Chapter 1: Light as a Feather
Pansy had never been good with levitation spells. As he watched her mess it up, Draco had this weird flashback to Flitwick's class in his first year, which was funny. It wasn't funny-ha-ha, though - more of the hysterical "laugh so you don't cry" variety. She'd failed at lifting a feather back then, and now she was failing to lift his father's corpse.
"Let me do it," he said. He was trying to keep his voice as even as possible: it might've felt good for a minute to yell at her, but they were in this situation together, and it wouldn't help to bicker amongst themselves.
"Don't talk to me like that," she said, and he pinched the bridge of his nose and began another lap around the living room. Apparently, his tone still wasn't quite ingratiating enough. "And stop pacing. I swear I'm walking this thing straight into the Ministry Headquarters if you don't stop that! I don't care about the money!"
He slowed down and came to a leisurely stop, so she wouldn't think he was at her beck and call. When he turned around, her eyes were wide and she was baring her teeth like an angry animal. It was extremely unattractive, and he was sick of spending so much time with her. She was okay when her husband was there, but Marcus was busy practicing with the Falmouth Falcons. It was all very ironic, really. Well, actually it wasn't. It was just one horrible coincidence after another.
It was a bit ironic that Marcus was too busy with practice to help them clean up the mess, though, because the Falcons were going to lose their next match anyway. That was the whole point. The rest of the team didn't know they were throwing the match, though, so he had to keep up appearances.
"Yes, you do. That's all you care about, just like me. This is what we have in common," he ground out, once he felt calm enough to talk. "I'll stop pacing if you'll let me take over the levitation." He raised his wand, and she sighed and dropped hers.
"Fine. I'm going to get some more tea - this whole business is below me!" She threw up her hands and turned on her heel toward the dining hall, and Draco felt better as soon as she was out of the room. He was above this, too, but it wasn't the sort of thing a person could ask house-elves to do. That seemed wrong; like this was something he should do himself out of respect for the dead. His respect for his living father had been limited at best, but he had to admit that Lucius was a duty-bound man. He'd died in the process of doing what was necessary to bring money back into the Malfoy family, even if that meant insanely complex schemes.
Nobody had expected his father's thorny heart to give out so soon. It had beaten its last at a most inconvenient time, because this particular insane scheme was only half-way finished. Once it was done, the Malfoys would be getting fifty thousand Galleons, and Draco just had to keep repeating that number to himself in his head so he wouldn't go completely out of his mind. Fifty. Thousand. Galleons.
Twenty thousand of it was going to Pansy and Marcus for their end of the deal, but fifty thousand sounded better in his head, so he was sticking with that for motivational purposes. With Pansy gone, he refocused on his father's remains. Fifty thousand Galleons. Then, he relaxed his grip and flicked his wrist as he said the spell, causing the corpse to float obediently up to waist-height. His father's eyes were closed, which made it easy to pretend he was asleep: for the time being, Draco was fueled by caffeine, adrenaline, and denial. When he had his fifty thousand Galleons, he'd deal with his father's death. Even the emotions. (fifty thousand Galleons)
An unfortunate side effect of living on chemicals and lies was that it could make somebody crazy. Crazy people sometimes hallucinated, which was happening to Draco just then. He was hallucinating that Hermione Granger had walked out of the Floo into his living room. He knew it wasn't real because so many bad things had already happened to him in the past week, and there was no way that his life could realistically get any worse. Even he didn't deserve this.
His brain wasn't very good at making up fake Grangers, though, because this one was looking much too attractive. Pretend Hermione would have been even cuter if she closed her mouth, which was hanging open in shock as she stared at his peacefully slumbering father. Meanwhile, Draco was trying to figure out his mind's angle - what was his subconscious trying to tell him, he wondered. What could an image of Hermione Granger possibly mean for his psyche? He hadn't seen her since the last spot-check from the Ministry, and that was almost six months ago.
Then Draco connected the dots, and his mouth fell open along with hers, making them both equally unattractive. This was seriously happening to him. This was his life. This was a spot-check from the Ministry.
That was almost sort of ironic, too, since the Malfoys didn't do Dark Magic anymore. Wicked deeds were nowhere near as profitable in a post-war society, and the Ministry was constantly breathing down their necks anyway. In the five years since the Final Battle, fixing a Quidditch match was the worst thing any of them had done, and hiding bodies hadn't been part of the original plan. The bet his father had placed on the match was non-transferable and would be canceled in the event of his death, and it was too close to the match to withdraw bets and place new ones, so Draco and the Flints just had to keep up the charade until the day after the Falcons lost. Really, it wasn't that bad. Just a little white lie, and this was the one day that Granger had to show up for an inspection. If she'd come by an hour later when Lucius was tucked away safely in the freezer, Draco would've been more than happy to show her around the whole damn place.
"Oh, my god," she said, finally snapping her jaw back into place. Draco had heard of the Muggle 'god,' and he wished it was real at times like this. It would be so useful if some old bloke with a beard could send a lightning bolt hurtling straight into Ministry inspectors, and then Draco could get his money and laugh all the way Gringotts.
"Who do you think you are?" he asked. "You are not welcome to barge into my home unannounced." She went from shocked to angry very quickly. "My father is trying to sleep," he improvised, gesturing to the floating corpse. "He's very - ill," he added, and his voice cracked a bit, and it really wasn't convincing at all.
He couldn't come up with any more words to say, so he waited for her next move. If he could've had one wish in that moment (fifty thousand Galleons), it would've been for her to look at his father's remains and say: 'Oh, my mistake. I hope he feels better soon. No Dark Magic here. Good day, Malfoys!' Then she'd turn around and walk back into the Floo and never come back. Unfortunately, that didn't seem likely to happen. She was still fixated on Lucius's body, and Draco tried to shift himself uncomfortably in front of it, like that would help or something, but he knew it only made him look more suspicious.
"Well," she began, and then there was a long pause. Her voice sounded faraway and strained, and Draco reckoned she was having a hard time grasping the situation, too. Of course, she was - perfect little Hermione Granger was so used to everybody doing The Right Thing that she probably hadn't dealt with anything like this since the War, and now she was out of practice. She'd probably come straight from tea at the Weasleys, hugging gross Muggles and not placing dirty bets. "First of all," she continued at last, "I have the right to enter your property at any time as a Ministry official. I'm sure I don't need to explain the spot-check procedure again, as I have made it abundantly clear to you and your family in the past. Second, I don't - " another long pause - "I don't think your father is just ill. Is he alive?"
Her expression was a cross between anger and confusion, but anger appeared to be winning, and he bit the insides of cheeks. "Yes," he said. "Do you have any more ridiculous questions, or will you finish your inspection and be on your way?"
"I think I'd like to take a look at your father first," she said, stepping forward. Draco pulled the corpse along with him as he backed up. "Are you certain he's breathing?"
"Oh, are you a mediwitch now?" he asked, stretching his arms out to block as much of his father as possible. She kept trying to move closer, and he kept trying to move away, and soon they were going to run out of space in the living room. He had absolutely no fucking clue what he was going to do when that happened.
"No," she snapped. "But one doesn't need much medical training to tell whether a person is alive or dead." He kept backing up, and she stopped and put her hands on her hips. "That's enough! I'm not going to chase you around in circles. As a Magical Law Enforcement Officer, I order you to -"
A streak of red light caught her from behind, and she hit the ground with a horrible crack. Clearly, Draco was hallucinating again. The only thing worse than having the Ministry find out his father was dead would be if a Ministry official were attacked in his home. Oh, Muggle god, couldn't Draco please be hallucinating just this one time?
Pansy walked out of the dining room then, and she looked pretty surprised for being the person who cast the spell. Draco was surprised, too. It was a regular shock-fest in that living room. Pansy made eye contact, and Draco felt his pulse build up to a dangerous speed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this angry. The blood was rushing in his ears, and he could feel his eyes bulging out of his head, and even fifty thousand Galleons wasn't enough to stop it.
"What is wrong with you?" he roared, and Pansy looked away and fidgeted with her wand. "You are so bloody daft! You just attacked an officer! You just Stupefied the sodding Saviour of the World's best friend! How did your brain get so broken?"
"Once again, you can't speak to me like that," she said, still failing to meet his eyes. "I saved you. She was going to check the corpse and report the death to the Ministry, and then it would go to the papers, and then the bet would be off and nobody would get anything! And not only that, but you'd also become the crazy bloke who takes his dead father's body for strolls around the living room. At least now we've got a minute to think. What if we modify her memory?"
"Brilliant idea!" he crowed, with the rage still flowing through his veins. "Why hasn't anyone else ever thought of that, I wonder? Why doesn't every criminal just modify the memory of the officer who catches them?" He gave her a second to respond, but she didn't, so he helped her out. "Oh, I remember now! It's because you bloody can't! It's because the Ministry already thought of that and took precautions, because not everybody in the world is as thick as you!"
She finally met his eyes, but she didn't look overly apologetic, and that just made him angrier. He was all set to keep ranting, but then she said the magic words: "Fifty thousand Galleons, Draco. Keep your eyes on the prize." He closed his mouth and counted the money in his head, fixing his gaze on anything but Pansy, Granger, and his father. "We have a limited amount of time before she wakes up, and yelling at me won't help."
It was true: if he wanted that money, now was the time for quick thinking and careful plotting. He knew from experience that everything had a loophole, so all he had to do was find it and squeeze through. He turned away from Pansy and started pacing again, mentally listing everything he knew about Granger. He knew she was a swotty bitch with her knickers in a twist, for starters, so that ruled out both bribery and seduction. He thought about her hanging out with the Weasleys, and that reminded him of her misplaced compassion for lowly creatures. That led him to house-elves, and he had it.
"I know how to fix this, but you have to leave," he said. "Summon a house-elf and get out, and I'll update you later."
"What are you going to do?" she asked, and he turned around and gave her his most commanding glare, which didn't seem to have much of an effect. He wished every day that Pansy was still afraid of him, like she used to be when they were kids, but she'd gotten this crazy idea in her head sometime around sixth year that all his threats were empty. In actual fact, she'd just been lucky - all his threats to her had been coincidentally empty so far, but one of these days he was actually going to carry one out. Then she'd be sorry.
"I don't have time to explain it to you," he said. She lifted her chin and sneered at him, but then she flounced off and did as she was told. By the time she returned with a house-elf and fucked off through the Floo, Draco had the rest of his plan.
"Master calls?" said the elf. He could tell she was nervous, standing between her late master and the unconscious Granger.
"Topsy, I need a favour. I need you to wake this woman up and tell her you were the one who stunned her. Apologize, maybe cry a bit, and she'll forgive you. She loves house-elves." He made a face at this, since he really didn't understand it. They were useful, but Draco wasn't about to go making friends with them. "Say you did it because you thought she was going to take my father's body, and we're all so sick with grief that we aren't thinking straight."
"Yes, Master," Topsy said, fretting with her hands. Draco used his wand to levitate Lucius's corpse over onto the couch, taking care to place him in the most natural position possible. Topsy bit her tiny lip and stepped in front of the stunned body, and then she put her hands over Granger's chest until they glowed green. She started to stir, and Draco tried not to panic. This had to work.
Granger eased into a sitting position, placing a hand to her head as her eyes locked on the elf hovering over her, which Draco would have found extremely creepy. She appeared to find it calming, though.
"Miss, Topsy is so sorry," the elf said. "Topsy is thinking that you is trying to take Master Lucius's body away from us! We is so sad, so very sad that he is gone, and we does not know what we is doing. Topsy doesn't mean to hurt you. She doesn't know any better." She hung her head in shame, and Draco was pretty sure she was starting to tear up from the stress of the situation. Perfect.
Granger took a few careful breaths and gave Topsy a resolved smile. She reached up to touch the back of her head, and then she looked at her hand and frowned at the blood on her fingers, and Draco almost started raging again when he saw it. It was too much to handle: his father was dead, he was trying to pull off a complicated plot of highly dubious legality, Hermione Granger was in his house, and then Pansy had to start cracking skulls. It was one of those days.
Granger seemed pretty dazed and disoriented, which was good and yet bad. It would probably make her more likely to believe his flimsy house-elf lie, but she might be really mad once all her cognitive functions returned.
"Is your head all right?" he asked, trying to sound as concerned as possible. That seemed to confuse her even more, and she opened and closed her mouth a few times, rubbing the blood between her thumb and forefinger. "Our house-elves are very protective of their masters," he added, placing an arm around Topsy. The elf resisted a bit as Draco pulled her against his side, since she wasn't used to being hugged, but she didn't say anything.
"Er, I think it's okay," Granger said, blinking rapidly.
"Hold still - I'll heal that for you." She dropped her hand and turned her head so he could see the wound, and he tapped it carefully with his wand. The skin knitted together, and he used another spell to clean the remaining blood out of her hair. She turned to face him and touched the back of her head again, nodding.
"Thanks," she said uneasily. She stood up, brushed some imaginary dirt off her skirt, and fixed her hair, and Draco waited patiently to see what she would do next. He even dared to hope that she might have incurred some memory loss, so that he could convince her that she'd already completed her investigation and found nothing to be amiss.
He couldn't stop twitching, though. It felt like there was an itch on his brain somewhere behind his left eye, and the ocular nerves were stabbing each other. Twitchy guys were suspicious guys, and he placed a hand over the left side of his face to try and hide it, even though that just made him look like a nervous pirate.
"Now, where were we?" she asked.
"You were just finishing up your investigation," he said, studying her with his good eye. He tapped his right foot a few times and tried to smile, and she appeared to be fairly terrified.
"Hm," she said, gripping her wand. She paused to shake her head, and then she scowled at him. "No, no. I remember now. I just got here, and you gave me a concussion the second I walked in. I am most certainly not finished with my investigation."
"That wasn't me," he said. "That was Topsy, and she's very sorry." He could see Topsy nodding out of the corner of his eye, and he gestured toward the elf with his free hand.
"Yes, I know, but I'm still holding you accountable for her behavior. It's not her fault that she's been living in a violent environment," Granger scolded. "I'll let it go this time, but the rest of this Manor had better be squeaky clean. And there was something else we needed to discuss…" She trailed off, trying to remember, and Draco crossed his fingers behind his back for good luck. Fifty thousand Galleons if she can't remember. Come on, Galleons!
"Master Lucius," Topsy said, trying to help, and Draco almost kicked her. He took his hand off his face and gaped down at the elf in horror, and Topsy seemed surprised by his reaction. Maybe Granger was right about this house-elf liberation thing: they were way too useless to keep around.
Meanwhile, he could tell from Granger's face that her anger was approaching critical mass. "Yes, of course," she said, grinding the words through her teeth. The combination of absolute exhaustion and anxiety must've been getting to him in that moment, because Draco was actually afraid of her. "Your father. Where is he?"
It was time for a change of plans. Discretion had failed, and so had scheming and hiding and every other kind of lying, and the only option left was the truth. Well, almost the truth: Draco had to create a truth pie wrapped in a flakey lie crust. Certain sacrifices had to be made, such as his pride and dignity. Being a Malfoy, he knew that everything could be bought and sold, and fifty thousand Galleons sounded like a fair price.
"He's passed away," he said at last, channeling all his hopelessness into a burning, melancholy gaze that could melt any heart. When he aimed it straight into Granger's eyes, he could tell the stone was beginning to crack. "He had a heart attack this morning."
She seemed to be equal parts sympathetic, suspicious, and something he couldn't quite name. It was probably joy, considering her relationship with his father, and he was prepared to get that reaction a lot from the general public. "My condolences," she said awkwardly, and he didn't bother trying to figure out if she meant it or not. "Is there a reason you were trying to hide it from me?"
"Yes, actually. A very good reason," he said, improvising. "Our family is currently in a great deal of - emotional turmoil. This was highly unexpected. If the news gets out right away, I don't think my mother could bear it."
"When were you planning to report it?" Granger asked, folding her arms across her chest. "We can't just take your word for it on the cause of death, either. Someone needs to look at the body as soon as possible."
"But they'll leak the story to the Prophet! Come on, just give me a week," he pleaded. "Leave us alone until Sunday, and then they can print the story on Monday and my mother will have a little time to prepare herself before they start celebrating in the streets."
Even as he tried to talk, the panic was edging in and corroding his mind from all sides. This wasn't working. He was going to fail, and then the money would be gone, and then he'd have to really think about it what it meant that his father was dead.
Then, the second he had that figured out, he might have to get a job. All the worst-case scenarios flashed before his eyes: filing papers nine-to-five for the Ministry, waiting tables in Diagon Alley, cleaning up vomit at the Leaky Cauldron, begging in the streets. His rational self knew that none of those things would ever actually happen, but he was temporarily unable to access the logic centres in his brain. He was fifty thousand Galleons worth of insane, and he wasn't ready to live like a plebian.
The investigator opened her mouth to speak, and fear clutched at his chest and brought him to his knees before he could think anymore about what was happening or what he should do next. There at her feet, he clasped his hands together and held them up near her stomach, and her mouth snapped shut so hard he could hear it from the floor.
"Please," he whispered, for the first time in years. When his brain went back to normal, he'd probably have to commit ritual suicide to get past the shame of this moment, but for now there was only him and Granger and all that money. Please.
He dropped his gaze to the ground, too scared to look at her in case she said 'no,' and he heard her sigh heavily. "This must really mean a lot to you," she said after a moment, as she edged back to put a few extra centimetres between them. "Fine. You can have until Sunday, but no later, and you'd better not make me regret this."
He let out the breath he was holding, and then he stood back up with as much dignity as he could muster, considering the circumstances. He took his hands apart and stretched out the right one, and Granger shook it and let go in a hurry. It was a good thing his father wasn't alive to see this. Draco couldn't quite bring himself to say anything at all, much less 'thank you,' but she didn't seem to mind.
"I suppose I might as well finish my investigation at that time," she said, glancing at her hand in disbelief. "I think I need a bit of a lie-down."
He nodded once, and she nodded in response, and then she took the Floo back out. He could still feel the sting of the cold floor on his knees, and he decided that he could use a rest as well. It didn't seem so important anymore to move his own father's corpse, so he glanced around for Topsy, who was cowering half-way behind an end table.
"Preserve my father's body and hide it somewhere in this house that isn't a bedroom," he instructed. "And don't tell anybody where it is until Sunday, especially not me, even if I ask you. Understand?"
Topsy bobbed her head up and down and moved quickly around to the couch, using her elf magic to pick up Lucius's remains. Draco pretended it wasn't happening, fixed himself a drink, and went back to bed for a long nap.
Chapter 2: Stiff as a Board
Hermione had been losing all day long.
It started when she woke up two hours before her alarm was set to go off, and she hadn't been able to get back to sleep. She'd tried to do some reading, but she was feeling too restless and lonely in her dark flat. She had set down her book, turned the lights back off, and stared at the ceiling until the clock began to beep. None of her clothes quite seemed to fit, like everything in her life was suddenly the wrong size, especially her eyelids.
When she arrived at the Ministry, tired and heavy and expecting the worst, her boss had reminded her that it was time once again to visit the Malfoys. She'd tried to argue her way out of it, since they hadn't broken the law for a solid five years. It wasn't even that they were getting away with secret crimes - she had personally checked the entire Manor for Dark Magic residue more than fifteen times since she'd gotten her position in the Dept. of Magical Law Enforcement.
They still weren't up to any actual good, since she hadn't seen them around doing anything of value for society, but they weren't up to any serious evil, either. Lucius Malfoy spent most of his time doing legitimate business outside England, where he was less hated, and she could tell it wasn't illegal because he wasn't making much money. In fact, she'd recently heard from a gleeful Ron that the Malfoy family's net worth was the lowest it had been in over a century, and they were living outside their means just by keeping up their giant mansion. She had to admit to a little thrill of schadenfreude upon hearing that news, but she didn't care nearly as much as Ron did. Draco and Narcissa kept tightly to their old social circles: they didn't bother anybody, and people had stopped bothering them.
She'd managed to convince her boss to knock down the surprise check-ups to once a year as opposed to twice, but she still had to go today. Then, she had her head bashed in by a brainwashed house-elf and found Lucius Malfoy's corpse. If she hadn't been so tired and disoriented from her possible concussion, she would not have agreed to Malfoy's deal; as it stood, however, she couldn't even muster an appropriate level of surprise. She had known that something like this was coming. She'd seen it written in the shadows on the ceiling.
Even in her dazed state, she had noticed that Draco was twitching with an unnatural sort of energy, and she wondered how much Pepper-Up he'd been drinking. He wasn't taking the death well at all. She wasn't too broken up about it personally, to say the least, but one week of privacy wasn't exactly a ridiculous request. She'd had more than her share of unwanted publicity, albeit under very different circumstances, and she couldn't imagine grieving her father while the Daily Prophet ran a cover story titled "Good Riddance" or something.
The only thing that kept her from falling straight back into bed was lunch with Ginny, who had been so busy training with the Holyhead Harpies that Hermione hadn't seen her in weeks. Ginny was already waiting when she entered the café, and she moved through the tables to join her.
"The world has gone mad," she announced, as soon as she was seated.
Ginny pushed a warm mug into her hand. "Well, luckily I got your tea already. What happened?"
It occurred to Hermione that she shouldn't be spreading this information around, but it was too ridiculous to keep inside. If she didn't say it out loud soon, her brain would start trying to convince itself that it had all been a very strange dream. "You can't tell anyone, not even Harry or Ron or your mum. It's top-secret Ministry business."
Ginny's eyes went wide, and she grinned and nodded. "I won't tell a soul, I promise. This is exactly the kind of non-Quidditch-related excitement I needed today."
Hermione glanced around, but nobody seemed to be paying attention. She pulled out her wand and cast a spell to link her mouth to Ginny's ears and vice versa, so that any busybodies would only hear garbled static. Ginny was fidgeting with excitement, but Hermione was still mostly numb.
"All right," she said. "I'm still digesting it all, but I suppose it's best if I just say it: Lucius Malfoy is dead."
"What? And it's a secret? How'd he die?"
Hermione held up a hand to stop the questions, since her head was starting to throb again. She reckoned she should get it looked at after lunch, if she could get up the energy. "He died of a heart attack, and it's only a secret until the end of this week. I had to do a spot-check on the Malfoys today, and it was so strange. I walked in, and Draco Malfoy was levitating his father's body across the living room. I started asking him about it, and then a house-elf came out of nowhere and stunned me for trying to tamper with her dead master, and I woke up on the floor with my head bleeding."
Ginny's mouth was hanging open, and Hermione realised that this was what she must have looked like earlier in front of Draco Malfoy. It wasn't exceptionally charming. "Then what?"
"Malfoy was shockingly polite about everything, in light of the circumstances. That was odd, too, but I think he was afraid he'd get in trouble for the whole head injury thing. He healed me, and then he literally begged me to keep his father's death a secret until Sunday, so he and his mother will have a bit of time before they have to read about it in the Prophet."
"He actually begged you?"
"On his knees." She tried to replay the moment in her mind, but it was almost too bizarre to revisit.
"I know it was a stressful day for you, but that all sounds like fine news to me. Seeing Malfoy beg is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and his arsehole father's dead to boot," Ginny said. "In fact, lunch is on me - we're celebrating."
Ginny's smile was reassuring, and Hermione was beginning to feel a bit more grounded in reality. There was something about Malfoy Manor that seemed to throw the whole world out of balance - after each inspection, she'd made a habit of taking the rest of the day off. There was an illness to that place, put simply, and she knew she wasn't the only one who could feel it. Narcissa Malfoy, for example, looked sick all of the time.
"You're right," she said. "You're right. I guess I'll be laughing about this in a few days." She lifted her wand to remove the charm, but Ginny waved a hand to stop her.
"Wait - that reminds me of something even better." She paused to lick her lips with delight. "This hasn't been confirmed, since the identity of the betters is confidential, but rumour has it that Lucius Malfoy has a substantial bet riding on our game this Saturday. Now that he's dead, it's invalid."
They both laughed, but then Hermione had this funny thought. She stopped laughing, and so did Ginny. "But on Saturday…" She trailed off, thinking back to Draco Malfoy's groveling - he was sincere, all right. He was sincerely willing to do anything to keep his stake in that cash.
"… nobody will know he's dead yet," Ginny finished, shaking her head. "Those complete bastards."
"That'll teach me to be a nice person." This was definitely the first and last favour she'd ever do for the likes of them.
"Hey, it's not your fault. It's not every day that you get to see spoiled, entitled pricks like that get on their knees and plead for mercy. I'm sure it would've confused anybody."
She forced herself to drink some tea, but all it did was burn her throat. It didn't calm her down. "I can't believe even Draco Malfoy would be dragging his father's dead body around his house for any amount of money - whose first thought is Galleons when a parent dies?"
Ginny wrinkled her nose. "Have you met Lucius Malfoy?"
"Well, I understand that he was probably the worst person alive at the time of his death, but I'd have thought we'd feel differently if we were his children."
"Let's not think about that."
She blew on the liquid surface and sipped her tea more slowly. Anger would only make her headache worse. "It won't be a problem, anyway - I'll report the death when I get back to work, and they won't get a Sickle."
"That's my girl," Ginny said, but then she paused and frowned. "I feel like I should tell you this, too, even though it might not be important. Everybody thinks it's really weird, is all. The Malfoys usually support the Falcons, but they bet against them this time: ten thousand Galleons, that they'll lose by at least a hundred points. The Falcons are technically favoured," she paused to roll her eyes, evidently unimpressed by that sort of shoddy sports analysis, "but the Malfoys have personal ties on the team. Word on the pitch is they must have some kind of inside knowledge, like one of their players is hiding an injury or something."
"Ten thousand Galleons? Is that normal?"
"No, it's not. I know Lucius Malfoy used to bet on Quidditch a whole lot, but I haven't heard of a wager that big in years, especially with such piss-poor odds - it's four to one against. He must've been damn sure he was winning, I'll tell you that."
It was definitely no secret that Hermione didn't understand sports, even if most of her friends did, and she had a secret term in her head for this sort of situation: Quidditch Logic. A person under its influence will jump right over the conclusion that makes the most sense and land on something silly or even ridiculous. For example: let's say a man supports the Chudley Cannons, and another man offers the opinion that the Cannons' Seeker is blind, deaf, and armless. If the first man uses regular logic to determine his next move, he will argue verbally against the allegations; however, if he is instead using Quidditch Logic, he will punch the second man. Just for a random example. Anyway, there was some Quidditch Logic happening here, and it seemed to be keeping Ginny and the rest of the Harpies from getting all the way to the conclusion.
"Ginny, this is obvious," she said. "They don't have inside knowledge. They fixed the match. What else could be happening there, if Lucius Malfoy bet ten thousand Galleons against his own team when it's favoured to win? The Malfoys practically own the Falcons - even I know that." Ginny cocked her head to one side, as if considering this for the first time.
"Wow," Ginny said. "That makes a lot of sense. I mean, we figured it wasn't entirely on the up-and-up, but everybody who isn't on the team or an ex-Death Eater hates the Falcons, anyway. It didn't seem out-of-place, since we're so used to them being evil. It's out of character for a team like that to agree to throw a match - I wonder how the Malfoys got them to do it."
"Why'd they even let him place a bet like that?"
"Bets can be placed anonymously," Ginny said, "so probably even the bookmaker won't know the better's identity until he comes forward to collect." Hermione's confusion must have been obvious, since Ginny went ahead and explained the procedure. "Here's how it works: say you want to place a bet on a Quidditch match, and you're rich and famous and evil. You don't want anybody to know you placed that bet, so you can't risk having somebody see you at the bookmaker's office. You have to go there yourself so they can verify that you're a real person with a functioning wand, but you don't have to tell them who you are - so I guess you'd wear a big, dodgy cloak. You give them your wand so they can place the bet against your magic rather than your name. That's why they have to pretend Lucius Malfoy's still alive - the Ministry will deactivate his wand when he's pronounced dead."
"Right," she said. "I was wondering how Draco was planning to impersonate him, but if that's true, he doesn't have to. He just needs the wand."
"But it doesn't matter now," Ginny said. "We figured it out, and the Malfoys are going to lose, as usual. All's right with the universe."
"The good guys win again," she said, trying to smile. "I think I have to go take care of this as soon as possible, though. I don't trust Draco Malfoy to sit around twiddling his thumbs for the next few hours."
Ginny drained the last of her tea. "I wouldn't, either. It's all right, we can have lunch later this week."
Hermione headed straight to the Ministry after she left the café, full of righteous fury. Unfortunately, a person needs more than righteous fury when it comes to law enforcement: she also needs proof.
As the Head of Magical Law Enforcement pointed out, Hermione had none. She didn't have Lucius Malfoy's body, she didn't have his wand, and she didn't even have any witnesses. She tried to tell Head Officer Reinhardt about the bet, but he reminded her that it was anonymous - they couldn't even be certain that Lucius Malfoy placed it. She could file a warrant for Veritaserum on Draco Malfoy, but it would take five to seven business days to pass, since it wasn't technically an emergency. In other words, probably Tuesday.
When she'd first started with the Department, Reinhardt and Shacklebolt had tacitly implied that she could essentially do as she pleased. She'd noticed that her early warrants were going through the same day, and she'd quickly realised that it was because nobody even looked at them.
In order to prove a point, she had then submitted a warrant for the arrest of Harry Potter, for failing to pay back the three Galleons he owed her - on the form, she recommended that they "ship him off to Debtor's Prison, post-haste." It was approved within the hour, and she brought it to Reinhardt for verification, who tried unsuccessfully to hide his embarrassment. From then on, she was just another officer when it came to intradepartmental paperwork.
Hermione was not a person who had want or need of special treatment. She was only trying to do some honest work. This wasn't something she talked about very often, but she also fully intended to be Minister of Magic someday. It wouldn't look good if voters saw that she'd spent years taking advantage of her fame in order to supersede the law, but that was neither here nor there.
Reinhardt did believe her, and he was on her side: all DMLE officers hate the Malfoys, and there is no truer truth. They are still Magical Law Enforcement Officers, however, not Magical Grudge Enforcement Vigilantes. They have to follow the letter of the law, even in time-sensitive cases like this.
The best Reinhardt could do was relieve Hermione of her other duties until such time as she recovered the body of Lucius Malfoy. "Do what you have to do," he'd instructed her, and that was all the permission she needed.
She returned to Malfoy Manor, and Topsy greeted her at the Floo entrance.
"I need to speak with Draco Malfoy," she said, flashing her badge. The elf knew exactly who she was, but Hermione would take nearly any excuse to show her credentials. It was rather thrilling, the way the worn leather flipped open and the solid gold crest shone in the sunlight. She had practiced in front of a mirror far more often than she'd ever admit, holding it up at just the right height with just the right facial expression. She had a determined smile, a scolding glare, and many others besides.
"My master is asleep," the elf said, looking appropriately nervous.
"Then wake him up," she instructed. "Or you'll be impeding my investigation, and I can assure you that you don't want to do that."
The elf nearly had a heart attack at the thought of disappointing her any more, and Hermione felt guilty. Topsy was having a rough day, to say the least, but time was of the essence. There was no telling how far the corpse had already traveled in the space of the last hour and a half - Hermione was fairly certain Draco wouldn't have removed it from the Manor, but Malfoy Manor was nearly the size of a small country by itself. She had searched it more times than she cared to recall, and she still couldn't keep from getting lost, usually in a corridor she hadn't even known existed.
Like most Old Magic homes and castles, it was extremely difficult to map, and if a map did exist, it was made by someone who had lived there. In other words, all the maps she'd seen of the Manor were full of lies - intentionally leaving out secret passageways and failing to mark dangerous magical traps and Dark objects. Some of them were even specifically crafted for "intruders" like herself, designed to lead her straight to her doom. The first time she went to the Manor, she'd already studied the most accurate maps the Ministry had, which proved beneficial when Lucius Malfoy gave her one of his own: in his version of the floor plan, the first-floor bathroom with the Quicksand Tiles was marked "guest W.C."
Memories of Lucius Malfoy - how Hermione would miss that dirty-old-horrible-monster-Death-Eater-scourge-on-wizardkind. Hardly anyone wanted to kill her these days, and it was never a shame to cross one off the list. Draco finally managed to wake up and stumble back into the living room, looking worse for wear. She wasted no time.
"Nice try, Malfoy," she said, "but you've failed. I've figured out your plan, and it's not going to work."
"What plan?" he asked, squinting his eyes even in the dim firelight.
"All of them, really," she said. "Where shall I start? The Quidditch match? Your father's secret death?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. "My father is away on business in Belgium until Monday, and I don't see what Quidditch has to do with anything." He grinned at her then, with no joy, and her heart dropped into her stomach. She paused to think, rubbing her temples and wishing for the first time that she'd let the DMLE give her special treatment. Then she'd have Veritaserum on her right now.
"We both know what you're up to, and my only assignment right now is to stop it." His grin didn't falter. "As of this moment, my entire job is to keep you from getting that money, and I have a standing search warrant."
"Search all you want," he said. "I'd help you, but I can't begin to imagine what you're looking for. We haven't failed an inspection in five years."
"You'll help me anyway, unless you've forgotten the terms of the warrant - I am entitled to a non-elf human escort for my whole investigation. An escort, of course, who walks in front of me," she reminded him.
"Yes, because the magic can't get you if somebody else goes first," he mused. "It couldn't possibly tell the difference. After all, it's only ancient magic… never sentient…"
She knew his game by now, and she wasn't afraid. "You've tried that one before, and it didn't work then, either. If I die on your property, it'll be quite a bit worse than losing your shot at some Galleons. I know you don't want to go to prison, and so I know you won't let your house kill me."
"Believe me, Granger: I don't want the house to hurt you," he said. "But who knows what will happen, if we venture far enough in? It might even kill me."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," she said, rolling her eyes. "I'm not scared of you, all right? I never have been." It was true - she wasn't. She was afraid of his house - very much so, in fact - but he didn't need to know that.
"Have it your way," he said. His smile finally disappeared, replaced by a deep and threatening scowl. "Tell me where you'd like to start."
She pulled out her folded copy of the best map the Ministry had of Malfoy Manor, trying to hide her apprehension. Her heart sank even farther, through her stomach and straight to the core of the Earth, when she realised something else: a dead body was not Dark Magic, and her usual searching spells wouldn't pick it up. The only tool she had was her eyes, and she couldn't realistically search more than one wing in a day.
"The East Wing, I suppose," she said at last. That was Narcissa's living quarters, and it was the least dangerous wing of the Manor. In fact, Hermione rather liked the East Wing: it was elegant and well-lit. Unfortunately, she knew that it was also the least likely hiding place of Lucius Malfoy's body.
And she was starting to feel like she'd be losing all week.
Chapter 3: Ring a Ring o' Roses
"Follow me," he said.
He turned and headed east through the main hallway, thinking about how Granger didn't have a clue how the Manor actually functioned. If he felt like explaining it, which he didn't, he would have told her that a house this old and powerful was better thought of as a magical object wrapped around you than as a place. It had more in common with a vanishing cabinet or the Goblet of Fire than it did with Honeydukes or something, but he didn't expect somebody like Granger to understand that. Muggles think a place is just where you are.
This hallway wouldn't even exist if a Malfoy wasn't in it, for example. Granger couldn't feel the hundreds of checks the walls ran on his magic as they walked, but he'd grown used to the sensation - it was like walking through a light snow, with flakes hitting his forehead at random and melting.
Draco knew his house about as well as anybody could, and he knew better than to go to certain places. There were also plenty of places where he simply didn't want to go, and that included pretty much anywhere except back to his room, if Granger would please show herself out, thanks.
Not to mention the fact that the corpse could literally be anywhere, and Draco would be as surprised as anybody if they managed to find it, but probably they wouldn't. House-elves were excellent hiders - the best in the world except Doxies. They couldn't ask, either: as soon as she'd rushed into his room, panicking about Granger's return, he'd told Topsy to go hide herself and come back Sunday.
Since the odds were so extremely low that they'd find the body, Draco was pretty sure he'd be speeding toward a mental breakdown by Thursday at the latest, ready to jump out of a tower if he had to spend another second with Granger. Oh, and he meant it when he said the house might kill them both.
So, to recap: between the Manor's scary underbelly and the strong likelihood of suicide, Draco didn't really expect to survive the week. Best of luck to Granger (ha), but she'd die shortly after he did. Then there'd be three dead bodies lurking in various hard-to-reach locations around the Manor, and nobody would have any idea where to begin looking for them, and maybe Narcissa would swallow hot coals when she realised her son was dead in addition to her husband, and then they might as well just rename it Malfoy Morgue and make it a tourist attraction, and they'd probably all come back as ghosts because they had some pretty serious unfinished business, and then Draco would end up spending eternity trapped in his stuffy house, hanging out with his parents and Hermione Granger. The End.
The future was grim, to say the fucking least.
The East Wing was a good place to start, though, since it was by far the safest part of the house. It was the Pureblood aristocracy's version of "child-proofed," and Draco had spent most of his time there as a kid. It was nearly impossible to get to if you weren't with a Malfoy, but there wasn't a single trap once you made it inside. Also, there was a strict no-killing-or-maiming policy in this portion of the house, so there wasn't any magical torture residue.
"So, Malfoy, I was wondering something." Granger was following him at a safe distance, and she sounded pleased with herself. "Why are your portraits so quiet and sad? And why are they all wearing black?"
He gritted his teeth. They were in mourning, of course, the stupid portraits. The ones in the main hall knew better than to talk in front of Ministry Officials, unless they specifically wanted to rat somebody out, but generally they liked Draco. A fellow had to do some serious blood-traitoring before the portraits would tattle on him. "Malfoy colours," he said. "Black and grey."
"Hm. I thought your colours were grey and crimson."
"No. Black and grey," he repeated. "Do you see anything crimson around here?"
"I could have sworn it was on your crest," she said, so cocky. So very certain that she was right.
"Then you'd be mistaken," he said. She would be: as soon as he'd said it, all the crests in the house would have altered themselves to fit his lie. Malfoy Manor was ready to protect its family in ways that most people didn't realise.
He knew Granger's map was wrong without having to look at it: the main reason nobody could accurately plot the Manor wasn't that the Malfoys were a bunch of liars, even though they were. It was because most of it didn't work like a normal house, such that everything had a location where it existed on its own. There was no way to find out what most of the rooms did with themselves when nobody was in them, although Draco had always sort of wondered.
The East and West Wings were fairly static, North and South were far less predictable, and forget about Northeast and the rest. They walked past his grandmother's portrait at the entrance to the East Wing, and she was crying quietly into a lacy handkerchief.
"Octavia Malfoy," Granger read aloud. "That's your grandmother on your father's side, right?" He didn't respond. "What's got her in a state, I wonder? I mean, she's just sitting there, wearing the traditional Malfoy colours, no recent deaths to speak of - especially not her own son. How very odd."
"Maybe she's crying because there's a Mudblood in her home," he said, seeing red. He clenched his teeth and dug his nails into his palms, and it was a good thing his wand was in his pocket. If it was in his hand, he might have used it.
"Watch your language," said Granger, unfazed. "Is your mother home?"
"She won't be, once I tell her you're here." Narcissa tended to vacate the Manor whenever the Ministry came round inspecting, and he hoped she'd be feeling well enough to do so today. She was in even worse shape than his nana, and Draco wouldn't be able to explain it away, and it occurred to him that there wasn't much point in lying anymore.
Granger knew his father was dead, and he knew she knew his father was dead, and besides that his father was dead. Why deny it? But he still didn't feel like saying it.
They walked up the stairs, passing more silent portraits as they went. The elderly occupants stayed where they were, but Draco saw some of the more agile ones take off for other parts of the Manor, ready to spread the news about another Ministry intrusion. At the top of the stairs was the newest portrait, covered in black cloth, and Draco made sure not to react as they passed it.
"Hang on," Granger said, and he stopped walking reluctantly.
"We're not there yet," he said. "You don't know this house as well as you think you do."
"I know where we are, and I want to know why that portrait's covered." Still cocky.
"What portrait?" he asked, clenching his jaw. "None of my ancestors are covered. That would be disrespectful."
"Then what's under that cloth?"
He turned around at last, and she was looking at him like she had real authority. There was more magic in the sodding wallpaper than there was in her whole wand, in every spell she'd ever cast, and he could kill her just by walking away (well, not in this wing, but most places); yet still, she believed herself in control of the situation. She was a Magical Law Enforcement Officer, willfully ignorant that this house obeyed a whole different set of magical laws. It made him sick.
"I don't think you want to see it," he said, and he didn't either. It would probably still be a portrait of his father - things didn't tend to shapeshift on this side. It might not be; really, it could be anything.
"Show it to me anyway," she said. He kept his eyes trained on her face as he lifted the cloth with his wand, holding his breath. Then the inspector sighed, clearly disappointed. "You can look, Malfoy. It isn't there."
He did, and she was telling the truth. Nothing but wall. He flicked his wand to replace the curtain. Good house, he thought. Maybe this would work out after all, except the problem as he saw it now had very little to do with his father's death; it was mostly that she was still there, and he wanted her to leave.
"Can we keep going now, or do you want to see what's under that doily, too?" he asked, gesturing to a nearby end table. She glared at him.
"No, that's quite all right. But you and I both know what I'm looking for, whether you'll admit it or not."
"And you should have figured out by now that you won't find anything the house doesn't want to show you," he said.
She sighed again, and he could tell he'd hit a nerve. If he were in her position, he'd have given up before he started. He told himself it was because he knew better and not at all because he was a coward. Either way, her task was essentially impossible: like finding a unicorn hair in a haystack, as the old saying went, except it could be in any haystack in the whole world, and also she was blind and had never heard of unicorn hair or hay, and so she had no idea what either of those things even was. It was like that.
He started walking, and she followed, pausing to look in all the coat closets and nooks and under tables and anywhere else that looked large enough to fit his father's body. It wasn't there, of course; those wouldn't have been good hiding places.
He hoped she'd find it almost as much as he hoped she wouldn't, but mostly he just wished he knew where it was. His first instinct was right: he should have hidden it himself. But then it would just be in the freezer, which was pretty obvious; so much so that he was surprised Granger hadn't thought to look there first. They'd get around that way, though, and the kitchens were about as safe as the East Wing. Nobody ever kept Dark Magic crap in the cupboards next to the garlic. Why would they?
She checked the bathroom, pulling aside the curtain around the tub, and his mother's sitting room and the tearoom. Nothing was there, but it didn't feel empty: light streamed in through the windows, and there was a pleasant mood. He was pretty sure they both knew they wouldn't find any bodies here, but she took her time looking anyway. Most likely, she didn't want to leave the comfortable part of the house. He'd shown her all of this more times than he could count. No surprises.
They kept moving down the corridor, past his old playroom and his childhood bedroom, which was now a guest room. That was scary for a minute, when the Lestranges had stayed there, but now it looked just like the kind you'd see in any nice house. Granger took her time looking under the bed, ruffling the covers for good measure, but that was a bad hiding place, too. Draco knew that from experience.
His parents' bedroom was at the end of the corridor, and the door was closed. Draco knocked, and there was no answer, so he opened it. His mother had left a note, hastily scrawled: I heard her. Went to my sister's.
His mother did this funny thing where she said she was going to her sister's sometimes, even though she didn't have any of those left. There was Andromeda, kind of, but he knew she wasn't going over there. It was a code she used when she wanted to be alone, and his father had known what she meant by it, but the secret died with him. It was none of Draco's business, but he hoped someday his mother would tell him where she was really going all those times.
He turned to face the doorway, where Granger was looking at him like she was entitled to an answer. "She's left already," he said. "She heard you come in."
"That's fine," she said, probably relieved. His mother wasn't usually very nice to inspectors, because she could get away with it; she'd saved Harry Potter, after all, and the Ministry had gotten in the habit of putting up with her barbs. Granger went through the motions of checking under the bed and in the closet, and Draco could at least be absolutely certain that it wasn't there. Somewhere that isn't a bedroom. Yes, he'd said that. He remembered now.
When she was finished, she pulled her map back out and studied it for a moment. She took her wand and vanished the entire East Wing. "Which way next?" she asked. "North?"
He shook his head. "No, the kitchens and the dining hall," he said. "They're right down the stairs."
"The North Wing is closer," she said.
"It's not as close as it looks on your map, and you might as well throw that thing away," he said. "It's not doing you any good."
"South Wing?" she muttered, ignoring him as she continued to study it. "Have I ever been there?"
"No," he said. "And you'll forget about it again the second you put that map away." He always said that, since she wouldn't remember it. It was a fun little joke.
"What? This is weird," she said. They'd had this conversation more times than she'd ever know. "What does the North Wing look like, even? What rooms are in it? None of these are marked…"
"The North Wing is just one room, with many sections," he said. "The grey room. That's where we keep them."
"Keep what?" she asked, eyes on the map.
"You know. Them." He couldn't say it out loud inside the house, even if he wanted to. Even if he knew for sure what they were. She wouldn't be able to see them, either, if they made it to the North Wing. They never had before. Some things were better left unsaid.
"I don't think I want to go there," she said softly, for what she thought was the first time.
"Maybe we could go somewhere else instead."
"Maybe we should," he said, inspecting his nail beds. People always said the exact same things about the North Wing if they thought about it for too long, and it felt like a script. He was pretty sure there was something in the magic that put those thoughts into their heads verbatim.
"Yes. That's probably for the best," she said, nodding. She took her wand and vanished the North Wing from her map, leaving only West and South, and he wanted to vanish the South Wing for her just so she'd stop asking him about it every time she remembered it existed. It was funny the first time, but it got annoying fast. She re-folded the map and looked up at him, disoriented.
"The kitchens," he reminded her.
"Right," she said. "And the dining hall. Lead the way."
As they walked back down the stairs, Draco couldn't keep himself from guessing in his head. Obviously, Topsy wouldn't have put the body in the East Wing or the West Wing or the dungeons. She probably wouldn't have put it in the North, either, since even house-elves tended to feel like they really didn't want to go there. It would have been a pretty good hiding place, but only if she could bring herself to enter it. South would have been even better, and house-elves were much better than humans at remembering how to get in. If Draco were in a position to place any more bets, he'd put his money on Southeast: not as dangerous as Southwest, but still harder to get to than South, which was the worst of the four main wings.
Actually, there was always Northeast - the storage wing, still untouched by intruders. The funny thing was that the Ministry thought they had all the Dark Artifacts from the Malfoys, since Unspeakables had even managed to search the South Wing. They were so proud of themselves for getting in and so smug about it, too. When one of them was leaving, Draco couldn't resist asking what they'd found in there - you ought to know, the man had said sarcastically. It's your house.
Okay, so Draco had never been to the South Wing any more than Granger had, but it was his house. And he could make an educated guess, even if it was probably wrong. And anyway, no one from the Ministry had made it outside the cardinal directions. Neither had Draco, but at least he knew those other wings existed at all, and he didn't forget South, which was saying something. Everybody forgot South.
They walked back down the stairs in silence until they were back where they started, in the main hallway. He led Granger into the dining hall from there, but there wasn't much to do: the only place it could be was under the table, and that was probably the worst hiding place in the entire house. Not even an especially dim-witted three-year-old would pick that in hide-and-go-seek. Granger didn't even make a show of checking.
"Just so I could cross this room off my list," she remarked. "How about the kitchens?"
He used his wand to enlarge the inconspicuous house-elf door on the wall; humans didn't usually go into the kitchens unless something was going horribly wrong, which almost never happened, or they were children who wanted to sneak late-night snacks, which Draco had done. They walked in, and Granger hit on the walk-in freezer immediately - unlike every other place she'd looked so far, there was actually a chance it might be in there. She paused with her hand on the doorknob and turned her head long enough to give Draco a funny look.
He kept his face neutral. He was almost positive it wasn't there.
She opened the door at last and stared in abject horror at the contents. He watched as the blood drained from her face, and she almost retched before she could turn away, covering her mouth tightly with one hand. Once she'd collected herself, she looked up at him, eyes wide.
"How many rats are in there, Malfoy?" she asked. "How many frozen rats do you need? For god's sake, what are you going to do with them?"
"There can't be that many. How many are there?" She didn't answer, so he walked over next to her and looked for himself. He did a quick estimation, and there were only a few hundred. "Two hundred or so," he said. "Isn't that about normal? They keep for a while." He closed the freezer door, since Granger was obviously done with it.
She was still looking traumatised, which Draco thought was a little overdramatic, considering what she was looking for. Most people who expected to find a dead human would probably be relieved to find a few hundred dead rats. "No, that isn't normal," she said. "I don't know anybody who has even one single rat in their freezer."
"Well, I suppose it depends on the sort of people you know," he said, with a shrug.
"Why would you even want those?"
"Well, obviously we aren't going to eat them," he said, wrinkling his nose. "I mean, look at them."
"Well, yes -" She paused, stammering incoherently. "What in the world are they for?"
"They're our rats, and we can do with them as we please. Is that what you were looking for today? Frozen rats? Do we need a license for them or something?"
"No," she said, ignoring his sarcasm. "You know what I'm looking for. This is a personal matter - please tell me what those are for. I really feel like I have to know."
He sighed, trying to think of fun lies, but none were coming. He figured he might as well tell the truth. "You have no idea what our family actually does, do you?"
"No. What do you do?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.
"We supply a wide variety of potions ingredients to international sellers, and we also brew a number of ready-made potions. Rat tails are used in Hair-Raising Potions, and their spleens go into Shrinking Solution. If you had taken a closer look in that freezer, you'd have noticed the salamanders, too, and the toads."
"Doesn't freezing the ingredients change the way they react in the potions?" she asked. She'd recovered from her little shock, it seemed.
"You'd think so, but no," he said. "Not if you magically defrost them a certain way."
"How do you do that?"
"Family secret," he said, happy to withhold the information. "That's why our business is taking off. Not a lot of wholesalers are able to freeze their wares."
Granger looked confused, then nodded. "I see. I guess I never really believed that you lot actually worked."
"I guess you can learn a lot about somebody from the dead animals in their walk-in freezer," he said. She glared at him, like he was being rude, when really she was the one questioning his family's rightfully-earned profits. Not that Draco actually worked, of course; and, in truth, they weren't making nearly enough money to sustain their lifestyle. But his father had done his best to start a business, and Draco intended to continue it.
It wasn't fair, in Draco's opinion: the Malfoys finally went out and worked for their money for the first time in a century or so, and nobody believed them anyway. They might as well have been fixing Quidditch matches the whole time - they'd have made a lot more money, and everybody thought they were criminals no matter what they did.
He watched her search the rest of the kitchen to her satisfaction, and obviously she didn't find it. That only left the West Wing and the dungeons, and he was pretty sure he could convince her not to go down there.
She walked back in front of him and checked her watch, frowned, and checked her map again. "That can't be right," she said. "The map says I'm almost done, but I was planning to do one wing per day. That only makes two days after I come back tomorrow, and there aren't two wings. How many are there, total?" she asked, looking up at him sharply.
"Eight," he said, since she'd forget anyway.
"Eight," she repeated. "Of course - all the directions! That means I'll have to do two in one day, though…" She was still thinking, and he waited until she finally re-folded her map to put it away.
"How many wings are there in the Manor?" he asked her, just to make sure.
"Eight," she said. "You just told me."
Well, that wasn't right. She should've forgotten it by now. Draco was trying to see how he'd messed this up, but he couldn't figure it out. "Well, can you list them?" he tried.
"Of course, I can. East, West, North. Er. North - and then - " she paused. "All right, no. I guess I can't," she admitted, back to being confused.
"So, how many wings are there?" he asked again.
She thought hard, then made a frustrated noise. "Dammit, Malfoy. I thought I'd searched your whole horrible house all those times these past five years, and I've barely even seen half of it! And you did nothing to help!"
"What was I supposed to do?" he asked, banking off her anger. "That's an ancient curse that's keeping you from remembering the South Wing. I didn't cast that spell, and we never even go in those wings, anyway. We just don't want you taking our stuff, that's all. It's not like we're using it. It's the principle of the thing."
"But you didn't even tell me about it! Wait," she said, before a lengthy pause. "Oh, god. What were we talking about? Why am I so angry? It was important! I know it was!"
Draco really wanted to laugh at her, all helpless and hopelessly confused, but he knew it would prolong her stay if he made her any more upset. "I don't remember, either," he said.
"Yes, you do!" The map was still in her hand, folded up, and she glanced at it. "Okay, yes, it was about my search."
"South Wing," he said, experimentally. It worked, to his relief, and she forgot the whole thing again.
But Granger wouldn't give up. They kept moving around in that same conversational loop, and it seemed to go faster each time. He couldn't figure out how to stop it - she wouldn't leave unless he answered her questions over and over again, and she wouldn't let him try to change the subject. Maybe that was how the Unspeakables got in, he thought. They just sat around saying "South Wing" to each other over and over until the effect wore off. It shouldn't have worn off at all, but very old magic tended to get rough around the edges, especially when it was in such close proximity to modern magic. New spells could corrode the old ones sometimes.
Anyway, it took forever. Granger looked at her watch again after she finally managed to remember the sodding South Wing, and she was appropriately shocked. "It's been two hours since I looked at this," she said, tapping it aggressively with her forefinger. "How is that possible?"
"It felt like two hours to me," he said, grumpy and tired.
"My legs hurt," she said. "How long has it been since I moved?"
He rolled his eyes. "Two hours," he said. "Two. Hours. Will you fucking leave already?" He'd been swearing at her on and off through the whole conversation, but she couldn't remember any of it.
"Don't talk to me like that," she said, stretching her arms over her head. "But yes, I think it is time I left. Tomorrow, we'll search the West Wing." He sighed. "And then, after that, we'll search the North, South, Southeast, Northeast, Northwest, and Southwest wings."
"There is no rational reason why you should be able to do that," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I'm not worried about it yet, though. It'll be a miracle if you remember this tomorrow morning."
She gave him a gloating smile. "We'll see. You know it's your fault, right?" He didn't respond. "That's how you beat a Forgetfulness Curse, Malfoy. You keep reminding the person in quick succession, until eventually they stop forgetting - the stronger the curse, the longer it'll take. Everybody knows that."
Oh. Well, at least he'd been right about the Unspeakables.
"See you tomorrow," she said. "At nine o'clock. We'll want to start early."
She showed herself out, leaving Draco with the rest of the evening free to bang his head against the wall.
Chapter 4: Silver Bells and Cockle Shells
Hermione hadn't slept. She hadn't eaten. She was a woman on a mission, the only one capable of ensuring that Draco Malfoy got what he deserved, which was nothing. Not a single Galleon, even when the road to righteousness was paved with frozen rats.
There was also something she'd realised the previous night, lying awake in her bed: this wasn't just about some dirty bet anymore. In fact, that was worth very little compared to the jackpot she was about to hit. She was in a position to explore parts of Malfoy Manor that not even the Unspeakables knew existed. They were the ones who'd made her flimsy excuse for a map, and they'd left off four whole wings. She couldn't imagine what she'd find there, but she had an educated guess as to the nature of the material.
She knew it was dangerous, but it was worth the risk: this was going to make her name. All she had to do was plot the extra wings on a new map and take a few photos of the contents, and then she could take them back to Reinhardt and offer to lead a team of Aurors to help her finish the job. Harry and Ron would be tripping over themselves to sign up, and she knew they'd be proud of her.
During the War and dangerous months directly after, she'd been happy to give Harry as much of her glory as possible - it was a strategic move on the Order's part. She was supposed to be Harry's little girlfriend or something - just some silly Muggle-born girl, trying her best to help out but hardly doing anything. It was imperative that the Death Eaters never found out how indispensible she really was. It worked, but the Ministry and the general public never quite forgot their lie. She didn't regret it or resent it, but she was finally in a position to do something about it.
While Harry's or Ron's current achievements were chronicled in the Prophet, Hermione stayed firmly in the Who's Who of Wizarding Britain section. Pictures would show up periodically of her getting coffee or going shopping in Diagon Alley; hasn't she grown up to be pretty?, the captions would say. Or, on an off day: Hermione Granger's really let herself go!
It was enough to make even a mature, professional woman such as herself dress to the nines every time she left her flat, because it hurt more than she could ever admit to see those nasty comments. So she wore make-up daily (something she'd never done before), and she did her job better than anybody else she knew, and she waited as patiently as possible for the day when she could blow them all away and prove to everyone what Harry and Ron already knew: she was capable of leading the whole country.
When she arrived at the café for her second attempt at a meal with Ginny - breakfast, this time - she ordered an omelette and strong tea immediately, before casting another Anti-Eavesdropping Charm. The waitress brought their tea, but Ginny stopped her before she could reach for it.
"Hang on, I have some Pepper-Up." She produced a tiny vial and squeezed a few drops into Hermione's mug. "I figured you'd need it. How goes the search?"
"Endless," she said. "And thanks. I tried to sleep last night, but it wasn't working. I thought I'd been to Malfoy Manor before, but it isn't how I thought it was. When you're in there, it feels bigger than Hogwarts."
"I was afraid of that," Ginny said. "I've been in some of the ancient Pureblood castles before, all around Europe when my family would take vacations, and I can't imagine trying to find something as small as a person's body in one of those."
"It's not just that. The house is like a living thing with its own mind. There were times when Malfoy would say something, and I could sort of feel it shifting like it heard him, and it was trying to do what he said. He and his house are conspiring against me."
"That can happen. When we'd go on tours of those castles, a lot of times even the guides would get lost, because they weren't part of the family that the castle was loyal to. We went to the old Bones estate in France when I was seven or so, and these weird tentacles came out of the ceiling because stupid Percy was wearing this cologne with clove oil, and the corridor didn't like it for some reason, and we all had to run away. The poor guide got so turned around that she had to use her special Portkey to take us back to the foyer." She gave Hermione a sympathetic look and added some Pepper-Up to her own tea. "I wish I didn't have practice every day this week, or I'd come and try to help you."
"I'd never ask you to - that's your job, and I wouldn't ask Harry or Ron to take off work."
"They would, though. They're Aurors, after all. I bet they'd be happy to help you out, if they weren't still busy sorting out the riots in Scotland."
"Yeah, Ron was telling me about that. I always thought Brownies were supposed to be so peaceful."
"Me, too, but I guess enough was enough."
"Anyway, this is my job, and I have to do this part myself," she said. Of course, things like that were easy to say when she wasn't trapped in an evil house that would very much like to murder her. "It's just going to be hard, that's all."
"I figured you'd say that, but that reminds me of something else I wanted to talk to you about." She paused, as though gathering her resolve. "There's a way that I can help you without coming with you. I did some more digging, and I'm almost positive that the Malfoys' connection to the Falcons is Marcus Flint."
That didn't mean much to Hermione, except that she remembered Flint being a first-class arsehole. "And?"
"He's their Seeker," Ginny said. "And Quidditch games are hard to lose on purpose if you play any other position. We'll be the only two people on that pitch who can throw the match all by ourselves. He doesn't even have to tell the rest of the team he's doing it, and I doubt he's planning to. Maybe they suspect it, but he's also the captain, so it's not like they could do anything about it."
Hermione caught her meaning then, and she immediately felt guilty. "Ginny, no. I know how badly you wanted to beat that team. They're the worst!"
"That's the thing - if the only reason they lose is because Flint's deliberately ignoring the Snitch, that means nothing to me. If we win, I want it to be an even match, and this is the only way I can think of to keep it that way."
Hermione considered it, then nodded. "I guess you're right."
"The Chasers and the Keepers can decide this one, and I trust my team. When we rack up so many points that we'll win whether I catch the Snitch or not, that's when I'll catch it, because that'll mean we won fair and square. But that also means it's going to be a really, really long game, and it'll buy you some extra time - you've got until the very end to prove Lucius Malfoy is dead."
"I hope that's enough," she said. She did still want to win this part, even if it wasn't the most important thing.
She couldn't think of anything else to say about it, despite wanting badly to talk, and she eventually gave up and lifted the charm. It didn't seem like the right time to tell Ginny about her larger plan. Her food came, and she devoured it like a beast.
After breakfast, she walked to the Leaky Cauldron and took the Floo to Malfoy Manor at nine o'clock sharp. Malfoy was waiting for her on his living room couch, sitting exactly in the centre and taking up very little space. It didn't look like he'd slept well, either.
"Good morning," she said, all business. "Are you ready?"
He met her eyes defiantly. "You don't want to do this any more than I do," he said. "And someday you'll learn not to be so damned stubborn."
"It's all up to you. If you don't want to do this anymore, you can come back to the Ministry with me and report your father's death. We'll even forget about the bet. It'll be our little secret, and you can tell Marcus Flint he doesn't need to throw the match, so you might even get to watch your team win on Saturday."
She only said that because she knew he wasn't going to do it, and she was curious to see how much this meant to him. She wondered, not for the first time, if this was about more than just Galleons. Maybe someday they'd both learn not to be so stubborn, but today was not that day.
"They're my father's team," he said. "And I don't see why they'd lose. They're playing the Harpies, who've got a Weasley for a Seeker, in case you forgot."
She was about to tell him to stop playing dumb again, but then she remembered what Ginny said earlier. "You know, you're right," she said instead. "The Harpies' Seeker is a Weasley, and I just saw her this morning. She wasn't looking well at all, and something tells me she's not in any condition to catch a Snitch. I'm pretty sure the Falcons are going to win after all, now that I think about it."
She smiled, watching him try to hide his anger with limited success. "All right, Granger. We'll see what happens, not that I care."
"I don't care, either," she said, as mildly as possible. "May the best team lose."
He stood and patted his wand pocket, a routine compulsion shared by most magical people, but he didn't bother drawing it. It wouldn't be necessary in the West Wing, and Hermione had to keep reminding herself of that, just as she had on every other search of the Manor. The East and West Wings were safe, provided she was with a Malfoy that didn't want her to die. The house obeyed its masters always, and Hermione's death was not in their best interests. He crossed the living room and started up the stairs, and she followed.
One funny thing about Malfoy Manor was that it only had one route to the stairs, right next to the living room. Malfoy had explained to her in the past that this was for convenience: the house already knew which way he was going. The system made sense, considering the vastness of the home for a family of three. It would be downright silly if the internal layout reflected its true size - they'd spend half their free time just trying to walk from one side to the other.
It made her uneasy, though, and she didn't think she'd ever be able to put her absolute trust in a semi-sentient magical house. It could read her mind, and what if it didn't like what she was thinking?
Malfoy must sometimes have thoughts against the Pureblood dogma, or he would've identified Harry in the dungeons during the War. What did the house think about that? That's assuming it could "think" on its own, and no - she didn't know where it kept its brain.
The West Wing was darker than the East Wing and the first floor. There were just as many windows, but they had a dusty film that couldn't be scrubbed away. The wallpaper was deep blue, nearly black, with a design that reminded her of tiny spiders piled on top of each other, and it seemed to twitch and writhe when she looked at it the wrong way. This wing featured a sitting room, a study, a broom storage loft, a luxurious bathroom, a guest room, and Draco's bedroom. She was duty-bound to check all the nooks and closets, but she knew it wasn't there.
They checked the sitting room first, which was slightly more welcoming than the surrounding corridor. It did feature Hermione's least favourite portrait in the whole house, though: Bertram Malfoy was a handsome blond man who'd lived in the early 19th century, and he'd been the Head of the DMLE, and he found their situation very humourous.
None of the other portraits acknowledged Hermione, except for some minor glaring and head-shaking and derisive tongue-clicking, but Bertram always laughed when she came to inspect the West Salon. He flashed his credentials at her and pointed to his Ministry-issue robes, grinning and cackling, and Hermione got the joke - don't be too proud of your shiny badge, Mudblood. You can't escape my legacy. People like me will always be there to tarnish the honour of the whole institution, and some of us are your boss, even if you're allowed to come over and confiscate our Hand of Glory. You think those glorified parlour tricks are what make us who we are? You think that's what gives us our power?
Yep. Real funny.
She usually checked this room as quickly as possible and tried her best not to look at Bertram, and today she gave a cursory glance under each of the couches and pronounced it corpse-free. She realised they hadn't spoken the entire time, and the silence was making her uncomfortable.
"Did you ever even use that room?" she asked, as they continued through the corridor with the spiders in the walls.
"Sometimes," he said. "Is this part of your investigation? I don't see how it's any of your business."
"I was just curious. If I lived here, I wouldn't want to bring my friends around."
"I'd imagine you wouldn't. Your friends and my friends have little in common."
"So, your friends hate sunlight?"
"No, but they aren't afraid of the dark," he said, and she gave a derisive laugh.
"Right. And mine are." She was going to say more, something about the time they'd spent in the dungeons of this place, not to mention fighting Death Eaters in graveyards and getting up-close-and-personal with Inferi, but she stopped herself. That wasn't the kind of conversation that was going to set her at ease. "Don't you get sick of it, though?" she asked instead.
He didn't answer, and she gave up. She didn't want to talk to him anyway.
They moved quickly and efficiently through the study and the bathroom and the guest room and the storage loft. The last room was Malfoy's bed chamber, and there was no way it was there. How could it be?
They went in anyway, and she planned to circle it in one motion without stopping, but things didn't go according to plan. As she walked past the bed, something cold touched her ankle and wrapped itself around, firm and spindly like bones, and ice shot up her leg, and she was back in the graveyard in her head. She jerked her foot away and screamed, looking down, but it was gone. Before Malfoy could stop her, she readied her wand and crouched to go after it, but there was nothing.
She stood and looked at him. "What was that?"
"What did it feel like?" He didn't seem surprised, but he wasn't making fun of her, either. He appeared genuinely curious.
"Something grabbed me." She felt foolish as she said it. Now that she was thinking logically, she was certain she'd imagined the whole thing - it would've had to grab her over her sock and pant leg, but she'd felt it against her skin.
"Are you afraid of things grabbing you from under beds, by any chance?" he asked. Yes, she was. Very much so.
"Who isn't?" she asked, defensive.
He glanced around the room and shrugged. "Look, nothing's going to actually harm you here. The West Wing is mine, and I don't want it to. It's just trying to scare you."
Well, it was doing a fine job. "I see," she said. "It wasn't real, then."
"No - well, sort of. It's like how regular houses will creak in the night. The noise is real, but it's not what you think it is. It's just the house settling."
"Is it going to keep doing that?" she asked, inching away from the bed. She didn't mind fake skeletons grabbing her ankles, per se, but that was far from her worst fear.
"Probably. I'm not telling it to, though. Tricks like that waste time, and I'm not looking to spend extra time with you."
The thing grabbed her ankle again, as though in direct contradiction to his words, and she jumped just as high the second time. He looked away in an effort to conceal his smile, but she saw it and glared at him.
"Anyway," he continued after a moment, "I promise you won't find it in here, whatever you're looking for. It's probably not something I'd want in my bedroom."
She knew that, but she really wished he'd stop beating around the bush and own up to it. They were looking for his dead father's body, and she was beginning to think he didn't know where it was, either. She didn't want to see it, and she didn't think she'd be prepared for it if and when she did. On the other hand, she'd probably see something terrifying enough to desensitize her to human fear if she kept looking long enough.
"That does it for the West Wing," he said, as she followed him back toward the stairs. "You're searching one wing per day, correct?"
"Not anymore," she said. "That was when I thought you only had four. We need to continue if we're going to finish in time." She checked her watch. "Besides, it's only ten thirty."
She heard him sigh heavily from up ahead. "Fine. Where do you want to look next for that thing you're never going to find?"
"The North Wing," she said, even though it hurt to say it. I don't think I want to go there, she thought desperately, but she kept herself from saying it out loud. That was just the magic talking; she had to go. It was her job.
He stopped and turned around at the bottom of the stairs. "You want to go to the North Wing?"
Yes. Her mouth wouldn't say it. No, thought her traitorous mind. Maybe we could go somewhere else instead...
He stood and watched her, smirking as she fought her internal battle between will-power and ancient magic. It's just like fighting off an Imperius Curse, she reminded herself. She'd beaten those before, from formidable opponents, and this was just a house. It was just a house, and it wasn't really going to hurt her.
"Yes," she said. "I - want - to go to the North Wing."
His eyebrows went up. "I've never heard anyone say that in my whole life," he commented. "But we don't need to do that right away. Maybe we could go somewhere else instead." He realised what he'd said and shook his head to clear it. "You forgot half the first floor, plus the dungeons."
"It's not there, Malfoy. You know that."
"I don't know that, actually, seeing as I don't even know what you're looking for."
"Will you please just admit it already? I'm so sick of this act! We both know exactly what's going on here, from start to finish, and I'm obviously not going to give up." She crossed her arms and put on her sharpest look, and he fought back with his own. She wasn't sure who was winning, but nobody was giving up. It was a long time before he spoke.
"Fine," he said at last. "I didn't hide my father's body. I don't know where it is any more than you do."
"But it's probably not in the library."
"Probably not," he agreed, with his jaw so tight she half-expected it to snap from the strain. "But you have to check anyway. And let's be honest: nobody wants to go to the North Wing."
"If you have to take a walk around the library first to get your nerve up, then that's what we'll do," she said. "But we're going to search all eight wings of this house, no matter how long it takes."
He shook his head, and she could see the muscles through the skin of his neck. "You really don't know what you're doing, Granger. I have to take you to these places if you make me - and I swear on my blood, I don't know what I'll do if you read me my parole terms one more sodding time - but you'll regret it. Even my father hasn't been to every part of this house." He paused, letting it sink in. "What does that mean to you? Even the Dark Lord himself didn't stay long in the North Wing. He tried to use it for, let's say, its traditional purpose. He couldn't stand it, despite the fact that he was barely even human by that point. What does that tell you about the North Wing?"
She wet her lips, struggling to maintain eye contact, about as scared as she'd ever been in her life. This was why the Sorting Hat didn't put her in Slytherin - she had the ambition, sure, and all the cunning she'd ever need. But she also had that special kind of head-long, passionate, foolhardy courage that both started wars and ended them, and running away from risks had never gotten her anything worth having.
"It tells me that I'll be the first one brave enough to go there for a good and honest reason," she said, measuring her words carefully. "And it won't be the first time that's happened."
Chapter 5: Mockingbird Don't Sing
The library would probably still be safe if they could make it there: it was a calm place that listened and spoke softly. The portraits there were mostly of children who didn't play or run around in their frames, and they almost never spoke to adult visitors. The little girls whispered only to their dolls, and Draco could tell they were talking about him. He'd always wondered what they were saying.
Still, he was losing confidence by the minute. He hadn't wanted his bedroom to scare Granger. It felt like a betrayal, and in truth he had no idea whether or not it was real.
Things were shifting more than usual just outside his field of vision, and it wasn't that they were rearranging themselves to better suit his needs. It was like even the walls themselves didn't know where they were supposed to be, and he wished for the first time that his father was there to tell him what to do. Draco didn't know how to control it as well as he thought he did, and the ancient magic was trying to decide for itself what was best. The house was without a master.
No, that couldn't be right. He wasn't even sure it was possible, and he tried to tell himself it was all in his head. After all, when was the last time he'd looked closely at the candelabras in the corridor? Maybe they'd always been so razor-sharp and shiny. But had the wicks always burned so high and bright and hot? Had the wax always melted so quickly? He could feel the heat just walking by. Sweat was beading on the back of his neck, and you'd think such brilliant candles would cast more light, but the shadows opened long and deep.
He glanced at Granger behind him and saw that she'd pushed her up her sleeves. She'd been fanning herself with one hand but stopped when she caught him looking.
"Why is it so warm all of a sudden?" she asked. Her voice didn't waver. He knew she was good at hiding her nerves and acting brave, so he couldn't tell for sure, but she must have been even more uneasy than he was - she didn't have any power over this house.
"I don't know," he said, and his voice did quake. Maybe she was less afraid, now that he thought about it. She still thought they were safe because he was in control.
The corridor continued to check his magic as they walked, but it was getting more aggressive. It felt less like a gentle snow and more like flecks of hot oil splashed from a pan. He wanted to remove his robes, but he wasn't wearing much under them. It hadn't occurred to him to ever wonder how his father kept the house; it had always looked so simple and straightforward, and he knew there weren't any spells for it. In fact, the old magic had gone into hibernation when his father was in Azkaban. All was still until his return, and even the portraits had been reluctant to leave their own frames. It had been rather nice, actually, like living in a regular house for a while.
"It wasn't always this warm," she said. He looked over his shoulder again and noticed the sheen on her forehead; her eyes were watering, and her makeup ran down in black streaks. "Stop it, Malfoy. I know you're doing this on purpose."
He just shook his head and kept walking, too proud to admit the truth. In his mind, it was better for Granger to blame him for playing tricks than to let her think he was some weak kid whose daddy never even taught him how to walk down hallways.
It was getting hotter and darker, and they were only about half-way through the corridor. They'd soon pass over the entrance to the dungeons, and he was having second thoughts about those. If the candles could give them heat stroke, he didn't want to see what the iron maiden could do. When they reached the steel hatch, he hesitated; it was hissing and covered in condensation, probably because it was so cold down there compared to the damp heat above. Granger stopped walking, too, and he turned to face her.
"We're not going down there," he said with authority. "Just in case you were wondering."
She raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth to argue, but then she closed it again and paused. She lifted her arm and wiped at her flushed face with her sleeve, holding her hair back with the other hand. He watched and waited. "Malfoy," she began. Then she shook her head. "No. Fine, we're not. I can't go there again. If we don't find it, we'll check there last."
"We're not going to find it," he said, with a nervous bark of laughter. The air smelled like rotting waste left out in the sun, and thoughts were spinning half-cocked in and out of his mind. He put the back of his hand to his forehead, and his skin was burning. The wallpaper was peeling, and the paint beneath it was black and scratched. "I keep telling you that, and you won't believe me, and now we're being boiled alive."
Her eyes went wide, and she didn't react when a wet curl fell and molded itself to her cheek. "Are you really not doing this?"
He turned down his eyes. He couldn't admit it out loud.
When she spoke again, her voice was slow and measured and soft. "Then what's happening?"
He was dizzy, and it was getting harder to breathe, and he realized they didn't have time to talk. "We need to keep moving!"
Then he heard it, but not with his ears: muffled voices injected themselves straight into his brain. We can help you. Run and leave her. Leave her here.
Granger gave a strangled gasp and arched her spine as her eyes rolled back, her weak white hands clawing at space. Before he could think twice about it (no, you can't kill her!), he grabbed her hand and dragged her over the iron hatch and through the heavy wet darkness. He couldn't tell whether he was hearing their footsteps or the blood pounding in his ears, but he knew they had to make it to the library as fast as possible because he had no idea what was going to happen next. The whispers stayed with him, more insistent until he couldn't think over the noise.
WHY are you TOUCHING HER? DON'T be a BLOOD TRAITOR. You're a SHAM of a MALFOY! We KNOW the TRUTH and we KNOW BEST.
They ran together until his legs almost turned to stone, and he knew the corridor had never been this long before. He knew it wasn't helping them like it usually did. They whipped around end tables and past flaming candles that burned black and blue until finally they reached salvation.
Finally, it was light and cool. Finally, the voices were silent. He threw open the doors, and they were in his favourite room in the whole house. He'd always liked the library even better than his bedroom, and he liked it now better than he ever had before. The best part about almost dying, he thought, was how great the world always seemed when you didn't.
The children were all gone from their portraits, and it was deadly quiet except a mechanical hum like gears grinding somewhere under the floor. He dropped Granger's hand to catch his breath, but she collapsed against him. He heaved her dead weight into a nearby chair, and he was relieved to find that she was conscious. Her face was red and her hair stuck to her skin, but she wasn't hurt.
Scarier than nightmares and near-death experiences and disembodied hands under beds was the fact that he didn't want her to die. Even if he could get away with it, he wouldn't kill her. He'd seen Mudbloods tortured a few times before - this one in particular, more than once - and their eyes rolled back into their heads the same as anybody else, and the thing was that Draco didn't want to be a man who'd killed someone. It wasn't something you could ever stop being. Whether anybody found out or not, he'd still know forever what he was.
"Malfoy!" she gasped. Her breaths were quick and shallow.
She stopped trying to talk for a moment, and he turned his back on her and kept to his thoughts. Once you know someone's a killer - and it only takes one time - it's like nothing else about them really matters as much. Once he'd learned what Lucius had done, for example, he'd felt less like a father. Bellatrix lost "aunt," Crabbe lost "friend," and Severus lost "godfather."
Granger spoke again, steadier this time. "You have to tell me what's going on."
It would be easier to have this conversation if he didn't face her, but he wasn't sure how to word it best. "Well, you see, unfortunately my house has decided it doesn't give a shit whether I want you dead or not. It's just going to go ahead and kill you anyway"? No, too blunt. He cleared his throat. "I didn't know that was going to happen," he said. "I didn't want that to happen."
"This is your house, though. How can it disobey you?"
"You still think I told it to do that, don't you?" he accused. "In case you forgot, I was the one who pulled you out. If I wanted my house to kill you, I would've left you there."
"In case you forgot, I've been through that corridor many times before, and there aren't any traps in it. It's never been anything but a regular hallway," she said, in that know-it-all tone like she had it all figured out. "It looks like you're still trying to scare me - you're just playing 'haunted house,' and it's not going to work. I'm not going to give up and run away just because you know how to dial up the thermostat."
Draco didn't know what a thermostat was, but that didn't seem relevant. "I don't think you understand what's happening here," he said. In the back of his mind, he knew that was mainly because he couldn't bring himself to explain it to her. "It's not about bravery or making a point or whatever it is you're trying to do. It's about staying alive, and neither of us will be safe until you leave."
He wasn't even sure if the house cared about him anymore, since he knew his ancestors wouldn't call him blood traitor as a petty barb. If he kept saving Granger, they might decide to strike down both of them and call it even. Behind him he heard her stand.
"Keeping us safe is your job," she said. "My job is to uphold the law, and you're in violation: you can't hide Dark Artifacts, and you can't conceal a death from the Ministry."
He scanned the rows of shelves as she spoke, stretching on into the darkness at the far north of the room, and he considered his options and their respective consequences. He could refuse, and she'd take him into custody and return with a team of Aurors to ransack his home. He could continue as her tour guide, and they might both die. He could lead her into danger and run, and then only she would die. He walked in slow circles as he thought, looking out the floor-to-ceiling bay windows on the east wall and back to the mural on the west.
The mural was his favourite thing about the library: instead of moving like a regular portrait or photograph, it cast a still image that changed with each passing glance. As a child, he used to sit before it for hours, opening and closing his eyes, and he never saw the same thing twice. Granger waited for several minutes in silence, and he sort of admired her improved patience. She wasn't as much of a loud-mouthed yelling person as she used to be; on the other hand, maybe he'd just grown mature enough to admit that he was provoking her.
Then, all at once, he had the answer: questions. If he kept asking her what he should do in different ways, eventually she'd accidentally tell him. After all, a War had once been won by letting Hermione Granger tell people what to do, and there was nobody else left to be the boss of Draco. She wasn't a bad option, all things considered.
"How do you expect me to keep us safe?" he asked. He kept his voice slightly derisive but not cruel: the perfect balance between please help me and why would I ever want your help. He continued to pace; it calmed his nerves.
"Oh, honestly," she said, off to his left. "This has never been a problem before. All you have to do is tell your house to stop scaring me, and make sure it doesn't do anything more than that." Her pitch seemed to oscillate as he moved.
He was already doing that, though. "How am I supposed to be sure it doesn't?"
"I've already told you I'm not afraid, Malfoy. You can stop trying now."
"What if I can't control it?"
He could practically hear her roll her eyes, and he knew she'd misinterpreted his pronoun use. "If you can't control your own actions, who's going to? You can make the decision to cooperate, and I'd recommend it. You're only making this harder on yourself by resisting. If the Ministry has to search this Manor by force, we will, but no one wants to damage your home."
He stopped walking and looked at her. Her eyes darted to the mural, and he followed her gaze. It currently appeared to him as an ocean scene at morning; a man was diving into the calm water from the top of a cliff, holding his arms out like he thought he could fly. It would've been something else for Granger, but maybe she saw something beautiful.
"I'm trying to compromise," she continued. "We don't want your books, we don't want your antiques, and we're not even going to take your house-elf - we're only after your father's body and the dangerous Dark Artifacts."
"We've got them locked up, though," he said. He didn't feel like explaining that the house itself could be considered a Dark Artifact, by strict definitions. "Isn't that the same thing the Ministry would do?"
She shook her head and narrowed her eyes, like she couldn't believe he was really this dumb. "No. You, of all people, should know better than that – do you really think the Ministry crams all its seized Dark Artifacts into the same big room, on a bunch of shelves or what-have-you?" He could tell from her tone that no was the correct answer, so he shook his head. "And why do you suppose we don't do that?"
Really, he'd never put much thought into what the Ministry did with the things it took from his family. His father had believed that they used the Dark Magic for their own purposes to control the people, which was actually one of his less insane conspiracy theories. "So they'll be harder to steal?" he guessed.
"No," she said, and she sounded concerned now, almost panicked. "Are you just being difficult, or do you really not know what would happen?" He shrugged, and she sighed and pressed her lips together briefly. "All right. This is a long-shot, but do you know how water molecules work?"
"Molecules?" he repeated. Another sigh.
"I didn't think so. Water is made of little, er, ball things, I suppose you could say. If you splash water onto a table, it doesn't just sit there in separate little drops. If it's close enough together, it all pools into one larger mass. Do you know what I mean?"
He pictured it in his mind, and she was right. He nodded.
"It does that because the little pieces of water like to be together." She demonstrated with her hands as she spoke, spreading her fingers and then lacing them. "They're attracted to each other. They want to make as big a pool as possible."
"All right," he said slowly. "You've taught me a lesson about water. What does this have to do with anything?"
"Magic works the same way." Her hands were still clasped tightly against her chest. "When you keep different Dark Artifacts close to each other, their magic pools together. Over time, each one will become stronger and more dangerous. Experiments have even shown that they can develop what appears to be a shared consciousness - like a wave, you could say. Like a tsunami."
"Is this new research?" he asked, and she nodded.
"The Ministry's former policy was to destroy Dark Artifacts upon discovery, since so many extremist groups were after them. Now they aren't in high enough demand on the Dark Market, and the Unspeakables have been able to save and test them in a controlled environment."
He checked the mural again: it was a little girl in a dark room, pressing her hands against the window. He didn't know how his ancestors had packed the contents of the storage wings, seeing as he'd never been there. It might not be much different from the books in the library. He wet his lips. "What would happen if they were stored on shelves for centuries?"
"I already told you," she said quietly. "A tsunami." If that was true, and no one was left who knew how to control it – well, he could do the math in his head. "They're not like that here, are they?"
Despite his own concerns, he felt compelled to defend his family. "I'm certain they're arranged in a responsible fashion, if any still exist."
She didn't buy it. In fact, it sucked the breath right out of her. "You don't even know, do you?"
He shrugged, avoiding her eyes.
"Oh, God," she whispered. "That means - in the corridor… It's already too powerful!"
The floor and walls still hummed, and he could just barely hear a faint, rhythmic pounding somewhere to the south. Southwest, maybe. He didn't want to think about what it could be. He checked the mural, and it showed a particularly gory battle scene from the Goblin Rebellion.
"All right," she said. Her voice was muffled, and he saw that she was trying to speak while covering her mouth with both hands. She removed them and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't think I can do this by myself. Why is it happening now, though? Does it have to do with your father's death?"
She waited for a response, but he didn't give one. He didn't have anything to say. After a few tense seconds, she became frustrated.
"Okay, you don't know. Isn't that just fine!" she ranted. "You don't know anything at all, and that's just fine. After all, you've only been living here your whole entire life! It's a pity, though – if it's too late, we might have to quarantine this whole place. You might have to move to one of your vacation homes permanently, and there would go all the history that you worked so hard to preserve by keeping us from 'interfering.'" She used her fingers to put scare quotes around the last word, and he thought about how annoying it was when people did that. She paused to look around, as though noticing the books for the first time, and her expression softened. "It'll be like Alexandria," she added wistfully.
His throat unclasped at last. "What are you going to do, then?"
She turned on her heel to face the doorway. "I'm going back to the Ministry, and you're coming with me. We'll locate your mother and find you a temporary living space, and then we'll clean this place out for real."
"No!" he said, trying his best not to sound whiny. "You can't do that. You can't take our house just because you're afraid of it!"
She shook her head and laughed without joy. "I've seen the Unspeakables' research, and we might already be too late. You have no idea what can happen with such large quantities of Dark Magic. It's not stable, and it doesn't play favourites once it's powerful enough. There will come a time when you and your mother are no safer here than I would be."
He moved closer to use his height advantage, bearing down on her like storm clouds. "This is so typical - you think you know everything! Well,you're free to go. In fact, I'd love to get rid of you, but I'm staying right here." He pulled his wand and held the tip inches from her chest. "And don't try to force me out. You can go and get your whole damned Auror Department, and I'll comply with whatever you say is 'the law,'" he used his free hand to mock her finger quotes, "but I will not abandon Malfoy Manor."
She eyed his wand with disdain, then flicked it aside with one hand as she drew her own. "Have it your way – I don't have time for this. But you're walking me out, and this is going to hit your record as perverting the course of justice."
"Good," he spat. "I'm happy to pervert the course of your pathetic little power trip, no matter what you feel like calling it."
He started for the doors, moving quickly. She kept up with him at first, but then she came to a sudden stop.
"Malfoy – look at the mural," she said. Whatever it was had killed all her anger.
He looked at it, even though he knew they wouldn't see the same thing. It was currently showing him a woman crying in a hospital bed, clawing at the sheets with one hand. In the crook of her other arm was her stillborn baby, and both were covered in blood. It would've been shocking either way, but the worst part was that it looked very much like his mother. "It's different for everyone," he said. "Why? What do you see?"
Her face was white and frozen in fear, and her wand hand was twitching in the direction of the painting like it might jump off the wall and attack her at any moment. "It's me. Me and – her." Her voice broke. "In the dungeons."
She blinked her wide eyes at the ceiling, and he knew she was trying to keep from crying. He'd done that before, too – the trick was to look at a bright light. After a few careful breaths, she reestablished eye contact.
"The house doesn't want you here," he said. "My ancestors are upset that I protected you. I heard them in the corridor."
"You heard them? And you didn't tell me?" He shrugged again, and she covered her eyes with one hand. "Why are you lot so strict about Apparition? Didn't you ever conceive of a situation where you might need to get out of your house immediately? I mean, what if there's a fire?"
"There won't be a fire," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "Yes, we thought of that. We decided we'd just make it impossible for there to be a fire."
"Well, what's the quickest way out? How fast could we run to the front door?"
"It can take as long as the corridor wants it to, really." In terms of actual length, the door was about eighty metres from the library, but theoretically it could stretch to infinity. "And we might not be able to run."
She made a frustrated noise in the back of her throat, then began to rant at him again. "This is so short-sighted! Did your ancestors really think it was more important to keep thieves and prisoners trapped than to be able to get out in an emergency? No, it's not even short-sighted; it's evil.Your family built an evil house on purpose, and now you're going to be the one who gets to die in it. How do you like that?"
He clenched his teeth. "Don't talk about my family like that."
"Why shouldn't I? Think how they talk about me!"
"Watch your mouth," he warned.
"Why bother? Who even knows how long this library will be safe?" She looked around desperately, as though the room would collapse on them at any second – which, actually, it might. "Isn't it strange that all the portraits are gone? Isn't the mural showing darker paintings than usual? And there's no way out; of course, there isn't. There's just the front door and the living room fireplace, and there's no way I'm trying the Floo –"
"SHUT UP!" he bellowed, and she was actually surprised enough to listen this time. "Okay? Stop talking for five minutes and let me think."
He walked in circles again, keeping his eyes off the mural. He couldn't think if he wasn't moving. Mentally, he listed all the forms of magical travel he could think of: Floo, Apparition, Portkey, and broomstick. Granger was right about the Floo – he wouldn't trust it right now, either. The Manor had very specific Apparition zones, and they weren't near one. He knew there were emergency Portkeys scattered around, with one in each of the bedrooms, and the library might also have one; as a last resort, they could start searching. The broom storage loft was all the way in the West Wing. Before he could come to a conclusion, Granger interrupted him.
"Wait, what about the windows? How high up are we?"
"Ground level," he said, "but good luck trying to break that glass."
"Oh," she muttered. "We could try, though. What's the harm?"
"Right," he said, rolling his eyes. "And if you're trying to sneak past a sleeping giant, what's the harm in kicking it?"
"I'm just throwing out ideas," she said. "You don't have to be a prick about it."
Unfortunately, yes he did. There was nothing else left to do except be a prick, and they were both about to die anyway, so he might as well spend his last hours doing something he loved. He decided the best option would be to search for a Portkey, if it would even still work, and he took one last look at the mural out of habit – as a boy, it had always steadied his nerves.
It showed a post-apocalyptic vision of Diagon Alley, with no visible life except two rats fighting over a severed finger in the street, and he thought it was rather appropriate.
Chapter 6: Jack and Jill
For the hundredth time or more, she watched Malfoy point his wand at nothing in particular and mutter, "Accio Portkey."
He sighed and threw his head back, then forward against his knuckles. There was obviously no Portkey in the library or anywhere within range of the spell; he'd told her there was one in each of the bedrooms, but there must have been one or more magically-sealed doors in the way. To cheer herself up, she pictured Portkeys all over the house banging themselves helplessly against wood and metal. It was sort of funny, in a sad way.
For how long they'd been trapped in a room together, they'd done surprisingly little fighting. She'd seen many different phases of Malfoy over the decade of their acquaintance - the spoilt brat, the Lucius imitation, the Death Eater pawn - and none of them had ever appealed to her on any level. Now he was a frightened little boy, and she could be kind to one of those. She didn't like him or feel sorry for him exactly, considering their situation was his fault, but she could at least relate to his mental state. Fear was a universal human emotion.
Patroni had been conjured, but they didn't make it past the outer wards. Hermione wasn't much of a reptile expert, but she thought Malfoy's Patronus was probably a Gila monster. Its motion was similar to her otter's, and they were about the same size. From a distance, she could only tell which was his by its scales.
They'd also tried "Accio broom" and even "Accio owl." They'd held the library doors open, but Malfoy Manor must have been too large and complicated for objects to move unassisted from wing to wing. With a small amount of satisfaction, Hermione decided it was time to implement her other idea.
"We're in a library," she reminded him. "Why don't we do some research? There are bound to be books on the history of the Manor that could help us understand its behavior now." She assumed the Malfoys must have been too proud of their handiwork not to write about it in detail, and even she could admit that it had taken a fair amount of guts and skill to craft a torture chamber the size of a city block.
Malfoy found her questions offensive, as usual. "This is my house, and I already know its history."
"It doesn't sound like you do," she countered. "You change the subject every time I try to ask you about it, which makes me think you're trying to hide the fact that you don't have a clue."
"That's because you've only asked me about how things are now," he said. "You asked why you can't remember the South Wing, and I told you. You asked what was in the North Wing, but they don't like to be talked about, so I can't tell you. If it's history you want, ask away."
It didn't actually sound like an invitation with the way he spat out the words, but she ignored his tone. She pushed aside the lacy cover on the closest table and took out her map and a quill. She'd already drawn in approximations of the missing sections, but she didn't know anything about them. "Let's start with the basics, then. Tell me everything you know about each of the Wings."
She must have finally pushed him into proving his knowledge because he began talking almost faster than she could write. She learned that the East Wing was built as recently as 1902 for Octavia Malfoy, who would have refused to marry Abraxas if it meant taking up residence in the West Wing. The North and West Wings were built c.1750 by Lord Gregor Malfoy, who was responsible for the current state of the South Wing - what Hermione had assumed to be just another section was actually the entirety of Malfoy Manor 1.0, which had been erected in the 16th century when the Malfoys had relocated permanently from France to England. Gregor had imprisoned his father in their home, cast the Forgetfulness Charm, and left the old man there to die while he had a whole new house built around it. It was the Malfoy-est thing she'd ever heard, like a sinister "your family is so rich" joke or something. Your family is so rich, they built a castle so they'd have a place to put their mansion!
Since then, the Manor had grown and developed new quirks from each new set of occupants, who'd added the subsequent storage wings as needed over the years. By the time Malfoy was finished speaking, she'd covered her whole map in neat, tiny notes. Unfortunately, the only thing he could tell her about the North Wing was that his grandfather had been the one to block it off and put an end to "its use." The specific nature of such use would have to remain a mystery.
As she studied her notes, it occurred to her that they did nothing to change the truth of the situation: the only exit was the front door, and they'd die if they failed to reach it just the same as they'd die here if they didn't try. She took one last look at the maple shelves and marble tiles and the mural, which showed a man forcing a pin through a wriggling fairy's stomach as her silver-streaked blood spilled over his fingers. She resigned herself to action, refolding the map as she turned to address Malfoy.
"We can't call for help, and we can't use magical transportation. We're going to have to fight our way out."
There was a Muggle boy she used to babysit in her parents' neighbourhood, and he'd stepped on a bee running barefoot one day after Hermione had tried to make him wear shoes. He'd pretended it didn't hurt for fear of hearing I told you so. That was about how Malfoy looked just then, and she wasn't surprised when he fell back on sarcasm. "That's a great plan and all, but we're inside the enemy. How are we supposed to fight the walls?"
Unfortunately, he was correct that neither of them had any frame of reference for beating an opponent like this. There was no precedent. "Well, how do you fight an enemy that must be kept alive?" she tried, although she knew it was a poor comparison. "To destroy it would be suicide. We need to… stun it."
It sounded silly as she said it, but he didn't make any more jokes. He cocked his head and considered it. "You're right," he said, as though there were a first time for everything. "But we won't be able to do that right away. What kind of spells does the Ministry usually use to quarantine Dark Magic?"
"Well, depending on the classification of the object, there are a wide array of -"
"Which ones can you cast around us?" he interrupted, with his left eye twitching at irregular intervals. "Are there any that work as a shield?"
"As I was trying to say, there are several -"
"Which one works the best?"
"Use that one," he said, half-listening as though he hadn't even realised he'd been interrupting her. She imagined she could see the tremors passing through him until her veins were jumping at about the same rate. She closed her mouth, drew her wand, and cast the spell. The shield was invisible for practical purposes, but she knew he could sense it around them, and it seemed to calm him.
"This should do," she said, feeling it out. She could sustain it for at least ten minutes or twenty at the most. "Stay inside the barrier and put up the strongest shield that you can below it, in case anything gets through." He nodded and complied, producing a faint green glow beneath the layer they couldn't see. She touched it with her fingertips to test the magic, and it was strong. "How long can you keep that up?"
"Fifteen minutes or so."
"Even if a physical object hits it?"
He touched the surface as she had done, and she watched the magic bend around his fingers. "Depends how large. It'll hold off a hundred pebbles, a dozen sharp knives, or one grand piano."
"I hope it's not a piano, then," she said, mocking his choice of example, but he just nodded his head. "If something attacks that we can actually fight, I'll drop my shield and hold it off so you can keep yours up." She had no idea what that thing might be, but it was worth saying just in case.
He cracked his neck. "Are you ready?"
She didn't feel the need to say it. She started walking and he moved with her, and they only hesitated for a second at the library doors. She threw them open and inched out along the nearest wall. She hadn't realised how loud the gear-grinding sound in the library had been until the door slammed and blocked it off, but there was no time to wonder why it was silent here. There was no time.
They walked orderly and single-file, like a fire drill. Running was careless, no matter how badly she wanted to do it right now. The wallpaper was crumbling into pieces that lay around their feet, bouncing off the shield when a new one fell to reveal new cracks and holes, and all the portraits were empty.
Everything was empty, actually, even and especially her mind. She was so focused on silent steps and maintaining her shield that she barely noticed at first when Malfoy began to whisper under his breath. A few more steps and his voice grew louder until she could hear what he was saying.
"I'll kill her," he muttered to no one. "I promise I will. I'm just taking her to - to kill her."
Over and over he repeated his oath. He must have been addressing his ancestors, speaking again inside his mind. She knew he didn't mean it, and she also knew that they did not believe him. When the candles went out, she grabbed his wrist and started running on instinct and fear, carelessness be damned. They had to stay connected or she was afraid they'd lose each other, but she knew she was cutting off his circulation. Through the darkness they moved as rats would, lit just barely by the green glow of Malfoy's shield.
The carpet began to make a strange sloshing-squishing noise, like stomping on slush in the gutter. Something was splashing up and hitting her ankles that may have been acid for how it burned, or it may have been water that didn't burn at all. She couldn't tell anymore what was real or in her mind. She knocked over an end table and caught herself on the wall with the hand that held Malfoy's, slamming and scraping the inside of his wrist, and he hissed in pain.
"She'll die!" he screamed. "I swear on my name, I can do it myself! I don't need your help!"
He squeezed her hand as he spoke like he wanted her to know he was lying, but she knew he couldn't kill her if he tried. He'd never cast that curse in his life, as far as she knew.
"What makes you think I won't?" His ancestors must have been expressing similar doubts, she supposed. "I'll do it! Just let us out, and I'll kill her!"
His voice gnawed into her ears, calling threats on her head at dead air. She could tell time by the slowly-increasing strain of her spell, and she knew they hadn't been running as long as it seemed like they had.
She felt the pain in her nose first, there in the dark, but it hit her kneecaps at about the same time because she'd crashed head-long into a wall. She dropped Malfoy's arm and felt out to her left, then right, meeting hard wall each time. Through the blood in her mouth she called out to him. "Dead end! What now?"
He said something, but she couldn't make it out through the rush of blood in her ears. A few confused seconds later, she remembered that something extra had caught her in the stomach, and she threw a hand out blind to find - yes, just as she'd hoped - a doorknob. It must have been rusted, but it wasn't locked, and she could tell it hadn't been opened in a long time. She pushed the door open and stumbled in with Malfoy behind her.
She heard him hit his head and yell something obscene - the ceiling was so low that he had to hunch over. It wasn't dark anymore, but there wasn't much to see. The air was so stale she could taste it, but that might've also been the blood. A tunnel stretched out before them with blue spheres of light attached to the ceiling in rows, and she pressed her hand to the wall and tried to identify the material. The stone slabs fit together so smoothly that not one crack or edge was visible, like the whole thing had been carved out of one solid piece of some deep-red mineral she'd never seen before. She checked behind her, and the door was already gone.
She turned to Malfoy and gestured at her nose, trying to think of the best way to ask for help. She didn't need to, as it happened; he healed her without a word, and she raised her own wand to clean her face.
She sank to the floor briefly, since they seemed to have time. Malfoy was panting as hard as she was, but he stayed on his feet. Hunched over above her and backlit blue, he looked like a solar eclipse.
"Do you know where we are?" she asked.
"No," he said, like it was the stupidest question he'd ever heard. They were silent after, and she used the time to light her wand and get a closer look at the meeting of the wall to the floor; absolutely seamless. It was the most perfect corner she'd ever seen made of stone. At length, he continued: "There used to be secret passageways around the Manor, but they've all been blocked off permanently since the war, at the latest. I think something's upset those blocking spells."
"Why do you think so?" she asked, since this tunnel seemed to be the only evidence he had so far.
"I can feel it, okay?" He sounded frustrated. Maybe he was afraid she wouldn't believe him. "The blocking spells go hand-in-hand with every other kind of magic that controls the physical operation of the house, and none of that's working properly, either. It feels the same way it did when -" He cut himself off so sharply that she didn't think he'd bother to finish at all, but eventually he got around to it. "It feels the same as a few years ago, when the Manor went to sleep for a few months, except now with something added. It's hard to explain. It's like all the magic I've ever known got replaced overnight with something I don't understand."
He was rambling, and she'd never heard him do that before. "I see."
"You've been here enough times - certainly a lot more than you've had any right to be," since this was such a great time for petty barbs. "Doesn't it feel different to you?"
"No," she said. She'd never felt comfortable in this place, so she didn't know what its version of "normal" was supposed to be like. She watched the tapping of his left shoe on that seamless, endless floor. She saw his shadow nod its head, just before he began to walk.
"I can't hear them here," he said. "I guess we'll have to see where this leads."
His gait was awkward with his chin pressed into his chest. The top of his head still brushed the ceiling occasionally, and the tunnel was so narrow that they couldn't walk side-by-side. He braced himself against the walls with both hands. She followed suit, if only to keep the excellent stone against her palms. It felt incredible, like she could drink its perfection through her fingers and suck it right into her soul. The walls were vibrating under her touch, so full they were of ancient magic. It wasn't Dark, she could tell; just very old, like wine of fine vintage.
"Do you feel that?" she asked. She hoped she wouldn't have to explain.
"If you mean the walls, then yes. They're goblin-forged limestone." She was far too proud to admit she didn't know what that was. "Well?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder. "Aren't you going to lecture me about it, like you always do with crimes my family committed fifty years before I was born?"
She could surmise then that goblin-forged limestone must be an illegal building material, but that wasn't enough information to bluff on when she was this tired. "Why would I?" she asked, conceding defeat. "What's wrong with goblin-forged limestone?"
Because certainly nothing felt wrong about it. It was immaculate. It was pristine. "It's been illegal since the 19th century, as you ought to have known given your profession. Goblins used to grind up doxies and meld their blood into limestone." She took her hands away and wiped them uselessly on her robes. "Although now that I think about it, it might've still been legal whenever this was built." He paused and gave a strange sort of laugh, and even more strangely it didn't echo. The stone absorbed the sound and gave it back slowly in a pleasant sort of hum. "I bet this tunnel alone would be worth more than the whole rest of the house - goblin-forged limestone is so rare that this has to be the largest store left in Britain. I couldn't even come up with an estimate."
"I'll be watching the Dark Market, then," she warned. She clasped her fingers close to her chest. "If you so much as scope out a buyer, I'll tear up your parole terms so fast -" He stopped hard without warning, and she ran into his back.
"Cut it out," he said. He started moving forward again, and his tirade was just beginning. "Even if I knew how to get back into this tunnel or how to take it apart, which I don't, I wouldn't sell it for the same reason I didn't hand over the storage wings. Think about it, Granger - didn't it ever occur to you the kind of money I could be making right now if I were willing to dismantle my house? Didn't it ever strike you as odd that we've got all our Dark Artifacts getting dusty on shelves? I could've opened my own shop in Knockturn Alley and made a fortune while getting it off my hands, all in one. Not everything is about money."
"Right," she said. "Sometimes it's about stuff." She slowed her pace in case he was going to stop again, but he didn't.
"If you don't get it yet, you never will," he said instead. His voice was curiously calm, with just the slightest hard edge. "But if you ever happen to take a day off from your whole goddess-of-righteousness routine, take a minute to think about all the useful stuff I could buy for myself, if I were willing to sell off the Dark Artifacts I've never even touched." The edge was more pronounced now, and she wished she'd held her tongue and saved this for when they weren't trapped together in a coffin-sized tunnel with walls made of blood. "Think about how somebody who isn't like me would've bought it and used it to kill people." He paused, probably for dramatic effect. "And finally, think about all the times I could've walked away from you and saved myself today, including right now, when I am fully focused on every single reason why I cannot fucking stand you, and for some reason I'm still not doing it. Do you know the answer, Granger? Do you know why I'm not going to step aside and let them have you the second we step out of wherever-the-fuck this tunnel is taking us?"
"Because then you'd go to Azkaban for negligent homicide?" she guessed, and she heard him sigh ahead of her. As much as she always regretted provoking him, she couldn't seem to stop doing it.
"Never mind, you complete cunt!"
His shadow fell over her face and hid her smile. Making him angry was a special sort of fun, and she knew that this, at least, was mutual. She didn't bother coming up with a snappy retort, and they walked in silence for a very long time before they reached another door. Malfoy held the knob for a moment before he looked at her sideways and opened it slowly.
Once he was out, he pressed himself along the wall as she'd done earlier, and the door fell shut behind them and melted into the wall before she could catch it. There must be a secret way to activate the passages like that, which she seemed to have done by accident back in the corridor, but she knew Malfoy wouldn't know it. The grinding sound was audible here, louder even than in the library, but she still couldn't pinpoint the source.
When her eyes readjusted to the warmer light, she was surprised to note that it was coming from windows. They were in a bedroom, and sunlight filtered through the thick layer of dust in the air to illuminate a nightstand and dresser and four-poster bed. On the bed was a skeleton, and that seemed about right. In fact, if there hadn't been a dead thing or Dark Magic monster in her immediate field of vision upon exiting the tunnel, she probably would have screamed from sheer surprise.
It was similar to Malfoy's bedroom, even down to the wallpaper and what she could see of the colours through the dust coating, but they weren't in the West Wing. Beside her, Malfoy had moved away from the wall and was exploring the room with guarded curiosity. He moved to the bed and ran his hand above the dry bones, just barely not touching, and all at once she knew where they were. The skeleton belonged to Gregor Malfoy's father, and this was the South Wing.
Malfoy dropped his hand back to his side, and he turned back to face her. "Don't use magic until you need it - they might not know we're here." He paused to survey the room again. "I wonder how many ways there are to get out, now that the tunnels are unlocked."
She was surprised at how mundane the South Wing was, after she'd been building it up in her mind, but it made sense now that she knew what it was. Gregor Malfoy must have been too busy honing his Forgetfulness Charms and plotting his father's demise to set aside time for originality in the new Manor's décor. The ancient floor creaked and whined as Malfoy made his way into the corridor, and she followed. She caught her reflection in the mirror above the bureau, and strange shadows squirmed across her face. She glanced back at the window and realised that the lighting here was impossible, given the angle of the sun.
"We'll probably find Lord Leander's ghost soon, unless the Unspeakables took care of it when they were here. Don't seem to have touched much, though, for once…" Malfoy's voice trailed off around a corner, and she hurried to catch up.
Chapter 7: Down Will Come Baby
The Unspeakables must have been disappointed, considering the complete absence of both Dark Magic and anything that was even remotely intriguing. The only magic he could feel was the ancient Memory Charm that wrapped him head to toe and pressed into his skin and pervaded every particle of the air.
Two dust-coated couches were arranged in the drawing room just as they were in the house he knew, since the whole South Wing was no more than a smaller version of the current Malfoy Manor. He briefly considered trying to reactivate the boarded-up Floo, but the network had been rebuilt more than once since the 18th century. It wouldn't be able to take them anywhere that still existed, on the slim chance that they could make it work at all. Furthermore, there wouldn't be any use in trying to escape through traditional means: Lord Leander would've had plenty of free time to try it all. They'd entered through a secret passage, and they'd have to leave by another.
Granger was silent for the time being, which was perfect because he didn't want to hear her talk unless she was ready to apologise or to thank him for saving her life. He was doing a better job of keeping a Mudblood alive than any Malfoy had ever done before, to his knowledge, and he didn't think a little credit was too much to ask. They'd known each other since they were eleven, and if she still couldn't figure out why he wouldn't let her die, then explaining it wouldn't do any good.
A muffled hiss drew his attention near the sealed-off stairwell, where a grey figure had entered the room. It was so tall that its head almost touched the ceiling, and its arms and legs were impossibly long and thin with too many fingers on each hand. Its stiff white curls were more like tentacles than hair. Tiny black spheres like marbles spun where its eyes should have been, jutting out as though they'd been tacked onto the skull in a rush, and it had no nose or mouth. It moved like seaweed at the bottom of a lake.
"He doesn't remember what humans look like," whispered Granger at his side. He was surprised she could find the words.
It dragged the side of its head along the wall, ignoring its visitors entirely, and Draco realised it was listening to the grinding noise. He could tell now that the sound was coming from the west, and it was deep and heavy enough to shake the once-silver tea set beside the ghost. Either it was getting louder or they were moving closer to the source. If the ghost still had a mouth, he might have asked what Lord Gregor thought his father had done to deserve such a fate.
For one harrowing moment, he couldn't remember what they were supposed to be doing. Granger seemed puzzled, too, when he looked at her. "We're looking for a way out," he said.
"Right, a way out." She paused, wringing her hands and watching Lord Leander's depressingly inept attempts at haunting. "I hate to say it, but we should probably keep talking."
He didn't want to, but it was necessary. If they didn't remind each other of who they were and what they were doing, they'd lose their minds. "You go first," he said.
"You want me to go first because you don't want to talk to me," she began matter-of-factly. She moved around the room as she spoke, touching the walls like she could feel it if there were a secret passage. "You don't want to talk to me because I'm Hermione Granger and you're Draco Malfoy, and we were in rival houses at Hogwarts. I was in Gryffindor, and you were in Slytherin. Who was Slytherin's head of house?"
Her tone suggested that she knew the answer, and he supposed she wanted to make sure he still did. "Severus Snape," he said. "Until sixth year, when he was replaced by Horace Slughorn." He decided to change the subject, in the interest of avoiding certain hot-button issues. "They both taught Potions. We need to find a way out, Granger."
"I'm Hermione Granger, and you're Draco Malfoy." It sounded stupid to keep repeating it, but it was better than the alternative. "If there were a secret passageway in here, would you recognise it? How can we find it?"
"No, and tapping the walls won't help. That's why they're called secret passageways." She didn't rise to the bait, so he continued. "I know how you opened the first one, though."
He'd known ever since he healed her nose that blood had been the key. It seemed strange at first that Granger's would work, since Malfoy blood should have logically been required, but he figured it out after dialing his logic back a few centuries. His ancestors had been screaming the answer in his skull all day.
"You bled on the wall. It thought you were a sacrifice." He'd forgotten about the ghost until its shadow crossed his periphery, and it didn't seem to be doing anything except scraping its stretched-out ear hole along the wall. It shocked him every time as if he'd never seen it before.
"Are you sure?" she asked. She kept knocking on the wall with her knuckles, moving in horizontal lines along the wallpaper's stripes and leaving holes in the dust. "That's so obscure… do you mean to tell me that every time someone wanted to enter that tunnel, they had to pour Muggle blood on the wall?"
"It was rarely used," he said. This was a lie, of course – with all that goblin-forged limestone, his ancestors would have wanted to show it off – but she'd put him in an awkward position with that line of questioning. He didn't feel like explaining that Malfoy Manor's scarcity of prisoners was a relatively recent development. He was proud of his family, but this particular chapter in their history wasn't something he liked to think about: only after Abraxas sealed off the North Wing had they gone wanting for Muggle blood.
He avoided that kind of thinking not only because it was gruesome and embarrassing but also because it was unexplained. Impure sacrifices had at one time been performed so frequently and wantonly, in dozens and in droves, that there was no way they'd been doing it just for kicks. There must have been a reason that had seemed of utmost importance at the time, but his grandfather had personally ensured that it was lost to posterity. Abraxas had destroyed the contents of several shelves from the Heritage & Genealogy section of the library during his quest to improve the family's image, a noble endeavor which had been rendered pointless after Lucius went and threw it to the dogs all over again. Records remained of the sacrifices themselves, but there was no longer any reference to their purpose or design.
The rhythmic tapping of Granger's hand continued, as if it would kill her to do what he said just once. "Stop that. You look ridiculous, and it isn't going to do any good."
She turned to face him, placing her hands on her hips. "Well, have you got a better idea?"
He did, actually, but she wasn't going to like it. "Your blood was the key to that particular passageway. Another might take Malfoy blood, and some probably want a password. There's no way we could guess the latter, so we'll have to try the former."
"What exactly are you suggesting?" He could tell she already knew, from her voice and the way she pressed her lips together so hard they turned white.
It took him a moment to find the right words, or at least a few of the less-wrong ones. It was difficult to even imagine, much less say it out loud, but he couldn't think of anything else that had a chance of working. "We could try touching our blood to the walls in here and see if anything opens up."
She drew in her shoulders and pressed her hands to the back of her neck, turning wide eyes to the heavens. It looked almost like a prayer, and he thought again of the Muggle god. It hadn't occurred to him until then to wonder if she was a believer. "What if it doesn't?"
His attempt at a shrug came out more like a twitch, and he gave up on trying to act nonchalant. "That's my only idea," he said. "If it doesn't work, then I suppose it'll be your turn."
"After we've both smeared our blood all over the walls?" She spoke in the high-pitched tone of a person who might soon become hysterical, but she should have known better than that. It was time to compartmentalise.
"Only if you want to get out," he said. "If you can't handle it, we do have another option." He jerked his head to indicate Lord Leander.
"I can handle it, Malfoy. I just need proof that you're right. We should try my blood on the location of the passage we know and see if it opens again."
A terrible thought struck him: if they were going to make it out alive, he'd have to start humouring her. Especially here, they didn't have the luxury of time to bicker. All his other options had been annihilated from the first time he grabbed her hand in the corridor, and it didn't matter whether or not he regretted it. It was already done. "Fine," he said, "then do it."
With a curt nod, she stepped around him. He followed her through the corridor and into the bedroom, where he was caught in déjà vu. On the bed a pile of old bones rotted, sending panic signals into his brain.
A white hand fluttered in front of his face; a woman's hand, and he held it to calm himself. It was small and soft in his palm until its owner snatched it away. Her words jogged his brain into motion: "Snap out of it. You're Draco Malfoy, I'm Hermione Granger, and we have to get out of here."
It was an odd feeling to learn that he'd been teetering on the edge of madness, blissfully unaware; it meant that if he began to sway and tumble again, he'd never know. He'd happily become a thoughtless shell if given just ten minutes alone. He repeated her mantra: "I'm Draco Malfoy, you're Hermione Granger, and we have to get out of here."
"Good. Be careful," she began to lecture, "and it wouldn't kill you to look at me. You're avoiding eye contact, and you know better than that. It's bad for your memory to stare at things you've never seen before."
In the interest of conflict prevention, he obeyed and was startled by the deep and comforting familiarity of her face; it felt like forever since he'd really looked at her, and she reflected him better than a mirror. If they could each oppose the other in forced contrast as they always had, then they would not forget who they were. The bed posts were entwined with wrought-iron leaves ending in knife-sharp tips, which she used to prick her finger. She squeezed it until a liquid bead appeared on the surface, and her hand approached the wall beside the dresser at the approximate location of their entrance.
A small door with a black knob revealed itself as soon as her blood made contact, and his breath rushed out in relief. She looked pleased when she faced him again. "This is good news. We can hide in that tunnel if we start forgetting too quickly or even go back the way we came, if we have to. I need to use magic to get more blood, though."
"Just do it. It probably doesn't matter," he said. "We should check the drawing room first, since I doubt there are two in this bedroom."
She started to agree but hesitated. "I've been thinking about trying your blood, and I don't think there's any point in it. If Malfoy blood opened a passage in here, Lord Leander could have used it to escape."
It made him feel useless, but her logic was sound. Ideally, they'd find another passage that lead outside or at least somewhere less dangerous than the corridor, since his ancestors knew how to find and attack them there. They'd do better to take their chances on a new door, even though they'd have to walk through it with wands drawn and no hint of where it might lead. Lost in thought, he had allowed his attention to wander.
"I'm over here, Malfoy." She snapped her fingers in front of his nose and then pointed at her eyes. "I don't want to stare at you, either, but I'm the only thing here that's part of your past. Unless you want to forget who you are, in which case I can't say I'd blame you."
Inside his own home with everything his family had built, Hermione Granger would be the anchor to his sanity. Ironically, that thought alone might be enough to drive him mad. "We need to find another door," he said. He turned and started back for the drawing room.
She repeated his words again and again at regular intervals, which was as annoying as it was important. The length of the corridor had been enough to distract him before, and he'd lost all sense of time: the sun hadn't moved, and he understood then that the windows weren't real. In the South Wing, this day would never end. It was one way to live forever.
Lord Leander still lurched from end to end along the wall, contorting its hands and hearing what might have been the first sound to reach its home in a century. It was like the sad old music his mother used to play, when she would sit alone and stare out the window and listen to the same song over and over. He didn't know any of the lyrics except one line: to hear Her, we boil water in our skulls/the first three kings were sons of different gods. It didn't quite rhyme, which had always bothered him. If they were going to make up nonsense, they could have at least made it rhyme, and most of the song was just a wail or tuneless hum. He wondered where his mother had gone to be with her "sister," whatever that meant. He had to believe she was far away and that she would not try to return until the house was under control.
Granger fished a Knut out of her pocket and transfigured it into a tiny dish the size of a jar lid. She held the container and her wand in the same hand as she pressed the wooden tip to the inside of her elbow, siphoning enough blood to fill the dish. Strands of magic came next to seal the wound and clean the surface of her skin, white and dry. The tips of her fingers sank into the shallow pool, but her eyes were watching him. Dirt was smudged across her cheeks, just as it had been so many times before. It was probably the spell corroding his mind, but he couldn't picture her clean.
She drew round marks with her first two fingers, shoulder-height and evenly-spaced, using enough that it dripped down to the floor. As they moved sideways around the room, he carried with him everything he knew about her. He thought of staring hard and mean at the back of her head day after day, of all the terrible things he'd ever said to her, and of his aunt's crooked wand as she lay on the floor. He knew her sharp chin and her pink cheeks in the winter and the way her mouth opened so wide that her eyes almost disappeared when she really, actually laughed.
A cold sort of comfort built itself inside his chest to keep him standing, and he couldn't break their connection now if he tried. Her eyes were the brightest light he'd ever seen.
"Draco Malfoy," she said. He took on the name because she had said it.
"Hermione Granger," he answered. Everything faded to black except her. The shape of her body was what it meant to be a woman, and the rapid rise and fall of her chest was what it meant to breathe, and the blood she smeared onto the wall was all the life the world had ever lost.
Her arm began to quake, and he watched her fight to keep her eyes where they belonged even as they showed her fear. "Why am I doing this?"
"Door," he said. He remembered the way her voice had sounded when she gave him that word. "You said we need to find the door."
It calmed her. "Then we will find the door," she said. All the while her hands and feet were moving. They turned a corner without stopping.
"Hermione Granger," he said again. His mind wrapped itself around the memory of her name, and for the rest of his life he could draw her face with eyes closed. She was more than the only thing he knew: she was a frame of reference for what it felt like to know things at all. He moved closer until their noses almost touched.
"Draco Malfoy," she said. Her breath was on his lips, and she walked backwards while he stepped toward her. "I think we've known each other for a long time."
"Hermione Granger." If he stopped saying it, he might forget it, and then he'd lose everything. He would lose his mind.
"You used to wear green ties," she said. "I can see it now. I remember the ties and the way you used to sneer."
With a woman so close as their feet moved together, a fleeting fragment of a memory compelled him to place one hand on her waist. He would have held hers with the other if it weren't busy in the motion of making wet trails on the wall. They reached a bookshelf, and he pushed it away until they could pass behind it.
"Thank you, Draco Malfoy," she said. He tightened his grip and brought her closer.
There was a sound that was not her voice now, and it shocked him into shifting his attention. The blood was sucked inside as the wall began changing where the bookshelf used to be. As soon as the knob appeared, he opened the door and pulled her inside by the arm. It closed behind them, and smooth stone met his feet.
"I'm tired," she said. "I need to lie down." Her weight was sinking into him, and he lowered them both to the ground.
There was enough space to spread out his robes, even though it made him colder. The words to warm them were on the tip of his tongue, but his mind couldn't handle the strain when he tried to think too deeply. He was exhausted and hungry and light-headed with a relief he couldn't quite name. He felt exactly like a man who'd come a hairsbreadth from absolute tragedy, and his thoughts moved in maddening circles. Hermione Granger lay down on his robes and pressed her body against his chest, shivering.
"Do you know the spell to make it warmer?" she asked. She spoke so softly that he could barely hear her. "I should know this one. It's so easy; I learned it so long ago…" Her voice trailed off into the darkness, and his mouth wouldn't cooperate when he tried to respond. He didn't even know his eyes had closed until reality dissolved into dream.
In his empty black mind, images formed and faded and merged. A hundred voices spoke together through the mouth of one woman, waist-high in water with skin that burned like all the stars in the sky.
Some time later, the lights turned on by themselves. He didn't feel like he'd slept for long, considering how tired he still was, but there was no way to check. It may have been day now, or perhaps the charmed lamps on the ceiling were on their own schedule entirely. They consisted of one large, glowing sphere and six smaller ones, arranged below the former in a semi-circle. The shape reminded him of something specific, but he couldn't place it. The passage was made of floor-to-ceiling grey marble, and black and white trails ran through it like veins.
By the time he was fully awake, Hermione Granger was already sitting up straight with her wand aimed at the emptiness ahead. She must have removed her robes at some point because they were spread out to make a blanket.
"Is there anyone here?" he asked.
"No, we're alone. I don't know why I'm doing this. I did it before I was really awake." She set her wand down by her side and faced him.
"You're bleeding," he observed. There was blood all over her shirt and left shoulder, dried into a crust on the exposed skin of her arm. "Did you hurt yourself?"
She followed his gaze and jumped back reflexively, like she could escape her own body. Her right hand moved to test the skin carefully through the stained fabric, but her face showed no pain. "I don't think so." She pulled her shirt down until the neckline exposed her shoulder; the stain had soaked through to the skin in patches, but there were no wounds. "Maybe it's your blood. Are you hurt?"
He checked himself where she'd been sleeping against him, and there was only a brown-red spot in the shape of her shoulder. "No."
"Do you know where we are?"
Probably underground, and possibly trapped. "No."
"How about who we are?"
"Only our names."
A store of information about this woman and himself was pushing against the buzzing fog at the front of his mind. He found her attractive, but they weren't romantically involved: sleeping beside him, she'd felt foreign. Not unpleasant, but unfamiliar. They obviously weren't family. He could only operate under the assumption that they were either old friends or colleagues.
"Tell me everything you remember about me," she said. He looked her over, kneeling on his robes over the marble tiles. Her hair was spilling out of a once-tight bun, long and thick and unruly. Certain things felt right about how she was just then, and others seemed out of place. He closed his eyes, and another version of the same woman appeared in his mind in striking detail.
"You used to wear your hair down," he said, "a long time ago. Maybe when we first met." The Hermione Granger of the present had black kohl smudged down her cheeks. "You didn't wear make-up, I think." Her crisp blouse was buttoned to the chin and embellished with an intricate crest, now stained, below the collar on the left side. It was tucked into a straight-cut black skirt. "You've always dressed about how you are now, minus the blood." She smiled at that, and it felt ten times as wrong as the make-up. It was not normal for her to look on him fondly, which meant that they couldn't have been friends. "That's all I know," he said. "Do you remember how we met?"
She scrutinised him as he'd done with her. "School," she said after a moment. "I think we're in our early twenties. If we've known each other as long as it seems, we met in school. You used to slick your hair back. The only other time I've seen you this dirty was… surrounded by smoke. Something was on fire." She paused and leaned forward to get a better look at his face. "We were fighting. It was a long time ago. I remember how you used to make me feel – pity and anger and fear."
"Why?" They were very close together now, on their hands and knees. He could smell her sweat and the fading remnants of her perfume.
"I don't know," she said. "You don't look especially frightening."
She smiled again, and he teased back. "That's just because you can't remember what I'm capable of. For all we know, I'm the iron-fisted tyrant who's taken over the world."
"And for all we know, this is all that's left of the world. You must be an awful leader."
Pieces of past emotions were coming back now, in quick succession. "If it makes you feel any better, I think I was afraid of you, too. I was threatened by you, but you don't seem very threatening."
"Maybe I'm the tyrant," she said, tilting her chin like a challenge.
"If that's the case, then I'd like to register a complaint. You really should've made your servants build a door in here."
She grinned right up close to his face. "No, whoever built this place was extremely short-sighted," she said. "It must've been you, and you also neglected to add a kitchen. I'm starving."
"Me, too. Ruling the world isn't as great as I must've planned."
She stopped just short of laughing outright and schooled her features into a more serious expression. "It's really not funny," she said. "I don't know why we're laughing. We're trapped here, and we don't even know where we are."
He glanced around trying again for an epiphany, but none came. "This whole situation is strange. If we don't get along, then why are we alone together? And how did we forget?"
"Maybe someone took our memories and left us here." She picked up her wand and rolled it between her palms. "Hey, I have an idea. How about we check our pockets and see if we're carrying anything that could help us remember?"
They separated to perform the task, both drawing themselves back onto their haunches. He first found a drawstring purse that held far too many coins for its weight and size. In the same pocket was a small platinum insignia engraved with the Malfoy crest, and the mental fog receded at last. With an almost unbearable joy, he embraced all the wayward memories of his family history for better and for worse. It had never occurred to him until now to question the symbol in the centre of the design, but he saw it now with new eyes. As with those eerily familiar lamps, it featured a large circle held up by six smaller ones beneath it. For the first time, he realised he had no idea what it meant.
Hermione Granger had found something equally illuminating, judging by her audible sigh of relief. He shoved his items back into his pocket, and she held up two of her own: her DMLE badge and her annotated map of his house. They'd filled in all the gaps except the information that neither of them knew, which had actually turned out to be a lot. For instance, they still had no way of knowing their current location within the Manor.
"I guess neither of us is in the business of world domination," she said dryly.
Ten minutes ago, he'd been certain they were lifelong friends. It was hard to reconcile that with a poisonous hatred that seemed so much further away, and he didn't have the energy just then for fighting. Teasing was the closest he could get. "Speak for yourself," he said.
She narrowed her eyes and watched his face until she was satisfied that he'd been joking. "I found something else, too." She lifted a clear plastic bag of mixed nuts into view. "We should probably eat before we try to go any farther."
She placed the food between them and began picking through for almonds. She cast off the walnuts, which happened to be his favourite. They tasted even better than usual, since he'd worked up such an appetite losing and finding his mind so many times in a row.
Chapter 8: London Bridge
When all the nuts were gone – even the hazelnuts, which neither of them liked – she tried not to think about how it was the last of their food. In fact, it didn't seem like a good time to think about anything at all. Their only option was to walk straight down the one-way path ahead, and there was no one to bring for protection or conversation except Draco Malfoy, and she might as well have done it while thinking about Charlotte Brontë or her favourite Beatles song or driving around with her mother to look at Christmas lights in Muggle London. Anything real or honest would only sap her energy and weigh her down.
She brushed off her robes and pulled them on, stuffing the empty plastic bag and her wand and all her credentials back into her pockets. As she touched the worn leather of her badge, she began to wonder about the security it provided. She couldn't decide if it was better or worse as a symbol of self than Malfoy's family crest. In some ways, it was exactly the same.
"We should start moving," he said. "This has to lead somewhere, or they wouldn't have built it."
She brushed her knuckles against the grey marble, following along the onyx track. "It looks like it must have been important."
"Maybe." He brushed past her with his footsteps bouncing off the walls in stereo. She wasn't an expert on men's shoes, but she did know that expensive ones made more noise: they were fitted with metal plates in the heels and toes to protect the leather. "I just hope it's not what I think it is."
"Why? What do you think it is?"
"Never mind," he said. If he really thought he was going to get away with that, then she wasn't convinced he'd recovered all his memories.
"No," she said. "If you don't want to tell me, why did you mention it at all?"
She could only see from behind and a few steps back, but it looked like he was pressing his forehead into his hands. "I don't know. It's hard to think down here." He paused and shook his head violently. "Up here? Over here? We could be anywhere. I don't know how you can keep it together enough to interrogate me about everything – the many useless skills of MLE Officers, I suppose."
"I'm not interrogating," she said. She had been before, but now it was time to try another tactic. "It's just that it sounds like you might have an idea about where we are. I feel like it could be beneficial for us to discuss it together."
"Well, I happen to disagree. We have to go wherever this corridor leads either way, so it doesn't matter."
"If we know where we're going, we'll be prepared."
"If I'm right about where we're going, there's no preparation in the world."
"Tell me anyway."
He quickened his pace, and she hurried to walk at his side instead of trailing behind him. "Drop it, Granger. There's no way to know for sure. We'll both find out when we get there."
"Fine," she said. She'd lost this one for now, but Hermione was not the sort of person to let sleeping dogs lie. "Do you know why they're not attacking us here? Are they talking to you?"
He glanced around at the walls, narrowing his eyes in concentration. "I'm not sure they can – these tunnels are actually located in a specific place, and they're made of real stone. The corridors in the main floor were built to be elastic, and they're made of magic."
"Hang on," she said. She had already known they were fluid, but she'd never thought to wonder how they were built. "They're made of magic?"
"Yes, is there an echo in here?"
"With no building materials at all? How do you make a corridor out of pure magic?"
"Once again, I will remind you that I did not build this house. There might be information about it in our library, or there might not if the creator chose not to share his knowledge with posterity." He shrugged, but she was deeply intrigued both by the process involved and by the level of absolute selfishness required to take a secret like that to the grave. "They were a useful invention, but I don't understand your excitement at this point. They've been trying to murder us the whole time we've been here. Regular corridors can't grow too smart for their own good."
"You're disenchanted with them now?" she asked. "You've been bragging about the self-regulating first-floor layout for several years' worth of inspections." She had her memories again, and she was prepared to use them.
"Things are different this time, in case you hadn't noticed." He shot her a dirty look under his fringe. "Just because I appreciated those corridors when they worked properly doesn't mean I still like them now that they're broken beyond repair."
It was a good sign, she supposed, if he could admit that at least part of the house was 'beyond repair.' Perhaps he was beginning to understand that this couldn't be his home anymore. "I wish we knew why it was so different," she said. "It all seems rather…sudden."
"I suppose it seemed that way at first."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't think it would make any sense to you," he said, but it wasn't a jab. He was simply telling the truth: this was not her house or her family. "But it's starting to make more sense to me. I had this one particular dream after we left the South Wing, and I didn't remember until now that I've been having it a lot lately."
"Oh," she said cautiously. She didn't want him to stop talking, but she also had no idea what he meant.
"See? I told you, you wouldn't understand."
She nodded, turning it over in her mind. "So, what's happening makes sense to you, and you know where we're going, but you can't tell me because I wouldn't understand."
"Almost," he said. "What's happening makes slightly more sense than it did before, and I don't mean the specific events themselves – I mean the fact that anything's happening now at all. I have a plausible guess for where we might be going, but you are correct that you wouldn't understand."
"Is your bed made of magic, then? How'd they attack me there?"
"I forgot about that." He paused to think, furrowing his brow, while she listened to the percussion of his shoes. "Either you imagined it, or it came from the magical storage compartment underneath. As I said, I'm not controlling any of this. I'm just telling you how it works in my mind."
"I see," she said. She had a hundred more questions but none that she could put into words.
They walked forward, both keeping busy inside their own minds, until they must have stepped on some sort of magical trigger. The floor beneath Malfoy's feet glowed briefly, and he put out his arm to hold her in place. A creature faded into being in front of them, and she could tell immediately that it was dead. It used to be a goblin, but someone must have reanimated its body and suspended it here as a servant. They'd plucked out its eyes and sewn its mouth shut.
"This was not done often," Malfoy commented, as if it would do anything about the horror bouncing around in her skull. He must have seen it on her face. "This goblin probably stole or owed a lot of money."
"Of course," she said. "In that case, perfectly understandable."
Her words tripped another kind of trigger. "I didn't say anything about understanding it. Am I a necromancer, Granger?" She rolled her eyes and shook her head while the creature stood motionless, blocking their path. "Then don't act like I think this was a good idea, just because I'm probably distantly related to whoever did it."
He seemed liable to start sulking unless she issued a retraction. "I'm not acting like anything," she said. "It was just a joke."
"Well, I didn't think it was funny," he said. His tone hadn't softened at all. It always took her by surprise how quickly he succumbed to anger; if she were a psychiatrist, she might say he had a serious problem with repressed rage. "I didn't know we had undead servants or goblin-forged limestone or whatever gruesome thing is probably waiting at the end of this corridor, and I'm not laughing about any of it."
He wasn't laughing because now it was his problem, she thought cynically. The Malfoys had essentially drowned themselves to ward off fire, and it had only been a matter of time. She tucked her wand into her pocket and held her hands out where he could see them.
"Fine," she said. "I know you didn't build this house. The next time you're about to fly off the handle at some petty little remark, I'd recommend you take a look at what I'm doing. I know full well that you could leave me to die, but am I scared? Do I have my wand on you? Do I even have my eye on you?" She paused for dramatic effect, since he seemed to respond to that sort of thing. Grand gestures felt appropriate around here. "The worst thing you're capable of is fixing a Quidditch match, and that wasn't even –"
Right in the middle of her stirring speech, the servant turned to leave without them. She forgot what she was saying and took her wand back out as she chased it. Malfoy waited a beat before doing the same, and her words were left to hang in mid-air between them.
The purpose of the guide became clear when the path began to branch off at several forks. She tried to keep track of the turns, but every new corridor looked exactly like the last. She chanced a sidelong glance at Malfoy, who returned it with one eyebrow quirked, and she shrugged and looked away. Perhaps non-verbal communication was still the best option, when it came to the two of them together.
Approximately thirty turns and twenty minutes later – estimated under the influence of a warped sense of time – their escort stopped. The path ended at an intricate doorway, set between Corinthian columns that gave off an enchanted light, and mounted above it was a sculpture of a woman submerged half-way in a pool. The tile on the wall around her waist flowed and rippled like water, while her body stretched out perpendicular to the floor as if the world were turned on end. It looked to be Hellenistic in style, although it probably wasn't that old. It reminded her of her first trip to the Louvre, with that little spark lighting in her chest at the idea that beauty like this could be crafted with human hands. Her parents had taken her to see Winged Victory because it was her mother's favourite sculpture; it was beautiful even without a head, just as the Venus de Milo left her breathless without arms.
This woman was missing nothing. She was whole and perfect and everything a work of art should be. She even moved, twisting her languid arms and fingers and turning her head in time to music that didn't exist. Her eyes were wide open and watching, and she never blinked.
Hermione couldn't tear her eyes away until the servant demanded her attention. The dead goblin stretched out its hands, where two objects appeared from nothing. In the hand nearest Hermione, it held a folded grey robe. In the other, it held a platinum dagger by the blade and extended the handle to Malfoy.
She and Malfoy shared a long look that told her beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had no idea what was going on, either. He took the knife and held it away from his body like he thought it might explode. Their guide pressed the robe against her hip, and she must have looked just as uneasy as he did when she finally took it. Under the watchful empty sockets of the creature and the lady, she pulled the loose and gauzy garment over her head on top of her robes. The guide nodded its mutilated head and gestured to the doors, which swayed open of their own accord to reveal an expansive grey-marbled room – the Grey Room, she realised. They were in the North Wing. Having completed its task, the servant disappeared.
"I was right," Malfoy said. His voice was laced with wonder and awe and fear. "But this isn't how I thought it would be at all. This is nothing like what I expected."
"What did you expect?" she asked. She kept her voice low in automatic reverence; her parents were Protestant, and this place felt the same as a Catholic church or synagogue or mosque or some other temple to a faith that wasn't hers. It seemed right to show respect.
"Not this," he repeated. "Definitely not this."
For once, the doors didn't slam shut behind them. The hall was only about five metres across, but it stretched on into fog and darkness far beyond her view; proportionally speaking, it was almost a corridor. It had been so quiet for so long that disturbing it seemed criminal, and the sound of their shoes as they entered was nearly unbearable. Along the walls were free-standing statues in every possible style, crafted by at least a century's worth of different hands, interwoven with grey columns and abstract mosaics charmed to act like water. She slipped off her shoes at the entrance and touched the cold marble through her thin white stockings, and she could almost feel a quick but shallow stream flowing over her feet. The air was moist and heavy and saturated with the smell of rain. It should have been peaceful there, but it set her teeth on edge. It was too silent and too perfect, especially now that she knew where they were, but there was no denying that it was beautiful.
Malfoy had taken off his shoes as well, and she wondered if some ancient magical whisper had compelled them to do so. He held his wand and dagger at the ready as they began to explore, while the statues followed their guests with empty white eyes and moved in a slow and measured synchronised dance. They were all made in the image of the same woman, she realised, with flowing grey marble hair and thin grey fingers and a pretty, heart-shaped grey face."What do you think that's for?" she asked, indicating his knife.
She watched him sideways as he inspected it, running one careful finger down the blade with a grimace. "Are you really going to make me say it again?"
"I don't know," he hissed through his teeth. "I haven't the faintest."
His voice held so much pain that she almost apologised, but she was interrupted. On both sides of the hall, the statues hastened their motions in a frenzied crescendo. Their mouths opened and closed as if they were screaming, but they didn't make a sound. Malfoy's knife clattered to the floor and skidded to bounce off a pillar as he fell to his knees, holding the heels of both hands against his ears.
"No!" he yelled, shattering decades of silence once and for all. "I really don't know. Nobody told me!" The noise bounced off the walls until it sounded like an out-of-sync choir. "It's not my fault – blame Abraxas! Blame my father!"
She covered her own ears as she tried to think, keeping her eyes off Malfoy. She knew what he was hearing was real, but she couldn't help but see madness in his fits.
"Just leave me alone," he called, almost pleading. "That's not why I'm here." He paused for a few seconds to listen. Then: "I'm not going to do that!"
She stared at the unhinged jaws and flared nostrils of the statues, no longer beautiful in their rage. They were fierce warriors now, poised to defend their fortress. Malfoy was silent for a moment, while he was presumably treated to a series of deranged threats from beyond, and she studied the women more closely: they were reaching out and clawing at air, but they couldn't move their legs. In fact, she wasn't sure if they had legs at all. Many were underground to the waist, and the ones that weren't wore long and heavy stone skirts that pooled on the ground. Either way, they were firmly attached to the floor.
"Fine," he muttered at last. It sounded like surrender. "All right." He took his hands off his ears and folded them in his lap. He sat up straight on his knees and stared at the ground. "We obviously have nowhere to run, and I'm not going to do as you say, so I suppose you'll have to kill us." She watched in frozen horror as he flinched. The voices must have been louder again, but he did not cover his ears. "Then do it," he said, his tone low and even. He closed his mouth for another long and harrowing pause, and she held out her wand in a rote gesture of absolute futility. There was nothing she could do here. It was all up to him. "That's exactly what I mean," he said. "If you had any power over solid stone, then I think you would have used it already."
"Malfoy," she warned. Nothing felt real, as though she were watching herself from above. Any second now, Malfoy's ancestors would boil her alive or suck out all the oxygen from the air or bring the house down around them. Those marble columns would fall and shatter and break all her bones. "Please."
He turned wide eyes to her and covered one ear. "Please what, Granger? Please kill you? That's what the knife was for, as it turns out, but do me a favour and shut up. I can't listen to both of you at once." He blocked his other ear, too, and waited a moment in silence. "Yes," he whispered at last, "I know you want to, but I'm not convinced anymore that you can. I don't believe you."
He stopped speaking. The air was still, once the echoes of his voice died out, but she knew it wasn't quiet in his mind. Stone mouths and hands were rushing all around them, and she closed her eyes and counted her breaths. She thought of all the people she'd never see again and all the ways she could have prevented this moment. She could have left the Malfoys alone, for one, and read the grisly details later in the Prophet whilst shaking her head and clucking her tongue and thinking about how they deserved whatever they got, even though really they didn't. If she were completely honest, Draco and Narcissa Malfoy didn't deserve death any more than she did. Lucius Malfoy had, and certain cosmic forces had already made it so, but his wife and son had earned a second chance.
If she hadn't believed it before, she did now. Draco had stood with two weapons in his hands and his own life at stake. They were in the middle of nowhere with no witnesses except the ones who cried out for her blood, but he would not raise a hand against her. No matter what he said or did for the rest of their lives, she could no longer deny his honour. She was trying to come up with some last words that would mean something; "thank you" wasn't quite the right sentiment, but it was close. Without opening her eyes, she spoke: "Malfoy?"
"What," he said. It was not a question or an invitation, but she continued anyway because it might be her only chance.
"If we die here, I just want you to know. You have my respect," she said.
Her breaths came fast in laboured gasps. Her body swayed from side to side. Her hands and feet were numb. Her head spun and rolled off her neck and floated out through the ceiling toward the sky.
"Good," he said. She couldn't tell if he meant it or if he cared at all. Stone smacked her skull, and she was gone.
Her face was wet. The light was bright, and the liquid was cold. Her vision sharpened until she could make out Malfoy's head, blocking the sun. It wasn't the sun, though; now that her eyes worked, she could tell she was underground.
"Are we dead?" she asked.
"No," he said. She could tell from his tone that it must have been a stupid question.
"Then… what?" Her own voice was scratchy and low, and she couldn't form a more complete thought.
She was worried that she might throw up, but her throat stayed dry when she turned her cheek against the floor. She recognised the sensation now; as a girl, she'd passed out once at a theme park, due to sun exposure and dehydration. She had been waiting in line for the most exciting ride in the park, the one where your feet dangle while it spins you around and upside-down and takes your picture while you scream. Hermione would later learn that she hated roller coasters and all other forms of flying, but this was before she'd ever tried. She had finally grown tall enough to meet the cut-off height, but the wait time was an hour with no water or shade. The nausea came first, then her senses dulled, and then her body ceased to function. It was funny, though; her clearest memory wasn't of the paramedics or the E.K.G. or the terror on her mother's face. It was the way she had cried when they told her she couldn't ride the roller coaster that day.
"You fainted," he said. It sounded like an accusation, as though she'd done it on purpose to cause him grief. "We're still in the North Wing, and they still won't stop talking, so get up."
His wand was pointed at her head, and she realised he must have used it to shoot water until she woke up. She tried moving each part of her body in turn. Everything felt normal, and she used her arms to push herself upright. The dizzy spinning was almost gone, and so were the pain in her stomach and the pounding in her ears. She was glad she'd eaten recently, or it would have been worse. "Still talking?" she asked. He nodded once and then sat back on his heels beside her. She watched him put his hands over his eyes. He looked very tired. "Can you hear it in your ears?"
"No," he said. "Directly in my mind."
"And you don't know any Occlumency?" she asked. She felt better already, now that she'd been given a chance to rest and a problem to tackle.
"Of course, I do. This isn't Legilimency – I know what that feels like."
"If you can tell me how they're getting into your mind, then we can figure out how to stop them."
"I can't explain it," he said, rocking forward and back. "They're just… there."
She thought of the Anti-eavesdropping Charm she'd used so many times with Ginny, which projected sound beyond the ears of the intended listener. It was still a real person's voice, just heard differently, and a regular Silencing Charm would stop it. There was no way she could Silence all the statues and whatever else was speaking to him, but it was easy to block all sound for one person – she'd performed the spell on herself more times than she could count during her Hogwarts days, when she'd needed to study in public areas. It was worth a try. She steadied her wand and aimed, concentrating carefully as she whispered the incantation. She relaxed her wrist and twirled her hand three times to craft a charmed bubble around Malfoy's head, while his eyes were still closed. She wove her own voice into the spell as an exception, and she would be the only noise he could hear.
When she was finished, he opened his eyes frantically and looked to the ladies, whose mouths hadn't closed. He seemed wide awake now as he turned his gaze to her wand. "What did you do?"
"Peace and Quiet Charm," she said. "It worked, I take it?"
"But it wasn't sound," he said, rubbing his ears. "I thought of doing that, but I didn't think it would help."
"It was sound," she said. "It was sound that only you could hear."
He surveyed the statues again, this time with pride and disdain. He stood and picked up the dagger, tucking it into the pocket of his robes, and she watched from the floor as he showed them all a two-fingered salute. "Go ahead," he said with a mocking smile. "Say what you want. Nobody's listening."
They must have known what she'd done, for they sealed their stone lips and twisted their delicate fingers toward Hermione. Their gaze held such naked contempt that she turned her eyes to the floor, even though she knew they couldn't really hurt her. This house was powerful but not insurmountable. Like any great beast, it had its weaknesses; if they'd found one, they were certain to find more. She filled her lungs with a few gulps of thick, moist air and staggered to her feet.
Malfoy held his head high as he began to move forward, and she noticed that he'd waited until she was ready to walk beside him. It was productive to help him now – quid pro quo. There was no longer any way for one of them to succeed without the other, and it felt like years ago that she'd thought he was her adversary. For all they knew, the Quidditch match was already over, and she couldn't honestly say that she cared who won. Maybe he still did – fifty thousand Galleons, after all, was quite a bit of money – but she knew his priorities had shifted.
Sometime in the far and distant future, assuming they survived, he'd realise that he was better off without this house. Upkeep of the Manor was robbing him blind, and he must have known it. He wasn't stupid, and he must have known that this house was a weight too heavy to bear.
"You should have given me some ambient noise," he commented. They couldn't see anything up ahead yet. There was only the ominous line of statues like a firing squad; they'd conceded defeat for now, it seemed, and their dance was slow and somber once more. "I can't even hear my own footsteps."
"Do you want me to recast the charm?"
"No, it's just strange."
"Then it's fitting," she said. If there had been any other sound in the room, she might have missed his dry and quiet laugh.
"It's so bloody weird," he repeated. He could have meant anything, really, from the stone ballet to the dead silence to the fact that they were working together and not wearing shoes.
The fog grew thicker as they shuffled along, with vapour so heavy that it condensed on her skin into cool drops that ran down her neck. It was a nice sensation against her face, and she could feel that it was laced with ancient and formidable magic, but it wasn't as nice to breathe. It worsened until she began to consider a Bubble-Head Charm, but finally they could see the far wall. It was a dead end.
The corridor flared out into a rounded chamber, and in the centre was a pool of clear water. It shone with its own enchanted light, and when she looked into it, she could not see the bottom. There was no way to estimate its depth. She didn't bother asking Malfoy what he thought it was for – she didn't want him to have to say it again.
There was a grey bench in front of it, waist-high and blood-stained. This time she didn't need to ask; if this were another century, she knew that Malfoy would have taken the dagger from his pocket and laid her body down and drew the blade along her throat from ear to ear.
"Do you think the doors are still open back there?" she asked. There was nothing more to see here.
"Hopefully," he said, "since there isn't another way out."
She resisted the urge to wash her dirty hands and face, since there was no way to know what kind of magic was in the water. Instead, she turned and headed back the way they'd come. The walk didn't seem so long this time, although neither of them spoke. She was past any interest she might have had in those wicked sculptures and maddening grey and blue tiles, and Malfoy kept pace as she nearly jogged with her gaze straight ahead.
She breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the open doors, but it was short-lived when she realised that their guide was gone.
"The North Wing has other names," he remarked, once they'd put their shoes back on. "It's usually called the Grey Room, but I've also heard it called the Grey Maze. That one makes more sense now."
"Well, there's no use trying to figure out how we got here – we don't want to get back to the South Wing, anyway." She stepped forward cautiously, hoping to trigger the servant again. It didn't come.
"My ancestors might have brought a Portkey to get out, or maybe they just knew the way." He looked her up and down with something like amusement. "You can probably take that off now. I've decided not to sacrifice you, after all."
It wasn't funny, really, but she smiled anyway. She pulled the grey robe over her head, balled it up in her hands, and shoved it into the corner near the entryway. "How generous of you," she said.
"I'm a generous bloke."
"Oh, I know," she said. She was feeling a bit giddy, and she supposed he was as well: the vapour by the pool had given them a curious sort of energy boost, and it couldn't have come at a better time. She didn't want to sleep here again. She didn't want to let more time pass without knowing how much had gone by. Her watch had stopped working somewhere in the South Wing, and it filled her with fear every time she checked it out of habit.
As they began to navigate the labyrinth, they didn't discuss which way to go next. To say it out loud would be to admit that neither of them knew where they were or even which direction they were going. They worked on impulse instead, taking turns: one of them would forge ahead in silence, and the other would follow. Malfoy kept one hand on the wall as they walked to see if any passages would recognise him, since it didn't seem like a good idea for her to voluntarily shed any more blood.
Her hope and energy were both fading fast, even though they hadn't gone far. She was keeping track of their turns in her mind, and she knew Malfoy was doing the same. At first, the problem seemed to be that they wouldn't know it if they were going the wrong way; they could continue on for ages, only to find a dead end. As it turned out, though, uncertainty wasn't the worst of it. They started down another empty corridor just like all the others, only to learn that there was a way to know if they were going the wrong way. They had walked into a trap.
Something fast and horrible came at them out of the grey, dripping heavy black pools as though it were made of tar and melting. It moved so quickly that the stone walls caved in as it passed and the floor sank at the centre under its weight. It made a sound like a hundred gunshots with each clamoring gallop. She thought of the horsemen of the apocalypse, but this thing was no horse – she saw its horns shining, so wide they nearly touched both walls, and it may have been a bull. Hermione had never heard a gun go off except in the movies, but she knew that films exaggerated the effect of silencers. She knew that no matter what kind of gun it was, sawed-off or silenced or rifle or revolver, anyone standing too close would be hearing the echoes for days.
She might be hearing this for the rest of her life, which wouldn't have been very long except that the thing went right through them. It felt hot and wet and slimy, like they'd walked under a waterfall of raw sewage on fire. She looked down and saw that she was coated in an oozing, dark layer of filth that looked and smelled like motor oil. She would have screamed or maybe whimpered, but she had to keep her mouth closed because she could feel it on her lips. Most of it was on her robes, so she peeled them off and used the inside to wipe off her face and hair as best she could.
Malfoy was doing the same thing; her ears were ringing as she watched him bring his hand to his face and inspect the substance on his fingers. It was starting to burn, and she fished her wand out of her pocket and aimed it at herself. "Scourgify!"
Nothing happened. Malfoy was saying something, but she couldn't hear. She gestured for him to repeat himself, and slowly he mouthed the words: it's cursed.
Lines from books slammed against the inside of her skull. To remove a curse the appropriate counter-curse is required, this may entail the use of a spell, potion, or magical plant, an experienced Curse Breaker can determine the proper measures on a case-by-case basis, curses are very difficult magic to master because each one is hand-crafted by one witch or wizard for a specific purpose, it is important to note that most but not all curses are classified as Dark Magic, in fact, in some cases the requisite counter-curse is Dark…
It was all useless. Hermione was no Curse Breaker. Before she could even begin to make a plan, she was being handled and dragged by her elbow. Malfoy was stumbling and yelling so hoarsely that she could hear the noise but not what he was saying, and something came over her then. As the motor oil itched and stung and sank into her skin, a numbness seeped through her that had nothing to do with the curse. Her mind had determined that the pain in her body was too much to bother feeling. Her nerves were being switched off one by one, and her vision narrowed and distorted.
She wrenched her arm away and followed him on her own, and they retraced their steps until they stood at the entryway once more. They ran through it with their shoes still on, loud and clumsy and leaving scuff marks in their wake. At last, panting and clutching her robes to her chest, she was at his side over the beautiful pool again. She stooped down and put in her hand. It felt like every particle of the liquid was filled with pure power, but not power like achievement – not power like earned respect, or even power like the first time she'd ever cast a spell. It was power like stealing and killing and bringing men to their knees; the sort of power that could take control and eat a person from the inside out. It was power like an atom bomb, as beautiful as watching the blast from a hundred kilometres away and knowing she'd won the war. It was exactly like that.
Malfoy had already climbed in, and he grabbed her arm and pulled her after him. She couldn't touch the bottom, even with the tips of her toes. It washed off everything; not just the motor oil, but also the dirt and the fear and the aches and even the hunger. She dunked her head, and the ringing stopped in her ears. Her body was seizing up in the most euphoric way, and she kicked back her legs and crossed the distance to Malfoy and wrapped her arms around his neck. She could hear him laughing now. She dunked his head, too, and rubbed his hair underwater and let it slide between her fingers. Electricity flowed between them and hummed in her veins, and he wrapped his arms around her waist and put his face close to hers as they treaded water together.
"Granger, we can do anything," he said. He licked his lips and sucked in his cheeks, tasting it. She copied his motion, but there was no flavour. "This is everything."
She moved her right hand up and spread the cool liquid over his cheek, rubbing the back of his neck with the other. He was the only other person who knew what it felt like to take over the world. "God," she whispered. "No, we are gods. This is heaven."
"Maybe you were right. Maybe we're dead," he said, like it didn't matter at all.
"I don't know." She didn't mind, either, if this was the afterlife. An eternity here would suit her just fine.
He reached up and pushed her hair back from her face. "You're so clean," he said. "How did I ever think you were dirty?"
"It was my blood you didn't like, not my body." By comparison, the past seemed so small and unimportant that she didn't mind talking about it. It was all theoretical; the whole world was hypothetical except this.
"I know," he said. "I know, but I can feel it now. How could you not be clean?"
She could have said the same to him. He was spotless and pristine right down to his soul, she knew, now that they'd both been baptised. She kicked and rolled her hips to stay afloat, but her muscles did not tire. "I don't think either of us was before, but we are now."
The tip of his nose touched hers, and his eyes were negotiating. His eyelashes were dark and dripping, and his cheeks were slick and smooth and pale. He pressed closer to slide his nose against hers until their mouths were crushed together, gasping and biting and stirring up such shocking power that her brain shut down again. She was sucking on a nine-volt battery, and her nerves were made of copper wire.
He pushed her back against the tile at the edge of the pool and braced one hand on the stone, while the other grabbed handfuls of her hair. Her body was nearly convulsing from sensory overload and ecstatic confusion.
She needed to believe that she hadn't wanted to do this until right now. She had to believe that, or she didn't know what.
The sounds they made bounced off the walls, and she would have loved to hear what his ancestors had to say about that. He'd said it himself, though: no one was listening.
Chapter 9: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
It started to fade when foreign objects began to nudge his arms and ribs and neck, floating in the water, floating to the top—"it" being "the most incredible universal one-ness and euphoria he'd ever known," and "objects" being "hollowed human bones."
Could they feel this, he wondered, before they died? Did those Muggle sacrifices of centuries' past breathe their dying breaths a Hallelujah? Perhaps they couldn't feel the energy of the pool, since there was no magic in their blood; or perhaps as their blood ran out, the magic ran in, and for their last few moments the Muggles were just like him. Just like him and singing.
He would never know, for the only other living soul around was Hermione Granger, and she was no longer very near. She must have noticed the floating bones before he did: by the time he could make even the slightest sense of what was happening, she was already standing on the tile a few metres from the pool, half in shadow and dripping with her robes wrapped around her like a towel. It was strange to watch water hitting tile when he couldn't hear it—her Peace and Quiet Charm was still in effect, and he couldn't hear anything except her voice. Oh, and he was mostly naked. Half his clothes, and half of hers for that matter, were floating nearby, impossibly buoyant if the pool had been filled with normal water.
They stared at each other, her on the shore and him still half-submerged, until she cleared her throat and looked away. He heard that, all right, and the little sigh after, and holy fuck was it loud. The full realisation of what he'd just done was beginning to sink in, building in waves of apprehension through his chest, which in turn did desperate battle against the waves of pleasure that came with each new lap of enchanted water.
"I think you should get out," she said, which he could tell from her tone was less of a suggestion and more of an order. She made a gagging noise directly after, covering her mouth and turning away, but she didn't vomit as he'd expected. The water on her skin must have been keeping her physical nausea at bay.
"Would you mind..." There was a long and awkward pause, and finally he swirled his index finger around in a tiny circle, indicating that Granger should turn around in deference to his modesty. With a small "oh!" she caught his meaning and did so. He collected his soggy clothing and shook it out, so that a few errant phalanges would go their own way, before laying it along the side of the pool. Then, he hoisted himself up beside it and redressed. Awkwardly. It was hard enough to put on wet clothing under the best of circumstances, but right now? He felt he should have earned some sort of medal, whichever one they give to blokes who were able to put on wet clothing while their respective Muggle-born childhood nemeses—whom they'd just nearly shagged under the influence of power derived from human sacrifices—stood mere metres away. That medal.
There was nothing to say, and so he cleared his throat to signify that he was decent. She made some sort of high-pitched noise in response and turned to face him again. If he were in the mood for conversation, he could have told her something that would make her feel better: soaked in the water, he'd found a connection that hadn't been there before. It was like some special door in his brain or soul had unlocked, and now he was truly a Malfoy. Of course, it had finally happened at the precise second that, so secretly that he could barely even think it, he no longer wanted to be one. Not just then, anyway. Maybe later, if things ever went back to normal. He could be excused for having thoughts like this, he told himself, because he was currently in survival mode. A lot of people believed a lot of strange things when their lives were on the line.
Either way, he had it now. He could feel the house. He knew which way to go.
Granger cleared her throat again, insistently this time.
"I know the way," he said simply. Her whole demeanor changed instantly.
"What? You mean you know the way out?"
It sounded funny when she put it like that, since he hadn't thought of it that way before. His newfound Malfoy connection may not be ideal, he realised, if it was going to lead them somewhere they didn't want to go. "Well... Not necessarily." Her shoulders sank, and the hope faded from her eyes. "But I know a way. We'll be out of the North Wing, at the very least."
"How, exactly, did you come by this knowledge?" She was getting suspicious, he could tell. Her eyes were narrowed and everything.
"It feels like I just remembered it, even though I never knew it before." He gestured around the room with one arm. "I think it's a Malfoy thing, something I didn't get until now."
"Mm-hm," she intoned mockingly. "Well, perfect. In that case, I suppose I'll just watch where you go and then head in the opposite direction."
He rolled his eyes. "This is our only hope, unless you just remembered you've got a Portkey or something." She sighed. "Here, I'll give you a moment to think of a better idea."
She crossed her arms and looked around the room angrily, clenching her jaw so hard he could see it through her cheeks.
"Got one yet?"
"You know, you are the absolute worst."
"Well, if I lead us to our doom, you'll never have to see me again."
He'd mostly been joking, but she didn't react appropriately. She cocked her head to one side, considering his terms as though they were legitimate, then nodded once. "I guess that's true," she said, and he tried to convince himself that he wasn't at all offended.
His Malfoy instincts led them out the way they came in, past the statues and back into the maze, except that it was no longer a maze. He knew now how his ancestors had gotten out—none of the extra corridors, it seemed, were legitimate paths. They had been no more than a trick to confuse intruders. Draco could only see one corridor now, so long that he couldn't see the end.
"Which way now?" Granger asked, by his side.
"Do you still see the maze?" he asked.
"Why, don't you?"
"No," he said. This observation caused him relief and distress in equal parts, for it occurred to him that deliberately ignoring his newfound internal path was impossible. They'd have to go his way, because none of the other options had ever really existed.
Granger was still talking, he realised dimly, but her voice had fractured into many different pieces now that it was the only sound he could hear—there was a white noise aspect of it, when she reached a certain cadence that meant she was trying to intimidate him with the sharpest possible edge of her mind. He let her words wash over his back as he continued to walk straight ahead. If he could have heard anything, he would have noticed her small but determined footsteps behind him as she reluctantly began to follow.
For how long the corridor had looked at the beginning, they reached the end impossibly quickly. Where there had once appeared to be more space, stretching infinitely in a straight line, there now was a wrought-iron gate. It could have been there for centuries, for all he knew, but it looked shiny and new. Granger had moved to stand beside him, and she reached out to touch the intricately-woven metal.
"Well, this is different, at least," she said.
He unlatched the doors, and they folded off to either side instead of swinging open; it was a lift, apparently. He and Granger stepped inside, but there were no buttons on the barren stone walls. The doors folded closed automatically, and the tiny room shuddered into motion. He wondered briefly if it would take them up or down, then felt silly for only considering two options—it took them sideways.
Torturously slowly, it ground across until their entrance was out of sight, casting them into complete darkness. Granger lit her wand, rather uselessly in his opinion, since there wasn't much to see. After a while, the lift slowed down and stopped, then immediately began to move again—forward this time. It paused after another few moments, then began to ratchet slowly downward. It went down, down, down, until they were certainly underground. At last, it came to a permanent halt in front of a new opening. Meagre light dodged the gates, casting incomprehensible shadows on the stone floor, and Draco was relieved that he hadn't noticed until now how tomblike it was. He looked over his shoulder at Granger and watched her extinguish her wand, waiting for eye contact. She lifted her gaze to meet his, and they looked at each other for an uncomfortably long time.
"Well?" she asked, and it occurred to him that she must have been expecting him to speak.
"Nothing," he said, and looked away. Reassurance, actually, had been his goal. He couldn't trust his own sense of fear because he was a coward. Granger, on the other hand, was supposed to be quite brave, and so he'd pretty much been taking his cues from her. If she started looking scared, as she had when the cursed bull creature attacked, then he would know that there was really something to worry about.
Right now, she seemed more impatient than anything. He undid the latch and opened the doors.
They stepped out onto carpet so dusty that a cloud of iridescent particles rushed into the air around their feet. Beyond the edges of the carpet was equally ill-kempt wood floor, so rotten that there were several holes providing a view of the darkness below. The room itself was relatively small, about the size of Draco's bedroom, with another door straight ahead. The walls were lined with wooden shelves, which were in turn stuffed to capacity with thick hardcover books. For how the room smelled, however, they might as well have been decaying bodies. In the corner to the left of the door, there was a rusted globe beside a black armchair that appeared at first glance to be upholstered entirely in ugly, uneven fur. Upon further inspection, it was in fact covered top-to-bottom in a thick layer of what must've been extremely toxic mould. The air was heavy with rank moisture that felt exactly like the word "moist" sounded. That word, Draco decided, must have been invented in this very room, along with "foul." It was a profoundly moist, foul room.
"We're above water," Granger said.
"Just thought you should know, since you can't hear," she explained. She crouched down to peer into one of the larger holes in the floor. "It's dripping below us."
"Oh," he said. All the more reason to keep moving. He made for the door, propelled by his desire to leave the foul moisture behind as soon as possible, but Granger called after him.
"Wait," she said. "Aren't you the least bit curious about all these books? There must be hundreds of them." She had stood back up now and was inspecting the nearest shelf with rapt attention.
"Aren't you curious about what this mould is doing to our lungs?" he countered. He had no idea what type of mould it was, but it was probably not cursed. Curses gave off a certain energy, in Draco's experience, that could be felt as a sort of twitchy ache in both one's stomach and the back of one's neck. The mould didn't have any unusual magical energy to it, so it was probably only as dangerous as a typical fungus. He wished he'd paid more attention in Herbology: the main problem with magical plants was that learning about them was mind-meltingly boring until the precise second when a person suddenly needed very much to know exactly what they were.
"A few extra minutes won't hurt," she said, without even sparing him a glance. "Besides, it might be useful. But I can't make out any of the titles..."
He watched her step gingerly across the unstable floor and choose a book at random. When she pulled it off the shelf, it began to drip some kind of viscous black liquid onto the floor. She made a disgusted noise, followed by a shriek that was probably about one octave lower in pitch than a dog whistle. He pulled out his wand, pulse quickening, but he didn't know what to do. She began to flail her arms and spin around in place, in the process dropping the book into its own ooze puddle. It fell straight through the wood, which gave way on impact, leaving behind a vaguely book-shaped new hole.
She continued to pitch a fit, and Draco kept his wand at the ready until the source of her terror became clear: she finally managed to shake off a centipede the length of his forearm, which hit the floor and crawled down one of the holes at a terrifying speed. She stopped flailing at last, took a few deep breaths, and held her right hand far away from her body. Now that the danger had passed, he watched with growing amusement as she used her wand to clean the filth off her hand and arm.
She turned to face him abruptly, as though she'd just remembered he was there, and then she looked away, blushing.
"I wasn't—er. It surprised me," she explained, with a tragically unconvincing attempt at a nonchalant shrug.
"Never would've guessed," he said. He realised oddly that he'd been unconsciously hiding his smile and suppressing his laughter as though he suddenly cared about Granger's feelings. As though he hadn't honestly been quite frightened himself when she began to scream, and not just for his own safety; as though he hadn't nearly lost himself in the ecstasy of her body less than an hour ago. In the interest of immediate practicality, he decided to carry on with all his as though's intact.
"Can we get out of here now?" he asked, with told-you-so dripping from every word. She nodded, still looking at the ground.
Under different circumstances, he would have wanted to stay and examine the books, too—they might have been the ones Abraxas removed from the library, for instance, or something older and Darker still. On the other hand, books like that could be dangerous even to read, and he wasn't exactly short on danger at the moment. The door was unlocked, and he opened it carefully, centimetre by centimetre, until he was certain they weren't in for a nasty surprise.
The contents did turn out to be quite nasty, but not as much so as they could have been. The smell in this room was even worse than the last, and its matching wood floor was almost entirely corroded. Where before there had been holes, there were now pathetic sections of broken boards floating in a black lake, like lonely little boats without a captain.
Black mould coated the walls and part of the ceiling, and it was difficult to tell what the room's original purpose had been. It was about three times as large as the one before, with another door directly across, and a vast assortment of objects were floating amid the pieces of what had once been the floor. From the sheer variety of it all, he deduced that they must have found one of the storage wings, but there was no way to tell which one it was or how it had fallen into such magnificent decay. Most of the stuff was too mouldy to identify, but he could make out some more shelves, a lamp or two, a handful of dead rodents, and finally the most useful thing he'd seen all day: an antique broomstick. Unlike whatever else was rotting in the water, a racing broom would have been waxed and sealed specifically to resist moisture, mildew, and corrosion. It was the sort he'd seen pictures of in history books, probably from the early 1900s. It must have been top-of-the-line for its time, and there was a very good chance it still worked.
"Look," he said, trying to keep his excitement in check, "it's a broom! Perfect!"
Granger wrinkled her nose—well, really her whole face. It seemed that she was scrunching up as much of herself as she could. "It's filthy," she observed, in an equally scrunched-up voice. She was exaggerating, too: the broom was, in fact, the least filthy thing in the whole room. There was no mould on it that he could see, and it had retained its original mahogany colour.
"Would you prefer to swim across?" he asked. He'd meant it to be a scathing, biting sort of comment, but it came out like a friendly question in the midst of his elated relief. They could have levitated across in a pinch, but a broom would be easier and probably come in handy later.
"It's clearly our best option," she conceded, having partially un-scrunched. "But you're the one who was so worried about the mould five minutes ago."
"That was before we found a broom." He shifted his weight from side to side in his eagerness. "Imagine what we can do with this. We can move so much faster, we can cross that—well, that liquid..."
"First, we have to think about some logistics." She drew her wand, and he watched her impatiently. It was like her reaction to the books: he was about ready to dive half-cocked into that putrid water and swim to the broom if he had to, just to get his hands on something he genuinely loved. He was still in his house, but it had been so long since anything had made him feel at home. Granger cast a series of spells in quick succession: Bubble-Head Charms for each of them, then another charm that covered their hands in the same translucent coating, tight against the skin like gloves. He lifted his right hand to examine it up close. It looked like it was going to be slippery, but it didn't affect his traction when he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.
"Interesting," he said.
"It should keep our hands clean," she said. "Now, if you'd like to do the honours." She gestured toward the broom, and she didn't have to ask him twice. He raised his wand and Accio'd it into his hand, holding it away from his body to let the remaining ooze drip off onto the floor. It had been expertly sealed, as he'd suspected: a simple cleaning charm had it good as new. He felt the weight in his hand and the strong magic that answered his own, and he wondered who its original owner had been. It was an early-model Silver Arrow—definitely a racing broom, but he wasn't sure of the exact year. Reverently, he climbed onto it and hovered a few feet above the ground, relishing the familiar feeling of freedom; in fact, he got a somewhat childish thrill just from riding a broom inside the Manor. His mother would have a fit if she caught him doing that. It was enough to improve his mood a great deal, and he found himself thinking more positively: of course, they would get out of here. How could they not? They had a broom.
He forced himself to start off slowly, with an experimental lap around the room. It was turning just fine, handling remarkably well for its age. As his knowledge of the broom increased, so did his bravado: he pulled another lap as fast as he could, turned each corner at the last possible second, pushed off the wall with his feet to turn a somersault in mid-air. He cut across the lake diagonally, skimming so close to the surface that the water rippled beneath him. He zig-zagged back the way he came, banking off the wall with one foot on each side, using the momentum to turn a corkscrew at every change of direction. He was filled with the ecstasy of flight, of pure motion and complete simplicity of being, of thinking without language. In the air, there was only act and react. He'd forgotten entirely that Granger was there, or even where he was at all, until he heard her clapping slowly.
"Show-off," she said, when he landed beside her again at the entrance. She was trying to conceal a smile, probably because she didn't want to laugh at him right to his face, and he felt oddly embarrassed. "Finished now?"
"I needed to see how it handled," he said defensively.
"Of course," she said, not buying it. "There's no way we'd make it across that water if we couldn't even do a simple loop-the-loop." But as she looked upon the water, her expression began to change; first confusion, then alarm. He followed her gaze and saw that the water had not stopped rippling after he'd disturbed it on the broom. The entire surface was vibrating now, causing the debris to sway and bump against the walls. "That sound," she said.
"The grinding. It's back."
The water moved faster and faster, splashing along the sides now. When tiny waves began to crest at their feet, he knew it was time to go. He must have gotten better at crisis management in the time they'd been trapped: where before there had been panic and the temptation to lash out, now only a cold sense of purpose came over him. First priority: to reach the door at the other side of the room.
"All right," he said. "From now on, you tell me immediately if there's any change in the sounds you hear." She nodded, and he re-mounted the broom and kicked off to hover in front of her. "Get on behind me."
She hesitated for only a second before wrapping her small arms securely around his waist. He flew normally now, getting used to the extra weight of a passenger, and soon his hand was on the doorknob. He pulled hard, and he could tell it wasn't locked, but it was so stuck that it wouldn't budge without more leverage. "Hold on tight," he said, and Granger obediently gripped his stomach so hard that she must've been trying to squeeze his intestines out through his mouth. "Not that tight!" he corrected.
She let up, but only slightly. He turned them sideways so he could brace his feet against the wall beside the door as he pulled. He managed to wrench it open, then let go immediately as a wall of foul-smelling water crashed through the doorway, soaking them both. The water itself wasn't black, he realised; it was just packed full of ashy sediment and spores from the black mould. Once the water had drained, he continued into the next room. It was much larger than the others they'd passed through so far, but it was entirely empty except for long rows of filing cabinets along both walls. Water was still pouring down from the ceiling in the centre of the room, which explained the flood: several large pipes had burst, and water was rushing in at an alarming rate, as though from a faucet or even a geyser, but he couldn't figure out what the source would be unless these pipes were connected to the house above. Even then, there was far too much of it.
He cruised through the room cautiously, avoiding the falling water as much as possible, when the labels on the cabinets began to catch his eye: each was the name of one of his ancestors, in ascending chronological order. The women were on one side, the men on the other. At the far end of the room, there was a blank label on the women's side. Directly across from it was a cabinet labeled "Lucius Evander Malfoy."
He stopped right where he was, transfixed by the sight. There was no way it contained his father's remains: a good hiding place would not have a label, and also it was much too small. Granger was calling questions near his ear at first, but she stopped mid-sentence when she figured out what he was staring at. Propelled by curiosity so strong he couldn't have refused it if he tried, he flew over the wet floor to the cabinet. It was made of grey metal and contained just one drawer, and he recognized the penmanship on the label: it was his father's own handwriting. As soon as he touched the handle, he felt the internal mechanism unlock.
As long as he lived, he would never be able to explain why he did what he did just then: with his fingers still wrapped around the handle, he turned his head to look first at Granger. She nodded once. He opened it.
Chapter 10: Thursday's Child
From her vantage point over Malfoy's shoulder, she could see that the drawer didn't hold much: a few Pensieve memories, Lucius's emerald ring—the one she'd never seen him without—and a folded letter on top addressed to Draco. He opened the letter with desperate speed, then read it very slowly. His hands began to shake, and the parchment creased as his grip tightened. Quite suddenly, he crumpled it up, swore, and threw it back into the drawer. He rushed a hand through his hair, swore again, and took the letter back out to smooth and re-fold it just as impulsively. She wanted to know what it said so badly it hurt, but she could only watch helplessly as the two of them continued to hover in front of the cabinet.
He took out the ring next and slid it onto his right ring finger, with tremors still wracking his hands. Finally, he slipped the letter and the bottled memories into a pocket inside his robes. Once the drawer was empty, he slammed it shut viciously. She watched as he took several deep breaths, like he was trying to steady himself, and she listened as the unrelenting cascade of water poured onto the tile floor.
"Malfoy," she whispered at last, when she could wait no longer. Jolted from his reverie, he jumped so hard that they were nearly bucked off the broom.
"What?" he spat, with a venom he hadn't shown her in years. She had no idea what to say, and so she held onto him silently. He sighed heavily before he spoke again. "No useful information," he ground out at last. "None of it was any of your business."
"What about the ring?" she asked, in a small and quiet voice. "Is it—"
"No magic. It's just a ring," he said, his tone still biting. Since their survival depended on their cooperation, she could honestly say that this was the first time Malfoy had ever scared her. His anger was palpable, especially when he started flying again. The broom jerked erratically as he tried to maneuver it back on course.
"Worthless piece of shit," he muttered. "And these pipes! What mentally-deficient wanker built this piece-of-shit house, anyway? It's nothing but a massive, mouldy, run-down dump!" They hadn't gotten very far on the broom, so they were still close enough for Malfoy to kick the cabinet savagely. Coupled with his distraction, the force of the kick sent the two of them careening in the opposite direction, right under one of the pipes. Just when she thought he was running out of steam, the cold water brought his anger to a whole new level. "Get your hands off me!"
She leapt off the broom immediately and backed away to put a few metres of distance between them. As soon as she was off, Malfoy threw the broom across the room with impressive force. Then, he returned to the cabinets, ranting to himself.
"How about you, Grandpa?" he yelled, with a kick to Abraxas's drawer. "What did you have to say to my father? Sorry about the death-trap, son, but we didn't feel like telling you about it until way too fucking late? Was that it? Ask your mother? Or, here's a ring—maybe you can pawn it when you're homeless?" He ran out of words and howled with frustration, bringing echoes back in stereo. He wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand and turned his body away. She couldn't tell for sure, but he may have actually been crying. Without warning, he whipped out his wand and sent a shock of blue flames hurtling toward his father's drawer. The parchment label burned down to ashes, but the cabinet itself repelled the fire.
That was what it took. As he watched his father's name burn, Malfoy seemed to retreat deeper and deeper within himself. His shoulders slumped inward, with his chin tucked against his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around him as though to ward off cold, bitter winds. He closed his eyes.
Hermione turned around to give him some pathetic measure of privacy, and they stood like that for a long time. Staring into space at the other end of the room, she realised something about Lucius Malfoy that she hadn't thought about much before: he was a father. He wasn't a good father, in her opinion—not like her own dad, or Mr. Weasley, or Remus Lupin and James Potter would have been if given the chance. He wasn't even a good person, but he was a father whose son had loved him. Lost in her thoughts, she didn't move until Malfoy called her name. He had retrieved the broom, and now he stood holding it with red-rimmed eyes and visible exhaustion weighing down his body.
"We should keep moving," he said. He sounded numb. She nodded, not only to his statement but to seal their unspoken agreement: the last ten minutes never happened. She would try her best to pretend that she saw Draco Malfoy no differently than before.
He mounted the broom and hovered with his toes brushing the ground, waiting. Once she was back on with her hands around his waist, he began to fly again, slowly and with control. Before she'd really thought about what she was doing, she found herself resting her cheek against his shoulder. It was in her nature to comfort someone in pain, and suppressing that urge was difficult even with Malfoy.
When he opened the next door, she noticed that his hands were steady once more. This door was much sturdier than the previous, and the water hadn't made it through. It seemed that the flood was mainly concentrated in the room where they'd found the broom, and she deduced that this area of the house must be on a slight upward slant.
As soon as they crossed the threshold, they had left behind the world of mould and broken pipes and contaminated water, but the mood of this new place was just as disturbing because of the memories it called to mind. They had essentially entered a smaller version of the pool room in the North Wing. It had the same white and grey marble tile with the same disjointed black veins running through it, the same oppressive stillness. The door closed itself automatically once they were inside, and it must have had some kind of Silencing Charm: she could no longer hear the waterfall in the cabinet room or that grinding noise. The grinding felt like a warning to her, and she was convinced that they were moving closer to its source, so it was equally disquieting to be cut off from it—like taking the batteries out of a smoke detector.
Where the North Wing had its own statue army, this room had only one: she stood in the centre of the room, presiding over a dried-up stone fountain. There was no doubt that this was the same woman, and once again her legs were obscured by a flowing stone dress. Her wide grey eyes were downcast as she cradled an empty pitcher, stroking its belly with one delicate hand, stubbornly pretending to pour from it long after her water supply had been cut off. She did not acknowledge her visitors with so much as a glance.
Mostly for something to do, Hermione removed their Bubble-Head Charms—they clearly didn't need them in here, now that the mould was gone. Once the charm was gone, she noticed that the room smelled like lavender and rain. It should have been pleasant, but it was so strong and strange that it only enhanced her misgivings; then again, now that she knew what this house was capable of, nothing inside it would seem pleasant to her. Malfoy steered them cautiously toward the fountain, then turned and made a slow lap around it. As he did, Hermione studied the expertly-sculpted folds in the stone fabric of the woman's dress, the loose knot that held her long hair, and the water-like tiles along the base of the fountain. She yearned to know what was under the dress—if the woman had legs at all or, if not, what she had instead. When they were sitting in front of the woman's face again, Malfoy stopped.
"Granger," he said, "I need you to remove the Peace and Quiet Charm."
"I want to talk to her." The stone woman must've known who he meant, for she looked at Malfoy and narrowed her eyes with disdain.
"It doesn't look like she wants to talk to you." At this, the stone woman turned her anger toward Hermione. She sneered, baring her perfectly-straight stone teeth the same way the other statues had in the North Wing. "I think she's still mad at you for not killing me."
"Just do it," he said. For no apparent reason, the woman's rage faded as quickly as it had appeared. She went back to pouring her imaginary water, deliberately ignoring her visitors.
Hermione removed the charm, and Malfoy reacted the same way anyone would after a sudden removal from a silent world. He jerked his head this way and that, following every tiny sound he could detect, sounds that Hermione hadn't even noticed until she watched him notice them: the creak of the old broom under their combined weight, the rustle of her hair against her robes as she turned her head, the shuffle of his toes as they brushed the ground.
He turned half-way around on the broom to look her in the face. "Has anyone ever told you how noisy you are?" he asked, in a voice as odd as his question. He didn't say it like an insult, just an observation.
No, no one ever had. Probably because it was an incredibly strange thing to say to someone. "What do you mean?"
"You're not even moving, but you make so much noise. You even blink loudly." He shook his head with a humourless jolt of laughter. "Maybe it's just nice to hear again."
"That's probably it," she said. He shook his head again as if to push away an unwelcome thought, and then he turned away from her to face the stone woman.
He leaned forward on the broom to study her face, and she began to falter in her manufactured indifference. "You had so much to say to me a few hours ago," Malfoy said. His tone was measured now, but she could tell he was fighting hard to keep it that way. His anger seemed to vibrate just beneath the surface of every word, yearning to be set free. "Why the silent treatment now?"
The woman pressed her stone lips together, brows furrowed, eyes on her pitcher. Her self-control seemed to be just as tenuous as Malfoy's, and for a moment Hermione saw that they resembled one another; they were family, she realised, although it didn't do much to explain who the woman was. She was clearly some sort of avatar for the house, for the family; she may have been a figure to be worshipped; she may have been in control of what was happening to them, or she may have had nothing to do with it at all; finally, she was certainly one of Malfoy's ancestors. He'd been correct in his original assessment of the source of the voices in his mind, but it didn't seem to be the whole story anymore.
"Who are you, anyway?" Malfoy continued. "What's your name? Are we related?"
She laughed scornfully at that, showing once again those lovely and vicious teeth, but Hermione couldn't hear it. Then, just when she was certain they were going to get as much information from this woman as they would from a regular Muggle statue, she mouthed two words.
"What did she say?"
"'Not anymore,'" Malfoy translated, with a glance over his shoulder. He returned his attention to the stone woman. "Where is my mother?" he asked. He could no longer contain his anger with this particular question. Hermione knew then that his father's letter hadn't been quite as devoid of 'useful information' as Malfoy had claimed. She wanted desperately to ask what he meant, but she knew it wasn't the right time. "That's all I want to know. I don't actually give a shit who you are, but I need to know if she's still in the house."
The stone woman raised her gaze at last to meet Malfoy's eyes. She lifted one hand with a cruel smile, but she didn't seem able to move it very far—her range of motion was contained by the puffy stone sleeves of her dress, firmly attached at the shoulder. She said something else and curled her index finger enticingly, beckoning him closer.
"What now?" Hermione asked. He paid her no attention. He began to lean in toward the stone woman, drifting closer on the broom. "Malfoy—"
The stone woman tilted her body toward him, too, seemingly as far as it would go, and then she mouthed one more word. As though in a trance, Malfoy shifted his body forward on the broom. Hermione was about to grab his shoulder, tell him to keep his distance, but she was already too late.
The stone woman grabbed his chin in her hand, holding his jaw so hard that soon it would break, and she was screaming angry words into his face that no one else could hear. Malfoy howled in pain and called for help in a strained voice. He wrapped his hands uselessly around the woman's sturdy arm, but nothing could deter her.
Blinded by determination, Hermione stumbled clumsily off the broom and held her wand at the ready, running through spells in her head. All her basic attacks were either useless against a person made of stone or would harm Malfoy just as badly or worse, but she tried a few anyway. "Stupefy! Confundo!" There was no effect, and the stone woman's grip on Malfoy's face was tightening every second as he continued to scream. He lost his concentration on the broom, and it fell to the floor at his feet. He was now held up only by the woman's grip on his face and the strength of his own hands, white-knuckled against the grey stone of her elbow. To buy herself some time, Hermione aimed her wand at the woman's thumb and called, "Carpe Retractum!"
A thin magical cord shot out and wrapped itself around its target, and the woman turned to face her attacker at last. Hermione pulled as hard as she could, but she could only reduce the pressure on Malfoy's jaw by a centimetre or two. The distraction seemed to help, though, and suddenly she had it—this was not a woman. She was an object, and Hermione would break her. She retracted the magical cord and aimed next for the stone woman's shoulder. "Defodio!"
A chunk of stone disappeared, and the woman's eyes widened in shock. Hermione called the spell again and again, chipping away at the stone that held her arm in its socket, and finally she broke all the way through. Detached from its owner, the hand went still, and gravity took its course. Malfoy was lucky to have been holding onto the woman's arm, or it could've taken his jawbone with it to the floor. Hermione rushed forward to help him hold it up, and it was heavy. Together, they shuffled away from the one-armed statue—who was still screaming her silent screams—and paused to breathe. Hermione stood facing him, holding up the other end of the stone arm, and searched his face for ideas.
"What now?" she asked. She was still in a state of full-body panic, from her heart to her lungs to her pounding head.
"Break...off...her...thumb," he ground out slowly, although he could scarcely move his mouth.
"Oh, right, of course." She held the arm up with her free hand and used the same spell to chip away at more of the stone, until finally the thumb fell to the floor. She and Malfoy let go of the arm at the same time, and it hit the ground as well, where it broke in half at the elbow. Without asking for permission, she reinstated the Peace and Quiet Charm, so he wouldn't have to hear that woman's horrible voice any longer. He crumpled to the ground, on his knees beside the broken statue parts, and touched his jaw experimentally. Red spots bloomed on his face where the woman's fingers had held him, marking the spot where the bruises would form later. Hermione sat down helplessly in front of him, folding her legs beneath her. "Is it broken?" she asked quietly.
He made to shake his head, then stopped moving with a whimper of pain. It was good news, though: she wouldn't have been able to fix a broken bone. She moved her wand until the tip just barely grazed Malfoy's chin, then cast the strongest pain-killing spell she knew. A blue light spread out along his jawline and up to his cheekbones, still so patrician and refined, and he let his hand drop into his lap.
"Thanks," he muttered, but he reconsidered it almost immediately. His eyes narrowed as he looked at her, clearly mustering as much leftover anger as he could. "But really you should be thanking me," he amended bitterly. "This is what I got for saving your life."
Their situation wasn't exactly her fault—after all, she'd only been doing her job—but she couldn't contain the rush of guilt. In fact, she thought about it every time he walked ahead of her now. Every step he took, deeper into the unknown danger of this prison, was one more step he wouldn't have to take if it weren't for her. She knew it was more complicated than that, that the house would've turned on its youngest heir sooner or later no matter what she did, but she had been the catalyst. If she had known what was at stake—and, more importantly, if she had actually known him, if she had known what he was capable of doing for her—she would've let him win that dirty bet. She would have left him alone, if only to keep him safe a little while longer. But she couldn't have known those things because he would never have told her even if he knew.
"I'll thank you when we get out," she said.
He looked upon her so sadly and with such cruelty that it broke her heart. "So, never."
It was ridiculous to try and cheer him up at a time like this, both pointless and bound for failure, but something inside her forced her to try. "Don't talk like that. We're going to get out of here."
"You don't get it, Granger," he said. He shook his head and then stared into the distance over her shoulder. "This house is all I have left. It's... it's..." He paused, struggling to explain himself. "If my own home kicks me out—if centuries' worth of my ancestors collectively disown me—then who am I?"
He met her eyes, desperate and confused, and she couldn't tell whether he wanted an answer or not. Either way, she wouldn't have known what to say. Instead of speaking, she slowly crawled across the shattered stone remains that lay between them and reached for him tentatively. He didn't stop her, and so she pressed her hand down against his shoulder. He closed his eyes.
She was so bold just then—or perhaps she merely longed so deeply to comfort him—that she moved even closer. She lifted her other arm and wrapped it around his neck, and again he didn't stop her. She pressed her body against his chest, nestled her head on his shoulder, and began to move one hand slowly in small circles on his back. He relaxed against her, allowing his weight to fall forward until they held each other up like a house of cards. In that moment, a strong wind could have blown them both away. He wrapped his sturdy arms tightly around her and pulled her closer still. She felt his cheek come to rest on the top of her head, and together they shivered and breathed.
She didn't realise she'd fallen asleep until she woke up. Malfoy was still wrapped around her, and he'd been the one to rouse her by snoring right into her ear. He woke up, too, when she began to move against him. She must have really needed the rest, because she didn't even have the energy to be horrified at their physical situation. She avoided eye contact, extracted herself from his embrace, and stood up as though nothing at all had happened. If she had to guess, he was probably more than happy to indulge her sudden amnesia: he stood up as well, brushed himself off, and set off past her toward the broom without a word. After he picked it up and turned to face her, she couldn't contain a gasp: the bruises were visible on his face now, ragged shocks of blue and purple against his pale skin. He lifted his hand self-consciously to his jaw.
"It doesn't hurt," he said. "How long will your spell last?"
Its typical duration was twelve hours, so they must have been asleep for less than that. "I'm not sure how long it's been since I cast it," she said. "Just let me know when it starts to wear off, and I'll refresh it."
He nodded and re-mounted the broom. "Let's get out of here," he said.
"Good idea." She walked across that awful room, deliberately keeping her eyes off the statue, and settled herself behind him. They moved forward, and she cringed with fearful anticipation as he opened the next door—it had to get worse. She knew that. It was going to keep getting worse until they either died or got out.
She missed her Bubble-Head Charm when she saw what was next: in the space of one doorway, they had gone from the sinister beauty of the previous room into a roughly-hewn stone cavern. More black mould coated the walls, and the floor was no more than putrid mud. Magical torches sat at regular intervals along the walls, and they all ignited at once as soon as the two of them crossed the threshold. She quickly recast the charms, grateful to rid herself of the intermingled smells of lavender and mould and rain and filth. A moment later, she was also grateful for the broom: she heard an inhuman clicking below her and looked down to find legions of those giant black centipedes, thriving in the muck below.
Still, the cavern was quite cramped and narrow, so they couldn't get very far off the ground. Perhaps it had been built at the same time as the goblin-forged limestone tunnel, a century or so ago when people were shorter. The tunnel wasn't long, to her relief, but the end had her worried. It was the exact same kind of iron hatch that led to the dungeons on the first floor.
Fear blocked her throat and stayed her tongue, and she could only watch in mute horror as Malfoy placed his hand flat against the centre of the hatch. From the series of internal clicks, she could tell he had unlocked it, but he made no move to open it.
"I think we both know where this probably leads," he said.
"The dungeons," she replied. "Are they going to be dangerous now?"
"Doubtful," he said. "They're static, like the library. It seems like a place has to be made of magic for them to get us there. But...I know you don't want to go in here."
With his back to her, he didn't see the surprise on her face just then. It was nice of him to care, but she hadn't expected it. "It's fine," she said at last. "We don't have another choice anyway."
Chapter 11: For Water in a Sieve
He opened the hatch, and a cloud of vapour spread out so thick it blocked his vision. Holding the broom steady, he waved his free hand in front of his face until it partially dispersed. He'd expected darkness, but instead there were scattered white lights that appeared to dart around of their own accord behind what remained of the cloud. He pushed through cautiously, and the lights were darting: the dungeons were so packed with ghosts that they may as well have been lit by a hundred wayward moons. He stopped cold and took in the scene as the weight of it overtook his body. The broom sank until his feet were flat on the floor. He'd never felt so heavy in his life.
"A baby," said the one voice he could hear, somewhere between a whisper and a whine. "There's a baby crying somewhere."
For a time they sat like stone, on a broom that may very well have belonged to the man who locked the cell door on that child for the last time. Draco's vision sharpened slowly, and the ghosts drifted in and out of focus. Each had different marks of torture—some were burned, tiny wand-tip burns scattered like constellations. Some were animal-scratched and sharp-teeth bitten, others sliced and pierced so deeply that silver echoes of blood dripped from their torn clothing onto the stone floor; all of their bellies were distended beneath ribs he could count. None, he knew, had died from their injuries. Every one of them had been left with cruel murky water troughs to starve; without hydration, they would have been spared precious days or even weeks of pain. He couldn't see the baby Granger heard, though. He hoped that he never would.
"Malfoy," she said, close to his ear. She exhaled against his neck, and his shoulders twitched violently. "Sorry," she added, probably for startling him. He shrugged, and then he felt her small warm hand on the middle of his back. Her fingers pressed against his spine, and his head tipped forward until his chin was on his chest.
He was sorry, too. Much, much sorrier than she could ever be—so profoundly sorry that the word became a mockery of itself in his mind. Sorry, he thought. It sounded almost quaint. Sorry: two musical syllables that went up at the end, climbing toward hope. Sorry was for people who might one day be forgiven, for people who could point to exactly the place where they'd gone wrong. Granger could have her sorry. Draco was so awful far gone that some long-dormant god would wake and strike him down if he dared speak it aloud.
Aimlessly the ghosts wandered, some moving their mouths to speak or just to scream and scream. Still, he could not move.
"Malfoy," Granger said again, with compassion. Her hand moved on his back, brushed the back of his neck through his clothes. "Malfoy—"
"Draco," he corrected, when he found his voice. It would only be a slight improvement, but better than nothing. "Don't call me that anymore. Don't call me that ever again."
"All right," she said, her voice so soothing. "Draco, don't forget that these ghosts are very old."
"Some of them," he said. "Not all." It was impossible to tell which were which, since they all wore the same dirty grey rags.
"Either way, you didn't kill them." It was true. No one killed them, technically speaking. They had been left to die; left with water, the most painful torture device in any sadist's arsenal. He had known of this trick for years but never saw the evidence, and now he'd never think of water the same way again.
Little by little, the ghosts began to take notice of their visitors. Two young women approached them, holding hands—sisters, by the look of them, with deep rope burns crisscrossing their exposed flesh in small, even diamonds. They lingered before him, staring, and then one spoke.
"Yes," Granger answered, "but he's protecting me."
The ghost spoke again, then cocked her head this way and that, confused.
"Because he isn't like the other ones. He—"
The second ghost interrupted, and her sister smiled. Whatever she'd said must have been a joke.
"They already have," Granger said, but she wasn't laughing.
This was the opposite of what he'd expected from the dungeons: Granger was the one having one-sided chats with the restless dead, and he was the one paralyzed in post-traumatic quicksand. The two ghosts stepped closer, gawking at Draco like they'd never seen anything like him before. One of them addressed him directly.
"She wants to know why we can see her now," Granger translated.
He had to think for a moment, since he hadn't the faintest clue. "The house is broken," he said at last. "You've been here all along, then? Invisible?"
The ghost answered him at length, gesturing to the walls and to her sister, growing visibly angry as she spoke.
"I'm so sorry," Granger said—that word again—but she squeezed Draco's shoulder as if she were apologising to him.
"Do I want to know what she said?" he asked quietly.
"I doubt it," Granger replied. She paused while the ghost spoke again. "Oh, his ears are charmed so he can only hear me. It's a long story." Another pause. "No, we're all right."
There had only been a few times in his life when he'd been less "all right" than he was at that moment, but it was in Granger's nature to be polite.
"Believe me, I was just as surprised as you are," she said. He stopped trying to guess what the ghost was saying, and instead took a moment to get his bearings. "Still am, really."
He closed his eyes and tried to regain his focus.
"Thank you, I'll tell him."
He could tell from the way she said it that this was the end of the conversation, and so he opened his eyes. The two ghosts nodded at him and then Granger, and then they walked straight forward through them both with purpose. Draco had been walked through by ghosts before, and it had never been a pleasant experience; however, this time it felt smooth and refreshing, like a frozen drink on a hot summer day. He hadn't known that ghosts could do something like that, change the way they felt to the living, but he couldn't claim to be an expert on them. He could only be thankful for the brief reprieve.
"What did she want you to tell me?" he asked. His headache was gone now, and his mood improved.
"Well, er, basically 'good luck.'" She sounded nervous, and he could tell she was lying.
"What did she really say?"
"I mean, that was the gist of it," she said evasively. He should have known better than to keep pushing, but he really felt that he had to know. Maybe he deserved to hear it, even.
"Just tell me, Granger."
He heard her sigh behind him, in the way of someone who knew better indulging a profoundly stupid whim. "If you insist. She doesn't think we're going to get out alive, but she hopes that we won't end up like her when we die."
"Well, what did you expect? I wouldn't have much optimism left, either, if I were her."
Whatever was left, he knew, had been given away when the women walked through them. The pleasantly cool energy still hummed just beneath his skin, and Granger's words gave him a new appreciation of the gift—given to a Malfoy, no less. No such gift would have been offered to his ancestors; never willingly, and so they had stolen, and all that they took had been passed down to him before the blood on it even had a chance to dry. This gift, from a tortured long-dead woman who owed him less than nothing, may have been the first time he'd ever received anything but stolen goods.
You can have it all, he thought, for he still could not bring himself to say it. Ransack this house, empty it, turn it upside-down and inside-out and leave it like that. Who needs it. Who needs it.
"Draco," Granger said, "do you think we could keep moving now? I... I'd really rather not be here." Of course she wanted to leave—she had come closer than he'd like to admit to walking among these bitter dead.
"Yeah," he said. Cautiously, he pushed the broom forward.
The ghosts stood back to give them a wide breadth, lining up on either side and watching as they moved. Some of them were talking, but Granger didn't respond. He could tell by their faces that very few were as quick to forgive a fallen Malfoy as the first two. Mercifully, Granger didn't tell him what they said. He felt her curl up behind him and press her face against his back, probably shielding her eyes, for now it was his turn to be strong. It should have been from the start, really, but he'd been weak for so long that by now it was second-nature.
He kept his gaze straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with their audience. They passed through the northernmost part of the dungeons, and he remembered a long-overdue piece of knowledge.
"We can get to the West Wing from here," he said.
"We can?" Desperate hope.
"Yes. Not East, but West. We can get the Portkey out of my bedroom."
She stirred at that, clapping both hands on his shoulders. "We will survive!" Her voice was near-tears or maybe all the way there; he couldn't tell for sure. "We aren't going to die here!"
She wasn't, actually. He still probably would, but he wasn't going to tell her that part. If he did, he knew she'd try to stop him. "That's right," he said. "We're almost out. Just hold on."
He sped up, careening around corners and past open cells. With no way out, the doors were rarely locked after the interrogation phase: what would be the point? May as well let the prisoners go for walks, let them see the other bodies rotting wherever they had fallen, at last too broken to stand back up. The bones were still there, too, although he tried not to look at them—scattered randomly like the ruins of a fragile human city. Some of them were gnawed on, for the open cell doors also offered their starving occupants one final choice that Draco couldn't bring himself to contemplate.
Almost to the entrance of the West Wing, Draco stopped short—in one of the few locked cells, a ghost stood alone, peering out through the bars, so obviously a Malfoy that they could have been brothers. He wore the same rags as all the others, but both his hands had been roughly severed at the wrists. Being a Malfoy, his touch would have set him free; taking his hands was the only way to lock him in. Directly above where his hands used to be, his forearms bore identical burned-in scars: BLOOD TRAITOR.
They made eye contact, Draco and the ghost, studying each other in silence. After a moment, the ghost gave a slow nod of respect, then raised his right stump to his forehead and offered a grotesque solute. Despite the bile climbing his throat, Draco forced himself to return it. It was the least he could do.
"Are we there?" Granger asked. She must have still been hiding her face. "Is something wrong?" His back was wet now where his robes were soaked through with her tears.
"Everything's going to be fine," he said, lying through his teeth, before pushing the broom back up to speed. At the end of the last corridor, he found the hatch. "I'm opening the door now."
She exhaled deeply as he pressed his hand into the centre of the hatch. The internal mechanism unlocked, and the round metal door swung forward. He felt Granger pick her head up as soon as it closed behind them, leaving them in darkness. He wasn't afraid, though, since he knew why.
"Where are we?" she asked. He lit his wand to reveal a deep but narrow closet with sturdy shelves along the walls.
"Broom storage loft," he said. He would have laughed at the bitter absurdity if his sense of humour hadn't long since sunk to the bottom of some frozen black lake: his ancestors never would have put an entrance to the dungeons in plain view. How tasteless it would have been, how utterly tacky. The hatch was even charmed to disappear into the wall when not in use; someone had to know where it was to find it, which was why Draco had nearly forgotten it existed.
"Oh," she said. "Should we trade this one in for a newer model?"
"Not much point," he said. "It flies all right, since we aren't going very fast or far. It'd be different if we were playing Quidditch or something—" He cut himself off, struck by another memory that may have been funny in another universe: Quidditch had started this whole thing. It wasn't so long ago that Draco's biggest priority had been to make sure his favourite team lost a match. "No," he continued after a tense silence. "This one will do just fine. In fact, we don't really need to be riding it in here."
He glanced at Granger over his shoulder, and she nodded. Her eyes were wide and red-rimmed but dry, and she leaned heavily on his shoulder as she stepped off. Only one of her feet made it to the floor before her legs gave way. His light swung around and then went out when he dropped his wand to catch her. In the darkness again, he could only hear her ragged breathing as his fingers dug into her arm just below the shoulder. Trembling head-to-toe, she lifted her other leg over the broom, then immediately collapsed. Draco let the broom fall and caught her with both hands before she hit the ground. Dead weight like a doll, she fell against his chest and all at once erupted into great, heaving sobs.
He felt dizzy and nauseous and every single kind of sick, every last damned way to be lost, as he held her. The darkness was their only blessing.
"I'm sorry," she rasped between terrible gasps. "God, I'm sorry—I can't—I can't—"
Don't say that, he wanted to beg, but it would have been more selfish than he could bear.
"Just let it out, I reckon," he said awkwardly instead, although opening his mouth was tempting fate when he was already this close to vomiting. He swallowed again and again, waiting it out, until finally Granger went quiet and still. They remained in the darkness for much too long after, and Draco knew he'd have to be the one to move things along; something, anything so she'd be willing to face him again. He could only imagine how much she must have hated to let him see her in such a state, because she didn't know that he would have been sobbing right along with her if he weren't so godforsaken numb. That no-handed salute kept playing in his head.
"I'm just as embarrassed as you are," he managed.
At first he thought she'd started crying again, but no—it was a jolt of laughter. "I doubt it," she said.
"Sure, you do—you've always got to be in first place." Oh, bleakest humour, keep us sane.
She laughed again, and her body slowly unfroze. She hugged him back briefly, then pushed herself away. He breathed easier.
He picked up the broom off the floor while she Accio'd his wand, which relit once she'd placed it back in his hand. He shrank the broom and dropped it into the pocket of his robes, then lead the way out of the closet.
The familiarity of his own dimly lit wing brought unexpected relief, except that it wasn't entirely as he remembered—the wallpaper pattern, which had always looked like spiders, had taken its illusion to the next level. It bulged and writhed against the surface of the walls, as though nothing but a thin, transparent veneer were keeping a billion tiny spiders from swarming out and filling the whole wing.
Granger made a disgusted noise, and he inwardly agreed, but they pressed onward. It was nice, at least, to have all the amenities of civilization back at their fingertips. He planned to take a break here after he sent her on her way, especially since he also had a stash of snack food in his room. He was hungry and badly in need of a shower.
They reached his bedroom, which had also changed since the last time they'd seen it—the magical storage compartment under the bed was emitting thick black smoke as though it were on fire. After he cast a charm to contain it, his bed appeared to sit atop a glass case full of coal-burning stoves. Granger stood by, searching the room anxiously, probably trying to figure out which trinket was their ticket out.
"Here it is," he said, indicating a faceted crystal paper weight on his bedside table. He picked it up and held it out. "Are you ready?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Why are you smiling?"
"What?" To tell the truth, he'd neglected to keep track of what his face was doing; it must have reverted to the usual mask he wore when telling big, fat lies. He forced his lips back down. "I'm relieved to be getting out," he amended.
She stepped closer, tilting her head, and folded her hands deliberately behind her back. "Is that so?"
He stretched his arm out toward her until the crystal nearly touched her chest. "Is it that hard to believe that I'm glad to be staying alive?"
Even as exhausted as she clearly was, she didn't buy it for a second. "What about your mother?" she countered. "Are you sure she's safe?"
The problem was that he was just as beaten-down as Granger, and keeping a straight face took more energy than he could spare. "I'll find her later," he said, gritting his teeth.
Granger studied him for a moment, and then her features softened into an expression of sorrow and disbelief. Even with the dirt on her cheeks, he had to admit that it was beautiful. "Draco," she said, "this is a very noble thing that you're trying to do, but I can help you."
"I'm not trying to do anything."
She cast him another look, and he couldn't meet her eyes any longer. "I'm just as committed as you are," she said. "You wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for me."
"Just take the Portkey," he said, staring at the floor. "I'm too tired to talk to you right now."
"I'm not touching that thing, because I know there's no way you're really going with me." Her voice rose steadily in frustration. "You can't do this alone, and I don't know why you'd even want to! I'm already here. I want to stay."
"Granger, take it." He nudged her with the crystal just below the collarbone, once gently and then again harder, and she wobbled on her uncertain legs. "Look at you—you're useless now anyway. You're just a crying, stumbling mess." It wasn't hard to be mean, since he was so worn down anyway. It came naturally, like weakness.
"No, that won't work this time." She lifted her chin and licked her dry, cracked lips. "Nothing you say could make me take that Portkey."
"Fine," he said. He allowed his hand to drop and took a breath, gathering whatever pathetic stores remained of his strength. When he was ready, he looked up and launched himself at her. She cried out in pain and surprise, and he turned her around and pinned her to the bed, keeping her hands behind her back. "Then we'll do this the hard way."
Her hands were clenched into tight fists, and it took a fair bit of effort to pry her fingers apart. "Stop it," she spat, with her cheek pressed hard against his blankets. "Draco! Let me go, you need me!"
"I'll be fine," he growled, as he tugged at her tiny fists. She kicked backward at his shins, and he had to use his whole body just to keep her still. "And I'll be damned if I let you die here."
She screamed in frustration, fighting him as hard as she could with every muscle she could move. "You'll die without me!"
"I don't care!" He didn't want to hurt her, but every cell in his body was fixed on getting her out, whether she wanted to stay or not.
There was no way in heaven or earth that he could live with himself if any more harm came to her from his home. He readied the crystal in his right hand, pinning her with his torso, and struck the back of her head with the flat of his left palm—not hard enough to hurt, but enough to surprise. Her hands opened reflexively for a fraction of a second, just long enough for him to wedge the crystal inside. He wrapped his hand around hers, keeping it tight, and he realised she was crying again. Her body went limp. He felt like a monster, but it was nothing new; he'd felt like a monster all day.
"Please," she whispered. "Don't do this."
"I have to," he said. He relaxed until his body was flat against hers, with his cheek resting on the back of her head. "I can't even believe you're fighting me. You know you don't deserve to stay here."
With her face sideways under his, she smiled. "Funny phrasing," she said. "You could have said the same words and meant the exact opposite a week ago."
Any second now, he would have to activate the Portkey and resign himself to finishing this alone. Weak as he was, he was putting it off. Also, after hitting her and pinning her to his bed, he owed her a proper goodbye: this was simply no way to treat a lady.
"I just want you to know," he began. His voice cracked on every other word, but he kept going anyway. "You're just as brave and good and clever as anybody ever said. Even more. You're even better than you get credit for, and that's saying something."
More tears slid down her cheeks onto his blanket; he was surprised she had any left. "Thanks," she whispered. He could feel that she'd given up, and impulsively he pressed a soft kiss against her temple.
"Peacock," he said, a moment-ruining non sequitur if there ever was one. The crystal activated, and he began to count in his head: five, four, three, two—
At the last possible second, he let go of her hand.
Chapter 12: Neither Up Nor Down
Her neck was bent at a horrid angle, and it was hard to breathe with his weight crushing her chest against the mattress, but she forced herself to calm down. She had to make him believe that she'd stopped fighting. If he'd been more alert, it probably wouldn't have worked, but she felt him relax along with her after he activated the Portkey. His hand switched from holding her down to stroking her hair, and he readjusted his stance so his legs weren't pressing so painfully against hers. She flexed her muscles in turn, feeling out her range of motion as inconspicuously as possible, getting a sense of where her limbs were in relation to the bed.
Either a five or ten second delay would be standard. She counted down from five to be safe, and she was ready when he backed off her. Her lithe frame became an advantage: in one fluid motion, she dropped the Portkey, leveraged her body against the bed frame with both feet, and drew her wand as she leapt toward the headboard. It used up all the adrenaline she had left. She placed herself in a defensive stance against the pillows and kept her wand trained on Draco as the crystal shattered on the floor.
He swore and covered his face in despair, and she almost regretted her decision: now their only lifeline was gone, and he might be so furious with her that they'd be back to where they started. She'd felt nothing when he insulted her a moment ago, since she'd known his motive, but it might break her if he fell back into the habit. Everything else was already too much.
She stared at him with her wand arm shaking and flinched when he met her gaze. There wasn't anger, though.
"I tried," he said, nearly whining as his features twisted into agony. The way his bruises trapped the shadows made his face look skeletal. "Just remember that I tried to save you."
"That's right," she said. He buried his hand in his hair as his head slumped forward. "It's my fault and my choice that I'm still here. So, you can forget about feeling guilty for me, all right?"
With the Portkey out of commission, there was no reason to keep him at wandpoint. She lowered her arm and hugged herself, folding her body even tighter. Draco stayed put for a moment, breathing heavily and shaking his head, before he showed his face with a dreary smile. "Has anyone ever told you that you're literally too stubborn to live?"
Her effort must have looked as tragic as his, but she tried to smile back anyway. "More times than I can count."
He shuffled to the bed, then collapsed forward on his chest with his arms spread wide and his face buried in the blankets. His voice came out muffled and strained: "Now what?"
"Well, what were you going to do without me?"
"Sleep," he said emphatically. "Then eat and shower. There's food here."
"Then that's what," she said. "The difference is that you won't have to do it alone." He nodded his head, rubbing his face against the bed, as she tried to decide whether she was more hungry or exhausted. "What sort of food?"
He turned his face to the side and considered it. "Chocolate frogs, pumpkin pasties, some Butterbeer and pumpkin juice, probably a couple of Sugar Quills."
Not too nutritious, but it was better than nothing. "Where is it?"
He lifted his arm to indicate the trunk at the foot of the bed. She crawled over and opened the latch. The trunk was charmed cold inside, and she grabbed some of everything for each of them. By the time she turned around, Draco had managed to drag himself upright, propped up on the pillows against the headboard. He touched his cheek experimentally and winced. "I think your pain-killing spell's wearing off."
"See? You're lucky I'm still here," she said, taking the opportunity to gloat while he was too worn out to answer back. She reckoned he'd earned at least a little bit of shaming, for hitting her if nothing else. "You'd have scarcely been able to eat by the time you woke up."
She climbed onto the bed and spread the food and drinks in front of him. She situated herself on the opposite side and recast the spell on his jaw. Dishonest as it was, she laid a glamour over it to spare herself the sight. He shrugged his shoulders in slow motion and let his head fall to the side with his eyes closed. "Well, what's done is done," he said. "Don't have the energy to dwell on it."
"Do you think you could eat something before you fall asleep?" She nudged one of his limp hands with a pumpkin pasty, and he didn't respond. "Come on, I've been listening to your stomach growl for hours."
He made an ambiguous noise of dissent, already drifting off, and she made the decision to do something strange; even in their current state of hopeless exhaustion, it felt uncomfortably odd. She pushed aside the rest of the snacks and crawled forward over his leg to kneel beside him, cupping his chin in her free hand.
"Open your mouth," she said. It reminded her of babysitting—trying to make a child eat his vegetables.
"I—" She cut him off with the food, and he bit down reluctantly, chewed, and swallowed with his eyes still closed. "Let me—" Again, she forced the pasty into his mouth, and this time he stopped resisting. Bite by bite, she fed him the whole thing. "Good enough?" he asked pathetically.
He was so far gone that perhaps he'd wake up and think this had been a dream; if so, she wouldn't correct him. "Yes, good enough," she said. "Now you'll feel better when you wake up."
He mumbled something incomprehensible, then allowed his body to slide down until his long limbs were splayed across the whole bed. She took a pumpkin pasty and two chocolate frogs for herself and perched beside him. As she ate, she calculated the geometry of available bed space. There was nowhere she could lie down without touching him; even in the best case scenario, she'd be partially on top of him.
She considered the guest room down the hall, but she knew the Lestranges had slept there when they and all the others had taken over the house. The echo of her on the same pillows and sheets would have been too much to bear.
She also noticed that in his sleep, Draco appeared no more peaceful than usual. The creases in his brow never smoothed, and the tense muscles along his jaw and around his eyes twitched randomly and with great intensity. He was grinding his teeth so hard she could hear it, like iron rods dragged over rock, while his lips moved to form quiet disjointed fragments of speech. She could only imagine what he was dreaming.
She'd been riding a wave of unnatural energy—the kind that could possess a body only in times if desperate need—and it was wearing off now as quickly as it had come. All she could do was push the rest of the food onto the floor and curl up on the largest expanse of empty bed, on Draco's left side, with his wrist under her neck and her legs slung over one of his. The position was awkward but still more comfortable than she'd been in days.
As her conscious mind faded to black, her last thought was of the walls—how they bubbled as if boiling, how the bubbles bulged like the eyeballs of a strangled man, and how she could live a hundred more lifetimes without ever forgetting what she had seen in this house.
The walls collapsed on her as she began to dream. Those black writhing spiders advanced until, close up, she saw that they weren't spiders at all but tiny black hands—hands with greedy fingers, searching, touching, grabbing on, and picking her apart like a child methodically pulling legs off an ant. One by one.
No, not fingers—even closer now, and they were tentacles, all connected to the same incomprehensible beast, and the suckers on them had concentric rows of microscopic needle-teeth. And inside those hungry mouths were long tunnels filled with acid and enzymes for digesting prey, and the tunnels led to one irresistible black hole at the centre of it all, and that was the end.
There was nothing, without need for the concept of nothingness because something never had been, except that somehow there was still Hermione. She could still think without a brain, still feel without a body—the cells that once gathered to make her whole had split up and broken down into atoms, down into protons and neutrons and electrons, down into quarks, down into particles too small to have names. The particles spread out in the void, wider and wider apart to where the edges of the universe would have been if there were any such thing. And then, all at once, the particles broke down one more time, and they no longer existed. She watched herself stop being. She ended.
She didn't have time to find out what it felt like to be as she watched herself not being, for the process instantly reversed. The particles spun back from the farthest reaches of space and found each other and reformed, each one in its proper place. Quarks became atoms became cells became human, and her human self moved backward through the acid-drenched tunnels and past the spinning rows of teeth until the mouths became suckers and then fingers and then hands and then spiders and then walls.
Draco was moaning in his sleep beside her, but she was wide awake now. Other sounds were all around her, rustling and popping and grinding. She turned her head, seeking the sources, but they were impossible to pinpoint: the noise came from all directions at once. It was the walls themselves. New quivering bubbles emerged, each larger than the the last, breaking and reforming like primordial ooze. Tendrils reached out, bending and twisting. She shook herself and looked down at her prone body to make sure she wasn't dreaming anymore. Above her, the ceiling began to descend at the middle, slowly caving in.
She could only clutch fistfuls of the blankets, wide eyes staring straight up, but the bulge stopped growing. It was about a metre above her face when it stalled, and then smaller blisters and tentacles came forth and reached down as if they could sense her presence. So captivated by the sight, she didn't realize she was screaming until she heard her own voice, and it didn't echo. The sound soaked into the walls. The room was eating it.
Draco woke and hit her in the back of the head when he pulled his arm away. He nearly kicked her off the bed when he moved his legs, and by the time she caught herself, he was upright on his knees, pointing his wand forward at nothing.
"What?" he cried. "What is it?" His arm moved frantically in all directions—there was nowhere to aim.
When he was fully alert, he let it fall limp at his side. As she clung rigidly to the bed in a fetal position, she watched him take in the whole of it. She could just barely move enough to breathe.
Draco looked down at her. "Granger?"
He put his hand over hers, and she blinked. She had seen how this all ended. She could almost feel her cells beginning to fall apart, one by one. Draco's hand moved up along her arm and over her shoulder to cradle the back of her neck.
"This is it," she said. An odd serenity hummed within her, calm as a cloudless sky. Does a beach at low tide miss the waves? It was no different: she would not miss herself when she was gone. Does a fallen leaf miss the tree?
"Calm down," he said, which was ironic. Hermione was calmer than she had ever been before, although she was aware that she didn't look it. "It's just the wallpaper—the pattern's made of magic, but I don't think it can get out."
"It doesn't need to," she said. "We're already in. All it has to do is contract." Draco swallowed hard. "You'd understand better if you could hear it. Would you like to hear it?"
"No," he said immediately. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "This is not it. This is not how we die, all right?"
"I wish it wasn't," she said, but this was exactly how and where and when. She had seen it both forward and in reverse. The ceiling creaked as it dipped closer, centimetre by centimetre. A long-forgotten quote came to mind: every man dies alone. It wasn't true, though. She was the reason that Draco wouldn't have to. Her sacrifice had already been made—no un-ringing that bell—and so she soothed herself by embracing the importance of what she had done. "It would be terrible if I hadn't stayed."
"What?" He shook her again, harder this time, and she made no effort to resist the motion. "Snap out of it. We have to get out of here." He jerked his head sideways to look out the door into the corridor, where the walls were expanding slowly but steadily. "If we don't get out soon, we won't fit through."
She placed her hands over his on her shoulders. "There isn't anymore 'out.' I know you don't want to believe me, but I've seen it, and there's only deeper in."
"What do you mean, you've seen it?"
"I saw everything. Until it was nothing."
His expression wavered between misery and fear. "You're not making sense."
"You're in denial." She leaned closer, looking at his face. She knew it by heart already; it felt like forever since she'd seen anyone else. "The only choice we have left is whether to die here or in the corridor, and I don't have a preference."
His facial muscles contracted grotesquely, and he closed his eyes as tight as possible, but tears escaped anyway. She would have joined him, but she'd already done her crying. "Please," he whispered. "I don't know if I can carry you right now. Even a levitation spell—I don't know if I have it in me. I'm so tired, Granger, and you aren't supposed to be the one who gives up!"
"I'm not giving up." She paused, reconsidering. "Actually, I suppose I am. I've finally learned when to fold."
He leaned forward until his forehead was resting against hers, then brought one hand to the back of her head. "Not yet. Not now."
"At least we don't have to die alone." Before he could respond, she kissed him goodbye.
First he was motionless, but then he kissed her back with breathtaking intensity. He grabbed her waist and crushed her against him, his rough hands roving over her body. He wrapped his fingers around her thigh and squeezed so hard it hurt. The unnatural serenity receded, and she began to feel many things at once. "Wake up," he hissed against her mouth.
He bit her lip, and she tasted her own blood, and it made her think of all the other blood in her body. Her heart was racing with terror and fury and desire. She opened her eyes and saw that his were open, too, but the black tunnels of his pupils didn't lead to despair. She stared into his eyes with their faces mashed together and blood running down her chin.
Not all paths led to nowhere. She was not a dry beach or a fallen leaf or a subatomic particle suspended in a void, and she was not ready to die.
She pushed him away, sucking at her broken lower lip, and he laughed with hysterical relief. Shame was the first honest emotion she felt, now that she was back from wherever souls went to hide when they were done fighting for good, but she forced herself to focus on the present. She looked around, reorienting herself with reality, and turned her body to get off the bed.
Draco jumped off first and helped her steady herself until both feet were planted on the floor. When she let go and stood on her own, she rejoiced in the fact that she still could rejoice, utterly consumed by the euphoria of being.
"Are you ready?" he asked. His face showed uncertainty and compassion and concern.
She stood on tip-toe and kissed him again, quickly this time, because no words could have expressed her gratitude in that moment. He looked shocked after she pulled away, and she could only nod her head. Yes, she was ready.
Before she could even take two full steps toward the door, he grabbed her wrist and hurried her along, picking up speed. Running hurt so badly that she thought she might pass out, but there was no more stopping. She concentrated on Draco's hand and the link between them—not alone.
Along the walls, the massive blisters had stopped popping before they reformed. Now they built on each other and stayed whole. The corridor was only wide enough by then for one person to pass through at a time without touching the sides. She wondered what would happen if they did—would the blisters pop? If so, what would be inside? She shuddered to imagine.
There was a crash ahead, and then everything went almost completely dark. Draco stopped cold and lit his wand; over his shoulder, she saw that the walls had expanded far enough to knock over the end table that held the nearest lamp, which was now just a useless pile of broken glass. She lit her wand as well, and they stepped carefully over the mess, past the remains of a crystal vase and the magically-preserved flowers it once held. They'd been pathetic from the start—a tacky illusion of life where there was none—but now, scattered on the floor in the dark, they took on a whole new sadness.
Is nothing alive in this place?
As her mind wandered, a more belated but relevant thought occurred to her. "Draco," she asked, "where are we going?"
"Away," he said, without stopping.
"Is there a room in this wing without enchanted wallpaper?" She struggled to catch her breath and tugged at his hand, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Broom storage loft," he panted, "but we'd be trapped. Can't go there."
"Then why run?" She pulled his hand harder, and he slowed to a walk.
"To be honest, I was afraid you'd shut down again if we stopped moving."
"I promise I won't." She shone her wand behind them, and the growth didn't seem to be speeding up; it built steadily, but this appeared to be its maximum speed. Despite the time she'd wasted in Draco's bedroom, they still had a few minutes to think. They stood back to back, holding hands, getting their bearings.
She watched her shadow move back and forth along the floor as Draco searched ahead with his wand, but he couldn't possibly be hoping to find much. With the Portkey gone, the only exit was the magical staircase, which would be suicide. Suddenly, he started walking again and took her hand with him.
"Where are we going now?"
"Hang on," he said, pulling her along. She tried to look over his shoulder, but there wasn't a good angle to follow his line of sight. A moment later, he stopped and exhaled heavily, as though he'd been holding his breath for days. "Look."
He stepped aside and beckoned her forward, and she saw it: a door-shaped piece of wall that wasn't bubbling. Under any other circumstances, it would have been invisible; the wallpaper had the same pattern, but it was only a glamour to camouflage the passageway. "Did you know that was here?" she asked.
"No." He pressed his hand flat against it, but nothing happened, and he swore under his breath. He turned toward her next and held his lit wand in front of her face, looking at her mouth. "Try your blood."
She touched her forefinger to her split lip and then to the door. Again, nothing happened. She remembered what he'd told her about the secret passageways, way back in the South Wing—some took Muggle blood, some took Malfoy blood, and others took a password. Her breath caught in her throat as he unlit his wand and placed it against the palm of his other hand. He muttered a piercing spell and dragged his wand tip across the skin until a line of blood appeared above the surface.
If this didn't work, then they might run out of time after all. He looked at her once more before he tried, and she could tell by his face that he was thinking the same thing.
He put his hand on the door again, and she couldn't contain the gleeful noise that escaped her when it opened. It felt nothing short of miraculous. Draco held his lit wand inside, but all she could see was unadorned stone. He stepped in as the walls continued to grow around them. She followed and closed the door behind her.