Prey and I'm very excited about it. Keep an eye out, it's called The Shadow and The Soul.



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