Chapter 17 : Recoil
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Two teens lifted their heads from their respective books in answer to Narcissa's call. Hermione watched curiously as the blonde seated across from her decidedly returned his gaze to Macbeth. He had been acting strangely ever since returning from his mission two days ago: reclusive, rarely speaking, often non-responsive, and sullen. Every time she tried to pry the reason for this change out of him, he pushed her away, changing the topic, refusing to answer, or spouting some nonsense about how he was "fine - just tired."
"Draco! I need your help! Now!"
Finally, Draco begrudgingly stood, placed his book on the coffee table with the pages open and the spine facing up (which Hermione properly bookmarked and closed the moment he left the room), and went to join his mother in the library office. Narcissa, too, seemed different, Hermione mused. Her usual authoritative tone had disappeared; instead, her requests tipped precariously between anger and desperate pleading. The few times that Hermione had glimpsed the woman around the castle, she appeared to have suddenly aged, her posture slouching slightly and the youthful, loving twinkle that had encouraged Hermione to trust her gone.
The most surprising change, however, was the lack of Death Eaters in the Manor. Admittedly, Hermione had been confined to her room for the greater part of the past two months, but she had always been distinctly aware of the presence of Voldemort and his followers. They roamed the halls freely and oftentimes, in the evenings, she could hear their voices arguing during meetings or drunkenly shouting when a few too many firewhiskeys had passed through their lips. She had even begun to wonder if she was developing a sixth sense, akin to Harry's scar, that gave her particularly painful headaches when Voldemort visited the manor; on more than one occasion, Draco had returned from a meeting to find her huddled against the headboard, lights off and a pillow pressed against her ears, and they would both swallow down a pain potion, her for the migraine and him for his forearm which he said always throbbed particularly badly after being called by the Dark Lord himself. But she had not seen a single Death Eater since the mission, nor had there been any meetings. It seemed that the Malfoys had been abandoned in their own home, and she had been forgotten with them.
Drawing herself out of her thoughts, Hermione returned to Magical Bloodlines: Their Origins, History, and Lineage through 1950. The book had originally intrigued her for its theories on how magic became hereditary and the anomalies of Muggleborn witches and wizards, but she found herself equally enthralled in the history of Pureblood families. They fought more than the feudal kingdoms which fragmented Europe well into the Renaissance! Currently, she was reading about "The Great Noise," Sweden's witch hunts in the late seventeenth century, which began when Gertrud Svendsdotter, a witch herself, accused Maret Jonsdotter, a witch from another ancient bloodline, of possessing children in an attempt to hide the youngest Svedson's uncontrollable magical outbursts.*
Distraction soon returned in the form of Draco Malfoy who lowered himself back into his chair with a resounding groan. "Draco..." she began tentatively.
"Stuff it, Granger," he replied sourly.
"Won't you ever learn to keep your nose out of other people's business? We aren't books to be read at the mercy of your over-sized brain!"
Her jawed dropped and eyes widened. She sat with her mouth opening and closing like a fish for a few seconds before snapping her book closed and storming out of the library.
"Hermione..." His quiet plead followed her out, but she haughtily refused to answer. He had not insulted her so derisively since he had been assigned as her caretaker following the lake incident. She was determined to do exactly what he had just ridiculed her for and find out what had caused this change!
Returning to her room, Hermione developed a plan. She called for Tituba, and when the elf answered, she requested that a nice dinner be prepared for herself and Narcissa that night, in hopes that Narcissa would have some motherly insight into Draco's behavior. But the elf ardently tried to persuade her against the idea.
"Tituba is sorry, Miss, but the Mistress is taking all her meals alone now. Has been ever since..."
"Since what, Tituba?"
"Tituba shan't say. But Tituba worries about Mistress."
The elf made to reach for the bedside lamp on Hermione's night stand, but the girl caught the bony wrist first. "Tituba, what happened?" The elf squeaked and shook her head. Switching tactics, but still holding the elf in place, Hermione spoke gently and firmly, "Tituba, I can't help your Mistress if you don't tell me what's wrong. Tituba... Tituba, I want to help."
Starring up at her with large green eyes brimming with tears, Tituba whispered, "Since Master died!"
Hermione dropped her wrist in surprise, and the house elf took the chance to disapparate, most likely to punish herself. As much as that possibility distressed her, Hermione could not bring herself to go after the elf; instead, she let her knees give way and landed with a heavy thump on the edge of her bed. Draco had lost his father! And Narcissa her husband! She had not even noticed Lucius Malfoy's absence for she had seen the master of the manor only at meetings and the time when he banned Draco from associating with her. She had recognized that Draco was blatantly disregarding his father's orders now, but she assumed that his boldness came from the lack of Death Eaters in the house - presuming that Lucius had disappeared along with them. She never even considered the possibility that he could be dead! Admittedly, she hated the man and felt no grief at his passing; she also knew that Draco held little love for his father and Narcissa disliked the man, but he was still family to them, and his loss had to be a shock.
Racing through the hallways as quickly as her still-weakened legs would take her, she rammed the doors to the library open and sought out the hideaway that she had left minutes before. She rounded the corner and spied his blonde head, buried in his book so far that she could not see his eyes. A wave of pity rushed over her and she breathed, "Draco."
His head whipped up, hair flipping out of his eyes which raged dark grey like storm clouds at the tone of her voice. Neither spoke. Body language and eyes communicated everything. Finally, he dropped his head again, blonde bangs swinging back over his eyes. "You know," he whispered dejectedly. "Who told you?"
"Tituba. But don't be angry with her. I nearly forced it out of her." She glided toward him to hover above his seated form, wanting to comfort him but scared to make physical contact, as if he were a bomb that might explode.
After five minutes of tense silence, he finally raised his head again, locking their eyes. "She didn't tell you how, did she?" His question was rhetorical, but she shook her head anyways. He gazed down at his hands. "I watched it happen. I could have saved him. I saw the curse coming. I saw it hit him. I saw him fall with blooding covering his back." He paused for a few seconds. "I think it was the same curse Potter hit me with at school."
"Sectumsempra," Hermione supplied.
"I remember how Professor Snape saved me. I could have done it for him. But I didn't. Just like I didn't send a shield charm to protect him. I just left him there and disapparated away. I think Archibald Zabini went back for his body. Someone did anyway. My mother's planning the funeral now. I might as well have murdered him myself."
She wished he would cry, break down and let his emotions take over, but his voice remained monotone and distant, and all he did was stare at his hands which were eerily still except one thumb which tapped a slow, steady rhythm on his thigh. "Draco, you are not a murderer. Draco, listen to me." She grabbed the drumming hand, causing him to look up at her in surprise. "You are not a murderer. You did not murder your father. You... you froze. It's a natural reaction to extreme stress. And who knows if you actually could have done anything to save him. It may not have been sectumsempra. A protego charm may not have reached him in time anyways. You did not murder him."
He did not reply, only turned his gaze once again to his hands, one of which still held hers, absent-mindedly tracing circles on the back of her hand but not letting go.
A/N: Guess what? School's almost done! I'm not making any promises, especially because I'll be away from home for most of the first two weeks and working the rest of the summer, but hopefully, that'll mean more frequent/consistent updates.
* Adapted from Listverse's "Top 10 Notorious Witches"
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