Draco was bleeding. He could feel the bead of blood, hot and wet, working its way down from his temple. A chair had clipped his forehead as he’d dived to the ground at the Burrow.
He took an uncertain step, blinking in the harsh sunlight, trying to compose himself.
Around him, the Gryffindors were getting their bearings, too. Weasley was twisting his golden watch around his wrist over and over, the only thing he wore that looked remotely new. Potter, still disguised as the Weasley cousin, was wiping the smears from his glasses; his hands were steady, but his whole body was rigid. Granger was looking down into Hogsmeade Village, breathing shallowly, her hair moving gently in the mountain wind.
Draco saw them as if through glass. His mind was fixed on his parents, still in disguise as Muggles, standing beneath the marquee. He’d caught a single glimpse of them, both looking around for him with terror on their faces …
That was before she had seized his arm.
“Granger,” he said. His voice was hard and cold, shaking slightly. “What is this? Are you Confunded? My parents are back there. Why did you bring me here?”
Granger’s eyes flashed. “Why do you think I did it? Just look at yourself.”
He glanced down and received a shock. His robes were several inches too short, and his hands were back to normal, no longer stubby workman’s hands but long and pale, still twitching with adrenalin.
He hadn’t even realized he’d returned to his own body. Suddenly the terror on his parents’ face seemed to mean something very different. In the panic, had he somehow missed the feeling of transformation? How long, exactly, had he been himself?
There had been Death Eaters in that tent. As he thought of them, his stomach squeezed so violently that he felt sick. “Did anyone see me?” he choked out. “Did the—the Death Eaters—”
“No,” Granger said. “Your hair had only just started to change when we left.”
Draco narrowed his eyes, studying her. Though obviously still irritated that he’d snapped at her, she looked certain. “All right,” he said. He moved one palm up his forehead, wiping the streak of blood and pushing back his hair, which had become thin and smooth again. “Fine, then. I’ll … I’ll disguise myself and we’ll go back.”
“Go—what?” Granger said.
“Yeah,” said another voice. Potter had turned to them both. Behind his freckles, his skin was white. “As fast as we can.”
Now panic had appeared on Granger’s face. “Harry, no. You can’t go back, it’ll put them in so much more danger. You have to stay.” She looked back to Draco. “Both of you.”
“I just said, my parents are still there,” Draco said, his voice rising again. “Did you somehow not notice the Death Eaters? They could have—they could already—” He lost his voice in the images. His parents tortured on the parquet floors like that Muggle man. His mother bound, his father cut apart. He forced his mouth shut, but the others didn’t notice. Potter was talking now:
“Ginny’s there, Hermione. Ginny’s there, and—and everyone, and we’re supposed to leave her with a bunch of—?”
“Hermione’s right,” Weasley interrupted.
Potter stared at Weasley, looking slightly betrayed. “Ron—”
“I know, mate. I know. But most of the Order was there, they’ll look after everyone.”
“Oh, yeah?” Draco said. “And what about my family? The Order don’t care about them, none of you care. They’ll get handed over in a second if I—”
“We don’t care?” Granger said, her hair seeming to fluff out in fury. “Right, of course. That must be why Remus and Tonks refused to help save your mother, and why Dedalus and Hestia refused to break your father out of Azkaban, and why I let you three get caught at Grimmauld Place, and why the Weasleys all refused to harbor you at their house, and why Kingsley refused to help smuggle you out of the country. All of that must be because we don’t care.”
The words made Draco hesitate. Obviously he knew all these things already, but all week he’d been focusing on the Order’s begrudging looks, on the hostile atmosphere at the Burrow, on the judgment he was sure was directed their way. Granger was right, though. Maybe the Order were criticizing him and his family out of sight. Maybe they even hated them. But they’d kept them alive.
In the slight ebb of his panic, Draco remembered that his parents had drunk another dose of Polyjuice only minutes before the attack. He remembered his father commenting on the disgusting taste and his mother agreeing. They had at least another hour, then, even if they hadn’t managed to leave. Or maybe someone had Apparated them out, the way …
He shot a furtive look at Granger, who was now rummaging in a small beaded bag. The way she did, he thought warily. In the split instant of the Death Eaters’ appearance, she’d seen he was in danger of exposure and whisked him off to safety, the same way she’d done for Weasley and Potter.
Then again, hadn’t he seen a spell hissing toward their table and knocked her out of the way? And he hadn’t made a real choice to do that, or anything. It was just instinct. Instinct meant nothing, it was your body dragging your mind along, it was the realm of Gryffindors. What you chose to do when you had all the time in the world—that was who you really were.
“All right,” said Potter, finally. “We’ll … yeah, we’ll stay here, then.”
Granger and Weasley both glanced to Draco. They were waiting, he realized, for his agreement. Caught off-guard, he nodded.
Draco glanced at Potter at the same time that Potter looked his way. Potter’s lips were downturned, and Draco returned a scowl before looking away. He couldn’t remember ever feeling on the same page as Potter. Maybe in first year, when they’d been sent into the Forest with Granger and Longbottom. They’d all been terrified then.
He wasn’t sure that counted, though. They’d been so young. Draco didn’t think he was anything like his 11-year-old self anymore. Sometimes he thought of his first few years at Hogwarts with a kind of wistful embarrassment that didn’t entirely make sense to him. He’d been naïve about nearly everything, but then, he’d been a child. Children were supposed to be naïve.
Weasley was looking down at Hogsmeade now. “Why are we here?” he asked with a frown.
“Please,” Draco muttered, “tell me you’re not still thinking about going to Dumbledore’s funeral.”
“No,” Granger said quietly. “No, I don’t think we can. Not when Scrimgeour …”
The weight of the Ministry’s collapse settled over all of them, and the wind seemed to increase in volume. If the Death Eaters’ grip had been strong before, it was about to become a stranglehold. Even with Shacklebolt’s help, Draco wondered if he and his parents would be able to get out of the country at all, now. Magic would have to be kept to a minimum. They would have to slink away like Muggles. The idea made him feel an ugly, creeping sense of shame.
“Then why here?” Weasley repeated.
“Well, I thought we might be able to … to fetch the …” Granger cast a furtive glance at Draco.
Draco let out a sigh. “Would you like me to stick my fingers in my ears and say ‘la la la’?”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Weasley.
Granger shook her head. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, he knows enough already. The sword, Malfoy. We need it.”
“What, Gryffindor’s sword?” Draco said.
Granger nodded. “It can destroy Horcruxes. It’s been impregnated with Basilisk venom, which is one of the very few substances that—”
“How are we supposed to get it, though?” Weasley broke in. “Are we supposed to just stroll up to the front door?”
Potter suddenly let out a frustrated groan. “The Cloak,” he said. “Merlin, I had it on me all of last year, and the second we need it—”
“I have it here,” Granger said, and to Draco’s astonishment, she reached into her beaded bag, which was hardly larger than her fist, and pulled out a long, fluid stream of Cloak—the same Cloak, he realized, that McGonagall had handed him the night of the Death Eaters’ invasion.
None of the boys said anything for a moment, all staring at Granger. “Undetectable Extension Charm,” she said, sounding slightly defensive.
Weasley shook his head. “You’re a genius, you are,” he said, with open admiration and something slightly dreamy that made Draco’s lip curl.
“Thank you, Ron,” Granger said. Her cheeks were tinged pink, but she didn’t look at him. “Anyway, it won’t fit the four of us, but—”
“The four of us?” The sappy look disappeared from Weasley’s face. “Hang on. We’re not bringing him along, are we?” He jerked his head at Draco, who bristled.
“Yeah, you damn well are,” Draco said coldly. “If something goes wrong with your little plan, and you three disappear, what exactly am I supposed to do? Dance into the Three Broomsticks and ask for a gillywater? You’re getting me back to my parents.”
“Let’s go,” said Potter. He didn’t seem to have heard the last minute of conversation. He was already walking quickly down the trail, his eyes fixed on Hogwarts. The castle sat high and proud across the lake, its weathered stones glowing in the late afternoon.
“Ron, you wear this,” Granger said, pressing the Cloak into his hands as they all followed Potter. “You shouldn’t be seen, now that you’re supposedly sick at home. Harry can get under it, too, when his Polyjuice wears off. And—” She turned back to Draco, who flinched as she rapped him on the head with her wand. He experienced the cold sensation of Disillusionment. “That should do,” she said, looking him up and down. “I know the grounds are open to visitors from the village in summertime, and we can borrow a few brooms from Madam Hooch’s shed and fly them up to a window to get in.”
As they walked down to the turnstile at the end of the mountain path, though, and entered Hogsmeade, a large wrinkle appeared in the plan. The village was busier than Draco had ever seen it, busier even than the first visiting weekend of every year. Throngs of people were moving from shop to shop, packed so tightly together that the four of them had to squeeze by against walls. More than once, Granger and Potter received odd looks from someone who had bumped into Draco or into Ron under the Cloak.
The crowd thinned as they approached the road that led to Hogwarts, but several people seemed to be heading that way, too. “What’s going on?” Draco heard the invisible patch of air beside Granger mutter to her. “Why’s it like this?”
“They must all be here for the funeral,” she said, trying and failing not to move her lips. She looked like a bad ventriloquist. “But once we’re on the grounds, there should be room to lose … to …”
Draco came to a halt as Granger and the others did the same. They were now scarcely ten feet from the pillars that flanked the entrance to the grounds, the statues of winged boars looking down upon them. The people standing at the foot of the pillars, whom Draco had assumed were looking at the statues, were holding Probity Probes. Their wands were out.
Draco saw one of their faces and took an instinctive step back. “That’s a Death Eater,” he hissed to Granger. “The one on the left. Dewhirst.”
An elderly woman wearing a frayed old hat bumped into Granger and said, affronted, “Excuse me!”
“Sorry,” Granger squeaked, and they all backed off the path together.
“‘Scuse me, marm,” said Dewhirst to the elderly woman in a deep, oily voice. “Arms out, please. We’re checking everyone who goes in and out of the grounds.”
“Checking?” the woman spluttered. “Checking? And why should you need to check me?”
“Security’s sake, marm,” said Dewhirst, who was already using the Probity Probe to nudge the woman’s arms up. “Dumbledore was a great wizard, and in these uncertain times, we can’t be sure of the type of people who might come to his funeral … the things they might do … I’m sure you understand. We want to keep our fellow witches and wizards safe.”
Dewhirst nodded to the witch and other wizard who were manning the pillars. The witch flicked her wand at the old woman. There was no result, which seemed to satisfy her. She signaled to the second wizard, who waved the old woman through, thanking her for her patience in a voice much more sincere than Dewhirst’s.
“Come on,” Potter muttered. Draco didn’t need telling twice. Dewhirst’s eyes were roving over Potter and Granger, who had been searching in her bag, trying to seem preoccupied. The ruse was growing thin, as the bag would look, to any normal person, like something that could be searched in about six seconds.
They retreated to a spot halfway between the gates and the village, settling in a dip by a grassy knoll. Granger and Potter sat on the grass in a passable imitation of pretending to watch the castle’s reflection in the lake.
“What are we going to do?” Granger whispered.
“The Forest is the only way in besides the front gates,” Draco said.
“What? How do you know that?” said Weasley’s voice from under the Cloak.
“Weasley,” Draco said, “do you Obliviate yourself every morning to remove all danger of retaining information? I spent last year trying to kill Albus Dumbledore. I know all the castle’s weaknesses when they’re on high security. And it looks like they are now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Potter, frowning. “Why would a Death Eater be looking out for mayhem at Dumbledore’s funeral?”
Draco rolled his eyes, but before he could disabuse Potter of this idea, Granger beat him to it.
“Oh, Harry,” she sighed, “you didn’t believe any of that, did you? They’ll be there in case it’s a rallying point of sympathy for Dumbledore’s supporters. I’m sure they’ll be trying to sniff out Order sympathizers.”
Potter thought for a moment before saying furiously, “I bet this was Snape’s idea. It wasn’t enough just to murder Dumbledore. He had to use his funeral to try and sabotage the Order.”
Draco shifted on the grass, not looking at the three of them, remembering Snape’s face in the shadows of Grimmauld Place. I couldn’t have done anything to stop Snape, he told himself. He’d been trapped in Grimmauld Place, and Snape had made the Vow. Besides, he might well have saved his father by having that conversation with Snape.
Granger was looking sympathetically at Potter. “It’s awful, isn’t it? Knowing what he did, and he’s just—just walking around in there as if he didn’t do anything at all.” She shook her head. “We’ll have to look out for him once we’re in the castle, too.”
“Greasy git,” Weasley mumbled.
“Slimy old bat,” Potter added.
Granger, clearly suppressing a smile, glanced over in Draco’s general direction. “All right. What’s this entrance in the Forest, Malfoy?”
Draco hesitated. He didn’t want to go into the Forest, but what was the alternative? Sit here and torment himself with thoughts about what might be happening to his parents?
“Yeah,” he muttered, “the fence has a Gamekeeper’s entrance somewhere in the Forest. Touch the fence anywhere else, and you set off a Caterwauling Charm. I followed alongside it for ages last year and it runs right into the heart of the place. I never actually found the gate, though. Kept bumping into all the foul stuff that idiot keeps in there.”
“Don’t call Hagrid an idiot,” Granger snapped, at the same time that Potter said,
“You keep your mouth shut about Hagrid.” Whatever Weasley’s indignant remark was, Draco couldn’t hear it over the other two.
“Yeah, yeah,” he yawned, getting to his feet again. “Let’s go.”
“Go—go into the Forest?” Weasley said. “No, come off it. There’s got to be another way. Why can’t we use the Shrieking Shack?”
“People know about that one by now,” Draco said.
“Snape definitely does,” Potter said. “He’s probably closed off the other end, or put some kind of charm on it to tell him if it’s being used.” He started down the hill. “Come on, Ron, we’ve made trips into the Forest loads of times.”
“Yes,” said Hermione, “and when exactly have they gone well?”
Potter didn’t answer, but he did crack a sheepish grin back at her.
Draco trailed ten feet behind them, watching Potter and Granger murmur to the space in the air where Weasley was. Weasley’s voice said something low and worried, and Granger and Potter both hastened to reassure him. “It’ll be fine, Ron,” Granger was saying softly—though now she looked slightly worried herself. Potter didn’t miss that. He said something else, clearly meant to brace the both of them, and then Weasley muttered something from under the Cloak, and then all three of them were grinning, laughing quietly together.
Draco watched them with slight resentment, unable to stop comparing their friendship to his own with Crabbe and Goyle. Yes, Draco was best friends with Crabbe and Goyle, but really Crabbe and Goyle were best friends with each other and Draco was something else. He knew they told each other things that they didn’t tell him—worries about their grades and their looks and their families—and he also knew that they spoke about him secretly, with occasional resentment.
They never actually confide in me at all, he thought. Not really.
Then Draco shook his head hard, shook himself out of it. He didn’t want Crabbe or Goyle’s total confidence. What would he have done with it, or the total confidence of any of his friends? Why would he let anyone into a place where their thoughts and feelings and insecurities could disturb him, rattle around in him, occupy him? Influence him? No. None of that. He was the one with the influence, it was how he’d been raised. Like his mother and his father, he would be listened to with respect and then described later with envy. He didn’t want anyone inside. He was the consummate Occlumens.
Even in the late afternoon, the forest was dark. Within minutes of their trespass into the tree line, the air grew unnaturally still and silent, and soon the trees were so thick, towering so high overhead, that it might have been nighttime. Adding to the eerie atmosphere was the fact that they had to whisper, not wanting to attract the attention of anything that lived in the forest. Hermione was sure that if the centaurs encountered them, they would remember her and Harry from their disastrous trip into the forest with Umbridge in fifth year. Ron, of course, was steeling himself for the possibility of Acromantulas.
There was no path alongside the school fence. Clearly it had been built to be as inconvenient as possible, probably to deter anyone who might be trying to do exactly what they were doing. Hermione kept hearing Ron and Malfoy, neither of whom could see their own legs, tripping over roots and swearing under their breath.
Hermione couldn’t help thinking that between this and the identification of R.A.B., Malfoy was proving himself bizarrely useful, despite being one of the last people on Earth she would have picked to know about the Horcruxes. As she glanced over at his Disillusioned figure slipping past an old oak, she remembered, too, the way he’d knocked her out of the way of the Exploding Hex at the wedding. What had that been about?
It had probably been repayment for saving him and his family in Grimmauld Place, she thought as they wended their way between a pair of thorny bushes. He probably didn’t like the idea of having a life debt to a Mudblood.
She was surprised to find that the thought stung. Hermione had all but stopped feeling Malfoy’s insults over the years. She remembered the foul comments, of course, remembered how he’d turned to his mother last year in Madam Malkin’s and said, if you’re wondering what the smell is, a Mudblood just walked in. But she knew, had known for years, what Malfoy was—a bigoted little worm without two scruples to rub together—and so nothing he said managed to hurt her. In fact, because of the way Harry and Ron reacted to the comments, they served as a reminder of how lucky she was to have kind, loyal friends who would have died rather than ascribe to that sort of prejudice.
But now, the idea of Malfoy thinking those things made her feel oddly sore. Hermione didn’t know why. Was it the fact that she’d saved him from capture by the Death Eaters twice now? Did she feel that, having done him a favor that he frankly had never earned, he owed her his respect? Or was it mere exposure? Certainly she’d seen more of Malfoy over the last week than she ever had before. He’d even slept in her house, for Merlin’s sake.
Yes, that was it. He’d slept in her house, and had seen the pictures of her and her family that hung in the halls; he’d slept in her guest bedroom, and had drawn a glass of water from the same kitchen where she’d celebrated birthdays and Christmases; he’d seen the library full of books that her mother and father had built up over the course of her life. He had seen her at the Burrow, eaten meals with her, watched her laughing with Harry and Ron over dinner with that cold, sullen look of his, always quiet, but still there, still watching. It was disturbing to imagine that someone could come that close to you, see your everyday life at close quarters, and still despise you for nothing more than existing.
But now that Hermione was mulling over that bizarre night at her house, she realized for the first time that he hadn’t made a single crack at her family then. She remembered now that she’d spent the whole night silently waiting for him to do it. Certainly his parents had met her lowest expectations right away, whispering to each other about what their options might be rather than staying under a Mudblood’s roof. But Malfoy himself hadn’t done it, though he’d had endless opportunity.
Hermione didn’t know what all this came to, but she forced herself to stop trying to find Malfoy’s invisible outline in the dark. Don’t give him any power, she told herself fiercely. Don’t expect anything out of people like that. If he decided to be less of a human canker sore, good for him, but Hermione wasn’t going to put her own feelings at risk by hoping for it.
Finally, after what must have been a mile or more, Harry’s Polyjuice wore off. He turned back into himself, somewhat to Hermione’s relief. Even knowing it was him, the sight of a stranger in her peripheral vision had been occasionally unsettling. “All right, Harry,” she said. “You should get under the Cloak, too, and—”
“No way,” Ron said, finally tearing the Cloak off himself. “I’m already worse than useless, knocking around in this thing. It’ll be twice as bad with both of us under there. Hermione, put it back in that bag, would you? No one’s going to see us in here.”
He thrust the Cloak at her unceremoniously. She scowled, but took it without comment, knowing he was on edge from the possibility of giant spiders.
Ron had turned away, but Harry had noticed her scowl. “We’ll Disillusion ourselves too,” he said in a calming sort of way. “And—”
Hermione raised a hand. He broke off.
“Do you hear that?” she whispered.
“I did,” came Malfoy’s voice.
It happened again. There was a slow dragging sound coming from somewhere in the trees ahead.
Harry immediately Disillusioned himself. Hermione dashed to Ron’s side and did the same for him. His face, looking slightly green, took on the color and texture of the ancient, gnarled trees, and without any of the others in sight, Hermione suddenly felt very alone. She wondered if she should Disillusion herself, too, but it was dark enough that she worried they might lose each other if they were all concealed.
“Come on,” she whispered. “Try not to step on any dry wood, or it’ll snap.”
“Wands out,” Harry added. Hermione clutched hers tight and heard the others stepping carefully after her.
After a moment, though, Hermione stopped again. The dragging sound had gone silent. There was nothing now but the trees and the slow, prickling feeling of being watched. The sound’s apparent absence made Hermione want to turn tail and sprint. Where had it gone? What was it? Or had it sensed them, and was now lurking ahead, waiting for them?
They started walking again, but Ron was moaning under his breath. “I don’t like this,” he said. “I really don’t like this …”
“Careful, Weasley,” Malfoy muttered. “It probably smells fear.”
“Shut up,” Harry hissed.
They all stopped moving.
But Hermione had seen it. Twenty paces ahead was an ancient, wrought-iron gate with the Hogwarts crest on it, an ancient padlock chained to its front. “There!” she breathed.
“Make a run for it, d’you reckon?” Ron whispered.
“No,” Harry said. “We’ll bring more attention to ourselves. Just—be ready.”
They crept forward, but Hermione couldn’t stop herself from quickening her pace. The trees seemed more twisted and forbidding than ever as they picked over roots and dark earth and then—finally—stopped in front of the gate.
“Alohomora,” Hermione whispered, pointing her wand at the lock.
At their backs, the dragging sound began again, close enough this time for Hermione to pinpoint its direction. There were several more deep crunch sounds.
“Oh, no,” Ron moaned. “Oh, no, oh no.” She knew he was picturing spiders chewing an animal to pieces, scuttling out of the darkness, swarming over each other to get to him next, and his fear was infecting her, too.
“Stop it, Ron,” she hissed. “We need to think!”
“Lumos,” Harry whispered, leaning over the lock. Hermione bent down and saw that a small, ugly face was sculpted into the metal. She reached out to touch it, and—
“Excuse me,” the face said loudly. “Is that polite?”
Harry and Hermione both lurched back from it so quickly that they knocked into Ron and Malfoy.
“Sorry, er,” Harry gasped, regaining his balance, “I didn’t—we didn’t mean—”
“Do you like strangers fondling your face when you’re trying to get a bit of shut-eye?” the lock demanded.
Hermione glanced over at Harry’s Disillusioned face. Even without being able to make out his features, she could picture his flabbergasted expression.
“Look, we’re very sorry,” Hermione said. “We just need to get into—that is, we need to visit Hogwarts. We’re students here, and—”
The sound behind them again. A hush, and a drag.
“You ain’t the gamekeeper,” said the lock, sounding proud of itself for figuring this out. “I ain’t letting you in.”
“But we’re friends of Hagrid’s,” Harry said desperately.
“Friends of Hagrid’s?” The lock sounded suspicious. “If that’s true, you’ll know his favorite drink, won’t you? Never goes without it.”
“Madam Rosmerta’s mulled mead,” Hermione said at once.
The lock hesitated. Hermione was sure that, had it possessed a chin, it would have been stroking it. And meanwhile, behind them, the slow thump and drag was drawing nearer, and now a higher rustling sound, too, like cloth on cloth. It could scarcely be ten feet from them now.
“All right,” the lock decided. “I’ll ring the bell.”
“Get on with it, then,” Malfoy hissed.
“Ring the bell?” Hermione whispered. “But—but Hagrid was at the wedding! He won’t be here to let us in!”
“That ain’t my problem, is it?” said the lock.
“What do we do?” Hermione whispered, turning to the invisible boys. “What—”
Her eyes widened. She lost her voice. Something massive and dark loomed out of the trees behind them.
And the sound of a cheerful bell came from it.
Hermione drew a gasping breath, her heart pounding. “Hagrid!” she said, clutching at her chest as the Gamekeeper’s massive body squeezed between two trees, the bell still clanging somewhere inside his massive overcoat.
“Crikey,” Hagrid rumbled, patting himself down, jamming his hands into pocket after pocket and extracting several used handkerchiefs, a fistful of dazzlingly bright beads, and a dazed-looking owl. Finally he found a keyring: not the usual one that swung at his hip, but a battered, second set that Hermione had never seen before. He silenced the bell that dangled from the ring, which had been ringing itself vigorously, and stepped forward toward the gate, looking bewildered. “Hermione? Is tha’ you? How’d you get here?”
He had dropped what he’d been dragging: a heavy sack full of the unusual decorations that he’d brought to the wedding, including several orbs filled with spiky orange flowers and a lumpy woven banner made from rough strips of cloth, which he’d clearly dyed himself. Mrs. Weasley, looking overwhelmed, had insisted he not trouble himself with hanging any more decorations, and so they had gone unused.
“Hagrid,” Harry panted, lifting his Disillusionment Charm, and Ron, laughing with a hysterical kind of relief, also faded back into view beside him. Malfoy reappeared last, looking paler than usual.
Hagrid looked between Harry, Ron, and Hermione with relief. “Yer all right,” he said faintly. “Yer safe. Merlin’s beard, I though’ …”
“What happened at the wedding, Hagrid?” Ron said. “Is everyone safe?”
“I’m sorry, Ron, I couldn’t tell yeh. Tonks Disapparated with me the momen’ I grabbed me things, took me here. Course, they don’t want the Death Eaters seein’ me with members of the Order, seein’ as how I’m a Hogwarts teacher. Unsafe, like.” He shook his hairy head. “They’ll be all righ’. But you three … wha’ are you three doin’ here? Yeh can’t be here!”
“We need to get into Hogwarts,” said Harry. “It’s urgent, Hagrid. It’s … it’s something Dumbledore told us to do.”
Hagrid, whose mouth had been open in the obvious beginnings of a protest, closed it. After a long moment, his eyes filled with tears.
Malfoy made a derisive sound, and Hermione kicked him in the ankle. He yelped and glared down at her, and she glared back. The way he treated Hagrid was a good reminder of what he was. What he clearly still was.
Hagrid had noticed none of this. “All righ’,” he said, sniffling. “Tell me wha’ you need.”
The last time Draco had been in one of these boats, he had been eleven years old, and it had been September 1st, and he had looked up at Hogwarts as it towered over him like a mountain. He’d been told about the Sorting, of course. Some families preferred to leave it mysterious and vague, like Father Christmas to a child, but that wasn’t how the Malfoys operated. His parents had told him all about what to expect from his first year, and how to navigate it to become who he was meant to be.
Now, the boats that were bearing them over the lake seemed so much smaller that Draco felt like the skiffs must have shrunk. Each fit only two people now, rather than the four that had been able to squeeze in when they were first-years. Potter and Weasley were in a boat ahead, and even through their Disillusionment Charms, he could see their outlines occasionally turning back to shoot glances at Draco. Or maybe they were looking at Granger, who was maintaining a stiff silence opposite him. His ankle still hurt from where she’d kicked it.
There was a single green leaf stuck in Granger’s bushy hair from the forest, and her face was serious, washed with the light that reflected up from the lake’s surface, rose and orange. Draco hadn’t missed the way she’d avoided getting into the other boat with Weasley, who had so obviously wanted her to join him to glide over the lake in the sunset.
Draco had seen the two of them dancing at the wedding. (Granger had hardly any sense of rhythm; Weasley, sub-zero.) Weasley had been closing his eyes as if he were trying to freeze the moment in his mind, but Granger, her head against Weasley’s chest, had looked almost panicked. And now she was avoiding Weasley’s eyes when he gave her compliments, and dodging romantic situations with him.
Mudblood’s got cold feet, Draco thought, but the thought had hardly formed when it twisted in his head, serpentine, and he felt suddenly uncomfortable, unable to look at her.
He thought inexplicably of Dumbledore’s blue eyes. He remembered Dumbledore’s look of disgust at the word Mudblood, and the way he’d made Draco promise to treat everyone at headquarters “with respect.”
Well, he’d done that, hadn’t he? And he was out of headquarters now, and besides, the old man was dead, so, no need to hold up his end of a stupid, pointless bargain about what he called people. As if it mattered.
Granger never even seemed to care when he called her that. In fact, hadn’t she called herself that when they were on their way out of Grimmauld Place? He remembered her yelling it: would you rather touch a Mudblood, or die?
But that memory only made Draco feel more uncomfortable. Had she thought that was the only way she thought she could get through to them, by calling herself that?
Well, it’s what she is, said a voice in his mind. It was … was terminological accuracy, that was all.
He remembered something else, too, as Hogwarts came so close that its shadow swallowed them. He remembered Granger’s face when they were all twelve years old, when she and Weasley had come onto the Quidditch pitch at that contested practice. He heard his own voice. Nobody asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.
As the Gryffindor team had exploded into outrage, she’d just looked at him, slightly confused, not knowing what he meant, or what the word was. It must have been the first time she’d heard it, and now, five years later—
Stop thinking about it, Draco told himself. He looked away from Granger and up at the castle. Hogwarts, at least, was as huge as it ever had been, still large enough to make him feel small and new, as if he’d never done anything in his life.
The boats took them through the curtain of ivy, through the underground passage, and up to the side entrance. They disembarked, and soon they were padding down the empty school halls. Potter, who had donned the Invisibility Cloak, was whispering directions to them, reading off the old piece of parchment Draco had seen in his rucksack earlier that week. He’d been right—it had been something out of the ordinary—but Draco couldn’t help envying Potter that map and the Cloak. Last year could have been so much easier if he’d had tools like those.
Soon they reached the gargoyle that guarded the entrance to the Head’s office. Draco had never been inside.
“All right,” Potter muttered. “Er. Cockroach Cluster.”
“Cockroach Cluster?” Draco repeated, disbelieving.
“Dumbledore used to—” Potter began to explain, but then the gargoyle sprang aside.
They all hesitated, taken aback.
“McGonagall must have set the password to be his name,” Granger whispered. “Come on, let’s hurry.”
They stepped onto the stone spiral staircase that rose gently toward the office door.
“No one’s in there?” Weasley said.
“It’s empty,” Potter confirmed, taking off the Cloak. “And … yeah, looks like Hagrid’s still distracting Snape at the front entrance. I’m just worried about getting the sword out of that case Dumbledore had it in. I’m sure Alohomora won’t work on it.”
“Maybe he’ll have prepared some sort of contingency plan,” Granger said, “for if you needed to get to it.”
Potter didn’t answer.
“Doubting Dumbledore, are you?” Draco muttered. “Welcome to the club. He didn’t leave me and my parents anything useful, that’s for damn sure, and he promised us he’d help us stay alive.”
Potter looked at Draco with the usual dislike, but there was a hint of doubt there, too.
“Ignore him,” Weasley said, shooting Draco a dirty look. “Harry, mate, Dumbledore knew what he was doing. He was thinking years ahead with these Horcruxes. You told us he’s been working on all this since our second year. He wouldn’t just let it all go to waste.”
“Yeah, well, let’s hope,” Potter said. They stepped off at the office door and pushed it open.
Draco’s eyes found it immediately: a long crystal case fixed at the opposite end of the Head’s office. The room itself was a peaceful, circular room filled with many gently whirring silvery objects, and like Dumbledore himself, it set Draco immediately and inexplicably at ease. With all the portraits of former heads snoozing on the walls, it was hard to imagine anything truly bad happening in this office.
Except that the long crystal case was empty.
“No,” Potter said, striding toward it. “No!”
Weasley was looking around the rest of the office, as if hoping he’d find the sword lying discarded on one of the spindly-legged tables. Granger was standing in place, obviously doing some hard thinking.
“The Owlery,” she said. “We can send Professor McGonagall an owl, tell her to come back from London, and we can hide somewhere in the castle overnight. The Room of Requirement, maybe.”
“Why do we need McGonagall?” Draco said with some distaste.
“To find out where she’s put the sword.”
Draco raised his eyebrows. “Can’t you think of anyone else to ask, Granger?”
All three of them looked at him, uncomprehending. Draco rolled his eyes and walked over to the portrait directly behind the Head’s desk. “Excuse me,” he said, tapping the golden frame.
The painting of Albus Dumbledore opened its eyes.
The Gryffindors’ faces lit up, and they crowded over to Draco. Potter nearly knocked him out of the way in his haste to speak to Dumbledore. Draco thought he saw a flash of something like indignation in Potter’s face.
“Professor Dumbledore,” Potter said. “We need your help.”
“Do you?” said the portrait with an exact copy of Dumbledore’s usual polite interest.
“First of all, did you figure anything else out about the Horcruxes?” Potter demanded. “Anything at all before you died?”
“Potter,” Draco said, exasperated, “he can’t tell you that. He’s not the real Dumbledore.”
“Portraits aren’t ghosts, Potter. What, did you sleep through all of History of Magic?”
Potter’s cheeks colored. “I—no,” he said. Granger made a funny noise that might have been a stifled titter.
“Well, anyway,” Draco said, “they can see what’s happening and remember what they’ve seen, that’s all.”
“That’s true,” Granger said. “He’ll just be a sort of essence of the real Dumbledore.” She glanced at the portrait, who was smiling benignly down at them. “But you’re all here to help the current headmaster, aren’t you?”
“Precisely, my dear girl,” said the portrait.
“Well, that’s all right, then,” Weasley said, brightening. “We’re on McGonagall’s side.”
“Sir,” Potter said, “did you see where Professor McGonagall put the sword that was in that case? It’s important. It’ll help her.”
“Ah, the sword …” Dumbledore’s smile faded. “Yes. Unfortunately, Minerva was forced to surrender it.”
“Surrender it?” said Weasley and Potter at the same time.
“Why?” Granger demanded.
“A Ministry representative came in last weekend with a list of my last bequests. I had bequeathed the sword to you, Harry … but I’m afraid the Ministry has taken it for—”
“The thirty-day inspection period,” Granger groaned.
“What?” Weasley and Potter said together.
“The Ministry are allowed to inspect items that have been willed from one wizard to another.” She bristled. “That stipulation is only supposed to be used in cases of suspected Dark Magic, but I suppose the Ministry thought they might be able to figure out what Dumbledore was trying to do before he died. And now—”
“Now that the Ministry’s gone under,” Potter said numbly, “it’ll have gone straight into You-Know-Who’s hands.”
There was a horrible silence.
“Great,” Potter said. “Just perfect.” He looked at Dumbledore’s portrait with an odd, strained look, then said, seemingly unable to help himself, “You really don’t remember anything about—about … I don’t know. Your family?”
“His family?” Granger said, giving Potter a startled look.
“I’m afraid not, dear boy,” said Dumbledore wistfully. “Professor McGonagall has mentioned my brother to me, but otherwise, I cannot help you.”
They were all staring at Potter now. Weasley started, “Harry, what—”
“Forget it,” Potter muttered. “Just—your aunt was saying some … some stuff at the wedding, Ron. And that article Skeeter wrote in the Prophet. You must have seen it, didn’t you?”
Draco remembered reading the snippet about The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore in one of the Prophets that had been delivered to Grimmauld Place. “I read it,” he said.
The others glanced at him, looking slightly surprised as usual to see that he was there.
Draco lifted his shoulders. “What, so his mother and sister died when he was our age? Big surprise. The man was ancient. Loads of people died back then from accidental magic.” He curled his lip. “God, you’re not actually buying everything Skeeter says, are you, Potter? How gullible are you, exactly? I spent our entire fourth year feeding her whatever lies I liked best. The woman prints anything she thinks will sell.”
He stopped talking. He was trying to insult Potter, but it was coming out sounding more like reassurance, which was annoying.
Weasley gave his head a little shake. “But—but what does that have to do with the Horcruxes?” he said blankly.
“Nothing,” Potter said, the troubled look clearing away from his face. “That’s what I’m saying. Forget it. The sword’s miles away, now, and it’s not safe here. We should …”
But he broke off, looking tense with possibility. “Hang on.”
“What is it?” Granger said eagerly.
“Well, while we’re here …” Potter chewed his lip for a moment. “We thought he might have hidden one here, didn’t we?”
Draco looked from one Gryffindor to the next. “Excuse me,” he said, “hidden one? How many of these Horcruxes are there, exactly?”
“Six,” Granger said, “but—”
“Six?” Draco said, aghast.
“—but two have been destroyed already. Dumbledore took care of one, which was an old family ring, and the other was a diary—” Granger gave him a sidelong glance— “that your dad slipped to Ginny Weasley in our second year.” She counted off on her fingers. “Then there’s the locket, which was Salazar Slytherin’s, a cup that belonged to Helga Hufflepuff …”
“The snake,” Weasley put in. “You-Know-Who’s snake.”
Granger nodded and held up her pinky finger. “… and we don’t know what the last is. It could be something belonging to Ravenclaw or Gryffindor, although I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about the Founders, and I can’t find anything that suggests Gryffindor ever had any significant object besides the sword.”
“It looks like we have some time, too,” Potter said, scanning the Marauder’s Map. “Hagrid’s done it. He’s drawn Snape right down the grounds. They’re heading for the Forest. It’ll be ages for them to get to that gate and back.”
Draco exhaled, silently relieved. He’d promised Snape that he and his family wouldn’t be a threat to the Dark Lord, after all, and what these three were doing … well, it was the gravest threat to the Dark Lord he could imagine.
I’m not helping them, though, Draco thought quickly. He was just … just watching, that was all. He hadn’t done anything for them that they wouldn’t have done themselves. It didn’t take a genius to follow the fence to see if there was a second entrance to the grounds, and R.A.B.—well, he’d said it himself. Sirius Black had been Potter’s godfather. They would have figured it out eventually. Yes, Draco was still neutral. He was only here at all to ensure he got back to his parents safely.
And yet he was already thinking about the fourth Horcrux. It could be the Diadem of Ravenclaw, he thought. Surely Granger had come across that in one of her books. He waited for her to suggest it.
But they all stood there for a while in silence. Potter paced the office, saying, “The cup … Ravenclaw … Gryffindor,” in uneven cycles, like he’d had a Vocalizing Charm put on him that was gradually wearing off.
“I don’t know, Harry,” Granger said after a while. “Even if we determine which of the two it is, and what it is, how are we supposed to find where it is? Hogwarts is … to search the entire castle would be …”
“It could take ages, yeah,” Weasley said. “Maybe it’d be better just to use the time to make sure we can get out of here safely.”
Potter looked stubborn. “It’ll be much harder to get back into Hogwarts once the school year’s started, and almost impossible to search with no one noticing. If he’s got one here, this is our best chance, and I—I just have a feeling about it, all right? This was where he chose his new name. Where he gathered the Death Eaters. Hogwarts made him special. It meant everything to him.”
Draco glanced at Weasley and Granger, who were exchanging an uneasy look. Potter was speaking as if he knew the Dark Lord personally.
Well, if Potter was going to run down the clock until Snape got back, Draco couldn’t let them sit around and wait to figure it out.
“The Diadem of Ravenclaw,” he said.
They all looked at him.
“The Lost Diadem,” he said. “My father told me about it during O.W.L. year. Back in his time, the Slytherins used to look for the Diadem during the Easter holidays instead of studying. It was a sort of tradition.”
“Why?” Weasley said.
“Keep up, Weasley. It was Rowena Ravenclaw’s invention, wasn’t it? It’s supposed to make you cleverer, obviously.” He shrugged. “Pretty stupid use of time, if you ask me. Not like the examiners would have let you wear a crown during the tests, even if you found the thing. Or maybe they’d make an exception if you dug up a historical artifact.”
“Lost Diadem,” Potter repeated. “How long has it been lost for?”
“I don’t know,” Draco said. “Centuries, probably.”
“Yes, well, we’re looking for something that was found at most fifty years ago,” Granger said impatiently.
“Granger, do you really think the Dark Lord would have told anyone he found it?”
“No,” Potter said. “Riddle definitely wouldn’t have told anyone.” He was pacing faster, now, excited. “Still, though … where would he have left it?”
“The Slytherin dormitories?” Weasley suggested.
Draco looked up to the ceiling. These three were never going to complete their quest, ever. “Weasley … haven’t I just told you that the Slytherins recreationally hunted the Diadem, every year, for decades? Don’t you think we might have found the damn thing if it were right under our noses?”
“Maybe your lot just weren’t as good at magic as You-Know-Who,” Weasley shot back, red in the face.
Draco let out a derisive laugh. “What, and the four of us are going to have such a different outcome?”
“He wouldn’t have left it in the Slytherin dormitories,” Potter broke in, speaking again with that slightly uncanny certainty. “If it was Ravenclaw’s, he might have left it in Ravenclaw Tower, and that’d show how … how in touch he was with Hogwarts. Otherwise, he’d have wanted to put it somewhere that was important to him personally. Somewhere that showed how powerful he was, or how magical.”
Weasley looked unnerved. “Blimey, you really understand him,” he said with a strained laugh.
“But what sort of place would that have been?” Granger said. “And when would he have done this, anyway?”
“We know he came back to ask Dumbledore for the Defense job,” Potter said.
“But he wouldn’t have had very much time at all, then,” said Granger.
Potter didn’t seem deterred by this line of reasoning. “How much time do you need to plant something somewhere?” he said.
Weasley shook his head. “But this is a Horcrux we’re talking about. He put a whole army of Inferi in that cave to guard that locket. You really think he’d just dart into the castle, no time to put up protective enchantments or anything, and stick it somewhere?”
“Well—” Potter started, sounding defensive. But then he sucked in a sharp breath. The Map fluttered out of his hand, and he looked at Draco.
It hit Draco at the exact same time. There was somewhere hidden in Hogwarts, somewhere that nearly no one in the school had ever known how to enter. There was a place that would have been the perfect spot for a small, unobtrusive object to be placed—and protected—and forgotten.
Hadn’t Draco even seen it? He’d practically lived in the Room of Hidden Things last year. He’d slept there night after night after night, had gone up and down every alley of discarded objects, had memorized his way through that maze.
Hadn’t he seen, on multiple occasions, an eye-catching bust wearing a wig—and a battered old tiara?
“What?” said Granger, looking between Draco and Potter. “What is it?”
Weasley looked alarmed. “Harry? Are you all right?”
“More than all right,” said Potter, snatching up the Map. “I know where it is. I know where the Lost Diadem is. Let’s go.”