Yes, the air was cold, but the sun was bright, or maybe it just seemed that way to Draco, because he was walking with his arm around Hermione. It was a nice area between her parents' house and the school she was attending, with manicured lawns giving way to clean car parks as they neared the destination. Early in their stroll, he'd thought they were being followed, but he hadn't seen anything when he'd turned around and that feeling had left. This was definitely worth sneaking out of Hogwarts, but he still didn't understand."
He glared at the aging brick school building as if it were a rival. "Why is the most talented witch from our year in a Muggle school?" he asked her. "Why didn't you come back to Hogwarts?"
The brunette at his side shrugged. "After I found my parents, they asked me to stay with them for the first term. We agreed I'd return to Hogwarts after Christmas."
"But you didn't," he said, turning to her and draping his arms lightly around her. "Why didn't you? Was it because of me?"
She looked up at him, her eyes drawn, as they often were, to his full lips, slightly more vivid in color from the cold. "Not entirely," she said carefully, "but I suppose I thought it a good reason to extend my break from..."
Unexpectedly, she lay her head on his chest and began to tremble. "It was miserable," she cried, though her eyes stayed dry. "We were hungry, tired and frustrated, bitchy. Ron left me..."
"Oh, you poor dear," she heard Clothilde, the senior of her witch ancestors, who had taken up residence inside her mind.
Draco tightened his hold at the first sign of her emotion and even more with the mention of her former boyfriend. Will I ever be shed of him, short of killing him, that is.
"Then we were chased by that damn snake and snatchers, captured and..." She broke off and pulled away from him.
There it was again, still wedged between them. It could break from the pressure of their union or break them apart before really establishing a union—his cowardly actions when she and her companions were brought to Malfoy Manor. True, she didn't know everything that he'd done, but would it even matter?
He glanced around and saw that no one was paying attention to them. He pulled a glass vial from his inner coat pocket, a habit he'd picked up from Potions Master Slughorn, then touched his wand to his head, extracting a silver string of memory, which he placed in the small tube.
He pressed it into her hand, saying, "I would've never left you."
"What's this?" she asked as the first bell rang.
"Something I can't explain to you myself," he said, with the closest to a tender look that had ever crossed his countenance.
She looked at the vial curiously and he cradled her face in his hands. "I would've never left you."
Hermione shook her head. "You can't say that. You don't know what it was like, how he was tormented by the horcrux. He just couldn't take it anymore."
"In the first place," Draco said, maintaining his gaze while he twirled one of her dark caramel locks through his fingers, "I have more evil in me, so the horcrux wouldn't affect me as strongly. And the idea of leaving you alone with another bloke?" he said with an ironic chuckle, "never."
She sighed. There was so much to like, possibly even love about him, but there was always...
"Don't be so quick to dismiss anything so...what's that word your friends use? Hot!" enthused Finola, her ancestor with the most scintillating past.
Hermione smirked in response. The second bell rang. Draco lowered his head for a small kiss good-bye, then walked away in search of somewhere from which it would be safe to Disapparate.
The vial in Hermione's hand felt as if it were burning and taunting her. How would she ever get through the day until she could see what it contained?
"You," harrumphed Hester in her head, "what about us?"
The five of them managed to contain their curiosity through Honors History and Mathematics and Physics, then Hermione decided she could wait no longer. For the first time in her life, she skived at the beginning of lunch hour, Apparating to Diagon Alley and the Wizards' Lending Library.
She presented her wand for identification and headed to one of the cubicles housing a public pensieve. It was much more utilitarian than the ornate one from Dumbledore's office that Harry had described for her. Not allowing herself to think about what other memories might have been viewed in it, she dropped the contents of Draco's vial into the magical fluid and leaned over, putting her face very close, until it sucked her into its depths.
She landed on a marble floor, covered with an expansive hand-woven rug. There was a marble fireplace and gilded mirror. She recognized her location as the drawing room of Malfoy Manor. Standing across the room from her were Harry, Ron and herself in the clutches of snatchers.
She gasped as she realized what recollection this was. She saw now that Draco's eyes were fastened on her and his fists and jaw were clenched tight. Bellatrix was raging. "You have no idea of the danger we are in!"
"We can hear his thoughts, dear," said her great-great-grandmother Jean. "He's so concerned for you."
Hermione watched as Bellatrix grabbed her and ordered Draco to lock up the boys.
"Oh, my, he's quite incensed now," said the Puritan Hester.
"I'll make you pay, you bitch," the earthier Finola quoted him, as he led Ron and Harry to the cellar and looked back at the two women, glaring at his aunt.
"Blood sacrifice, so that's what he has in mind," said Clothilde thoughtfully, as Hermione followed Draco and her familial witches continued sharing his thoughts with her.
Bellatrix's shouting could be heard in the cellar. Ron and Harry challenged Draco, urging him to take action to protect Hermione.
"He's thinking 'I'm trying to. Now let me go,' " reported Jean.
He tore up the stairs, pulling off his black jacket and beginning an incantation. "Accio Fowl," he commanded, as he locked the cellar door and ripped off his shirt. A small peacock from the flock that wandered the yard appeared at his feet. He continued his chants through the first of Hermione's screams of pain and Ron's wails for her from behind the locked door.
Draco used his wand to quickly slice open the bird. Hermione cried again and he looked up, his face twisted in anguish for her, then held the bird over his head, allowing its blood to drip onto his blond hair and in his mouth. It stained his face and bare chest.
He tensed and hissed through his teeth, absorbing some unseen pain. Lines began to burn into his skin. Hermione watched with wide-eyed astonishment as dblood appeared on his arm.
"He suffered with ya, Darlin'," whispered Finola. Hermione nodded in understanding.
As the cries from the other room and the initial distress subsided, Draco ordered Scourgify to clean himself and the surrounding area, then redressed.
He returned to the drawing room, passing Wormtail on the way. Hermione was lying on the floor at his aunt's feet, barely breathing. He made a move to go to her when Lestrange said, "Greyback, take her if you want to."
"Noooo!" shouted Ron, bursting into the room.
Draco turned in that direction.
"He's glad the redhead is there for you," Hester told her.
The rest was a spate of shouted hexes, erratic body movements, crashing glass and Dobby's brave rescue of the captives.
Following the escape, the Malfoy household became quiet and tense, awaiting the arrival of the Dark Lord that Bellatrix had prematurely summoned. Draco retreated to his princely quarters to lie on his super-sized bed. He took off his jacket and shirt and studied his new wounds. "Hermione," he breathed, "be safe."
The vision clouded over and Hermione found herself back in the library. She was silent as she retrieved the silver swirls that testified to Draco's sacrifice for her. Her personal, inter-generational coven withdrew its influence on her, allowing her the freedom to solely contemplate what she'd witnessed and what it meant for her and Draco.
Will you still meet me on Valentine's Day? read the note delivered by the eagle owl upon her arrival back to her parents' home.
She replied immediately. Yes. I'll have questions.
The owl returned to her later that night with a one sentence message: I'd expect nothing less.