Chapter 11 : Paying Attention
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November, Hogwarts, Scotland. 1997 A.D.
Ever since term had started Hermione had been having the same effect on the rest of the school population. Every time she entered a room, everyone stopped their activities - their talking, their eating, their homework - and stared. At first, it had only been their subtle, pitying glances in the corridors, or whispers of "poor thing" behind her back in class, but now it was getting worse. She had been able to ignore it before, but now it was getting much harder to.
"Come on," Ginny said finally, taking her hand, and leading her down the aisle to their usual seats at the Gryffindor table. Once they'd reached Neville, Ginny sat Hermione down in the seat across from him, and pulled the strap of her bag over her head, her eyes flickering round. "What are you tossers still looking at? There's nothing to see here," she shouted before sitting down in her seat and promptly shoveling steak and kidney pie onto her plate.
While she was distracted, Neville laid his copy of the Daily Prophet down and leaned across the table towards Hermione. "Is Ginny all right?" He whispered, his eyebrows furrowing worriedly.
Hermione didn't know what to say or if she could even talk at all. Her body refused to cooperate, to form coherent sentences to communicate with her peers, and convey her many thoughts and emotions, showing them that she was fine. But was she, really?
No. Not even close.
There was still a lump in her dry, scratchy throat that refused to be swallowed, and the feeling that she was being watched that would not go away. It didn't help that Chione was feeling the same, sinking feeling she was; it only made everything thirty times worse. She could not sleep, because every time she closed her eyes she saw that message on her wall. Hermione could still feel the blood under her nails, from desperately trying to scrub it all away, forgetting about her wand in a state of sheer panic.
But wait - why had she been panicking?
It doesn't make any sense... Hermione thought, staring blankly at her empty plate. Whoever left that message said they knew who I was. Why would I be panicking about that? Loads of people know who I am -
Then drop it, hissed Chione.
Hermione was taken aback by her sudden sharpness of tone, but after that outburst, neither of them said anything. A moment later, her eyes scanned the Great Hall of their own accord. Only passers by casted brief, but noticeable glances her way now; everybody else had gone back to their evening activities, more or less. But still, there was something, or someone, missing.
She looked back at her friends. "Where's Draco?"
"Who cares?" Ginny muttered with a shrug, viciously spearing a bit of steak with her fork. Neville shot her a look and tried to kick her under the table, but missed and landed a blow in Hermione's knee instead. She narrowed her eyes at him. He ducked his head.
"Sorry," he told his newspaper.
Hermione rolled her eyes, grabbing a muffin and beginning to absently pick the nuts out of it. She shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted. "It's just... not like him to miss a meal, you know?"
Ginny looked up then.
"How would you know?" inquired Ginny. "You haven't been in the Great Hall long enough to notice. You've been missing meals since the day we got back."
"Ginny, you have to admit, though," Neville interjected, "she does have a point," Neville casted a brief wink in Hermione's direction. "Any normal teenage bloke would have to be completely off his rocker to skip a meal."
Ginny's eyes shifted their gaze between her two friends for a long moment, before she exhaled and shook her head. "Fine," Ginny began, looking away, "you - bloody hell." She gasped. "What happened to him?" Neville and Hermione promptly turned to look in the direction in which Ginny was now pointing a shaky finger.
The Great Hall was quiet again, save for a few shocked whispers, and frightened gasps scattered throughout. Some people were even standing now to get a better look. After a minute of craning his neck Neville succumbed to standing as well. Hermione felt quite a bit of the weight resting on her shoulders disappear.
Finally, even if only for a minute or two, the attention was not on her.
"What's going on?" Hermione asked, trying not to sound too eager to find out who she needed to thank for giving her this much needed break. But when Neville looked at her, his expression made her excitement wash away completely in an instant.
"It's Colin," he replied warily.
Her heart lodged in her throat suddenly. "What?" She jumped to her feet as well. Sure, Colin had acted as her personal paparazzi/stalker for the past few months, but she would never wish harm upon him. If something had happened - Hermione swallowed hard. Ginny stood up beside her and squeezed her shoulder.
Not a moment later, the Headmistress was making her way through the crowd of students that had filled the aisles between the tables. Professor Flitwick was right on her heels.
"Make a path!" McGonagall shouted to the unsuspecting students in her way, waving her wand above her head. They promptly jumped aside at the sound of her authoritative voice. "What in the name of Merlin's gym socks is going on back here - oh." She stopped abruptly in her tracks just as the crowd gradually parted before her, student by student.
Professor Flitwick ran into her.
She spun round to look at him, her brows furrowed in a mixture of irritation and concern as she glanced back over her shoulder. Hermione could just make out the figure of a small boy, with a mop of mousy brown hair standing at the end of the path that her peers had just made behind McGonagall, near the doors.
"Minerva," he huffed, "is there a problem?" He peered around her side, his eyes growing wide as he pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.
"The boy, Filius!" McGonagall hissed, though everyone could hear her. "Have you seen the boy just there?" She gestured behind her. "He looks rather peaky, and thin. Really thin. Almost -"
Suddenly, Colin appeared at her side. "Headmistress?" He said. She turned around, slowly, to face him. Hermione gasped, and clasped her hand over her mouth. Colin was as thin as a skeleton, and his eyes were sunken and surrounded in dark circles. His hands were wrapped in makeshift, bloody bandages, and his skin was pale as dust. "I don't... I don't feel so... I think I'm going to -"
Then he vomited all over the floor infront of her, before passing out, into the arms of a Hufflepuff prefect standing behind him.
"Good Heavens!" McGonagall gasped, her hand flying to her mouth in disgust. She turned her head away, stumbling backwards from the puddle of bile at her feet. Everyone in the immediate vicinity followed suit without hesitation. "Mr. Macmillan! Take him straight to the hospital wing and please find Filch," she looked up at the traumatized blonde haired boy that Hermione recognized as Ernie Macmillan, one of the members of Dumbledore's Army. "Quickly!"
Ernie nodded obediently, his shaggy hair flopping around, before he turned and started to drag Colin's unconscious body from the Great Hall.
Hermione turned to face her friends again. Ginny noticed her face and her eyes widened slightly, before narrowing. "Oh, no. No, no, no. You don't think -" she tried to say, shaking her head.
"I never said I thought anything," replied Hermione pointedly. She glanced over her shoulder. "I'm just saying that it could be a possibility. Why else do you think he'd have those bloody bandages on his hands?"
"Some really twisted fashion statement?" Ginny offered sarcastically. She rolled her eyes. "Come on, Hermione. I know you're still on edge about what happened to your bedroom - someone was obviously trying to scare you, and they did," she continued, "but do you honestly believe that a sixth year as innocent as Colin could have been behind something like this?"
"But he's not innocent!"
"Hermione -" Neville warned, his eyes flickering around.
She leaned closer to Ginny and lowered her voice, taking her by the shoulders. "He was payed off to follow me round and take photos!" Hermione hissed. "Last I checked, that wasn't something an innocent sixth year did!"
"Alright, fine. You've got me there," Ginny admitted, "but are you sure that Colin was involved?"
"There's only one way to find out," Hermione said, snatching up her bag from the floor and turning to head down the aisle towards the doors.
Ginny looked at Neville across the table. He grabbed his textbooks and folded up his newspaper; she retrieved her own bag. "I suppose we should follow her, then?" Neville guessed.
She rolled her eyes, shouldering her bag and picking up a shiny green apple from the center of the table. "You suppose correctly," sighed Ginny, taking a bite from the apple, before turning to follow their friend. When they caught up with her on the staircase in the Entrance Hall, Hermione did not acknowledge their presence on either side of her, so they just continued on in mutual silence.
A few minutes later, when they step off the moving staircase into the dimly lit corridor on which the hospital ward lies, they see Ernie about halfway to his destination, practically dragging Colin with obvious effort.
Hermione sighed heavily, looking to Neville. "You should probably go help him," voices Ginny, just when she opened her mouth.
Ginny had the right idea, though.
Neville was about twice Ernie's size, and could take Colin the rest of the way on his own without difficulty. So, once Ernie handed the fragile-looking sixth year over to him, it looked as though it would be for good, so Neville inevitably had to bear said burden of toting the semi-conscious kid to the hospital ward on his own. Neville took the lead, while the girls and Ernie lagged behind.
He looked pretty shaken up. Ginny eyed him up and down as they walked, biting into her apple to break the silence. "Hey," she said, nudging him with her elbow, "you feeling alright?"
"Yeah, it's just..." he trailed off, his eyes flickering about the corridor, "have you ever gotten the feeling that you're being... ya know, watched?" His eyes widened. "I mean, like somebody's really payin' attention? Especially now, what with all the craziness that's been going on," Ernie glanced pointedly in Hermione's direction, at the very moment she decided to start paying attention.
"We're always being watched," Ginny pointed out. "Haven't you noticed all the paintings on the walls?" She spread her arms out wide and spun in a circle. When she faced them again, Ginny quickly winked at Hermione, earning an appreciative smile.
Hermione mouthed a thank you before looking away again. Ernie didn't notice a thing. "That's not what I meant, though," explained Ernie, "It is like an actual presence is there with you, waiting... watching..." he stopped walking, and they all stopped, just as a frigid breeze swept through the corridor suddenly.
Despite Ginny's argument, Hermione could not help but glance over her shoulder. She had felt the presence too and could've sworn that she'd heard someone breathing nearby. She held her breath - they all did - and waited, but nothing came. No surprise attack. No stalker revealed himself from the shadows. Nothing.
"C-Could we just k-keep moving, guys?" Neville stammered, his eyes wide as they flickered about the otherwise empty corridor nervously. He adjusted his grip on Colin's body.
"He's right," agreed Ginny. "We don't have time for your little ghost stories, Macmillan. There is a life at stake here, if you'd noticed," she pushed past him, "or cared." Ernie rubbed at his shoulder with a frown as he approached Hermione, watching as Ginny stalked off to join Neville.
"Her problem?" Hermione guessed as they started to walk again. "Everyone and everything is her problem lately. I would advise you not to take anything she says or does to you personally,"
He eyed her skeptically. "Right," replied Ernie. "I'll try to remember that," It's silent between them for a long moment and they're nearly to the hospital ward. "So," he said finally, tucking his hands under his armpits, "what's your deal?"
She clenches her teeth. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, you have to admit, you've been acting real... different lately. The tan, the hair, the randomly turning Slytherins into cows -"
"How d'you that was me?" Hermione nearly shouts.
They stop again and he turns to face her, raising an eyebrow. "I was just naming things. I never actually said you did anything," Ernie pointed out. Hermione cursed under her breath. He glanced around, leaning closer and lowering his voice. "So between you and me... were you the one who turned Astoria Greengrass into a cow?"
Hermione gave him a long look. He looked a lot like a puppy eager for its bone; a queen bee eager for the latest gossip they could spread without delay. She had only a single question on her mind now: could she trust him? Of course, Ernie had not spoken to her since fifth year, and they didn't know very much about eachother, but that didn't make him any more of a friend - or any less of an enemy.
A minute passed, and just as his eagerness was faltering, she opened her mouth to give him her answer. Before she could, though, Ginny emerged suddenly from the hospital wing at the end of the corridor.
"Hermione! You should get in here," she told her.
"What?" Hermione gasped, turning toward her and forgetting about Ernie. "How - that was quick,"
She nodded. "Yeah," began Ginny, "Madam Pomfrey gave him a potion and he started coughing and sputtering for a bit, before coming round. He's awake, but it still doesn't look good for him," she explained, taking a furtive step forward. "He's asking for you, Hermione, and it sounds real important."
"Has he told you what it's about?" Hermione asked as she walked to where Ginny was standing. She shook her head. "And why me, of all people? Why am I so special all of a sudden?"
Ernie clapped his hand on my shoulder with a chuckle.
"That," he said, "is the million Galleon question, now isn't it?" They all nodded in agreement then he started backing away. "I should get going, though," Ernie told them. "I have got to find me a caretaker," he saluted them, then turned and hurried back down the corridor.
"Charming," Ginny said drily as they watched him go, before half-turning to go back inside. "Are you coming or what?"
"Yeah," she replied distractedly, "I don't suppose we should keep the ill waiting."
Ginny managed a half-smile. "Right you are," she agreed, and then disappeared into the hospital ward. Hermione exhaled deeply, staring blankly down the now empty and dark corridor infront of her, before following suit.
The moment she turned her back, a dark cloak billowed as someone rushed past the door, jumping from shadow to shadow. As Hermione turned to shut the door, her eye caught on something as it flashed past just outside the door in the corridor. All of the breath in her body escaped her.
A flash of platinum blonde hair.
AN Chapter Eleven! Woot woot! I honestly can't believe I finished it XD So sorry for the length - it came to a natural end there, and I couldn't push it any further if I tried (but I didn't want to, as I want to get those cogs in your brains working and coming up with your own conclusions; or MAYBE I'm just evil and I left it that way on purpose..), so there.
How did the chapter sit for you? Honestly, I don't think it was very good, more of a filler, really (which will be continued in the next chapter). And what did you think of Ernie's part in the chapter?
Well, enough of my senseless ramblings. General feedback/comments/concerns/questons and the like are always appreciated and welcome! Thanks for reading!
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