Hermione sat at the edge of Draco's bed, trying to gulp back her tears, her hands still shaking as she wiped her face with her handkerchief. She still shook. It was raw nerves, it had to be.
"Hermione? Hermione, are you alright?" she heard Draco say, his hand lightly resting on her shoulder as if he was unsure whether she was going to explode again or not.
She had never been more scared in her life, with the possible exceptions of that night at the Ministry or when Dumbledore had died. What had made this different...maybe it had been a personal failure on her part. She had just decided to try trusting Draco with something...though she hadn't decided what exactly yet...only to find that he had been reading about some of the darkest magic there was. In addition to that, he had ferreted out the greatest secret she knew of--though not all of it thankfully--with remarkable ease.
And then she had panicked. She had only thought to stun him so she could have a few minutes to think of what to do next, but he had been faster than she. It had not been until she had seen Draco put his wand up, as well as her own, that she had been able to draw breath again. It was not until then that the numbness of fear evaporated, leaving only a torrent of tears in its wake.
'Ok Hermione, your vacation from reality is over, and it's time to think logically again,' she told herself. She dried off her eyes one last time, and raised her face to find Draco sitting directly in front of her.
"Hi there," he said with a small, half-smile that did not extend into his gray eyes. If anything, he gave the impression of being under a heavy weight. "You know," Draco continued, "I think that we may owe each other a few explanations."
"You're probably right," Hermione admitted, her voice still a little stuffy from crying.
"Going in chronological order seems as good as anything," he said, frowning. "Those books, well, I did find them hidden in this room. I know they're pretty dark magic...well, you'd have to try pretty hard to get any darker than that I know...but just call me too curious for my own good. I certainly have not ever had any plans to make a Horcrux, and I didn't know that there were any around to destroy, so my interest there was academic."
"Academic and possibly tainted by a desire to do something that Harry wouldn't approve of?" she asked wryly.
"You may have me on that one," Draco said with a small smile. "And then there was your reaction. The only way you would have know anything about them at all was if you were trying to research them for some reason. And...."
"And you called him the Dark Lord," Hermione whispered. "Not You-Know-Who, Voldemort, or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named...."
"Sorry," Draco said after clearing his throat. "Old habits die hard."
Hermione nodded slowly, hoping that that was all it was. The notes were still coming, so Draco was still going to the Death Eater meetings and bringing tidbits back. This would be an ideal time for him to bring that subject up, for him to confess that it was him giving the Order the aid it so desperately needed, but that wasn't what he admitted next.
"I don't blame you a bit for panicking when I figured it out. I was pretty surprised too," he said with what sounded like a forced chuckle. "I mean, I had never guessed that there was a way to kill him and that you guys had figured it out...."
But if Draco had thought that.... "What?!" Hermione exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me that you didn't think that Voldemort could die? Are you saying that you came to us for help fully expecting him to kill us all sooner or later? Why, in the name of Merlin, did you come here if that's what you really thought?" she asked him.
"Because a drowning man will grab hold to any floating stick, regardless of whether he thinks that it could hold his weight or not," he said quietly, his eyes not leaving hers. "A man hanging on the edge of a cliff will grab onto a blade of grass, if that is all he can reach, even knowing that it will not hold him."
Hermione opened her mouth, and then closed it again. Now, she finally realized the intense fear he must have been living under. Draco had tied himself to what he had assumed was a lost cause, all because of what had happened eight months ago when he had started to lower his wand. It had all started when he had realized that he was unable to make himself take the life of another human being, and as a consequence he had assumed that both he and his mother would die. But that also meant....
"Well, what was I to you then?" she asked, her temper returning to her. "If you thought that we were both going to die, is our relationship nothing more than your last fling with the only available girl within sight? Does that mean...." Hermione stopped talking as his finger rose to press softly against her lips.
"You," Draco said softly, his hair falling into his face as he leaned forward, "were a thing of beauty where I expected to find none."
Hermione found herself speechless. 'Drat the man. How he can terrify me, make me angry, and then melt me--all within ten minutes no less!--I have no idea.... Doesn't he realize that I would prefer it if my brain were functioning properly?'
She had just enough time to complete that thought before she realized that she was being quite thoroughly kissed.
Five or ten minutes later, Draco stood over Hermione's shoulder, watching as she poured over the books he had found in the box in the floor compartment. He was thinking furiously, knowing that what he did next could be of the utmost importance. He could tell his master about the whole thing right now, and he and his family would be sparred. Not only that, he might even be rewarded for something this big. The problem there was that if Potter and Weasley were on the trail of the Horcrux right then, and might not be easy to catch, and the issue would remain. So long as one person that knew of the Horcrux remained alive, the problem would not be solved. He could wait until Potter and Weasley returned, and see if they had succeeded or not, to tell his master. Of course, that would probably mean that their murders would become his responsibility since he was the only one implanted in the Order's headquarters.
Which brought him to why he had been sent here in the first place.
Sighing, Draco sunk into the room's only chair, watching Hermione from behind her. She had taken the time to pull her her chocolate curls out of her face while she read, tying them in an off-center ponytail with a string. Her left hand held her now returned wand up, lighting the room, while her other hand danced over the books, turning pages and exchanging the books on her lap. Hermione's slender form was bent over, intent on her work. Seeing no more than this, there was nothing he wanted to do more than play his hands down her spine, or to wrap his fingers in her curls. The truth was....
The truth was that he could never kill her, either directly or indirectly. When he had been trying to kill Dumbledore, he had tried the indirect means first, thinking that that would be easier. The poison, the necklace, ushering others into Hogwarts.... If any of them had worked the way he had intended, he had realized, he probably wouldn't have been there to see it happen. He had thought that if he didn't seen Dumbledore die, he could tell himself that it had not been his responsibility. He could have told himself that he was not a murderer, that he was only a victim of circumstance.
The reason he could not kill her.... 'Damn it, but if she dies, part of me will die with her,' he though, still silently watching her work.
In fact, if he told his master about this at all, the only possible way she could survive was if Hermione betrayed her mission, friends, and ideals to work for the Dark Lord. 'Yeah right,' Draco told himself. 'In what alternate universe could that happen?'
Which left the third option of betraying his master, and hoping that the Order could pull it together and actually win. Unfortunately, this was just about as likely as Hermione joining the Dark Lord, in his opinion. 'If only,' he thought, 'it did not involve the factors of teenagers getting past whatever the Dark Lord put up to defend part of his soul, a half-blood no older than me defeating the most powerful wizard in the world, and a group of misfits winning against the Death Eaters as well as armies of dementors, giants, and whatever else the Dark Lord managed to find in his spare time.'
In the event that he joined the Order in truth and they lost, Hermione would still die. It would be more than likely he would die with her.
It was one of those situations that, had he been alone, he wouldn't have known whether to laugh or cry.
"Hmmm?" he answered, lifting his head up to look at Hermione, who had twisted around to face him.
"Do you know who was hiding these books by any chance, or why they wanted them?" she asked.
"Oh, it was one of my cousins, though I don't know what he wanted with them. You'll find his initials on the cover page at the bottom," he said.
She set the book on the bed in-between the two of them, turning around to sit completely on the bed, and flipped quickly to the cover page of the book she was working on. Then her entire body froze. Hermione did not even blink as she stared at the initials on the page. She didn't even look like she was breathing for a long moment.
"R.A.B.," she whispered, sounding somewhat strangled.
"Yes," Draco said carefully, wondering at her reaction. "Regulus A. Black."
Hermione took a deep breath, and shook her head as if she did not know if she believed this or not.
"Um, just out of curiosity," he asked, "you look like someone just hit you between the eyes. Why?"
Hermione finally took her eyes off the page, and looked at him. By the intensity of her gaze, he guessed that not only was Hermione trying to figure out what to tell him, but she was also now aware that he had skipped supper last night, put off most of his homework assignments today, and had forgotten to put on clean socks that morning.
"Because," she answered, "a...um...the Horcrux was in the possession of an R.A.B., and that's the only thing we know about it's location."
Draco blinked, surprised. "Do you know anything about what it looks like?" he asked. "He could have hid it in this house, for all we know."
Hermione just stared at him for a moment, some realization flickering in her eyes. "S***," she said, and then buried her face in her hands.
Draco scratched his head a moment, wondering if he had misheard her. He hadn't been aware that she even knew that word. Well, he thought that she probably had, but this was the first time he had ever heard her use it. "Come again?" he asked.
"I think that we threw it out in the trash," she mumbled.
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