He watched as the snowflakes drifted down to cover his garden. How he wished he could see her there, strolling down the pathway or going for her morning ride or even just picking a flower or two for his dinner table and study. But he knew that such a view would probably never be granted him again. He had set her free and who in their right mind would come back to their captor…especially when he looked like a monster?
Truth be told, it wasn't he who had held her captive. The Manor did that, due to a long-forgotten curse. And a month ago, he had finally figured out how to break it. It was a good thing, too, that he was able to perform the required rituals without a hitch. Good for her, at least, because nothing could have been worse for him. He'd been miserable since the day she left. In fact, he had spent more time perched on the balcony of the West wing tower room than anywhere else inside the manor. The tower gave him a clear, unobstructed view of the entrance to the estate, the one place that could bring him back to life. If only one slight figure would slip through its gates again…
And so, that's what he'd been doing all this time, watching, waiting, and hoping against hope that she would return to him. That in spite of everything that had happened between them, in spite of their not so pain-free history, she would come back and never, ever leave him again…
ONE YEAR AGO…
The night had turned chilly once more. Even the blazing fire of the over-sized fireplace in his study could not chase away the freezing cold. He looked out the window and saw the frosted ground swirling with freshly fallen snow while the wind howled with fury. There's going to be a blizzard, he thought. Good thing the house elves had already stocked up for the winter. There wouldn't be much produce from the village in a few weeks. And since he could not go into the city…
He stalked away from the window and threw himself on the couch, his fingers unconsciously tracing the angry scars marring his once handsome face. Thinking of the city always awakened feelings of despair and he didn't want to dwell on them right now. He had already destroyed nearly half the manor during his rages and he was getting tired of chanting 'Reparo' at least three times a day. There was nothing he could do anyway, so there's no point in raging against his condition.
It's been two years since the 'accident' and he bore the scars from it, both in body and soul. Apparently, he was sleeping when a fire broke out inside his London flat. What he could not understand was how he could've slept through it all. He wasn't drunk, of that he was sure. He'd only had two glasses of mild, red wine during dinner and he had a very high tolerance for alcohol so he wasn't even tipsy when he left his date and went home. The last thing he remembered was apparating to his flat. He could not even figure out how he got into bed. However, as he later learned from one of the Muggle policemen who came to the hospital and questioned him about the fire, that was how the firemen had found him - passed out in bed and nearly engulfed by flames.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be the least of his worries. After consulting with Healers at St. Mungo's right after he was discharged from the Muggle hospital where he was taken by his rescuers, he was told that there was nothing to be done about the scars which covered three-quarters of his face and the entire left side of his body. They said that the fire wasn't an accident and his burns were caused by a Dark spell. And since it left no identifiable traces, they could not perform the necessary counter-curse. The fire was definitely conjured through dark magic, but it wasn't Fiendfyre either. All in all, his condition was hopeless. And that was why he retreated to the family Manor. He couldn't parade his deformed mien out in public now, could he? The controversy alone would kill him. Better propagate the rumor that he was tending to business abroad. He was, in spite of his family's involvement in the war, still the most eligible bachelor of Wizarding Britain, after all. His parents had made sure that no one would bother him in the country, encasing the entire estate in protective spells and enchantments that rivaled even those around Hogwarts. No one ever came near the mysterious Manor where inhuman screams could be heard every now and then, especially during the night.
Which was why he was completely caught by surprise when four of his house elves came rushing inside carrying what appeared to be an unconscious female in their tiny hands.
"What is the meaning of this, Mimsy?" he roared at the house elf nearest him.
The poor creature cowered in fear as she stepped back, her head bowed low.
"W-we's found h-her…s-sleeping n-near t-the r-roses, m-master," she squeaked.
"Sleeping? Sleeping out in the grounds? In this weather?" he growled. Only a fool would go out to brave an oncoming blizzard. Perhaps this girl was insane, he thought.
"No, master. She is felled by the roses, me thinks, Master. Look," Tinder, a wizened and ancient-looking elf said as he lifted the girl's hand towards his master. Tinder was probably the oldest of all their house elves, but he was also the smartest.
Cursing beneath his breath, he leaned down and looked at the thorns still embedded in the soft skin, blood slowly dripping from the cuts on her fingers.
The rose bushes were inside the garden, very near the gate, but still within the heavily warded grounds of the Manor. How could she have entered the estate without triggering the wards?
"Tinder, are the wards still up?"
"Yes, Master. Tinder always check it. The gate opened for her. Tinder saw it," he replied.
"What? Why would it do such a thing? Did you see her cast a spell?"
"No, Master. Tinder saw her walking and shaking. Then, she touched the gate and it opened. She only touched, no spell. Then, she walked in and touched the roses," Tinder said, his bald head bobbing up and down.
Shaking? She must've been shivering from the cold. But why in Merlin's name did she have to touch the roses? And what was she doing out there in the middle of an approaching snow storm?
He looked down at the girl again and noticed that she wore no gloves and her shoes did not have thick soles, therefore not meant for hiking. She was also wearing Muggle clothes - a pair of dark jeans, a pale pink jumper and a tan leather jacket with a fur-lined hood, which was partially covering her face. Something about her reminded him of someone from his distant past…a girl who had the ability to fascinate and frustrate him all at the same time. But it couldn't be her, could it? It's been five years since he last saw her during his family's final 'assessment' in London…two years after the war...one year after his probation cum rehabilitation and his father's stint in Azkaban. What would she be doing here?
His curiosity got the better of him, so despite his better judgment, he flipped the hood away from her face. Air was literally knocked out of his chest when he finally laid eyes upon the face that had once tormented him even in slumber.
"Granger," he breathed.
Hermione woke up to a soft humming somewhere near her head. She nearly jumped when two, large green eyes greeted her. It was a house elf dressed in a pretty, pale blue frock.
"Mornin' miss. Would you like some breakfast?" the elf asked.
"Uhm…I'm not sure…where am I?" she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She felt sore everywhere. What happened to her anyway?
"You is in the most beautiful room in the East wing," the elf beamed.
That wasn't very helpful, but she didn't want to upset the poor girl so she just smiled back and glanced around, hoping to find clues regarding her whereabouts.
And indeed, the room was beautiful, stunning even. The walls were covered in cream and gold wallpaper while the floor was done in subdued bronze carpeting. It was so thick she knew her toes would get lost in it if she walked barefoot. The bed on which she now lay could easily accommodate five people. It had an ornate gold and bronze velvet canopy and intricately etched wooden posts. The beddings were also done in cream and gold, with fragrant, flouncy pillows. Gold and crystal lamps stood proudly on top of the two matching side tables, while a couch and two armchairs were gathered around a glass-topped, bronze coffee table at the far corner near the door.
A room fit for a queen, she thought. How on earth did she end up here? She remembered leaving the Ministry, being approached by a hooded, old man…and the rose! He gave her a beautiful, pale pink rose…and then she was standing in front of a huge, black gate. Is this the house beyond the gate? Who brought her here - to this room?
When she looked around the elf was putting a large tray laden with food on the coffee table. She could hear the well-dressed elf humming as she carefully laid out teacups and small plates on the side. A charming porcelain teapot followed to complete the set.
Well-dressed? Aren't house elves set free when presented with clothes? Why is she here, then? Is she getting paid to work for this family?
"Breakfast ready, Miss. Call Fifi when you is finished," she said, bowing low before disapparating with a loud pop.
"Wait, I want…" Hermione called after the elf, but it was too late. She was already gone.
Sighing, Hermione tossed aside the warm comforter and slid out of bed. It was only then that she realized that she was wearing an exquisite, emerald green nightgown.
What? Where are my clothes? And who changed me into this?
As if the room could read her thoughts, Fifi reappeared with another loud pop.
"Miss, Fifi forgot to tell you that you's clothes is in the dressing room," Fifi said, hopping with a big smile on her face to a door that Hermione hadn't noticed. The elf turned the golden knob and pushed the door open. Hermione gasped as she gaped at the biggest and most luxurious bathroom she had ever seen. It looked like what one usually saw in those expensive Muggle Interior Design magazines that featured the homes of royalty and famous celebrities. A bronze bathtub sat flushed against one wall opposite a shower enclosed in frosted glass. The walls and floor were of a soft cream marble. A stand-alone porcelain basin stood under a stained-glass window. To the left was another door. Fifi pushed it open to reveal a cozy, but well-appointed boudoir. And folded on a brocade-covered settee were her clothes, minus her wand and bag.
Hermione turned to question the elf about it, but she had already left. Again.
Why does she always do that?
Concluding that she would not get any answers from the elf, Hermione heaved the nightgown off, slipped into the stall and took a quick shower. She had to admit that she had never felt as refreshed as she did right after that. While dressing, she deliberated on her situation. Where exactly was she and who were her solicitous hosts? Clearly, this was a family homestead and not a bachelor pad, so there would probably be more than one occupant. She finished her toilette by taming her curls (or at least she tried to) with the bejeweled brush she found on the dainty Victorian table.
She had actually planned on leaving the room straightaway but the delicious aroma of fresh crumpets called to her. Grunting, Hermione indulged her growling stomach and swiftly gobbled up two. She downed her tea in one gulp (it wasn't that hot anymore) and rushed out of the room before she could succumb to the temptation of bacon and blueberry scones.
The hallway was just as elegantly decorated as the room she had left. Magnificent tapestries graced the dark mahogany walls every few feet. The gleaming brass sconces told her that this was a well maintained home. There were several doors along the way, but she bypassed them all. She needed to find her hosts so she could thank them and leave. She wouldn't have disapparated even if she had her wand; that would have been rude. Besides, houses like this one tended to be protected by powerful wards and even attempting to break through them could be dangerous.
Unfortunately, she was also now officially lost. She could not even return to the room she was earlier in even if she tried. She didn't want to summon Fifi, but if she wanted to get out of this labyrinth then she would have to enlist the help of the cheerful elf.
"Fifi?" she whispered, not sure if the house elf would hear her.
Hermione squealed when the smiling elf popped right in front of her.
"Oh! Fifi is sorry for frightening lovely Miss," the elf said, hanging her head in shame.
"No! No! You didn't frighten me, Fifi. I was just surprised that you came so swiftly," Hermione said, leaning forward to tap the elf on the shoulder.
"Fifi will always answer Miss. Master told Fifi to answer Miss when she calls," Fifi nodded, her ears flapping around her beaming face. "What can Fifi do for lovely Miss?"
"Uhm…I'd like to meet my hosts. I have to go home and I'd like to thank them before I leave. Can you take me to them?"
"Surely, Miss. Just take my hand," Fifi extended a gnarled hand to Hermione.
"Oh! Can't we just walk? I rather enjoy looking at the tapestries," she said, smiling guiltily at the young elf. It was a white lie, but Hermione never quite liked the feeling of side-along apparition.
Fifi nodded and turned around. "This way, Miss. Young Master is in the gardens."
Hermione sighed in relief. At last, she would get some answers.
After traversing a couple of long corridors and two flights of stairs, they finally reached a set of French doors that opened into the loveliest garden Hermione had ever seen. How could a garden be in full bloom during winter? Tilting her head up, she saw the tell-tale sign of magic protecting it, detected only by those who knew what to look for. Even so, the garden was still amazing.
There were tall birches and luscious elms lining the perimeter and luxurious, multi-colored flora that she could not even identify dotted the grounds. But what really caught her attention was the gorgeous fountain at the center which was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of red and white roses. It was like a scene from a fairy tale.
And there, strolling around the cobbled walkway leading to a gazebo was a hunched, hooded figure cloaked in black. Even hunched like that, Hermione could tell that he was a tall man.
Was he one of her hosts?
Before Hermione could ask Fifi, the elf was running down the stone steps, toward the one Hermione assumed to be her master. The hooded figure stopped in front of Fifi and leaned on a cane, attentively listening to the elf. The hooded head turned in her direction and although she couldn't see his eyes, Hermione felt the intensity of his gaze. Her stomach clenched when she saw Fifi and her master walking toward her.
Why did she suddenly feel so nervous?
The man had a pronounced limp and half his face was covered by his hood. Yet there was something familiar about him…something she could not place.
The unlikely pair stopped at the foot of the stairs, both of them looking up at her. She swallowed her feeling of dread and slowly walked down the steps. When she reached the bottom, the man, who really was as tall as she had assumed, gave her a small bow. Then, he straightened to his full height and stood ramrod straight before her, his gloved hands resting casually on the silver head of his gleaming ebony cane. Most of his face was covered by a plain white mask; only his lips and chin were visible. Still, she sensed the animosity in the slate gray eyes that were staring back at her.
Those eyes! Why do I feel like I've seen them before?
"Welcome to my humble abode, my lady," he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
She knew that voice! It was deeper than she remembered, nevertheless…
"Granger," he replied through gritted teeth.
Hermione felt the bile rising to her throat. This couldn't be happening! What was she doing here? Did he kidnap her? But why would he do that? The war's been over for years! And what's with the Phantom of the Opera get-up? Is this some sort of sick joke?
"What is this, Malfoy? What am I doing here?" she whispered furiously, hands clenching at her sides as she tried to control her growing temper.
"Shouldn't I be the one asking that question, Granger? You're the one who came stumbling into my estate, after all. And in the middle of a blizzard, too," he replied.
Hermione could only imagine him raising his brows at her. The thought annoyed her. "If I had come here voluntarily, I wouldn't be asking you that question now, would I?" she spat.
"And if I had taken you here voluntarily, I wouldn't be asking the same, would I?" he retorted.
She didn't like it, but he did have a point. Well, that could easily be remedied. She could postpone her exploration of the reasons why she ended up here just to be rid of his company.
"All right, just give me back my things and I will leave right this very minute."
"Oh, no. It doesn't work that way, Princess. First, you have to tell me how you overcame my wards, then perhaps I'd let you leave," he said, fixing her with a stony glare.
"What? I don't even remember coming here!" she nearly screamed. Has he lost his marbles? How could she even dream of breaking through his wards when she didn't even know where she was?
"Well, then. I'm not giving back your things," he said.
"Fine. Keep them. But you can't make me stay," she said, stomping back up the stairs.
She had half expected a hex thrown at her, but not laughter. She swiftly turned on her heels, prepared to do battle when she slammed into his broad chest. Gloved hands gripped her arms to steady her wobbling form. Once she was stable enough, Hermione viciously pulled away from him and ran for the door. No one tried to stop her; the elves doing their chores in the foyer only gawked at her but said nothing. She heard Malfoy's lumbering steps behind her, each one echoing ominously in the hall. She didn't stop to look back, running faster until she reached the large double-doors.
"Granger, wait! You can't break through the wards!" she heard him say.
Steeling herself, she gripped the oversized brass knobs and flung both panels open. The sudden rush of cold wind nearly blasted her back through the doors, but she recovered quickly. Hunching her shoulders, Hermione braved the swirling, white madness and ran towards the massive wrought iron gates. She barely heard Malfoy bellow what seemed to be a warning when she was thrown back by an unseen force as soon as her fingers touched the gate.
The last thing she saw before everything went black were Malfoy's gray eyes staring down at her, his head shaking as he said, "I did warn you, Granger."
Draco paced around the dining room like a caged tiger. He couldn't believe that he was being stood up in his own house! It's been three days since Granger had locked herself up in the Gold Room. And she hasn't come out since. Although he had instructed his elves to never send her any food unless she left her room, he was sure that Tinder had purposely turned a deaf ear on him and was slipping her daily meals.
That's what you get for hiring house elves who think they know better than you! Tinder had been with the family since his great, great grandfather had been in diapers, so he had grown as arrogant as his masters. After the war, he and his mother had decided to free all of their house elves. A few left, but the majority remained, not really having anywhere to go. His mother took pity and let them stay on the condition that they would each receive a galleon for every month of service (that's as much as the house elves were willing to take, anything more and they would start banging their heads on the floor).
Tinder, being the eldest and wisest (and sassiest, he scoffed), was more like the majordomo. He's never really openly defied Draco, but he had a way of circumventing his master's wishes to align them more with his own. However, since the old elf's ways were usually much better than his, Draco never complained.
Until now. Tinder was spoiling his plans on making Granger's life miserable. He must be made to realize that Granger was not a friend, but an enemy. Or a former enemy, at least, but still not a friend! One would think that she was the new mistress of Malfoy Manor with the way the ancient elf fawned after her. He'd been like that ever since Granger had regained consciousness after being blasted away by the Manor's wards. The old elf seemed to have taken a shine on the 'helpless' girl.
Hah! Helpless? He could think of a thousand words to describe Granger but 'helpless' would not be one of them. Draco's fingers graced his nose, unhappily recalling the punch that Granger had given him on their third year at Hogwarts. Helpless my arse, he snorted.
He had put his foot down tonight. He ordered Tinder (threatened him with dismissal, actually) to inform 'Mistress' Hermione (that's how Tinder referred to her now) that she must have dinner with him or he'd be forced to let her starve. Tinder returned, red-faced, with a note from Hermione saying that she'd rather starve than eat with him.
The nerve of that twit!
"Master, food is getting cold," Mimsy whispered beside him.
He scowled down at the elf, his mind too preoccupied with thoughts of Granger that he did not notice Mimsy trembling as she took a tentative step away from him.
What's she trying to prove by hiding inside that room? Aren't Gryffindors supposed to be brimming with bravado?
He smirked as he started to formulate a devious plan to flush out the Gryffette. Without a word, he stalked away and headed for the East wing.
Let's see if you're a true Gryffindor at heart, Granger!
The house elves cleaning the chandelier in the hallway looked at each other, scratching their heads as they followed their Master's progress. Never before had they seen him walk with such a bounce in his step. And humming, too!
Draco stopped in front of the ornate door of the Gold Room and knocked.
No answer. He knocked again - louder this time.
"The door's open, Fifi," came the cheerful voice from within.
Aha! So…she's on friendly terms with Fifi, eh? He wasn't really surprised by that. Granger's always been kind to the Hogwarts house elves. She'd even tried to free them all one time, darned bleeding heart! Good thing all his house elves were there of their own volition, otherwise, he might find himself in the middle of a mutiny!
He gently turned the knob and peeked inside. Scanning the room, he saw Granger sitting on the window seat…knitting! What was she knitting? Looking down at the basket beside her feet, he saw dozens of tiny socks and hats. He almost laughed when he realized who they were for.
Damned bleeding Gryffindor heart! Too bad, Granger. Even if my house elves were still under the enslavement of House Malfoy, they wouldn't take your socks and hats. They've got better taste than that! He sneered as he took on the bright and cheerful yellows, pinks and orange bundles in her basket. Still…a part of his frozen heart seemed to thaw at the sight of her lovely face scrunching up in concentration…her chestnut curls gleaming in the sun…her luscious, pink lips pouting slightly…as if waiting to be kissed. He wondered how they would feel like against his own…
Wait…WHAT? Damn you, Draco! Take your mind out of the gutter! You really need to end your self-imposed celibacy!
Cursing silently for nearly forgetting his real purpose in coming here, he flung the door open so violently it slammed against the wall with a bang. Granger jumped out of her seat, her knitting needles pointed at the source of the noise like a wand.
"MALFOY! What in Merlin's name are you doing here?"
"This is my house, Granger. I have every right to be here," he drawled.
Stop looking at her flushed cheeks and pink lips, Draco, for Salazar's fucking sake!
Hermione stood there glaring at him, her eyes flashing, her cheeks tinted red, her lips slightly parted as if preparing to harangue him, yet all Draco could think about was if she was as feisty as this in bed…and how he'd like to see if she really was!
STOP IT, DRACO! It's just your hormones acting up! Remember why you're here!
Willing himself to discard images of Hermione writhing in pleasure, Draco leaned against the door frame and folded his arms across his chest.
"You made me wait for more than an hour," he said.
Hermione tilted her head, her brows knitting together. Then, as the meaning of his words dawned on her, her lips tilted into an adorable smirk.
ADORABLE? GET A GRIP, MAN!
"I didn't ask you to wait. I believe I made it clear in my note that I'd rather starve than eat with you."
True. But he still waited, thinking that it was an empty threat. He should've known better.
"Really? And why is that, Granger? Scared?"
She gasped and turned a deeper shade of red.
"What did you say?"
"I asked if you're scared."
"Scared of what?"
"Me, of course!"
"You wish, Malfoy!"
"Well, why wouldn't you have dinner with your host like a civilized person?"
"Civilized? Hah! You're the one who's holding me captive here! Now, who's got a problem with civility, Malfoy?" she huffed, turning her back on him to look out the window.
Draco noted the stiffening of her spine. He chuckled inside. She's getting angry.
Nearly there, Draco. Nearly there.
"I told you, it's the Manor that's holding you prisoner, not me. Do you think I enjoy playing host to the Bookworm Know-It-All and Bestfriend of Saint Pothead?" he snarled.
"Why did you want to have dinner with me then?" she whirled at him.
"I just wanted to confirm my theory," he said.
"That the reason why you hadn't left this lovely room for three, whole days is because you're afraid of me."
"WHAT? I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOU, FERRET!"
"Then prove it, Granger. Be at the dining room in five minutes. If you're not there then I'd know that the War Heroine Hermione Granger is still afraid of Death Eaters. Even deformed and limping ones," he said, chuckling malevolently as he turned on his heels and headed down the hallway.
Several loud crashes were later heard from the Gold Room.
Shite! She really is a feisty one! I wonder if…SHUT UP, DRACO!