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.
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.
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