Song Suggestion: Apashe- "Behind My Eyes" (ft. LIA)

As always, a big thank you to MyPrivateInsanity!

The Cost of Freedom

"Drink, Sprite." The scent of cinnamon surrounded her, and she sank into the warmth it provided. But something seemed off. Wrong. Out of place.

A heart thumped behind her ear, and she clutched at the fabric of the shirt. "It hurts."

"I know. The potion will help."

She cracked her eyes open to find herself cradled in Titus' arms.

He placed a cold vial against her lips. A single drop of liquid slipped past and numbed her skin where it spilled.

"Drink," he ordered again.

This time she did as he asked, and the potion slid down her throat. She coughed, but managed to swallow most of it. It numbed her mouth, but within moments, the pain lessened. Another groan ripped from her, this time from sharp relief.

"Where am I?" A blanket of darkness surrounded her. The more she kept her eyes open, the better they adjusted. A bolt of light hit his face, illuminating a blue eye as he stared down in concern, still cradling her close to his chest.

"In a ministry cell."

It took a moment for her to remember the party.



Titus had arrested her.

"Put me down," she said.

He sighed but did as she asked. Getting up, he turned and placed her on the hard bed he'd been sitting on. Without a blanket, she shivered on the thin mattress in the chilly, damp air—if it could even be called a mattress, pockmarked with odd stains and smelling of mould.

Seeing her discomfort, Titus cast a warming charm, and Hermione had to bite her tongue to stop the instinct to say thank you.

Hermione just wanted to sleep. Something in her soul had rearranged, as if she'd lost a precious and irreplaceable piece of herself. Curling into a tight ball, knees to her stomach, she studied her surroundings. There didn't seem to be anything else in the cell, besides a metal sink and a toilet, both securely attached to the ground. There were no walls, just bars so she could peer inside other empty cells.

"Where is everyone?"

"I managed to get you a more private setting." Titus sat on the edge of the mattress and brushed the curls off her face. "I didn't want you in the vicinity of the criminals."

"Hm, you gave me such a beautiful room. Thanks ever so."

She'd meant it to be cutting, but his lips twitched.

"Save your sarcasm for when you're rested." He dug his hand into her curls and caressed her cheekbone with his thumb. "The first unforgiveable is always the most painful, but it's only a small cut. Your soul will heal."

"Why am I so tired?"

"You overextended your magic, causing your body to start to shut down. You've already spent the night at St. Mungos with strict orders to finish your potions."

Wandless magic tended to be more powerful, but it rushed out quicker in an uncontrolled wave. A wand slowed it down, protecting the caster's energy levels.

The hand cradling her face so tenderly made her angry— that he would have the audacity to show affection after stopping her from exacting her revenge and then arresting her. He'd even put her in a bloody prison cell! Not to mention everything else he'd done. She wanted to slap his hand away, but her exhaustion ran too deep. His touch felt good on her heated forehead. Was she feverish?

"What's going to happen to me?"

"We'll worry about that tomorrow. Try to sleep off the side effects for now."

The pull of sleep was too strong to resist, and she quickly succumbed to its lullaby.

Later in the night, a large body curled up beside her, pulling her close and wrapping a strong arm around her. The weight soothed whatever pain lingered inside her soul.

"I'm so furious with you," a voice whispered in her ear. "None of this would have ever happened if you'd have been with me. No—" he paused, changing his mind. "I'm not going to blame you– it's my fault for allowing you to win. I should have followed my instincts and not tried to placate you." A soft warmth pressed on her forehead. "Dark magic isn't something to do on a whim. Your soul is too pure for it, Sprite."

Sprite? No, that wasn't right. It was supposed to be Granger.

The hand trailed down her spine in a soothing motion. "You're too reckless for your own good."


A forceful breath billowed her hair. The fingers dropped off her spine and curled into a fist near her hip.

After a few moments, he detangled himself from her, despite her attempts to keep him close, still seeking comfort.

"Don't leave me," she begged.

The person ignored her and walked to the door, but hesitated before exiting. Leaning forward, he rested his forehead against the hard metal, taking deep breaths as if to calm down.

Her brain sorted itself out enough to realise the man hadn't been Draco.

"Titus?" The potion he'd given her only made her exhaustion and mental confusion worse.

He straightened and opened the door without looking at her.

A man in an auror uniform stood right outside, and Titus grabbed him by the collar, pulling him close, until he stood on his tiptoes, so they were eye to eye.

"No one visits her without my permission," Titus threatened. "Do you understand?"

"Yes sir."

"If she asks for me, come get me right away."

"Yes sir."

"Disobey any of these orders, and you won't like the consequences."

"Yes sir," the other man answered, looking like he might piss his pants in fear.

Titus set the man down again, resembling a giant next to the auror. Bigger than the space trying to contain him.

Or maybe this was all a hallucination.

Right before walking out of her cell, Titus turned his head and met her stare. "I need to think."

Hermione didn't answer, and he didn't give any further explanation as he fled. She listened until the shuffle of his boots faded into the dark.

Shortly after waking, having lost her notion of time, the auror outside her cell opened the door. He flicked on the overhead light, and she blinked in discomfort at the sudden change.

"Stand up," he ordered. "No sudden movements and hold out your wrists."

Hermione played with the idea of resistance, but she complied. The grey shackles snapped as they fastened. Made of magically reinforced steel, they didn't smother her magic, but they did make it hard to move, which hindered her ability to cast.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"I'm not allowed to say."

Titus had never returned, and she didn't know if that relieved her or made her more wary.

The auror grabbed her upper arm and pulled her in front of him. Despite his size, she felt the strength behind the touch and the tip of his wand at the base of her spine.

The auror led her through a maze of corridors she'd never been into. After opening a random door, he pushed her into a white room so bright it almost blinded her, which only housed a table and two chairs that faced each other.

An interrogation.

Her nerves bunched in her stomach.

After directing her to a metal chair and forcing her down, the auror stood off to the side and waited.

The bright walls reflected off the shiny metal table. It gave her a sharp headache, only relieved when she shut her eyes tight and placed her forehead in her hands, linked together on the table in front of her.

In her boredom, she reviewed the events that led to her sitting in the ministry awaiting interrogation.

Hermione didn't feel guilty for cursing Blaise. If she could, she'd do it again. Her only regret was not finishing the job.

Avada Kedavra— and she would have meant it. Though given her state of severe exhaustion, it might have killed her too.

She wondered what the purebloods would have done then?

The door opened, tearing her from her memories, and a stunning woman walked inside.

She had light brown skin and a perfect crown of curls, framing killer cheekbones. Amber eyes glowed under the light. An aquiline nose offset features almost perfect. Bright white strands intermixed into the woman's dark hair. Hermione sat up fully, wondering who she was.

But Hermione didn't have to wonder for long. The woman pointed a finger at her— blood red nails with a diamond embedded in each tip.

"Twice now you've harmed my son. I should tear out your tongue. What's the use for a mudblood to speak? I'm not sure why we allow vermin like you to keep the ability."

Now, Hermione saw the resemblance— the arresting eyes, the cheekbones cut like a sculpture. The violent personality. Blaise Zabini may be a monster, but he favoured his stunning mother.

"You're not allowed in here," the auror said, as if shaking off a trance.

The woman twisted, hair flying, and glared at him, holding eye contact longer than normal.

"Do be quiet and stay out of my way," the woman's voice sounded like silk.

At the command, he clicked his jaw closed and returned to his previous position, eyes glazed.

The hair on the back of Hermione's neck prickled.

The longer Hermione looked at Blaise's mum, the more her whole appearance seemed off— unnaturally smooth skin, eyes too shiny under the light, a sway to the way she walked.

A veela— she realised. Or at least, part veela. The odd white streaks of hair against the pitch black curls gave her away. The charm that Veelas produced worked best on men, but even Hermione found it hard to look away from the vision before her, luring in her prey.

It made sense now why his mother held sway over a few of the powerful men in the government.

With the guard out of the way, Zabini's mother transferred her attention to Hermione and cocked her head.

"They told me not to touch you, but you know the saying— it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Besides, it's just your tongue. Maybe I'll even cook it up and serve it as a nice little dinner. I'll make that ungrateful whore— hm, what was her name? Jenny?"

"Julie," Hermione corrected through clenched teeth.

"Yes, I'll serve it to Jenny and ask her how silence tastes."

The familiar rage vibrated under Hermione's skin, helping her to focus. It was hard to concentrate in the woman's presence, but not impossible.

"Touch me." Hermione raised her wrists. "And I'll demonstrate how I almost killed your son." Casting might be difficult, but she'd try her best.

"You're a feral thing. I wonder if you'll still be able to scream when it's gone. You should—"

The door opened, interrupting her. Blinking her eyes, Hermione realised the woman was closer than she thought, within arms' length. She'd been so distracted, staring at her face, she hadn't even noticed her move.

A dangerous veela trick, Hermione realised.

"What are you doing here, Nera?" Titus' hard voice cut a path through them, bringing her back to focus. "Filibus ordered you to stay away from this."

Zabini's mother twisted on the sharp points of her heels. Her dress shimmered under the bright light, slicked against her wicked curves. She smirked, and it was as sharp as a knife.

Titus walked to the table in his auror uniform, eyes trained on Nera.

"Allow me to talk to her," her voice sounded like honey. "I promise to get all the answers you need."

It was meant to entice, but Titus only scowled back.

"Your tricks won't work on me. I take the correct potions." Titus tugged out a chair. "Now get out. You're impeding an auror investigation."

"I demand to oversee," she hissed back. "Everyone knows you are deep in her treacherous little cunt. What have you traded to be the one to interrogate her?"

Titus' expression turned even colder.

"Say another word, and I will no longer ask in a civil way." He pulled out his curved wand and placed it near him. "Given I was the one who removed your son's fingers, you should understand that I'm serious. I've been tasked with questioning her, and that does not include you."

Nera's face transformed, exposing the creature resting beneath. Unlike the guard, Titus did not crack.

"I'll speak to Filibus about this corruption."

"Please do."

Nera seemed as if she wanted to tear Titus apart with her bare hands, but she gave a scowl to Hermione.

"Next time, he won't be able to save you, house pet." She dragged a nail along the surface of the table as she walked toward the door, causing a horrific screech.

Hermione pressed her lips together until the woman and the guard—still in a daze— exited the room, leaving her alone with Titus.

Hermione suspected there might be some truth to Nera's words. Titus must have called in a favour to interrogate her without witnesses. Or maybe now he owed a favour.

The full force of his glare turned to her, showing his displeasure. He dug in his pocket and took out a parchment and a quill. After he smoothed out the parchment, he charmed the quill to stand on its own, able to write down verbal notes on command. Now ready to proceed, he sank down in the opposite metal chair.

"I will start by saying how stupid your actions were." His voice was ragged, as if he had used it too much. "I've spent many hours arguing on your behalf."

"With Dolohov?"

A sharp nod answered her. "You should know he suggested that you be put down."

"Put me down?" Hermione snapped her head up. "Like execution?"

Titus took off his black gloves, one after the other, leaving his hands bare. He ran one over his face and through his hair.

"Between Lucius and me, we talked him down to a more tolerable punishment." His hard stare softened, staring at her. She wondered if her fear showed, face paling. "Don't worry, I wouldn't have let him kill you. There are plenty of options besides death, but you are on thin ice in your current circumstance."

She didn't know what he meant.

"Am I being taken from Draco?"

The thought hadn't occurred to her, but now that it did, the dread entered her. Drowned her. She placed a hand to her chest, feeling like she might hyperventilate.

"Lucius still holds plenty of power," Titus said slowly. "But this cost him a lot. Unfortunately, Draco gets to keep you— for now."

Her nervous system calmed down, and Titus gave her time to absorb the news.

"But you still need to interrogate me?" Hermione asked, finally able to breathe.

"I do, mostly for my own answers." He flicked his wand, and the quill trembled, ready to mark his questions. Hermione swallowed hard. "I'll need to know where you learned the spells. Along with that, you need to vow you'll never attack Zabini or use the unforgivables again."

Another unbreakable vow. One that would magically defang her forever.

"I refuse."

Titus snorted and groaned, still rubbing his face with his hand. She hated that he treated it like a joke. "Maybe you are a Gryffindor. No self-preservation." And then his eyes narrowed. "Or maybe I've protected you too long from your own mistakes."

"Zabini needs to know that if he hurts Julie, there will be retribution. I want him terrified to even breathe around me. I refuse to place myself in a magical contract that prevents that."

The quill still scratched along as she spoke, the only sound in the room, recording everything she said. Until Titus reached over, picked up the quill, snapped it in two, and threw it over his shoulder. Then he set the parchment on fire and let it burn near him, while he glowered at her.

"This is no longer funny, Sprite."

"I'm not joking."

"I was the one who thought up the vow, knowing how much your magic means to you. Either take the vow, or they'll place you in obsidian."

"Then I choose to lose my magic. I'm sure I could still kill him by muggle means."

A beat of silence, and then Titus barked out a laugh. He stared at the ceiling, as if asking a deity for patience. When he met her eyes again, he still wore a smile.

"Merlin, I miss you."

Hermione shifted in her seat in discomfort at the way he looked at her then, as if she made his world and broke it at the same time.

"He's raping Julie, beating her… selling her." It was hard to get the words out without her voice cracking. "How could anyone stand aside and let that happen?"

Titus picked up his wand and tapped a beat on the table, as if thinking.

"If you want, I could have a talk with him. Or I could ask the ministry to put protection charms on her, especially when she's pregnant. It's illegal to—"

"I want you to take her from him. You're an auror. You could—"

Titus slammed his fist on the table.

"Stop it, Hermione. I know you aren't that naive. I may have some power, but I can't just–"

"That's a load of bollocks!" Hermione stood up, bracing her shackled hands on the table, leaning over it. "I heard what you offered Malfoy. Don't lie to me about what you can do."

The power to make people disappear, he'd said. A seat on the wizengamot. Surely, that was more expensive than a Zabini, even if he was the last one. Even if his mother was a veela with connections to powerful men.

In answer, Titus stood, chair legs screeching and matched her stance, leaning over close to her.

"Those were things I was willing to risk for you. If you were mine, maybe I'd consider helping your friend. But you're not. You left me on purpose, so why the fuck should I do anything for you?"

Titus returned to his chair and crossed his arms along his chest. She'd forgotten how physically imposing he was. In this small room, he seemed to take up most of the space. His blue eyes glowed right beside the blindingly light walls.

Hermione took several panting breaths, attempting to control herself, and she sat. His response broke her heart. He could be so much better, so much braver.

"Tabitha once told me that as a boy you wanted to be a dragon knight," her voice cracked again. "You wanted to save maidens from evil men. Zabini is that evil man, Titus. You could—"

"That boy died with my parents." Once again, his stare did not meet her eyes. "He was young and stupid. He didn't know what evil was yet. But as a man, I now understand I can't save everyone. A man needs to choose the people he can protect, and he needs to forget the rest." Titus pinched the bridge of his nose. "But, despite that knowledge and everything inside me telling me not to, I'm willing to offer a deal. Because the way you're looking at me is intolerable."

"A deal? I can't believe—"

"It's not what you're thinking. Come to dinner at the manor, and we'll discuss it there."

Hermione didn't dissect the instant recoil in her gut at the thought of even visiting Nott manor again.

"I won't be allowed."

"Allowed? I thought Malfoy never denied you anything. If that's true, then he should have no problem with you stopping by to visit. Tabitha misses you dearly and so does Bitty. I even think Eddy has shed a tear or two. And you can use the opportunity to gather your belongings."

It felt like a trap.

"I'm not stepping back inside your manor."

"My manor? It was your home too."

"It was my prison."

Titus jolted in his seat, as if she had just cursed him.

"Fuck Hermione, you almost killed a pureblood. If it wasn't for Lucius and me, you might be sitting in Azkaban right now. I think you'd quickly change your definition of a prison."

She'd been rash with Blaise. She could admit that. But she'd been backed into a corner by a beast. Her friend would have been hurt in front of her if she hadn't acted right then. She'd rather be impulsive than a coward.


"And say you had killed Zabini? What then? Who would she have gone to next? These are things you need to figure out before you shed blood."

True, when she finally murdered Blaise— and she would— she'd be much slyer about it.

"Did you get everything you needed for your interrogation?" she asked. "Because I'll never agree to a vow."

His eyes flicked over her. Absent of the glare, she saw the pain, the longing. And then they sharpened, as if ripping into her mind.

"No, but I suspect your knowledge of the unforgiveables came from the same source you learned the duelling spells; therefore, it was my fault— my leniency— that you acquired this knowledge." He stood up and pocketed his wand. The beginnings of occluding deadened his expression. "So here's my last warning—If you ever manage to use an unforgivable again, I will no longer be lenient."

He tore his eyes from her and let the warning linger between them as he made his way to the door and walked out, leaving her alone in the bright white room.

Dolohov came in much later. He carried a bag by his side that jangled when dropped near the table. After sitting, he stared at her until, no matter how hard she tried, she squirmed in her seat in discomfort.

Her instinct screamed with the danger of being alone in this man's presence.

"Did you know that humans domesticated dogs over thirty thousand years ago?" he asked in a bored voice.

Hermione waited, wondering if it was a rhetorical question.

"I did not."

"Humans took a wolf— a predator— and enticed it to behave. Perform tricks for mere scraps of sustenance. After generations of selective breeding, they became perfect pets, providing a multitude of services. They revel in their submission to us. Do everything they can to please us, and they are perfect companions— until they bite." He pulled out his wand, made of a light brown wood. Several bulbous shapes interrupted what would have been a straight, rigid length. "Tell me, Hermione, what should a master do with an aggressive dog?"

"Perhaps they have a reason to bite."

Dolohov grinned. He gave a flick of his wand, and a shadow exited the tip. It twirled across the table and onto the floor, materialising into a giant black dog with red eyes that stood right next to her.

She froze, amazed at the level of magic.

"In some ways, this is opposite of a patronus," he explained. "Born of hate, and able to be manipulated into any shape I will it to be."

She'd never seen or read anything like it. In a normal circumstance, she'd attempt to discover everything about it.

But the dog growled, and her instincts prickled. It prowled forward, circling her legs. The corporal shadow sparked her nerves with the barest touch, almost painful. She did her best to ignore it.

"Much like Titus, I enjoy my pets lively." Dolohov continued. "A little bark. A playful snarl. But a truly dangerous dog no longer has a purpose. For the safety of the whole, it must be—" he seemed to be thinking. "Do help me with the correct word."

"Culled," Hermione provided, already knowing what he suggested.

The giant dog opened his mouth, closing its shadow teeth around her calf without biting. Her skin pricked with pain, and she did everything to stay still.

"You're such an intelligent pet," he mocked. "Unfortunately, with your particular breed, it can be a detrimental trait if not correctly managed." He reached down and grabbed the grey bag, placing it on the table with a heavy clang. "There are several methods to correct disobedience. If a dog likes to bite, it must first be muzzled and trained." Reaching in the bag, he took out the obsidian shackles. She knew they were coming, but she still flinched at the sight. "Do you know what these are?"

Hermione leaned back in her chair and didn't answer him.

"I think you do, so I don't need to explain what you're about to lose. Give me your wrist."

Hermione hesitated, but there wasn't an alternative. She extended her hands. Dolohov released the shackle on her right hand, calloused fingers pressing hard to her skin in a nauseating way, and replaced it with the obsidian, closing it with a sickening snap.

The effects were immediate. The familiar buzzing of magic right under her hand slipped away, rendering her as effective as a muggle.

"Your magic has always been a privilege, something that could have been taken away at any moment. I only regret that I didn't do it right after your Trials, especially since you proved to be so disappointing."

That was his true ire with her. He'd placed a lot of hope on her ritual, and he still hadn't forgiven her.

Dolohov reached for her other wrist. She grimaced, hating the sound created as he slid the shackle off, replacing it with the smothering sensation.

After shackling her completely, he sat back. Her eyes burned with unshed tears, and she was grateful she couldn't cry, if only to deny Dolohov what he wanted.

"Is that it?" she asked.

"Not quite."

He snapped his fingers.

A force constricted her lungs, leaving her unable to take in a breath. She grabbed at her throat, at her chest. She clawed at her skin, desperate for a drop of oxygen, afraid her lungs might collapse. She opened her mouth, panic drowning her, and then she tumbled out of her chair, landing hard against the tile.

The shadow dog snapped its jaw closed on her leg and shook its head. A silent scream exited her mouth as she attempted to kick it away, to no avail. There were no wounds and no blood, but the pain felt real. Slicing skin. Ripping tendons. Crunching bones.

Dolohov stood up slowly and wandered around, viewing her with apathy as she contorted in pain. Hermione always prided herself on her internal strength, but in that moment, she knew she'd do anything to breathe, for the elimination of pain. She'd promise and beg and humiliate herself.

Please, she wished to ask, trying to grab his boot, but he shoved her hand aside with the tip of the dragonhide and glared down at her coldly.

The torture continued, until she thought he might kill her. Until she feared the dog would rip her leg away.

A second snap of his fingers, and the constriction lifted. The dog disintegrated into smoky wisps. She gasped in a deep breath of air, and it hurt as it entered her lungs, her whole body trembling. She sobbed on the ground, still gasping, snot running down her nose, feeling like she might vomit.

"Such a pathetic creature." He reached down and grabbed the back of her neck, digging his hands into her skin. He lifted her and, with heavy force, slammed her face down on the table, smacking her forehead into the hard surface.

"From now on, you'll be an obedient little pet," he snarled. "All you're required to do is lay back, spread those pretty legs, and perform your duty. In return, you'll be fed and housed. Frankly, that's a better life than I think a filthy mudblood like you deserves." He leaned down near her ear. "So if you continue to bite the hand that feeds you, I'll show you what I'd wanted to do to your race of insects before the curse." He pressed harder and harder, until she thought her neck would snap. A single cry of pain escaped her mouth. As if that was the cue he waited for, he let up the pressure. "Don't become my problem."

He straightened and walked to the door, wiping his hands on his robe, as if touching her had disgusted him.

She waited a long time to move after he left, resting on the table to regain her breath, waiting for the pain to dissipate. Until, finally, she managed to sit up and rubbed her nose, staring at her shackles in loathing, hating the new weight dragging her to the ground. Hating the absence of magic.

It wasn't until much later that she realised something important about the whole interaction.

Dolohov had cast his magic nonverbally— most of it wandless.

A low-level ministry employee led her out of the room, hand grasping her upper arm. Draco waited at the floos, standing alongside Lucius. The elder Malfoy looked at her in undisguised disgust.

White blond hair. Icy grey eyes. Cold expression. Relief overwhelmed her at the sight, though her body still buzzed from the torture. It remained invisible, crawling along her nerves.

"You're far more trouble than you're worth." Lucius loomed over her. "I lost favour with two Wizengamot members today, because of your proclivity for trouble. Do a stunt like that again—"

"Yes," she managed to rasp out, throat sore. "Dolohov was perfectly clear what would happen."

Lucius grit his teeth at her, but Draco placed a hand on his father's chest before he could respond, manoeuvring his way between them.

"Leave us. I'll punish her."

"You better. And I must remind you that part of the deal—"

"Absolute silence," Draco said. "Especially around certain insane family members. You've already told me three times."

Lucius continued to glare at her like she was some bug he considered squashing, but he nodded and turned.

Draco was occluding severely— that was the first thing she noticed as he grabbed her arm like the ministry employee had, except tighter. So tight his grip cut off the circulation.

He tugged, leading her to the floos. The main floor was emptier than usual. The men and women walking past were acting like they weren't paying attention, but she felt their eyes as he herded her forward.

"You're hurting–"

"Not a single word." His dark tone caused a tingle to zip down her spine, but his hold did loosen just a little.

They arrived at the floo. She stared at him, attempting to break through his walls as he grabbed onto the powder, throwing it into the cinders.

"Malfoy manor," he said and shoved her forward. She tumbled through, and he came after, landing in the formal sitting room with the silk yellow couches. Before she could do anything, he twisted her around and grabbed her under her chin with a hard hold, tugging her body close to his.

"What were you thinking?" He seethed. "Did you know Titus argued to take you back?"

She didn't know that, but she suspected it based on his warnings.

"I didn't—"

"And Dolohov wanted to kill you. I don't think you understand the gravity of what you just did."

Every single cell in her body stood on end as Draco leaned down to meet her eyes. He was still occluding, but by his words, she knew he was more than angry with her.

"I was protecting my friend."

"I don't fucking care!" His composure finally broke. Red spots splashed across his cheeks, blooming along his neck.

"She's your—" Hermione wasn't sure if he considered her a cousin or not.

"She's nothing to me. Father doesn't like Aunt Bella. Do you think he ever allowed me around them unsupervised? Do you think he sent me to their home for afternoon tea?"

"Well, she's important to me. If you care for me at all—"

"She's not worth losing you."

Hermione wanted to slap him for that, but she stopped herself.

"If this is your way of being the opposite of Titus, then you're failing. He'd try to convince me I was wrong for protecting my friend, just like you are. So go ahead and be like him."

His free hand grabbed a fistful of her hair, oddly gentle. The other hand tightened along her chin, and his lips came down as if to kiss her, but he stopped moments before contact.

Hermione felt dazed. On instinct, her own hands reached out, grabbing along his waist, feeling the tight muscles beneath the thin shirt.

"Maybe I am a little like him," he whispered against her lips. "Because the thought of you getting taken from me makes me— insane. I want to touch you. To be touched by you. I want to possess you in the way you possess me."

His face dropped to her neck, and he ghosted his lips on the skin below her chin. She gasped at the phantom contact. She could barely pay attention to his words, distracted by the tingle of nerves he left in the wake of soft lips just brushing toward her ear and up as he returned to her mouth, hovering over them. An unfulfilled promise. A demonstration of what he wanted.

"But no matter how much I wish to possess you, I refuse to have you as my fucking prisoner." He let go of her, leaving her stunned, and dug in his cloak, extracting an odd circle. He pressed it over one obsidian shackle and then the other and watched as each opened and clattered to the floor. Magic rushed back to her fingertips in glorious waves. "With me, you'll always be free."

"What is that?"

"The Blacks owned a universal key. It was my mother's and no one knows of it."

He risked a lot by doing this.

"Malfoy—" she reached her hand up by instinct. She wasn't sure what she'd intended, but he grabbed it in a tight hold before it touched his face.

"Don't," he said.

It felt like rejection, and she didn't stop and wonder at the way it constricted her chest just like Dolohov's curse.


"I don't have a lot of control over myself right now, and I don't think I could be gentle. So if you have any respect for me, you won't torture me. Save your nauseating gratitude. I don't want it."

He shoved her hand back to her chest, and she looked up at him, confused with their interaction. With the way her heart clenched.

The desire to touch him hadn't been out of gratitude. Or had it?

"I had to do it. Zabini threatened to—"

"Stop." Draco sighed. "I'll be able to listen to your reasons later, but right now I'm so furious, I can't think straight."

"Oh— okay."

Hermione stepped back, cheeks burning. He glared at her retreat, as if he hated that she obeyed his request. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then he turned and walked toward the door. But before he exited, he stopped and stared hard at her.

"If you ever have an urge to murder someone, please involve me first. Killing in this world needs to be either subtle or with the confidence of acquittal."

"You could involve your aunt. That would absolve us both from solving the problem."

"That would not be subtle. She doesn't know yet, and no one else would dare to tell her. Very few people saw what really happened. It would be easy to find the source." He clenched a fist by his side. "If you want me to eliminate Blaise, I will, but it'll take time and patience, even more so than before."

For a moment, she saw what he wished to hide. Rapid breathing. Furrowed brow. Nostrils flared. It could have been anger, but for the wide eyes.

Fear stared back at Hermione.

Whatever he'd overheard discussed about her had shaken him.

Yet, despite his reservations, he still freed her and offered to help with her original goal, putting himself at risk in both cases.

"Draco—" she started again, but he turned and left the room, his expression shuttered.

Now alone, she did nothing but rub her empty wrists and stare down at the open obsidian shackles.

For years, she thought she wanted nothing more than a choice. But Hermione was starting to understand that she wanted more than scraps thrown in exchange for sustenance. She didn't want protection in exchange for submission. She refused to be the dog to a master, even a benign one.

What Hermione wanted more than anything was freedom.

And only Draco had ever offered to give it to her.