Chapter 18 : Release
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If a stranger had entered the room, he or she might have assumed that the two teens were dating. Seated side by side on a well-worn, faded blue couch, the blonde boy fiddled distractedly with the fingers of the bushy-haired girl's right hand. After the first ten minutes of their silence, she had commandeered his wand to turn the pages of her book upon mental command, her own wand still denied to her as a prisoner, and she was now absorbed in its pages, looking up occasionally to glance at his stony countenance, intently watching for any change.
An hour later, Hermione finally spoke, "I think I should go see your mother. Maybe I can be of help with the planning." She bookmarked and closed the leather-bound tome, sent it back to its home on the shelves with a flick of the wand, and returned that wand to the pocket of Draco's robes. As she stood, Draco surprised her by standing as well and then silently leading her through the maze of the library, their hands still locked together.
He did not knock when they came to the office from the rest of the library, but instead gently pushed the already-ajar door open without any other herald of their presence. Narcissa sat hunched over the mahogany desk, staring intensely at the papers in front of her, and did look up as they entered. She had arranged her long hair into a tight bun, but the usual image of perfection was marred by the loose strands falling into her eyes and the wand sticking out from the bun like a schoolgirl's forgotten pencil. However, the papers, cards and envelopes, and wax sealing necessities were impeccably arranged on the desk.
She looked up in surprise. Then her expression shifted as she raised an eyebrow at her son, having noticed the pair's interlinked hands. Quickly, Draco released Hermione's hand, but she hardly noticed, having already begun speaking earnestly to the lady of the house. "Forgive me for not saying anything earlier, but I didn't know. Draco just told me about Master Malfoy. I am so sorry! If there's anything I can do to help, please tell me! You have been more than kind to me, regarding the circumstances, and I will do anything to help ease your burden."
Shifting her attention away from her son, Narcissa replied calmly, "Hermione, dear. Thank you. Goodness knows you have already offered more than my supposed son has, and I would be grateful for your help once I have all this paperwork complete." She paused to offer a smile, though somewhat dampened, to the girl, which was happily returned. "I have decided that, along with the funeral, there will be a ball. It has been our tradition for many years to celebrate Draco's return to Hogwarts with a ball, and, as the dates coincide well, I see no reason to abandon tradition, even if it will have to be modified to fit the occasion. It will be a celebration of a life - and between us, a new life - not a mourning of the dead. You, of course, are invited, though we may have to work on a disguise; not all those attending will know that you are here, and we would not want to cause an outrage.”
“I understand.” Part of Hermione’s mind rebelled at the thought of hiding, at the reminder that she was indeed a prisoner here, but she reined in her thoughts and her tongue: now was not the time to address that particular grievance or make a scene. However, hidden deep, her sharp mind began shifting through potential plans to get a message to the Order. “Whatever I can do to help, let me know.”
Narcissa smiled gently and gestured with a graceful hand at the stack of envelopes on the desk before her. “Do you have a neat hand?”
“Good. You can address the envelopes then. The list is here.” The older woman handed Hermione a long piece of parchment and conjured an extension to the desk. The bushy-haired girl pulled out a chair, dipped a quill into the inkwell, and set to copying the names out in deep emerald ink.
Draco made to exit the room but his mother’s voice called him back. “Come back here. You cannot get away that easily. Sit.” Obediently, he conjured an extra chair and seated himself. She placed the wax and seal in front of him. Without another word, they fell into a comfortable, machine-like production of invitations.
Three weeks of invitation writing, revising menus, and decorating the Malfoy’s grand ballroom had passed. The day before the funeral found Hermione and Narcissa sitting in the sunroom, discussing last minute details. The two women looked up as the door to the garden swung open. Two large buckets of flowers floated in, a blonde head barely peeking out above the blooms.
“Thank you, Draco,” Narcissa called.
He levitated the buckets to the ground, and the blonde woman began sorting them: chrysanthemums, yarrow, cornflowers, larkspur, roses, ivy for greenery, and a few calla lilies. With a wave of her wand, she summoned a variety of vases. “Hermione, dear, do you know anything about floral arranging?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Ah, well. Now is not the time to teach you. But these flowers are beautiful, are they not? Draco cares for them so well.” As unlady-like as Hermione had even seen her, Mistress Malfoy seated herself on the floor with the flowers splayed around her and began to work with confident hands.
The younger girl glanced up at the blonde boy who barely disguised a smile at his mother’s praise. She still marveled at seeing his soft spots so openly. She could hardly call them weaknesses – those were something she had yet to fully determine – but they did make him seem more human than before.
Distantly, the trio heard the doorbell ring. “That will be the tailor,” declared Narcissa. “Draco, take Hermione and go meet her please. I will be there in a few minutes, but you two might as well begin your fittings.”
“Tailor?” Hermione asked as she followed his tall form through the halls.
“That is what Mother said,” he replied, sarcasm coloring his tone. “I imagine she ordered robes for us for the funeral and ball.”
They soon entered the waiting room, where the tailor bustled about, setting up mirrors, supplies, and a stool. Draco cleared his throat to gain her attention.
“Oh hello…Master Malfoy!”
Hermione glimpsed the slight shudder that racked her companion’s shoulders at being addressed thus. She wondered if his father’s legacy truly made him so uncomfortable.
“The Mistress of the House sends her regards and wishes me to inform you that she will grace us shortly,” his deep voice replied. The sudden shift to strict formality surprised the girl at his side after having spent most of her hours with a more relaxed version of him.
“Very good,” the tailor squeaked. A measuring tape shot out and zoomed around the young man, taking all sorts of measurements. In combination with the tailor’s short stature, Hermione was suddenly reminded of Professor Umbridge measuring Professor Flitwick during her examination of his class. The thought nearly sent her into a laughing fit, but she managed to contain it into a small snort which gained her a stern eyebrow raise from Draco.
“Laughing at me?” he mouthed.
She shook her head. “Not exactly. Later.”
His eyebrow rose again, fixing her with a stare that said he was not buying her story. She gazed back just as resolutely. However, the tailor abruptly interrupted their staring contest, forcefully turning Draco and pushing him towards the dressing screens to try on the black robes she had thrown at him.
Then she pounced on Hermione. The girl fidgeted endlessly as the measuring tape worked, equal parts uncomfortable with its scrutiny and fascinated by the magic that animated it. Finally, the tape dropped to the floor, the tailor waved her wand at a few pieces of black fabric, and the finished garment dropped into Hermione's arms. The short woman shooed her behind another set of dividers before rushing off to attend to her other charge. Hermione took her time changing into the dress, luxuriating in the delicacy of the fabric and also hoping to avoid the young man who seemed to be finishing up his consultation with the tailor. She may not put much weight into appearance, but she feared looking the part of a rag doll dressed in clothes made for a fine china doll in front of him; his formality with the tailor had reminded her that she did not belong to his world.
Their voices stopped, and she heard the great doors open. Tugging the shoulder straps into place, she stepped out from behind the screen to the exclamation of the blonde woman who had just entered as her son exited. "Hermione, dear, you look lovely! I had a feeling this style would suit you. Come! Have a proper look." The older woman steered her gently towards the three full length mirrors that arched around a small stool.
Hermione had to agree: the dress was elegant, consisting of a simple black shift covered by a translucent layer that was trimmed with velvet flowers around her ankles, covering her bodice, and creating the wide straps that rose up from the open back. A velvet ribbon also trimmed her waist, tying in a bow at the back. "It's amazing, Narcissa! Thank you! I can't wait to wear it to the ball!"
To Hermione's confusion, the blonde chuckled. "This is for the funeral, Hermione. Your ball gown is waiting."
The morning of the funeral dawned bright and clear, but with red skies that cast an eerie glow on the face of the young man who stared unseeingly out the window with dark-shadowed eyes. Draco had not slept all night. His mind reeled with trying to sort out the new duties and expectations that would be set on him as the Master of the Malfoy household, as well as the responsibility he placed on himself for his mother's well being and that of the girl who was slowly thawing his heart. He knew he would be expected to take his father's place amongst the elite of the Death Eaters, though he dreaded the idea. If he was free to choose, he would withdraw from the war completely, keeping himself and his mother safely hidden away in the Manor until the world settled back into normalcy. But he knew that this was never a choice. The Dark Lord did not deal kindly with deserters. Nor, the young man realized with a jolt, was he willing to turn over Hermione to anyone else's care, which would surely be the case if he declined his father's position.
As the grandfather clock down the hall chimed seven o'clock, he turned away from the window and sauntered to his wardrobe. Slightly trembling hands pulled on dark, fitted trousers and buttoned an ebony shirt of fine silk. His complexion bordered between aristocratically pale and sickly in contrast to the deep color, leaning towards the latter as his anxiety grew. Brushing his hair into place and tugging on black boots, the young man exited his room to attend a breakfast that he barely touched.
Hermione was rather surprised to find the house elf Tituba at her door when she answered the knock that had disturbed her reading. "Mistress has sent Tituba to take Miss to the funeral," the small creature announced.
"Oh. Okay. Give me just a second, Tituba," the girl replied, already searching for the plain black flats she had discarded upon sitting down to read. Once the shoes were found, she quickly smoothed her elegant black dress and tucked a few stray curls back into her bun before following the elf through the halls.
As they walked, Hermione noticed with dismay the state of her guide's clothing; the typically pristine white tea towel that Tituba wore marking her servitude appeared to have been slashed in several places and looked as if it had not been washed in weeks. Curious, as always, a question was on the tip of her tongue when she uncovered a memory from her research for S.P.E.W. in fourth year; a book on Elfish customs had outlined the house elves' mourning rituals for their masters which mimicked for the most part ancient practices including the tearing of clothing. As for wizarding traditions, she somewhat knew what to expect from Sirius' funeral; however, his had been secretive and simple with only Order members in attendance and Kingsley presiding, so the prospect of a full Malfoy funeral intrigued her.
Such thoughts carried her out of the manor and across the lawn until they entered into the forest, a part of the estate that Hermione had never seen. The boundary between field and forest consisted of manicured evergreens, but as they walked deeper in, a greater variety of trees grew up with maples and oaks bringing early color to the canopy. Suddenly, the dense forest opened into a clearing where a small gathering of guests and several tombstones stood solemnly. A small, bony hand slipped around Hermione's wrist, guiding her to the far edge of the clearing, away from the quietly conversing group. "Master Draco says you're to stay right here, Miss. You'll have to stand to see, but Miss will be safe enough here. Tituba's to stay with you 'til Mistress and Master come."
Slightly confused by the Malfoys' fussing over her but grateful nonetheless, she thanked the elf and turned to study the clearing. Chairs had been set up in a small arc towards the middle of the clearing. They faced a casket which was framed by a podium to the right and a tall tombstone directly behind it. She recognized the Ministry official that would preside over the funeral by his wizard's hat adorned with an M bisected by a wand. The rest of the group huddled off to the left side of the casket Hermione recognized as Death Eaters, all wearing long, dark robes. Hermione backed farther into the tree line as she noticed a particularly disturbing detail: the Ministry official's eyes held the blank look of a person under the Imperio curse.
As the minutes ticked by, Death Eaters trickled into the clearing, a few bringing their wives in ebony finery but most alone. Near ten o'clock the guests settled into their seats, surprising the girl hidden in the trees with their small number - only fourteen chairs were filled, and most by people that she recognized as extended family to the Malfoy line. Voldemort himself had not even bothered to come to pay his respects to his faithful servant, which she could not say that she was unrelieved by, though rather surprised. Much like a wedding, silence fell over the crowd and the guests stood in unison as two figures dressed regally in black, their pale blonde hair stark against the darkness, entered the clearing and made their way towards the casket. Hermione vaguely registered the quiet pop as Tituba disapparated, her duty completed, but her eyes remained fixed on the pair as they took their place to the left of the casket. She tried to search Draco's face for emotion as his gaze found her across the clearing, but he had completely blocked himself from the world. Similarly, Narcissa's countenance remained composed and aloof throughout the service, having said her goodbyes to her husband early on. The Ministry official made a halting speech, as if being fed lines, about the life of the deceased head of the Malfoy family, and then called Draco forward. As the new head of the household, Draco received his father's wand and a metal pendant bearing the Malfoy crest from the official before returning to his place beside his mother, his face expressionless all the while. The crest weighing heavy in his hand, the young man lifted his eyes, focusing them on the girl half-hidden in the trees. His intense gaze surprised her as their eyes met, and while she looked away to watch the conclusion of the ceremony, she was distinctly aware that his stare never left her. The official finished his speech, and with a wave of his wand, dug the grave and lowered the casket in. Then Narcissa stepped forward to carve her husband's name and dates into the tombstone, a final flourish immortalizing his role as a Death Eater with a Dark Mark above the script.
Dismissed, the guests rose and filed out of the clearing. The widow took the arm of the Ministry official to lead him safely out of the forest. Hermione remained in the shadows, waiting for someone to guide her back, but Narcissa paid her no mind and no house elf appeared. She found herself alone in the clearing except for the young man whose attention had turned to the pendant he held in his left hand. After watching him for several minutes, she slowly approached. One of her small hands reached out to lightly touch his shoulder while the other covered the crest from his view. His eyes snapped up to meet hers, and then returned to the pendant.
"You don't have to be like him, you know. You don't even have to be a Malfoy. You can make your own name and run your own life now," she whispered.
"No. I can't. I have no more choice now than I did before." The pain in his voice startled her as much as his words.
"Of course you have a choice - everyone does!
"I don't!" he roared, grey eyes blazing as he threw off her touch and spun to face her fully. "If I don't take his place, I die! Mother dies! You die! You don't understand; the Dark Lord murders deserters - them and their families, everyone they love!"
His temper had sparked hers, and she replied with equal fire. "Then join the Order! They can protect you and Narcissa! You can help destroy Him, and then you'll be safe forever!"
"Your precious Order can't protect anyone! Not even Dumbledore!"
This froze her protests. "Dumbledore? Are you saying Dumbledore's dead?" she asked, her voice small.
"Snape killed him. The night I captured you," he told her, his voice becoming lifeless. Her eyes widened as the news sunk in. "If the Dark Lord can murder even the great Dumbledore, how do you think I'm supposed to survive, to protect my mother? I can't! I have to take my father's place! I have to protect her." A tear escaped his eye. "I have to protect you," he barely whispered so that she strained to hear. And he broke. Tears flowed from his eyes, and he fell to his knees, surprising her by leaning his head against her stomach and wrapping his arms around her tightly as if she was his last hold on sanity.
She stood still, momentarily stunned, before her hands seemed to move of their own accord to comb gently through his hair. As much as she had wished that he would open up and let himself grieve instead of closing out the whole world so harshly, she found herself unsure of how to handle an emotional Draco. So she stood in silence, her hands still running through his hair as the increasing wind blew colorful leaves around them.
When his tears had finally dried, the young man stood slowly. She watched silently as his features molded into his perpetual mask of indifference, even the red-rimmed eyes fading, unwilling to give away their master's secret. He looked down at her still-startled expression and searching eyes. "This never happened, Granger," he said coldly.
"Because Malfoys don't cry, right?" she shot back. She could handle the bickering - it was familiar.
"Correct, as usual, Miss Know-It-All." His tone was still frigid and his face stoic, but his hand found hers with a gentle squeeze and pulled her closer so that he only had to lower his head to whisper in her ear, "Thank you."
He turned away before she could reply, his long stride tugging her towards the edge of the clearing. As they hiked back through the woods, she sent a silent prayer to the universe that her message had gotten through.
A/N (7/16 update): So I started writing Chapter 19 and found that I wasn't quite done with this chapter. So here's a few more paragraphs! Also, as to the flora in this chapter, I openly admit I fudged with the seasons a little (I'm pretty sure the trees wouldn't have begun to change color by the last week of August) and guessed on what might be available in England in late August so bear with me if you're knowledgeable about UK flowers and sitting there going "what the heck???"
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