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The Northern Star

Chapter Text

Had the ground not been freshly covered in snow, the sparks of red that accompanied Draco’s arrival would not have been visible.

But when he collapsed on that frozen winter night, the glistening white that spread through the forest was clean and unsullied by footprints; and the light reflected off the snow and gave the curious illusion of fiery stars twinkling as they danced across its surface.

Draco looked up to find a tiny house standing alone in the depths of the forest, concealed as much by its distance from everything nearby as it was by the tall trees that surrounded it. He could not see inside—though the lights were on, the windows were heavily frosted over.

He tried to lift himself to his feet but stopped quickly, groaning from the pain. He clutched his side, where his cloak was wet from blood seeping through his robes, and tried to breathe. The house was close—so close—and yet he could not imagine making it all the way there. The hand at his side, in which he was still holding a small black box, came away bloody and red. Gritting his teeth, he first carefully tucked the box in his pocket, then gathered all his strength in order to push himself up off the ground.

He stumbled towards the beckoning house, dragging a broken leg and wincing with every step. His wounds stung, and his face felt too hot, but he bit his lip and pressed onward, desperate to make it to the front door.

When he was only a few yards away, he suddenly felt a burning sensation erupting in his side, reverberating through his body like a thousand knives. The searing pain knocked him to his knees, and he keeled forward onto the snow. It was cold and numbing against his cheek, but he could barely register the sensation through the fog in his mind. All he could do was force himself to stay awake, trying to imagine the warmth inside the house that lay almost within reach, its frosted windows glowing with promise. He coughed and was surprised to see specks of blood stain the snow that lay before him.

Choking back the fluids in his throat, he reached out with a clenched fist and crawled the rest of the way to the door. With the last spurt of energy he could muster, he tapped weakly at the base of the door before fading into unconsciousness.

~~~


the summer before seventh year

“You can’t be serious.”

“Believe me, Ron, I wish I weren’t.”

Malfoy? As in, Draco sodding Malfoy?”

Harry nodded.

“You mean the evil git who got Dumbledore killed—”

“Ron, for Merlin’s sake, let him finish!” interrupted Hermione.

“I’m only telling you what I’ve heard,” Harry continued. “Snape swore that before Carrow lost his patience and stepped in to finish the job, Malfoy wasn’t going to do it. That he’d already lowered his wand.”

“Oh, well, if Snape says so, it must be—”

“Will you shut up, Ron? Harry, go on.”

“That’s it,” said Harry, looking as though he were about to be sick. “Snape trusted his instincts and took a huge risk in approaching him. I don’t know what he was planning on doing if Malfoy refused; he would have had to kill him or Obliviate him or—”

“And how do we know Malfoy’s not just pretending to play along?!” cried Ron.

“We don’t!” replied Harry, who was growing increasingly agitated. “And more importantly, we don’t even know if we can trust Snape! After all, he just stepped aside and let Dumbledore die, didn’t he?”

“He said he had to, Harry,” Hermione said reprovingly, though her voice was laced with doubt. “He showed the Order his memory of Dumbledore saying he only had months to live and asking him to—”

“I bet Snape’s skilled enough to fake a memory,” said Harry, his voice fierce. “If anyone knew how to do something like that, it’d be him. No matter what, he shouldn’t have just stood there and watched as Amycus Carrow, of all people—”

“Wait,” Ron interrupted, “hold on just a second. So are they actually letting Malfoy into the Order? Is he going to know all our secrets and”—a look of horror suddenly appeared on his face as something terrible occurred to him—“is he going to know where headquarters are? Merlin, we’ll be dead faster than you can say ‘The Death Eaters are coming!’”

“He’ll be a spy, like Snape, during seventh year, and then when we graduate he’ll come out in the open as an Order member. They’re talking to him about training right now.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” asked Hermione. “Voldemort could use Legilimency on him—”

“He’s a skilled Occlumens, remember?” Harry replied bitterly. “And he’s got no real Death Eater duties for now—after the way he failed in his last mission, it’s doubtful that Voldemort would give him any new important tasks while he’s still in school. They said it’s easier this way to keep him and Narcissa safe.”

“Yeah, that ought to be our first priority,” scoffed Ron. “And after that, why don’t we dispatch a team of Aurors to guard Lucius Malfoy’s cell in Azkaban? You know, just in case he’s in any danger?”

Even Hermione could not manage to admonish Ron for this last complaint. They sat in stunned silence, each lost in their own thoughts as they contemplated the news. A light summer breeze whistled through the open windows of the Burrow’s kitchen, whispering the night’s secrets as it passed.

“He did lower his wand,” she finally said. “You said so yourself, Harry.”

Ron gave a dark laugh. “Oh, well, in that case, someone give him a bloody medal!”

“I still don’t trust Snape,” murmured Harry. “Everyone in the Order has doubts about him except Dumbledore, and—” His voice broke. Swallowing hard, he finished, “And look where that got him.”

“I want to believe that the Order knows what it’s doing,” said Hermione, “but this just doesn’t seem safe. Although, if Malfoy really wants to defect from the Death Eaters, then that’s—”

“He took the Dark Mark,” spat Harry.

“So has Snape,” she protested.

“Exactly—” Harry started to say, but suddenly stopped. He was staring, frozen, at the entrance to the kitchen. Ron and Hermione whirled their heads around to see what he was looking at and found Malfoy standing in the doorway, seeming unsure as to whether it would be prudent for him to enter.

As soon as all eyes were on him, his uncertain expression immediately morphed into a more condescending one. “Don’t let me interrupt,” he sneered, walking past them to fetch a glass of water.

For a moment, no one spoke. Their eyes followed him as he went about finding a glass, boring holes in his back while he feigned obliviousness. Then, as Malfoy began to pour water into his glass, Harry called out, loudly and deliberately, “So where’s Voldemort think you are?”

Malfoy’s aim faltered for a second, and water splashed out of his glass. Without turning around, he snarled, “I’d be careful what I said if I were you, Potter.”

Harry gave a mocking laugh. “Why? Don’t like hearing people take your precious Dark Lord’s name in vain?”

“Harry!” whispered Hermione in a reprimanding tone, but Harry was undeterred.

“Going to defend his honor, are you?” he went on.

Malfoy whipped around to face them, his eyes blazing. “Shut your—”

“By the way, Malfoy,” Ron interjected, “I don’t recall giving you permission to use my kitchen.”

Malfoy’s face was now contorted with anger. His hand flew to his wand, and both Harry and Ron jumped up from their seats.

Keeping his eyes locked on Ron’s, Malfoy reached into his pocket and tossed a few Sickles onto the counter. “There, Weasley. Since your family clearly needs the money, I’ll pay to use the facilities. That’s probably more than the whole kitchen’s worth.”

Hermione had to physically restrain Ron to keep him from starting a brawl.

You provoked him,” she whispered, trying to repress her own thoughts of hexing Malfoy as he sauntered nonchalantly out of the room, never once looking back.

~~~

Draco?

Hermione’s eyes were wide with disbelief as she stared down at the figure slumped on her doorstep. She was standing with her wand out and ready, and after looking wildly around for any unseen threats lurking in the darkness, she finally lowered it and dropped to her knees to examine him.

Draco,” she said again, shaking him gently, but he did not move.

He was unconscious, though warm and breathing, and the corner of his mouth was stained with blood. His hair, normally so immaculately groomed, was unkempt and matted with sweat; and the pale, ungloved fingers of his right hand were wrapped tightly around something. She tried to roll him over to get a better look at him, only to gasp as she found his clothing completely soaked with blood. When she attempted to remove his cloak in order to inspect his wounds, his limbs were too heavy for her to easily manage.

She rose to her feet and hesitated for a moment, looking down at him and considering something. Then, with a deep breath, she carefully levitated him into the house.

Chapter Text

After fetching her Healing supply kit from upstairs, Hermione went about divesting Draco of his blood-soaked garments at a furious pace. She first pulled off his thick winter cloak, then the long swaths of black fabric that made up his robes. When she came to his white shirt, so damp with sweat and blood that it was nearly translucent, she bit back her horror—it clung tightly to his form, and she could see the many bruises and gashes that lay scattered across his skin underneath. He winced in his sleep as she began to peel it away from his wounds, and with some difficulty she finally maneuvered it over his arms and head.

The number of injuries he had was daunting, but she started with his broken leg and quickly moved on to healing the deep wound in his side once she realized that it was still bleeding. She was just lifting her wand to close up the skin around the wound when Harry burst through the front door, panting and out of breath.

“Hermione!” he exclaimed in relief, his eyes still glinting with determination. “Oh, thank Merlin—” He cut off, stiffening as his gaze wandered to the figure lying on the floor.

“He’s unconscious,” Hermione said quickly, but before she could finish, Harry had already trained his wand on Draco and shouted, “Incarcerous!

Ropes instantly shot out of his wand and began to wrap around their target. “What’s he doing here?”

“I don’t know. He disturbed the wards, so I came downstairs and—and he was just there, passed out on the doorstep.”

“But how—” Harry gave his head a small shake, as if to clear it of the many questions that plagued him. He turned to look at her. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. How did you—”

“The wards.”

“The wards? They alert you, too?”

“I wanted to know if you were ever in any danger.” Harry kneeled by her side and took her into a firm embrace. “Thank Merlin you’re all right, Hermione. I was so worried, I can’t even—” He looked back at Draco, whose weakened form was now bound tightly by thick ropes, and fell silent.

“Do you think it’s a trap?” he finally asked.

“I think he’s alone. He’s badly injured; I was trying to heal him when you got here.”

Harry paused for a moment before rising to his feet. Pointing his wand downward, he whispered an incantation under his breath and blasted a stream of ice cold water directly onto Draco’s face.

Draco gave a loud, heaving gasp, as though his lungs were gulping down all the air they could. His eyes snapped open and then narrowed as they focused on Harry.

“Are you awake, Malfoy?”

“What does it look like?” Draco rasped out, and Hermione was chilled by the pained weakness in his voice. She watched as he tried to move, instead discovering his restraints and beginning to struggle vainly against them.

“Why are you here?”

Draco gave a pitiful moan and closed his eyes again.

Why are you here?” Harry repeated.

“Should have known you’d be here, Potter. Always were a relentless thorn in my side.”

“Who did you expect to see?” asked Harry, his expression hardening.

“Maybe we should finish healing him first,” whispered Hermione, and Draco’s eyes flew open again at the sound of a new voice.

“No,” said Harry brusquely. “He’ll answer my questions first. How’d you find this place?”

“I stumbled onto it.”

“I know for a fact that’s impossible, Malfoy. So why don’t we try this again—how did you find this place?”

“I stumbled onto it by accident,” Draco repeated slowly, glaring up at Harry as though he were not tied up half-naked, near-fatally wounded, and completely vulnerable on the floor of someone else’s hallway.

“Liar!” shouted Harry, betraying for the first time the extent of his rage. “You can’t find this house unless you know exactly where it is, so cut the horse-shit and tell me how you got here. Or I swear, Malfoy, I’ll make you wish you’d died from those wounds already—”

“I didn’t know where it was,” Draco said through gritted teeth, still staring defiantly up at Harry. “I didn’t even know this house existed.”

“That’s it,” said Harry, clearly having lost all patience. “I’m done asking nicely.” He reached down to grab Malfoy by the neck, and Hermione rushed forward to stop him. “I’m going to take him to headquarters. Where’s his wand?”

“Harry, don’t. He’s far too injured to be moved anywhere, and I need to heal his wounds before—”

“I think that’s the least of our concerns right now. You need to pack anything important or particularly valuable and come with me. Your location’s been compromised.”

“It hasn’t,” Draco interjected softly.

They both turned to stare at him. “What?” asked Harry.

“It hasn’t been compromised.”

“Then how come you found it?”

“I told you. It was an accident. I didn’t tell them where I was going.”

Harry turned back to Hermione. “Pack your things. I’ll take him to headquarters so we can interrogate him properly. Where’d you put his wand?”

“You can’t,” Hermione protested. “He was unconscious when I found him, and you should have seen his robes; they were completely soaked in—Harry, he’s lost a lot of blood, and I need to at least finish healing him before he can travel anywhere.”

“Hermione, Death Eaters could be here any moment now. This is no time for your bleeding heart compassion nonse—”

“They don’t know where I am,” Draco said quietly.

Harry’s expression turned from frustration to disbelief. “And why should we believe you?”

“Trust me, Potter. They have no idea.”

Trust you?” Harry walked over to Draco so that he was standing directly over him. “We’ve already made that mistake once, Malfoy. I don’t plan on making it again.”

Draco winced as he adjusted his position to look up at Harry. “I never left the Order.”

Harry laughed, though his eyes were furious. “Oh, really? So I take it the Death Eaters found out about your little betrayal?”

“They didn’t. Though, now that I’ve disappeared, they’ve most likely figured out that I’ve defected.”

“Then who did this to you?”

“It wasn’t the Death Eaters, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“So why the sudden change of heart?”

Draco looked away. “I thought I was dying.”

“Did the Order—”

“It wasn’t the Order. I stumbled upon a jinxed object that exploded. No one did this to me.” He took a deep breath and swallowed his pride. “I wanted to come back.”

For a moment, Harry seemed to be searching Draco’s face for something he did not find. He finally stepped back and faced Hermione. “You should pack. We don’t know whether he’s lying or not. And where’s his wand?”

Hermione’s lips parted in surprise, but she did not speak.

“You did Disarm him?” he asked, suddenly horrified.

“I—I didn’t think of that,” she said weakly, looking stunned at her own mistake.

“I’ll do it now. They have Veritaserum at headquarters, so once you’ve gotten your things—”

“Wait, Harry, I have some Veritaserum upstairs. Why don’t you just use that and keep him here until he’s well enough to travel?”

Harry looked annoyed, but he gave a reluctant nod. Hermione ran towards the stairs, while Harry turned back towards the intruder lying on the floor.

“Hermione’s a lot more forgiving than I am,” he said quietly. “But I want to know how you found this house, Malfoy. And I plan to find out.”

“I already told you, Potter—”

“Don’t insult me,” interrupted Harry, in the same soft, menacing tone. “Hermione may be above using force to get answers, but she’s not here right now. And personally, I think you deserve a lot worse.”

He began to walk slowly and threateningly in Draco’s direction. “No one knows about this house except for three people: me, Hermione, and Ron. And it’s protected from anyone who doesn’t specifically know where it is, so you can’t just stumble across it while strolling through the woods.”

Draco swallowed hard. “I had a Portkey.”

“A Portkey?” Harry’s eyes widened in shock. “Where did you—”

“I found it in an abandoned house I was searching. I didn’t know what it did or where it would take me.”

“Where was the house?”

“I don’t remember.”

“That makes no sense, Malfoy.”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but it’s the truth.” He paused. “When I was hurt, I thought of the Order and I felt a sudden impulse to use it. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

“When did you find it?”

“A while ago.”

“Let me see it.”

Draco hesitated. “I don’t know if—”

I want to see that Portkey.” The warning in his voice was unmistakable.

“Untie me.”

After Disarming him, Harry loosened Draco’s binds and gestured for him to retrieve the Portkey. As Harry kept his wand pointed straight at him, Draco reached into his cloak pocket and pulled out a tiny lacquered box.

Harry took it from him and examined it carefully. The box was painted jet black and exquisitely ornate, decorated with beautiful ribbons of gold leaf that intertwined to form an intricate pattern. When he opened it, he found inside a small white orb that shone so brightly he had to squint to look at it.

“No one knows about this place,” said Harry, seeming to speak to himself. “How could that be possible?”

“Don’t touch it,” Draco said quickly. “I don’t know what it’ll do.”

Harry looked back at him suspiciously. “You said it was a Portkey.”

“So I assumed. But I didn’t know it would bring me here, and I don’t know what it’ll do next.”

After a second of thought, Harry whipped out his wand and bound Draco again. Moving quickly towards him, he grasped Draco’s arm and Disapparated with a loud crack.

~~~

seventh year

It was Hermione who finally persuaded Harry to stay at Hogwarts for their final year. She convinced him that rushing out alone to search blindly for Horcruxes, without knowing the first thing about them, was not the best strategy; he would find it much easier to research them if he remained at Hogwarts. Then, once he had learned enough and come closer to guessing where they might be hidden, he could venture out to find them well-prepared and in far less danger. The fate of the wizarding world rested on him, Hermione insisted, and recklessly endangering his life would be unforgivably irresponsible. What would happen to the fight against Voldemort, were he to die? She urged him to think of the consequences. And if he happened to finish his schooling in the process—well, that was simply a bonus.

Professor McGonagall took over as Headmistress; and aside from the first few days back, when they felt most acutely Dumbledore’s absence, things were much the same at school. In fact, by the third week, Hermione felt as though not much had changed—though Harry, she noticed, had a great deal more trouble adjusting to Dumbledore’s absence. She could tell that he itched to get out of there and do something—to destroy the Horcruxes, take revenge on Carrow, anything—and it was killing him to remain cooped up inside, going about the dreary monotony of classes and schoolwork. But for Hermione, it helped to be back at school; school was where she thrived.

As for Malfoy, they did not see much of him. They were required, for safety reasons, not to change their behavior towards him—which was not difficult, considering that their feelings about him had not changed in the slightest. If anything, the new knowledge that he was a Death Eater who had contributed to Dumbledore’s demise fueled their hatred: they hated him more than ever before.

They all still glared at one another in the hallways; he and Harry still could not resist bickering in class. Even the teachers seemed wary of him, having no difficulty treating him as though he were the furthest thing from a spy for the Order. Hermione knew that they, too, blamed him for Dumbledore’s death.

Malfoy did seem more reserved and morose than he had in the past, but that was not entirely new: Hermione remembered Harry pointing out that Malfoy’s spirits had seemed somewhat dampened the previous year, that the circles under his eyes were growing darker and increasingly pronounced as sixth year went on. The one thing that had changed since summer was that he no longer appeared to be spending as much time with his friends as before. Instead, he kept somberly to himself, with Crabbe and Goyle now skulking around mostly by themselves, and he acted distant even from Blaise Zabini, in whom he had been known to confide.

Then, one day, Hermione was summoned to Professor McGonagall’s office and was surprised to find that Malfoy was already there when she arrived.

“Hello, Miss Granger. Have a seat. I was just telling Mr. Malfoy that the Order has an assignment for the two of you.”

Hermione’s eyes darted to Malfoy as she sat down, but he was not looking at her.

“As you might imagine, the Order was most disturbed to hear that an object in the Hogwarts castle, of all places, was used to infiltrate this school last year.”

Malfoy flinched. Professor McGonagall appeared to take no notice as she cleared her throat and went on.

“It led us to wonder what other obscure magical artefacts the Death Eaters could possibly use against us. Mr. Malfoy has already informed us of the Dark objects and weapons he knows the Death Eaters have in their possession, but there may be more that we do not know about, and as we have so unfortunately learned, the objects need not necessarily be Dark in nature to do harm.”

It was evident from her tone that she had not forgiven Malfoy for teaching the Order this particular lesson.

“The job is a sedentary but time-consuming task that requires ready access to a large library and other resources that one can find easily at Hogwarts, and so it seemed most appropriate for a trustworthy student to undertake it. Miss Granger, you’ve always excelled at research—and with your intelligence and extensive knowledge, the Order thought you would be the perfect candidate. Mr. Malfoy, since you have particular insight into the Death Eaters’ thought processes and perspective, we believe you will be able to provide assistance to Miss Granger. In addition, perhaps the one area of knowledge in which Miss Granger is sorely lacking is in the Dark Arts, and you can certainly prove helpful in that regard.

“I must ask you both to be discreet and to hide this project from the other students as best you can. Remember that it would look strange for the two of you to suddenly develop a burgeoning friendship, and we do not want to attract attention. It is important that you take great care in meeting in secret and coming up with appropriate excuses for your friends regarding your occasional absence.”

Malfoy looked fairly frozen in his seat. Were his mouth not clamped tightly shut, it might have seemed as though he were gaping at Professor McGonagall.

“But Professor,” Hermione said slowly, fighting the sinking feeling in her stomach, “there are so many magical objects out there, and I assume there is no comprehensive catalogue. How do we know where to start?”

For the first time, Malfoy looked over at her, and she saw a faint trace of surprise in his eyes—perhaps because she was not objecting to the assignment. But how could she possibly object when the Order needed her? She tried not to think too much about the fact that, of all the students in Hogwarts, they had decided to force her to work with him.

“The fact that there is no comprehensive catalogue is precisely the problem, Miss Granger. Were we so lucky, we would not need to entrust this job to you.” Professor McGonagall gave a thin smile. “Hogwarts is one of the most magical places in the world and has an almost unrivalled history of being home to the most brilliant witches and wizards. And in light of our previous experiences”—and here she pursed her lips—“I think it would be wise to start in this very castle.”

~~~

Harry and Draco Apparated into a small, windowless room with grey walls and very little light. Draco immediately began coughing and sputtering, but Harry ignored him as he opened the small black box in his hand.

“I—already told you—I don’t know—what—it’ll do this time,” Draco managed between coughs.

“This is an interrogation room, Malfoy. If the Portkey doesn’t work, we’ll be staying here.”

Harry pressed a finger gently against the brilliant orb inside, but while it glowed a fiery red, nothing else happened. He took the tiny sphere out of the box and experimentally wrapped his fingers around it.

Suddenly, the orb began to spark. It burned red and emanated a warm, pleasant heat, and Harry felt compelled to hold tightly onto it. At the last second, some clarity of thought washed over him and he reached out to grab Draco’s arm just before he vanished from the room.

They arrived exactly where they’d left.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief as he tucked the orb back inside its box and set it down on a small table nearby. Draco, meanwhile, had not endured the travel well and was now groaning in pain. When he began to cough up tiny flecks of blood, Harry released the ropes that bound him.

“That was a weird Portkey,” said Harry thoughtfully. “I’ve never—”

At precisely that moment, Hermione came rushing down the stairs, clutching a small bottle. “Here.” She glanced over at Draco and then gasped. “Harry—what did you do to him? Why is he worse?”

“He said he used a Portkey to get here, so I tested it.”

Hermione looked at Harry strangely for a second. “And it worked?”

“Yeah, we just got back.”

She was silent as Harry took the Veritaserum from her fingers and proceeded to carefully pour three drops into Draco’s willing mouth. Draco grimaced as he swallowed, then said raspily, “Get on with it, Potter.”

“I’ll bring him some water,” said Hermione, looking concerned, but Harry took her arm to stop her.

“Let’s make sure he’s telling the truth first.” He turned back towards Draco. “Were you lying before? Did you really find the Portkey in an abandoned house?”

“I wasn’t lying,” Draco said with some difficulty. “I found it in an abandoned house and didn’t know what it was.”

“How did you find this house?”

“I used the box. I didn’t know this house existed—I didn’t know it would bring me here.”

“Does anyone else know where you are?”

“No.”

“Were you found out as a spy by the Death Eaters?”

“No.”

“Are you here on a mission for the Death Eaters?”

“No.”

“Have your allegiances changed?”

“No. I want to return to the Order for good.”

Chapter Text

seventh year

Ron and Harry were even less thrilled about Hermione’s assignment than she was—she, at least, was excited by the prospect of investigating something so fascinating for the Order. Ron was livid that they had paired her with Malfoy, and Harry—well, it wasn’t clear whether Harry was angrier that Hermione had been asked to work one-on-one with Malfoy or that he hadn’t been the one asked to do so.

But when he offered to take over for her so that she wouldn’t have to spend all that time with Malfoy, Hermione pointed out that the Order had entrusted the task to her for a reason. “They probably realized I was the least likely to rip his head off,” she suggested. “That might be another reason they asked me—aside from the research part.”

And so her two best friends reluctantly accepted her new responsibility, and Hermione set off to meet with Malfoy for the first time in the Room of Requirement. On her way there, she heard a voice shouting angrily in a nearby hallway and slowed her pace. As she turned the corridor, she saw that it was Pansy Parkinson arguing with Malfoy and stopped dead in her tracks.

Pansy was repeatedly jabbing a finger into Malfoy’s chest as she glared up at him. “Don’t deny it,” she was saying. “You’ve been acting strangely and you know it.”

Malfoy, for his part, looked rather vexed as he said, “Pansy, I really have to go.”

“No, Draco, you can’t just keep avoiding me. I want an explanation.”

“An explanation for what?”

“For why you’ve been so distant lately!”

“I told you, I need to focus on my studies—”

“You told me you still wanted to be friends. Was that just a lie to get rid of me?”

“Please, Pansy, not this again.”

“I know you, Draco, and I know something’s going on with you. I just want to know what it is!”

Suddenly, Malfoy glanced over to where Hermione was standing. His eyes narrowed as he looked straight at her, and Hermione quickly ducked back around the corner and fled, running the entire way to the Room of Requirement.

~

When he did not arrive at their meeting on time, she thought that perhaps he was too embarrassed to make an appearance—and was secretly relieved that she would not need to face him. She waited a half hour before deciding that he was not coming.

But just as she began to pack her things, Malfoy stormed in, looking furious.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that it’s rude to eavesdrop?”

Hermione opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off.

“Maybe Mudblood families don’t teach manners to their children, but in civilized society we know to stay out of conversations that don’t involve us,” he spat angrily. “So I’ll thank you to keep your filthy nose out of my—”

“There’s no need to attack me just because Parkinson’s giving you a hard time,” Hermione interrupted coldly. “I’m not here because I want to be, either.”

“That’s convenient, because I’m going to tell McGonagall there’s no way in hell I can work with—”

“Can we just get to work already?”

Malfoy paused to look at her.

“I care about this project,” she went on, staring challengingly up at him, “and if you don’t, I’ll just take care of it myself. So did you come here to work, or did you come here to take out your frustrations about Pansy on me?”

He was quiet for a moment, then said bitterly, “You’re not in charge of me, Granger.” But he slunk into the chair next to her nonetheless, looking resentful and somewhat deflated.

“All right,” Hermione said briskly, as though nothing had happened, “I thought we should start with Hogwarts, A History. Have you read it?”

“I’m in seventh year, Granger. Of course I’ve read it,” Malfoy snapped, sounding insulted.

“Oh.” For a brief moment, her thoughts wandered to Harry and Ron and their staunch refusal to so much as open the book. “Well, good. I remember in one of the chapters it mentioned a tapestry that depicts a Welsh landscape—a real place in the Welsh countryside—and it changes in real time, so that it’s almost as if you were looking out onto the actual thing.”

“I know, I’ve seen it. But how could that be used against the Order?”

“Well, I don’t think that particular tapestry can, but what if there are others like it? What if there’s a tapestry that depicts the Headmaster’s—I mean, Headmistress’—office, and someone gets ahold of it? They could monitor everything that happens in there!” Hermione was now speaking very fast. “I mean, how does the tapestry work, anyway? Could the same spellwork be used for something else that isn’t a tapestry? What about a painting? I was wondering if Professor Flitwick would know—”

“Merlin, Granger, stop babbling,” interrupted Malfoy. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“I’m just specula—”

“The tapestry’s legend. There’s only one of its kind, and it’s supposed to have been woven by Rowena Ravenclaw, but there’s no proof of that. That’s why they don’t mention it in Hogwarts, A History.” He smirked unkindly. “Anyone who’d grown up in a wizarding family would know the story.”

Hermione could not hide her disappointment. “Oh,” she said, looking discouraged.

“If those are the kinds of ideas you’ll be coming up with, this process will be a lot more painful than I thought.” Malfoy sniffed. “This is exactly why no one in their right mind would assign a Mudblood this type of—”

“Do you have a better idea, Malfoy?”

“I’m sure I can come up with something better than—”

“But you didn’t, did you? So if I were you, I would kindly shut—”

“—ridiculous notion that magic is something you can learn from reading a book, only an idiot would think—”

“—of course you know exactly what an idiot thinks—”

“—can’t believe I have to work with—”

“—so please, don’t hold back when you regale me with your brilliant—”

“—would rather be eaten alive by a—”

“—this isn’t going to work if we keep fighting like this!

They both fumed in silence for some time until, finally, Hermione spoke.

“You ought to remember who’s on your side, Malfoy. I’m not going to pretend I don’t despise you, but I’m willing to put that aside and do my part to be civil as long as you’re sincere about wanting to serve the Order. Because as much as I can’t stand the sight of your pointy face, I respect your decision to try and do what’s right. If you really mean it, then I want to work with you.”

He said nothing in response, so she continued.

“I think the Order asked you to do this with me because they know that in spite of your incredibly convincing act otherwise, you’re really very smart, and you have a lot of ideas, and—” She looked a bit pained as she finished, “—and you’re creative. And they knew I couldn’t do this alone. So are you going to do this with me, or are you going to fight me every step of the way?”

Malfoy, who was now staring at Hermione as though he had never seen her before, appeared to be at a loss for words. After what felt like several minutes, he gave a stunned nod and looked away.

Hermione let out a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. “Good.” Taking a well-thumbed copy of Hogwarts, A History out of her bag, she said, “I think we’ll probably need to re-read the whole book.”

Malfoy rolled his eyes. “How did I know you were going to say that?”

~~~

Harry did not get far in questioning Draco. He proved to have been telling the truth about most of his claims—he really did wish to return to the Order, and it seemed that no one knew his whereabouts—but the Apparation had weakened him, and he was having a hard time summoning the strength to answer. Before long, he was on the verge of passing out once more.

When he began to shiver violently halfway through the interrogation, Hermione became alarmed and lost all resolve to stay uninvolved. Against Harry’s wishes, she conjured a blanket and resumed busily tending to Draco’s wounds. After Harry had asked a few more questions, she turned to glare at him.

“Are you satisfied yet?” she asked furiously.

“Hermione, I’ve got to—”

“Look at him, Harry. There are no Death Eaters on the way. If you’re going to insist on keeping him down here, at least let me bring him some of your clothes from upstairs.”

Harry gave a sigh and pulled her aside. “Let’s talk over there.”

She followed, but her eyes remained fixed on Draco. “He looks terrible,” she said, her voice trembling. “He looks—as though he’s on his deathbed.”

“I don’t trust him, Hermione. I don’t know why he wants to come back to the Order now, but—”

“He said he thought he was dying,” she interrupted sharply,

“Yes, but—”

“You gave him the Veritaserum yourself, Harry! What more do you want?”

“I know, I know; but it just seems dangerous to let him stay!”

“He’s gravely injured,” she said severely, “and he’s being honest, and—”

“And what about Hannah?”

Hermione went silent.

“I mean, where’s he been all this time?”

Her eyes floated back to Draco’s wounded form, and Harry reached out to take her face in his hands. “I just don’t want to put you in any danger until I’m more sure of his motives.”

She was quiet at first, then said softly, “I know. But if you throw him out now, he’ll die.”

Harry stared at her as she went on. “And if he doesn’t, he’ll have no choice but to return to the Death Eaters. He’ll have to answer for his absence, and now that he knows about this hideout, he’ll most likely have to give up that information to cover for his disappearance.”

Her voice was detached and sensible, but there was a flicker of something more tortured behind her eyes as she said, “Harry, he saved my life once.”

There was no arguing with that.

With a heavy sigh, Harry agreed to let Draco stay until he was more fully healed.

“Thank you.” Hermione leaned forward and kissed him gently.

“We’ll have to decide what to do when he recovers.”

“Later.”

Draco could not hear what they were saying, but he watched them from the floor with hooded lids before closing his eyes and finally succumbing to sleep.

~~~


seventh year

The Room of Requirement, by nature, understood exactly what they required, and it supplied them with all the books they could possibly need. If anything, it gave them too many—Hermione was now spending all her free time reading them. She read them to sleep, in between classes, during breaks from homework assignments; and yet she had barely even begun to cover the room’s extensive collection.

One thing that helped was that, as it turned out, the Order had been right about Malfoy—he knew rather a lot. Most of the books furnished by the room focused on Dark magic, and Malfoy had already read many of them. He knew which ones were useful, which ones were outdated, which ones were well-respected and which ones were no better than a gossip rag.

Hermione could never resist an opportunity for fresh knowledge, and apparently Malfoy could never resist an opportunity to show off when he knew something Hogwarts’ resident bookworm did not. So he spent hours lecturing her about Dark objects and magical folklore, throwing in the not-so-occasional remark about how he’d learned such things from time spent in his family’s impressive library. It was with this self-satisfied guidance that she chose which books to read, which legends to research, which artefacts to record on the list they submitted to Professor McGonagall each week. And Malfoy, unable to hide how much he enjoyed his newfound importance, was begrudgingly civil in return.

Once, as Hermione and Parvati were walking out of the Great Hall after dinner, they ran into him on his way in. Their eyes met as they passed, and he gave her a quick nod before looking away.

As soon as he was gone, Parvati whipped around to face her. “What was that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did Draco Malfoy just acknowledge you without saying anything rude or insulting?”

“I—I don’t think so,” she stammered nervously.

“He just nodded at you!”

Hermione lowered her voice and whispered, “You must have seen wrong.”

“That was so bizarre,” mused Parvati, casting a glance backwards.

She would need to tell him to be more careful in the future, thought Hermione, as she shrugged as casually as she could and kept walking.

Chapter Text

A woman was standing over his bed.

The sun was blinding, and Draco squinted as he tried to make out his visitor. Light streamed in through the windows behind her, framing her face like a halo as it wove through her hair.

No, not his bed. A bed. A bed he had never been in before. His hand stretched across the sheets without recognition.

As his eyes began to adjust to the brightness, the woman’s features came into focus and morphed into those of Hermione Granger. But that was impossible, he thought. I’m still dreaming.

And then he glanced around the room and saw his clothes folded neatly on a chair in the corner, and he knew it was not a dream at all. Memories of the night before came flooding back through the foggy haze in his mind, and he suddenly no longer felt sleepy.

He tried to sit up but was startled by the pain, wincing from his injuries as he lied back down. He had forgotten that part, too.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“In the guest room. Ron sometimes stays here.”

He looked around again. The room was small and neatly decorated in light green, and there was a tray of food sitting on the end table beside him.

“Why are you here, Draco?”

His eyes snapped back to hers. Her voice was firm, and he was chilled by the way she was looking at him—calm, serious, knowing. He did not reply.

“Harry told me you used a Portkey. He said he tested it.”

Draco nodded.

“Where did you think it was going to take you?”

“I wasn’t sure. Maybe to headquarters.”

Hermione looked at him shrewdly. “You wanted to go back to headquarters? After all this time?”

“I thought I was going to die.” He tried to swallow, but his throat felt very dry.

She was quiet for a moment. Suddenly, a voice called loudly from downstairs, and his head instinctively jerked upright in response.

“It’s Harry,” she said quickly. "No need to be alarmed.”

“Does he live here?”

“No, but he didn’t want to leave me alone.”

They were silent.

She looked much older than she had when he had seen her last. There was a hardness in her eyes that had not been there before, and yet there was something almost sad behind her penetrating gaze. She stared at him as though there were a mystery etched into his face that she could solve if only she searched long enough.

Finally, she said, “A Portkey can’t be made without knowing its destination. And there are only three people in the world who know where this house is—or even that it exists.”

He averted his gaze. “I don’t know who made it,” he said quietly.

Hermione said nothing. She studied him carefully for one last moment, then gestured to a small vial on the tray beside him.

“Before you eat anything, drink that.”

“More Veritaserum?” he asked wearily.

“It’s a Healing potion.”

She turned to go. Just before she could close the door behind her, he whispered, “Thank you.”

She paused for only a moment, but he knew she’d heard him.

~~~

seventh year

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before,” Hermione breathed as she wandered through an aisle in the Room of Requirement, scouring the shelves for anything of note. “There’s so much in this room. And who’s to say the room’s not offering it all up to us, the way it’s offered up those books?”

“Most of it’s junk,” scoffed Malfoy. “I don’t think people would leave anything really valuable here.”

“I don’t know how we’ll ever be able to go through it all.”

“We don’t need to. You’d be surprised how useless most of it is once you start looking. Ironic, really, given the room’s name.”

She glanced over at Malfoy, who wore a scowl as he went through a pile of wooden boxes, muttering “Specialis Revelio” under his breath repeatedly as he tapped each one with his wand. It was the closest he had come to mentioning his experience with the room from the year before—the very experience that had rendered their current project necessary. She wondered just how much time he had spent in this room, how well he knew its contents.

“I can’t figure out what these do,” he grumbled.

“Maybe they’re just empty boxes.”

That idea had clearly not occurred to him previously. Hermione held back a snicker as he threw a box aside in frustration and then resumed ambling down the aisle.

“I don’t even know where to start,” she continued, still feeling breathless from the excitement of exploring a veritable treasure trove. “Do you think we should go through each item together?” She examined what looked like a giant dragon claw sitting on a shelf nearby before picking it up and watching it crumble to ordinary dust in her fingers.

“It would be impossible to look at everything,” said Malfoy, who was now inspecting a vial containing a dark violet potion. “We’ll have to be selective.” He uncorked the vessel, grimaced at the foul odor, and then gingerly replaced it on its shelf.

“But we should still try to look at as many things as we possibly can, there’s so much—” Hermione suddenly broke off, gasping in delight. “Look at this, it’s a set of moving figurines that form a tiny theatre troupe!” She eagerly hunched forward to scrutinize them more closely. “I think they’re enchanted to put on plays—look, they have all these miniscule scripts—and, oh, I think I’ve woken them! They’re performing some kind of circus act now. I wonder what kind of spellwork this requires—I’ve never seen anything quite like it before—it would have to be very advanced to—”

“And just how, exactly, are the Death Eaters going to use those against the Order?”

She glanced up to see Malfoy standing beside her, looking faintly amused at her exuberant enthusiasm. Startled, she stepped sheepishly away from the shelf. “They’re not. I was just pointing out how many interesting things there are in this room.”

“Merlin, Granger, this is the sort of thing you do for fun, isn’t it?” he asked, crossing his arms and appearing greatly entertained by the idea. “In your spare time?”

“I have no idea what you’re on about—”

“You’re going to come back later to look at this again, aren’t you?” he went on, that irritating smirk still plastered on his face. “To try and figure out the enchantment. Is this how you spend your Saturday nights?”

“There’s nothing wrong with being interested in charms!”

“My God, if this is your idea of fun—”

“Shut up, Malfoy.”

“—while the rest of us have lives—”

“Just because tormenting the helpless is your idea of fun—”

“No wonder you can stand hanging out with Potty and the Weasel.”

“Oh, because hanging out with the Moron Twins and bloody Parkinson is so much—”

Hermione froze. Suddenly recalling the conversation she had overheard weeks earlier, she feared that she had hit upon a sensitive spot and felt slightly queasy with regret.

“Sorry,” she stammered weakly. “I didn’t mean to bring up...” Her voice trailed off, and Malfoy’s smile vanished. “I was just…”

“Relax, Granger.”

“I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I said, relax.”

She stared uncomfortably at the floor. Malfoy uncrossed his arms and reached out to pick up a tightrope-walking figurine. “Here,” he said, holding it out to her. “Now you’ll have something to do all weekend.”

Hermione looked up to find that his smirk had returned.

“What’s the matter? Need the whole set?”

She snatched the tiny figure out of his hand. “I’m taking this because I’m not ashamed of my intellectual curiosity,” she sniffed.

“Intellectual curiosity?” he laughed. “Is that what we’re calling it?”

“I know big words are hard for you, but try to keep up.”

“I know you’re used to having friends who are barely literate, but don’t worry, that won’t be a problem here.”

“My friends are barely literate? When was the last time Crabbe or Goyle so much as opened a book?”

“You know, come to think of it, Granger—this project has to be the best thing that’s happened to you all year. Being surrounded by idiots all the time—you must have been absolutely starved for some intelligent company.”

“You’re insufferable.”

“Look who’s talking.”

~~~

“We’re going to talk about Malfoy at the meeting tonight.”

Hermione closed her book. “What did Kingsley think?”

“He said he wasn’t sure. The members aren’t exactly in agreement over what to do.” Harry leaned over her shoulder to look at what she’d been reading. “Legendary Tombs: Ghostly Curses and Hidden Treasure,” he read aloud. “Find anything interesting?”

“Not yet. I’ve only just started the part about Ravenclaw.”

“Did you know, I wasn’t even aware there were legends about the founders’ tombs,” murmured Harry. “What would I do without you?”

“You would find less Horcruxes,” she replied with a wry smile.

Grinning, he bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “Have you thought of what you’ll say at the meeting tonight?”

Hermione folded her fingers together. “I wasn’t planning on going, actually.”

“Really?” Harry straightened and looked at her. “I think the Order needs your input tonight—until they can see Malfoy for themselves, your word’s as good as they’ll get on whether they ought to reaccept him or not.”

“I know, but I don’t want to leave him alone in the house just yet. He’s doing much better than I’d expected, but he’s still in bad shape.”

Harry sat down on the bed next to her with his eyebrows furrowed.

“Hermione,” he said quietly, “I know you want to see the good in everyone. It’s one of the things I love about you.”

“Harry—”

“No, listen. You’re kind and compassionate and trusting, but—I worry sometimes that you’re too trusting.” He reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “I love you, and I want you to be careful.”

“You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I can’t help it,” he said with a smile, but he couldn’t disguise the concern in his eyes. “He could be dangerous, Hermione. And he’s hiding something. I just know it. Just—just be careful, all right?”

She leaned forward and nestled her head in the crook of his neck. As he took her into his arms, she whispered into his skin, “I’ll try.”

Chapter Text

seventh year

It occurred to Hermione that her meetings with Malfoy were the perfect opportunity to try and find more Horcruxes. He knew far more about Dark objects than she, Harry, and Ron combined; and his familiarity with magical folklore was an advantage that she did not possess. Of course, she could never tell him what she was researching. But she was already asking him tons of questions about Dark legends—a few more would hardly strike him as out of the ordinary. And as Harry—who was highly supportive of the plan—pointed out, Malfoy’s instincts might be sharper than hers when it came to identifying what Voldemort would find valuable.

Not satisfied with simply keeping her eye out for potential Horcruxes, she suggested to Malfoy that they venture out of school to investigate their leads on significant artefacts.

He stared at her as though her eyebrows had disappeared.

“You mean, actually leave Hogwarts?”

“Yes.”

“You want us to sneak out?”

“Well, not exactly—but, well, um, yes.”

“Why can’t we just turn in our lists like McGonagall’s asked us to do?”

“I mean, wouldn’t it be more exciting this way?” she asked, trying to hide the note of desperation in her voice. “We could actually look at some of these objects we’ve been reading about, study them for ourselves… you know. Adventure, and all that.”

“Merlin’s beard,” he said, looking astounded. “And here I thought all that crock about Gryffindor bravery was just hot air.”

“I’m not suggesting we endanger ourselves—”

“I think that’s exactly what you’re suggesting, actually. You’re going to get me killed, aren’t you? That’s what I get for working with a bloody Gryffindor.” He sighed and tossed his quill onto the table. “All right. Let’s go. There better be an unreasonably flattering obituary in the Prophet tomorrow.”

Hermione tried to suppress a smile and failed miserably. “It’ll be fun,” she said reassuringly.

“Granger, this isn’t the first time I’ve objected to your idea of fun.”

~

They started off in antique shops, looking at more old trinkets than they could ever remember. Some were worthless, some were not; but overall, these initial trips proved uneventful.

Spurred on by the pressure of not yet having found anything worthy of being chosen as a Horcrux, Hermione became more and more daring in her choices for their outings. She dragged a reluctant Malfoy to dangerous neighborhoods, to abandoned houses, to desolate areas. And still they found little of substance—until their trip to the Temple of Zora.

The temple was a monument that Muggles had built in honor of some pagan deity and later abandoned. Wizards had converted it into a small museum of Muggle history and culture, but it had been destroyed in the First Wizarding War and never rebuilt. Rumor had it that some wizards had used it as a hiding place, leading Hermione to wonder whether they’d left their valuables among the rubble when they fled.

Malfoy was skeptical. Looters would have long since taken anything of value, he said. But she insisted, and so they went.

~

She found him in a side chamber, standing amidst heaps of debris and abandoned junk, his back to the entrance. The room was mostly dim and grey with dust; and as light filtered in through a small window, it mingled with floating ash that danced in its rays.

“Did you find something?” she asked, but he gave no response.

She suddenly noticed that his shoulders seemed to be shaking uncontrollably. “Draco?” she asked cautiously, but again, she received no answer. It was only as she approached him that she realized he was crying.

Drawing closer to him, she saw that he was holding something—a large jar of some sort, almost like an urn—and he was staring into it as though it contained the universe. His face was bright red and frozen in an expression of horror, and tears streamed incessantly down his cheeks as he started to shake his head.

“No—no,” he whispered, as if in a trance. “No!”

“Draco,” she said again, reaching out to touch his arm, but he did not seem to hear her. His eyes grew wider and wider as he stared down into the jar in his hands; and when wisps of black smoke began to rise from it, Hermione suddenly understood. Jumping forward, she wrenched the vessel out of his hands and threw it across the chamber, where it clattered loudly to the floor.

For a moment, the only sound in the room was their breathing. Malfoy was no longer crying, but his face was still wet with tears as he blinked wildly, as though trying to refocus his eyes.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said weakly, but he looked dazed and uncertain of his answer.

She, too, was unsure of what to say. They were not friends, exactly—although she felt an urge to comfort him, she didn’t know how he would respond.

“I know what that thing was,” she finally managed to get out. “It’s a legendary Dark weapon called Pandora’s Box. I read about it in one of our books. It’s supposed to consume you—drive you mad—if you look into it for too long.”

He did not reply.

“They say it shows you everything you hate and fear,” she went on, her voice wavering. “Everything that is evil about your world. It’s supposed to show you the darkness in your own life.”

Malfoy’s eyes flitted to the ground, and she knew the book had been right.

His expression was impassive as he stood rigidly in place, making no attempt to move, but his shoulders still trembled. Hermione shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as she tried not to watch him recover. What more was there to say? She considered reaching out and placing a consoling hand on his back, but decided against it.

“Do you know the myth it’s named after?” she asked feebly, and he shook his head. “The Greeks said that Pandora was the first mortal woman, and the gods gave her a beautiful jar that she was not to open under any circumstance. But her curiosity drove her to open the lid, and all the evils on Earth—which had been safely contained inside the jar until then—flew out into the world and corrupted it.”

“How uplifting,” quipped Malfoy, but his voice was hoarse and uneven.

“That’s not the ending,” she said. “There was one last thing in the jar.”

His watery eyes rose to meet hers.

“Pandora released all that darkness into the world, but she also gave us the one thing we need to overcome it. Something stronger than all those evils combined.”

“Kindness?” he scoffed, in a weak attempt at a sneer.

“Hope.”

The word echoed through the chamber. They stood in the temple for what felt like an eternity, listening to the echo and the sound of their breath and saying nothing.

~~~

“Tell me if this stings.”

“It does.”

They were the first words they’d spoken to each other since Hermione had entered the room.

She was applying a salve to the numerous gashes that covered Draco’s body, and though she knew the ointment to cause a strong burning sensation, he had been stoically silent until then.

He added, “But I don’t mind.”

Hermione stopped what she was doing for a moment to look at him, and he returned the gaze with an intensity that made her shiver. She had forgotten what it was like to be looked at by Draco Malfoy. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, she returned industriously to her task. It was better not to speak to him, she thought, unless absolutely necessary.

“I thought I wouldn’t make it, you know. You saved my life.”

She shook her head. “You wouldn’t have died,” she lied. “Your injuries weren’t fatal.”

“They could have been.” He paused. “Hermione. Thank you.”

He looked so earnest, so sincere—so vulnerable lying there with his many injuries—and yet she could not stop her doubts about his disappearance from racing through her mind. Conflicted, Hermione gave a small nod in response and moved on to magically cleaning his broken leg.

“What are you doing alone in this hidden house, anyway?”

After a moment’s hesitation over whether to answer, she said, “Harry wanted me to live apart from the rest of the Order. Something about how I’d become a prime kidnapping target—too many threats on my life, and so on. This place is safer than headquarters or any other hideout we have.”

“A secret location that only he and Weasley know about?”

“Yes. Only they can Apparate directly in.”

“So you’re completely isolated?”

“It’s not like I can’t leave. And the others have ways of contacting me.”

“That’s not like you,” he remarked thoughtfully, with a hint of surprise. “Standing on the sidelines just because Potter told you to.”

Hermione looked away. “He wasn’t just being paranoid. There were some close calls.”

It was not the whole truth, but she could not tell him that. She might have already said too much. Instead, she conjured a fresh bandage and said darkly, “Maybe it’s not such a huge loss. After all, I’m not a very good soldier.”

Draco made a dismissive sound. “Your spellwork was the best in our year. Better than Potter’s.”

“I’m not good under the stress of battle,” she said, still not facing him. “I can defend myself, but I have trouble hurting people before they try to hurt me.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

She turned to find him looking at her with an unreadable expression. Suddenly wary, she hastily finished her task and rose. “Get some rest.”

She was gone before he could reply.

~~~

seventh year

“Are you sure this isn’t dangerous?” Draco asked nervously.

They were traveling in a small boat that was enchanted to steer itself, and a large cave had started to come into view on the distant island.

“We’ll be fine,” Hermione insisted. “Stop fidgeting like that.”

The boat docked itself at the shore, and upon disembarking, they resumed their journey by foot. As they neared their destination, Draco lowered his voice to a whisper. “I don’t trust gypsies. They hate other wizards, you know—”

“Don’t make me use a Silencing Charm on you.”

The cave was inhabited by a well-known band of gypsy prophets that had lived there since the Middle Ages. Hermione was intensely skeptical of their divination abilities, but Voldemort—back in the days when he was still known as Tom Riddle—was thought to have deemed them important enough to pay a visit, and thus, so had she. Voldemort had supposedly sought the gypsies’ unique insight into the future, but Hermione wondered whether he might also have been interested in their rumored collection of magical relics.

They were greeted at the entrance by a woman wearing a dark shawl draped over most of her body. She was waiting outside the cave and watched as they approached. “You are the girl who wrote to me?” she asked Hermione.

“Yes, I’m Hermione Gra—”

“Please, come in.”

She led them inside and through an area filled with unusual-looking divination tools. Excited and unsure where to look first, Hermione felt a twinge of disappointment when the woman quickly passed into the next section of the cave—but her disappointment vanished when she saw where they were headed. At the end of the long, dark corridor, she could just barely make out a glimpse of a sea of flickering lights.

The gypsy finally brought them to an alcove lit only by what seemed like hundreds of glimmering candles. Gesturing dramatically, she announced, “The Votives of Truth.”

Hermione could not stifle an amazed gasp as she looked around the grotto-like room. The very air seemed to glitter with the light of the magical candles. The votives were all of different colors, shapes, and sizes; and some burned brightly while others seemed to barely emit any light at all.

“How do you read them?” she asked.

“An ancient practice only gypsies understand,” the woman said mysteriously. “We study the votives to know the future. When we look at them, the present becomes clear, and through the present we see what is to come.” She waved her hand around the room vaguely. “The answers to all human questions lie here.”

She had not, however, answered Hermione’s question. When Hermione opened her mouth to repeat it, the gypsy cut her off.

“Our methods are secret.”

“Does each candle represent something different?”

The woman smiled. “You are a perceptive girl. Yes, each votive has a different story to tell. There is the Votive of War, The Votive of Desire, the Votive of Changing Tides, the Votive of Coming Doom.” She indicated the other side of the alcove. “Prosperity. Mutinous Thoughts. The Votive of Future Generations, the Votive of Unrest—there are too many to count.”

Turning back to her visitors with a shrewd look in her eyes, she asked, “And which is it that you seek for answers?”

Just at that moment, they began to hear a voice calling from elsewhere in the cavern. It appeared to be in search of their guide, for she said suddenly, “I will be back. Feel free to examine the votives, so long as you do not touch them.” Then she hurried off into the darkness.

Hermione turned to Draco. “Isn’t this amazing? They’re beautiful.”

Draco nodded, transfixed by the innumerable candles that surrounded them.

“Do you believe her?” she asked.

“Who?”

“Our guide. Do you believe that they can really know the future just by looking at these?”

Draco made a scoffing sound. “You’re not serious?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say I believed it; I was asking what you thought.”

“Well, of course I don’t believe that.”

She paused for a second, lost in thought. “Do you think the Death Eaters know about these?” She lowered her voice. “We know Voldemort puts a lot of stock in prophecies. Wouldn’t he be interested in knowing the future?”

Draco looked at her keenly. “Why would you worry about him finding these unless you thought they worked?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, flustered. “I’m skeptical, but who’s to say they don’t? And what if the Death Eaters got to the gypsies and used their knowledge against us?”

He grinned. “Look at that. The ever-sensible Hermione Granger, enchanted by an old gypsy tale.”

“Shut up.”

“You’ve really been taken in by the atmosphere, haven’t you? Candles and caves and—”

“I said, shut up.”

Draco laughed. “You’ve nothing to worry about. Gypsies hate the Death Eaters. They hate any wizard who isn’t one of their kind.”

“The Death Eaters could use that hate against us.”

“No. The Death Eaters treated the gypsies terribly during the first war. They’re not liable to forget that anytime soon.”

“What if they tortured or threatened them into reading the candles?”

“I think you’d be surprised how proud gypsies are.”

“How do you know so much about gypsies, anyway?”

He smiled patronizingly at her. “Just one of the many benefits of a magical upbringing.”

“Too bad a triple-digit IQ isn’t one of them,” she said crisply, but he was already walking away from her.

“What other votives do you think there are, aside from the ones she mentioned?” he asked, inspecting a row of lambent pastel-colored candles. “It’s a pity there isn’t a Votive of This Year’s N.E.W.T. Questions.”

Hermione couldn’t resist smiling. “She never said there wasn’t.”

“That’s true.”

A small, blood-red candle that burned particularly brightly caught her eye, and as she glanced around the room, she noticed that no other votive shone as fiercely. “Look at this,” she said, drawing close to it. “Which votive do you think this is?”

As Draco approached, it burned even more brilliantly. “I don’t know, but that flame looks dangerous.”

“I bet the gypsies would say that that means something. What I can’t figure is why some of these flames are so much stronger than others.”

He turned to look at her, and she suddenly realized how close they were standing. His face, mere inches from hers, was illuminated by the soft glow of the candles, and tiny lights seemed to flicker in his eyes as they reflected the fire of the alcove. “Why are you always so curious about the unknowable?” he asked.

“I don’t believe in it.”

“You think it’s possible to know everything?”

“Magic used to be unknowable for me. But nothing’s unknowable once you study how it works.”

“What if some things don’t want to be known?”

She didn’t understand his question, but she felt strongly that they were no longer talking about candles. He was staring at her very intently, and she could not see past the twinkling lights reflected in his eyes, which made her nervous. His face seemed even closer than before, and for a confusing moment, she thought he might kiss her—but then the gypsy returned, and the moment was gone.

She had brought an old man with her, and Hermione instinctively stepped away from Draco as the two approached.

“I have brought you the Damion,” the woman said. “The Master of Truths. He sees the Votives better than any of us.”

Hermione couldn’t help but feel there was something faintly blasphemous about his title, but she put the thought out of her head as she moved forward and held her hand out to him with a bright smile. “Hello, I’m Hermione Granger. How do you do?”

The white-haired man smiled benevolently in response, but did not take her hand. His eyes darted to the unusually radiant blood-red candle, then back and forth between her and Draco. “What truth are you here to seek?”

“Oh,” she stammered, retracting her hand, “we’re not actually here to seek—um, we don’t have a question about the future or anything like that. We just wanted to ask you about your relics.”

“Relics?” the gypsy woman asked sharply. “What relics?”

“We heard that you had a collection of ancient relics, dating back from Roman times, and we were wondering—”

“Our only relics are the ones we use for the purpose of divination, and we do not reveal our methods.”

“Oh, I understand completely,” Hermione said hurriedly. “We just wanted to take a look, you know, for a history project we’re doing, and perhaps ask some questions—”

“I’m afraid that is out of the question,” the woman snapped, but the Damion raised his hand to silence her.

“I see you are not here to learn the future,” he said quietly. “Nor, indeed, to learn how one learns the future. So I think, Elvira, that we have little to fear from our young visitors.”

Looking inquisitively at Hermione, he continued, “We once owned many such relics. But what we cannot use to see beyond mortal sight, we have long since sold.”

“Sold?” she asked with alarm. “When?”

“Neither in your lifetime nor mine. For centuries, the only thing of value in this cave has been our skill.”

He moved closer and turned his gaze to the candles behind them. “What you seek is not with us.” Gesturing to a distant blue flame, he murmured, “The Votive of Restless Search is strong in your presence. And the Votive of The Lost Being Found is not. You shall not find what you seek for some time.”

For a moment, he appeared lost in thought, but then he went on. “I can, however, answer your unspoken question. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did come here once, long ago. He was young then, and full of ambition. But the Damion saw the darkness in his heart and refused to help him. The Dark Lord neither forgave nor forgot the rejection. When he rose to power, he made sure the then-Damion paid the price for daring to deny him. But we have not seen him since he first came many years ago.”

The Damion looked back at Hermione. “You must have patience. I see trials and tribulations ahead for you, but you must not give up. You fight empty-handed now, but it will not always be so. What you seek—you shall find.”

His serious gaze wandered to Draco. “You, young man, are on a road, a quest of which you have not yet learned. You will be tested. You will not remember who you are. But remember this—you are not alone.”

Hermione glanced over and saw Draco staring back at the Damion, his bewildered eyes still sparkling with candlelight.

“The path will be dark, but you will not be alone. You must not forget that. You must find strength in that.”

The Damion faced her once more. “There is victory in your future, young girl. It is distant, but it is clear.”

“Victory?” she asked timidly, and the old man nodded.

“Your search has a purpose. You do not seek these relics idly.” He smiled. “And you shall succeed. All truths are written in these flames.”

~~~

It was nearly midnight when Harry finally returned. The instant Hermione saw that he had Ron in tow—and that they both had triumphant smiles plastered on their faces—she knew what had happened.

“You complete bastards—”

“Hermione, you bloody genius!” Ron cried joyously as he threw his arms around her. “How do you do it?”

“I can’t believe you two did this to me again!” she spat furiously as she wrenched him off of her. “Harry, how could you?”

“I’m so sorry, love,” said Harry, though he hardly looked sorry at all as he tried to take her in his arms.

“You promised!

“I know, but it was Bellatrix’s home, and we just couldn’t risk it—”

“You should have at least told me—”

“You know you would have insisted on coming along if we’d told you, and you know there’s no one who would be more thrilled to get her hands on you than Bellatrix—”

“It was Bellatrix Lestrange,” Ron chimed in. “Of all the bloody psychos it could have been—”

“I was the one who found the Horcrux,” she interrupted angrily. “I at least deserved to know that you were going. Something could have happened to you, and—”

“Hermione, we’re terribly sorry—”

“I hope you both know that I won’t forgive you for this!”

“We know,” said Harry, but his smile remained infuriatingly bright as he held her tightly so that she couldn’t storm off. “And we owe you everything, Hermione, we really do. But we just couldn’t risk it this one time.”

“Come on, Hermione,” said Ron, removing a golden goblet from his robes that looked badly burnt. “We should be celebrating, really!”

“Is that the cup?” she asked.

Ron nodded, beaming. “You’re a genius, you really are.”

Hermione snorted, but the sight of the destroyed Horcrux had calmed her down somewhat, and she was no longer as livid as before. “Let me see it.”

Ron went off to find champagne while she carefully inspected the markings on the cup. “It’s a shame,” she said sadly. “All these important historical artefacts—and he’s desecrated them.”

“Thank Merlin he never got his hands on Gryffindor’s sword,” said Harry.

She nodded in agreement. “Still. It’s unfortunate he had such a hankering for anything significant that belonged to the Founders. I mean, Hufflepuff’s Cup—really. Such a waste.”

“Say,” said Ron, returning with champagne and glasses, “isn’t Malfoy still upstairs? Maybe we’d better keep our voices down.”

“Hermione’s placed a charm on his room so he can’t hear us.”

“Brilliant,” said Ron approvingly.

“Cheers, you guys.” Harry raised his glass. “To another Horcrux down.”

She looked at them warily before joining their toast. “I’m coming next time. Don’t even think about going after the diadem without me.”