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He kindly stopped for me

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Hermione had waited nearly an hour for Ron in the common room only to find out from Seamus that Ron was stuck in detention. Again.

And he couldn't have got it some other night, when they weren't meeting Harry at the Leaky Cauldron to study together -- no, it had to be tonight. She didn't even know what it was he'd done this time to get in trouble. Probably fighting with Draco again. "Boys," she muttered into her scarf, holding her books close and trying to keep warm. Harry was probably wondering where they --


The voice came from down one of the side alleys, and she paused. Was she hearing things? It might've just been the wind...

But as she watched, a pale woman in a strange red dress moved toward her out of the shadows. She must've been freezing in this weather, she -- ...she was beautiful, really. Her dress looked like something out of the old portraits in the Library. She moved like she was floating.

"E--excuse me?" Hermione called out. This wasn't right. She'd never heard of any outdoor ghosts. In fact, Hogwarts: A History specifically mentioned that the ghosts in Hogwarts were quite peculiar --

But the woman moved silently, and Hermione found herself stepping closer to see her better. She had long, dark hair, and... dark eyes... very dark eyes...

"You've got quills," the woman said, quietly excited, "and parchment, and little bottles of black..."

Hermione thought about backing away, thought about Harry waiting at the Leaky Cauldron, and didn't move, breathing into her scarf.

"Head full of numbers, and spells, and studies," the woman said, a step closer with each word, "but what's inside your heart?"

Her heart... her heart was beating very quickly... and the woman had long elegant fingers, gracefully moving to undo her Gryffindor scarf, to touch her neck...

"Let's find out," whispered the woman, and her dark dark eyes turned suddenly yellow.

* * *

Harry couldn't put his finger on what it was about the stranger that reminded him of Draco Malfoy. It might have been the hair. It might have been the way he seated himself at Harry's table, with the air of someone who thought he owned everything -- and everyone -- he set eyes on.

Either way, Harry disliked him immediately. "Um," Harry started to protest, "That seat's --"

"You're him, aren't you?" asked the stranger, sounding very much like he already knew the answer to that question.

Harry blinked. "Who?"

The stranger gestured at Harry with one hand, the other wrapped around a pint of firewhisky, and said, sounding strangely pleased, "The Boy Who Lived." And with a mocking little twist of his mouth, "The chosen one."

Harry glanced around the Leaky Cauldron, wondering why Hermione and Ron were so late. He looked toward the doors, but there was no sign of them -- or of anyone who might be of any help.

The stranger watched him for a moment and then, smiling, emptied his glass. "Good stuff, that." Harry wondered if the stranger worked for the Daily Prophet, if this was some kind of trick. Maybe Rita Skeeter was going to start printing rumours about him again, and now she'd hired spies.

"What do you want?" Harry asked, dully. It seemed like no matter where he went, people recognized him, even with his hair covering the scar.

The stranger looked him over, and there was something about that look that had Harry quietly reaching into his pocket to grip his wand. "Just wanted to get a look, really. Bit disappointing, I have to say."

Harry felt his face grow hot. "Look, I've got friends coming, so if you don't mind --"

The stranger smiled, suddenly. "Oh, she's not coming."

Harry's hand tightened around his wand. This wasn't right, and Harry suddenly thought of what Hagrid had said -- something he'd said he shouldn't have said -- about disappearances in Hogsmeade... "What've you done with Hermione?" Harry demanded quietly, keeping his hand tight around his wand.

The stranger leaned across the table and said, very softly, "The same thing I'm going to do to you, Harry Potter."

Harry pulled his wand out, pointed it at the stranger -- who only had time to blink before Harry shouted, "Stupefy!"

The stranger was hurled backwards, overturning a table and sending glasses and bottles crashing to the floor. Harry bolted for the back door and out into the alley, still hearing the crashing behind him. Crashing and swearing and an animal snarling...

He'd hardly run ten steps before the snarling was at his neck -- and with it a hand, shoving him against the alley wall and pinning him there by the throat. "Stup --" he tried, but the rest was choked off, and the stranger wrenched Harry's wand away with the same surprising strength that pressed against his throat.

"Wands?" said the stranger, but his face... his face didn't even look human anymore. His eyes were a sickly yellow and his features had twisted into something... something demonic... "You people still use wands?" And, shaking his head, he tossed Harry's wand over his shoulder. Harry heard it clatter to the ground somewhere out in the dark, but didn't see where it landed.

All he really saw were the stranger's fangs, inches from Harry's face.

"Oh," the stranger said, as though he'd suddenly remembered something, "The Dark Lord wanted me to give you a message."

Harry struggled, his neck aching and his lungs protesting, and barely managed to wheeze out, "What?"

"I don't know," the stranger said, baring his fangs. "I wasn't really listening."

Harry didn't scream.

* * *

"The 'Dark Lord'," Spike snorted. "How many is that, now?"

"Four and twenty blackbirds," Drusilla replied, dreamily. "And all the little children eating pies, and powdered sugar on their tongues."

"You'd think they could be a bit more original," he went on. "At least Darth Vader went for a different language."

"But this one has power," Dru whispered, excited, snaking one hand around his neck. "Strikes like a snake." She nipped at his shoulder, making exactly the sort of rruff noise snakes didn't make, and Spike kissed her hand absently, looking down at the village and digging for his smokes.

"Well, we did like he wanted. Boy's not alive anymore, is he?" He found them in a pocket, then started digging for his lighter.

"Neither can live while the other survives," she said, mischeviously, and he decided to take that as an agreement. "I wanted them to be my dolls," she said, shifting gears, suddenly plaintive. And then, leaning in conspiratorially, her lips at his ear, "I'd brush their hair 'til they were bald."

"Don't worry, love," he said, gesturing at the distance, where Hogwarts' towers were faintly outlined in the moonlight. "Give it a few nights, and you can have your pick of the pretty dollies."

He found the lighter finally, flicked it open, and she let out a little squeal, dancing away from him. "They'll wear dresses?" she asked.

"And hats," he assured her.

"And handkerchiefs," she sang, "and matching scarves."

She grabbed his hands and they danced in circles, the faint glow of his cigarette reflected in her eyes.

* * *

When Harry woke up, it was night. He didn't know where he was, or how long he'd been asleep. He knew he was hungry.

He felt like he hadn't eaten in... he felt like he'd never eaten. Where his stomach should have been there was a gnawing, aching emptiness. His whole body was empty. Hungry. Growling.

He sat up, and realized that he was in an alley, somewhere dark and narrow... but even in the dark he could easily make out his wand lying nearby, and Hermione slumped over there by the wall.

She was stirring, and there was a messy red mark on her neck. She opened her eyes, then blinked at him a little and said, "Oh. Hello, Harry." She rubbed at her neck - and he rubbed at his, a little; it felt funny -- then tilted her head to listen. "What's happened?"

Harry tilted his head, and heard it too -- all the nighttime noise of Hogsmeade: laughter, and songs, firewhisky being poured into glasses, and footsteps. And heartbeats. "I dunno," he said. "I'm hungry."

"Me too," she replied. "Let's go find Ronald."