Song Suggestion: Bad Omens– "The Death of Peace of Mind"

Cat and Mouse

A spray of crimson. A blinding pain.

Hermione crashed into the front sitting room, just barely missing the glass Aphrodite next to the side table. She groaned in agony, glancing down at her wrist to find her hand gone, dark red blood flowing from the stump, already creating a puddle on the floor.

"Vulnera Sanentur!" she yelled three times between gasping breaths, attempting to stop the bleeding, but the pain blocked the sharpened intention needed to complete it. She'd gotten so proficient using both wrists for wandless magic that losing one crippled her.


On call, the elf popped into the room and placed a delicate mottled hand against her mouth. "Mistress Hermione!"

The next few moments were a blur. Hermione watched in a stupor as the elf performed basic first aid as best as she could. The numbing spells cracked over her, trickling down her skin like an icy stream.

"Where's Draco?" she asked through gritted teeth.

"Master hasn't been at the manor for days."

Another spell tied off her veins with a severe pinch, preventing further blood loss.

"Where's Theo?"

"Master's friend has relocated to his flat."

Hermione was alone in the manor.

With the brief cessation of pain, she attempted to grab onto the yellow silk sofa to raise herself, but she collapsed again, leaving a bloody handprint behind. Her body still ached from the beating, and losing a hand paralysed her thoughts. Unable to believe what just happened, she leaned her head against the floor, shivering in shock, while Mipsy cleaned off what blood she could on her body and the floor.

Titus knew her destination. She'd been forced to say Malfoy Manor. Soon he'd arrive, which meant she needed to get out of the manor as soon as possible.

But where should she go? Apparition was out of the question, leaving only floo or broom travel. If she went anywhere public, she'd be detained, and she had no time to get polyjuice.

Maybe she could go to Theo's flat? It wouldn't be a long term solution, but he'd hide her if she asked, and then he could possibly reconnect her with Draco.

No matter what, she just needed to make it to the fireplace.

Cradling her splinched arm against her chest, Hermione almost vomited as she forced herself to lopsidedly crawl, still dizzy from the litany of spells placed on her.

The pop of floo stopped her journey as a familiar figure swished through the low flames, trailing green sparks with him.

Titus loomed over her, stuck within the boundaries of the fireplace, his face severe, blue eyes cold and sharp as daggers. Despite him not being able to walk into the room without being decapitated, the danger he presented slicked down her spine.

"You're in very big trouble, Sprite."

A whistling sound sliced through the air, screeching before dissipating.

"What was that?" Her stomach sank while forcing herself to stand on wobbling legs. Blood had dripped and dried in patches along her skin—her own indistinguishable from the men she'd killed.

"We've disabled the other floos," Titus explained. "And ministry elves have added anti-apparition wards outside the property. All known exits out of the manor to the grounds are being monitored, and as soon as we get past the wards, we'll be setting up caterwauling charms along the perimeter of the building. You're officially under arrest, Hermione."

Without meaning to, she backed away, clutching her arm tighter to her chest in fear.

He glanced down at her retreating feet and then at her empty, bloody wrist. Slowly, as if not to spook her, he held out his hand, giving a beckoning motion to walk toward him. "You need medical attention and must be in so much pain. Resisting this will only hurt you further. Come to me, and let me bring you to St. Mungo's to reattach your hand." He patted his pocket, showing a bulge under the fabric where her missing limb resided.

Her stomach lurched again at the sight, a phantom pain running down her arm. She thought she might pass out with the reminder that she was missing a body part, swaying on her feet. "What's the point of healing me, if Dolohov will just kill me afterward?"

"You're going to have to trust me."

Why did he always tell her to trust him, as if he hadn't lied to her in multiple ways throughout her life? As if he hadn't twisted his words to suit his needs before? She'd never trust him again.

Even if she survived Dolohov, she doubted there wouldn't be punishment.

No, Draco was her top priority. She needed to warn him.

"Mipsy, go tell your master that the aurors are arresting me, and they'll come for him next. Tell him—" she hesitated, realising what she had to sacrifice. Titus might kill Draco if he showed up trying to protect her. "Tell him to stay away and hide. It's too dangerous."

The boundaries the aurors created wouldn't hold in Mipsy, even with elf made anti-apparition wards, but it would prevent Hermione from going with her.

The elf tugged on her ears. "But mistress Hermione, I can't leave you—"

"I order you to go!"

Since Draco had given Mipsy instructions to always listen to her, the family magic worked instantly. The elf appeared distressed as she raised her skinny arm and vanished.

"All your efforts to evade me will be futile," Titus said in an even tone. "If you don't surrender on your own, then I'll begin working on breaking the wards— though we might not have to, since we've already detained Lucius at the ministry."

Hermione shivered at the revelation. She took another step backward, and his eyes snapped to her feet again.

"Last warning." He raised his wand.

She refused to make this easy for him and march to her punishment like a good little slave.

"If you want to arrest me, then it will be bound and dragged from here."

"For a year, I've desired to steal you from this manor, and I'm no longer waiting. So go ahead and run, but I'll find you." Titus clenched his jaw and violently slammed his wand against the wards. "Confracto!" The walls of the room creaked with the force, shaking the floor under her feet.

Hermione took his advice and ran, only glancing back once to see Titus carving smoking runes in the air around him, combating the ward retaliation. The burning symbols glowed bright red, leaking tendrils of dark soot. Sweat dripped down Titus' temple, teeth clenched in a grimace of focused concentration, but his eyes stayed locked on her as she staggered out of the sitting room.

Her blind escape slowed toward the bottom of the grand staircase, not knowing what to do. At any moment, either bribery or force could have Lucius letting them past the wards. If it didn't benefit himself, she doubted he would hold out long.

Since the exits were being monitored, her only option to escape would be to find the Malfoy safe rooms and then a ward hole. But it had taken years to discover the one at Nott manor, and even then, it was found only by chance. The odds of her finding the Malfoy Manor ward hole today on her own—

Her body snapped straight, realising something obvious.

No one would know the secrets of the manor— except a Malfoy. Lucky for her, the manor was full of them, even if they were no longer living.

And one of them in particular was very… chatty.

With a clear destination, Hermione renewed her determination and scrambled up the staircase. Each footstep caused a stabbing pain through her nerves, jolting past Mipsy's healing charms. Behind her, she heard the crash of magic, felt the trembling in the edges of the manor.

When she scaled the last step of the staircase, stepping into the east corridor, the assault on the wards abruptly ceased. Hermione paused, listening carefully in the sudden silence, insides clenching in fear. Tearing down ancient wards like the Malfoys' should have taken days, possibly weeks, even with specialised help.

There shouldn't be silence so soon, which meant the wards hadn't cracked.

The aurors had been let inside.

"Hurry, hurry," a young girl yelled from a portrait. "They're coming your way."

She listened to the portrait. Doing her best to ignore the growing pain, she travelled the familiar route to the sculpture gallery, displaying busts fashioned after distinguished ancestors.

Septimus Malfoy perched toward the center of the slumbering statues. She'd listened to his stories for hours when she'd first moved to the manor, so she picked him out from the crowd easily.

"Septimus—" she whispered. "Wake up. I need your help."

When she tapped his neck, he opened his heavy stone eyelids.

"Hermione! It's been so long since you've graced me with your—"

She placed her finger to his lips for quiet.

Footsteps echoed down the corridor she'd just exited.

An auror was close.

Septimus must have sensed her fear, because when she lunged past him and flung herself behind a tall silk curtain, he didn't say another word.

Hermione forced herself to be still, gathering her magic into her remaining hand as fast as possible. It tingled as it descended her arm but remained weaker than normal.

The pathetic accumulated amount wouldn't help her win a duel, especially against a person trained for it, even if she surprised them. Instead of fighting, she needed to hide, and a simple curtain wasn't enough to conceal her from an auror.

Hermione stared at the busts around her, struck by another idea. The aurors would use revealing spells to make their search go faster. But any spell could be manipulated, given the nature of the magic. All she needed to do was bypass detection by transforming into something not so human.

Create an illusion.

"Duro Cutis." Hermione twisted her wrist, and the skin on her fingers began to turn grey and hardened. Compared to when she'd first landed, she managed better focus, though her magic still felt clumsy with only one hand. The stone skin spread along her limbs, stopping just below her neck. "Work," she urged, but despite her efforts, the spell began to recede. Frustration overwhelmed her. If she'd possessed both hands, completing the transfiguration would have been simple to achieve.

She controlled her breathing, pushing her fear into the empty books in her mind, knowing occluding might be the difference between life and death. Renewing the spell, the stone skin spread to most of her lower body, though it still remained incomplete as an auror entered the room.

Like she predicted, the woman raised her wand and muttered a Homenum Revelio.

An invisible presence swooped over her— a shadow— but didn't press down like it normally would, passing her by.

With the inconclusive results, the auror stared down at her wand in confusion, shaking it a few times.

She tried the spell again. The shadow swooped down, and once again passed her by, giving inconclusive results for the second time.

"Forgive me, my dear," Septimus spoke up from his perch. "But a revealing spell is useless in a room full of animated human statues. The results will always be ambiguous."

That was a lie. Portraits, statues, and ghosts could never be mistaken by magic as being alive. They were just impressions. Like a mirror image.

But the falsehood, said with confident authority, managed to convince the auror. She seemed young for the position, perhaps only a few years out of Hogwarts, and not everyone had studied advanced transfiguration as obsessively as Hermione.

Always the conversationalist, Septimus continued to ask questions. "Are you looking for someone?"

"A muggleborn," the woman answered. "Perhaps you've seen her before—"

"That filthy mudblood! Fouling our hallowed halls with her abhorrent magic. I saw her run past this room not but a minute ago. Am I fortunate enough to hope that you'll remove the lingering stench of that abomination?"

The woman gave a low snort of laughter. "That's our plan."

"Then may Morgana quicken your steps. From portrait gossip, she likes to linger in the old atrium near the ballroom."

The woman nodded her head. "Thank you very much."

Hermione waited until the woman exited the statuary before she allowed herself to blink. It took another full minute for her to dare reverse the transfiguration, and right on time. Her magic had depleted much faster than normal, fingers already exposed. A third Homenum Revelio might not have been so inconclusive.

After removing the stone skin, painful twinges emerged that hadn't been there before, the charms Mipsy applied already dissipating, as if she'd ripped off a bandage that had adhered to the wound.

"It's safe now," Septimus whispered. "I hope you don't take any offence to the rotten words I used. I thought it prudent to remove her as fast as possible."

"No offence taken." She stepped out from behind the curtain, attempting to cast a disillusionment charm, but her energy had depleted so much, it failed. "Are there any routes out of the manor? Secret passageways for the heirs?"

"In the Master bedroom. They change the location with each new Malfoy, but it's usually in a cabinet or a wardrobe. If you tap it three times, a door will open to reveal a tunnel that will exit into the greenhouse. But I must warn you— it usually only opens to family members or wives."

She wondered if it would even let her through, since she wasn't technically a Malfoy.

"Are there any others?"

"Not that I know about."

"What about getting off the property after that?"

Even with his expressions hindered by stone, Septimus managed to look contemplative. "In my search for it as a youth, I never found a ward hole. But there is a gateway the gardeners used to use to exit the grounds. Once they left, they couldn't reenter except by the gate or through the floo, of course, but I think it would help you escape."

"Where is it?"

"A stone's throw past the south pond. There used to be an old oak tree, though I'm not sure if it would be there anymore, and right next to it is a statue of a gnome. Grab its hand and a door will appear."

Perfect. Despite her body flooding with fear, hope also bloomed inside her. She had a plan. Something to do. Somewhere to go.

"Thank you!" Hermione allowed herself to waste a few precious seconds to plant a kiss on his stone cheek. If Septimus had been living, he'd be blushing. "I'll miss your stories." He'd been her first friend in the house, making her feel welcome, even as the original portraits hissed vitriol.

"A goodbye to you too, my fair maiden. May you always—"

Hermione ran from the room before he could finish, knowing he'd continue to talk forever if she let him.

The portraits helped her navigate the corridors, informing her of the aurors' locations. She was grateful Draco had purged the ones that used to spit "mudblood" at her, leaving the ancestors who liked her— or at least tolerated her presence.

As she ran, even the ones who only tolerated her helped her move around. Though they may despise muggleborns, they hated the intruders even more.

"Hide in this alcove."

"The bald one is gone now."

"Turn around and go the other way."

Their voices whispered the correct directions until she reached the master bedroom, tiptoeing inside. Even knowing it would be a pathetic fight if she encountered an auror, she raised her wrist in preparation to defend herself, feeling vulnerable without her full magic.

Turning toward the ensuite bathroom, a shocked yelp exited her mouth. She clapped a hand against her lips after releasing the sound.

A dead auror was slumped next to a dresser. He looked to be about Titus' age, with blond hair and freckles. Blood trickled out of the side of his mouth, burn marks streaking up his arm, with one hand still attached to the drawer handle.

Draco's dresser must have been steeped in blood wards— something she hadn't known. She glanced around the room, calming herself, wondering what else might be booby trapped for the aurors.

It didn't matter. Even blood wards could be cracked or bypassed if they brought Lucius along to break them. Her only true hope was the passageway, and even that would only be temporary.

She began her search for the safe room, tapping on the cabinets under the side tables and dressers like Septimus told her, accidentally knocking over a few picture frames in the process. She didn't bother cleaning up any mess as she approached her wardrobe that housed heavy winter cloaks.

"Let this work." She opened the wardrobe, shoving some of the cloaks aside, knowing she didn't have a lot of time.

Three knocks, and the universe answered her plea. A rectangular door in the backing of the wardrobe popped open, revealing a darkened tunnel beyond.

Hermione froze a moment, wondering how it worked for her. Either Draco had added her blood to the wards without her knowing, which was entirely possible since she never seemed to have issue with touching anything in the manor— or the binding spell at the ritual was enough for the wards to consider her his bride. She touched her stomach right over the marks he'd burned into her, contemplating the idea.

She didn't second guess her luck, crawling through the makeshift door into the muggy tunnel crafted out of old stone. From her vantage point, she could see only a tunnel gradually sloping down into a darkened void, housing only cobwebs.

The door snapped closed behind her once she was fully inside, just barely missing her trouser leg. The backing turned solid again, but from this side of the tunnel, it resembled a window to the master bedroom.

The charms involved in the escape tunnel impressed her— so advanced and enduring it must have had Goblin input.

Feeling safe for the first time since she fell from Harry's broom, she let herself rest against the wall, hyperventilating from the shock and horror. She cradled her empty wrist to her chest, finally allowing herself to feel the pain, both mental and physical, leaning over with a silent scream. Everything hurt, twisting her lungs and heart into knots, grieving that she might be crippled magically forever if she couldn't get her hand back from Titus. Her wounded psyche wished to descend into despair, knowing the small odds of truly escaping this unscathed. If she stayed much longer in this fake safety, the severe exhaustion could tempt her to sleep, unable to have the strength to continue. But she needed a moment to just breathe.

"I'll get back to him. We'll be okay," she whispered the platitudes until she believed them.

Minutes later, the sound of heavy footsteps broke her internal crisis.

Hermione blinked sleepy eyes, watching as Titus stalked into her room with Thorfinn Rowle at his back. The Malfoy master bedroom was giant, but between both the men's substantial bulk, they seemed to fill up the space.

Thorfinn noticed the dead auror first. "Bloody fuck, Solberg is dead."

"Merlin, how many times do I have to repeat myself?" Titus gave a huff of exasperation. "Go remind the others for the millionth time not to touch a single fucking thing in this manor, if at all possible. There are old eviscerating charms and blood magic all over the place. Malfoy has always been interested in dark objects. Just assume everything has teeth."

"Right away, sir." Thorfinn gave a playful salute, which Titus rolled his eyes at goodnaturedly, and left the room.

Once alone, the Mediator carefully toured the room, wand clutched tightly in his hand. He stopped his inspection at the table closest to her side of the bed, noticing the picture frames that had fallen. One of them was faced up, showcasing Draco and her cuddled up on a couch, watching a movie. She'd been staring at the screen mid-laughter, but Draco had been watching her, as if drinking in the sight of her joy.

Titus grimaced in revulsion and stepped on it, cracking the glass with the heel of his boot.

After shoving it aside, Titus' stare pinned to the red bedspread beside him for a long time. She wondered what he imagined. Did he envision her naked in the sheets, curled against Draco's sleeping body? Did he think of them having sex?

Whatever played out in his mind made his hand twitch, but he withheld any other impulsive acts of destruction, bending down to search under the bed.

A hiss.

"There you are, you evil kneazle." He reached under the bed frame, tugging out a yowling Crookshanks by the scruff of his neck, red scratches lining Titus' wrists. Her orange familiar swiped at him again, but Titus kept him in a tight hold against his chest as he struggled.

"Calm, Crooks." Titus braved scratching him behind the ears. "You know I won't hurt you— so much like your mistress. Stubborn as a bull, unreasonably hostile, and unable to comprehend that you don't need to fight me." He paused, grinning. "All this time, I'd worried needlessly that you'd gotten snatched by an eagle. I should have known you'd find her. "

Titus petted her cat with firm strokes, until the traitor actually looked as if he enjoyed it, succumbing to the temptation, pushing his furry head into the palm of his hand for more. Titus gave a pleased grunt at the rare affection, before leaving her cat on the bed to continue his search of the room.

It wasn't long before he noticed the wardrobe with the door ajar— the only other thing out of place in the room. Given the heavy use of wards in the room and no extra dead bodies, it was easy to assume that whoever opened the wardrobe had lived after unlatching it.

It would have been impossible to close it behind her. But still, she almost cursed, knowing it gave her away.

Titus was no fool. Most pureblood manors had similar escape tunnels to keep the head of household safe. She'd never gone into Titus' room enough to find the one in Nott manor, but she knew it existed— so it made sense he hunted for one.

Pushing the cloaks to the side, he crouched down, examining the backing without touching— probably to determine if it had any charms. Hermione bit her hand to prevent any noise. Though she knew he couldn't see her, she tried not to catch his stare as if it might make her visible to him, disconcerting to be so close.

"Ah, you missed some blood, Sprite." He held up his hand as if to place it against the wood, but wisely didn't touch it, hovering mid-air, showing where she must have left a stain. "Don't force me to hunt you like this. I don't enjoy seeing you so afraid." He paused and sighed. "You need to understand that it won't be long until Lucius gives us further authority to enter every crevice and hiding place in this manor, leaving you cornered. It would be better if you surrendered to me now."

The words were meant to tempt her closer, but they repelled her. It gave her renewed energy to stand, hoping the barrier was soundproof.

She shouldn't have allowed herself to rest in the first place. Titus was right— there was nowhere safe in the whole manor. If she stayed, then in time she'd be discovered.

Hermione travelled the gradual slope of the stone tunnel, swiping away cobwebs, refusing to listen to Titus'empty promises.

Get past the pond. Find the gnome statue. Exit the manor grounds. Find Draco… Get back to the Order.

She repeated the steps in her mind to comfort herself.

The tunnels were chilly and uneven, causing her to stagger the whole time. She'd managed to cast a weak Lumos, hovering above her until the path abruptly ended. On the stone wall, there was a metal ladder, leading to a trap door above her head.

With only one available hand, she struggled on the ladder, almost slipping a time or two before pulling herself up with great effort.

Hermione hesitated at the top, pushing up the small door, revealing the vibrant flora of the greenhouse. She crawled out and winced at the creaking wooden floor, hoping no one was close enough to hear. Once fully inside, she collapsed on the floorboards, her face near a box of flies for the carnivorous vines.

She couldn't go on much longer. Eventually, she'd pass out from sheer exhaustion.

Though the sun already sank closer to earth, nearing dusk, sunshine still filtered through the smudged windows. She had to blink a few times to get used to the light, forcing herself to stand. From the first window, she spied the Eagle topiary near the rose gardens.

Her destination— the south pond— was a little further than she liked. To get there, she'd need to get through the hedge maze first.

Glancing around the greenhouse, she saw nothing but rows of plants, carefully irrigated and cared for by the elves. This hidden pocket of the grounds hadn't been searched yet, but that wouldn't be the case for long. Even if all she desired to do at this point was curl up beside the mandrakes and take a nice long nap, freezing in place would only lead to her being caught.

Stumbling forward, Hermione thought only of falling into the safety of Draco's embrace.

Hermione manoeuvred around the bushes and topiaries with stealth, hating for the millionth time how manicured it was. The elves really should stop taking so much care of it. The wild Nott gardens would have concealed her far better. As it stood, with every twist and turn she felt exposed, visible to the aurors flying on brooms in the distance and from the manor windows under the setting sun.

She had no energy left to complete wandless magic for any disguise. All she had to rely on now was her instincts.

Five minutes into her crawl through the maze, the distant sound of voices caused her to duck behind a hippogriff statue, back pressed into the concrete. She dared to peek around, seeing two aurors, both men with their masks on. If they continued on their path, they'd walk right by her, and she didn't think there was enough room to hide effectively.

They were still far enough away that she had time to think of something, but her brain felt like mush. She didn't know if she had the energy to fight anymore.

Their conversation boomed over the hedge maze, easy to hear.

"Look at this one," the shorter of the two said. "Imagine having so much money that you have an Ancient Grecian statue in the middle of a garden where no one can see. I swear it's not a fake."

"You're wasting time— and don't touch it! Boss wants all of the grounds covered on this side within the hour. They've already cleared the top floor. He wants us to scour the quidditch pitch next."

"A bloody quidditch pitch!" the other man spat in derision.

The taller man stopped his walk as if considering something. "I will admit that this is a lot of effort for a single muggleborn. Half the department will be here within a few hours."

"Did you see the footage? Exploded that man's head like it was a ripened fruit, completely wandless. They'll probably execute her."

"Yeah, I saw it, but I doubt she's going to be killed. Maybe once she's barren, but she's going to have a line of these rich fuckers vying to claim her, so their heirs can inherit her talent. Nott will probably be first in line. If not, I bet she could be sold to the East for a healthy sum. Killing her would be a waste."

The short one gave a nasally laugh. "They'd be skinned alive by Nott if they even offered. No cunt is worth his anger."

"That's true. Did you—" Both men screeched at the same time.

A flurry of white plumage was all she could see before things settled, revealing the aurors now several hedges back.

Al and Fred stood between Hermione and the aurors, bobbing their heads while giving warning trills. She didn't know if they were standing in the path on purpose or not, but she'd always suspected Lucius had bred them with magical birds, leaving them far more intelligent than they should be.

"Merlin's balls, is that an albino peacock?" The short one exclaimed, as if that was his last straw.

Each time the men stepped forward, the peacocks hissed and flapped their wings threateningly, ready to attack. When the shorter auror attempted to kick Fred out of the way, Al attacked in a fury, fluttering forward, going for the man's ankles, resulting in a gasp of pain.

The auror scrambled back, pointing his wand at Fred, but his partner stopped him.

"Stop being a fucking idiot! Those are Lucius Malfoy's prize pets. Kill them, and he'd bury you. I wouldn't risk any spells on them."

"Look at the scratch it left. I'm bleeding." He showed off his wounded ankle. "These little shits deserve an Avada."

Hermione had never seen the peacocks be so vicious, even to Draco, who they had a vendetta against. If she ever got out of the manor and returned, she'd be sure to spoil them.

"If we can't curse them, then how do we pass them? We're on ground crew. We're supposed to search this whole stupid maze without brooms."

"Just walk past them very quickly," the taller one suggested.

"Me? How about you walk past first?"

"Not a chance."

They both stood in silence for a moment.

"Let's come back to this path later. Maybe they'll have wandered off by that point."

"Good idea."

Once they'd walked the opposite direction, Hermione took several gulping breaths, unable to manage the level of anxiety inside her. A part of her wanted to give up just to end it.

But she was so close. From her spot on the ground, she could see the pond, and if she squinted, she thought she might see a gnome statue, though she didn't see an old oak tree.

She had to try. For Draco, she'd go on.

Despite being close to her destination, the trek there was slow as Hermione carefully darted between the bushes, inspecting each route as she went. The pain in her arm continued to get worse, until she grit her teeth with every movement.

She didn't confront any aurors on the way, though she did duck under cover when one flew over her. When the pond was finally in front of her, her heart sank, realising the danger.

By her estimation, she could get to the pond fine by hopping between the trees. But there was a giant empty field to navigate to get to the gnome— which was much farther than a stone's throw away.

Once she left this pond, she'd be exposed for an extended time. The sun was lower now, exploding into an array of orange and yellow along the horizon, but it still allowed enough light for this to be far too dangerous. One of the aurors on the brooms would certainly notice her running across, and she didn't have the magic to hide herself.

No, she needed the cover of darkness for this next step. Until then, she required a good place to hide so she wouldn't be found.

Searching her environment, her eyes kept coming back to the pond, and she gasped when she remembered something. Reaching into her trousers, she extracted the breathing apparatus that Theo had gifted her for Christmas from the pouch strapped to her leg. She'd stuffed it into her bag on a whim, along with several other useful items, and now she was grateful she had.

She doubted anyone would think to look for her under the water.

Hermione gave a silent thank you to her brother before placing the device in her mouth and navigating her way to the pond. Once there, she let the water consume her.

Hermione sank to the bottom of the murky depths, and the weight of water pressed down on her like a comforting, cold blanket.

A wry part of her wanted to search for a waterbeast to pass the time. She'd scoured the Nott ponds for years for the creature, and it devastated her when Tabitha told her they were just a myth.

Hermione would have stayed in the watery silence for days, despite her aching wrist. But after an hour or so, the device in her mouth flashed red, warning the charm was deactivating soon. It only worked for a few hours at the most before needing to be renewed.

The bottom of the pond seemed a separate world from reality, a space in between, a bubble of safety. Hermione tested the limits of the device, letting her fingers prune further.

If she made it to Theo—

She'd think of that later. At the moment, she had no other choice but to emerge. Kicking her feet, she slowly drifted up, waiting until the device ran completely out. She allowed just her eyes to peek over the water.

Dark had descended since she'd been submerged into her water world. The stars blinked in their unending beauty, stretched out across the heaven. The moon gave its soft pale greeting.

And Titus Nott leaned against a tree near the pond, staring at her. He calmly took a drag of a lit cigarette, the tip glowing orange. "It's over, Sprite."

There was absolutely no escape now— magically and physically disabled, without a wand, in pain, and defenceless before one of the most powerful men in Great Britain.

She allowed her head to rise above the water. The shock of losing hope hadn't settled in her.

"How long have you been there?"

He shrugged. "Long enough."

"How did you find me?"

"A location spell."

That surprised her. Location spells notoriously took a long time to work and needed hair like polyjuice, which would be dissolved into a potion to use with the incantation. It disturbed her that Titus must have had some of her hair on hand.

Given the nature of the spell, she couldn't have hidden if she remained near him. The further she got away, the less the magic worked. But even if she'd made it to the gnome and beyond, it was still close enough that he'd have found her.

Hermione swam to the edge of the pond, struggling with her exhaustion and injury. It hurt badly enough now that she sobbed a few times. The water trailed off her as she staggered along the muddy bank, standing before him, feeling dizzy with panic, clothes sopping wet and sticking to her.

He took another drag of his cigarette and let his eyes trail from her feet to her head, as if he had all the time in the world.

"Why did you let me stay in the water so long?" she asked.

"The location spell showed that you were alive and breathing, so I decided you must need time to think."

The adrenaline from earlier still buzzed through her, twisting into despair. Her vision went dark for a moment, and she swayed, her fatigue at the brink.

He straightened, brows furrowed, noticing that she was about to collapse.

"When did you start smoking?" It was an irrelevant question, but the sight of the muggle cigarette in his hand looked off.

"When you left." He dropped the cigarette and rubbed it out with the toe of his boots. "I plan to stop soon. I won't need them anymore."

"You don't have to arrest me," she pleaded. The chilly air caused her to shiver. "You could help me. Dolohov will hurt me. Please don't bring me—"

"I am helping you. You'll see that in time."

He took a step toward her, as if testing her response. But she didn't run. Where would she go now? She might have an iron will, but her body remained human and weak, failing her constantly. It could only take so much injury and stress.

When she didn't attempt to run, he hastened his steps forward. Hermione collapsed right before he got to her, and he caught her, lifting so her legs rested over one arm, and his other arm was under her back. She tried to arch away from him, but her head fell toward his chest, breathing in cinnamon and leather. A monster like him shouldn't smell so good.

"I was so close." Her throat tightened, eyes aching to shed tears. She'd never been so miserable in her life.

"I was impressed by how long you managed to evade me. Staying under the water was clever. Where did you even plan to go?"

She refused to answer that, but he already knew the answer would be back to Draco. He tightened his grip around her, though he didn't question her deeper. She assumed that would be for later.

"What's going to happen to me?"

"The events ahead will be walking a tightrope. You killed two wizards and maimed a third. This is no longer simple misbehaviour."

Misbehaviour? As if she hadn't defended herself. They'd deserved to die, and she'd never regret saving Julie or the little muggleborn.

"I wished I'd killed all of them. Every last one."

Titus should be angry at that. She expected him to be after his serious tone, listing her offences. But instead, the edge of his lips lifted in a half smirk, as if he couldn't help but be amused.

"A year ago, I wouldn't have imagined you'd be capable of impaling a man on a pole, but I'm starting to realise we've always been cut from the same cloth."

The same? Did he think she'd so easily forget the camps? The women. The beatings. The scarecrow corpses.

Titus wasn't her protector. He wasn't her benevolent guardian, spoiling her with gifts and affection. He enforced unforgivable crimes, the blood of innocent people staining his hands. Everything he'd been to her was just an illusion. She'd only really known a small part of him that had been carefully crafted just for her.

Hermione wished to wipe away every gentle touch he'd ever given her, scrub it from her mind and body. Erase the fingerprints he'd left on her life, good and bad.

"I'm nothing like you, and I never will be."

"That would be a good thing too, but it's not true."

Hermione didn't remember falling asleep, but she woke up in a ministry cell, sitting up with a gasp.

Just under obsidian shackles, a raw line wrapped around her wrist where healers had magically sutured her hand back in her slumber. She suspected that it might scar, given how long it had been separated. Moving it carefully, she didn't feel any pain except a single twinge.

"Mistress Hermione!"

"Bitty?" she asked in confusion, staring at her nanny elf with her floppy large ears, waiting patiently at her bedside. "What are you doing here?"

"Master told Bitty to watch mistress Hermione in case she needed anything."

Lies. He left Bitty to monitor her movements.

The only thing Hermione truly needed was to be out of the cell.

She'd been placed in the same one as last time, dingy and cramped, except Titus had added a few creature comforts: a soft mattress, quality sheets, stacks of books, along with a platter of food and drinks.

He'd also changed her clothes in her sleep; she was wearing one of the casual dresses she'd left behind at Nott manor. She tried not to think of the implications as she searched her leg in dread, feeling nothing.

Shit. Titus had found her pouch— and everything she'd hidden in it. She leaned back with a hand to her forehead, trying not to panic.

"How long have I been asleep?"

"A few days. Master extended your rest so you could heal."

"A few days!" Her wrist did seem more healed than it should be, giving evidence toward the time loss. "I think I need to be alone."

"Bitty can't leave Mistress Hermione while she's injured."

The little elf looked so hurt by the suggestion, it softened Hermione. None of this was Bitty's fault.

"Of course not," she agreed. A part of her wished to throw the platter in protest, knowing the source. How could she consume food grown with such a high human cost? But she needed the strength it provided, and it would be wasteful. "Could you get me something to eat?"

Bitty was ecstatic to be given a chore.

Hermione did nothing the whole day but wait in agitation. She refused to read the books, though she did spot a title or two that interested her, and she hated that he knew her well enough to pick the right ones. By the time Titus entered her cell, she trembled in repressed negative emotions, boiling up inside her, ready to overflow.

Titus took off his gloves and placed them in his cloak without saying a word, studying her. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she crossed her arms. Neither of them smiled.

"Thank you, Bitty. I can take it from here."

The elf vanished instantly.

Titus conjured a chair and sat down, both hands pressed near his knees. "Did you enjoy your food? Eddy would be happy to make you—"

"No pleasantries. Get to the point."

He leaned back and sighed, digging into his pocket, extracting a familiar white leather bracelet. "You shouldn't be so careless with your gifts."

Hermione stilled, and her arms uncrossed in shock.

Theo— he'd been back at his flat, so Titus must have connected some of the dots.

"Did you interrogate him—"

"Theo came to me yesterday while you were in St. Mungo's. I know everything now. About Julie. About possibly going to the Order, though Draco never told him any information beyond that. Granted, I'd already suspected your involvement based on our conversation beforehand, but he solidified the details."

The realisation was like a punch to the gut. "Theo told you—"

"He thought you were being arrested for Julie. He intended to help you, pleading with me to allow him to take the blame for it all. But all he did was add another crime under your belt. Lucky for you, this one I'll keep private. I intentionally never brought my suspicions to the ministry about Julie, investigating it alone, so I could help sweep everything under the rug."

"For a price." He wouldn't have helped her sweep it under the rug for free. He had an end goal.

"For a price," he agreed. "For now, I'll keep it quiet, because the murders are inflammatory enough, and I don't want Theo implicated."

Hermione clenched the fabric of her dress. "Did you punish him?"

"No." Titus glanced away. "I should have though. I'm too soft with the both of you. He— fuck, he helped a muggleborn escape, going along with your schemes, and he was communicating with an Order—"

"With the man he loved! Don't pretend that it wasn't your fault too."

Titus glared at her interruption and pinched his nose, as if to regain calm.

"I think you can make an educated guess about why I'm here and what I need from you. We both know you were with the Order. Dolohov wants an exchange of Order members for your life, so I require something new from you. A lead. Anything. The information will be extracted one way or another, but I intend to leave with everything you know. The only choice you have right now is whether you cooperate."

He wanted her to betray the Order. But if she did, Titus wouldn't show mercy. He'd execute everyone from sweet Luna to the dragon tamer. Despite her complicated feelings about Sirius, she couldn't condemn them all to slaughter. Not to mention, he'd bring back Julie and the little muggleborn, and all of her sacrifice would be worthless.

She built her mental defences, reviewing everything Draco had taught her, creating a sturdy bookcase, now slightly more advanced with several titles attached. "You'll have to rip my mind apart. I'm not giving you a thing."

There was a pregnant pause, as if he was unsure how to approach this.


"You lied to me about the camps."

He shifted in his seat. "How exactly? As I told you, the muggles choose to work there."

He couldn't talk his way out of it this time.

"You force women into prostitution."

"It's just an option for them. Would you rather I throw them in a prison? They're criminals and are treated far better than an average citizen scraping out a living in some hovel. Most of them don't want to leave, even after their sentence is completed."

"They were never even given a trial. Is that where you obtained the woman who—"

"No. She was never in the camps."

None of his justifications made it better. "The workers are beaten bloody in the fields, and if they try to escape, they—" she found it hard to verbalise what she'd seen. "They murder them and make the others watch them rot. How is that not slavery, if they can't leave?"

Titus took a long time to answer before he stood up, clutching the leather bracelet, the chair vanishing as he did.

"You're trying to moralise survival. Would you rather we all starve? We're a fragile nation in a fragile world, and people require a reliable source of food. Do you want to know what humans would resort to eating if they couldn't find anything else? I'm not sure you could stomach the truth." He placed a closed fist to his chest, walking close to her, eyes bright with fury. "Call me a monster, and it might be true. I do necessary monstrous things to keep the ones I love fed and protected from a savage world. Otherwise, we'd have chaos. Right now, we're the most stable country in the cursed zones because of my efforts."

He was right— the world was fragile, and it might be worse without the order he'd imposed. But he was also wrong. There had to be a better way than the camps and slavery. She doubted the purebloods even tried to think of one. They'd rather see muggles as beasts of burden.

He grabbed her wrist— her injured one. She thought of struggling, but didn't see the point as he strapped the leather bracelet back on. "Planning to track me?"

"Unfortunately, my original charms have been tampered with by goblins hired by Malfoy and can't be fixed. But it can still track your heart rate and notify me if you're in danger, and that's enough for me, especially when you insist on being reckless with your life."

She hated the sensation of it wrapped around her wound, even if it didn't hurt.

"Stand up," he ordered.


"Maybe Dolohov was right. I shouldn't have spoiled you like I did." He yanked her up by her shoulders, turning and pressing her against the solid wall.

She'd forgotten his intimidating size until it enveloped her. It required no effort for him to physically subdue her. Suddenly afraid, she attempted to turn her face to the side, but he tugged it back into position with a firm jerk on her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze.

"I'll try my best to be gentle," he whispered. "But since you insist on resisting me, this will probably hurt."

Without warning, he placed his wand to her temple and rammed into her mind. Too fast and rough. She fought against him, finding it incredibly uncomfortable, bordering on painful, but he kept her secure with both hands now on her head.

Once inside, Titus ran a phantom hand down the displayed books on her library shelf like a loving caress— the only protection left.

"I don't want to destroy this." In the physical world, his lips lingered next to her ear, whispering low, almost seductive. "Let me in."

"Break through, and I'll never forgive you. My hate will be unending."

"Then hate me." Titus waited, and when she didn't surrender, the hold on her head tightened. "But you'll be alive to do so."

He slammed into her carefully curated books. She gave a shocked cry at the sudden assault. But he didn't let up, battering into it again and again until her pathetic shelves crumbled one book at a time. She tried to rebuild the shelves to no avail. She now understood Draco had been gentle with his education as Titus brutally cracked the shelf in two with expert blows. Her growing headache burst with pain in tandem, as if he'd stabbed a knife into her temple.

"Stop!" she cried in agony, but the whole shelf crumbled into nothing. She didn't even know if it could ever be rebuilt into what it had been again. Her eyes rolled back; she almost fainted from the enormous pressure.

"The worst is over," he tried to soothe, brushing a thumb along her jaw. He rifled through her memories at a fast pace, forcing her thoughts to focus on the initial escape with Julie. Then he slowed down to an agonising crawl, reviewing each scene twice. She screamed and sobbed, struggling to get away, begging him to leave her alone, but he continued with ruthless efficiency. When he watched her take the polyjuice to turn into him, his grip tightened again. "Devious as a snake, stealing my hair."

After she landed in Nottingham, he stopped for a long time, watching her Imperio Travers.

"That was you?" he said in disbelief and then in acceptance. "Of course, it was you."

As precise as if he used a blade, he obliviated the memory from her mind. Her vision flashed bright white, and he held her trembling body close against his chest in the confusing aftermath.

"I'm going to vomit." He let her go, and she retched in the corner. He held back her hair, while keeping her from collapsing, and cleaned her up after, using a charm to freshen her mouth.

"Are you okay?" he asked once she straightened, wiping her trembling lips.

"You stole—" She couldn't quite remember, but she knew it had to be important. "You stole it from me!" He'd messed with her mind. One of her greatest fears, and he did it without a second thought, as if discarding rubbish.

"It's for the best," he whispered. "The men you murdered were just guards, easily replaceable, but there'd be no forgiveness for— the other."

Anger exploded inside her. She wanted Draco so badly she could taste the desire on her tongue. He'd never take a memory from her unless she asked him to.

So focused on Draco, on the comfort of him, that when Titus tried to dive back into her memories, she accidentally dredged up the memory of her first kiss. In the astronomy, after dancing under the moonlight, lips pressed gently—

Titus tugged out as if touching fire, unwilling to study the tender moment. He gently shook her shoulders with an expression of revulsion. "Don't fucking show me something like that again."

Without giving her time to recover, he pressed back heavily in a way that made her ill, unravelling her mind by pulling loose strings. This time he began at the end, so that he didn't irritate the section he obliviated, painfully going through her time at the camp, and then with Harry in the tunnels. He didn't linger long on their discussions, except when she went to her father's desk.

"We'll go over this moment in depth later," he said. "But it's not important now."

When he got to Charlie and his dragon, he stayed the longest. Maybe it was the little boy in him that wished to be a knight, going on adventures, breathing fire down on monsters.

But she suspected something else in the conversation intrigued him too, going over it four times— something vital, she realised.

She needed to do everything possible to make him stop before he got to anything more incriminating. The last time she'd brought up the images accidentally, but she wondered now if she could force her thoughts through on purpose. While she couldn't make him get out of her head, she could make it— unpleasant.

Before he could get to the other Order base memories, she pressed a second memory forward.

"Ready or not, here I come," Draco warned. They played their usual games. He chased her in the library as she squealed and laughed, racing around tables, until he caught her, shoving her back against the shelves, lifting her legs to wrap along his hips. "You're so predictable."

"Maybe I want you to find me." She gently bit his neck, marking him. "Maybe I've been aching for you to touch me all day."

"Is that so?" Draco grinned, his hand inching up her dress to her knickers. "You need me to relieve your aching p—"

Titus tugged out of her mind again with a growl, chest heaving up and down, glaring at her, still pressed against her. He didn't even try to hide what he was feeling. It was written all over his face.

Jealous— she'd made him seethingly jealous.

He wanted it for himself, squealing and laughing, chasing each other around, just begging to be caught and touched.

But even if she'd chosen Titus, she doubted she'd have been playful with him. Not like that. Their relationship had too many complicated layers to be considered fun, and his nature was too serious.

"Stop," he demanded, but it sounded more like a plea.

But she wouldn't.

When he entered her mind again, he went straight to Sirius— her first meeting with him. The tattoos of the stag and the moon and the black dog.

Now that Hermione knew she could distract him, she refused to allow him one more stolen memory.

With all her concentration, she thought of something that would hurt him the most, an intentional knife to the chest, switching Sirius to Draco in her mind.

The memory shifted to the master bedroom in Malfoy manor.

Red covers were rumpled under them as she fucked Draco, head back in pleasure, clutching her breasts, each roll of her hips forward ripping little noises from both of them. They'd been edging for a long time, their skin flushed and heated. Every touch of her clit only a teasing torture. It was pure desperation as she grabbed his shoulders, finally orgasming with a long moan. Collapsing forward, she kissed him gently, and Draco paused to enjoy her sated expression, long fingers stroking her back.

"Keep going. It still feels so good," she urged. Draco obeyed, holding her hips, while thrusting up into her. "I want to feel your come inside—"

"Bloody fuck!" Titus ripped out of her mind and tossed her aside. She felt woozy and ill with the jolting movement, stumbling to her mattress with a headache throbbing across her skull.

Titus paced before her, furious, shoving the palms of his hands into his eyes, as if he could erase what he'd seen if he pressed hard enough.

Once he calmed himself, he walked back toward her with a grim expression, intent on continuing the assault on her brain. "You can't deter me."

"I'll show you how I like to suck his cock next," Hermione warned. "I swear to Merlin I will. That's your little fantasy, right? Me on my knees before you. Do you want to see how good I am at it now? Draco likes it when—"

"No more!" He lunged toward her, as if to grab her. She flinched on instinct, scrambling away from him toward the wall on the far side of the bed.

At her retreat, he paused, seeing her shivering, hands up to protect herself. "Sprite," he whispered. "Fuck, don't be scared. Not of me. I wasn't going to hit you. I'd never do that." He tried to touch her arm to soothe her, and she jolted away again, causing him to lower his hand.

"Of course, I'm scared of you. What did you think would happen after this?"

He'd torn into her mind, causing permanent injury. Her body remained tense as a harp string, preparing for him to approach again.

It was his turn to flinch. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a moment, seeming in pain.

"What I did today was necessary— don't look at me like that. I can't stand it. I'd never truly hurt you, even if you drive me into madness." He paced a little more, before sighing. "Very well, we're done for today. I'm not sure I can handle any more of this either, and I might have enough information already."

What did he mean by that? Her heart beat pulsed across her body, still fearful he'd finish what he began.

Titus paused before opening the cell door, placing his hand against the metal bars.

"Seeing you with him like that—" his stare turned cold. "You meant it to hurt me, and you succeeded. If it wouldn't damage your mind, I'd erase every single fucking memory of him. I'd obliviate you until all you knew was me again. And he'd deserve the agony of seeing you in my arms. Malfoy stole you, then poisoned you against me—"

"Don't blame him. You've done that all by yourself!"

He jerked open the cell door in anger. "When I come back, I'm going to search the rest of your memories, and you'll give them to me freely."

"And if I don't?"

Titus planned to butcher everyone she'd met at the base, everyone she'd become friends with, and string their body parts along the streets.

Seamus and his makeshift pub, always welcoming. The newly married couple, so happy in their bliss. Charlie and his dragon. Even Maryam. Innocent blood would drip from her hands if she allowed him one more second in her mind.

"You've always been obstinate," Titus warned in a low voice. "And I never wanted to break your spirit. But if you refuse to give me what I need, then I will not be so gentle anymore." His jaw clenched so hard she thought he might break it. "I have some important errands. Rest and recover, Sprite. I'll be back when I finish my task. For your sake, you need to hope I'm successful."

Titus fled the cell, cloak billowing behind him.

Hermione leaned over, pressed her face into the mattress, and screamed.

The next morning, everything ached: her mind, her heart, her muscles, her wrist. Hermione would have been content to melt into the mattress for eternity, but the tap of boots down the corridor forced her up, worried that Titus had finally come back to finish the assault on her mind— or maybe it was Dolohov. She shuffled to the corner of her bed, as far as possible from the door.

When the noise got closer, she realised it was two sets of footsteps and they were headed past her. It wasn't until the door to the cell next to her opened that she managed a good look at the people ducking inside.

Draco flicked his head up, eyes meeting hers under the blond strands. He flashed her a quick smirk, teeth stained with blood, and her heart did flip flops, body vibrating with happiness and dread.

Crimson splattered in various locations around his body, and he had a split lip and crooked nose, his hair bedraggled and dripping red droplets. Obsidian wrapped around his wrists too, connected in the middle by a heavy chain.

"You're holding me so close that I think you're starting to like it," Draco teased the guard.

"Shut the fuck up." The guard dragged him to the corner and with a flick of his wand, attached the shackles to a hook, stretching Draco's arms from the force. "I'm getting very tired of you."

"Chains too— how did you know they're my favourite?"

"I'll gladly bring you to the lower levels with the real criminals, if that's what you want. They'd have fun with a pretty boy like you."

"So you do think I'm pretty. I was starting to think that you only liked me for my money."

"Your galleons are only barely worth this aggravation. Do you know what I'm risking by placing you here?"

"Quite a bit more than you realise, but you'll still pocket the gold, won't you?"

The auror risked Titus' wrath for playing into Malfoy games. He glared at Draco, and then gave a grunt, agreeing with him. "I'll be back in an hour."

"Two hours, or you won't receive the second payment."

Again, the auror hesitated. "That's more than—"

"Two hours," Draco demanded in an icy tone.

"Two," the man said slowly, glancing between her and Draco.

Hermione somehow held her tongue until the auror walked back out of the cell, leaving them alone. She never broke eye contact with Draco. Once alone, he dropped his occlumency, allowing her— and only her— to see the worry he'd hidden.

She wandered to the bars that separated them, trying to get as close as possible, wishing she could walk through them.

"Hello, Granger," he broke the silence. Dangling from the chains like that must be hurting him.

"Draco—" the word caught in her throat. "How did they catch you?"

He managed to smirk again with his split lip. "Catch me? Do you really think so low of me? I let them arrest me on purpose, love."

"You shouldn't have. It's too dangerous."

"If you get to run into danger every second without my consent, then perhaps I get a choice when to risk my life too."

He was right. It wasn't fair. Guilt overwhelmed her, feeling responsible for his incarceration, even if he insisted that he volunteered to be here.

Hermione gripped the bars. "So you have a plan?"

Draco wouldn't have followed her here without one, but she needed it to be confirmed.


With great strength, he did a pull up, lifting his entire upper body until his head was level with his shackles. The obsidian dug into his skin, as he placed his hands to his lips, spitting something out— small and circular, and it clicked on contact with the metal. The shackles opened, releasing him. When he landed on his feet, the Black family key rested in the palm of his hand.

The sight almost made her knees buckle in relief.

"Draco," she cried, as he made his way over. He slipped both arms through the bars and tugged her close. Their lips connected in a searing kiss, desperately clinging to each other. She tasted the metallic tang of his blood, revelling in his comforting scent.

Being in his arms felt like home.

But then his hand curled into her hair at the base of her skull, tugging her head back gently so she could see his glare. He didn't say anything at first, eyes sliding across the planes of her face, giving a dark look.

"What did you fucking do?"

She told him everything. From the moment she landed in Nottingham— the sections missing from her memory— to Bromley house, the Order, the Camps, and then getting caught.

When she mentioned the portkey, he stopped her.

"What do you mean it didn't work? That's impossible."

She shrugged. "I'm not sure what happened."

Draco seemed disturbed by the revelation, as if he couldn't solve the puzzle— something that rarely happened.

"Perhaps the Order tampered with it."


He furrowed his brow while listening to the rest. By the end, he'd closed his eyes, hand firmly in her hair, body as close as possible, keeping himself absolutely still.

"I had to help—"

"I'm trying to control myself, you infuriating witch. I have a great desire to strangle Potter at the moment— more than usual. The two of you together was bound to be a reckless disaster." He took a deep breath. "Was it worth it? The girl— for all of this."

She hesitated, evaluating. "Yes."

Maybe in the grand scheme of things, one muggleborn girl wasn't worth saving. Maybe it would all lead to nothing, her efforts wasted. But the image she conjured of the girl in the little school room, beside her peers, learning to read and write— something that would have been denied her— gave her a deep comfort. At least one time in her life, she'd done something truly good.

She wouldn't apologise for saving Julie or the girl. It was the only thing that made her situation bearable.

"If I'd let her leave to the ministry, I wouldn't have just failed her, Draco, I would've failed myself too. I would've failed the little girl that lives inside my own heart— the one torn from my dead father and placed in a stranger's home at their mercy. They planned to give her to the bloody Carrows. Was I supposed to just let them take her away?"

He turned the new information over in his mind, before releasing her, leaning their foreheads together. "The Carrows would've been very cruel to her. You're right, there's no use for me to get angry. It's a selfish desire to keep you safe, conflicting with your nature to protect the innocent. We can't change what's happened, but it's put us in a bind. We only have two options going forward."

"Which are?"

"The Order or exile."

Hermione searched his expression, knowing he wasn't telling her the whole truth. "What's the catch?"

"If we go to the safe house, we might never be able to go out again. There would be no excursions. We'd be trapt there forever."

That sounded terrible, worse than being stuck at Nott manor. An unlivable future. They'd have each other, but they'd have nothing else. What kind of life would that be, waiting for the mist to encroach?

Draco visibly swallowed, stroking her cheek, and she braced herself for bad news.

"What else?"

"If you go to the Order, you'd go alone."

"What?" Hermione tugged back from him.

"Sirius won't let me join, even if I give him a vault. Not without me proving my loyalty. He's too principled, though Weasley tried to convince him. We met several times in an old Black property to discuss terms, and he never wavered from his stance. I didn't quite… get along with my cousin. I think I remind him too much of my father. And what he wants from me might be impossible to achieve. I'm prepared to let you go—"

"No, I don't want to be separated from you. I'd rather choose exile. We go together or not at all."

He paused, thinking.

"Exile it is." He gave a soft smile and seemed relieved, as if he'd hoped she'd choose that. "My father warned me about what was going to happen—"

"Your father knows your plans?" Hermione remembered the way Lucius glared at her. "I don't think—"

"I told him that I'd forgive him if he helped me. He owes me a sliver of happiness for all the misery he put me through, because I don't think I could live long in this shitty world without you. I could barely stand it before you. What would be the point? Also, I promised we'd… start trying for a baby as soon as we're free and safe."

If Lucius loved only one person in the entire world, it would be his only son. Even then, promising an heir might be the only thing that could sway him.

"What do you have planned?"

Grabbing her hand, he placed the key inside of her palm, curling her fist around it.

"Hide this," he said. "Once Nott gets back, and Dolohov gives his okay, he's going to take you to the Wizengamot."

"The Wizengamot!"

Draco held her close. "In the courtroom, Nott will argue to take you back, and my father will argue to keep you with me. But— my father will lose. It's already been determined. He didn't have enough sway in the ministry compared to Nott. The charges were too damning."

Hermione suspected that to be the planned course of events, but to hear it out loud made her stomach turn over on itself.

"Then what?"

"Nott will then ask the audience if anyone wants to compete against him for you at an official Trial." He shook his head. "No one will, Granger. Not a single soul would dare. Krum's rumoured death will scare them away, even if others want to claim you. He's too powerful to go up against. The Wizengamot will return you to him as his breeder."

She shook her head, biting her tongue to prevent from sobbing.

"Don't despair. You won't even make it back to his manor. My father has placed a black galleon in the fountain in the atrium— one of the last portkeys that we own. When you get close, I want you to unlock your shackles with the key and escape with it. Kill if you must to get there. Do whatever you need to do. It will bring you to a cottage we own in France. My father destroyed the records, making it untraceable, so no one will know about—"

"But what about you?" Hermione reached up and touched his lips, avoiding his wound. If everything went wrong, she'd be in a foreign country by herself, trapt forever without him.

"Don't worry about me. I'll always find my way back to you."

She kissed him again, wishing to soak in it, memorising every touch he'd ever given her.

"I need to get back in my shackles soon," he whispered, but he groaned against her lips, betraying his calm exterior.

"Not yet," she begged. "Give us a few more moments. I don't want to be separated."

"Granger—" He lifted her chin. "Nothing in this universe can keep me from you. Do you understand that? We're connected now, soul to soul, and I'd find that invisible string in the dark and follow you across the world, if I had to. You're the shape of tea leaves left on the bottom of my cup, the only answer in the divination of my future." He forced her to look at him. "And I promise you right now, even with an unbreakable vow, that I'll destroy anyone or anything that tries to stand between us."

"Even death?"

"I'd kill the Reaper if he tried, and then I'd raise an army of inferi to come for you."

Hermione didn't believe in divination, but she did believe that when Draco Malfoy promised her something, he meant it.