“I’m going in alone.”
“What?! Why? You really think he’s gonna…Hermione, no way.”
“We’re running out of options, Ronald. Harry’s been gone for almost a week. Who knows what’s being done to him, if he’s even—” Hermione broke off, stopping herself before her voice could take on that wretched quavering quality, the one that signaled tears. She looked down at the leaf-strewn ground, swallowed. “We need to find out where he is now.”
Ron stared at her a moment, eyes bloodshot and vague with hopelessness. He shoved his hands in his pockets, shifted his gaze to a point just beyond Hermione’s right shoulder. She turned, looked at the tent burnished a reddish gold by the late afternoon sun.
“Okay. I’ll be right out here,” Ron murmured, and her heart broke a little at the ease with which she’d won the argument. That, really, there’d been no argument.
How much had changed in six days.
She turned back to him, took both his hands from his pockets and squeezed. He managed a small quirk of a smile and chuckled softly, squeezing back. “He’s more afraid of you anyway.”
Hermione returned the quick smile and watched as a gust of early autumn wind lifted and tangled Ron’s hair lit crimson by the sun. She wanted to say something, but the tightening of her throat and trembling of her lips warned against it. Instead, she released Ron’s hands and made her way to the tent.
Reaching the entrance flap, she paused to take a deep breath in through her nose, exhaling out through her mouth. Harry, she thought. For Harry. She pushed the flap aside and entered.
Draco Malfoy sat with his arms behind him, tied to the tent’s center pole, knees raised and bent, head back, eyes closed. His trademark white-blond hair hung limply at his shoulders, greasy from going unwashed the three days they’d had him bound there.
Hermione waited and eyed his chest rising and falling evenly, though not slowly and deeply enough for sleep.
Pulling her wand from her back pocket, she cast silencing and locking charms in a clear, audible voice. There’d be no entry or exit, and no sounds Ron could hear, until she ended the spells herself.
Malfoy opened his eyes and stared at the canvas above, sighing heavily as if Hermione were interrupting deep thoughts or some activity of utmost importance. Managing nonchalance even in his less than dignified position, he turned his head and regarded her with a sneer.
Hermione folded her arms across her chest, still grasping her wand, which she tapped steadily against her left shoulder. She took in Malfoy’s silent sneer, the dark circles under his eyes (the ones that matched her own and Ron’s), the pale complexion that she might once, perhaps, have called porcelain, but now was simply pasty, contrasting sharply with his torn, black, finely-ribbed turtleneck and tailored trousers.
He hadn’t said a word in three days.
Three days of questions, demands, threats of turning him over to the Order of the Phoenix, offers of sanctuary with the Order, and, finally, begging.
Silence. Not even a snide remark.
Occasionally, like now, there was a sneer, but, like a fake smile, it never reached his eyes. Nothing reached his eyes. It was as if he’d been hollowed out, like a dementor had blown him a kiss.
Hermione wondered if she would seem the shell of herself if (when) she saw her parents, or Ginny, or Neville, or any of her other friends again. Surely the changes would have happened too slowly and subtly for Ron or Harry to have noticed.
Hermione’s heart clenched painfully in her chest, and she tightened the grasp on her wand, letting her arms drop to her sides.
Malfoy watched disinterestedly as she took a few steps forward, stopping about a foot away, just far enough so that she towered over him. Now standing directly in front of him, he was forced to turn his head and crane his neck to look up at her. The fake-sneer was gone.
Hermione raised her wand and aimed it right down at his pointy nose. Her gaze locked on his depthless grey eyes.
“One last chance, Malfoy. Where’s Harry?” The steadiness of her voice, the mask of coolness and determination into which she’d schooled her features impressed even her. Maybe it wasn’t a mask.
A slight twitch of his lip, a small huff of air. A tiny crease between the eyebrows that appeared and disappeared so fast she wasn’t sure she’d really seen it. At least it was something different.
She exhaled, lowered her gaze, wand arm slackening as she gathered herself.
This has to end. We need him. This has to end.
A rustle. Glancing up, she saw that Malfoy had shifted a bit on the ground, disturbing the leaves there. Bony arse is probably asleep, she thought, inexplicably irritated. He looked more insouciant than anything else, even with no expression on his face and nothing in his eyes.
Something inside her settled, fine grains of resolve solidifying and giving her weight, anchoring her feet and locking her elbow as she pronounced calmly, “Congelo Cruor.”
Malfoy’s eyes widened and he looked down at his body wildly. After a moment, he looked back up at her, confused.
“It works slowly. Give it a chance,” she said evenly.
Malfoy began to shiver. He drew his legs together and closer to his body. His shoulders wrenched, as if he’d forgotten he was bound and was trying to hug himself. As his breath grew shallow and his jaw muscles clenched in what must have been an effort to keep his teeth from chattering, Hermione finally saw something spark in his quickening eyes.
Surprise. And, more usefully, a touch of fear.
Ironic, a blood-freezing curse the thing to thaw him.
Heart pounding, she waited one more moment and watched as his skin began to turn blue, his lips purpling, breaths shaky, yet slowing. Watched as fear overtook shock, panic contorting his sharp features, drawing his brows together in something that looked like a plea.
Malfoy let out a long, unsteady breath but did not unclench his body. Shivers still wracked his frame, though they were smaller and less frequent. Purple still stained his lips. He crouched back against the tent pole, looking about five years younger than he was. She remembered him first year in the Forbidden Forest serving detention for ratting out her, Ron, and Harry. A frightened little boy.
Though the chilling effects of the spell had ended, his body would need help heating back up. She put the kettle on the fire for tea and grabbed a blanket from her cot. Returning her wand to her back pocket, she crouched in front of him, blanket bunched under her arm.
“You know, Malfoy, when I slapped you third year, I think I may have enjoyed it more than I should have.” She paused, gauging his reaction. Still shivering, he looked at her warily.
She continued, moving a touch closer and lowering her voice conspiratorially: “When I get really angry or feel powerless, I think about that slap and wish you were there just so I could smack that pathetic, cowardly, pointy face of yours again and feel better.” She mustered all the casual nastiness she could and put it in her voice, hoping it would cover the trace of shame she felt in admitting such a thing.
She tossed the blanket over him and leaned forward to tuck it around his sides as best she could. His breath ghosted over her cheek.
“Do you touch yourself when you think about it, Granger?” His voice low, amused.
Without thinking, Hermione reared back and slapped him, hard and clumsily, her last two fingers making contact with his mouth so that she felt the smooth scrape of teeth, her hand coming away wet with saliva.
He chuckled, then winced, and she saw she’d split his lip. She glanced down at her hand, still stinging from the blow; a streak of blood smeared her fingers. She clenched them into a fist and ground it against her thigh.
“Just trying to make you ‘feel better,’ Granger. Although, I must say, seems rather selfish and un-Gryffindor of you to spend all this time pleasing yourself when Potter’s Merlin-knows-where—”
“Shut up!” Hermione shouted, scrambling to her feet and backing away from him. His eyes followed her, all trace of fear gone. Her handprint stood out red against the pallor of his skin.
He grinned meanly. “Shut up? I thought you wanted me to talk. Isn’t that what you and the Weasel have been trying to get me to do the last three days?” He snorted. “Face it, you’re not cut out for this. Too much the noble bloody Gryffindor. You use that spell on me, then practically trip over yourself making tea and wrapping me up with a nice warm blanket. You’re the one who’s pathetic!” he bit out, and Hermione marveled at how he was able to put exponentially more nastiness into his voice than she could ever manage.
He shook his head dismissively, a lock of limp, blond hair falling in his face. “This is Slytherin territory: interrogation, mind games . . . torture.” At the pause, Malfoy broke eye contact, looked off to the left, his eyes once again going flat. “Water’s boiling,” he mumbled.
Hermione turned and fetched the kettle, grateful for the opportunity to busy herself with something else, if only for a few moments. That pause, the tightening of Malfoy’s voice and the deadening of his eyes—all led her to believe he’d either undergone his fair share of abuse, or been forced to witness or dole it out himself. Perhaps all three.
She knew he was right; she didn’t have the stomach for this. She’d already reached the limits of what she was willing to do, and it had gotten her nowhere. She had mean thoughts and petty feelings like everyone else, but they didn’t allow her to cross certain lines others might be able to in order to achieve what they wanted. Even if what she and Ron, and much of the Wizarding World, wanted—no, needed—was Harry.
She couldn’t help but feel like she was letting Harry down, not being able to get one piece of information from the Ferret, of all people, and without doing something she couldn’t live with.
Finishing with the tea, she approached Malfoy, carefully lowering herself to her knees and settling on her heels in front of him and blowing gently on the hot liquid. She did not meet his eyes, instead focusing on his lips as she raised the cup to them. Blood still shone wet at the corner of his mouth.
He carefully took a sip, and she held the cup at a distance where he could lean forward and drink more when he wanted. His skin was already beginning to pink up, at least as much as his would, and they sat there in silence until Malfoy finished the tea. It was the first food or drink besides water he’d accepted in three days.
“Tell you what, Granger,” he drawled, as if he were about to advise her, mock-charitably, on what she might do with her life given her restricted options as a Muggle-born. “I’ll give you Potter’s location—” Hermione’s eyes darted to his, suspicious, “—on one condition.” She scowled, mind refusing even to begin contemplating what Malfoy might ask of her. But, despite herself, her ribs seemed to shrink in her chest, heart suddenly beating hard and fast.
She nodded briskly, glowering. “Go on.”
His grey eyes glittered silver with satisfaction and, behind that, some other emotion she couldn’t name, at least not coming from him.
“You have to admit you’re inferior to me, and you have to make me believe you mean it.”