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Disclaimer: Characters belong to J.K. Rowling. Everything else is mine.

A/N: Thanks again for all the reviews. This time around, I have a specific question in mind for all of you. I want to know if it has been frustrating to you, as readers, to have been left in the dark with so many questions for so long. Does it make you angry? Or do you like the suspense and trying to come up with your own predictions? I'm really curious to know so it would be great if you could all let me know in your review for this chapter. Thanks, guys. :] You're all awesome.

= = =

I passed Hermione a note the next day in class.

"Need to talk. Urgent."

The note sat on Hermione's desk unopened for the remainder of the period. After class was over, she stood up, leaving the hastily folded parchment on the smooth wooden surface.

I tried everything. I nudged her during lunch and gave her a "psst!" in the common room. She would not return my attention no matter what I did. What had I done wrong to her? I thought lately we had been getting on just fine. The last time we talked was ...

Oh. That would explain it. The last time we talked was in the Western Tower.

Hermione gasped in shock and placed her hand over her heart when she turned on the bathroom light in the girl's dorms and saw me leaning against the sink with my arms folded across my chest.

"You can't ignore me forever," I said, pushing myself off of the sink and walking closer to her.

Composing herself, she turned to leave the restroom, without so much as asking me what I was doing in the girl's dorms and lecturing me about how much trouble I could get into. I wasn't having any of it. I grabbed her wrist and spun her to face me.

"You can not let your bloody fears control your life, Hermione," I hissed through my teeth. "Just because of what happened in -- that day -- doesn't mean that you should stop living your life."

She looked at my elongated fingers that were wrapped around her tiny wrist. Softly, she said, "Let go of me, Twenty-seven."

And then she was pressed up against the door, and I realized with a sickening revelation that I dared not show on my face that I had pushed her there. And then I was up in her face, feeling like I wanted to scream at her but couldn't because I couldn't even put a fucking silencing charm around the bathroom. "Don't you dare call me that. Ever. Again."

With boldness in her voice that she hadn't had before, she spat back, "It's your number."

"My name is Draco. Yours is Hermione. And don't you think even for a second that I'm going to start calling you fucking Fifty-three. It took us long enough to get on a first name basis with each other. I'm not about to conform to this hell-hole’s bull shit now."

"Get off of me, Twenty-seven," she spat like a lioness protecting her cubs.

I shook my head. "Not until you come out from under that rock you're hiding under and admit that we are people. We have names. We can feel. We're not bloody robots!"

Her hands were on my chest, shoving me backward with what little strength she had. "I don't feel!" she exclaimed a bit too loudly. Then lowering her voice she said, "Not anymore."

"You lying little shit," I said, and then with my hands on the wall on either side of her head, I crushed my lips on top of hers. She squirmed beneath me, mouthing her protests, but soon her mouth was still – not moving with mine, but not trying to move away from it either. And only then did I pull away.

"Feel that?" I asked her bewildered and flushed face, shoving her out of the way and throwing the door opened. I stormed out of the girl's dorms, ignoring all the curious stares I received from the pajama clad females who looked at me as though I were a grizzly bear prowling their room.

= = =

It was clear I would not be receiving any help from Hermione for quite some time. Oh, excuse me, I meant Fifty-three.

But that was fine. I could get on just fine without her help. It's not like I wasn't as smart as her anyway. Contrary to popular belief, Slytherins are not just a bunch of sneaky, conniving, manipulative bastards. We're also extremely intelligent -- probably more so than your average Ravenclaw. We just choose to use our intellect in ... a slightly different way. In a way that will benefit us. And if all those snobby stuck-up Ravenclaws were really as smart as they claim to be, they'd have done the same. Honestly, why use your hard earned intelligence to help others? Because other people are either too thick or too damn lazy to do it themselves? No thanks.

And that is that difference between me and Hermione Granger.

With the permission of Amycus Carrow, I spent a few hours the next night in the library, although I was quite unsure of what to search for. Twins? Robots? What could I look up? Nothing sounded right, and I was sure those things down in the dungeon were a work of magic. The only problem with that was that all the books on magic had been removed from the library. Even Hogwarts, A History was gone from the shelves. And so I left the library, feeling like an absolute failure.

The next day was Monday. I had a bad feeling walking into the Great Hall for breakfast that morning. The one lone table in the Hall had been folded in half and pushed over to the side of the room near the windows, blocking out the sun light. The Advanced students were allowed to take their food in little brown bags and leave. The Average students were forced to line up against the wall.

Father sauntered in front of the long line for what seemed like an eternity before stopping in the middle of the empty and shiny just-waxed floor.

“I’ve been told,” he began in a harsh voice that flowed from his lips like ice water, “from anonymous sources … that there is reason to believe that someone – one of you – has broken an important Educational Decree. Not only has this Decree been violated. This particular student has apparently made it a point to overstep its boundaries.”

Father stared into each of our eyes in turn. Some looked away in fear. But I knew better. I held his gaze like I had done so many times before at home as a child. It was always a game for us – to see who would look away first. I won this time as Father moved onto the next student in line.

“These Decrees,” he continued speaking, “are put into order for a reason. I do not put them into effect simply to make up rules. And I would expect that you students of Hogwarts, who have been held in such high regard for centuries, would follow and respect these rules and do well to avoid breaking them at all costs.”

No one spoke during Father’s speech. Father never said which Decree exactly he was speaking of, but I could make a pretty good guess. I was quite sure he was talking about me, venturing into the corridor to the left of the Entrance Hall. But how did he know I’d been there? No one saw me … well, with the exception of that man who chased me into the dungeon, but he hadn’t seen my face. I was safe.

But was it really right to let everyone else get into trouble for my own mistakes?

That thought alone almost made me laugh. Me, Draco Malfoy, care about what’s right and wrong? Ha! If I was getting in trouble, then by God, everyone in this damn Hall was going down with me. My investigations on Saturday were for their own good anyway. Whatever is going on down in the boy’s dormitories of the Slytherin dungeons is going to affect us all. It probably already is affecting us all, and we don’t even know it. We all had creatures down there identical to ourselves. Ernie Macmillan on my right, Terry Boot on my left – all of us. No, I don’t owe them a thing. If anything, they should be thanking me.

“Now,” Father’s voice boomed around the room with a hallow echo, waking me from my reverie, “Is there anyone who would care to come forward?” He waited. “No? No one?” Father nodded his head slowly as if he’d been expecting as much and walked with a steady pace down the Hall, his shiny black shoes clicking across the floor.

“Your breakfast will be served momentarily,” he said before leaving the Great Hall. “You will eat all of it.” And then the double doors crashed shut behind him in a booming echo.

That’s all? That couldn’t possibly be all … where was the predictable and expected long winded lecture about the importance of obeying rules? Where were the death threats? Or worse, the torture threats? If I knew my Father at all well, which I was quite sure I did, I knew he never gave up without an explanation. And a damn good one at that. Father could pick out a made up excuse a mile away. No, I knew him too well. This was far from over. He was going to get his answers if he had to use Legilimency on every single student lined up against the wall in the Great Hall.

Hagrid rolled through the double doors with metal carts filled with steaming plates of specially prepared slop and began placing them in front of each of us in turn in that mechanical fashion all the Advanced students have.

Hagrid was still the same big ugly oaf I remembered. His long grizzled mane of hair fell around his shoulders in one frizzy puff and his mustache and beard covered most of his face. He retrieved a plate from the cart and placed it down in front of me. I grabbed at his oversized mole skin coat before he could move on to the next student. “What’s in the dungeons?” I rapidly whispered, wasting no time for small talk. He was completely silent and simply stared at me with vacant expressionless eyes peeking out from his fuzzy curtain of hair. “Speak, you great buffoon! What’s down there? You know. I know you do.”

Hagrid simply grunted and shrugged my hand off of him with very little effort, considering his size. He then went on to serve Longbottom, who immediately bent down and stuck his face in his food, devouring it with greed. And that’s when it hit me. Father wasn’t going to use Legilimency to get answers. He was a terrible Legilimens. There was Veritaserum in the food.

An image flashed through my mind of me jumping up and shouting dramatically, “Don’t eat the food!” But I quickly decided against it. The only person I had to tell was Hermione. She already knew too much. Granted, she didn’t know anything about the Slytherin dungeon, but she knew enough.

Hagrid was at his metal cart gathering more plates to hand out, attempting to balance a stack of them in the crook of his left arm. Hermione was on her knees five people down from me. My class mates wouldn’t dare tell if I spoke, would they? Would Hagrid tell? I doubted it. It didn’t seem like he or any of the other old professors (McGonagall, Trelawney, Flitwick …) had much to say these days. Father had probably frightened them all into silence.

Hagrid set the bubbling pile of ooze in front of Hermione. She bent her head down, lower, and lower, and lower …

And then I sneezed. It was a fake sneeze, of course, but it worked. It was just loud enough to get her head, along with everyone else’s heads, to snap up in my direction.

“Bless you,” Hermione said automatically, her basic instincts kicking in. Her hands then quickly flew to her mouth covering it as if she’d just spoken the name of the Dark Lord. Everyone glared at her, being as they were all unaccustomed to hearing any of their fellow class mates speak ever since that Educational Decree about not talking to other students without given permission had been put into place.

“Thank you, Fifty-three,” I said, shocking the line of students even more than they already were. And then, because I couldn’t very well say, “There’s Veritaserum in the food!” I said instead, “The truth is in the food,” making sure I emphasized the word “truth.”

Her eyes narrowed at me skeptically, but I had the faith to know she’d figure it out. She was Hermione Granger. She would not rest until she cracked the code hidden inside of my words.

The excitement seemed to wear off for everyone else (yes, someone speaking out of turn had turned into the most exciting event of their daily lives), as they all continued eating as if nothing had happened. But Hermione didn’t. She stared at her food with wide contemplative eyes, as though if she scrutinized the brown mush closely enough she would be able to see with the naked eye the potion that had seeped into it.

Father walked back into the Great Hall, followed closely by the Carrow twins. I didn’t have time to think. What occurred after that happened so fast I didn’t even realize I’d done it. All I know is, I looked down at my full plate of food, then at Longbottom next to me who was literally licking his plate clean. And then, our plates were suddenly switched. In the blink of an eye, I was staring at a clean white dish, and Longbottom’s head was buried in my food. Yes Draco, you are a genius.

“Stand up,” Father ordered with the Carrows standing on either side of him like his short cronies with their arms across their chests. By the look on Alecto’s face, she was just itching to use that God forsaken glove. “Has everyone eaten their meal?”

“Yes,” the entire Hall chorused in perfect unison as they clambered to their feet. Hermione and I were among them, although we both pretended to have eaten.

Then Alecto nudged my Father and pointed her stubby little finger at Hermione’s plate on the ground. It was still full.

“Ah,” said Father with a sly grin creasing his lips. “We seem to have a liar in our midst. Fifty-three, care to enlighten us on your reasons for not following my orders?”

“I … I …”

My teeth clenched. Come on, Granger … just one little lie …

“I’m not feeling very well,” Hermione finished.

Father smiled at Alecto and Amycus, and then averted his attention back toward Hermione. “Not feeling well?” he asked. “Well I recommend that you start feeling better.”

Alecto reached into her pocket. The silver shiny material was pulled half way out before Hermione fell to her knees and began to demolish the food before her, gulp by gulp. I gave myself a mental slap on the head. This time, we were surely doomed. Nothing works against the effects of Veritaserum. Nothing. In no time at all, Hermione would spill all of our secrets – about how we’re from the past, and about everything we know from reading the Daily Prophet. I was only thankful she still had no clue about what lurked in the Slytherin dungeons.

“Good,” Father said as Hermione finished consuming her meal. “Stand up, girl. And come forward. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

Her footsteps were slow and hesitant. She was afraid, that much was clear to see. And she very well should be. This could be the end of both our lives as we know it.

“Fifty-three,” Father began, eyeing her up and down in a way that made me cringe in my skin. “Let me ask you … what were you doing this past Saturday night?”

“Studying,” Hermione answered automatically. “In the common room.”

“And what do you know about the corridors to the left of the Entrance Hall?”

“Nothing,” she said shaking her head at him with a hint of curiosity.

Father stared her down for a long moment. I could practically feel the wheels revolving in his head as I watched him. He’d been so sure that she was to blame, and yet she knew nothing. Veritaserum does not lie.

“Very well,” Father said softly. “You may return to the line.”

I had to struggle not to let the great sense of relief that overwhelmed me show on my face. After Hermione had scurried back to her spot in the queue, Father began, “Now, will the offender of Educational Decree Number Five please step forward?”

No one moved. I thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t under the influence of Veritaserum. Oh, just to think of the consequences …

“Who dared go near the dungeon!” he bellowed in frustration. It was not a question, but a demand for a confession. I cringed as my feet worked of their own accord and took an instinctive step backwards. Father was not one to cross when he was upset.

Alecto put her hand on the sleeve of Father’s long black cloak and whispered something into his ear.

Father took one deep breath and let it out slowly in a long drawn out hiss. “Has everyone eaten their breakfast?” he asked in as calm a voice as he could muster under the circumstances.

“Yes, Headmaster,” the students in the Great Hall chorused.

“Then I will ask you one final time,” said Father. “Which one of you pathetic, insolent, brats was in or near the dungeons on Saturday night?”

I debated with myself whether or not I should step forward. Really, how fair was it that all these poor people were going to be punished for what I had done? Maybe I should just step forward and save the day …

That made me chuckle a little on the inside. Who do I look like? Harry Bloody Potter? The day I turn into a chivalrous and noble Gryffindor will be the day when I will know for certain I’ve lost my mind.

“If you refuse to confess, then the Carrows can deal with you,” Father said menacingly. Next to me, Longbottom gulped loudly. And then Father swept from the room, leaving the Carrows standing before us with their maddening grins and deranged chuckles of amusement.

“We stand before liars, brother,” said Alecto with a sly smirk sneaking its way across her face. “Whatever shall we do with them?”

“I say we play a little game,” answered Amycus. “Everyone likes games – even those foolish enough to lie to their Headmaster.”

Alecto’s gap toothed grin had never spread so wide.

Within the next thirty seconds, everyone in the Great Hall had formed into one large circle, with Amycus explaining the rules of the game to us.

“It’s an average everyday ball,” said Amycus, throwing the bright red bouncing ball high into the air and catching it. “When the ball comes to you, you must catch it. Then, reveal your deepest and darkest secret.” Alecto giggled wildly on the side of him, and Amycus continued, “Then, throw the ball to the next student of your choice.”

“Oh, but we can make it even more interesting than that!” Alecto squealed, catching the ball her brother threw to her and twirling it on the palm of her hand. “How about we sing them a little song while they play, brother?” Amycus eyed her contemplatively. “Watch and learn,” she told her twin with a wink, and then tossed the ball in my direction.

I caught the smooth, red, Muggle children’s toy in both hands, unable to fathom exactly what appeal Muggle children found in it. What was the fascination here? It didn’t even float in the air on its own. Then I realized that all eyes were on me – waiting.

“Right. Deep dark secret.” Remember, you’re under the influence of Veritaserum. “I’m afraid of werewolves.” And with that, I tossed the ball along, listening to my classmates spill their innermost thoughts and feelings they had worked their entire lives trying to hide. Cho Chang revealed how she had cheated on Cedric Diggory with me during fourth year. Luna Lovegood blames herself for her mother’s death. Seamus Finnegan is gay. Terry Boot shagged his brother’s girlfriend all summer long. Neville Longbottom picks his nose.

And all the while, Alecto’s high wheezy voice buzzed in the background:
Round the circle travels the ball,
The students share their secrets.
So pass it quick, before you’re the one
To hold it when it’s over!

And then, the ball landed directly into Hermione’s small trembling hands.

“Ah, Fifty-three, it looks like you’ve won the game,” said Alecto, sauntering to the center of the circle. “Now you get to join me.”

Hermione looked like she was on the verge of tears as she walked to the middle of the circle toward Alecto, still holding the shiny, bright, red ball between her hands.

“Don’t I get to tell my secret, like everyone else?”

“Oh no, my dear girl,” said Alecto, placing her short stubby hand on the shoulder of Hermione’s grey sweater. “You get something much better.”

I knew what was coming before it happened, and by the petrified look on Hermione’s face, I was sure she did too. She squeezed the ball tighter, as if she believed that if she squeezed it tight enough, all of this will have been a terrible, twisted nightmare, and she’d wake up.

But she wasn’t dreaming, not when Alecto pulled her silver glove out of her pocket and slipped it over her hand, and certainly not when Alecto’s gloved hand was wrapped around Hermione’s tiny fragile arm. And then Hermione was on the floor, choking over her sobs, her body heaving through the convulsions threatening to overwhelm her, as she desperately made a futile attempt to pry the five digits of burning material away from her scorching flesh.

“Please … make it … stop,” she begged through her wails of excruciating pain.

“But this is your prize for winning!” said Alecto, her voice feigning insult.

“Please!” Hermione howled, the sound piercing straight through my ears and shooting to the very core of my being, turning over my stomach. The sight of her body writhing on the ground like a snake made me clench my eyes tightly shut.

“All right, if you insist,” Alecto said lazily. “But first, what do you say?”

Hermione’s cries grew louder, and no matter how I tried, I could not block them out.

“The M word … does not … exist!”

And Alecto released her at once. I could hear Hermione’s whimpering and heavy breaths, could smell the unmistakable stench of burning material, and upon cracking my eye lids open, I saw the tears streaming down her cheeks uncontrollably – saw her bare scorched arm through the singed and smoldering hole in her sweater.

“Now, what was your secret you so desperately wished to share with us?” asked Alecto with a satisfied smirk.

After catching her breath, Hermione muttered under the influence of Veritaserum, “I enjoyed last night.”

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