Actions

Work Header

The Disappearances of Draco Malfoy

Chapter Text

“I can help you, Draco,” said Dumbledore.

“No, you can’t,” said Malfoy, his wand hand shaking very badly indeed. “Nobody can. He told me to do it or he’ll kill me. I’ve got no choice.”

“He cannot kill you if you are already dead. Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine. What is more, I can send members of the Order to your mother tonight to hide her likewise. Nobody would be surprised that you had died in your attempt to kill me—forgive me, but Lord Voldemort probably expects it. Nor would the Death Eaters be surprised that we had captured and killed your mother—it is what they would do themselves, after all. Your father is safe at the moment in Azkaban. … When the time comes we can protect him too. Come over to the right side, Draco … you are not a killer …”

Malfoy stared at Dumbledore.

“But I got this far, didn’t I?” he said slowly. “They thought I’d die in the attempt, but I’m here … and you’re in my power … I’m the one with the wand … you’re at my mercy …”

“No, Draco,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.”

Malfoy did not speak. His mouth was open, his wand hand still trembling …

 


 

With every passing second, the wand in Draco’s hand seemed to grow heavier.

Do it, hissed Bella’s voice in his mind. Kill him, Draco … the filthy Muggle-lover … look at his ruined hand, look at how he stands, how he breathes. He is as good as dead already! Kill him now!

Draco had been hearing Bellatrix’s voice all year. In the days after his assignment, her fanatical energy had felt like a gift. She knew as well as he did that the Dark Lord had given him this mission to punish his father—and yet, she’d said, think, think of what you might achieve, Draco! It is a chance that any faithful servant of the Dark Lord would die for, to serve him beyond all others!

Draco had repeated the idea to himself so many times that it had become a liturgy. This wasn’t a death sentence at all. It was an invitation to the Dark Lord’s right hand, and if he could only kill Dumbledore, he would cross the finish line, ensure his family’s status forever, and win power and glory beyond imagining. Kill Dumbledore, and end the dark year at last.

But now, as the night wind stung his eyes, as he stood shivering upon the cusp of victory, Draco allowed himself to imagine it fully. He saw himself sitting beside the Dark Lord as his most honored deputy. And he saw the truth, glowing steadily and ominously like a faint red light behind everything else. He thought he might have known it for months already.

This was not a finish line. It was the starting gate. Kill once, and he would need to kill again and again to survive. And even then, even if he gave the Dark Lord decades of loyal, absolute service, he wouldn't be safe. He could be brutally punished at any time for a single error, as his father had been.

He thought wildly of his parents, then of Crabbe and Goyle, Pansy and Blaise. They would suffer for his failures the way he’d suffered for his father’s. His life would be the dark year drawn out forever into the future, a lifetime spent beneath a knife that hung by a thread.

Draco clutched harder to the wand, telling himself to act—to say the incantation—to make the choice—but the world seemed to be dissolving around him. Everything was coming apart into incomprehensible patches of texture and sensation. There was this: the pale green light that shimmered down from the Dark Mark overhead, undulating over stone and flesh and rampart, like standing in an underwater place. And this: the tacky stick and reek of cloth in the damp pit of his right arm, where his robes had bunched; he hadn’t showered in three days, sleepless with preparation. And this: the hiss and whip of the wind at the top of the world.

This. The depth of the lines in the old man’s face. Draco was standing close enough to see where the silver hair joined to the ancient skin, like a thousand silk threads coming out of old, soft fabric.

Bella’s voice seemed to fade, replaced by an echo of Dumbledore’s gentle words. It is my mercy, not yours, that matters now.

The old man was right. There was no mercy anywhere else.

His hand trembling more violently than ever, Draco lowered the wand.

A resounding bang came from the stairwell behind him, followed by the distant crash of stone hitting stone. The voices below that had been growing louder were suddenly shut away, leaving the ramparts silent, as if they were miles away from the rest of the castle.

Draco didn’t even react. He was swaying, lightheaded.

“We must move at once,” said Dumbledore. Seeming to draw strength from a place it caused him great pain to access, he grasped the ramparts and pulled himself slowly, excruciatingly upright. “Time is very short. Your wand, Draco … as quickly as you can, please.”

Draco handed the wand to Dumbledore, but his eyes were fixed on the flagstones. He couldn’t watch his own body act, couldn’t fully understand it even as he did it.

Dumbledore aimed the wand over the ramparts and whispered, “Accio!

A moment’s silence. Then Dumbledore’s own wand flew up out of the darkness, cut through the night winds with a thwip, and landed in his waiting hand. Dumbledore aimed both wands at the door to the stairwell—Draco flinched backward at the motion—and the door flew shut, sealing away new sounds of shifting rock. Draco heard the lock snap into place.

Dumbledore returned Draco’s wand and indicated the brooms that still leaned against the ramparts. “Take the faster of the two,” he rasped. “Fly to Hagrid’s hut and wait there. We will speak soon enough.”

Draco was jarred back to his senses. Hagrid’s hut? Was that supposed to be the security Dumbledore had promised? “But—I—you said—”

“You will know the full plan soon, Draco,” Dumbledore insisted, his brilliantly blue eyes meeting Draco’s over the rims of his half-moon spectacles. “For now, there is no time. I must ask you to fly to Hagrid … to trust, if not my judgment, my rather prodigious skill.” Dumbledore managed a feeble smile.

Draco hesitated. Dumbledore was visibly weakened, and the Death Eaters were on their way, and Snape had made the Vow to his mother. If someone else finished Dumbledore … if no one knew Dumbledore had promised to protect him …

Then a muffled shout issued from the stairwell. Draco flinched, swallowed, and jerked his head in a reluctant nod.

“Good,” Dumbledore said. “The final touch, then …” He rapped Draco on the head with his wand. Draco felt something cold trickle down his back as the Disillusionment charm erased him.

“Go, now,” Dumbledore whispered.

As Draco seized one broom, Dumbledore summoned the other. Draco glanced back as he mounted and couldn’t help but pause at the sight. Under Dumbledore’s wand, the second broom’s long handle was swelling like an arthritic finger, bulging outward first at random, then to mimic what were unmistakably hips, ribs, and shoulders. The wood softened, seeming to melt until it looked like pale skin, and the handle split into two legs, draped with the soft black cloth of a fallen robe. The bristles shortened and shone until they had become white-blond hair, framing a sphere of wood that elongated into a human face—Draco’s own face.

Within seconds, another Draco Malfoy lay before them, motionless, quite convincingly dead. Dumbledore pulled up its left sleeve to reveal the skull and the snake intertwined there.

Draco stared into the face that had stared back at him in the mirror all year, the body he had wished he could escape. Even he couldn’t discern a difference between his own self and the thing he was about to leave behind, the corpse with the mark written upon its pale forearm.

Dumbledore looked up. “Go,” he said.

Draco kicked off, hard, into darkness and wind.

 


 

He didn’t know how much time had passed. The shock of what he’d done was still beating slowly through him, distorting his perspective. It might have been ten minutes or an hour since he’d lowered the wand.

He sat in silence at Hagrid’s rough wooden table and watched the fire crackle. He refused to look at Hagrid, who seemed to loom in the corner of his eye no matter which direction Draco turned.

To say the gamekeeper had been surprised to see him was an understatement. Thankfully, the oaf hadn’t asked for information. He’d just grunted, his obvious dislike mingled with suspicion, and yanked out an empty chair for Draco to take.

Vaguely, it occurred to Draco how ridiculous it was that someone of Hagrid’s size lived in a place like this. It was the kind of thought he might have shaped into a joke last year to make Crabbe and Goyle laugh, before things like making his friends laugh had become unimportant.

He tried not to think where Crabbe and Goyle might be now. An unwanted memory resurfaced: the moment that Fenrir Greyback had muscled his way out of the Vanishing Cabinet into the Room of Requirement. Draco hadn’t expected him, hadn’t wanted him. It was only supposed to be Yaxley, Gibbon, Rowle, and the Carrows, all dangerous, but all at least reliable. The sudden appearance of Greyback—the way he towered over them, the size and the rancid smell of him, everything about him an invasion—had made Draco’s mouth go dry.

Crabbe, miraculously, had stood his ground as Greyback bore down on them, but Draco and Goyle had shied back a few steps, which had made the werewolf roar with laughter. Draco had collected himself almost at once, his cheeks hot. “I didn’t ask you here, werewolf,” he’d said through gritted teeth. “Go back. Are you listening to me? Go back in!”

But Greyback and the others were already stalking toward the exit, speaking in low, excited voices, ignoring Draco.

Crabbe and Goyle looked to Draco, expecting instructions. For an instant he could only look back at them, wondering with a rush of panic where Blaise and Pansy were. Draco knew Greyback would attack them as he would attack anyone in the castle, indiscriminately.

“You two stay here,” he ordered Crabbe and Goyle. “Keep the Room open so we don’t waste time getting back in after I—a-after it’s done.”

Then Draco strode through the towering aisles of forgotten objects to meet the others. He would not run. Running was a mark of desperation and would make him look like a child, and he wasn’t a child. He’d planned this entire attack, hadn’t he? At its end, he would be not just a man but one of the most feared men in the country—and when he had the Dark Lord’s favor, he would make Greyback pay for ever dismissing him.

The thought had heartened him. It had made him feel powerful.

Now Draco stared into the fire, his palms sweating. He felt ill. In a matter of hours, Crabbe, Goyle, Pansy, and Blaise would all think he was dead. Tomorrow Dumbledore would make some grave speech about it to the school, probably about how his death had been the Dark Lord’s fault, and just one more reason to stand together and fight him.

Draco gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to be used like that. His advice to the other Slytherins wouldn’t be to take up arms against the Dark Lord—it would be sit down and stay silent. If someone in power tells you what to do, do it, whether that’s You-Know-Who or Dumbledore. Don’t be a hero. Don’t try to figure out what you believe. Survive. Disappear.

He told himself again that he had made the right decision. Dumbledore was a fool when it came to things like his trust of Snape and his worship of Potter, but the headmaster had defied the Dark Lord for decades. He could hide them, surely. Draco and his parents could flee the country, change their names and keep their heritage boxed away. They would be safe and obscure, no one.

Draco closed his eyes. The flames danced dully in abstract shapes behind his eyelids. If someone had told him two years ago that he, the heir to the House of Malfoy, would ever hope to fade into insignificance, he would have laughed in their face. Of course, a lot of things had seemed funny before.

Hagrid broke the silence after what must have been hours. “Tha’s Professor McGonagall comin’ now,” he rumbled from across the table, his eyes fixed on the window.

Draco looked up as the door opened and McGonagall strode into the hut. Her face was smudged with rock dust, her temple bruised, and a thin red scrape was drawn across her jaw. She closed the door and checked that all the curtains were drawn before turning to face him. McGonagall’s gaze was always unforgiving, but Draco thought it felt even more penetrating than usual tonight. He avoided it.

“Wha’s happened?” said Hagrid, staring at McGonagall. “Yeh’ve been hurt!”

“Death Eaters, Hagrid.” Her eyes were still boring into Draco. “They gained entry to the castle. You didn’t see the Dark Mark, then?”

“I was sleepin’ until Malfoy turned up! Ruddy hell, are they still here? Do yeh need me ter fight?”

“No need, no. Professor Dumbledore returned to the castle in time to turn the tide, very fortunately.”

“An’—an’ everyone’s all right?”

She managed a thin smile. “We have all our limbs, Hagrid, yes.”

“Oh.” Hagrid huffed out a long breath. “Good. Well, then. Yeh … yeh want a cuppa, Minerva?”

“No time, I’m afraid,” she said, turning to Draco fully now. “Mr. Malfoy. Professor Dumbledore has explained the circumstances.”

Draco still didn’t look up, but he could feel Hagrid’s curious stare joining McGonagall’s accusing one.

“I’m sure you will be relieved to hear,” she went on, “that none of your classmates were injured by the Death Eaters tonight. As for the Vanishing Cabinet, it has been dismantled, and the passage between them closed.”

Malfoy didn’t answer. If McGonagall was waiting for him to weep with joy for the Death Eaters’ failure and repent upon his knees, she would be waiting a long time. He could hear the judgment in her voice, the poorly disguised anger, even disbelief of what he’d done. She hadn’t really understood the circumstances at all, then.

He found himself thinking, begrudgingly, of how Dumbledore had listened to him. Dumbledore, at least, had acknowledged the danger he faced.

Still … his friends were unhurt. A knot eased inside his stomach.

“What about my mother?” he said, more belligerently than he’d intended.

McGonagall’s lips thinned, but she answered in a level voice. “Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks have already been sent to retrieve her from your home.”

He looked up at that. “They think they’re just going to walk in, do they? My cousin, who’s been an Auror for about seven seconds, and a patched-up werewolf who—”

“That will do,” McGonagall barked. “I assure you, Mr. Malfoy, our Order members are quite capable of doing the task assigned to them. And, as you yourself are meant to have attacked Albus Dumbledore tonight, signs of a struggle at your home will only send a clearer response to the Death Eaters.”

“Signs of a—you’re not—” Draco struggled for words. “They won’t—?”

McGonagall paused. For the first time, she seemed to soften slightly. “Your mother will not be harmed, of course. Lupin has taken along a vial containing Dumbledore’s memory of tonight’s events. Narcissa will be shown that you are safe and well, and urged to come and meet you.” She paused. “As for a struggle, I mean that Remus and Tonks will break any protective enchantments at your home and lay evidence of a fight to match our story.”

Draco looked away. “All right, then,” he muttered. “And the Death Eaters? Have you killed them yet?”

A moment’s ringing silence. When he glanced back, both teachers looked shocked by the question. Or maybe they were shocked by the way he’d said it, dully, as if it cost him nothing.

Draco couldn’t keep the contempt from his expression now. Did they really think he felt any affection for the other Death Eaters, who had stood back and laughed while Draco was threatened, his father slandered, his mother mistreated? Kill them all, he thought savagely, what does it matter.

“No, Mr. Malfoy,” said McGonagall with a deep, concerned frown. “One Death Eater was killed in the crossfire, but the others are being transferred to Ministry custody within the hour. We intend to allow one of the Carrows to make a narrow escape, so that You-Know-Who will learn the details of your death tonight. Otherwise he might be inclined to investigate your mother’s disappearance too closely.” She pursed her lips. “It goes without saying that we would rather not allow any Death Eater to go free. But it is certainly better for Alecto or Amycus to escape than Greyback.”

“I didn’t let him in here,” Draco said under his breath. His face felt hot and full, as if his blood had turned to boiling water. “Greyback wasn’t supposed to come.”

If McGonagall heard him, she made no sign. She was rummaging in a bag.

He raised his voice. “Where are you taking me? What’s this safe place Dumbledore says you’ve got?”

“You will be sheltered at Order headquarters. We’ll go up to the castle now; you’re to use the Floo Network. You come too, Hagrid. Albus would like to fill you in. Ah, yes—here.” Something soft and silvery spilled out of McGonagall’s bag. Draco recognized it as an Invisibility Cloak. “Up, now, Malfoy. Put this on.”

He rose automatically on legs that still felt unsteady and took the Cloak. As they slipped out onto the dark grounds, McGonagall went on. “Professor Snape is attending to Professor Dumbledore in the Hospi—”

Draco stopped dead, half-under the Cloak. “Snape?” he said. “He—he doesn’t know about this, does he?”

“Of course he does.”

Draco stared back at her aghast. He could hardly believe that they could have been so stupid. “Then you’re going to get us killed!”

“Merlin’s beard,” Hagrid said, “keep yer voice down.”

“I’m telling you,” Draco hissed, looking frantically between the two teachers, “you have to listen to me. Snape works for the Dark Lord. He’s been trying to help me get to Dumbledore all year. If you’ve told Snape the plan, I’m as good as dead already.”

“Mr. Malfoy, please,” said McGonagall sharply. “Severus will be no more involved in your concealment than any other member of the Order. Professor Dumbledore has sworn to see to you and your parents’ wellbeing personally. I assure you he is up to the task.”

Draco hardly heard her. The only thing that mattered was that she wasn’t listening, she didn’t believe him. His heart was pounding in his ears, and new fear was rushing through him, making his whole body cold. He’d trusted Dumbledore to think up something advanced, something unbeatable—and instead the old fool had had gone right to Snape. The moment Snape was unattended, he would tell the Dark Lord the truth. Draco could see it all playing out in his mind: the Death Eaters would beat the Aurors to his mother. They would torture and kill her, and then his father. Draco would be responsible.

His thoughts raced madly into the past, back to his own idiotic choice. He’d had Dumbledore powerless in front of him! He should have killed the old man, yes, he saw that now … should have killed him and found some way to fake his own death, to make his own escape … but it was too late now. He’d succeeded where nobody had thought him capable of success, and in the end, he and his parents would die in pain and disgrace anyway.

Unless …

A glimmer of hope appeared. He tried to swallow and couldn’t. The lump in his throat was as large and sharp as a clump of broken glass.

Unless.

Could Snape choose to lie for them?

Draco knew he was Snape’s favorite student. He’d always been best in the class at Potions, besides the Granger Mudblood, anyway. And hadn’t Snape tried to help him all year? Hadn’t Snape, unknown even to the Dark Lord, sworn an Unbreakable Vow to help Draco?

Maybe there was a chance.

If he or his parents had posed a threat to the Dark Lord, it would have been Snape’s sworn duty to reveal them, or just kill them himself. But surely they had no information that the Order didn’t already have. Draco had been entrusted with nothing, his father had been locked in Azkaban for a year, and his mother was not a Death Eater. It wasn’t as if they were helping the Order of the Phoenix—they were trying to disappear, nothing more.

Was it so impossible that Snape would show mercy, simply allow the Malfoys to evaporate?

Besides, he realized with a fresh surge of hope, Snape can’t do anything right away. Double agents had to think tactically. As long as Dumbledore lived, Snape had to keep the secret, or his loyalties would be revealed.

Draco loosed a slow breath. Yes. That was good, solid reasoning. He had some time, then. Snape would surely seek to kill Dumbledore soon, to fulfill the Vow, but Dumbledore didn’t need to survive forever, only long enough to hide Draco and his parents somewhere not even Snape knew.

Until that time, as long as Dumbledore lived, he was safe.

“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.” He let the Invisibility Cloak fall over him and followed McGonagall up the long, sweeping lawn.

 


 

Draco hadn’t seen the castle so empty all year. Sneaking up to and down from the Room of Requirement, he’d had dozens of near misses with inconveniently placed Order members on patrol, or teachers out of their beds, looking sleepless and harried, their wands held loosely in their hands as if they were always expecting attack.

Now they didn’t pass so much as a ghost. Most of the portraits were sleeping in their frames, although occasionally a figure would stir and watch McGonagall and Hagrid, seemingly alone, pass down the corridors.

The torchlight shone through Draco’s invisible body as he followed the teachers up a long staircase. He felt a kind of exhaustion beyond physical tiredness. The morning seemed as if it had happened a year ago, when he’d jerked awake in the Slytherin dormitory with the same fear that had been closing in on him for months now, the feeling that his time was running out. He felt mostly numb, now, and yet as he gazed blankly around at the halls of Hogwarts, knowing he could never come back, his insides seemed to coil and twist like a nest of serpents.

“Ah, Minerva. Lock the door, please,” said Dumbledore’s voice as they entered the Hospital Wing. It was so late that he was entirely alone. Even Madam Pomfrey had gone to sleep.

“Professor Dumbledore!” Hagrid’s eyes widened at the sight of the headmaster lying in the infirmary bed. In his haste to get to Dumbledore’s side, he accidentally clipped an empty bed with one of his enormous knees, sending it flying aside with a resounding clang as if it were made of straw.

Draco hardly noticed. He had stopped in his tracks.

A second person lay motionless in a nearby bed, a figure with Weasley-red hair. Draco couldn’t tell if he knew him, because the face had been mangled and torn so violently that his features resembled a red blur.

Draco felt as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. He wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. Hadn’t McGonagall said that none of the students had been hurt?—but of course, most of the Weasleys had left Hogwarts … Draco remembered how the twins had left last year, flying out of the Entrance Hall, Umbridge raging after them. He remembered feeling a reluctant sense of amusement, even admiration. He’d had to wipe the tiny smirk off his face when Umbridge had rounded, seething, on the Inquisitorial Squad, her face so shiny and purple that she’d looked like a peeled onion.

Draco’s mouth was slightly open. He realized his vision was blackening slightly at the edges with the speed of his breathing. He finally managed to tear his eyes from the deep gashes, from the skin that had been arranged delicately back into place like a hideous puzzle, but his thoughts felt disorganized. The Hospital Wing seemed too bright. He knew without needing to ask that the wounds were from Greyback. Had Dumbledore asked him here so he would be forced to see this, the consequences of what had happened tonight? So was he meant to feel guilty, even responsible?

No, Draco thought with a kind of furious panic. No, he refused to feel responsible. What good was it for him to feel that, or even to see the destroyed face? He’d turned his back on the Death Eaters. What more could he do? Anyway, he’d told Greyback to go. He seized on that fact and held it tight. Go back, he’d said. Go back …

“Draco,” said Dumbledore. “Please, show yourself.”

Still breathing hard, Draco realized he didn’t want to take off the Cloak. He didn’t want Dumbledore to see him again, not standing feet from the mauled body, where the line could be drawn so obviously between them. What if Dumbledore changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to help him anymore? He knew he couldn’t last on his own.

“Now, Mr. Malfoy,” said McGonagall impatiently, holding out her hand. “The headmaster needs rest, and you need to leave as soon as you can.”

Draco swallowed, took off the Cloak, and dropped it into McGonagall’s waiting hand.

Dumbledore looked slightly concerned at the sight of his face. “Are you all right, dear boy?” he asked.

Draco stared at the old man. All right? Was that a test? Was he supposed to compare himself to the horrible injuries of the figure in the bed, and to realize that he was all right, but only at the expense of whichever Order member it was? Was that the psychological game Dumbledore was playing?

Draco realized his face had twisted up. “Never been better,” he forced out.

McGonagall and Hagrid looked irritated, but Dumbledore was as serene as ever, twinkling away in his bed. Draco didn’t want to look at them—all Gryffindors, he realized, standing unified against him. Instead he glared at Dumbledore’s blackened hand lying against the white sheets.

“Well?” he said. “When are you going to get my father out of Azkaban?”

Hagrid let out a furious, strangled noise. “Get—get ‘is—what?” Even McGonagall couldn’t restrain an odd little sound that sounded a bit like a cat choking on a hairball.

Dumbledore did not look at either of them. He met Draco’s eyes, and almost at once, Draco felt an inexplicable sense of safety settle over him. He hated himself for the feeling—so far, hadn’t Dumbledore done little more than hurl him back into danger with his idiotic trust of Snape?—and yet there was something in the ancient face that still radiated power, and therefore reassurance.

“As I said earlier,” Dumbledore said calmly, “Lucius is safe enough in Azkaban for the time being. There is no need to fear for his life, especially now that Lord Voldemort will consider him, after the apparent death of his son and wife, more than sufficiently punished. In fact,” he added mildly, as if commenting on the weather, “if we act out his death immediately after your mother’s, it will make both deaths rather less convincing, I think.”

“But you know how you’re going to do it? You have a plan?”

Dumbledore inclined his head.

“Well?” Draco said impatiently. “What is it?”

“Malfoy,” barked McGonagall, who clearly thought he was being too demanding with a convalescent man over a century old. But Dumbledore silenced her by lifting his healthy hand, which, Draco noticed, was not trembling nearly so badly now as it had on top of the tower.

“Sometime in the coming weeks,” said Dumbledore calmly, “members of the Order will visit Lucius in Azkaban under the guise of informing him of your death. They will, of course, tell him the truth instead. They will also provide him with a dose of Draught of Living Death to drink soon thereafter.” One corner of Dumbledore’s mouth lifted. “After his burial in the family plot, I daresay we might find him under slightly less surveillance. Then he can be fetched back to headquarters, too.”

Hagrid couldn’t seem to contain himself. “But Professor Dumbledore, sir,” he burst out, “how are we ter know Lucius Malfoy won’t run righ’ back to You-Know-Who after gettin’ out of Azkaban?”

Draco snapped. Part of him had been waiting for something like this, waiting to vent some tiny fraction of his fear and anger. “Because,” he snarled, “my father’s smart enough not to waltz back to the Dark Lord while your lot have my mother and me all but captive at your headquarters. Thank God I’m not relying on your brains to keep us alive.”

The expected maroon color flooded Hagrid’s cheeks. Draco wanted him to retort, wanted an excuse to fight, but before Hagrid could respond, Dumbledore broke in.

“To your question, Hagrid,” he said, voice slightly raised, “I do not believe that Lucius would risk his wife and son for anything, especially for a loyalty to Lord Voldemort that wavered so soon after his master first lost his body.”

Now he looked toward Draco, stern-faced for the first time since Draco had said the word “Mudblood” on top of the Astronomy Tower. “Draco,” he said with a touch of steel. “Not just here, but while you are at headquarters, I must ask you never to speak to a member of the Order that way again. To protect you puts them all at risk. You owe them, if not your gratitude, your respect.”

Draco clenched his jaw. All sorts of thoughts flew through his head, namely that he hadn’t asked for the oaf’s help, that he wouldn’t trust Hagrid as far as he could throw the great lump, that—far from protecting him—if Hagrid didn’t wind up compromising his family’s safety by sheer carelessness it would be an absolute miracle.

But he knew insulting Hagrid would do nothing. It was Dumbledore he needed to keep happy, so he twitched his head in the smallest nod he could manage.

Dumbledore didn’t look wholly convinced. “You will promise to treat everyone who enters Order headquarters with respect?”

Draco closed his eyes. He could only imagine what would come pouring into that place come summer. Harry bloody Potter, he supposed, and the Weasel King, and the Mudblood Encyclopedia. Not to mention werewolves and blood traitors and Aurors and generally no one he wanted to see under any circumstances ever.

“What does it matter?” Draco ground out.

“Oh, it matters greatly, Draco.” Dumbledore sighed and lifted a goblet from the bedside. He sipped the potion inside, grimaced, and then straightened slightly against his cushions. “To respect each other,” he said, with more strength, “no matter our differences, is the most fundamental distinction between what the Order practices and what the Dark Lord espouses among his followers. We will have much to accomplish this summer, and—”

“I’m not working for you.” The words were out of Draco’s mouth before he’d planned them.

Dumbledore looked at him with polite interest. “Oh?”

Draco felt both Hagrid’s and McGonagall’s disapproving looks hot on the side of his face, but he lifted his chin defiantly. “You heard me,” he said coldly. “I said I’m not working for you. Snape might keep quiet if he thinks my parents and I are just hiding, but if he thinks we’re working against the Death Eaters, there’s no chance he won’t tell the Dark Lord.”

“Professor Snape has been instructed not to reveal your survival to—”

He isn’t working for you! What do I have to do to get that through your—”

“That is enough, Malfoy!” Professor McGonagall snapped. “Really!”

Draco rounded on her, but before he could snap back, Dumbledore intervened again.

“Please, Minerva. Have patience. Draco has suffered a dreadful ordeal, and Severus does, after all, play his part convincingly enough to fool even Lord Voldemort. It is perfectly natural for Draco to be concerned for his and his family’s wellbeing.”

Draco just stared at Dumbledore. He had no idea what he was supposed to feel at this collection of sentences. Were they condescending? Yes. Mollifying? Also yes, somehow.

Draco couldn’t understand the old man at all. He seemed so understanding of everyone and everything that it was like he wasn’t a person at all, just a ghostlike entity who drifted between a thousand points of view, acknowledging them all to be perfectly natural without ever really feeling anything of his own. He even spoke about the Dark Lord with a bizarre kind of understanding.

Draco wanted to decide it was pathetic, but he couldn’t get beyond the fact that it was completely incomprehensible. What, did Dumbledore never judge anyone? Did he never prefer anyone or dislike anyone? How could he even be on his own side and say that Draco had “suffered a dreadful ordeal”? Draco would almost have preferred Dumbledore to look at him with loathing; at least that would have made sense.

Anyway, he’d shut McGonagall up, so there was that small blessing.

“I do not expect you to assist the Order of the Phoenix, Draco,” said Dumbledore lightly, as if nothing had interrupted his original speech. “It is enough of a victory, in terms of our aims, for three people close to the Dark Lord to cease working against us. And it will be difficult enough for you to leave behind everything you know, to be thought dead.”

Draco had no response to that, either. Dumbledore’s expression was a bit too knowing, as if he’d guessed what Draco was imagining. His friends’ faces when they learned what had supposedly happened to him. The silence in their compartment on the Hogwarts Express back home.

“What are you going to tell them?” he muttered, looking at the floor.

“I will announce to the school that you had been sworn into Lord Voldemort’s service and ordered to kill me, or be murdered yourself. I will tell them, too, that you admitted to the attacks that hurt Katie Bell and Ron Weasley. Yes, Draco,” he added more quietly, “I’m afraid the school deserves to know the truth about that. The more of your behavior this year they understand, the more they will be able to understand the kind of future that awaits them under Voldemort’s rule.”

“So, you’re going to use me as a warning, are you?” Still looking at the Hospital Wing’s scrubbed floors, Draco couldn’t quite keep the sneer out of his voice. “Be careful or you’ll wind up like Draco Malfoy. Join up now, and resist the Dark Lord, so we don’t have any more Draco Malfoys in the world. Except you’re still getting them killed that way, aren’t you?”

Dumbledore did not reply for a moment. When Draco looked up, he felt an uncertain lurch at the expression on Dumbledore’s face. The old man’s eyes were bright and full of pain.

“Yes,” Dumbledore said quietly. “For those like you, Draco, who come of age in times like these, I’m afraid that is the only choice left to make: whether to stand against evil, at risk of being cut down by its many terrible weapons—or to come quietly, and be led, voiceless, into its center.”

Draco couldn’t answer. His throat had constricted.

“Is there anything else you wish to ask me before you go?” Dumbledore asked.

“Who … who’s that,” said Draco, unable to look at the other bed.

“Bill Weasley. He was Head Boy here in his time, and a Prefect like yourself. I believe you know his youngest brother, Ron, and his sister Ginny. He will recover, though his life will, of course, be different.” Dumbledore paused. “If that is all, then please read this.”

He handed Draco a slip of parchment. It read: The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is located at Number 12, Grimmauld Place.

Hardly had Draco read the words when the parchment burst into a heatless flame. In seconds it had gone.

“Goodnight, Draco,” Dumbledore said, taking off his spectacles. His face looked strangely and soft and naked without them. “Thank you for what you did tonight.”

Mad, Draco thought.

“Night,” he muttered, and then he let McGonagall steer him away, through the halls one last time, and into her office, where he cast a pinch of glittering green powder upon an empty grate, spoke the address, and left his life behind.

Chapter Text

Two weeks later

 

It was lucky the house at Grimmauld Place had several stories and a basement still strewn with Dark artifacts, because if it had been smaller or duller, Draco thought he might have surrendered himself to the Dark Lord out of sheer boredom.

Draco,” said his mother one evening, when he made the mistake of saying this to her. “That is nothing to joke about.”

He didn’t miss the way her eyes—icy blue and slightly feline, as if his own had been saturated with color—flicked nervously to the door. He knew she was remembering the manor, which for nearly a year had housed a steady stream of Death Eaters, all monitoring each other’s words for hints of weakness or disloyalty.

Draco yawned and sank down in his ancient leather chair. “Please, Mother. You know how hard I worked to get us this exclusive reservation. I’m not going to leave it all to you.”

Her expression softened, and her lips pulled briefly in a near smile. She returned to the Evening Prophet.

Draco watched his mother for another moment. She looked, he realized, healthier than she had in a year. Her long blonde hair, which had been lank and dull every holiday, was brushed and clean now, and though her eyes still had the red tint of sleeplessness, her movements were less nervous. Her posture had regained the rigid perfection that Draco associated with black pearls and silk robes, the lavish parties of his childhood.

In general, she looked the way Draco felt: as if the previous year had been physically siphoned out of his body, leaving him lighter, able to breathe.

Draco ran his fingers over the chair’s cracked, faded arms and experienced a rare moment of contentment. It was mid-July and pleasantly hot, and they’d pushed up the windows of the drawing room to let in a breeze. The Wizarding Wireless in the corner was humming with the Clantham Crickets’ Symphony, and his mother was, if not happy, at least safe and comfortable. To top it all off, they’d received word two nights ago that Lucius had been smuggled the Draught of Living Death in Azkaban and was to be freed this weekend.

There was no owl post to the house, but the Prophet and any messages came through the Floo twice a day, ejected unceremoniously onto the kitchen hearth. The most eventful bit of news in the Prophet so far had been their shared obituary, which had run the week after their “deaths.” Draco had read the piece out loud in a somber, priestlike tone that had made his mother smile with teeth, which she never did; there was a sharp canine she didn’t like.

“Anything worth reading today?” he asked her, propping his feet up on an ottoman whose ivory legs looked like they might have been carved out of troll tusks.

“Not particularly,” she said. “The Ministry is conducting an internal investigation of the Department of Magical Games and Sports. They suspect someone there has been compromised.”

Magical Games and Sports?” Draco snickered. “Of course. All part of the Dark Lord’s master plan to take over the International Association of Quidditch.”

One corner of his mother’s mouth twitched. “They think it’s a side door into the Auror Office. Lax security in one department could mean a chain of Imperius Curses, et cetera, et cetera.”

“Oh.” Draco paused. “And? Has someone been Imperiused?”

His mother arched one thin eyebrow. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss such things while we’re here, Draco.” She turned a page pointedly.

Draco stayed quiet and kept watching her, amused. His parents always withheld information from him for about twenty seconds. They seemed to regard it as a good exercise in patience.

On cue, his mother sighed and looked over at him. “I didn’t hear of any plans for that department. Of course, the Dark Lord will have jettisoned anything I did hear. He’ll think I was interrogated thoroughly before my death.”

“Of course. If Dumbledore’s known for anything, it’s his brutal interrogation tactics.”

“He is an accomplished Legilimens.”

“Yeah, well, that didn’t stop me from getting Death Eaters into his school, did it?” Draco stood and stretched. “I think I’ll have the elf make me a cup of tea. Do you want any, Mother?”

“No, thank you, Draco. … I’ll call him if I need him.” Though she didn’t look up from the Prophet, she reached up absentmindedly to touch Draco’s arm as he passed, as if to remind herself that he was real.

In the end, Draco headed down to the basement kitchen to make the tea himself. He wasn’t fond of the elf—Croucher, or whatever his name was—who had a bad habit of popping up suddenly, looking like a demented gnome. Two days after their arrival, the hideous old thing had shown up, sent by Dumbledore and apparently delighted to see both of them. Since then, Draco’s mother had been giving the elf orders, and under her instruction, the house had grown cleaner and cleaner. There was only one type of mold left on Draco’s bathroom ceiling, for instance. Or, rather, Regulus Arcturus Black’s bathroom ceiling; he’d been sleeping in the man’s bedroom.

“Master Draco!” yelped a deep, throaty voice when the kettle was halfway to boiling. Draco flinched and looked back to see the elf scurrying into the room, looking stricken. “Kreacher did not know Master Draco was in need of tea … Kreacher would have been honored, honored to serve the noble son of Malfoy … Kreacher knows he takes his tea strong, as befits his pure blood, yes …”

Draco moved back with slight disgust. Mercifully, the elf had replaced his old rag of a loincloth with a more presentable towel, but he still reeked with the scent of decay. Probably it was all the mold.

Then Draco registered the words. “How do you know how I make my tea?” he said, frowning. “You’ve never made me any.”

The elf shifted guiltily, his bloodshot eyes sliding back and forth. “Kreacher watched … that is to say … Kreacher was forced to watch Master Draco last year, at Hogwarts, under—” his expression soured— “Master Harry’s orders. Kreacher was made to supervise Master Draco at all times, and to tell Master Harry information, yes, he was, though he didn’t want to.”

Draco stared at the elf, repulsed. “At all times? What, even when I was asleep?”

Kreacher looked like he greatly regretted coming into the room. “Kreacher felt such remorse,” he gasped, his eyes swiveling violently now, “such remorse, to pry and spy on a Malfoy … such shame …”

But before Draco could ask any more questions, there were footsteps and whispers from the front of the house. Then the door was swinging open, and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger were walking into the kitchen.

“—if even he doesn’t know who it is, then—” Granger was whispering to Weasley, but as the door swung shut behind them, she broke off.

Motionless, they stared across the kitchen at Draco for a long moment. He stared back.

The last time he’d seen Weasley, they’d been near the entrance to the Astronomy Tower during the fight. Weasley and his sister had been shooting hexes at the Death Eaters, mysteriously sliding under every counterattack at just the right time. Draco could still see the flashes of multicolored light reflecting across his freckled face. After two weeks of sitting in this silent house and doing nothing more exciting than Banishing a centipede down the drain, the memory of the battle—the yelling that echoed in a thousand directions, the taste of rock dust in the air as the castle took the marks of their anger—felt unreal.

It was even stranger to remember the last time he’d seen Granger: the day before the fight, waving her hand around in the air during one of Slughorn’s Potions lessons, making him suffer slightly from secondhand embarrassment as always. It didn’t seem possible that anything so normal could have been happening only two weeks ago.

The creak as Kreacher slunk back out through the door brought Draco back to himself. “Don’t mind me,” he drawled, though his voice didn’t sound quite as nonchalant as he’d wanted. “I’ll be gone in a moment. Don’t want to interrupt your … what is this, are you eloping, or something?” He eyed Granger’s fingers, which were wrapped around Weasley’s arm. “Actually, I don’t think I want to know.”

“You’ve got some nerve,” Weasley snapped as Draco went back to poking through various boxes of tea. “Enjoying your holiday, are you?”

“I’ve had better. Doubt you have, though, Weasley.” He shot a smirk over his shoulder. “This place does have multiple bathrooms, so I suppose to you it’s practically a five-star hotel.”

Before Weasley could retort, the door opened again. Four more Weasleys poured into the kitchen, whispering among themselves: the twins, followed by the parents.

“—don’t care what Remus thinks you’re ready to—” Mrs. Weasley was hissing at one of the twins under her breath, but as the entire party spotted Draco and stopped in their tracks, she lost her voice just as Granger had. Silence fell again, even more uncomfortable than before.

The kettle began to whistle. Draco turned his back on them and poured his tea, suddenly aware that his mouth was dry. As he poured, he imagined spilling the boiling liquid over his fingers, imagined skin scalded red, injured skin, like Bill Weasley’s.

In the two weeks he’d been in this place, he’d watched Order members come and go from the first floor landing. He thought he’d heard the Weasley parents’ voices once or twice, during meeting nights, but he hadn’t seen them yet. He didn’t want to be in the room with them, or to know what they wanted to say to him.

With the steaming cup in his hands, Draco strode for the door, brushing past the mother, a dumpy little woman who smelled of cooking oil and some kind of cheap cleaning potion. He didn’t look at her. He only spared the rest a glance, but he thought, oddly, that none of them looked especially angry except for Ron. Even Granger was giving him a wary, critical look rather than her usual vehement glare.

Draco didn’t exhale until the kitchen door was shut behind him. He climbed up the short stairwell into the front hall to find that other members of the Order were amassing in the dusty light of the front foyer: Dedalus Diggle, bouncing on his tiptoes; and Kingsley Shacklebolt, a head taller than the rest; and his cousin Nymphadora, her hair an outrageous shade of tangerine. Tonight must have been a meeting of the entire Order.

“Draco, hello,” said a weary voice. Remus Lupin had emerged at the front of the group. Draco couldn’t help eyeing his robes, which had been patched so many times that they looked practically quilted.

Draco jerked his head in a nod of greeting and moved away from the kitchen door, but Lupin didn’t go through. His old professor sidestepped with him, instead, allowing the other Order members past. Mad-Eye Moody’s magical eye tracked around to stare at Draco as he clunked by on his wooden leg.

“How have you and your mother been doing?” Lupin asked, voice lowered. “I know this can’t have been easy for you. This house is …” His tired eyes traveled over the peeling wallpaper. “… not the most welcoming place.”

Merlin, spare me, Draco thought with irritation. Lupin obviously hadn’t changed since coming to Hogwarts in their third year. He had been like this then, too, annoyingly serious beneath his mantle of exhaustion, treating everyone like they were also nursing some private injury.

Well, Draco wasn’t. He was alive and safe and had no interest in being looked at like he was on the verge of breakdown. Even at the worst of things, he’d never needed pity, and especially not from a werewolf.

“We’re both fine,” he said coldly. “I’m going up to her now.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” said Tonks indignantly as he stalked past her and Lupin. “We did bring her here, you know, your mum. You’d think she’d have been less rude to people saving her life. I s’pose it runs in the family.”

Draco’s steps faltered. It was the first time his cousin had ever actually spoken to him. With a Mudblood for a father and a mother estranged from the family, Tonks had never been invited to the family reunions, or the Christmas parties, or the summer gatherings that fell all the way down the manor lawns in cascades of pastel umbrellas and platters of choux pastry. Draco had never wondered about that side of the family—why would he be curious about anyone who’d married a Mudblood?—but now it occurred to him that his mother and Tonks’s mother had probably visited this house together growing up. He didn’t know why, but the thought made him feel oddly young.

The rest of the Order had all filed into the kitchen now. He avoided Lupin’s and Tonks’s eyes and didn’t answer her, starting up the long, carpeted steps instead.

But as he reached the landing, the door opened again. He glanced back and saw two final Order members: Snape, impassive and hook-nosed and greasy-haired as ever; and Dumbledore, who was moving slowly, deliberately, as if every motion caused him a hint of pain.

Draco watched them pass down the hall and into the kitchen. Dumbledore clearly hadn’t recovered from whatever had happened to him the night of the attack, but the old man was still sticking close to Snape, still clearly trusted Snape. It was a miracle Snape hadn’t found an opportunity to kill him yet. Of course, in this weakened state, the headmaster probably had to delegate everything to other Order members; he was probably surrounded all the time. Maybe Snape was trying to do it in absolute secrecy, so that he could stay in the Order’s ranks even after Dumbledore’s death.

Draco glanced back down the hall to the drawing room door. He thought of his mother reading inside, thought of her look of anticipation when they’d gotten word about his father. Suddenly the rescue didn’t feel like as much of a guarantee anymore. With Dumbledore in this state, it looked like one weak poison could finish him off.

Draco made a decision. He fetched the book about blood magic he’d been reading, sat on the top step, and waited for the kitchen door to open again. He knew it was no good trying to listen to the meeting; he’d tried it several times with smaller gatherings, but there was always some kind of Silencer on the door.

This time, the meeting lasted hours. Draco had finished both chapters about blood as a potion ingredient by the time the door cracked open again. He hurried downstairs as several Order members reached the front door. Green flashes were coming from the kitchen as others took the Floo out; he hastened for the entrance, not wanting to miss Snape and Dumbledore.

He was in luck. When he reached the threshold, Snape and Dumbledore were still there, along with Granger, Weasley, and Mrs. Weasley. Dumbledore was listening patiently to Mrs. Weasley, who was saying, “—younger Order members as little more than bait, Albus …!”

Dumbledore raised a hand. Mrs. Weasley glanced over, saw Draco, and shut her mouth.

“Good to see you looking so well, Draco,” said Dumbledore with a small smile. “How may I be of use?”

“I wondered if I could have a word with Professor Snape,” Draco said.

Snape glanced at Dumbledore, who inclined his head slightly. “Go on,” said the old man. “I will wait for you here, Severus … Molly and I have more to discuss, clearly …”

Draco felt slightly unnerved. Even Dumbledore’s voice was noticeably weaker than usual. Draco wanted to watch the headmaster for any more warning signs, but soon Snape had crossed the kitchen and ushered Draco out into the now-empty hall.

“Yes?” said Snape. His black eyes were, as usual, unreadable.

“I’m not going to try to stop you,” Draco said quietly.

Snape’s expression did not change. “I have no idea what you mean.”

Draco lowered his voice further. “I know you made the Vow to my mother. I know you’re going to kill the old man. I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Snape reached out a hand and pushed the kitchen door all the way shut. “Then why say anything?” His lip curled. “Is this a threat?”

“No,” Draco said. “I’m … I’m asking you to wait until the Order gets my father out of Azkaban. None of the others will want to help us after he’s dead. And I’m asking you not to tell the Dark Lord we’re alive.” He paused, then added reluctantly, “Please.”

Snape looked coldly back into Draco’s face. It occurred to Draco, oddly, that he was an inch or so taller than Snape now. In his mind, Snape was still the towering presence he’d been during their first Potions lesson, the one professor in Hogwarts with the kind of power and mystique that Draco had wanted to learn himself.

“If you had accepted my help early on,” said Snape in his cool, sibilant voice, “last year would have been a great deal easier for you, Draco. … You said you didn’t want me to—what were the words?—ah, yes … to steal your glory.” His lip curled. “Clearly something changed.”

Draco looked down at the grimy old carpet. “Fine. I couldn’t do it,” he ground out. “Is that what you want to hear? I couldn’t kill him.”

“Yet you would allow me to do it.”

Draco couldn’t help a bitter laugh. “Like I could stop you.” He shook his head and spoke more urgently. “But even if I could stop you, I wouldn’t. That’s what I’m telling you. Just because I’m here, it doesn’t mean I’m working against the Dark Lord. My mother and father won’t, either. We’re not a risk to him. You can let us live and it—it won’t change anything, do you see?”

There was a long silence. Snape considered Draco, and Draco looked into his cold black eyes, daring Snape to use Legilimency on him, to see he was telling the truth. But he didn’t feel the familiar probing sensation. He wondered, with a sudden lurch in his gut, whether Snape had already revealed the truth to the Dark Lord, if, even now, the Death Eaters were just waiting for Dumbledore’s death to close in on Draco and his mother.

But then Snape said, “Very well.” He spoke so quietly that his lips barely moved. “As long as I know you are no threat to the Dark Lord … you may remain among the dead.”

Draco took a deep breath, relief flooding him. “Thank you, sir,” he said, dipping his head. “You know we’ll repay you if we ever can. You can always count on us.”

“I know,” Snape said.

Then the Potions Master turned and swept back into the kitchen. Soon there was a flash of green light. He and the headmaster were gone.

Moments later, Molly Weasley stormed past Draco toward the front door, muttering something to herself about “reckless” and “so young.” He heard the muffled crack as she Disapparated on the front step, and when he headed down into the kitchen to return his teacup, he found Granger and Weasley still standing at the edge of the table, talking in low voices.

Again they stopped at the sight of him. They exchanged one of those looks that they and Potter were always trading with each other, as if the three of them could read each other’s minds. Draco wondered how it felt to be so readable, so predictable to another person. It seemed like it would be boring.

The silent transmission of information took only an instant. Then Granger seized Weasley’s upper arm in a viselike grip. “Ron,” she said in a warning tone. “Ron, don’t—”

“Get off, Hermione.” Weasley tugged his arm free and took a step toward Draco. His ears were already red again. “I know what really happened,” he said darkly.

“Oh?” said Draco idly. “Well, that might sound a bit more threatening, Weasley, if I had any idea what you were talking about.”

Weasley’s face turned a shade redder. It was too easy with him, actually.

“I’m talking about the Vanishing Cabinet,” he said furiously. “The Room of Requirement. Dumbledore might’ve told everyone else a version of things that makes it sound like you didn’t have any choice, but we know you did. You’re not a hero just because you got cold feet at the last second.”

Draco’s eyes slid onto Granger, whose face was a web of shadows in the weak electric light of the kitchen. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t contradict Weasley, either. She was studying Draco with the same hard, critical look as before, the kind of look he’d seen her direct at difficult assignments.

The pair of them had probably discussed all this at length already. Anger filled Draco as he pictured it: these two debating back and forth with Potter, deciding how best to judge him—as if the last year of his life had been some sort of theoretical moral argument. Sanctimonious little toerags, he thought viciously. What was the hardest choice the three of them had ever had to make? Whether to go with each other to the Yule Ball? Whether to keep their mouth shut in front of Umbridge so they wouldn’t get detentions? What a struggle.

Draco spoke only when he could be sure his voice wouldn’t betray his anger. “You think I need your approval, Weasel King?” he said, softening his voice to the same cold sneer that Snape had just used on him. “You think I give a damn whether you think I made the right choices or not?”

“No,” Weasley snapped. “I don’t think you give a damn. I think you only thought about yourself, like always, and that’s why my brother’s going to be scarred for the rest of his life!” His voice had risen to a yell. He took a deep, shaky breath and tamped down the volume, though his voice still trembled with fury. “It all just went away for you, didn’t it, Malfoy? The second you’re out of danger, everything’s back to normal, eh? Well, it didn’t go away for me and my family. My brother nearly died for you Death Eaters to get a second chance you didn’t deserve.”

Draco just looked at him. The accusation had not hurt him. Actually, hearing the words, all of the heat in Draco’s body had seemed to drain, and now he felt as if he were standing several paces away from himself, watching himself be lectured, watching his own blank face. It was like the feeling of Occlumency: the numb remoteness, the total closure of himself to external force, and the strange accompanying hyperawareness of what was happening inside his own mind.

Inside, odd fragments of memory were surfacing. He remembered the Quidditch pitch in second year, watching Weasley’s curse backfire, the slugs that had oozed out of his mouth. He remembered laughing so hard at Weasley’s embarrassment and discomfort that no sound came out. And during sixth year he’d guffawed over the dinner table at the way he’d broken Potter’s nose. He remembered the satisfaction he’d felt as the bridge crunched beneath his foot and blood streamed down over Potter’s face, Potter getting what he deserved, pain and humiliation, the arrogant fool. He remembered, too, the Christmas holidays last year, when the Dark Lord had come to the manor accompanied by a Muggle man from the neighboring town who had drunkenly mocked his robes. Draco remembered the Muggle man’s glassy look, and how it had broken when the Dark Lord lifted the Imperius Curse, and how all the other Death Eaters had laughed to see him try to get away. Draco remembered the way the man’s naked feet had slipped and scrabbled comically on the shining parquet floors. The syncopated rhythm of his ragged breaths. The pain and terror on his crimson face as he spun, asphyxiating, into the air, directed by the Dark Lord’s wand. Draco had tried to make himself laugh, told himself it was funny, just a filthy Muggle getting what he deserved; that was the phrase that went through his head, cold and clear and mechanical, as if it were something he had memorized rote out of a textbook. Anyway, when commingled with the others’ laughter, the sounds he forced out of his throat sounded mostly natural, and Bellatrix looked at him like she was proud.

All of this flickered and died in his mind within an instant. He was back in the kitchen and legally dead. Weasley was still flushed, but the redness of his skin had lost its humor. Draco left his teacup on the counter and walked out of the kitchen.

 


 

Two weeks later

 

Hermione looked into Ron’s eyes as he told her everything was going to be fine.

Some doubt must have shown on her face, because he repeated, “It will.”

“Yes,” she said. “I—yes, I’m sure it will. You’re right.”

She didn’t sound convincing even to herself. Ron sighed. “Well, if you don’t feel safe with Shacklebolt, Mad-Eye, Lupin, and Dumbledore there, I’m not going to be able to talk you into it, so I’m going to stop trying. You ready to go?”

Hermione nodded, feeling slightly sick. It’s for Harry’s sake, she told herself. You’re going to see Harry in a matter of minutes. Then she shot a guilty look at Ron. Maybe she was imagining it, but she felt as if he’d started acting odd whenever she brought Harry up of her own accord.

She’d been at the Burrow for most of July now. Maybe she’d been stupid to expect it at a house filled with Ron’s family, but she’d thought … she didn’t know what she’d thought. That Ron would make a passionate declaration? No, maybe not, but she had hoped that without Harry there, Ron might move in that general direction.

She felt as if she were going mad. Whenever they found time to discuss their hunt for the Horcruxes—discussions that required them to be hidden away in Ron’s room or Fred and George’s, where she was staying—she felt the tension in the air between them, and in her own body, pleasurably tense, like a string about to be played. And sometimes she could swear she felt Ron looking at her from across a room, or the crowded dinner table, but when she looked toward him, he was always in the middle of turning away.

She supposed it was reasonable to ask herself why she hadn’t tried to move things along. Ginny had asked that precise question when Hermione had fretted to her one evening about Ron’s behavior.

“I—I don’t know,” Hermione said, taken aback. “I suppose …”

“Is it because Ron’s a boy?” Ginny said, flicking through a page of Quidditch Quarterly. “Never thought you’d be so old-fashioned, Hermione.”

“No, it’s not,” she said hotly. “It’s because … because … well, this thing that we have to do with Harry … if Ron and I are seeing each other, it could strain the whole situation.”

“Oh, right, and it’ll be much less strained like this,” Ginny chortled. “The both of you looking like you’re constipated whenever you finish a completely average conversation.”

Hermione sighed and lay back on Ginny’s bed, while Ginny settled herself deeper in the pouf by her window. Unfortunately, Hermione couldn’t be entirely open, because a secret part of her dared to ask the question that neither Ginny nor Ron ever would: did she feel something for Harry? It felt almost impossible to separate the tangled threads of what she felt for her two best friends. A feral kind of protectiveness, affection and tenderness, even jealousy—she felt it all for the both of them, so strongly that she wondered whether she might be mistaking it for romance with Ron, or missing it with Harry.

She wondered whether, if Harry had been here instead of Ron, and they had been having these private and intense discussions, she would have felt a similar tension. She even wondered whether, if it had been Harry who had been poisoned last year, Harry whose bedside she’d attended for weeks on end, her feelings might have developed that way instead. Or had she attended Ron’s bedside precisely because she’d been so hurt by his relationship with Lavender? She couldn’t tell, and her logical mind knew perfectly well how ridiculous it was to try and cross-examine previous possibilities as if they changed anything, and also they were fighting a war, and all of this seemed pathetic and trivial and still somehow like the most important thing in the world, all her feelings amplified by the danger they faced as if the constant possibility of disaster were a drug. Now or never, and more likely never.

Of course, she couldn’t tell Ginny any of this. The idea of revealing that she might have feelings for Ginny’s ex-boyfriend, with whom she was about to undertake an undercover mission, would have destroyed Ginny. Hermione knew that. She also knew that if she felt anything for Harry it would destroy Ron, too, his fragile self-confidence. These threads of guilt spun another indecipherable dimension into what she felt.

So Hermione had been keeping it all inside. And now, on the brink of seeing Harry again, she was feeling a kind of relief that made everything even more confusing. Why relief? When Ron’s presence made her feel a kind of fluttery agitation, when she’d become this attuned to his voice and his glances, why on earth was she relieved that they’d failed to start things while they had the time and privacy? Was it because, secretly, she didn’t want to be with Ron? Or was it because it would have been too much to start a relationship when they would soon be in such danger? Was stasis reassuring because this kind of stasis was already too much to feel?

Well, if she knew one thing, it was that if she’d tried to talk about any of it with Ron, he would have stared at her as if she were speaking another language. So she kept quiet.

When the time came, she, Ron, Bill, Fleur, and Mr. Weasley gathered in the yard around five brooms. Mrs. Weasley kissed her husband, Ron, and Bill, then hugged Fleur and Hermione. She performed their Disillusionment Charms for them before retreating, checking her watch. “You’d all better go now,” she said breathlessly. “I’ll see you soon. Very soon.”

“We’ll be back before you know it, Molly,” said Mr. Weasley.

The last thing Hermione saw before she kicked off was Mrs. Weasley’s weak, unconvincing smile.

 


 

“Harry!” Hermione threw herself into his arms.

When she drew back, he was grinning. “Hi, Hermione,” he said. “Hi, Ron, mate.” Ron clapped him hard on the back, and the anxiety of the previous month eased off Hermione’s shoulders. She could see in Ron’s ear-to-ear grin that he felt it too—the comfort of being together again, a perfectly assembled puzzle.

Dumbledore let Mad-Eye explain the plan: seven Potters, seven guardians. Harry protested, as she and Ron had known he would, but eventually relented, as he had to.

Hermione shuddered through the hot, melting, slightly painful process of Polyjuice transformation. When they were all dressed, Dumbledore began to pair them off. Harry was matched with Hagrid, Ron with Tonks, and Hermione with Dumbledore himself on a Thestral.

Hermione felt a nervous flutter. “Would—wouldn’t you prefer to guard Harry yourself, Professor Dumbledore?” she said.

“I don’t think so, Miss Granger,” he replied with a warm smile. “In the case of an attack, it will be best to distribute the Death Eaters’ attention. They will likely expect Harry, skilled flier that he is, to take a broom; he will, instead, be on a motorcycle. They will also likely expect him to be with me or with our Aurors; he will, instead, be kept safe by Hagrid.”

“I can go with Dumbledore instead,” Ron said quietly. “I don’t want you to be a target.”

“I don’t want either of you to be targets,” Harry muttered, his eyes flashing.

“It’s all right, you two,” Hermione said, trying not to sound worried. She saw Harry’s worry just beneath the surface of his anger. “It was bad enough flying here. You know how I am with brooms. I’d rather be on a Thestral.”

Soon, too soon, the brooms had been distributed, the Thestrals mounted, Harry tucked safely into Hagrid’s sidecar. Hermione had a gut feeling of foreboding. She didn’t want them to take off; she wanted them to wait. She wanted them all to be safe so badly that she felt as if she were holding her own hand just above a rising flame, waiting to feel a burn, praying it wouldn’t happen.

Dumbledore, at her back, raised his voice and began to count down. “Three,” he called, “two … one!

Feet hit the ground. Thestral wings snapped out. A motorcycle engine roared. Seven Potters and their protectors shot up into the night sky.

Hermione felt a snap as if of surface tension as they broke out of the protective enchantments.

She screamed. Dozens of Death Eaters were shooting toward them from all directions, black bullets out of the dark.

“Hold on!” Dumbledore ordered. Hermione bent low over the Thestral’s neck, and the winged horse flung itself forward, letting out a strange wild cry of alarm as a streak of light shot over its head. Hermione threw a look back, trying to see any of the others, but all she could see were multicolored lights bursting in clusters like roman candles, each a little pocket of battle. Already they were so far away from each other.

Harry had gone due North, Dumbledore had mentioned that. She squinted that way, gasping as the wind buffeted her, and saw that Dumbledore’s instincts had been good. The lights there were fewer and thinner.

Clutching to the tiny bit of reassurance, Hermione turned her eyes forward again, only to realize that they hadn’t been nearly so lucky as Hagrid and Harry. The Death Eaters who had targeted them were stabilizing around them, preparing to fight. They had drawn half a dozen, maybe more.

A Stunning spell spiraled toward her out of the black. “Protego!” she cried, before remembering all the practice she and Ron had done to master nonverbal Shielding at the Burrow. The instinct had gone out of her—it felt safer to scream, to let out the fear somehow—but at the next burst of light she forced herself to think, Protego! and the Death Eater’s curse rebounded back at him.

She could feel Dumbledore moving behind her, blocking several curses and hexes with a single long sweep of his wand. “Parasalvus!” he cried, and a shivering translucent wall seemed to curve around Hermione, blocking everything that came near her. She could feel Dumbledore shaking. It’s the cold, she thought wildly, he’s only shivering from the cold, and yet she was horribly aware of his dead hand, and the thinness of his other wrist.

He was sending spells so quickly now, and with such immense power, that she couldn’t believe the Death Eaters were managing to dodge them. Dumbledore sent a stream of silver light humming toward Bellatrix Lestrange, making her and her broom freeze in midair; in the wake of it, Hermione felt the hair on the nape of her neck stand up. Another he encased in a web of what seemed to be purple electricity, and the man dropped like a stone, disappearing almost at once. We really are going to be all right, Hermione told herself. We are.

Then a familiar face rose up before them. In the center of a cadre of Death Eaters was Severus Snape, his face twisted, shocks of light cartwheeling across his sallow features. Hermione’s stomach plummeted. Why was Snape here? And why, when Snape was supposed to have fed Voldemort incorrect information, had there been Death Eaters here?

There was only one answer to both questions.

Snape raised his wand. Hermione knew he was going to say the words before he said them, knew he was going to snarl, “Avada Kedavra!

She knew the shield around her would break.

She knew Dumbledore’s body would topple off the Thestral behind her, and yet the sudden absence of his reassuring weight—the way his robes brushed her knee as he plummeted—was so horrible that she nearly let her wand fall out of her nerveless hand.

Her mouth was wide open but hardly any sound was coming from it, only a high keen that hit her own ear like the sound of an animal in pain. Horror reverberated through her. She couldn’t lift her wand, couldn’t breathe. She could only wait for Snape to kill her, too, or to take her, as Harry, back to Voldemort.

Then the Thestral lurched and bucked. One of the Death Eaters’ curses had struck the creature across the flank.

Hermione’s grip on the Thestral had loosened. She was off-balance. Still in shock, she grappled too late for the Thestral's neck.

She toppled, the scream finally tearing free of her, into thin air.

“That isn’t Potter’s wand,” she heard Snape roar as she fell. “Leave that one! We must find the real …”

It was terrifying how quickly his voice evaporated. Hermione was moving so quickly, plummeting like a stone. She had fallen a hundred feet, maybe more. The Death Eaters were no longer even in sight.

Then she caught a glimpse of something in the night air, falling through a wisp of cloud: Dumbledore’s body, several dozen feet beneath her, falling toward the Earth.

Something in her ignited. Some of the madness cleared out of her head. She clutched her wand, spreading her arms to stabilize her body, Harry’s body, and screamed, “Accio!”

Dumbledore’s body slowed in its descent, then, in a sad, almost graceful motion, lifted toward her like a piece of ash, as if he were weightless. Her hand closed around his wrist. His bones were as brittle as a bird’s.

Then a voice above her roared, terrifyingly close, “Petrificus Totalus!”

Hermione flinched. The spell missed her by a centimeter. She turned, thrown off-balance, to see the twisted face of Antonin Dolohov. He clearly hadn’t believed Snape. And now she was tumbling head over foot again, the wind snatching the duplicate of Harry’s glasses from her face, the houses below transforming into a blur. Dolohov’s vague form was rocketing toward her on a broom, stretching out a dark shape that must have been his arm—

Hermione focused with all her might on her destination and turned in mid-air.

Crack.

 


 

“If we’re sent to the United States,” said Draco’s mother, lifting a bite of pie to her mouth, “I know an excellent school where Draco could finish the last of his education. It’s quite exclusive. The headmaster is a friend of my father’s.”

“Narcissa,” said Lucius, “by the time it would be safe for us to use that kind of contact, Draco would hardly be school-aged anymore.” He sipped from a glass of elf-made wine that Kreacher had pulled from somewhere beneath the house. There must have been a cellar Draco hadn’t found.

Draco tapped his fork against the stem of his own wineglass. “Don’t either of you want to know what I think about my own education? I am of age.”

His father opened his mouth to reply, but then there was an almighty crack.

Three people exploded out of the air, falling in a pile of limbs to the kitchen floor.

Narcissa let out a scream and leapt to her feet. Lucius, still weak from Azkaban, staggered out of his seat and had to clutch to the counter to remain upright. Two of the figures on the ground were already writhing up to their feet—one a boy with untidy jet-black hair, the other a man with a familiar twisted face.

Draco was on his feet, too, though he couldn’t remember standing. He stared with horror at Antonin Dolohov, who was raising his wand.

Then Dolohov saw the Malfoys and froze. His face went white. “You,” he croaked. “You!

Narcissa reacted first, slashing her wand up, but Dolohov ducked her curse. It rebounded off one of the pans hanging from the ceiling, forcing Lucius to throw himself flat. Draco looked back to see Potter raising his wand—and to see Dolohov’s finger colliding with his left forearm.

Stupefy!” Draco yelled.

But even as his spell struck Dolohov, causing the man to fly back into the wall and crumple, Draco felt the Mark burn black on his own forearm.

Silence dropped, except for the heaving of breath. Only then did Draco register the third figure: a crumpled body with long silver hair and beard, motionless.

Draco looked up at Potter, who was gasping, an uncharacteristic wild panic on his face. He looked unfamiliar; he’d lost his glasses.

“Draco,” his mother cried out. “Draco, we must go! Now!”

But Draco was still staring at Potter, whose face had begun to change, melting, softening. For a second Draco thought he really had gone mad, that all of this was the result of a psychotic break. But a moment later the hair was growing bushy and wild, and the green eyes were turning brown. The chin lifted. The lips grew smaller and fuller. He blinked his eyes hard, and when he opened them, Hermione Granger was standing before him, panic written all over her face.

Lucius strode to the mantel and seized a jar full of Floo Powder. “Where?” he said, turning to his wife. “Somewhere safe. Where?”

Narcissa just shook her head, looking like she was about to faint.

“The Burrow,” gasped Granger. “Go to the Burrow!”

Narcissa didn’t hesitate. She took a pinch of green powder and flung it on the grate, stepped over the massive hearth, and said, “The Burrow!”

Nothing happened. The green flame died around her.

“The opposite grate is closed,” Narcissa said, turning back. Her composure had cracked completely now, her blue eyes wild. “They’ll be coming now. He touched—they’ll be here any minute, Lucius—Dolohov, he saw—”

“Here, then!” said Granger. “Hurry!”

All three Malfoys stared at her for a moment. She was holding out a hand.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” she yelled, panic in her voice, “would you rather touch a Mudblood or die? Take my hand now!

Draco was the first to move. He seized Granger’s hand, and his mother and father formed a chain with his other hand. Granger stooped to grasp Dumbledore’s wrist.

In that moment, Narcissa let out a little cry, her eyes fixed across the kitchen. Dolohov was stirring again.

Lucius lifted his wand with his free hand. There was a blast of green light, and Dolohov toppled, lifeless, to the ground. Draco jumped so violently that he nearly let go of Granger.

There was a crack somewhere outside the room, down the hall. A second crack. A third.

Loud, indistinct voices.

Granger turned on her heel. The crushing darkness of Disapparition closed in around Draco’s head. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t shift an inch, could only clutch to his mother’s hand in his left, the coldness of her silver rings pressing against his fingers, and to Granger’s in his right, warm and small and holding on so hard that he thought she might crack a metacarpal.

They reappeared on a stretch of hardwood floor. Draco let go of his mother, who instantly folded, still gasping, her eyes wild, into his father’s arms.

Granger, breathing hard too, was facing away from Draco. For a long moment she didn’t move at all. Then she knelt slowly beside Dumbledore’s body and slowly, deliberately arranged him into a relaxed position, as if he were sleeping. She moved the silver hair out of his face. The half-moon spectacles were cracked in one lens. Granger lowered her wand to them and whispered, “Reparo.

The fissure sealed over, but Granger didn’t stand. She stayed on her knees, trembling. Draco watched her with a sense of impossible distance. He’d known this would happen, had known Dumbledore would die. He just hadn’t known he would see it. He remembered the weight of the wand in his hand as he stood atop the Astronomy Tower, and a terrible, thunderous kind of relief dropped onto him that he hadn’t done this. Even so, he heard his own voice saying, two weeks ago, I’m not going to try and stop you.

Don’t let it be Snape, he found himself thinking now. Don’t let it have been him that did it.

“Who …” he forced out. “How did it happen?”

“Pro … Professor Snape,” said Granger. She was crying, he could hear it in her voice, but she didn’t turn around, didn’t want him to see. Maybe she thought he would mock her if he saw.

Draco looked around the room in a daze. It was a large and finely furnished sitting room. A large Persian rug stretched out beneath a long, elegant leather couch. A wall of bookshelves stood opposite an empty fireplace. On an oak table, across from the couch, stood a strange black box with two metal spindles extending from its top.

“What is this place?” he said.

Granger had wiped her face. She rose to her feet and looked over at him, her eyes red, her cheeks pink.

“It’s my house,” she answered.

Chapter Text

Your house?” said Lucius Malfoy, aghast.

Hermione didn’t bother answering. She fixed her eyes on the bookshelves and breathed, trying to draw some comfort from the familiar scents of home, maple candles and old pages and soft leather.

It didn’t work. Her eyes had found a photo of herself and her parents. She was six, ready for her first day of primary school, one of their hands on each of her shoulders. And now her mind was summoning the image she’d ruminated over dozens of times: her parents lying in bed the night she’d modified their memories, her mother’s hair in a nightcap, her father’s mouth slightly open. As she’d left for the Burrow that night, she’d wanted so badly to go back and say goodbye. If something happened to her during their hunt for the Horcruxes … if she never had the chance to say it …

She’d refused to acknowledge the possibilities then, but now her eyes slid back onto Dumbledore’s cold, thin body, and she knew she’d been right to expect the worst.

The knowledge was strangely stabilizing. At least she could stop telling herself that she was being overanxious. Here was proof that the world was as dangerous as it felt.

“There’s nowhere else you could have taken us than a Muggle house?” said Narcissa, not bothering to veil her disgust.

“No. The Order’s safehouses are all in use tonight to move Harry.”

“Of course,” Draco muttered under his breath.

Hermione ignored him. Wingardium Leviosa, she thought, flicking her wand. Dumbledore’s body rose gently from the ground, and she walked him over to the sofa and let him settle there. She knew it was ridiculous to think that he looked uncomfortable, but after a moment’s consideration, she tucked a pillow beneath his head anyway.

She glanced back at the three Malfoys. Lucius and Narcissa had edged closer together, eyeing the house as if afraid it might contaminate them. Mr. Malfoy looked different now than he had in the dark alleyways of the Department of Mysteries. Azkaban had followed him out into freedom. The once-faint lines in his pointed face had deepened and set as if his skin were candle wax, aging him a decade.

Draco wasn’t looking at the house. His colorless eyes were fixed on Dumbledore’s body.

“Do the Order know he’s dead?” he asked. His voice wasn’t the usual drawl but something unfamiliar, closed-off and hard.

Hermione shook her head. “I was the only one with him. The others won’t even know anything’s wrong on our end for another …” She glanced to a clock on the wall and was disconcerted by how early it still was. The night’s events seemed to have stretched time out like elastic. “Another half an hour, when they start arriving at the Burrow.”

“What, you can’t contact them?” said Draco with a hint of disbelief.

“I—yes, I know we have to, but I can’t think how.” She bit her lip and began to pace across the sitting room. “I don’t know how to cast a messenger Patronus. That’s well past N.E.W.T. standard. And that’s not an option for any of you, obviously—” She glanced at the Malfoys— “in case someone recognizes your Patronuses or voices who shouldn’t. But then …” She stopped pacing. “I don’t suppose you have a way of sending messages? You wouldn’t know where to find an—an owl, or—?”

“An owl?” Lucius Malfoy let out a hard, scathing laugh. “What use would an owl be to any of us when we’re meant to be dead?”

Hermione’s temper flared. “Well, if you have any ideas to get us out of this, I would love to hear them.”

Narcissa drew herself up. “There would be no need to ‘get out of’ anything if you hadn’t Apparated into our hiding place with Dolohov hanging off your robes, you stupid girl.”

Rage filled Hermione like hot tar. It seemed unbelievable that they were blaming her for this. She wanted to say something to defend herself—it had, after all, been impossible to feel Dolohov grabbing a fistful of her robes while she was in freefall—but when she thought of the attack, her mind conjured Snape’s face, full of loathing, and she felt anew the horrible feeling of Dumbledore sliding off the Thestral behind her, his body brushing her as if in farewell, and her stomach began to churn, and her eyes began to sting. She couldn’t make herself vocalize any of it, could only stand there and tremble, suddenly choking on her anger. She could finally appreciate why Harry hardly ever spoke about Cedric’s death, even now, years after the graveyard.

Draco turned away from Dumbledore’s body. Hermione steeled herself for him to pile on, too. She didn’t know what foul thing would come out of his mouth, but she thought if it was a crack about her family, here, in the house that she’d had to say goodbye to, she might just start crying from rage.

But he just said, “What about those coins?”

She didn’t understand for a moment. “Coins?” she repeated.

“The Galleons, Granger,” he said impatiently. “The ones you and that group had.”

“Oh,” she said, flustered. She gave her head a little shake to clear it. “Mine is at the Burrow with all my things. Besides, I doubt Harry and Ron would think to check them. We haven’t used them since fifth year …”

But as she thought back to fifth year, and their ill-fated journey to the Department of Mysteries, it hit her. “The Ministry!” she exclaimed.

All three Malfoys stared at her as if she’d gone mad.

“Oh, yeah,” said Draco after a long moment. “The Ministry. Brilliant idea, Granger, just brilliant. We’ll stroll in and ask to see—”

“Not you,” she said impatiently. “I’ll Apparate to the visitors’ entrance tomorrow under a Disillusionment Charm. Mr. Weasley’s been on overtime there all summer, so he’ll have to be in by seven in the morning. I’ll ask him to connect our fireplace to the Floo temporarily, and we can all move to the Burrow tomorrow.”

No response from the Malfoys.

“There’ll be room for us to stay here tonight,” Hermione added. “My parents are … they’re on holiday abroad.”

Still, nothing. Narcissa seemed to have noticed the television. She was watching it warily as if expecting it to explode.

Their silence and looks of distaste wore down Hermione’s patience in seconds. “Well,” she said shortly, “it’s this or go somewhere the Death Eaters will find you within minutes. Take your pick. I’m going to put some protective enchantments on the house.”

She stalked off, leaving them there. Hopefully they would say whatever foul things they were all thinking about Muggles while she was out of the room. Flush it out of their systems.

All of July, Hermione had been trying not to let her misgivings about the Malfoys overwhelm her, but, good God, they made it difficult. It rankled at her now, as it had for weeks, that the Order were sheltering a family who hadn’t even bothered to pretend that they’d changed their minds about pureblood supremacy—people who would have gone back to Voldemort in a heartbeat, if they’d had any guarantee of their safety and status.

Now that Dumbledore could no longer offer the Malfoys protection, would they take their chances with Voldemort? Would they spin some story about only accepting Dumbledore’s help so that they could infiltrate the Order of the Phoenix?

Ron, who was rather braver than she was at Order meetings, had voiced this idea at the full meeting two weeks ago. Dumbledore had insisted that Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy would never risk returning to Voldemort, out of fear for Draco’s life.

“But what if Draco’s in on it too,” Ron had said, “and they all pretend they were loyal the whole time? What if they pretend they were just … just going undercover, or something? They could give You-Know-Who the location of headquarters. They’ve seen all our members going in or out. They have a load of information they could tell him.”

“They can’t give him the location of headquarters, Weasley,” McGonagall had said briskly. “The parchment with the address we showed to each of them had a Tongue-Tying hex on it. They can’t repeat the information.”

“Well, still,” Ron insisted, “what about our members? Wouldn’t You-Know-Who take the Malfoys back if they told him the names of everyone in the Order?”

“Ah,” Dumbledore had said with his usual serene smile, “this is where Lord Voldemort differs from you or I, Mr. Weasley. You, a great player of chess, as I understand it—” Here he’d inclined his head first to Ron, then to Professor McGonagall— “are thinking in terms of strategy. Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, thinks in terms of absolute, unwavering loyalty. He detests the idea of seeming any less than omniscient, and so he would be furious to learn that the Malfoys were still alive when he thought them to be dead.”

“What,” Ron said with clear disbelief, “you mean he’d give up a chance to learn about the Order, just to teach them a lesson?”

“Oh, no, certainly not,” Dumbledore said. “He would indeed extract any information about the Order that he could from the Malfoys. Some they might give willingly. Names and identities, as you say. Other information he would wring out of them by torture and Legilimency, or by torturing one family member to question another. Then, once he had what he needed, he would kill them for what he would perceive as an unforgivable lapse in the fealty they swore him.” Dumbledore sighed. “Draco’s life in particular would be forsaken twice over, as he failed in the mission the Dark Lord set him. The Malfoys, who have lived in the shadow of Voldemort for most of their lives, understand this. I do not think they would accept such a fate merely to further Voldemort’s cause.”

Ron, who had gone rather pale, had not asked any more questions.

But, Hermione thought, climbing the steps to the attic, Dumbledore was wrong about Snape. And the headmaster’s trust in Snape had cost him his life. Had Dumbledore made other miscalculations? Had he put too little faith in the Malfoys’ devotion to the cause, or too much faith in their love for their son? What if Voldemort felt predisposed to overlook Draco’s failure now that Snape had completed the mission for him?

As Hermione pushed up the attic window and leaned out to cast enchantments into the summer night, she wished she could talk about all this with Ron and Harry. She wanted to be at the Burrow with them so badly that it felt as if something had stuck in her throat—as if she would not breathe or speak clearly again until they were reunited, and she knew they were safe.

Protego Totalum,” she whispered.

They are safe, she told herself, over and over, in a sort of mantra. Still, even if—when!—both Harry and Ron returned to the Burrow unharmed, she could imagine how they would panic when she didn’t come back. They would want to hunt for her, to leave the house, while the rest of the Order would absolutely forbid it.

Repello Muggletum …”

She could imagine them lying awake in Ron’s room later that night, Ron monologuing anxiously in a low voice about how she was with Dumbledore, and nothing could hurt her while she was with Dumbledore. Harry, on the camp bed, would be staring at the ceiling in silence, only letting out the occasional “Yeah” and “Mm,” but she could imagine the way his brilliantly green eyes would crinkle with worry.

Salvio Hexia.”

By morning Ron would be angry and agitated, taking out his mood on Ginny only to apologize minutes later, and Harry would have turned into that quiet, serious man he sometimes became when things were particularly bad—the man he wouldn’t have grown into yet, in a perfect world.

Hermione lowered her wand, lowered the sash, and went for the stairs.

 


 

Draco couldn’t sleep.

Granger had situated his parents in the master bedroom, where they’d stood in momentary horror at the array of devices lined up in the bathroom. Granger had said they were meant to stave off cavities and tooth decay, but they definitely looked like torture instruments and Draco would not be putting any of them near his face.

She’d shown him to a smaller bedroom on the ground floor with a wide, soft bed. He hadn’t thought it was late enough to try to sleep, but the moment he’d settled onto the mattress, a wave of tiredness had rolled over him.

He should have fought the instinct, he thought irritably now as he turned over. He’d reawakened at one in the morning. Now it was half-past two, and he was still wide awake, staring into the semidarkness. There was a streetlamp just outside the window, and the curtains weren’t quite opaque, so everything was tinted orange: the mahogany desk in the corner, the anonymous white dresser, the brass lamp with its drooped neck and hanging shade.

Images kept passing across his vision. Occasionally he saw Dumbledore’s face tinted green atop the Astronomy Tower, or Dumbledore’s face pressed into the kitchen tiles of Number 12, Grimmauld Place, as if his cheek were the sole of a shoe, just any other object.

Mostly, though, he found himself thinking of Dolohov. Dolohov spinning slightly as Draco’s Stunner had hit him. Dolohov stirring on the floor, only to be struck by his father’s Avada Kedavra. The way he’d slumped, lifeless, back into place.

Something in Draco’s mind was stuck inside that instant, the moment the green light had connected with Dolohov’s body. It had happened so quickly. His father had cast the Killing Curse the same way he’d done so much everyday magic at home, summoning books or drawing curtains, conjuring a Transfigured zoo for Draco’s amusement on his eighth birthday.

Draco knew his father had killed before, but the idea had always been abstract. Now he wondered how many people his father had killed in total. He wondered too, not for the first time, whether he’d disappointed his father by failing to kill Dumbledore. They’d so studiously avoided the subject at Grimmauld Place that an objective observer might have thought they’d all wound up there by sheer accident.

His father wouldn’t have hesitated to kill Dumbledore. That much was obvious now.

Was it a sign of weakness, that Draco had hesitated?

He pictured his parents in the room one floor above him, and wondered whether his father was sleeping soundly, or whether he was disturbed at all by killing Dolohov, who had been closer to the family than most of the other Death Eaters. The man hadn’t been friendly—hardly anyone would be, after nearly fourteen years in Azkaban—but he had been respectful of Draco, had treated him like an adult where most of the Dark Lord’s followers had treated him with condescension.

Dolohov had even said, over the last Christmas holiday, that Draco had done well to think up the plan with the Vanishing Cabinet. “If this plan of yours does work,” he’d said, eyeing Draco with interest, “the Dark Lord will certainly want to see more from you in future.” Then he’d inclined his head slightly to Narcissa and said, “You’ve raised your son well, Narcissa.”

Draco remembered the odd silence that had followed that sentence. He’d known the implication was that Dolohov would be sorry to see Draco die if he failed.

Could we have modified his memory instead? said a quiet voice in the back of Draco’s mind, but he stamped the thought back at once. That sort of thinking would get him killed. The Dark Lord had shattered Barty Crouch’s memory charm on Bertha Jorkins in fourth year, and Crouch had set that charm so forcefully on her that it hadn’t just held for years but deepened over time. There was no hiding from the Dark Lord. No room for nuance or affection or protection. There was only truth, and death.

Draco sat up, his mouth dry, and went to get a glass of water.

He moved quietly through the ground floor of the house, glancing around as he went. The place hadn’t come as a surprise, exactly, because he’d never been remotely curious about Granger’s upbringing. Still, if he’d been asked to guess what a Muggle house might be like, this wouldn’t have factored anywhere into his expectations.

First, most obviously and strangely, it seemed that Granger came from some money. The house was large and spacious, with wide halls and clean deep-piled rugs, and many frozen Muggle photographs hung on the walls, each depicting the Grangers on different holidays. Here they were on a French beach, and there, bundled up in their odd clothes on the slopes of the Alps, and over there, laughing in street markets in idyllic towns. And while none of the house’s furniture would ever have been found in Malfoy Manor, there was a clean, distinct style to it, a coordination between rooms and pieces that made Draco feel as if he’d walked into a world that had existed, and been evolving, for a long time.

Obviously Draco had known Muggles couldn’t all be mud-covered farmers and witch-burning mob members, like they usually were in textbooks, but his mother in particular had always associated the Muggle world with the total absence of refinement or culture. It was hard not to feel a bit disoriented.

Even more uncomfortable was being forced to think about Granger growing up here, probably dashing through the halls carrying stacks of books, reciting facts to her parents. He hadn’t asked for a window into her life. He certainly wouldn’t have wanted her wandering around his house, thinking about his childhood.

The kitchen was a long, silvery room filled with an audible hum that made Draco uneasy. A large metal refrigerator rumbled as he passed, making him flinch. Had it been hexed?

He checked half a dozen different cabinets before he found the glasses, filled one as quickly as possible, and hurried out of the kitchen, glancing back at the refrigerator with narrowed eyes.

When he reached the end of the hall, he stopped so suddenly that water leapt over the rim of the glass and slapped against the hardwood. A light had been turned on in the front room. Something was moving there. His stomach clenched, preparing him to flee, until he realized it was only Granger.

She was sitting on the ground, facing away from Draco, beside the sofa where Dumbledore’s body lay. She’d changed into Muggle clothes, a huge, soft-looking T-shirt and a pair of black leggings. Her feet were bare. Her shoulders were moving strangely, as if she were patting something on the floor where he couldn’t see. After several long seconds, though, a gasping noise came from her, and Draco realized she was crying. It wasn’t shallow catching of breath, either, but intense, full-body sobbing that radiated through her in waves.

Draco froze, certain that if he moved, she would notice. He stood there with the glass of water in his hand, and the longer he stared at her, the more he felt as if he had actually fallen sleep and none of this was happening. Was he, Draco Malfoy, actually standing here in a Muggle house, watching Hermione Granger, the obnoxious know-it-all he’d recreationally loathed for six years, sob over the corpse of Albus Dumbledore? How in Merlin’s name had he ended up here?

He needed to get out of this somehow. His room was so close … surely he could make it. He took a step forward, toward the door.

The floorboard emitted a deafening creak.

Draco’s heart dropped. Granger whipped around. “Ah,” she said, wiping her cheeks hurriedly, mortification on her shining face. Her nose was abraded and her eyes swollen, so that she looked like a slightly incorrect painting of herself. Draco had a clear, sudden vision of Pansy Parkinson, her eyes filling with tears last year when he’d told her impatiently that he didn’t have time for her anymore. He’d had no idea what to say then, either.

“I—I told him about Snape,” Draco said, too loudly. “Dumbledore. I said not to believe Snape was—he didn’t listen to me.”

Granger didn’t respond immediately. She looked back at Dumbledore’s body for a moment before saying, “I know.”

Draco didn’t ask how she knew. It probably involved Potter somehow.

Another uncomfortable pause. Draco wondered if it would be reasonable to just go into the bedroom and shut the door.

Then Granger took a shaky breath. “Dumbledore was so sure about him,” she said, her voice small but clear. “I don’t know why he trusted Snape so much.”

Draco curled his lip. “Because he trusted everyone.”

Granger shot him an annoyed look. “There’s no need for that tone. You’re only here because he trusted you.”

“Yeah, well, maybe he shouldn’t have.” Draco registered a wary shift in her expression and rolled his eyes, sidling into the sitting room so they could keep their voices down. “I’m not going to blow up your house, Granger, calm down. I’m just saying he never behaved like this was a war, did he? No, he was too busy acting noble.”

The annoyance on her face hardened into indignation. “He wasn’t acting,” she said hotly, rising to her feet. “I think it’s admirable that he still believed in people’s better natures in all this.”

“Oh, well, as long as you and the rest of Gryffindor House think it’s admirable. That’ll be a real comfort to him now.” Draco let out a hard laugh and set his glass of water on a side table. “I hate to disillusion you, Granger, but Dumbledore didn’t act like that because he believed in people’s better natures. God, are you actually that naïve?”

Her hands had balled into fists at her thighs. “Just say what you think, Malfoy, and stop congratulating yourself for having an opinion.”

“Fine. The old man trusted people because he thought he knew everything about everyone. He didn’t think anyone could possibly surprise him. He wasn’t being noble, Granger, he was being arrogant. And now look where it’s gotten him.”

Draco cast a contemptuous glance at Dumbledore, realizing, even as he did it, that he was furious with the dead man: furious that he’d died uselessly at Snape’s hands, rather than using his legendary skill to fight the Dark Lord; furious that he had thrown away the safety of Draco’s family; furious that he had somehow coerced Draco into believing—ridiculously—that he could keep them safe. And even more than that, Draco was livid with himself for believing it.

Snape, at least, had kept his word to Draco. The Potions Master had waited ten full days after Lucius had arrived in Grimmauld Place to kill Dumbledore. Draco should have made use of that time, should have demanded an audience with Dumbledore and ensured the old man got them out of the country within the month. If Dumbledore really had made plans for their long-term safety, those plans were lost now, gone from the brain that lay dead inside the skull, a pound or two of useless flesh.

When he looked back at Granger, she was giving him that same piercing stare she’d directed at him in Grimmauld Place. There was a cartoon whale on the front of her giant T-shirt. Her hair was even unrulier than usual, falling in tangles and puffs and stray curls over her shoulders.

“What?” he said coldly.

She shook her head and looked away. “Maybe you’re right,” she said, so quietly and grudgingly that he nearly didn’t catch the words.

There was another uncomfortable pause.

“What is that thing, anyway?” Draco asked, nodding at the black box with the glass face, which had been staring at him in his peripherals.

She glanced over at it, and her expression smoothed slightly. “It’s a television.” She picked up a small black box from an end table, aimed it like a wand at this ‘television,’ and pressed a button on its surface.

The front of the box blazed into light. There were two Muggles behind the glass walking down a street, moving like a photograph, and even as Draco watched, the image changed to a profile view of the Muggles, as if they were surrounded by invisible photographers. They were speaking, too, though the noise from the box was too quiet for him to make out the words.

“What is—what?” he said, staring dumbfounded at the box. Was it a kind of Muggle Pensieve? “What does it do? Why is it doing that?”

“Well, this is a television show,” said Granger, sounding amused now. “It’s a serialized story that you see a bit more of every week. But it can do all sorts of things. It can tell you the day’s news any time, so you don’t have to wait for the paper. And …” She pressed another button, and the image on the screen skewed, then flashed into something else entirely, a Muggle man pointing to a large, shiny car, exclaiming something about interest rates. “Well, that’s an advertisement,” said Granger. “There are lots of those. And—” She pressed the changing button again, and now there was a Muggle sitting astride a bear the size of a small house. “That’s a film. A story that takes about an hour and a half.”

“But … but—” Draco pointed at the television. “That bear’s been Engorged! That’s against the Statute of Secrecy!”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” she sighed, “of course it hasn’t been Engorged. It’s a visual effect. Filmmakers use them to make us think we’re seeing something out of the ordinary.”

Draco didn’t answer. Granger clicked the button again, and the screen went dark. “You’d know all this,” she said with faint exasperation, “if you took Muggle Studies. This is exactly why it should be mandatory.”

That brought Draco out of his trance. He blinked a few times, a dark rectangle still seared into his vision from where he’d been staring at the television, and snorted. “Muggle Studies? I’d sooner take Divination. Or a slow-acting poison. Or a kick to the—”

“All I’m saying,” Granger interrupted, that familiar sanctimonious look on her face, “is that you wouldn’t be asking such embarrassing questions now if you’d been able to ask them in a classroom environment when you were thirteen.”

Draco gave her a withering look. He didn’t need this. “I’m going to bed,” he said with as much disgust as he could fit into five syllables.

“Fine. Goodnight.” She paused with a light frown. “Why are you awake, anyway?”

“Because taking the night air is good for my delicate humours, Granger.” He picked up his water and pretended to be surprised by the sight of it. “Surely this glass has nothing to do with anything.”

His hand was on the bedroom doorknob when her voice said behind him, “Had … had you seen him do that before?”

Draco stopped mid-step, sure for a moment that he’d misheard her. “Seen—what?”

“Your father. He killed that man. Dolohov.” She paused. “You must have known him.”

Draco turned slowly on the spot. Granger, standing at the foot of the stairs now, looked a bit apprehensive, but she didn’t take the question back.

Draco’s heart was beating a bit too quickly. He was unnerved. He tried to remember if he’d said anything about Dolohov, anything at all to suggest he’d been thinking about it. He didn’t think he had, but then, how could she have known?

Then a rush of defensive anger overrode his doubts. It was none of Granger’s business what his father had done, or what Draco had seen him do. Why was she asking, anyway? Trying to wring information out of him that she’d parrot back to Weasley and Potter, no doubt. And then they’d start judging his father the same way they’d judged him. That was all Gryffindors did, really: compare themselves favorably to other groups of people. And they thought they were so saintly.

Draco summoned his usual contempt as he looked at Granger. He’d felt it for so long that it was effortless. Maybe the girl even thought, knowing his failure to kill Dumbledore, that he was too fragile to handle the idea of death. But he wasn’t like her, sniveling and bawling over something inevitable. His father had needed to kill Dolohov, or his family’s necks would have been on the line. Draco wasn’t sorry about it. He wasn’t.

“What,” he sneered, “was Dolohov a friend of yours? Wanted to ask me to leave roses on his grave?”

Oddly, Granger didn’t look angry. She looked almost resigned. “No,” she said. “I was going to thank you for Stunning him before he killed me, actually, but I suppose I shouldn’t have bothered. You’re a real pig, you know that, Malfoy?”

She stalked up the stairs, and he watched the textures of her hair and clothes fade into the blue-grey darkness, feeling irritated, and confused, but mostly irritated. She was misremembering the order of events. He hadn’t Stunned Dolohov to save her, for Merlin’s sake—he’d done it because the man had reached for his Mark. He hadn’t even known that was her, since she’d been Polyjuiced at the time. So it wasn’t as if he’d thrown her a lifeline.

He shut the door to the bedroom a bit too hard. Later, on the edge of sleep, he would think of her hand thrust out to him and his family in the dingy light of the kitchen, and he would think, vaguely, feeling unsettled, that that was what a lifeline looked like.

 


 

Hermione was hardly out of the fireplace at the Burrow before Harry and Ron were hugging her so hard that the breath was squeezed out of her. “I’m all right,” she gasped. “Really, you two, I’m—I’m all right.” They pulled back slightly. Ron was looking her over as if checking for missing limbs. Harry was just staring into her face, dark circles under his eyes, as haggard and sleepless as he’d looked the day after Sirius’s death.

Then another body slammed into all three of them, making them stagger. “Ow,” complained Draco Malfoy’s voice. “Could you please move the tearful reunion?”

He lurched away from them, straightening up, and scanned the Burrow’s kitchen, which was even more crowded than usual, every surface stacked with decorations for Bill and Fleur’s wedding. “Ah,” Malfoy said, scorn written in every line of his face. “Of course, that would require room to move.”

Ron went scarlet. “You—”

“Leave it, Ron,” Hermione sighed, tugging him and Harry away. She threw an angry look back at Malfoy, who watched them go with glittering malevolence. His gaze skated across hers, and in that instant she remembered him standing with his hand on the guest bedroom’s doorknob, looking utterly thrown by her question about his father. She hadn’t missed that expression, although he’d pulled that look over his face quickly to cover it, the sneer he was wearing now.

She understood now why Harry had sounded so unsettled when he’d recounted the events atop the Astronomy Tower. It was bizarre to see something other than condescension on Malfoy’s face. Harry had tried to describe it, the way Malfoy had wheeled wildly between insulting Dumbledore and showing a bizarre need for his approval and protection. There was something frustrating, yet oddly enthralling, about watching him struggle to keep his persona in place.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were already having a stiff, strained conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy, who had come out of the fire and were dusting off the sleeves of their robes, looking disdainfully around at the kitchen. A pot on the stove was bubbling, emitting a delicious smell, as a wooden spoon twirled around independently in its contents.

“Come on,” said Ron, already heading for the staircase. “My room. You’ve got to tell us everything. Dad told us … Dumbledore … blimey, Hermione, what happened?

They holed up in Ron’s room. By the time she finished recounting the story, tears were running down her face again, though she had exhausted most of her sobs last night. Ron’s arm was around her shoulder, and the weight was comforting, although Hermione hadn’t missed the uncertain look that Ron had shot across the bed when Harry had touched Hermione lightly on the forearm in reassurance.

“But this changes everything,” Ron said as Hermione wiped her eyes. He glanced at the door and lowered his voice. “Harry, do you reckon we can still hunt down the Horcruxes without Dumbledore?”

Harry didn’t answer right away. Hermione thought she recognized that look of reluctance. “Don’t tell us not to come with you, Harry,” she said, “because it’s no good.”

“Don’t worry,” Ron said. “He tried that already. I talked him out of it.”

Hermione glanced at Harry for confirmation. He made an unhappy mumbling sound, but didn’t contradict Ron.

“Anyway, I just mean …” Ron hesitated. “Well, we’ve got no help anymore, have we? I thought we’d be setting out to hunt for a Horcrux trail, the three of us, and we’d sort of … check back in with Dumbledore when we found something, and he’d help us the rest of the way. Or, you know, I thought he’d give us a way to reach him, so if we ever got into real trouble, he could …”

Ron trailed off, the tips of his ears turning red. Hermione could tell that he was embarrassed to have been so reassured by the idea of Dumbledore’s constant help and protection, but she understood completely. She, too, felt like a comforting blanket had been stripped away from them, leaving them exposed and vulnerable.

Harry was also nodding. “Yeah,” he admitted, “that was what I thought, as well.”

Ron looked slightly relieved. “So, then, what do we do now?” He paused. “Do you think we should—I dunno, tell McGonagall?”

There was a brief silence. The ghoul moaned in the attic. Harry reached over to the bedside table and took the fake locket with R.A.B.’s note in it, turning it over and over in his hand.

“No,” Harry said quietly. “I think it’s up to us, now.”

A lump grew in Hermione’s throat. Ron let out a slow breath, looking slightly awed at the enormity of their task.

“I’ll be honest, Harry,” Hermione said, “this worries me. It really does. From what you told us about the cave, it sounds like we’ll be dealing with enchantments and sorcery that are far beyond what any of us can do. Not just beyond what we learn at school, I mean, but the kind of advanced magic that most wizards never manage. Without Dumbledore’s help …”

Harry met her eyes, and she knew they were thinking the same thing. The Prophecy had said Harry had powers the Dark Lord knew not, but the fact remained that Voldemort could perform feats of wizardry that only Dumbledore, and perhaps Grindelwald, had managed this century.

“Oh, lighten up, Hermione,” said Ron, with a good try at casual bravado. “I mean, I’ve always fancied myself basically equal to You-Know-Who in terms of sheer magical power, so I reckon we’ve got a good shot.”

Harry and Hermione both grinned, but when their smiles faded, the question still remained.

“We’ll find a way,” Harry said, after a moment. “Dumbledore didn’t tell anyone else besides us. He must have thought we were up to it.”

He turned the locket over again, then sat bolt upright. “Oh, no.”

“What?” Hermione and Ron said together.

Harry looked between them, his eyes wide. “The sword. It’s in Dumbledore’s office.”

Ron swore loudly. Hermione closed her eyes. The day after Harry and Dumbledore had returned to Hogwarts with the fake locket, Dumbledore had told him to fetch the Sword of Gryffindor to the Hospital Wing. They’d intended to use it on the locket, because, Dumbledore had told Harry, the goblin-forged object had been impregnated with the Basilisk venom it had touched in their second year, making it one of very few objects that could destroy Horcruxes. Then, of course, they had taken the locket from Dumbledore’s pocket to realize it was a fake.

“What if we just ask McGonagall to … to borrow the sword?” Ron said.

They all looked at each other.

“You think Minerva McGonagall would let us borrow the Sword of Gryffindor,” said Harry dubiously, “without knowing why? And without insisting that we stay in Hogwarts like good little students once we’ve got in touch with her?”

Ron grimaced. “Well, when you put it that way, no, not a chance in hell, no.”

“I don’t know,” Hermione said thoughtfully. “I think Professor McGonagall might be the Order member who’s most loyal to Dumbledore. Well, and Hagrid,” she added. “Neither of them have ever questioned Dumbledore’s judgment. If we told her that he’d left us with a task, I don’t think she would necessarily rule it out. In fact,” she said hopefully, “if it’s on Dumbledore’s orders, I think there’s a small chance she might even offer us her help without asking too many questions.”

They mulled it over for a while longer. Hermione could tell that Harry and Ron were feeling as bolstered as she was by the idea of the formidable witch on their side, a stabilizing force in the sudden uncertainty of their quest.

“You know,” Ron said slowly, “I reckon you could be right, Hermione. Do you think we could get word to her to ask?”

“Well, we can’t put that in writing, that’s for sure,” Harry said. “And now that we’ve lost headquarters … well, I don’t fancy waiting for McGonagall to visit the Burrow before we can talk to her. I think we should go to Hogwarts and speak with her. They’re …” He looked down at the locket again. “They’re saying that’s where Dumbledore’s funeral will be. It should be safe if we go then.”

“Yes, I think so,” Hermione said quietly. She wanted to squeeze Harry’s hand in comfort, but was suddenly very aware of how close Ron was sitting to her. “Did they say when the funeral would be, Harry?”

He was avoiding her eyes, the same way he’d always avoided her eyes when she’d hoped he might talk about Sirius. “Friday,” he said shortly.

“The day after Bill and Fleur’s wedding,” Ron added. He let out a short, humorless laugh. “Merlin, that’ll be a change of mood.”

They sat quietly for a moment. Then Harry glanced up at Hermione. “Are you—are you all right?” he said. “I mean, you saw it happen.”

“Yeah,” Ron added quickly. “If you want to talk about it, I mean …”

As Hermione looked at them both, warmth spread throughout her. Last night, she would have given anything to be able to speak with Harry and Ron, to be able to spill out some part of what had been roiling and twisting inside her. Now, though, she didn’t want any more than this. She was happy just to sit there with them, knowing that they would worry in her absence, and embrace her on her return, and make their awkward gestures toward intimate conversation, and look at her this way, waiting for her to find words. Maybe in time she would be able to speak. For now the offer was enough.

Chapter Text

Life at the Burrow was driving Draco mad. He didn’t know how much more he could take. Along with Potter, Weasley, and Granger, he had four additional Weasleys to put up with. The parents always looked harassed, and Bill’s scarred face made Draco’s stomach lurch, and Ginny kept shooting looks of such longing after Potter that it made Draco feel nauseated. Then, on top of all that, was Fleur Delacour, who glided around delivering a never-ending monologue about ze wedding and treating them all like servants. At one point she actually told Draco to help with the streamers. As if he were a House Elf. He just looked at her, appalled, until his mother gripped him by the upper arm and steered him out of the kitchen.

Mostly, Draco and his parents spent their time at the foot of the gnome-infested, weed-ridden garden, as far away as they could get from the others. There was some satisfaction in this. Draco enjoyed sitting in the shade of a tree as Potter and Weasley shot filthy looks at him, pouring sweat, arranging white chairs under the beating sun.

Meals, though, had to be conducted outside, and for decorum’s sake, the Malfoys were obliged to sit at the same trestle table as everybody else. These hours were so spectacularly awkward that Draco felt almost delirious with discomfort. Arthur Weasley in particular seemed incapable of looking at any of the Malfoys, let alone speaking to them like a normal person. “Could someone please pass the potatoes,” Mr. Weasley would announce loudly to nobody, staring into the dusk, and when Lucius shoved them into his hand, Mr. Weasley would pretend the bowl had appeared there via some mysterious conjuration.

Draco had settled on a kind of silent non-aggression pact with Potter, Weasley, and Granger. Weasley still gave him angry and mistrustful looks whenever possible, but Potter seemed much more preoccupied by Lucius’s presence than Draco’s. This puzzled Draco at first, until he remembered that his father had fought all three of them, and Ginny, at the Department of Mysteries.

As for Granger, Draco had been suspicious at first that she might act differently toward him after their argument at her house. He found himself thinking about the possibility that she might corner him and try to make him speak about Dolohov, or about his father; he spent time thinking up responses to increasingly invasive questions that he imagined she would ask.

This was time wasted. She never approached him. Actually, of all the people in the Burrow, she was behaving the most tolerably toward him: she was brisk but polite, with no long, searching looks that suggested she was just waiting for him to press his Dark Mark and summon the Death Eaters. This was something all of the Weasleys, Potter, and occasionally even Fleur did.

All in all, the atmosphere was less than terrific. Draco hoped he wouldn’t have to put up with it for too much longer, and two days after they arrived, his wish came true. Shortly after dinner, Mrs. Weasley beckoned him over.

“Yeah?” he said, unable to keep a sullen note from his voice. With the stern look on her face, he wondered what he’d done.

She took a deep breath. “Arthur’s discussed with the rest of the Order,” she said. “Kingsley Shacklebolt has agreed to help transport your family out of the country. We’ll start making preparations after the wedding.”

“Why not now?” Draco asked.

She let out an exasperated sigh. “You may have noticed we’re a bit busy here at the moment. And things at the Ministry have deteriorated very quickly since … since Dumbledore …” Mrs. Weasley’s voice quavered, and she shook her head, blinking rapidly. “We think multiple members of the Ministry have gone over, and with that being the case, you’re lucky Hermione was able to get you here so quickly. The Floo network is being heavily monitored already, and they’ve put up a blanket Trace on the use of Portkeys. And obviously international Apparition is—”

“—impossible, yeah, I know.” Draco paused. “Where are you sending us?”

“We don’t know yet. Your family’s well-known even abroad, which makes it difficult to find a place you can live as yourselves, very difficult indeed. But Kingsley will sort it all, I’m sure.”

She was scrutinizing his expression. Draco didn’t like the look on her face, which was verging on pity. He liked even less the visions that were swimming through his head of himself and his parents alone on a desert island, gnawing rats off kebab sticks.

“Don’t worry,” she said. To his alarm, she made a strange move with her hand as if to touch his shoulder. Luckily, she stopped herself. “Like I say, Kingsley will sort it all.”

“He’d better,” Draco muttered. “Dumbledore promised to help us. So much for his impenetrable protection.”

But Mrs. Weasley clearly wasn’t listening. Her eyes had narrowed in on a point over his shoulder. Draco glanced back and saw Potter, Granger, and Weasley talking together outside a kitchen window, washed in the red light of sunset.

“You tell your parents, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley distractedly. Without waiting for an answer, she strode outside, and he watched her breaking up the trio, sending Granger fleeing to the bottom of the garden. Moments later, Potter and Weasley trudged inside and past Draco, heading upstairs. Draco caught a hint of mutinous conversation:

“—never get a chance to …”

Draco felt a tug of curiosity. It wasn’t like he wanted to spend time speculating about whatever sordid secrets Potter, Weasley, and Granger were keeping from the rest of the world, but there was nothing else for him to do in this godforsaken place. Also, in the 48 hours since he’d arrived here, the three of them had been acting all too obviously fishy. They were trying to talk about something, and Weasley’s mother had been keeping them from doing it—but what?

Draco hesitated, then crept up the stairs after Potter and Weasley. He realized almost immediately that sneaking around in this house would require extra precautions. Each floorboard creaked as if it were about to snap in two.

He tugged out his wand, aimed it at his own feet, and whispered, “Silencio.” Soon he was creeping up the stairs without a sound.

The stairs branched off into rickety little hallways that divided into small, cramped bedrooms, but Draco thought he could hear Potter and Weasley’s voices further up. He kept climbing and finally paused at the top of the steps, at a juncture between a water closet and a closed door. Leaning close to the door, he heard Weasley’s lowered voice.

“… back to Hogwarts. She’s just trying to make you feel guilty, mate.”

“Yeah, well, it’s working,” said Potter darkly. “If you get caught, then it puts them all in danger, doesn’t it? And Ginny’s going to be at Hogwarts, right under Snape’s nose.”

“Yeah.” Weasley sounded grim. “Easy answer, then, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“We can’t get caught.”

Loud footsteps echoed further down the stairwell.

“Oh, blimey, it’s her,” Weasley said. Before Draco could do anything more than leap a step back from the door, Weasley was pulling it open, revealing a messy room plastered in Chudley Cannons memorabilia.

“You!” Weasley snarled. He and Potter were both on their feet in an instant.

“What did you hear, Malfoy?” said Potter.

“I’m looking for a bathroom,” Draco said coldly. “You think I care what you and Weasley talk about during your slumber parties?” And he walked into the W.C., closing the door behind him.

But the snippet of conversation had spun the wheels in his mind. Ginny’s going to be at Hogwarts, Potter had said. So, he and Weasley weren’t going back to school, then. And presumably that included Granger, too.

Draco supposed he should have guessed. Hogwarts was no longer under Dumbledore’s protection. Potter would have had to be a real idiot to go back for his seventh year, essentially inviting the Dark Lord into a place that housed all his friends—and if Potter was going on the run, no doubt Weasley and Granger would trail after him the way they always did.

Still, though … why would Weasley’s mother be angry about that? Surely Potter, Weasley, and Granger would be shuttled from Order safehouse to Order safehouse? Surely the Chosen One would be given the utmost protection? No, something about it still wasn’t quite right.

Draco was jarred out of his thoughts by Mrs. Weasley’s voice. “Ronald Weasley! Haven’t I told you a thousand times to clean out the shed? The Delacours are arriving in less than a day, and if they see it in that state—”

“Mum,” Ron’s voice groaned, “please, tell me why the Delacours would give a damn what the shed—”

You-get-down-there-right-now!” thundered Mrs. Weasley.

Draco looked blankly at the door. Mrs. Weasley’s constant outbursts were yet another bewildering part of life at the Burrow. His mother would have died before showing her anger like that. Draco remembered being eight years old and shattering a sheet of china with enchanted glaze—a family heirloom, Chinoiserie, very rare. His mother hadn’t yelled. Actually, she hadn’t made a sound. She’d gone very pale, and had looked at him in a way that knifed through him, and hadn’t spoken to him for a week. She’d never mentioned the incident again. Neither had Draco, but something still squirmed shamefully in him when he thought of it.

He heard Ron stomping down the steps, and Potter said something, sounding meek and apologetic.

“Yes, thank you, Harry dear, that would be a great help,” Mrs. Weasley replied, though she still sounded snappish. Two more sets of descending footsteps later, the top of the Burrow was silent.

Draco snuck out of the W.C., glanced down the stairs to make sure there was no one there, and slipped into Ron’s room. He shut the door behind himself and muttered, “Colloportus.” The locked door would give him an extra second or two of warning.

He scanned the room, not knowing what he was looking for. Even if he had known what he was looking for, the room was such a bombsite that a cursory scan would have done nothing. The bedroom was minuscule, and every single surface was layered in clothes, books, or soaring Chudley Cannons players.

Then Draco spotted a rucksack beside the camp bed. It didn’t look wizard-made, which meant it had to belong to Potter. Draco crouched beside it, extracted it from a pile of shirts, and started rifling through it.

At first the contents seemed normal enough for a rucksack—changes of clothes, a potion-making kit, an old photo album—but when he reached the front pocket, he slowed down. There was a shard of mirror, on which he nearly sliced a finger; he placed this gingerly on the camp bed. Beneath that was a carefully folded piece of aged parchment. Draco could tell from its delicate texture that it was decades old, but when he spread it flat on the camp bed, it was blank.

“Aparecium,” he muttered, tapping it with his wand.

Nothing happened. He narrowed his eyes at it, certain there was something there, hiding just out of sight. A clue to what the Gryffindors were thinking? A long and detailed list of their plans?

He would come back to the parchment. He reached right down into the rucksack’s front pocket—and his hand met cold metal. He drew out a glimmering golden locket.

Draco lifted it up to examine it. It was slightly tarnished. He sprung its catch, and his heart beat faster as a scrap of parchment fell out into his palm.

To the Dark Lord:

I know I will be dead long before you read this, but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret.

I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can. I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more.

R.A.B.

Draco stared at the parchment. His heart had stopped beating so quickly. In fact, it didn’t seem to be beating at all, anymore.

Horcrux. He’d never heard the word before in his life, but the rest of the note gave him a good idea of what it might be. Mortal once more … whatever this Horcrux had been was something that gave the Dark Lord some power over death. An Elixir of Life, maybe? Draco had heard of derivatives of the Philosopher’s Stone, which were not so powerful or effective as the real Stone, but which could prolong life past its intended boundaries.

And Potter had this locket. Potter had some information about the Dark Lord’s secrets, about how to reduce him back to a mortal man.

Whatever Potter, Granger, and Weasley were planning had to be something to do with this. Of course Mrs. Weasley would be terrified of the idea of her son getting directly involved in the Dark Lord’s mortality—but that begged another question. Why in Merlin’s name were Potter, Granger, and Weasley doing this, rather than the senior members of the Order of the Phoenix? Draco had known that Potter had a bond with Dumbledore, but he would never have guessed that Dumbledore would entrust him with this sort of information. It seemed insane, ridiculous, to put this into Potter’s hands. Surely there was no way they’d stumbled across this themselves.

Draco only realized how long he’d been sitting there, immobile, staring at the note, when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He dropped the note and the locket and began shoving Potter’s possessions back into the rucksack, but before he could get the note inside the locket, he heard Hermione Granger’s impatient voice say, “Alohomora,” and the door flew open.

“Ron, I really—”

She broke off, staring openmouthed at Draco. Her eyes traveled slowly down to the locket and the note in his hands, and her eyes grew very round.

She moved so quickly that he nearly didn’t have time to block. “Obliviate!” she cried.

Protego,” he snarled, and she whirled out of the way as her own spell rebounded into the door, leaving a line of splinters peeling away from the old wood. She was flustered now, and he beat her to the next spell by a millisecond:

Expelliarmus,” both their voices yelled in near unison, but Draco lunged forward onto the camp bed, out of the way, and Granger, walled in by Ron’s bed, had nowhere to dodge. The spell hit her, and her wand spun out of her hand and into Draco’s.

“Nice try, Granger,” Draco panted, rising to his feet. He shut the bedroom door hard, then advanced on her. “What is this? Tell me.” He held up the locket.

Her look of panic increased, her eyes darting from the locket to the note. “I … it’s …” She took half a step back so that her back was against the wall.

Tell me,” he repeated.

“Nothing! It’s nothing! It’s just …”

Then her eyes darted somewhere else. The day was sweltering, and Draco had pushed his light summer robes up to his elbows. He’d cast a glamour over his forearm, but at certain angles, you could still see it: the red snake and skull, like a brand, ready at any moment to burn black.

Granger’s eyes flicked back up to his, and Draco felt a shock of disorientation as he recognized the look on her face. In that moment, she was terrified of him.

The idea didn’t immediately make sense. This was the girl who had cursed Marietta Edgecombe with near-permanent disfigurement, the girl who had slapped him in the face when they were thirteen, the girl who—when Umbridge had had them all captive at the end of fifth year—had managed to worm her way into freedom. Granger wasn’t a fearful person. Yet now she was staring at Draco as if she really, truly expected him to hurt her.

He moved backward from her so quickly that he nearly tripped on the camp bed. When he regained his footing, they were both breathing hard.

Some of the fear had left Granger’s face, replaced by confusion.

Draco shoved both of their wands into his pocket, his sense of disorientation growing. The power to induce fear was a Death Eater’s first, simplest weapon. Even when Draco was young, his father had occasionally described that kind of power to him with cool satisfaction. There are more effective methods of persuasion than gold, he’d said, though in this day and age it’s not appropriate to use them, Draco.

From the way his father had spoken of power like that—and from the way the Dark Lord always enjoyed his followers’ terror—Draco had thought it must feel thrilling to be able to frighten people, to command their fear. But that, just now—it hadn’t thrilled him at all. It felt like panic, like accusation. Her look of fear told him what she thought of him, what she thought he was capable of.

He spoke to stop his thoughts from overwhelming him. “W-well?” he said, trying for some composure. “What is this note? What is a Horcrux?”

Granger blanched. “Keep your voice down,” she whispered, glancing at the door.

“Why?”

“Mrs. Weasley is up and down these stairs all day. She could hear you.”

That took him aback. “You mean she doesn’t know about this?”

Slight desperation returned to Granger’s face. “No one does. It’s just Harry, Ron, and me, so you can’t tell anyone, do you understand? You mustn’t. It’s more important than you can possibly know.”

Draco lowered the locket, narrowing his eyes at her. “Explain it to me, then.”

Granger hesitated. Reluctance was written all over her face.

“Granger,” Draco said, “you realize you have nothing to bargain with here.”

“Yes, yes, fine.” She sighed, shook her head, and sat down on the edge of the bed. “A Horcrux is a piece of a human soul encased in an object. While that object remains safe, that person cannot die.”

Draco examined the locket, digesting the information. The pieces were slowly clicking into place in his mind. “So, this …”

But there was more squeaking from the stairs, and soon enough Potter and Weasley were shouldering through the door.

Draco was ready for them. “Expelliarmus.” With a sweep of his wand, both of their wands flew from their pockets and into his hand.

“Oi!” said Weasley, grabbing for his wand as it flew away from him.

“What are you playing at, Malfoy?” Potter said. “Give—”

Then the color drained from his face. He took a step back into Weasley, who had frozen. He’d seen the locket, too.

“He was going through your things when I got up here,” said Granger hopelessly. “I … I tried to modify his memory, but I don’t think even that would be enough. Voldemort can break those charms.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Draco said, “so don’t even think about—”

“The memory modification would be for your safety, not ours,” Granger said impatiently. “You have no idea what you’ve stumbled into.”

Weasley shut the door. “What should we do?” he muttered to Potter.

“How much have you told him?” Potter asked Granger.

“Not very much,” she said. “I told him what they are, that’s all.”

“Maybe that’s all right, then,” Weasley said slowly. “He’s supposed to go abroad anyway, right? If we just let him disappear …”

“Oh, Ron, do you really think he won’t tell his parents the instant he gets a chance?”

Draco looked up to heaven. It was like he wasn’t even in the room. “Excuse me,” he said, “can we get back to the point, please?” He held up the locket. “Potter, Granger, Weasley, I don’t care which of you does it, tell me what this is.

“I told you,” Granger said. “I already told you what a Horcrux is.”

“But this isn’t a Horcrux.”

“Yes, because someone got to it first,” she said with exaggerated patience. “We don’t know who, but someone was clearly working against Voldemort, and wanted to destroy the Horcrux, so they took the real one and replaced it with this decoy.”

Draco looked between them, wondering if this was a joke. “You … don’t know who?”

“Blimey,” said Weasley to Potter with mock sadness, “six years of Hogwarts education and he can’t even read.” He looked at Draco, dripping dislike. “What, do you think the letters R.A.B. are someone’s full name?”

This was too good. Draco closed the note back into the locket and laughed. “You really don’t know, do you?”

They all looked at him for a long moment.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Potter said.

“What do you think it means, Potter? I know who wrote the note.”

Weasley and Potter traded incredulous looks.

“Come off it,” Weasley scoffed, though he sounded slightly uncertain.

But Granger was looking at Draco, her eyes piercing. “I think he’s serious,” she said quietly.

It was infuriating, Draco decided, to be spoken about as if every tiny thing he said needed verification. But it was worth it to see the frustration on Potter and Weasley’s faces as their eyes traveled from the locket to Draco’s face and back.

“Who?” Potter ground out. The single syllable seemed to take great effort.

“Well, well,” Draco said, enjoying himself now. “If that’s the tone you’re going to take …”

“Just tell us,” Weasley snapped. “You don’t know what this could mean.”

“That’s what she keeps saying,” Draco said, letting his eyes slide onto Granger. “You don’t know what this could mean, you have no idea what you’ve stumbled into, you don’t know how important this is. Here’s an idea. Why don’t you tell me what you’re talking about, and then I’ll know why, exactly, I should care?”

“I already told you it’s for your own safety,” Granger said hotly. “I thought that was the only thing you cared about.”

Draco considered for a moment. “Fine, then,” he said with a shrug, dropping the locket back onto the camp bed. “I suppose I will ask my parents about it. Maybe we can figure it out together. Maybe we can enlist your parents, too, Weasley.”

“No,” Weasley said, moving in front of the door. He looked from Potter to Granger, shaking his head. “I think we’ll have to tell him.”

“Yes. Tell him,” Draco said. “I’m waiting.”

Granger and Weasley both glanced to Potter, ceding the conversation to him in that uncanny soundless way they had.

“Fine,” said Potter, though he looked furious. “We … we’re tracking down the real Horcrux this year. We’re not going back to Hogwarts. We’re going to find it and make sure it’s destroyed, so that Voldemort—well, like the note says. So that he’s mortal again.”

Draco hesitated. He had the sense Potter wasn’t telling him everything, but maybe that was just because Potter looked like he was about to punch something.

“All right,” Draco said slowly. “So, why you three? Why not someone with, I don’t know, any qualifications at all?”

“Dumbledore left the job to Harry because of the Prophecy,” said Granger. “And we can’t tell anyone else. The more people know, the riskier it is, because if Voldemort finds out his secret’s been compromised, then he can take more steps to protect th—protect it.”

Draco caught her mistake. “Protect them,” he repeated. “There’s more than one, then, is there?”

Potter threw an exasperated glance at Hermione, who returned a look of apology.

“Yeah,” Potter said roughly. “There’s more than one. That all you wanted to know? Can you tell us who R.A.B. is, now?”

Draco paused, wondering whether to push the point, but Potter and Weasley both looked near violence, so he said, “Would’ve thought you’d know, Potter. He was your godfather’s brother, wasn’t he?”

As much as he hated the sight of the three of them, Draco had to admit there was something satisfying about watching their expressions transform, lifting out of dislike and frustration into excitement and comprehension.

Regulus,” Potter breathed. “Regulus Arcturus—”

“All that summer before fifth year we were in there,” Weasley said, slapping himself on the forehead, “and we didn’t remember—”

“Why didn’t Dumbledore think of him?” said Granger.

“Sirius hated talking about his brother,” Potter said. “He only told me about him once, and he changed the subject pretty quickly, too. He wouldn’t have wanted to tell Dumbledore about his dead Death Eater brother, not while he was living in that house.” He paused. “Besides, Regulus was only a Death Eater for a year or two before he died. Sirius probably wouldn’t have thought it was worth mentioning.”

Draco remembered the clippings about Death Eater activity he’d seen in Regulus’s room while he’d been sleeping there. He remembered the photographs of the slight Slytherin boy, a Seeker like him, excited by the idea of joining the Dark Lord, a cause of Wizarding pride. And if the clippings suggested the group was too violent, that was only because the writers didn’t understand the importance of the cause.

“He did join the Death Eaters, then?” Draco found himself asking.

All three Gryffindors looked at him as if they’d forgotten he was there.

“Yeah,” Potter said. “Before he left Hogwarts.”

Something sat in Draco’s chest that felt both heavy and empty. “And he—he turned against the Dark Lord to destroy this Horcrux?”

“That’s what the note says, isn’t it?” said Weasley.

“How do you know he’s dead?” Draco said.

They all hesitated. Then Potter said, “Well, he disappeared.”

“Then they didn’t find a body. He could still be alive.”

Draco didn’t like the way they were all looking at him, suddenly: Weasley and Potter with slight awkwardness, Granger with the look she’d worn that night at her house—the look that suggested she was understanding too much.

“He’s dead, Malfoy,” Granger said quietly. “If he were alive and just in hiding, he would have come back when Voldemort lost his body.”

She was right, of course, but Draco hated her for saying it. For one brief second, he thought he’d learned of a Death Eater—a Death Eater his age, no less—who’d managed to escape.

But then, Regulus Black accepted his death, Draco thought. The note said it all. Black had gone after the Dark Lord’s Horcrux, he’d brought it on himself. If he’d just been smarter, maybe he would have survived.

“Do you think the locket is still in Grimmauld Place?” said Granger, sitting back down on the bed.

“Malfoy, you lived there,” said Weasley. “What d’you reckon?”

Draco looked resentfully at Weasley, but could think of no real reason not to answer. “No,” he said. “I lived in his room when I was there, I didn’t leave that house for four weeks, and I had nothing better to do than look around every inch of the place. There wasn’t a locket anywhere.”

“Regulus could have stowed it wherever he wanted,” Potter muttered. “There was no reason for him to leave it in the house.”

“Yeah, there was,” said Weasley. “His house was full of Dark stuff, wasn’t it? It would’ve been the perfect hiding place. If I were him, I would have mixed it in with all that junk we took out before fifth year.”

“That’s a good point,” Granger said. “It would have fit perfectly with … with …”

She trailed off. Her eyes had gone round again—not with fear this time but with epiphany. “There was a locket,” she whispered.

“What?” said Potter.

“In the cabinet in the drawing room. A heavy golden locket that no one could open … do you remember? We all passed it around.”

Now Weasley and Potter were looking dumbstruck, too.

“But then—” Potter rounded on Draco, who flinched back. “Malfoy. You said it’s not there now.”

“No,” Draco said, unsure how he felt about being roped into this. All the same, it was hard to stop watching the three of them try to solve their mystery, for some reason.

“Hang on, though,” Weasley said. “Kreacher nicked a load of stuff that summer! Malfoy, you’re sure the locket wasn’t in that room in the back of the kitchen? Near the boiler? He’s got a foul sort of nest.”

“Ron,” Granger said reproachfully.

“Oh, that’s what that was,” Draco said with disgust. “No, there was only an old book in there.”

“We have to ask him, though,” said Potter, his eyes alight. “Maybe he saw it at some point, or maybe he knows which load of things it got thrown out with.” He looked around, as if expecting the elf to spring out from behind a Chudley Cannons poster. “Krea—!”

No!” Draco and Granger yelled at the same time. Granger actually lunged out and fastened her hand around Potter’s wrist.

“What?” Potter said, startled. “What is it?”

Death Eaters got into Grimmauld Place, Potter!” Draco said, his body actually feeling cold from the closeness of the near miss. “If you think they haven’t put a magical trace on that elf by now, you’re as mad as he is.”

“I’m sure they’ll be watching him all the time, Harry,” Granger said, letting go his wrist. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can ask Kreacher anything.”

“Then—then what do we do?” said Potter furiously. “Search every rubbish dump in London?”

There was a full minute of silence. Weasley’s face was screwed up in concentration, and Granger had closed her eyes, her lips moving slightly. After a long moment, Draco realized he was actually, seriously trying to think of an answer to Potter’s dilemma, too. He tried to pull himself out of it—getting involved with Horcruxes had killed Regulus Black, for Merlin’s sake—but the suggestion was out of him before he could stop himself: “There’s the Scavenger’s Guild.”

“The what?” said Granger and Potter at the same time. Both were looking at him with slight surprise.

“The Scavenger’s Guild,” said Weasley. He sounded wary, begrudging, but there was excitement in his eyes. “That’s an idea, actually.”

Potter and Granger were still looking nonplussed, so Weasley went on. “Sometimes Muggles pick up magical objects and don’t realize what they are, because lots of Wizarding objects are spelled to look like rubbish if a Muggle comes into contact with them. Galleons and Sickles and Knuts are all like that—if you drop one and a Muggle picks it up, it’ll look like an old Muggle cent, won’t it?”

“Will it?” said Potter, looking startled.

“Well, yeah,” Weasley said. “So, anyway, Muggles wind up chucking lots of magical stuff in the bin, and it ends up in landfills. The Scavengers go through, rescue anything magical, polish it up a bit, and resell anything good. They’ve got a stall in Diagon Alley, shows up about once a month. Fred and George told me last year they got a good bit of Lightweight Lead off them.”

“All right,” said Potter with rising excitement. “All right, then. We’ll try that.” He turned to Draco, opened his mouth, and made no sound whatsoever.

Draco knew Potter had been about to thank him instinctively for the suggestion, but Potter clearly couldn’t make himself form the words.

“Well,” Draco said stiffly. “Enjoy your search.”

When he was halfway out the door, Granger said, “Malfoy.”

He turned back.

“You … you aren’t going to tell anyone, are you?” she asked tentatively.

He surveyed her anxious expression. The girl sounded so frightened half the time. It was like she was expecting him to bite her nose off for asking a simple question.

“Why would I?” he said.

“That’s not a real answer, Malfoy,” Potter said.

Draco sighed. “Yes, it is.” He rolled his eyes. “Gryffindors. Ask one simple question about motive and you’re all completely lost.”

With that, he returned downstairs and traipsed into the yard. For sleeping room, Draco and his parents had been given a grubby tent that opened up into a miserable little apartment. The first time they’d entered it, his mother had been momentarily speechless with horror.

“Amazing,” Draco had said. “They found a place even less fit for human habitation than the hovel itself.” But neither of his parents even cracked a smile. Draco didn’t know why he bothered sometimes.

Draco had been teasing Ron Weasley about his house for so long that it felt stupid to be really surprised by what the Burrow was like. Still, he couldn’t imagine growing up in a place like this, never having any privacy, everything used and used and used to shreds. It did, at least, make him appreciate the feeling of coming outside into the evening, when the sky opened up overhead, and he could breathe.

And it was true, too, he thought begrudgingly, that Mrs. Weasley’s cooking was delicious. He felt a bit traitorous for thinking it. Merlin knew his own mother couldn’t have done so much as boil a potato. Of course, she’d never had to, since she wasn’t a glorified House Elf.

When he entered the tent apartment, his parents were having a cup of tea at the spindly table in the main room. They greeted each other quietly, and then Draco, already tired, prepared for bed.

As he settled beneath the thin sheet, he missed home. He missed the manor’s many large and quiet rooms, its lush, sweet-smelling gardens, its fountains and tastefully decorated wings. He missed Hogwarts, too: the lush velvet and dark leather of the Slytherin Common Room, the library and its imposing shelves, the sweeping lawns. Now that they were halfway through the summer holiday, he was starting to feel the usual itch of wanting to return. He wondered if it would go away after September first.

As his eyes drooped shut, he wondered if his friends had adjusted to the idea of his death yet. Had Pansy cried over him? Surely she had; she cried often and vigorously. This would probably have ruined her summer. Normally she couldn’t shut up about the summer holidays, she loved them so much—the events the Parkinsons threw at their estate, the days spent sunning herself by their swimming pool, the luxurious trips to wizarding outposts near New York and Hong Kong. Her family were particularly close to the Goyles, so sometimes they went on joint trips, and Crabbe came along, too, and Pansy spent the holidays daring the duo into more and more outrageous escapades, and she’d lavishly recount their adventures on the Hogwarts Express back to school.

The memories were bright and clear for a while. Then they faded like old photographs, and Draco found himself thinking of a golden locket, and a Slytherin Seeker, looking uncertainly out of a picture frame, whose body had never been found.

 


 

By the day of the wedding, Hermione felt as if her skull were filled with a swarm of bees. She liked the Delacours very much—she certainly got along better with all three of Fleur’s family than with Fleur herself—but the Malfoys had already been three too many people to live at the Burrow, and the Delacours stretched the situation to breaking point.

Maybe she wouldn’t have felt so put-upon if she hadn’t been secretly packing all of her, Harry’s, and Ron’s belongings into her small beaded bag. She’d finally perfected the Undetectable Extension Charm the day before, and had lost several hours’ sleep feeding her own possessions into it, library of books, catalog of potion ingredients, and all.

The wedding ceremony itself was the first time Hermione had felt relaxed in days. Fleur’s radiance seemed to make the whole marquee unnaturally silent, and Hermione’s eyes stung as the couple exchanged their vows, and then, finally, kissed.

It was a sort of catharsis, she thought, as the band started up. Tomorrow, they would all travel to Hogwarts for Dumbledore’s funeral, but for now, they had music, and family, and friends. She even let herself have a conversation with Luna about Snorkack conservation efforts.

Every so often, she caught sight of Harry, in disguise as Barny Weasley, and the three Malfoys, who had Polyjuiced into a butcher’s family from the village. The Weasleys had quietly but industriously circulated the idea that the Malfoys were a trio of standoffish family friends, ones who had been living on a remote island off the coast of Iceland for several years and had lost the ability to socialize. So far, this had held up reasonably well, although Viktor had struck up a brief conversation with Lucius Malfoy about Icelandic sheep herding.

It felt strange to see Viktor again. Fourth year seemed impossibly long ago now; the return of Voldemort had separated it out into a previous life that she could never regain. Hermione could still feel wisps of what she’d felt for Viktor if she focused hard on drawing up the memory, like closing her eyes and trying to recreate an exact image on the backs of her eyelids. But she knew it was past.

When Ron asked her to dance, she didn’t think twice about Viktor. This is it, she thought, as they whirled and twirled with the laughing crowd. This is when I’ll understand what I feel. This is when it all comes clear.

Yet when a slow song began, and Ron moved close to hold her waist and take one of her hands in his, she was surprised to feel a leaden feeling in her stomach, rather than the excited, nervous flutters she’d felt during the start of the summer. A hard lump formed in her throat. Unable to look up at Ron, she laid her head on his chest instead, looking toward the edge of the tent, where Harry was having a seemingly intense conversation with Ron’s Aunt Muriel and Elphias Doge.

But she wasn’t thinking about Harry, either. She was thinking about Dumbledore’s funeral. About Dumbledore falling from the sky, drifting through clouds’ ragged edges. She was so afraid, and touching Ron like this, being close to him, was only exacerbating it. She didn’t want to lose him. She didn’t want to lose Harry.

In that moment, she worried that she was confusing the fear of loss for love. She worried that she could feel nothing at all except the fear of loss, and that, until all this was over, that was the only emotion she would be allowed, in various states of volume and intensity.

Worse than this feeling was the feeling of Ron’s heart beating fast against her ear, and—when the song ended and they pulled away—the intensely tender look on his freckled face. From that expression, she knew that while they’d danced, he’d been feeling what she’d wanted to feel: a kind of rapture, of euphoria, the sedative feeling that everything was finally right in the world. But all she’d been able to register was the looming threat of death and attack. It made her feel impossibly alone to realize how far away they’d been from each other in those minutes, even as they’d held each other, and Ron must have realized, because he said, “Something wrong?”

“I’m just a bit thirsty,” she managed. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

It was too late, she thought as she stood on the outskirts of the marquee, folding her warm fingers around a cup of cold pumpkin juice. The idea of Ron taking her aside and kissing her no longer made her feel a thrill, only a new kind of anxiety. Those first golden weeks of July had been their chance, and the chance had passed by. The window had slipped shut.

She couldn’t tell whether Dumbledore’s death had changed things or clarified them. Maybe his death had shaken her so badly that she could no longer feel excitement about romantic possibilities. Or maybe his death had stripped away the complications, all the guilt and history, and made her realize that what she felt for Ron and Harry alike was the desperate, elemental need for them to stay alive.

Either way, she felt what she felt now, and she didn’t think she could go back. She settled into a seat without paying attention.

“Granger,” said an unfamiliar voice.

She looked up to see the Polyjuiced Malfoy at the same table. He was a burly boy with black hair around their age, slightly shorter than Malfoy but nearly twice as broad in the shoulder.

“Oh. Hi,” she said faintly. “Pumpkin juice?”

“Can’t,” he said sourly. “I’m supposed to stick with this. Another dose in a few minutes.” He raised an opaque flagon that held his Polyjuice. He was slouched in the chair, legs stretched out, eyeing the dance floor with evident disinterest.

“I expect you’ll be glad to leave when this is over,” said Hermione, unable to conceal a note of disapproval. She thought the Weasleys, and every Order member, really, had been remarkably accommodating of the Malfoys, all things considered.

“Glad?” said Malfoy, with such disdain that it still somehow sounded precisely like him, even in another boy’s voice. “Oh, absolutely. I’ll be thrilled to leave behind every last speck of my life.”

“You make it sound as if you’re being forced.”

“Do I have a choice?”

She sighed. “Obviously you have a—”

She broke off abruptly. Something silvery had appeared in the center of the dance floor. A messenger Patronus, a lynx, had settled to the ground, and it spoke with the voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt:

“The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.”

Then there was screaming, and then—suddenly—the crack, crack, crack of multiple Apparitions.

Before Hermione had even fully understood what was happening, spells were flying. A jet of white light flew toward their table. Hermione had barely registered it before something was slamming hard into her side, sending her flying out of her chair. Then—

Bang.

She looked up, gasping. Their table was smoking and splintered. Malfoy was sprawled beside her. He’d knocked them both out of the impact radius, and now he was scrambling to his feet, wand in hand. Hermione followed, looking around wildly for Harry and Ron. She saw them almost immediately, already stumbling toward her out of the dust. And there—behind them—the cloaked figures who had Apparated in. They were wearing masks, immobilizing everyone they could see. Death Eaters, here, under the wedding marquee.

Malfoy staggered back, his face full of fear. And Hermione, her eyes fixed on his dark curly hair, saw it start to change, to turn white-blond.

She sprinted the few steps to his side, seized him by the arm, and grabbed Ron’s elbow with her other hand. “Hold on, Harry,” she yelled, allowing him a second to seize Ron’s arm before she turned on the spot.

They squeezed into the dark space between places. Then they were bursting out onto a wild mountain path that overlooked Hogsmeade Village.

Chapter Text

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.

Crunch.

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.

Nothing happened.

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.”

“He’s—what?”

“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.”

Chapter Text

Three-foot-long plume quills as soft and fluffy as trails of smoke, their nibs planted into vases like the stems of flowers. Networks of spiderwebs so thickly draped with dust that they looked like the most finely spun lace. Towers of bookshelves, and dated chairs with upholstered backs, and accordions of curtains falling ten, twenty, thirty feet to the floor, cataracts of brocade. Cool light emanating from a source impossibly high above, from an uncertain ceiling, as if the moon were hidden behind several layers of thick paint.

Hermione was wide-eyed. It was impossible to take in everything at once, and soon her neck was sore from how many times her head swiveled upon it. Harry, who had been inside the Room of Hidden Things once before, was striding determinedly ahead, scanning for the Horcrux, but Malfoy, who had spent cumulative weeks in the Room last year, had his hands deep in his pockets, and his eyes were flicking from side to side only reluctantly.

“This place is unbelievable,” Ron whispered.

“I know,” Hermione whispered back. It felt wrong to speak at any real volume, like they were in a library full of ancient books.

Harry glanced back at them. “Hermione, anything?”

She leapt. The Marauder’s Map was held in her limp right hand. She’d been tasked with keeping an eye on Snape, since Harry had seen the Horcrux before and would be more use trying to find it undistracted. But at the sight of the Room, the Map had slipped her mind.

She scanned it. “All clear,” she said, hurrying to catch up with Harry and Malfoy. “He and Hagrid are still in the middle of the Forest.”

“I don’t get it,” Ron said, jogging up behind them too, frowning up at the mountains of objects. “How can You-Know-Who really have thought he was the only one to know about this place, when it’s full of stuff?”

“Well,” Harry said, glancing around a corner at yet more towers of objects, “you can find it without understanding what you’ve found. Fred and George and Dumbledore all found the Room by accident. I’d bet all this is from students who only came in here once and then couldn’t find it again.”

“That doesn’t explain this,” Ron said, pointing at a 4x4 stack of faded yellow sofas that crisscrossed up like logs at a bonfire.

“Oh, honestly, you two.” Hermione sighed. “Students didn’t do this. Didn’t you read any of the literature I wrote for S.P.E.W.?”

Harry and Ron exchanged a guilty look. “Er,” Harry said.

Well, if you had read the pamphlet I distributed in September of last year, you would know that the Hogwarts house-elves are responsible for repairing, maintaining, and disposing of all objects that have been misenchanted, disenchanted, hexed, or otherwise magically discombobulated, even at—even at!—great risk to their own physical safety.”

“Right,” said Ron. “And that means … what, exactly?”

Hermione saw, with a hot jolt of irritation, that he was trying not to grin. Ron had gotten much better about house-elves over the years—he’d grown fond of Dobby, at any rate—but whenever they’d visited headquarters over the summer, he’d still treated Kreacher little better than Sirius had, and he still acted like this sometimes.

“It’s not funny, Ron,” she said hotly. “I’m saying that all this—” She waved around at the mountains of objects— “represents hundreds of years of enslavement. Look at all this work, and not a single Knut paid for any of it, not even a thank you or a word of recognition. It’s just one more way that it’s all shoved out of sight, so wizards don’t have to think about what they’ve done—what they’re still doing.”

Harry looked slightly troubled, Ron, undecided.

Malfoy, on the other hand, finally stopped feigning deafness and said, “Granger, would you stop sermonizing? House-elves don’t even want freedom.” He jerked his pointed chin at the surrounding piles of objects. “You couldn’t get this lot to quit if you offered them all the money in Gringotts. They love serving wizards.”

Ron looked more disturbed by this than by anything Hermione had said, and Hermione knew why. How many times had Ron used that exact line of argument in their fourth and fifth years when they discussed elf rights? She couldn’t help feeling even angrier and more disappointed by this. Was that really what it took to see how abhorrent your own complacency was—to hear it come out of the mouth of an enemy?

With a savage sort of relief, she turned her irritation with Ron onto Malfoy instead. “Oh, really?” she said, her voice rising. “How would you know what elves want, exactly? Have you ever spoken to an elf beyond ordering them around? Tell me: in all the years that Dobby lived at your house, how many times did you ask him anything about his thoughts, feelings, or opinions? Say it’s more than zero and I’ll swallow Fiendfyre.”

“I—that’s not the—”

“Yes, it is the point. At least most other wizards can claim ignorance. They can all say their house-elves were thrilled to be doing their bidding, because unfortunately, most elves haven’t been given the opportunity to learn about what freedom would feel like. But you don’t even have that much. Dobby hated being enslaved. He was thrilled to be free.”

Malfoy stood his ground. “Oh, yeah?” he said. “And why do you care? Let me guess: it’s yet another way to show off how much better than other people you are. I didn’t realize your hero complex was even worse than Potter’s.”

Hermione let out a high, strained laugh that sounded nothing like her. “Why do I care?” Her voice rose. “Why do you think I care? Why do you, Malfoy, think I might give a damn about how people treat other thinking, feeling creatures that most wizards think are beneath them? You don’t think that might have any personal relevance for me?”

There was a long, ringing silence. Hermione hadn’t expected the words to land with such a palpable thud. Ron looked stricken. Harry, for the first time, had stopped scanning for Horcruxes. They were both staring at her as if they’d never realized any of this for themselves.

Something strange, meanwhile, was happening to Malfoy’s face. His curled lip was twitching downward as if he were losing control of his facial muscles. His grey eyes were shadowed, difficult to read, but they kept straying away from her and then flying back onto her, as if it were painful to look at her, yet impossible to look away.

“Let’s … let’s split up,” Hermione said. “It’ll be faster that way. Harry—” She glanced at him, the one she was least frustrated with— “let’s go that way. You two go right.”

Ron and Malfoy didn’t even argue. They turned and walked off, several feet apart, not speaking.

Harry was looking uncertainly at Hermione.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly as they set off to the left, staring down at the Map but not really seeing it. “I … I didn’t mean to waste time, we should have been searching for …”

“No,” Harry said quickly, “it’s all right. Er. It’s fine. Really.”

Hermione swallowed past the lump in her throat, her eyes burning. She hated this tendency she’d developed over the last couple years, this new inability to discuss anything she cared about without wanting to cry—especially since her tears always panicked Harry, and made Ron assume the somber look of someone attending a wake.

“They’re still in the Forest,” she said, tucking the Map away. “Plenty of time.”

“Good,” Harry said. “That’s—”

He broke off and stopped in his tracks. His face had gone blank.

“Harry?” she said.

He pointed ahead. Then he burst into a sprint toward an open cabinet, inside which stood a bust wearing a wig.

Hermione’s heart leapt. She ran after him, hot on his heels, and soon they were breaking out of their run together and standing for a moment, staring up at the Lost Diadem.

“Is that …” she whispered.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “I can see the inscription.”

She moved up to his side and saw it too: Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.

Harry reached out toward it, but she grabbed his elbow. “You’re just going to touch it?”

“What else am I supposed to do?” he said.

“Just … wait one moment.” Hermione drew her wand and aimed it at the tiara. “Hexia revelio!

The tiara sat, glinting dully, motionless.

Finite incantatem,” she said, flicking her wand, and then, with a complicated twist into a slash that she’d practiced throughout July, she added, “Skadus dicoperare.”

Again, no reaction. “What was that supposed to do?” Harry asked.

“It should have shown if there were any major curses.”

“All right, then.” Harry reached out more tentatively, and Hermione held her breath.

His fingers met the tiara. Nothing happened. No horrible curse, no scream of pain from Harry. Hermione let out a long sigh, her shoulders slumping in relief.

“Dramatic,” Harry said. She met his eyes, and they both broke into relieved chuckles. “Hey, you two,” Harry said, raising his voice. “We’ve found it! We’ve got it!”

Ron gave a triumphant shout from the other end of the aisle, and soon he and Malfoy were jogging up to Harry and Hermione.

“Is that it?” Ron said, eyeing the diadem. “Doesn’t look like much, does it?”

“Well, it’s been sitting here Merlin knows how long,” Harry said. “It’s got her House motto on, look.”

He passed it to Ron, who held it for a moment, looking uneasy. “I can feel it,” he said.

“I would hope so, Weasley,” muttered Malfoy, eyes fixed warily on the Horcrux.

“No, you prat, I mean I can feel something inside it,” Ron said. “Hermione, look.”

He held it out to her, and as she took it, their eyes met for an awkward instant. He looked away at once, his ears turning red, and Hermione’s cheeks felt momentarily hot.

The Horcrux distracted her. The instant she touched it, she felt what Ron was referring to: the sense of life within the diadem, pulsing like a sluggish heartbeat. Hermione shivered. “I don’t like it,” she said. “What should we do with it?”

“Put it in that bag of yours,” Ron said.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “We can’t lose this.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, “but what else are we going to do? Wear it?”

Hermione’s eyes widened, and her grip tightened on the Diadem. “Hold on,” she breathed. “That’s an idea.”

They all looked at her like she’d suggested they adopt a Blast-Ended Skrewt.

“You don’t think that’d be conspicuous at all, Granger?” said Malfoy with heavy irony. Unlike Ron, he seemed to have no trouble speaking to her, or meeting her eyes. His face had returned completely to normal, as if the argument had never happened. Hermione was strangely relieved by this. At least she didn’t have to tiptoe around him.

“I don’t mean wear it to keep it safe,” she huffed. “You said Ravenclaw designed this to enhance intelligence. If one of us puts it on, we might be able to figure out how to steal the sword back from the Ministry before the Death Eaters seize Dumbledore’s bequests. We may even have a brainwave about the locket or the cup. Maybe there’s something we’re not seeing.”

“I don’t know, Hermione,” Harry said, sounding uneasy. “You remember Dumbledore’s hand? That’s what happened when he put on the Horcrux ring. He told me he only survived the curse because—” his expression soured— “Snape helped him.”

“Well, Snape might not have really been trying to help him,” Ron reasoned.

“True,” Harry said slowly, “but I’m still not keen on the odds of Voldemort just—”

Ron and Malfoy both flinched. “Stop saying his name, would you?” Ron said.

“No,” Harry said bluntly. “Dumbledore used his name, and so will I.”

“Yeah, well—”

“Look,” Hermione broke in, “I don’t think we have much time. Dumbledore’s will would have been executed on Monday. That means there have been three days already for the Death Eaters to realize Dumbledore’s bequests are at the Ministry and take them. If they deliver the sword to Voldemort, we’ll never get it back.” She drew a sharp breath, another horrible thought striking her. “And he already knows the diary was destroyed! What if he decides to make the sword into a replacement Horcrux, to make sure his soul is still in seven parts—and this time with an object from all four Founders, the way he originally planned?”

The boys were all looking at her with varying shades of dread. Harry was the first to react. He nodded slowly, his face so pale that his lightning scar stood out like a brand on his forehead. “I think you’re right, Hermione,” he said hoarsely. “I think that’s exactly what he’d do if he got his hands on it. And then … I think there might be a possibility he even goes to check on the others, which would mean …”

“He’d know we were hunting them,” said Ron.

Their eyes all turned to the Diadem in Hermione’s hands.

“I’ll do it,” Hermione said.

“No, you won’t,” Ron said fiercely, sticking out a hand. “Give it here. I’m supposed to be sick anyway, aren’t I? If something awful happens to me, you can … can deliver me back to my family, and we can just pretend the Spattergroit got worse, and—”

No,” Harry said. “If anyone’s putting that thing on, it’ll be me.”

“Oh, Harry, don’t be ridiculous,” Hermione said, “you’re the symbolic head of the Order now that Dumbledore’s gone! What do you think people would do if both you and he died within a week of each other? There wouldn’t be a resistance anymore.”

Harry shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. You still know about the Horcruxes, so you could carry on without me. Dumbledore left this information to three people. If I died, there would …” He swallowed. “Well, there would still be three, wouldn’t there?”

Another extremely loud silence fell. She, Ron, and Harry all hesitated. Then, at the same time, they looked at Malfoy.

There was alarm on Malfoy’s face. In the ghostly light of the room he looked even paler than usual, his thin mouth nearly colorless, as if he were freezing. It was only then that Hermione remembered what he’d said at the wedding—that he wasn’t keen to leave the country, that he didn’t want to leave his life behind, that he didn’t have a choice.

He seemed to be realizing before her eyes that there was a choice.

“I … I’m not …” he started, but he didn’t seem to know where to go with the sentence.

After a moment, he said, with a good try at his usual sneer, “I’m not putting that thing on. The three of you can act the hero all you want. You can’t make me touch it.”

It eased some of the tension. “Ah, well,” Ron sighed, “at least he’s reliable. Now hand it over, Hermione.”

He made a grab for the diadem, but Hermione darted backward, out of the way. She threw her beaded bag to Harry, who caught it instinctively. “If there are physical wounds,” she said as quickly as she could, “there’s Essence of Dittany in there. If the symptoms resemble poisoning, I’ve packed a bezoar, too. For anything else, Madam Pomfrey is in the Infirmary.”

“Hermione, no!” Ron yelled, making a dash toward her.

She was already placing the diadem atop her head.

Time seemed to slow down. Ron broke out of his stride, he and Harry staring at her with nothing less than terror. Malfoy had made a strange, convulsive motion, but now he’d gone still, his eyes fixed on the diadem. Nobody breathed.

At first Hermione felt very little, not even the coldness of the diadem, since her hair was cushioning it. But then she felt something. Not pain, but easement, as if a seed of stillness was planted in her mind, flowering outward, cooling all the agitated heat in her thoughts. The idea of Voldemort with Gryffindor’s sword, the weight of finding the remaining Horcruxes, the hurt and anger she’d felt toward Ron and Malfoy and even Harry, the anxiety of what might, even now, be happening at the Burrow … these things remained in her head, but they seemed to separate like the ingredients of an antidote in a cauldron, precipitating downward into individual containers, where she could analyze each individually.

It’s a Horcrux, she reminded herself. It’s dangerous.

But it didn’t feel dangerous. It felt as if her brain had been removed from a clamp for the first time in months—maybe for the first time in years.

“I’m all right,” she said quite calmly. Ron and Harry unleashed a breath as one, seeming to sink in on themselves with relief, as if someone had let air out of their bodies. But Malfoy kept staring at her, the shock and disbelief in his expression unchanged.

“The sword,” Hermione said. “We’re trying to solve two different problems with it. The first is the need to destroy Horcruxes. The second is the possibility of Voldemort transforming it into a new, active fifth Horcrux. We have to think about the two problems separately. They might have separate answers.”

“All right,” said Harry. “Which one do we solve first?”

His words sounded far away. Hermione didn’t answer. She often felt as if she could read lines out of a textbook in her mind, but at the moment, she felt as if whole mental libraries were reopening to her, regurgitating vast quantities of detail, facts connecting to each other like mapped constellations. Why should they be limited to the sword? Almost certainly there were other goblin-made weapons that had imbibed Basilisk venom, or Callacot blood, which, she’d read, was also toxic enough to destroy a Horcrux. The Callacot had gone extinct in 1829, but there were at least nine known cases of wizards slaying them. Two of those wizards were prominent enough to have displays of their possessions in Wizarding museums, one in Dresden and one in Nairobi, and although the records hadn’t provided detail on how they slew the Callacots, it was entirely possible that they could have done so with goblin-made swords, especially since swords as surrogate wands had been at the height of fashion in the 1700s.

“Hermione?” Ron said tentatively.

She gave her head a little shake and closed her eyes. Nairobi and Dresden were problematic as solutions, since leaving the country would mean serious complications. She withdrew from the trench of information and refocused. Which other avenues might be available? Fiendfyre? Most likely too dangerous, unless they could find a fully sealed and warded test environment, like the ones supposedly housed in the Department of Mysteries or St. Mungo’s Severe Isolation Ward. Could the Room of Requirement itself serve as a sealed environment, she wondered? Maybe, but Hermione didn’t know the nature of the Room’s enchantments, and risking it would risk the destruction of Hogwarts itself. Not Fiendfyre, then, or at least, not yet. Callacot blood: unless an obsessive conservationist still had a body of the extinct animal, magically preserved, it was an unlikely option. The Curse of Devouring: definitely not ideal, as the caster would suffer a slow, wasting disease. Basilisk venom—

A snippet of conversation rose immediately out of her mind. Ron, sitting on his bed during one of their Horcrux discussions, saying, “Oh, well, lucky we’ve got such a large supply of Basilisk fangs, then. I was wondering what we were going to do with them.”

A thrill shot through her. Her eyes opened. She felt as if she had been thinking for a long while, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. The answer was obvious. So obvious, in fact, that she laughed.

“What?” Harry said as she took off the Diadem.

“We don’t need the sword to destroy Horcruxes,” she said. “We’re right above the Chamber of Secrets. The Basilisk is still there.”

Harry and Ron let out exclamations at the same time that echoed in the Room. “Let’s go,” Harry said, already turning for the door. They all sprinted toward it together.

“You sure you’re all right?” Ron said, looking over at Hermione.

“I’m fine, Ron. I feel completely normal. Actually, I—”

She broke off. She’d glanced down at the Marauder’s Map, and shock penetrated through the residual calm the Diadem had given her.

What?” she choked out, breaking out of her run by the door. The others halted beside her.

“What is it?” Harry said sharply.

Hermione shoved the Map toward him. The boys bent their heads over the parchment.

Empty for the summer, the map of the castle only wore a few black dots.

One, Severus Snape, was traversing the grounds at what seemed to be an impossible speed.

Four others were nearly at Hogwarts’ front doors. Geoffrey Dewhirst, Alecto Carrow, Amycus Carrow, Corban Yaxley.

Malfoy was the first to speak. “We need to get out of here. Now.”

“How did they know?” Hermione whispered.

“Do … you don’t think Hagrid gave something away?” Ron said.

Harry looked up from the Map, his face drawn. “It doesn’t matter how,” he said. “We have to get to the Chamber. We haven’t got much time—Snape’s moving so fast, he must be on a broom.”

“The Chamber?” Malfoy said in disbelief. “We need to run! What use is a Basilisk fang if Snape catches you?”

“They won’t be able to find us in the Chamber,” Harry said impatiently. “They can’t speak Parseltongue. We can stay there until they’ve gone.”

“What, and starve to death down there? Snape lives here, Potter!”

Hermione clutched more tightly to the Diadem, and as if in response, another pulse of blissful calm seemed to issue from it, up from her arm, into her mind. Surely, the instinct said, there was no need to rush. This was no real risk, because if the Death Eaters confronted them, she could put on the Diadem and fight them, and she would do so with profound competence.

She shook her head, feeling disoriented, and slid the Diadem into her beaded bag. Her hands felt empty without it. “Harry’s right,” she said. “We should try to get to the Chamber while we’re here. It’s going to be a risk to get out of the castle either way.”

“All right, all right, fine,” Malfoy snapped. “But I’m taking the Invisibility Cloak.”

Ron let out a disbelieving laugh. “No, you bloody well aren’t.”

“I can’t be seen, Weasley!” Malfoy hissed. “If any of them see me, I’ll have to kill them, do you not understand that?”

There was the briefest of pauses. Malfoy’s lips were pursed, and he ran one hand through his white-blond hair, and—for an instant—his eyes flew over to Hermione, who felt a strange jolt low in her stomach, remembering the way his hand had jerked in hers when his father had killed Dolohov. In the week since, had he been steeling himself to do the same?

Malfoy was already looking back at Ron and Harry, both of whom looked slightly repulsed by his words. “There’s no other way,” Malfoy said, his face slightly wild now. “What else am I supposed to do? If the Dark Lord finds out I’m alive, he’ll know my parents are alive, he’ll find us, he’ll make an example—”

Harry thrust the Cloak at Malfoy, who fell silent. Fleeting surprise passed over his face. Ron, too, looked poleaxed. Then Malfoy took the Cloak and donned it without another word.

“You’ll have to read the Map for us, then, Malfoy,” Hermione said. “We can’t read it if we’re Disillusioned, it’ll just look like whatever’s behind it.”

“Hermione,” said Ron, obvious distrust in his voice.

He didn’t need to say more. Hermione understood the source of his unease and knew Harry understood, too. If they gave Malfoy both the Cloak and the Map, he could sneak off at any time, abandon them and make sure he got out safely.

The moment was uncomfortable. No matter how he’d sneered, and mocked, and played up his reluctance, Malfoy had helped them reach this point. But to trust him with two of their greatest tools … Hermione couldn’t help thinking of Dumbledore, and of the loathing on Snape’s face as he’d murdered him. Were they making the same mistake?

But then she thought, too, of the decision Malfoy had made in the instant that spell had coursed toward them under the marquee. She remembered the hard weight of him colliding into her, sending her to safety. She wasn’t so sure he would turn tail and flee here, leaving them to die.

“It’s fine,” Harry said. “He needs us.” He turned to the patch of air where Malfoy had vanished. “You need us to get back to your parents.”

A brief silence. Then Malfoy’s hand came from nothing and took the Map from Hermione’s grip. “I know,” he said coldly. “Thanks for the reminder, Potter.”

 


 

Three Disillusionment Charms later, they were hurrying down corridor after corridor, leaping down staircases two at a time. Draco was trying his best to direct them to the bathroom on the second floor, but the Gryffindors kept pulling too far ahead, unable to see each other well enough to cluster more closely. It was like herding cats.

“Where’s Snape?” Potter asked, breathing hard.

“Great Hall,” Draco said. “He hasn’t left the first floor—must be guarding the entrance.”

“Anyone near the bathroom?” Weasley panted, as they flew around and around a spiral staircase so quickly that it left Malfoy dizzy.

“Not yet. Left here,” he whispered. “Left here, Weasley!” They had crept out onto the fourth floor corridor, and Amycus Carrow, squat and lumpy, presumably from the effects of many years’ curses, was at the far end of the hall.

Just in time, Weasley wheeled around the corner where Granger’s nearly invisible arm was frantically beckoning him. Carrow apparently hadn’t discerned their Disillusioned outlines, but he was stopping periodically to say, “Finite incantatem!”

The spell whooshed down the hall beside them. Their Disillusionment Charms held.

“Come on,” Draco said, leading them down a secret stairwell behind a tapestry.

But after several more tense minutes, as they crept through the second floor hall toward the girls’ bathroom, Draco realized two dots were converging on them. Alecto Carrow and Dewhirst were at opposite ends of the hall, closing slowly inward. “Stop,” he hissed. “We can’t keep going.”

“Malfoy, it’s right there,” Potter whispered.

“I know,” Draco hissed back. “But if we go that way, we’ll be blocked in. They’re coming from both sides.”

“Which way, then?” came Granger’s voice.

“That corridor, back there, it’s the only—”

“But there are four of us,” Weasley whispered. “We’ve got surprise on our side. What if we rush Alecto, Stun her, and hide her in the bathroom?”

“Weasley, I’m not risking—”

Then several things seemed to happen at once. Behind them, Dewhirst turned the corner. On the Map, the black dot reading Corban Yaxley entered a passage through a portrait near Ravenclaw Tower—the other end of which, apparently, spilled out directly ahead. Yaxley, seeing Dewhirst at the opposite end of the hall, instinctively whirled around and said,

“Finite incantatem!”

The flash of red-gold light rushed down the hall toward them. Potter was the only one to react in time. “Protego!” he yelled, and the light ricocheted back at Yaxley, who dodged.

“It’s him!” Yaxley roared. “It’s Potter!” He repeated the spell as they sprinted back down the hall, away from the bathroom, toward the tiny corridor that was their only chance.

“This one, this one,” Malfoy gasped, throwing himself toward the door. It burst open, and they piled through just as Yaxley’s spell tore past, down the hall.

Colloportus!” Granger panted, aiming her wand back at the door even as she rushed down the tiny hallway with them.

“Where does this come out?” Potter said, no longer bothering to whisper.

“The dungeons,” Draco said.

“Snape still in the Great Hall?”

“No, they must have told him something,” Draco said, tearing around a corner. “He’s in the Entrance Hall now, right in front of the door.”

“That’s fine,” Potter said in something like a snarl. “Let him try to stop us.”

Draco couldn’t believe him. “Don’t be an idiot, Potter. Snape could take all four of us with his wand hand behind his back. He’s been the Dark Lord’s protégé since he was our age.”

And now, behind them, new footsteps were echoing down the corridor, and Draco could hear Alecto, Yaxley, and Dewhirst’s voices mixing into a confused swirl.

“What do we do, what do we do, what do we do,” Granger was saying frantically.

It came to Draco in a rush of fear that felt like inspiration. “My common room! The Slytherin common room. They’ll never look in there.”

“Perfect,” Granger gasped as they burst out into the dungeons. “Which way?”

“This way,” Potter said, going left.

“I—what?” Draco tore after his outline. “How do you know which way it is?”

Weasley let out a slightly hysterical laugh. “Not the time!”

Soon they were skidding to a halt in front of the patch of stone wall Draco knew so well. “Hydrus,” he said, praying they hadn’t changed the password in the last few days of school.

The stone door sank back and slid out of sight, and relief flooded through Draco. Clutching a stitch that pounded painfully in his side, he staggered through the passage and out of the way of the Gryffindors, who followed hot on his heels. The door shut behind them and melted back into a solid wall.

The others faded back into view, and Draco took off the Cloak, panting hard. He’d expected it to stifle him, but air seemed to flow through the fluid material somehow. He let it flow over his hand, studying it with narrowed eyes. He would never tell Potter, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen the Cloak’s equal, and Borgin and Burke’s kept an entire rack full of Invisibility Cloaks fully stocked. It must have been a brand-new Cloak. Maybe they’d even bought it for this Horcrux hunt.

Once he’d caught his breath, Draco let himself look around the common room. The sight overwhelmed him in a way he hadn’t prepared for; he felt a bittersweet rush so strong he could practically taste it. His eyes roved first onto the sofa in the corner, the spot that was his, Crabbe’s, and Goyle’s, where they’d spent countless afternoons listlessly trying to do homework, mostly failing, and winding up making fun of their teachers until their sides hurt from laughing. Then there were the intricate engravings around the dark stone fireplace, where Pansy had leaned the first night they’d kissed, fourth year. He remembered the way she’d looked at him through her dark eyelashes as if she knew everything he didn’t, but that was just Pansy. Her lips had been as soft and yielding as flower petals and in truth neither of them had known what they were doing at all. They’d broken apart after a few minutes just to snicker about it together.

With a lump sticking hard in his throat now, Draco looked up to the light, to the bank of long, greenish windows. The afternoon he’d taken his first O.W.L., he’d curled up where the sun shone through the lake water, in that far windowsill whose stone was slightly curved like a hammock, and he’d listened to the other Slytherins’ voices drifting cheerfully around the common room as he’d fallen into a well-needed nap. Nobody had disturbed him. He’d been worried about things like grades, then. These remnants of a normal life felt almost ridiculous, now, like a clichéd storybook he’d read in childhood.

He couldn’t pinpoint when that world had slipped out from beneath him. For a while, he’d blamed Potter for the whole thing, for his father’s disgrace in the Department of Mysteries, but even before that, there had been transformations, hadn’t there? Yes, looking back, he could see the signs. Until the end of fourth year, his parents had written him twice a week when he was at school, keeping him up to date with happenings at the Ministry, international Wizarding news, and any major financial moves either of his parents were considering. But over the course of fifth year, their letters had dwindled to once weekly, then once every two weeks, then once a month. They sounded distracted and vague in writing, and when he came home for the Christmas holidays that year, they made him stay in his room whenever other Death Eaters came to the manor. He’d hated that, being treated like a child, until the night he’d heard screaming coming from down the hall. He couldn’t remember what he’d told himself to explain it, but he must have made up some story, something to fit with the predestined trajectory of the rest of his life. He must have told himself that person deserved it, and that he would never scream that way, like he was afraid, because he would never fail, because he was his father’s son—so what was there to fear.

They’d all caught their breath, now. “This won’t buy us much time,” Potter said. “If they tell Snape they lost us in the dungeons, he might check here.”

“I don’t suppose there’s a secret Slytherin way out of the castle?” Weasley said. “Just in case you lot wanted to turn tail and flee?”

Draco didn’t dignify that with a response.

Granger was frowning. “If we were in Gryffindor Tower, we would be able to summon brooms and go out the window.”

“Very useful,” Draco said. “Let’s open one of those—” He gestured lazily at the windows— “and flood the school, shall we?”

Potter and Granger didn’t immediately answer. They were both studying the windows as if they were actually considering it.

“How deep do you reckon this is?” Potter said.

“The light’s relatively clear,” said Granger. “And the dungeons go much deeper than this. It can’t be more than fifteen or twenty feet.”

“The lake’s not that bad,” Potter said. “The merpeople are a bit weird, but they’re all right, really. Hermione, do you think you could do that Bubble-Head Charm that Cedric and Fleur used for the Second Task? It’s only just above O.W.L. standard, I think.”

“Let me see if I have it.” Granger sat on the arm of one of the black leather sofas, took out her beaded bag, and began rummaging around in it.

“Hold on,” said Weasley, “how are we supposed to stop the place from flooding, though? Not that I’d mind giving the Slytherins a bit of a surprise, but—”

“We’re not flooding this room,” Draco said through gritted teeth. “You are not touching this place.”

Weasley looked at him with slight surprise, but didn’t say anything.

“No, no, of course we won’t flood it,” said Granger, sounding distracted, still pulling endless books out of her beaded bag and somehow feeding them back into its tiny aperture. “Hold on … ah, here it is!” She’d extracted a book called Adventurer’s Charms for the Wild. “I tried a few of these charms for our O.W.L. … hopefully the Bubble-Head Charm is a derivative of one of them.”

As she paged through the book, Weasley settled on another sofa, scuffing his shoe against the vast Persian rug that spanned most of the common room. “I still don’t understand how they knew we were here,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Potter.

Draco turned slightly away from them. He’d expected this. Here it came: they were going to accuse him of bringing the Death Eaters here, either accidentally or purposefully. And when he tried to defend himself by asking why he would summon Death Eaters only to help them escape, they would accuse him of getting cold feet at the last second, the same way he’d failed to kill Dumbledore. He could hear every word of the imagined argument. His heart was beating too quickly, anger and defensiveness building up in him just from the thoughts.

But Potter spoke in a quiet, worried voice. “I couldn’t still have my Trace on me, could I?”

“Impossible, mate,” Weasley said. “It breaks at seventeen, that’s Wizarding law.”

Potter let out a slow breath, and Malfoy realized he’d been worried he was endangering them all. He thought about that ridiculous argument the Gryffindors had in the Room of Hidden Things, each bidding for the opportunity to put on the diadem, to put themselves at risk. He thought about the fear and defiance on Granger’s face as she’d nestled the tiara into her flyaway hair.

He glanced over at Granger now, paging with some enthusiasm through Charms for the Wild. With a book in front of her, she looked calmer than she had since the wedding.

She could have died in the Room. He couldn’t understand how she could have made that decision, how she could have forced herself to put on the Horcrux. To him that seemed like the act of someone with nothing left to live for, but hadn’t she also seemed terrified by the idea of Potter and Weasley getting hurt? If she cared about them so much, wasn’t it her responsibility to stay alive, to make sure they all got out of this unscathed? What good was it to die for the people you loved, if you forfeited living for them instead?

“Here!” She looked up and met Draco’s eyes, and he looked away immediately, his heart beating too quickly. He knew he was being stupid, knew she couldn’t see on his face that he’d been trying to puzzle through her thought process. Besides, even if she’d wanted to know his thoughts, he could shut her out immediately. Bella had called him a natural. That memory still comforted him, still made him feel proud. When did Bella ever speak like that about anyone?

“Good news,” Granger announced, shooting to her feet. “It is a derivative of the Clean-Air Charm. I thought it might be.”

Potter looked up from the Marauder’s Map. “Hermione, I think they’re telling Snape. You’ll have to hurry.”

Granger’s excitement turned at once, palpably, to anxiety. She bit her lip, her shoulders bunched up tightly, and her fingers tightened around her wand. Draco threw a disdainful look at Potter. What a stupid move, telling Granger she suddenly had a time limit, when she was so obviously someone who performed poorly under stress.

Draco made a show of yawning and cast a casual look back at the door. “Don’t be stupid, Potter. There’s no reason for Snape to guess we’re here. Yaxley doesn’t even know there’s anyone here but you, and why would you be able to get in?” He glanced at Granger. “No, I think we’ve got ages to watch you bungle this charm, Granger.”

It worked. Her shoulders dropped slightly, and she glowered at him. Some of the fear had gone out of her. “I’m not going to bungle anything,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Weasley, leaping to her defense. “When have you ever seen her mess up a spell, Malfoy?”

“Fine, then. Prove me wrong.” Draco leaned back against one of the limestone pillars set into the wall and folded his arms, giving her an unimpressed look.

Granger sniffed, balanced the book on the back of an armchair, and drew a squiggle in the air with the tip of her wand. “Aenai,” she said, and with the second wand motion, a perfect circle traced around her own head, she completed the incantation: “Enacerus.

At once, a glassy bubble, thick and iridescent, swelled to life around her head. It couldn’t contain her hair, but when she breathed in, she smiled triumphantly at Draco.

He shrugged. “We all get lucky sometimes, I suppose,” he drawled.

Granger rolled her eyes and went to repeat the charm on Potter and Weasley. Finally, she approached Draco and raised her wand.

He couldn’t help it. He flinched slightly. He wondered if he would ever be able to get rid of the instinct, facing a lifted wand.

Granger’s annoyingly perceptive eyes lingered on his face, then moved down to his right hand, which had jerked ever so slightly toward the pocket where he kept his wand. But she didn’t comment on the motion.

“Ready?” she said, her voice echoing inside the bubble.

He nodded.

She’d barely cast the spell when Potter said, “No, Malfoy, I was right. They’re headed this way.” He and Weasley were both on their feet, their faces distended by the bubbles that surrounded their heads, as well as the one around Draco’s own, which made the whole common room glossy and skewed. The air inside the bubble was cool and refreshing, moving slightly, as if he were outside on an early spring day.

“Fine, then,” Draco said, striding to the window. “How exactly are we going to get out?”

“Banishing Charm,” Granger said, sweeping up her bag. “Strata duro!

Steps instantly erupted out of the wall, leading up to the high windowsill. “Up, go up,” she said. Potter and Weasley darted up the steps, and once they were all crouched on the windowsill, Granger waved her wand again, and the steps collapsed with several loud thuds back into the stone.

Now Draco could hear dull hints of voices from outside the common room.

“You three cast the Banishing Charm,” Potter said. “I’ll cut a way through. All right? … Now.

Draco, Weasley, and Granger all swept their wands out in an identical motion. The water outside the window bent backward, as if another, much larger bubble were expanding around the window itself. Potter muttered, “Diffindo!” and cut a large, square hole in the window, the glass falling inward with a heavy clunk onto the sill between them. “Go,” he said. “Hurry.”

“The Map first,” Granger said. She stuffed it into her beaded bag, which she tapped, whispering, “Impervius!”

Then they crawled out of the window and dived into the lake. There was water all around them, but the Banishing Charm held as they turned back, treading water.

Wingardium Leviosa,” Potter said, his voice faint and distant through the water, and the thick square of glass lifted back into place. With a quick “Reparo,” it was mended, as if they had never been there.

Potter looked back at them and nodded. Draco lifted his wand as Granger and Weasley did the same, and the water crashed into place against the window of the common room, tugging them all momentarily back toward the castle. Then they were swimming in the opposite direction, kicking hard upward and outward.

Draco looked back as they swam away. The Slytherin common room’s bank of windows looked ghostly, shedding weak pale light into the dark water. They looked like a memory. Within a minute they had disappeared altogether.

 




They spent that night in the cave in the mountain outside Hogsmeade. The drawback was that it was a cave. The bright side was that it had enough room that Draco could pretend he wasn’t sleeping in the same place as the Gryffindors. They had settled on one side of their fire, and he on the other. They had Transfigured rocks into pillows, leaves into blankets, and through the entrance to the cave, the night sky was a brushstroke of stars.

The moment Hagrid had let them back out through the Gamekeeper’s gate, Draco had wanted to Apparate as far away as possible, but Granger had insisted that they stay here, where they knew they could find covered shelter, and Transfigure themselves tomorrow to buy supplies in Hogsmeade.

“You don’t think that’s incredibly risky?” Potter had said, still shivering from the lake water as he performed a Drying Charm on his robes.

“It’s less risky than anywhere else,” Granger replied. “The place is so full of people, I don’t think we’ll be seen, much less remembered. What’s another couple of guests?”

“Fine,” Draco said. “As long as we contact the Order first thing tomorrow.”

The others had exchanged an exasperated look, which he ignored.

It wasn’t until they settled into the cave that Draco realized how exhausted he was. It seemed impossible that the Burrow and the wedding had been only a handful of hours ago. Yet when he lay down and closed his eyes, rather than falling asleep immediately, he became aware of the Gryffindors’ whispers. They probably thought they were too far away for him to hear, but the arc of the cave ceiling was such that the sound traveled up and over to him.

“Wish the Cloak were a bit bigger,” Potter was saying. “It would be useful.”

“Remember when all three of us could fit under it?” Weasley whispered.

“There was so much room in first year,” Granger murmured. Draco could hear the slight smile in her voice.

First year? Draco thought, frowning at the wall. Six years for an Invisibility Cloak was into old age. He would have expected the charms to have halfway unraveled by that point, but from the condition of Potter’s cloak, it could have been woven last week.

“It’s going well so far, isn’t it?” Weasley said. “Day one of the quest and we’ve already got a Horcrux. Keep going at this rate and You-Know-Who will be finished by next weekend.”

Granger and Potter’s stifled laughter shivered up and over the cave wall.

“Shame about the fangs,” Potter said. “But we know they’re there. If we don’t manage to get the sword, we can always try coming back to Hogwarts, or getting word to someone at school that we need one.”

There were murmurs of assent from the other two, and then a brief pause.

Then Weasley said, “Look, Hermione, I wanted to … I’m sorry. Both of us are, I mean. We didn’t realize that was what the Spew—I mean, S.P.E.W. thing meant to you.”

Draco’s stomach dropped. He no longer wanted to eavesdrop. He didn’t want to think about the fury and disdain in Granger’s face when she’d demanded to know how he’d treated Dobby, or about the hurt he’d seen in her eyes, even the shine of tears, when she’d mentioned personal relevance.

And just hours ago he’d been floating across the lake, telling himself she’d never seemed to care when he called her Mudblood, that nothing he’d said had really made any impact, so why did it matter, in the end.

He didn’t want to listen, and yet he found himself training his ears harder than ever. Granger didn’t answer for a long moment, so long that Draco wondered whether he’d missed her reply. But then she whispered back, “I don’t want you to apologize to me. I know you two care about me, so it’s not about that. I didn’t start S.P.E.W. because of how I’m treated, or how Muggle-borns are treated. I started it because we should all care about how everyone’s treated. And sometimes I just wish you would take that a bit more seriously, even when it’s … when it’s …”

“When it’s Kreacher?” Potter said.

“Exactly.”

It was ridiculous, Draco thought. Completely ridiculous, caring to the point of tears about house-elves.

He did have memories of Dobby from before Hogwarts. The elf had scurried around the house wringing his hands and polishing surfaces and punishing himself, and as a child Draco had found it all hilarious: the look of the elf with his batlike ears, and the tea towel he’d had to wear, and the way he’d had to do anything Draco asked, no matter how ridiculous or excessive. Draco remembered enlisting the elf to play make-believe games with him when Crabbe and Goyle weren’t there. He would be the hero, and the elf would be the evil monster encroaching on his territory, and when Draco inevitably conquered the monster, he would order Dobby to do things representing his defeat, like sitting in a closet in the dark for four hours. Draco would go and check on him halfway through just to sit in the strange, weightless feeling of his own control.

Now, he realized, the memories made him feel an uncomfortable twinge. But he shoved that discomfort back. He’d been seven, maybe eight years old at the time. How should he have known that the elf was miserable? How should he have known that the elf could even feel misery? If Dobby had ever let on anything other than enthusiasm and cooperation, his father would have ordered him to iron his hands.

Really, said a disgusted voice in his mind, are you going to spend time feeling guilty about how you treated an elf when you were a child? After all, if he felt guilty about Dobby, of all things, what was next? Accidentally landing that Katie Bell girl in St. Mungo’s, or poisoning Weasley? Draco had never allowed himself to dwell on those things, because what would feeling guilty have done, exactly? He knew they would get better, or die, whether or not he felt guilty.

Besides, he’d had his own death to worry about. There were reasons I acted the way I did, he thought with a kind of righteous indignation. Was he supposed to feel guilty for prioritizing his own life? Was that what people like Granger wanted, for everyone to prostrate themselves at each other’s feet, never thinking of themselves?

Was that how she’d put on that diadem?

He closed his eyes more tightly, so that strange shadows of polygons erupted on the backs of his eyelids. Clear your mind, said Bellatrix’s voice, training him in Occlumency. Clear everything away. Close yourself to the world, to guilt, to doubt, to shame. He succeeded, except for one thing, which lingered no matter what he tried. Granger’s face as she lowered the diadem onto her head, crowning herself, terrified and defiant.

Chapter Text

When Hermione woke up, Malfoy was gone.

His absence was the first thing she saw. As she squinted out through the mouth of the cave at a brilliantly blue circle of sky the size of a Galleon, she realized there was no longer a dark shape huddled by the entrance.

No Transfigured pillows. No sheets. No tall body facing purposefully, almost petulantly away from them.

Hermione was on her feet within seconds. No, she thought, hurrying to the entrance as quickly as she could without waking Harry and Ron. Surely Malfoy hadn’t left. Thoughts of the Map and the Cloak occurred to her, but she’d curled up with the beaded bag in her pocket, wanting to ensure that the diadem was protected. When she touched her pocket, the heavy lump was still there, so he couldn’t have taken anything.

She poked her head out of the cave. Hogsmeade lay fifteen minutes’ walk ahead, at the bottom of a rocky, winding path, and already she could see movement in its streets. The funeral was to begin later that morning.

Malfoy was nowhere in sight.

He’s gone for a walk, she told herself. That’s all. He’s gone for a walk further up in the mountains to clear his head.

It wasn’t very convincing. He’d wanted to leave ever since they’d arrived the previous afternoon. Had his worry for his parents increased overnight to the point where he’d gone off to find them himself? It wasn’t such a ludicrous idea. He’d betrayed Voldemort for them, after all.

“Malfoy?” she said, not daring to raise her voice too much. She wasn’t sure whether sound echoed in these foothills. “Malfoy—are you there?”

A long moment of nothing but wind.

Hermione was about to reenter the cave when a low voice said, “Why, Granger? Afraid I ran off and gave you away?”

She let out a slow breath and turned toward his voice. “It’s a good thing you didn’t,” she said. “It would have been—”

“—stupid, yeah, I know. Which is why I’m still here.”

Malfoy’s Disillusionment receded, and he faded back into view from foot to crown: the robes wrinkled from sleep, the hands cradling a dark wand, the narrow shoulders slumped against a boulder on the hillside. As his face reappeared from pointy chin to white-blond hair, she looked at him for a moment too long, frowning. She thought he looked different somehow. Less familiar. At Hogwarts, his face, his demeanor, everything about him had been little more than an avatar for her dislike. Now she looked at the scrape on his temple, the one he’d received when he’d knocked her to the ground, and instead of seeing the injury, she felt the collision. She glanced into his colorless eyes, which were cold and bright in the morning sun, and remembered the destabilized look he’d worn in Ron’s room when she’d looked at his Mark.

It was like a kind of facial blindness, she thought, averting her eyes. Parts of him had become invisible to her, or at least inscrutable.

“Right,” Hermione said. “I didn’t think you ran off to hand us in, by the way.”

“Oh, really? Not even a little bit? Didn’t check that bag of yours to make sure I hadn’t taken that Cloak?”

Hermione flushed. “I—that’s not—”

Malfoy let out a humorless laugh. “Thought so.”

“You’d have done the same thing,” she said defensively. “You keep thinking the worst of us, too, when all we’ve done is try to help you.”

He thought for a second, then shrugged, smoothing his hair back into place.

Hermione sighed. This was very productive. “I’m going to go into the village and get our supplies. Tell Harry and Ron where I’ve gone when they wake up, please.”

She set off without waiting for his answer.

By the time she arrived in Hogsmeade, she was fully Transfigured. Her hair was short, fine, and auburn, her skin had lightened considerably, and she’d edited her features to the point that she could scarcely recognize herself in the hand mirror she’d brought. Most of the village’s occupants seemed to be breakfasting at the Three Broomsticks, which had set up an outdoor overflow section that was packed to its edges. Hermione decided to try her luck at the Hog’s Head for a stock of butterbeers and pumpkin juice instead, but even the usually-empty inn was nearly full. When she asked the barkeep for two dozen butterbeers and two casks of pumpkin juice, he glared at her so ferociously that she took a step back.

It wasn’t until he’d slapped his rag down on the bar and stalked into the back of the bar that she realized why her heart was beating so quickly. She knew those eyes, their particular piercing blue. She’d seen them the week before, as Albus Dumbledore had helped her up onto that Thestral.

The barkeep returned, wheeling a small cart. “And how are you plannin’ on transportin’ these, exactly?” he said gruffly as Hermione handed him a palmful of silver. “I don’t have time to push all this around the village.”

“Oh, there’s no need,” she said quickly, crouching. She levitated first the casks and then the packs of butterbeer into her beaded bag, which the barkeep watched with some curiosity. As she straightened up, she went on, “Er, I was wondering—sir, you wouldn’t happen to be … well, related to—?”

“There’s a line behind you, Miss,” he barked.

Suddenly Hermione felt ashamed. This was the day of Professor Dumbledore’s funeral. If this man was related to him, she was reminding him of a dead relative on what was already a painful day. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”

He’d leaned over to speak to the next patron before she’d even gotten the words out. Hermione sighed and left.

By the time she’d passed through the lines at the village grocer’s and Honeydukes, some of the visitors were already departing for the Hogwarts grounds. She headed in the opposite direction, back to the turnstile. Once she was a little way into the hills, she stopped to perform some freezing charms on the perishable foods and Untransfigure herself.

She returned to the cave to find an uncomfortable silence. Malfoy was leaning against the wall, arms tightly crossed, looking thunderous. Harry and Ron were muttering darkly under their breath, but when they saw her, their faces brightened.

“Finally,” Ron said. “What kept you?”

“The lines were absolutely ridiculous. I’m sorry, you must all be starving. Here.” She crouched and fished out four full breakfasts from the tiny café that had been attached to the grocer’s. She laid out the plates of soft scrambled egg, thick bacon, and buttered toast, which steamed in the cool air.

Ron let out a soft groan. “Hermione, I love you,” he said as he seized a plate and began to fork the eggs rapidly into his mouth.

Hermione’s stomach performed that leaden lurch again. “Well, I—we didn’t have dinner, so I thought … yes.”

“Thanks,” muttered a quiet voice from her shoulder. Hermione looked up in surprise, but Malfoy was already taking his plate outside.

She watched his retreating back curiously for a moment before settling beside Harry and Ron. “What’s up with him?”

Harry shot a dark look at the mouth of the cave. “He was complaining about how long you were taking, going on and on about his parents. So I told him what I thought his parents could do, for all I care.”

“Oh, Harry, you didn’t.” Hermione sighed and glanced at Ron. “And I suppose you agreed.”

Ron, his mouth full, gave her an incredulous look. “Of cour’f I did,” he said, indistinctly, through eggs. He swallowed and went on. “Hermione, did you forget Lucius Malfoy tried to kill us all? Actually, personally kill us?”

Harry nodded, an unusually bitter look on his face. “I remember exactly what he said in the Department of Mysteries. I can still hear him saying it. You can kill the others if necessary. Like it would have been nothing to kill you two, or Luna and Neville, or—or Ginny.”

“I know,” Hermione sighed. “He’s awful. But there’s no point in needlessly antagonizing Malfoy.”

Ron bobbed his shoulders. “What does it matter? He’ll be out of our hair in a few hours, and good riddance.”

Hermione lowered her voice. “I don’t know, Ron. Have you thought about what we’re going to do if we can’t get him back to his parents?” She hesitated. “I mean, if they’ve been taken to a safehouse that we can’t access because it’s been made Unplottable, or heavily warded, or … or if something did happen to them …”

They ate in silence for a moment.

“Yeah,” Harry admitted. “I was thinking about that when we were in the Room of Requirement yesterday. Also, the Horcrux hunt might actually be safer if he stays here, where we can keep an eye on him.”

“What, in the cave?” Ron said, glancing around.

“No, I mean, with us,” Harry said.

There was a long pause, during which Ron looked from Harry to Hermione with utmost disbelief.

Finally, Ron found his voice. “You’ve got to be joking. You are joking, aren’t you? I’m not wandering around the country with that little rat! Absolutely bloody not. After what he did to Bill?”

“I know, Ron,” Hermione said, trying for a placating tone. “I know it wouldn’t be ideal at all. But … I mean, he has been helpful already. Having someone with such a different perspective than the three of us …”

“We don’t need him to get ideas,” Ron said. “Not now that we’ve got that diadem.”

Hermione considered this, her hand straying to the bag. She knew they ought to be cautious of the Horcrux. She’d read that it was dangerous to get too fond of, or dependent on, a Horcrux; she’d told Harry and Ron exactly that only a few days ago … and yet she found herself thinking wistfully of the clarity it had brought her. It had been so useful yesterday, just when they’d needed it.

“The diadem can’t give us information we don’t have, though,” Harry said.

“That’s true,” Hermione said. “It’s more like a Pensieve: it helps you with your own thoughts, but it can’t give you what you don’t already know. But Malfoy might be able to tell us about the Death Eaters. For Merlin’s sake, his own father was entrusted with a Horcrux. He might have the kind of information that could be really useful to us, even if he doesn’t know it.”

Ron sighed, glancing over to the mouth of the cave. “Yeah, but I don’t …”

A sound interrupted him, making all three of them jump. A distant voice was washing toward them, but with the way it echoed off the walls, Hermione could barely make out a word.

Harry and Ron had whipped out their wands. “What is that?” Harry said.

Hermione held up a hand for quiet, training her ears. She’d heard something recognizable. A name.

“It’s the funeral,” she said softly. “Someone’s giving a eulogy.”

She glanced at Harry, who looked like he’d been jabbed hard in the stomach. He swallowed, which seemed to take some effort, and looked back down at his breakfast. He began to eat mechanically.

Hermione met Ron’s eyes, and Ron gave a tiny shake of his head to signal not to ask Harry how he felt. Hermione sighed, but it was usually best to trust Ron’s judgment on this sort of thing.

They ate for five, then ten minutes, occasional words drifting in from outside. Undeniable impact … achievements … Wizarding World. Eventually, Ron replaced his own empty plate on the floor. “You don’t think any of the Order have come to the funeral, do you?” he said uneasily. “I mean, they wouldn’t want the Order meeting each other here, and now that the Ministry’s been taken over, they could just invent some excuse to grab us on sight, couldn’t they?”

“No, you’re right,” Hermione said. “But the Order will know that, too.” Hermione gave Ron a reassuring smile. “There’s no chance your mum would let any of your family come, after yesterday.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s true.” Ron looked slightly reassured. “Blimey, though—do you reckon You-Know-Who killed Scrimgeour himself?”

“He can’t have done,” Harry said. “He’s abroad.” He had looked up from his plate. “I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

“How do you know that?” Ron said, goggling.

“You know how you heard me talking in my sleep? Saying ‘Gregorovitch’? Well, Gregorovitch is a wandmaker. Krum told me at the wedding. And Vol—”

Don’t,” Ron said.

Harry let out an exasperated sound. “Fine, but listen. He’s after Gregorovitch now. I don’t know where he is, but he’s not in Britain.”

“I don’t understand,” Hermione said, her heart rate speeding. Harry was speaking again with that uncanny, factual tone. “Are you saying your scar showed you this?”

He avoided her eyes, which was confirmation.

“But that connection was supposed to be closed! You shouldn’t be seeing him anymore!”

“That’s not important,” Harry said impatiently. “Hermione, I’m telling you, he’s after wandmakers. This means something. The night I left Privet Drive, the night you … we thought you were …” He shook his head. “Well, I saw him that night, I fought him again, and my wand acted funny, all right? It performed a spell without me. It beat him. And later that night, he tortured Ollivander. He was furious about it. … But don’t you see? He’s already got Ollivander, and now he’s going after Gregorovitch.”

“I … I don’t …” Hermione felt overwhelmed. “First of all, your wand couldn’t have performed a spell without you. That’s just not …”

“I’m telling you, it—”

“You three.”

They all looked up. Malfoy was standing at the mouth to the cave.

“What?” Ron said roughly.

Malfoy jerked his head wordlessly toward the exit.

“We’re not ready to go yet, Malfoy,” Harry said. “A few more minutes won’t make the difference between—”

“It’s not that, Potter. You’ll want to hear this.”

They exchanged glances, then stood and followed Malfoy.

From the path outside the cave, they could see the crowd gathered across the Hogwarts grounds, a sea of black robes. The voice carrying across the water was audible, even crisp, offered up by the lake. Hermione realized immediately that this wasn’t the same voice that had been delivering the eulogy. While that voice had been old and wheezy, this one was younger, more powerful, and flatly nasal.

“… assure you that Dumbledore’s supposed conflicts with the Ministry were invented by opportunistic reporters. Prior to Dumbledore’s death, we were working closely with him to find a path forward for the safety of the entire Wizarding World.”

What?” Harry said.

Hermione hushed him, trying to listen.

“Devoted headmaster that Albus Dumbledore was,” the voice went on, “he believed that the safest course of action for our children was to implement a mandatory attendance policy at Hogwarts School. Here, they can be protected by a score of capable teachers, as well as Ministry-regulated enchantments and wards. In the weeks to come, the Ministry will send registration forms across the country to ensure that every child in Wizarding Britain is accounted for, requesting location and basic demographic information.”

Malfoy made a small noise under his breath. Hermione glanced over at him, but his eyes were fixed on the funeral, and on the tiny figures in black at the front of the crowd.

“Moreover …” The announcer sighed. “We are loath to bring this news to such a somber occasion, but we do so knowing that the Ministry’s immediate and forceful action is imperative in these uncertain times. We are saddened and disturbed to say that our investigation has revealed that Albus Dumbledore’s death was not accidental, as was initially believed. We can confirm that the cause of his death was the Killing Curse. While …”

Sounds from the crowd drifted indistinctly across the lake, though with unmagnified voices, they sounded ten times farther away than the announcer.

While,” he repeated, “we have little information about the circumstances of Albus Dumbledore’s death, we do know that on the night in question, he was accompanied by Harry Potter, an unstable individual who has been followed by mysterious deaths and supposed accidents for years …”

An indistinct cry came out of Hermione’s mouth before she could restrain herself. “No,” Ron roared. Beside them, Harry had gone as rigid as a board.

Hermione rounded on Malfoy. “Who is that?” she demanded. “Who is that, talking?”

“Pius Thicknesse,” Malfoy said. “Used to be Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. They said he’s taken over as Minister from Scrimgeour.”

Thicknesse was still speaking. “… famous for his reappearance at the end of the Triwizard Tournament holding the dead body of a fellow student, Cedric Diggory. Potter was also involved in incidents resulting in the death of one Hogwarts teacher, Quirinus Quirrell, and the permanent memory loss of another, renowned author Gilderoy Lockhart—these incidents being particularly notable for the fact that Potter was only eleven at the time of his involvement with the former, twelve in the case of the latter.

“At fifteen, Potter and several accomplices broke illegally into the Ministry of Magic to steal a valuable, classified artifact, a intrusion that involved several known Death Eaters and resulted in the death of the posthumously exonerated Sirius Black. We have reason to believe that Potter made a similar raid on the Ministry as recently as this week, and only months ago he was nearly expelled from Hogwarts School because of the violent use of a Dark curse on a fellow student, which nearly resulted in yet another death.”

Hermione’s fingernails were biting into her palms. Were they talking about the Sectumsempra incident?

“How did they know—” Ron began.

“Snape,” Harry said dully. “Snape told them all this. How to frame it. Everything.” He let out the most humorless laugh Hermione thought she had ever heard. “Pretty good case against me, isn’t it?”

Hermione was so angry that she could hardly shake her head. How dare they use Sirius’s death against Harry? And Cedric? After everything Harry had been through, everything he’d had to endure, to hear these cruel, evil people twisting it all …

“Harry,” she said, her voice shaking, “it’s not a … nobody with any sense will believe …”

But Thicknesse’s speech had ended, and Harry was already stalking back into the cave. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder. “We’re wasting time.”

Ron and Hermione exchanged another look. “I’ll talk to him,” Ron said in a low voice.

Hermione nodded. She knew she wouldn’t be much consolation to Harry, anyway, with her fists balled up and trembling in rage, well aware that the crowd was likely full of people who would buy every foul word out of Thicknesse’s mouth. She couldn’t lie to Harry in this state.

As Ron followed Harry into the cave, Hermione shot a look over at Malfoy. He was still watching the scene across the water. She followed his eyeline and saw it, too. The service had come to a close, and a long, white object had formed, gleaming, at the front of the crowd.

Even from here, she could tell that it was a magnificent marble tomb, glowing like fire in the summer sun.

Hermione stared into the white spot and felt her rage evolving into a furious kind of yearning, which hurt as badly as if some soft tissue in her was ripping. Only then did she realize how much, exactly, she wished everything were different. She wished she had urged the Thestral forward at just the right time to save Dumbledore. She wished that Scrimgeour had held on for one more day, and that they were sitting in that crowd, able to say goodbye. She wished the path before them did not look so long and full of thorns.

Then a sound broke across the water. It was the high, tuneful cry of a phoenix, majestic and yet filled with the ache of loss, or maybe majestic because of the penetrative force of the feeling. It was the sound of the ache that unfolded colorfully in Hermione’s chest like the petals of a flower or a catastrophic bruise. As the lament soared upon the air, something red and gold streaked across the blue sky like a brand, and Hermione’s breaths began to stutter as she watched Fawkes’s trail fade, this last bright thing that remained of the Hogwarts, and the life, that she had loved. She thought of her parents’ excited faces in Diagon Alley, and the four-poster beds in the girls’ dormitory, and the dusty smell of the library, and Harry and Ron laughing with her on the lawn, and her cheeks were suddenly wet and hot; she was making small sounds. Malfoy half-turned toward her, but she didn’t shield her face. She didn’t feel that any of it was meant for hiding. She wrapped her arms around herself and felt her diaphragm jerk, felt her ribs hold hard around her heart, felt her body somehow containing it all.

As the phoenix song reached its crest, she found herself looking over at Malfoy. He had turned back toward the white tomb, or maybe toward Hogwarts itself. His lips were parted and he looked discomposed. He was breathing like someone who had run very quickly away from something indescribable. He looked younger.

The lament faded. He turned his face and met her eyes, and Hermione had no idea what to say. There was a long moment of silence like the moment between the casting of a spell and an explosive impact. She physically could not break it. Instead she lowered her head by a matter of small degrees. He did the same.

Five minutes later, they had Apparated away with the others, and Hermione knew they would never speak about it. It was sealed off in the past like the rest.

 


 

Crack.

They were in a small but luxurious office. Papers were piled high on two identical desks, and behind them, two identical people leapt to their feet with a shout.

Draco turned to the windows and flicked his wand. The curtains slammed together, blocking out the bright sunlight. Potter did the same to the door, which swung shut, concealing the plaque that said: Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes: Fred & George Weasley, Owners.

The twins’ shock didn’t last long. They leapt onto their brother first, wrapping him in a fierce hug. Then they moved on to Harry and Hermione, clapping their backs, looking them over for injuries. They gave Draco a glance and a grudging nod, and he nodded back unthinkingly, still feeling unsteady from the phoenix song.

“You four seem all right,” said George, sounding impressed. “Got away from the wedding okay, then, did you?”

“Didn’t you?” said Ron.

“We stayed,” Fred said. “Didn’t want to leave the family, but they’re all fine.”

“The Death Eaters saw the ghoul,” George said. “You did a decent job on it, too. They didn’t want to get within ten feet of the thing. Disgusting.”

“Cheers,” Ron said.

“What about everyone else?” said Granger anxiously. Her face was still red, her eyes puffy and swollen.

“Well, they interrogated us all, didn’t they,” said Fred. “For a few hours.” At the look on her face, he added hastily, “Not outright torture, or anything. There was a lot of threatening, and George got a smack for being mouthy, but he deserved that. Idiot.”

George grinned. “In my defense, he did look like a hairless cat tried to breed with a potato.”

Draco finally found his voice. “What about my parents? Did they go to Shacklebolt’s?”

“Shacklebolt’s?” Fred said. “Malfoy, the Death Eaters saw Kingsley on a broom with me the night we got Harry out of Privet Drive. They know he’s at least adjacent to the Order. Now that the Ministry are at the Death Eaters’ beck and call, he’s being raided and questioned with the rest of us.”

“Tonks evacuated your parents,” George said, “after she got Hagrid out. She was quick on the mark, I’ll tell you that. Took her about fifteen seconds total.”

“And?” Draco said impatiently. “Where are they? A safehouse?”

Fred sighed. “Haven’t we already said that none of our safehouses are safe anymore? Death Eaters smashed up every Order-connected house in the country yesterday. She won’t have taken them anywhere we know, but she didn’t come back to the Burrow, anyway, so we’ve no bloody idea.”

“You … you don’t know?” His voice was rising now. “Then how am I supposed to get to them? Where is she? Tonks? How do I talk to her?”

Fred shook his head, something like pity in his expression. “You’re not listening, Malfoy. Tonks, Kingsley, and our dad are the only Order members left who still work at the Ministry, and she’s got a kid on the way with Lupin, who is—oh, right—another known Order member. They’re going to be watched every single second of every day.”

Draco felt as if a cold cloak had fallen over his shoulders. He saw, again, the image of his Polyjuiced parents scanning the crowd at the wedding frantically, looking for him. Now they were gone. He had no way of finding them, no way of knowing whether they were safe, no way of communicating to them that he was safe. His mother was probably going mad with worry.

For some reason, he found himself glancing toward Granger. She was watching him with what he now recognized as concern. It was the same way she’d watched Potter during Thicknesse’s speech.

Draco looked quickly away, staring down into the elegant rug, trying to think of some plan, some other way through this. For Merlin’s sake, he’d figured out a way to sneak Death Eaters into Hogwarts under Albus Dumbledore’s watch. Surely he could solve this.

“Hang on,” Ron said, though Draco hardly heard him. “Are you saying … but it sounds like you’re saying the Order is finished.”

“Not exactly,” said George. “Those of us who are still pretending to be respectable members of our new Death Eater-led society—” He straightened his dragon-skin jacket— “need to keep up appearances, true. But we’ll find ways to wreak a little bit of mayhem. Hopefully we’ll spread the truth to as many people as possible.”

Fred shrugged. “And if they catch us at it—well, when they catch us, can’t last forever—then we’ll go on the run. We’ve got bags packed already, in case. Hopefully we can regroup with other Order members somewhere and form a proper underground resistance.”

George sighed. “The risks are high, though. The Death Eaters who went round Tonks’s parents’ place weren’t … well, they weren’t as gentle as ours were with us.”

“Not as gentle?” Potter said sharply. “What happened to them?”

“The Cruciatus, of course,” said Fred.

Draco’s mouth grew dry. His hand, which was curled loosely around the wand in his pocket, tightened on the weapon. A tingling feeling swarmed over his body as if ants were scurrying over every inch of his skin. He felt the wooden floor against his back. He heard his mother screaming out. A taster, said the Dark Lord with displeasure.

Ron swore loudly. “Are they all right?”

“We don’t know,” George said. “It’s going to be hard to communicate from now on. No one’s going to risk Patronus Messengers anymore. The Death Eaters promised they’d be coming through to check on us at random. They did this place three hours ago—made us burn every bit of merchandise mentioning You-Know-Who. Oh, yeah, speaking of which—that reminds me. You four are absolute bloody idiots.”

“Spectacular boneheads,” George added.

“World-class prats with Flobberworms for brains,” Fred agreed. “What in the name of Merlin do you think you’re doing, Apparating into the most high-profile Order-connected building in Britain with no warning?”

Draco’s hand was so tight around his wand now that he thought he might break it. The twins were right. This had been an idiotic decision. From now on they would need to Apparate only under Potter’s Cloak, or Disillusioned, at the very least.

The thought alarmed him. From now on … was he really going to stay with these three? Potter, the most wanted man in Britain, and his cronies?

But what else was there for him to do? The farther from the Order he went, the farther he went from his parents. Surely Tonks would find a way to tell other Order members where they were? Surely Potter, Granger, and Weasley would come back into the fold of the Order during their mission? If he broke away from them, he might be safer, but without his parents, what would the point be?

“We didn’t just come here for a chat,” Potter said, his cheeks coloring. “We need your help.”

The twins’ faces grew serious, suspicious. “Hang on,” George said. “Are we finally going to learn what exactly you three have been up to all summer?”

“Mum was apoplectic,” Fred said. “We got a good fifteen minutes of shouting about you at the wedding.”

“Thanks for that, by the way,” George added. “Good distraction from the fact that we’d transfigured the cake topper into a ‘Happy 78th Birthday’ candle.”

Ron snorted. Potter didn’t crack a smile. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can’t tell you what we’re doing. It’s safer for you if you don’t know.”

“Safer for us?” Fred said indignantly. “We, may I remind you, are two years older than you three.” He glanced at Draco. “…you four.”

“We’re not trying to be stoic heroes, or anything,” Ron said quickly. “I swear. We’re just doing what Dumbledore told us.”

The twins’ scowls faded. They exchanged a long look, then let out a sigh in unison.

“Fine,” said Fred.

“What is it?” said George.

“The Scavengers’ Guild,” said Potter. “Where can we find them?”

“The—” Fred looked nonplussed. “What do you need them for?”

“We’re …” Potter traded a helpless glance with Granger and Weasley. “Trying to, er, to find something.”

“If you want potentially illegal objects of a malodorous nature,” George said, “why don’t you just ask Mundungus?”

“They can’t ask Dung,” Fred pointed out. “He’s disap—”

Mundungus!” Granger gasped.

Draco jumped. The others all turned to face her.

“Sorry,” she whispered, her hands over her mouth. She was staring at Potter. “Harry, you … do you remember when we saw him in Hogsmeade last year? What he was holding?”

Draco had no idea what she was talking about, but both Ron and Potter were gaping now, too.

Potter pulled himself together and spun back around. “How do we find Mundungus?” he said.

“That’s what I was just saying, mate,” Fred said with mild exasperation. “He’s disappeared. Gone underground. No one’s seen him since we pulled you out of Privet Drive last week, and we were supposed to have a delivery from him on Monday, and another on Wednesday. He’s never missed a delivery before.”

“Cowardly git,” George muttered.

“Unprofitable git,” Fred added.

“He can’t be gone,” Potter said, sounding panicked. “Why? Where’s he gone?”

Fred shrugged. “No idea. Abroad, probably.”

Abroad?”

“Yeah,” George sighed, “but it’s obvious why, isn’t it? He ran off that night we picked you up. I bet he thinks we’ve all tapped him as a double-crosser.”

“I’m still not convinced it wasn’t him,” Fred said darkly. “I never had a problem with Dung before, but he’s not … well, there’s not much there, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” George said. “Without the Order’s protection, and Dumbledore gone, and Mad-Eye dead on his watch … what’s keeping him? Dung’s out for himself. He’s got no family. No real friends, far as I can tell. Bit sad, honestly. It’s no wonder he’d want to vanish.”

Draco thought he felt Ron casting him a glance, but when he sent a sharp look back, the redhead was looking at his brothers. Draco felt a mutinous heat in his chest. He had nothing in common with some filthy thief. Draco didn’t want to go abroad because he was a coward, he was just a pragmatist. For that matter, he didn’t even really want to go abroad, he was being forced to by circumstance, and moreover, he hadn’t gone abroad yet precisely because he had family and friends, so Weasley could take his incorrect analogies and choke on them.

Footsteps creaked on the hardwoods out in the hall. They all froze.

George swore under his breath. “Fred!”

Fred nodded, leapt toward Draco and Ron, and seized them by the arms as George did the same to Granger and Potter. The twins turned on the spot, and with a crack, they all Disapparated, reappearing in a room of the same dimensions, built from the same dark wood. Draco had the sense they’d only gone to another part of the same building. They were standing in a parlor of some kind, stuffed with the flashy, slightly gaudy furniture of someone who had suddenly obtained a large amount of gold and had no idea how to spend it properly. A line of photos of various Weasleys told him that the twins had taken them to their flat.

“What are you two doing?” Ron said, looking from Fred to George. “Why are we here?”

Fred was scribbling something with a peacock feather quill on a piece of parchment, while George was pulling a trunk down from a wardrobe and taking from it a scarlet bundle of cloth and pins.

“We’re telling you,” said Fred urgently, “it’s not safe here for any of you. Anyone could be out there. Here, Harry—this is how to find the Scavenger’s Guild.” He handed the piece of parchment to Potter.

George shoved the cloth bundle into Ron’s arms. “Our tent. We were going to use it ourselves, but we can get a new one anytime. You take this one and get out of Diagon Alley.”

“Out of London,” Fred said firmly.

“Thanks, you two,” Potter said. “We owe you.”

Draco heard the footsteps on a staircase nearby and hastened toward Potter and Granger, who had already linked arms. Ron’s face was strained. The youngest Weasley looked like he wanted to hug his brothers, or say something, but the twins must have seen it, because they backed away as one and hissed,

“Go.”

Now.”

“See you soon,” Ron said, sounding slightly strangled.

Draco took Granger’s arm, and Ron took Potter’s, and there was a knock on the door just before they vanished with a crack.

 


 

They appeared in a forest clearing and disentangled their arms.

“I’m sure that wasn’t anything dangerous,” Potter said to Weasley at once. “When have you ever heard a Death Eater knock politely?”

“Yeah,” said Weasley, nodding. “Yeah. I know, mate. It’s all right.”

“Where are we?” Malfoy asked, glancing around the glade. “Is this …”

“The forest where they held the Quidditch World Cup, yes,” said Granger, already walking around the clearing in a large circle and flicking her wand so that shimmering patches appeared in the air, like heat.

Draco shifted uncomfortably. Why had she taken them here? Had she meant to remind him of how they’d all met the night of the Cup, when his father had gone out to march? He could only remember bits and pieces of their conversation. Mostly he remembered watching the march from the edge of the forest, hearing people scream as their tents were blown away. He remembered the way he’d felt, looking on. At the time he’d thought the feeling was amusement, or exhilaration, but in retrospect he realized he’d just felt safe, that was all. Other people were in danger, but not him. He’d been in the trees, tucked away in the dark, and he knew that even if any of the marchers found him, he was a Malfoy, and they’d blow past him, maybe even nod deferentially to him. He was above danger.

“Why are we here?” he said.

Something must have shown in his voice, because Granger glanced back at him. “No reason,” she said. “It was the first place that came to mind. Why did you think?”

He shrugged. “Just asking.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly.

“Keep squinting at me like that, Granger,” he said, “and I might start mistaking you for that hideous cat of yours.”

“Not your best line, Malfoy,” she said, turning back to the edge of the clearing and flicking her wand again. “Losing your touch?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for not being at my wittiest after spending the night in a cave,” he said sourly.

She laughed. Actually laughed, a clear, bright thing he’d never heard in conversation with her before. “Witty?” she said. “Is that what you think you are, usually?”

He sneered at the back of her head. “Well, I’d forgive you for not recognizing wit when you see it, the sort of company you keep.”

“Malfoy,” said Potter, “are you planning to do anything useful at all?”

Draco looked back. Weasley and Potter were nearly done pitching the tent.

“What’s my incentive, exactly?” Draco said.

Weasley and Potter scowled in unison and flicked their wands. The spine of the tent sprang up into place, giving it roughly the shape of a small cottage with a gable. It was silken, crimson, and obviously expensive, although—like the rest of the twins’ possessions—it was rather tasteless, too, with golden tassels hanging off it and gold thread splattered all over its walls, like a Gryffindor lion had thrown up on it. Draco didn’t even want to think about what his father would have said, knowing he was going to sleep in a place like this.

Weasley ducked in and let out a low whistle. “Harry, Hermione, come look at this.”

“Oh, don’t mind me,” Draco said to the clearing at large as Granger went in after Potter. “Please, by all means, continue to ignore me.”

No answer, so Draco indulged in a roll of his eyes and slapped open the tent flap to follow the others inside. The tent opened up into a comfortable sitting room with a long, plush sofa and two leather armchairs, glimmering floorboards, and a wizarding wireless perched on a mantel, again decorated proudly with Weasley photographs. Every other surface was cluttered with Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes products, designs, or test merchandise. As Draco walked through a kitchen with a large iron stove, he glanced down at several sketchbooks that the twins had left open on the oaken table. The pages were covered with scribbled ideas, each twin’s handwriting annotating the other’s:

hot air balloon blowing gum?
—dunno if we want to be a Drooble competitor
—landing in Honeydukes could be great though

pocket hang gliders of some kind?
—maybe. could make them a craft, foldable hang gliders like paper aeroplanes?
—do you think we need to know how an aeroplane works to charm something like this
—could always ask dad
—NO

Firecracker chewing gum
—good one! murtlap for injury reduction here!
—no you prat how do you think that would taste
—let’s hear your idea then

Draco found his mouth twitching, threatening a smile. Before one of the Gryffindors could see, he sidled into one of the bedrooms. It had a four-poster much like the beds in the Slytherin dormitories, though hung with red and gold drapes rather than green and silver. Sunlight cascaded through a bank of French windows spelled into the wall and lit up the bed’s crisp sheets, which poured over a king-sized mattress.

“There’s beds for all of us,” Weasley called from somewhere else in the tent. “They’ve got a spare room.” He let out a disbelieving laugh. “I don’t even want to imagine how rich those two would be if they’d opened that shop without a war going on.”

After packing the twins’ belongings into various trunks, drawers, and dressers and unpacking some of Granger’s things from the beaded bag, they returned outside to eat lunch. It was a glorious summer’s day, warm enough that they all discarded their outer robes in dark pools on the grass and rolled up their shirtsleeves.

Draco was torn between whether to join them or to eat somewhere else. On one hand, he didn’t want any of them to think he actually liked them. On the other, it was boring to eat alone, and it would probably look petty, if not outright ridiculous, to sit elsewhere in the clearing. He split the difference by sitting in their circle, but facing mostly away from the others, as if he were only there to admire the trees.

While they ate their tomato soup and sourdough bread, the others talked about the Quidditch World Cup, mostly. Draco, again, felt torn. At one point, Weasley and Potter were arguing over what the most exciting goal scored by the Irish side had been, and they were obviously forgetting the spectacular Khushk Return that Troy had pulled off in the twelfth minute. If it had been Crabbe and Goyle, Draco would have interjected and recounted it in blissful detail, but the idea of enthusing about Quidditch with these three felt deeply wrong.

“I thought the congregation aspect of it was very interesting,” said Granger. “I mean, what other chance do we have to gather on such a large scale? I wish we’d been able to meet some more people from other countries.”

“Mm,” Weasley grunted. “I think we met plenty of people from other countries that year.”

Granger turned red, and Draco realized what Weasley was talking about. He remembered Granger walking down the Grand Staircase at the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, her hair held back from her face and neck, her blue dress robes seeming to float around her. He and Pansy hadn’t been able to have a proper conversation for ten minutes after that. When they’d tried to make fun of Granger, it was all jabs about Krum’s taste that felt stupid even to say, so eventually they’d just left it and gone off to find the others.

Once their bowls were empty, the talk of the Cup came to a coda.

“So,” Weasley said. “What’s our plan?”

Draco angled himself slightly more toward the group.

“We need the sword to get rid of that diadem,” Potter said. “But how are we supposed to find out where the Ministry is keeping it?”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” Granger said. “And I don’t think the sword is at the Ministry anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Didn’t you hear what they said during that speech? When they were talking about all the things you’d supposedly done?”

Potter’s expression darkened. “It was hard to miss, Hermione.”

“No, no,” she said quickly. “I mean, they mentioned the Department of Mysteries, but then, right after that, they said, ‘We have reason to believe he made a similar raid on the Ministry as recently as this week.’ And I thought, well, that’s a funny lie to make up, especially since the rest were all things that had happened, but that they were twisting around to cast in a negative light. … But what if they weren’t making it up? What if something was stolen from the Ministry—something with a connection to you?”

Draco felt slightly incredulous. It was one thing to memorize lines out of textbooks—did Granger also remember every word she’d ever heard anyone say?

“But that’s even worse,” Weasley said. “If someone nicked the sword, and we don’t know who, that puts us even farther away from getting our hands on it.”

Draco shook his head. “Better than the Dark Lord having it.”

“Oh, yeah?” Weasley said. “How do we know it wasn’t a Death Eater who nicked it?”

“I don’t think so, Ron,” said Granger. “If it were with a Death Eater, it wouldn’t have seemed like a problem to Thicknesse, would it?” She bit her lip. “I think Malfoy’s right. Maybe we’re farther away from the sword, but at least we know it’s not about to be turned into another Horcrux. That’s something.”

Do we know, though?” said Weasley. “I mean, it’s a great theory, Hermione, but it’s not exactly solid proof, is it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Potter.

“You’d better hope she’s right,” Draco said. “What’s your alternative, if the sword’s still there? Rush the Ministry to do exactly what they just warned a thousand people you’d do?”

“We could figure out a way,” Potter said, glowering at Draco.

Draco shrugged. “Yeah, sure. And how long will that take? A month? If the Death Eaters haven’t already realized Dumbledore’s things are sitting around the Ministry, his funeral’s sure to remind them. It’ll be gone by tomorrow, if not sooner.”

“We could use the diadem,” Granger said.

They all hesitated, looking at Granger’s beaded bag, which lay on the grass between them. When no one objected, she reached in, extracted the diadem, and placed it on her head.

As it had yesterday, the diadem seemed to smooth out all the fine lines of worry on Granger’s face. Draco wondered if the famously vain Ravenclaw had put some kind of glamour on it, too, because with the delicate tiara on her brow and her eyes closed, the tumult of her hair lit from behind by the afternoon sun, Granger suddenly looked … well, much more like the girl at the Yule Ball.

“Any brainwaves?” Weasley asked.

Granger didn’t answer. Another minute passed before she opened her eyes.

“I don’t think there’s anything we’re missing,” she said. “No obvious connections or little shortcuts like the Basilisk fangs. As for ways to enter the Ministry, I think most of those scenarios would require both a batch of Polyjuice and a huge amount of planning. I think it really is our best chance to hope that someone else has taken the sword.”

“Great,” Weasley said grumpily, lying back on the grass and staring up at the fluffy white clouds.

“That speech,” Potter said, frowning. “There were parts of it I don’t understand. Mandatory attendance at Hogwarts? What was all that about?”

“Demographic information,” Draco said.

They all looked at him.

“They said the registration forms would include basic demographic information,” Draco said, pulling several blades of grass out of the ground and peeling the long green strands apart. “That means blood status. If you mark down half-blood, there’ll be lines for you to list your parents’ blood status, and if you mark down Mudb—” He broke off. There was a short but intensely uncomfortable pause. “Muggle-born,” he muttered, “then, well. They’ll know, won’t they.”

When he glanced up at the others, they all looked slightly stunned.

“What?” he snapped at them.

Potter and Weasley looked away immediately. Draco glanced at Granger, who was wearing that surprised, curious look she’d worn in Weasley’s room, when she’d seen his Mark. The surprise, he realized, was that he hadn’t hurt her.

To his immense irritation, he felt his cheeks grow slightly hot. He sneered at her, more for something to do with his face than anything else, and looked back down at the grass in his palm, tearing it apart more vehemently.

“Is this a plan you heard them talking about?” Potter said. “Last year?”

Draco let out a derisive laugh at that. It was a relief to let out some of the tension. “God, Potter, you really think they let me hear anything important last year? I was supposed to die killing Dumbledore. Dumbledore is a Legilimens. Put it together.” He threw away the destroyed palmful of grass. “That’s why Bellatrix wanted me to learn Occlumency, I suppose, but if Dumbledore had really wanted to get anything out of me, he could have.” He shook his head. Now that he thought about it, it was idiotic that Dumbledore hadn’t at least given his mind’s contents a customary look to make sure he hadn’t been lying about everything.

“Then how did you know all that about the forms?” Weasley said.

Draco shrugged. “That’s just … it’s what that means. Demographic information. People are speaking about blood status when they say that.”

I’ve never heard that,” Weasley said.

Draco raised one eyebrow. “Yeah, well, you wouldn’t exactly run in the right circles for it, would you, Weasley.”

“Good,” Weasley fired back.

Draco sighed. God, he was so exhausting.

“And, er, what will they do once they know about … about all that?” Potter asked.

“You tell me, Potter. They’re obviously making a list. I don’t know what they’ll do, but I wouldn’t want to be on it. Would you?”

Weasley and Potter both looked at Granger. She lifted her shoulders. “I don’t think it really matters for me,” she pointed out, “as I’m on the run with Harry Potter.”

Potter let out a little laugh. “Fair enough,” Weasley said, seeming slightly reassured.

“Hermione,” said Potter somewhat suddenly. “You’re still wearing the diadem.”

One of her hands rose to touch it. “And?”

“I don’t think we should wear it more than we have to.”

“Harry, I feel fine. If there were a curse on it, it would have been activated immediately.”

“We don’t need it right now, though,” said Weasley, also eyeing the diadem with distrust. “Just put it away, would you?”

“I don’t—”

Draco reached out and plucked the diadem from Granger’s hair.

The moment it left her head, he saw her shoulders slump an inch, and the worry returned to her expression. She blinked rapidly, as if awoken from a trance, and gave Draco an annoyed look. “You didn’t need to do that,” she said rather sharply, snatching the diadem back out of his hand.

Draco didn’t answer, studying her as she replaced the diadem in the bag. There was something a bit too careful about the way she handled it.

Potter hadn’t seen. He was scanning the parchment Fred had given him. “If we don’t have a lead for the sword, then we can try this trail for the locket. It looks like the Scavengers’ Guild comes to Diagon Alley once a month, at the new moon.” He glanced up at the sky. The moon was hanging in the afternoon sky, slightly oblong, like a fingernail. He frowned. “So it won’t be there for a few weeks. … But Fred’s given us a password to get into the back rooms to talk to the Scavengers themselves. He says to bring gold for haggling if it’s information we want.”

Draco turned to face the three of them at last. “All right,” he said. “As it looks like I’ll be dealing with this … this quest of yours until I figure out where my parents are, you may as well tell me what you know. How did you find out about these Horcrux things? What cave were you talking about yesterday?”

The three of them exchanged one of their Looks.

“All right,” Potter said. “We don’t have that much information to go on, but—”

“No,” Weasley burst out.

Three pairs of eyes locked onto his freckled face.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, “but Harry, I don’t think we should tell him anything else. And Malfoy, once we get an idea of where your parents are, I think you should agree to us performing a Memory Charm on you.”

Draco straightened up. “Excuse me?”

Weasley was unabashed. “You heard me. Then you can go back into hiding and you won’t be tempted to go to You-Know-Who with any of this. I know, I know, Dumbledore said you couldn’t go back because you didn’t do your job. But Dumbledore’s dead now. It doesn’t matter so much that you didn’t do it. Maybe You-Know-Who would take you back.”

“Ron,” Potter muttered, looking uncomfortable, “are you trying to convince him?”

“No, I’m not. But that’s how he’s thought his whole life. He’s stuck with us so far because it’s been convenient. He doesn’t actually care about destroying Horcruxes. He doesn’t actually care about fighting the Death Eaters, or anything that they stand for. Do you?” Weasley said, turning to Draco.

Draco felt completely blindsided. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“See?” Weasley said. “He won’t even say it! He won’t even lie to save his own neck!”

“Ron,” said Granger quietly. “I don’t know if you’re being fair.”

I’m not being fair? To him?

“We know the way You-Know-Who treats the Death Eaters,” Granger said, not looking at Draco. “You know what he …” She swallowed and said again, “how he treats them. If you’d had that kind of loyalty drummed into you …”

“But it hasn’t been ‘drummed into’ him, Hermione,” Weasley insisted, “it’s what he’s chosen, his whole life. Look at how he treats Hagrid. Do you remember fifth year? Rita Skeeter? Weren’t you the one who was so livid about it you declared war on that woman? Look at how he treats everybody else. Even his own friends!”

Draco felt a stab of anger. “How do you know how I treat my friends?” he snapped. It was surreal enough that Weasley would sit there and say these things as if he couldn’t hear them, but to be reminded of his friends, whom he might never see again, who thought he was lying in a burial plot—

“Because we have eyes and ears, Malfoy,” Weasley said with an incredulous laugh. “Oh, and maybe because in our second year, Harry and I Polyjuiced into Crabbe and Goyle so we could talk to you without you knowing. That’s how we knew where the Slytherin Common Room was. I mean, Merlin, you’re not even nice to them. Everything you bloody say to them is just a reminder of how great you think you are, how important you think your life is. I never thought I’d sympathize with Crabbe and Goyle, but I don’t know how they put up with you.”

“Shut up,” Draco snarled. “You shut up about my friends, Weasley. I’m warning you.” He was on his feet, looking down at the three Gryffindors. They rose to their feet, too. “Merlin, you’re insufferable. You have one conversation with me in second year and you think you understand—”

“I understand you’ll do anything to save your own neck. And you know what?” Weasley raised his hands. “Fair play. Do what you’d like. Be whatever awful kind of person you want to be. But don’t expect us to trust you.” He let out a humorless laugh. “Do you remember what you said to Hermione last time we were here? You implied she wasn’t even a witch.”

“Ron,” Granger said. “Please, don’t …”

“So, what, you get in over your head and I’m supposed to feel sorry for you?” Weasley demanded. “I don’t. You can come with us if you’d like, until you can get back to your parents. But I’m not telling you a word, and—” He rounded on Granger and Potter, who both looked quite taken aback. “—you two can do what you like, obviously, but I think you’d be real idiots to trust him with anything. I’m serious.”

Draco let the silence spiral for a moment. Then he said, “Are you done, Weasley? Feel like a big man now?”

Weasley let out another short laugh. “See?” he said. “Absolutely bloody pointless.”

He stormed off into the tent. Potter followed him immediately, though he sent a somewhat panicked look back at Granger.

Draco stood there in silence with her, waiting for her to follow the others. She didn’t.

“What?” he said roughly. “Trying to think of something to add? I’m pretty sure Weasley covered it all.”

“No, I don’t think he did.”

He looked at her in disbelief. Was she really going to pile on after that?

Then she said, “You—you saved my life at the wedding.”

Draco’s thumping heart seemed to miss a beat.

“And you still have the Mark. You could have brought You-Know-Who here, and I think he might even have forgiven you, if you gave him Harry. But you haven’t. Why is that?”

Draco looked up at the blue sky and wanted so desperately to be alone, or with his parents, who would have known the answers to these questions and accepted them silently, without demanding anything of him.

Granger sighed. “That’s what I was trying to tell him,” she said. “It’s not just incriminating questions that are hard to answer.”

“Granger, I don’t need your charity,” Draco snapped. But even as the words came out, he didn’t know why he was saying them. She wasn’t acting like Weasley. He’d done the same thing that morning, on the mountainside; he’d accused her of suspecting the worst of him, he’d pried it out of her. Was he trying to make her act like Weasley? Was he trying to force a confession, to get her to admit that she would always loathe him, too, that she would never see him as forgivable or even comprehensible?

“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, with just as little control. “I didn’t—I don’t know why I said that.”

They looked at each other. He became aware that he had never apologized to anyone in Gryffindor for anything before, had maybe never apologized to any of his classmates.

He pushed his hair out of his eyes. It was getting too long, strands of silver glowing in his periphery all the time. “Do your parents know what you’re doing?” he said. “Do they know you’re doing things like—like putting that thing on your head without even knowing whether it was going to try and kill you? Don’t you think the Death Eaters will come after them the moment you get spotted with Potter?”

“Of course they will,” Granger said. “That’s why I’ve sent them away.”

“That’s … what?”

She weighed the beaded bag in her hand and looked down at her shoes. “I modified their memories. They’ve gone to Australia, and if I don’t break the charm, they won’t come back. They’ll be safe there.”

“You said they were on holiday. When we were in your house, you said—”

“I lied, Malfoy.”

He had to grope for words for several long moments, but when he said, “How could you—” she cut him off.

“Because I had to, obviously.”

“You didn’t have to. You could have given up this insane quest and gone with them.”

“What, and leave everyone else here to suffer what’s happening?” she said, her voice rising. “Harry and Ron and every other Muggle-born in the country? When this insane quest could end it all?”

Yes, Draco thought. You pick what to care for and you care for it. Leave the rest.

She shook her head. “Just stay away from Ron for the time being. He takes a while to cool off. I’m … I’m going to go talk to him.”

She hesitated at the tent flap, but ducked through without looking back.

Chapter Text

When Draco came out of the tent the next morning, bleary-eyed and yawning, he found Granger flicking her wand at one of the tent’s stakes, tugging it out of the soft, dark earth.

“Granger,” he said, making her jump, “are you trying to make the place collapse on Potter and Weasley?” He stopped beside her, nudging the small pile of stakes with his toe. “I mean, I understand the instinct, but if you’re interested in killing them both, I’d have thought you’d have done it years ago.”

“You’re very funny,” she said, adding another stake to the pile. All the tent’s extra flaps and decorations were now hanging limp, leaving only the main structure still in place. “We’re leaving after breakfast.”

“What? Why?”

“I think we should stay on the move. Harry and Ron agree. I spoke with them about it yesterday evening.”

“Oh, you did, did you? So I don’t get a vote?”

“Stop pouting, Malfoy. You’d have been outvoted anyway.”

He glared at her. “I am not pouting.

“You pout constantly.”

Well, that was just—she was just being ridiculous. Draco let out a loud scoff and stalked back inside to make breakfast.

He was vindictively buttering his toast when Granger came back inside and let out a surprised little “Oh.”

“What?” Draco said, glancing over his shoulder.

She was standing in the open flap with the armful of stakes, looking surprised but gratified. “Thank you. I was going to do it, but now I’ll have time to clean the bathroom before we leave.” She aimed a small, confused smile at him as she placed the stakes on an end table and headed toward the bathroom. “I left the sausages in my bag, by the way. It’s on the sofa.”

He frowned. “I’m n—”

She was already closing the door.

Draco mouthed wordlessly at the door for a moment. He hadn’t been making breakfast for the Gryffindors. He wasn’t their butler, for Merlin’s sake.

But now, if Granger emerged to find that he hadn’t made breakfast for all of them, it would look like he’d been trying to make a statement, just to prove her wrong, and from everything he knew about Granger, that would be roughly twelve thousand times more trouble than it was worth.

This day was off to a phenomenal start. Muttering under his breath about presumptuous Gryffindors, Draco greased the skillet and shoved several more slices of bread onto it.

Fifteen minutes later, as the sausages sizzled on the pan, a door opened elsewhere in the flat. “Hermione,” called Weasley’s voice, “it smells amazi—”

Potter and Weasley came out from the short hallway and stopped dead at the sight of Draco, who was forking a dozen sausages onto a platter.

“Er,” Potter said, looking downright alarmed.

Draco set the platter of sausages beside a stack of buttered toast, dropped a fistful of cutlery on the table, and sat down to eat. After several more seconds of Potter and Weasley making no move to sit down, he said, “It’s not poisoned.”

“R-right,” Potter said, sitting down with Weasley. Draco wondered darkly whether Granger had planned all this to get out of cooking.

That particular theory fizzled when she emerged a second later, flushed and frizzy-haired, from the bathroom, wearing a look of utmost disgust. “Do you know,” she said, sitting down at the table, “I think Fred and George were concocting something in that bathtub. I tried three different kinds of Scouring Charms, and that greenish scum is still stuck there.”

“Please, Granger,” Draco said, “do go on about the greenish scum while I’m eating.”

Her lips twitched. She took a dignified bite of toast, but before she could reply, both their gazes were drawn to Potter. His hand had performed a strange movement, leaping toward his brow—which had furrowed in pain—before swerving back down to his fork.

“So,” Potter said a bit too quickly, “any ideas for where to go next?”

Granger’s eyes had narrowed in on Potter’s scar. Draco could tell that Weasley had noticed the movement, too, but Potter took a bite of sausage as if nothing had happened and looked innocently between the three of them.

Weasley seemed to decide it was better not to ask. “Hermione,” he said, “how long until the Scavenger’s Guild comes back to Diagon Alley, again?”

“They’ll be there the night of August 24th,” said Granger, though she was still looking warily at Potter. “And we’ll have to be very careful when we go, because it’s bound to be full of Hogwarts students around that time.”

“Do we have any Polyjuice Potion?” Potter asked.

“No,” Granger said, “but I have the ingredients in my bag. I can start brewing some right away.”

“But that’ll take a month,” Weasley said. “We’ll miss the 24th.”

Granger nibbled on her lip. “I was thinking we could use Transfigurations to visit the Scavengers. It’s not quite as secure—there are some basic detection charms that can reveal Transfigurations—but a stall in Diagon Alley shouldn’t have very intense protection, should it?”

“We should go as soon as possible,” Potter said. “I mean, what if they have the locket now and someone buys it off them?”

“Right,” Weasley said. “Transfiguration it is, then.”

“As for where we’re going next,” Granger said, “we don’t have any real leads on the sword.”

“How about the cup?” said Weasley. “It should still be wherever You-Know-Who left it. We could retrace his steps. What about the or—” He gave Draco a sidelong look. “The place he grew up?”

Potter thought for a moment. “I don’t think he’d have left a Horcrux there. He hated it there.”

“Still,” said Weasley, “maybe we’ll find a trail or something.”

“Could be,” Potter said. “I suppose we might as well look.”

Draco watched them speak with growing resentment. He supposed this was how it would be for the foreseeable future: the three Gryffindors making decisions while he sat there and waited to be dragged around. Also, it was absolutely moronic for Weasley to speak in code around the locations they might go, because he was going to be there eventually, anyway.

Well, if they thought he was going to make all their meals and tidy up after them and wait to be called on to speak, they were mistaken. Draco stood up abruptly, dumped his plate in the sink, and stalked outside, where he tried—with no success at all—to think of places Tonks might have taken his parents.

A couple minutes had passed when Granger ducked out through the tent flap. “What’s wrong?” she said.

“What’s wrong? You mean besides the Dark Lord taking over the Ministry of Magic, my parents being missing, and your Phoenix lot scattering to the winds?”

“Yes. Besides that.” She hesitated. “You walked out on breakfast.”

“I was done eating, Granger. What are you, my mother?”

She bristled. “Well, I just thought you looked angry, but if you want to stand out here being a child, then by all means—”

“I’m not being a child. You three are the ones pretending I’m not there.”

She let out a disbelieving laugh. “When, exactly, did we do that? Harry asked if anyone had any ideas for where we should go. That includes you. It’s not our fault you didn’t contribute anything.”

“If anybody had asked me for my opinion—”

Granger let out a heated sigh. “Malfoy, we’re not going to defer to you. We’re not Crabbe and Goyle. If you have an idea, you’ll have to just say it.”

“I didn’t ask you to defer to me,” Draco said. “I’m only—it’s … they didn’t even thank me for making breakfast.”

He felt his face flush. He hated how petty the words sounded. It wasn’t about their gratitude for the food—it was about being treated like a normal person. If Potter and Weasley couldn’t even manage a casual thank-you for a meal, how were they going to survive weeks of being on the run together, potentially dodging Death Eaters and trying to overcome deadly enchantments? What was Draco supposed to do about Potter’s excruciating awkwardness and Weasley’s open distrust—pretend they had no history together?

But Granger wasn’t going to understand what he’d meant. She was going to think he was so infantile that he wanted to be lavished with praise for doing something as simple as making breakfast.

Except that when he looked at her, the annoyance had left her expression. She considered for a long moment before speaking.

“I know it’s uncomfortable,” she said, lowering her voice. “Look, I’m trying, Malfoy, and I know you’re trying, and I … we do appreciate that, all right? They’re trying, too, I promise. I spoke with Ron last night, and he’s—he’s just protective of Harry, but the longer you’re here, and the longer he sees he has nothing to worry about …” She shifted her weight, looking awkward herself. “It’ll get easier.”

Draco opened his mouth and closed it again. He’d already been thinking up vicious retorts, certain that she was going to sneer at him. But she had understood what he’d meant. To that, he found he had no response.

“For what it’s worth,” she said, “I thought breakfast was really good, so, thank you.”

With that, she went back inside, leaving him looking after her.

Half an hour later, the tent was packed up and replaced inside Granger’s bag, and Weasley and Potter were stretching out the Invisibility Cloak, trying to determine whether they could Disapparate beneath it, and if so, how many of them could manage it.

Granger tapped Weasley on the head, Disillusioning him, and hurried back from him a few paces. “Make a sudden movement, Ron,” she said. “I want to see how much I can see in broad daylight.”

As they performed a few tests, Draco watched the Cloak flow through Potter’s fingers. “That Cloak, Potter,” he said.

“What about it?” Potter said.

“Where did you get it?”

Potter shrugged. “It was my dad’s.”

Draco frowned. His dad’s? But how could it be? Hadn’t Draco pestered Mr. Borgin about his rack of Cloaks when he was a child, fascinated by them, and hadn’t Borgin told him that by ten years old, a Cloak would be very ragged indeed, and that by fifteen, they would be so oversaturated by repair charms that replacement would be necessary?

But before he could ask Potter about it, Potter let out a sharp ‘ah’ and clapped his hand to his forehead. He seemed unable to control it, or the rest of his body. The next moment, he was on his knees.

“Harry!” Granger and Weasley said together. Granger dived toward him, and so did Weasley’s mostly invisible form. Draco took an instinctive step toward him, too, not knowing what was happening.

“What is it?” Weasley’s voice urged. “What are you seeing?”

“Nothing,” Potter said through gritted teeth. “Nothing. … Nothing new. Voldemort’s looking for Gregorovitch. He …”

CRACK.

Draco drew his wand instantly. Granger and Weasley leapt to their feet, and Potter staggered up, too, one hand gripping the Cloak, the other still pressed to his forehead. It hadn’t been the sharp, high whip-crack of Apparition, more like the low crack of a fissure forming in a lake of ice.

“What was that?” Granger said, her voice panicked. “What—”

“The protective enchantments,” Potter said.

But now the crack, crack, crack of Apparition was echoing through the clearing. Figures were appearing in the trees.

Draco had made to raise his wand, but at the first sound of Apparition, a light, thin something had landed over him: the Invisibility Cloak. Potter, Granger, and the Disillusioned Weasley were already sending spells whizzing through the air and into the trees. Jets of light were returning toward Potter and Granger, the only two who were still visible. “Protego!” Potter yelled, slashing his wand through the air, and a Stunner rebounded into the trees, rewarded with a strangled cry.

Draco ran to the Gryffindors and seized Potter’s and Granger’s arms. “Get Weasley,” he snapped, and Granger grabbed his wrist.

Draco turned on the spot, and they Disapparated, leaving the sunny clearing behind and reappearing in a copse of evergreen trees. The Cloak slid off him. He grappled it out of the air, looking around at the others. He’d never done Side-Along Apparition before, but they all looked intact, if disorientated.

“How?” Granger was gasping. “How did they find us?”

But she and Weasley were both looking at Potter with dread.

Potter swallowed. “I … you don’t think …”

His hand strayed to his forehead, to the lightning-bolt scar.

They were quiet a long moment. The birds in the trees, which had been startled into silence by their appearance, slowly started to sing again.

“Did it hurt in Hogwarts?” Granger said. “The day of the wedding, when they knew we were in the castle?”

“It … yeah. A bit.”

Granger and Weasley exchanged an alarmed look.

“But it hurts a lot, these days!” Potter added quickly. “I didn’t see anything that day, but I could tell he was happy. I mean, of course he was. The Ministry had just fallen, hadn’t it?”

“What are you talking about?” Draco said, his eyes fixed on Potter’s forehead. “What’s wrong with your scar?”

“It shows me flashes of what he’s up to,” Potter said, “or what he’s feeling. It has done for years. There’s a kind of connection.”

“You mean the Dark Lord is in your head?” Draco took an unwitting step back. “He could know about all this?”

“It’s normally one-way,” Potter said. “There was only once that he … that he got inside …” He shook his head and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Dumbledore thought he wouldn’t try to do it again, it hurt him so badly. It was at the Ministry, end of fifth year.”

“This is bad,” Granger was saying, her voice high and small. “Oh, no, this is very, very bad.”

“It’s all right,” Weasley said, hurrying to her side and putting a hand on her back. Draco watched her tilt her head up toward the crisscrossing pine boughs, blinking quickly, running her shaking hands through her bushy hair.

He caught Weasley’s eye. Weasley, for some reason, had narrowed his eyes at Draco. He looked quickly away from the pair of them.

“But I don’t understand,” Granger said after a moment. “Even if he’s using that connection somehow, how could he have told the Death Eaters where we were from abroad?”

Potter looked sick with worry. He was pacing back and forth over the needles. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, he’s connected with them, too, isn’t he? The Dark Mark makes a link between them.”

Weasley turned to Draco. “Did you feel anything?”

Draco yanked up his left sleeve to look at the Mark. The tissue was red and raised, as usual, but it hadn’t burned black. “It wasn’t a summons,” he said curtly. “But there are things about the Mark I don’t know. The Dark Lord can call only one of us with it, if he needs to, and I don’t know how that works.”

“Of course, that variant of the Protean Charm will be Dark magic,” Granger said. “I don’t know, Harry. If having that charm on his body has opened up some kind of connection between you and the Death Eaters, the same way he’s connected to them … I don’t know whether that’s possible. It could be. It’s just not the sort of thing you’d be able to find in a book.” She bit her lower lip. “And I don’t know why it would only have happened now, when the connection’s been open for years.”

“Never mind the specifics for now,” Weasley said. “What are we supposed to do about it?”

“You three have to leave,” said Potter. His voice sounded dull, almost mechanical, but determined. “If the Death Eaters are tracing me because of my scar, it’s—”

No,” Weasley and Granger said at the same time. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Granger went on. “There’s a way out of this.”

“What?” Potter said.

“Dumbledore already gave it to us. You have to learn Occlumency.”

Potter closed his eyes. “Hermione, in case you’ve forgotten, I learned everything I know about Occlumency from the man who killed Dumbledore.”

“Well, now’s your chance to learn it correctly, then, isn’t it?”

“And how am I supposed to do that, exactly?”

Granger hesitated, but her eyes gave her away. They strayed onto Draco’s.

“What?” said Draco at the same time as Potter and Weasley.

“Hermione,” Weasley said, his voice straining, “don’t take this the wrong way, but have you gone absolutely mental?

“No, Ron, I haven’t!” said Granger hotly. “Even if Harry leaves to try and keep us safe, he’ll be in terrible danger. If they’re finding him because of this connection, Occlumency is the only thing that can stop it, and—and, well, Malfoy, you know how, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but—”

“Well, there you go, then,” Granger said. Like that settled everything.

“I don’t want him in my head,” Potter said to her.

For some reason, it dug under his skin. Draco rounded on Potter and snarled, “Will you talk to me when I’m standing right here!

Potter leapt, making his glasses slide an inch down his nose again. He stared at Draco as if he’d never seen him before. Silence fell over the copse, and Draco breathed hard, feeling the hot prickle in his cheeks that told him he’d flushed pink.

“All right,” Potter said.

Draco tried to calm his breathing. It was almost worse to have Potter look at him after the embarrassing loss of control. Draco felt suddenly hyperaware of the Cloak in his hands—and of the fact that Potter had used that first moment after the Death Eaters’ Apparition to throw the Cloak over him, hiding him from their sight. He remembered that Potter had given him the Cloak in the Room of Hidden Things, too.

He heard Granger’s voice saying, They’re trying. He forced himself to look back at Potter.

“I don’t want you in my head,” Potter repeated, his voice level. “I don’t want anyone in my head. I’m not—I don’t like how it feels.”

Draco’s lip curled. “Of course you don’t like it. No one likes it. But if you’re this scared of it, you won’t be able to stop it. I thought Gryffindors were supposed to be brave.”

“You can be brave and afraid at the same time,” Potter muttered.

There was another silence. Then Weasley, who appeared to have been mulling things over, said, “Malfoy can …” He hesitated, then looked at Draco and addressed him warily. “You can teach Harry without getting in his head, can’t you? I mean, Hermione or I could … could try doing it, and you can give him advice, or something.”

Draco thought about it for a moment. It didn’t sound enjoyable, but if the alternative was Potter inadvertently summoning Death Eaters every other day …

He jerked his shoulders up irritably. Still, some part of him couldn’t help but feel that if his life depended on Harry Potter’s self-control, he might as well just press his Dark Mark and get it over with.

“Thank you,” Granger said, letting out a long breath. “Yes, Ron, I think that’s a good compromise. Harry, what do you think?”

Potter didn’t look happy. “I still think it’d be safer if you all just …”

“We’re not leaving you,” Granger said. Her voice was low, slightly strangled.

Potter gave her a sidelong glance, an odd, charged kind of surprise on his face. Weasley shifted uncomfortably, his eyes fixed on Granger, too. She seemed to realize how she’d sounded, and second by second, she reddened. Draco found himself wishing he were several miles away.

“Potter,” he said loudly, breaking the silence, “there’s something funny about this Cloak.”

“What?” Potter looked over at him, startled. “Funny?”

Draco tossed him the Cloak. “Invisibility Cloaks don’t last that long. My father had one that was all but a rag after fifteen years, and that was the top of the line, very expensive.”

Potter caught the Cloak and looked at it, nonplussed.

Weasley was frowning now, too. “You know, I never thought about that. The charms on cloaks are supposed to wear off after a while, and even if they don’t, they usually have tears or frays or something. Yours is just … just perfect.”

They all looked at the Cloak for a moment.

“So … what?” Potter said. “What’s that mean?”

Weasley shrugged. “Beats me.” He glanced around the copse. “Where are we, Malfoy?”

“A few miles from my house,” Draco muttered. “I know, I know, we shouldn’t stay here. It was just an instinct.”

Even as he said it, though, his gaze strayed through the trees. He’d used to play in this scrap of woodland, which abutted the manor, when he was small. He could have found his way home blindfolded from here. He made out one corner of the house standing proud at the top of the hill, and he wondered who was inside it now, and to what use it was being put. He wondered about the figures moving through the halls of his childhood like ghosts of the old life, which felt farther away now, as he stood on its threshold, than it ever had.

 


 

They settled into a routine, which, while not particularly relaxing, at least added some structure to their days. In the mornings, they packed up camp. If any of them had an idea about where they might go to search for Hufflepuff’s cup, they spent the afternoon performing Transfigurations and traveling there, although they tried not to Transfigure themselves multiple days in a row. Side effects of excessive Transfiguration included muscular twitching, headaches, and the viscerally horrible feeling that their faces were melting for hours on end.

Soon they had investigated the orphanage where the Dark Lord had apparently been raised. It had turned out to be a dead end; the building had been demolished and replaced by a gray block of Muggle offices. They also visited the village where Helga Hufflepuff had supposedly spent most of her life, Greater Padgley. “Greater than what, exactly?” Weasley had said as they had picked through the few run-down streets.

“It was quite an important place in the 1700s,” Granger said.

After this particular visit, Potter suggested they go to Godric’s Hollow, too. Granger gave him a look that was slightly too knowing as she asked why, exactly, he thought it might be a good place to search.

“I—I don’t know,” Potter said. “I just … never mind.”

There was a lot of this: a village or location brought up randomly, only for it to be eliminated by the others when they couldn’t defend their idea. On the days that they had no new ideas at all, their time was devoted to the brewing of the Polyjuice Potion, and to Occlumency.

The lessons were tense, to say the least. Potter seemed only marginally reassured by his friends’ presence, and Granger and Weasley seemed just as uncomfortable with the idea of reading Potter’s mind. Weasley, attempting Legilimency one afternoon, somehow managed to hex Potter into saying all his sentences backward. “This spell is well past N.E.W.T. standard,” Granger had told him hastily after setting it right. “There’s no reason you should be able to perform it, Ron.”

Then she went back to trying it herself. Draco, sitting on one of the sofa’s arms, kneaded his forehead. “God, Granger, you’re saying the incantation like you’re making a groveling apology,” he told her, exasperated, after a dozenth ineffective attempt. “You have to actually want to do it. Wasn’t this your idea?”

She gave Potter a hundredth tentative look.

“It’s all right, Hermione,” Potter said. “Really. It’s okay.”

Weasley sat down in one of the armchairs rather harder than necessary, watching Granger and Potter making the necessary intense, penetrating eye contact.

“All right,” Draco said. “Ready, then?” At long, long last? he added silently.

They both nodded.

“Good. Potter, if you can’t clear your mind, be aware of what you’re thinking about.” Draco nodded at Granger.

She took a steadying breath, then pointed her wand at Potter and said, “Legilimens!”

It had finally worked. Draco could tell. Potter’s body had gone rigid, while Granger was swaying, her eyes closed, her wand fixed in its outstretched position. Draco and Weasley both watched, unspeaking.

After about thirty seconds, Granger wrenched the wand away. Potter staggered, gasped in a breath, and seized hold of one arm of the sofa, while Granger tottered backward, breathing hard.

“Are you a-all right?” she said, her voice sounding ragged, as though she’d just coughed up salt water.

“It’s … I …” Potter straightened and pushed up his glasses. “Well, it’s better you doing it than Snape.”

“Well, Potter?” Draco said.

“Well, what?”

Draco looked up at the ceiling. “What did I just tell you to do? What did you think about before she cast the spell?”

“Oh.” Potter shook his head, looking disoriented, and Draco remembered Bellatrix rummaging through his own memories, which she’d done eagerly, as if looking for any hint of disloyalty. Yes, it was like surfacing from a violent current, coming out of Legilimency—but this was a controlled environment, and Potter had the luck of doing this with one of his best friends, rather than with a deranged aunt. So it was hard to muster much sympathy.

“I … I guess I was thinking about …” Potter’s cheeks colored, and he looked over at the tent’s entrance. “About Ginny. And, er, Cho.”

“Why?” Weasley said, a bit too sharply.

Potter gave him an indignant look. “It’s not something—would you want anyone seeing you and Lavender snogging?”

Weasley’s ears turned red. “Oh. Right.” He cleared his throat. “Carry on.”

“But that’s not what I saw,” Granger said, glancing to Draco. “I didn’t see anything about Ginny or Cho.”

“Yeah,” Draco said. “It doesn’t always work that way, Granger. Thought you would’ve read about this stuff.”

“I’ve had plenty of other stuff to read about, thank you,” she huffed. “None of the books I’ve brought have particularly detailed passages on Legilimency.”

He smirked and leaned back on the sofa arm. “Sure. Well. Those kinds of memories are called fissure memories, in Legilimency. Maybe they’re not what’s under the surface, but they make it possible for the caster to force their way in. They’re a weakness.”

“I’m not—” Potter started, his voice rising.

“He wasn’t calling you weak, Harry,” Granger said immediately. “Were you, Malfoy?”

Draco eyed Potter. Normally he would have needled him just for the fun of it, but Potter was clearly still on edge from having Granger in his mind, and Draco didn’t want to sit here for another hour waiting for him to calm down. “No,” he said. “It’s … the stuff that you care about. Those are the vulnerable points. Weak points.”

Potter blinked rapidly. “Oh,” he said. “Right. So … er, what do I do about them?”

Draco shrugged. “Stop being embarrassed by them, for a start.”

“What?” Potter looked taken aback. “I’m not embarrassed about Ginny.”

“You’re embarrassed about Cho, though,” Granger said.

Potter shot her a betrayed look. Draco let out a snigger, and Potter looked back at him, his eyes flashing. “Shut up, Malfoy,” he said through gritted teeth.

“This is what I’m talking about,” Draco said. “You wouldn’t care if I laughed if you weren’t self-conscious. You wouldn’t care if Granger saw any of it if you weren’t self-conscious.”

“How am I supposed to—to not be self-conscious about—” Potter was struggling for words. “Stuff like, like Cho, or my cousin—or—” He swallowed hard, then shot Draco a mulish look. “So, what, you’re not embarrassed at all about you and Parkinson?”

“Why should I be?” Draco said. “Do it to me, Granger. Try it, go on.” He rose from the sofa’s arm and straightened his robes.

Granger looked startled for a moment, but she recovered quickly. She lifted her wand, aimed it at him, and said, “Legilimens.”

Draco had already let the world slide into soft focus. He looked at a freckle on Granger’s cheek, then at a panel in the wall. He felt the spell flowing over him, glancing off his surface. It was light, and he was ice. It was a stream of air, and he was stone. Residual thoughts of Pansy carried no charge; they stirred with other thoughts beneath his consciousness like wraiths, dissolving and reforming and dissolving again. Soon enough the spell had broken completely.

“See?” he said, glancing at Potter, who looked reluctantly impressed.

“It felt different from my end, too,” Granger said, turning to Potter with interest, as if they were back in Hogwarts and taking part in an engaging Charms class. “I could feel a sort of … an echo of a feeling, but there weren’t any real images.”

“All right, all right,” Weasley said from the sofa, sounding disgruntled. “Just—try it on Harry again, yeah?”

As the days went on, Draco began to notice Weasley doing this every so often. Whenever the others had a conversation he wasn’t involved in, or went too long without paying attention to him, a defensive look came over him, as if he were afraid of being forgotten completely. This went double when they hadn’t eaten for a while. Soon, with nothing to contribute to the Occlumency lessons, Weasley took the hours as an opportunity to work on his Transfiguration spells, and often the time alone made him moody.

Draco wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but he didn’t hate the lessons as much as he’d expected to. At the very least, they gave him something to talk to the others about, a neutral subject that made none of them angry with each other. Potter’s mental block in the subject was like a kind of common enemy, something they all wanted gone.

Then, in the second week, it happened again, this time seemingly out of nowhere. They were preparing dinner in the tent. Draco was setting the table with Weasley, and they were arguing about the uselessness of the Chudley Cannons, which Draco couldn’t believe Weasley thought was up for debate. Granger and Potter were talking about something else over the hissing sound of oil. Then, suddenly, they heard the CRACK of the enchantments shattering outside.

Now, though, they had a contingency plan, which Granger had forced them to rehearse several times. Draco let the cutlery clatter to the floor, seized a fistful of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder from the mantel, and flung it through the tent flap, scattering it all over the clearing with a sweep of his wand. As voices cried out in the distance, they all spilled out of the exit under cover of the black cloud that had swallowed the woodland. Granger summoned the tent’s pegs, and Potter and Weasley collapsed the tent. Draco threw up Shield Charms at every spell that whizzed out of the darkness. Within thirty seconds, they had Disapparated.

Though the plan had worked, they were shaken. They moved twice more that night, having pointless arguments about how secure each location was, when the truth was that no location seemed more or less secure than another.

Finally, they settled in a mountain cave large enough to set up the tent inside it. Granger cast a Screening Spell to duplicate the appearance of the rock face over the entrance to the cave.

The hasty collapse of the tent had spilled many of its contents, including dinner. They spent the better part of an hour putting the apartment back into order. When they’d finally finished, they slumped onto the sofa and the armchairs, feeling hungry and bad-tempered.

“My scar hasn’t even been that bad today,” Potter said. “What if we’re getting it wrong? What if it’s something else that’s doing it?”

“Well,” Granger said, “at the very least, it can’t hurt for you to be able to close your mind.”

Potter made a grudging noise of agreement.

“I just hope the Scavengers set us on the trail of that locket,” Weasley said. “I’m getting tired of just moving around, getting nothing done.”

“I keep thinking about that,” said Granger. “What if we find the Horcruxes before we can find a way to destroy them, and then the Death Eaters catch us?”

She was sitting with her knees up at the opposite end of the sofa from Draco. He had a sudden mental image of her at her parents’ house, on the floor of her sitting room, wearing an overlarge T-shirt and hugging her knees to her chest. The memory felt uncomfortably intimate somehow, even though it was his own. He looked away from her, back at the empty hearth.

“Or worse,” Potter said, “what if they turn up in the middle of the night and we can’t Disapparate fast enough?”

There was a desolate silence.

“Thanks, Potter,” Draco said. “I’ve been sleeping too well. That ought to help.”

“I wish we still had headquarters,” Weasley mumbled, stretching out in his armchair.

Potter took in a short breath and sat upright.

“What?” Granger said, sounding anxious.

“Well …” he said slowly. “Why don’t we set up our own headquarters?”

They all looked at him without speaking for a moment.

“Nothing like this ever happened at Grimmauld Place,” he went on. “Why don’t we find a place to cast the Fidelius Charm?”

Weasley stood up from his armchair. “Harry, that’s an idea,” he said with rising excitement, starting to pace across the sitting room. “Fred and George were talking about a proper underground resistance. We could make a place where the Order could meet and regroup.”

“Yeah,” said Potter. “And we wouldn’t have to look over our shoulder every second. We’d have a safe place to go with the Horcruxes.”

Weasley was nodding. “Where, though?”

“We’ll have to think of somewhere good,” Potter said. “It can’t just be in the middle of nowhere, or people on our side wouldn’t know where to go.”

“Wait, wait, hang on,” said Granger. “You two are forgetting that none of us can do the Fidelius Charm.”

“Isn’t it in one of your books?” Potter said.

“I … I don’t know. Maybe.” Granger stood and crossed to the wall of bookshelves, which were substantially fuller now than when they’d moved in. “It could be …” She took down a tome that was nearly the width of her head. After a minute of paging through it, she nodded. “Yes, it’s here.” Her voice was restrained.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s just … it looks really difficult, Harry. We don’t know anyone besides Dumbledore who’s been able to do that charm.”

Draco let out a loud snort. They all looked at him.

“What are you snorting at?” said Weasley.

Draco ignored him. “Granger,” he said, “could you not waste our time with false modesty?”

She drew herself up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What do you think? I’m saying, when have you ever not been able to do a charm?”

The indignation faded from her face, and she looked at him in surprise, her cheeks coloring. She looked flattered, Draco realized, which was ridiculous. It hadn’t been a compliment. He’d been pointing out how annoying it was for her to pretend that this would be an issue.

It had to be false modesty, didn’t it? Surely, after six straight years of incessant praise by teachers and immaculate test scores, Granger couldn’t actually be insecure about her magical performance?

“Thank you,” she said slowly, as if waiting for him to say he’d been joking.

Weasley jumped in. “Well, we all know you can do it,” he said quickly, shooting an irritated look at Draco. “You’ve gotten a hundred and fifty percent on every other Charms exam since we got to Hogwarts. It’s your best subject.”

“It’s not,” she said, though the corner of her mouth was twitching. “Arithmancy is my best subj—”

“Hermione, you only have to get it right one time,” Potter said. “That’ll be easy for you.”

Granger was scarlet now. “Well,” she said, sounding bewildered, but looking down at the book and clearly trying not to smile. “I can try, of course.”

And so Granger’s practice of the Fidelius Charm was added to the routine. She spent long hours outside the tent in the afternoons, practicing clockwise and counterclockwise turns of her wand, whispering strings of incantations under her breath.

Some evenings, they gathered in the sitting room to listen to the twins’ Wizarding Wireless. The newscasts they heard were growing increasingly suspect: every programme reiterated the idea that Rufus Scrimgeour was on a much-needed holiday, and that Dumbledore’s death was associated with the highly suspicious Harry Potter, and that unity among wizards was paramount. Erratic reports from listeners suggested that the Dark Lord had been seen in dozens of locations across Britain. These frightened listeners were then soothed by instructions disseminated by the Ministry—which included, in many cases, suggestions to spy on friends and neighbors, so as to ensure that they were law-abiding citizens rather than rabble-rousers and violent dissidents, such as the unhinged and recently at-large Dedalus Diggle, etc.

One particular radio broadcast had made Potter, Weasley, and Granger all roar with indignation: the announcement that Severus Snape had been selected by the Ministry to take over from Albus Dumbledore as Headmaster of Hogwarts, with Amycus Carrow as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and his sister Alecto tapped for the Muggle Studies vacancy. Draco wasn’t particularly surprised, but he didn’t like to think what the Carrows would do to unruly students. He hoped his friends were smart enough to fall in line.

Meanwhile, they continued with Occlumency. Draco didn’t think he could have imagined a person more temperamentally ill-suited for the discipline than Potter, but by the end of the second week, they were making some progress, at least. Now, if Granger gave Potter a minute’s lead time before casting the spell, he could unreliably fight it off after thirty or forty seconds’ Legilimency. That level of resistance would have been useless against Snape or the Dark Lord, who would have been able to find anything they needed within several seconds, but still, Draco caught himself feeling slightly smug about Potter’s incremental progress. Snape had tried to teach Potter for months and hadn’t gotten anywhere, after all.

In some ways, he almost felt as if they were back at Hogwarts, with a potion bubbling in the corner, scheduled lessons, reference texts strewn across the flat, and—most of all—the way Granger could constantly be heard parroting facts. “The Fidelius is a twelve-part spell,” she explained over dinner one night, “and the third and ninth incantations are spoken in reverse, and the accompanying thought patterns for the fourth through tenth all require different kinds of memory work. It really is astoundingly difficult.”

But Draco thought she sounded a bit excited at the challenge.

“So,” he said, “which of you three is going to be Secret-Keeper, anyway?”

Granger looked at him in mock surprise. “I was assuming you would volunteer, Malfoy.”

Potter chortled. Even Weasley grinned somewhat reluctantly.

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” Draco said, slurping his soup loudly at her, “but only for the entertainment value of not letting you three inside.”

“Fair question, though,” Potter said. “Which of us should it be?”

An uncertain silence fell over the table. All three Gryffindors looked intimidated at the idea.

“It’d be stupid for it to be Potter,” Draco said. “The Death Eaters will expect that.”

Potter looked indignant. “Dumbledore was the last Secret-Keeper, and that was a pretty obvious choice, wasn’t it?”

“Of course. A perfect comparison, since you, like Albus Dumbledore, can easily duel half a dozen Death Eaters at a time.”

He waited for Potter to scowl or snap at him, but Potter considered for a second. Then he took another bite of cauliflower and said, “Eight on a good day, thanks.”

Draco wasn’t expecting it. A laugh startled out of him, and Granger and Weasley laughed, too, and then they were all grinning stupidly down at their plates, none of them meeting each other’s eyes.

Granger cleared her throat and looked up. “Anyway, it’s a fair point,” she said. “It didn’t matter that Professor Dumbledore was the obvious choice when they were all so frightened of him. You don’t have that advantage, Harry.”

Another brief silence. Granger and Potter exchanged a look. Then, as one, they looked at Weasley.

“I think it should be you, mate,” said Potter.

Weasley looked slightly stunned. “Wh-what? Me?”

“Yes, you, Ron,” said Granger, smiling. “You’re related to half the Order, for a start, and you still know much more about the Wizarding World than either Harry or I do. That could come in handy if we’re ever trying to recruit, or spread the word.”

“But … but I …”

“What, you’re not planning on blabbing, are you?” said Potter.

“No, shut up, of course not.” Weasley’s whole face had turned red. “But … you really mean it?”

Draco saw that Weasley was sitting up ramrod-straight in his chair. Every trace of woundedness and exclusion had melted out of him. He wore a look of glowing pride, as if he’d just been handed the Quidditch Cup, rather than a job that would make him an infinitely more valuable prisoner, or object of torture, to the Death Eaters.

Draco’s throat tightened, and he looked back down at his food, his appetite dwindling. He felt the way he’d felt at Christmas last year: suddenly aware of how young he was. He felt as if they were play-acting, all four of them, at adulthood and responsibility. Weasley couldn’t understand what was really happening to him right now—could he? Would he come to realize the full implications of this decision, in an awful way, or would he, Potter, and Granger somehow slink out of this unscathed, as they always managed to?

But … no, Draco thought. They weren’t unscathed. Potter’s fissure memories during Occlumency showed that much: the deaths of Sirius Black, his parents, Cedric Diggory. The graveyard, where he’d felt the Cruciatus too. And Granger had sent her parents away as strangers, accepting that she might die unknown to them, and Weasley had two brothers now with scars. So it wasn’t like the Gryffindors were completely whole.

Draco glanced around at the others, the trio he’d hated so enthusiastically for so long, and thought about the ways they hurt, and everything they were risking. Foolishly, maybe—but not without reason. He found he couldn’t look at any of them for long.

Occlumency was difficult that evening. Draco felt surly and unhelpful, and they scarcely managed an hour before Potter went to bed, making some feeble excuse but obviously suffering discomfort in his scar. Weasley followed a short while later.

Draco sank into one of the armchairs while Granger pored over one of her textbooks on the sofa. He turned the silver ring with the Malfoy crest around his pinky finger, wondering about his parents. His mother and father had a bad habit of not speaking when they were worried, or speaking only in clipped sentences that verged on clichés. They rarely fought, but in times of tension there was a lot of icy silence at the manor, the kind you could feel on your skin like a gentle weight. The gold he would have spent to get a single message to them, telling them he was safe …

“It’s getting better, isn’t it?”

Draco looked over at Granger and found her eyes on him. He straightened in his chair, feeling self-conscious, wondering how long she’d been watching him stare into nothing.

He didn’t ask her to elaborate. He knew she meant living with the three of them, and she was right. Things were better than they had been. Potter was still awkward, but apparently that was just his personality. Even Weasley seemed occasionally to be able to relax around him now, or at least, benignly ignore him. Hadn’t they just laughed together over dinner?

Draco lifted his shoulders.

“You’re really helping Harry,” Granger said. “In fifth year, he wouldn’t even practice Occlumency, Snape made him so miserable.”

“Yeah, well. Hopefully it’ll keep us all from getting murdered in our beds.”

“Yes, hopefully.” Granger was tracing the paragraphs in her textbook absentmindedly. He found himself watching the movement of her fingertip over the black lines of text. “I wonder if I’d be any good at Occlumency,” she mused.

“Doubt it,” Draco said. “No offense, Granger, but people who chronically care too much about everything aren’t exactly predisposed to Occlumency.”

He expected her to protest, but a small smile tugged at her mouth instead. She flipped the textbook shut and nestled her head into the sofa cushions. “Did you say Bellatrix taught you Occlumency?”

He nodded.

“When?”

“End of last summer,” he said, not really knowing why he was answering, except that it was late, and he was tired, and dinner had left him feeling uncertain. “After I got my assignment.”

“Did … did you know what it meant?” Granger’s voice was quieter, now, in a way that made him realize how quiet the flat was around them. “When he told you to kill Dumbledore?”

He let out a soft, derisive sound. “Yeah. Obviously. I mean, everyone knew. The other Death Eaters wouldn’t shut up about it—talking about how they’d always wanted to see my parents taken down a notch. They thought it was really funny.”

Funny?

He shrugged. “They all resented us for one reason or another. But mainly it just wasn’t happening to them. Everything’s funny when it’s not happening to you.” Draco began to turn the silver ring around his finger again. A headache had started to pulse deep in his skull. “All year,” he muttered, “I was just waiting to get back on that side of it, where I was the one watching and … and, yeah, laughing. I mean, it wasn’t like I loved it so much, watching things happen to other people, but if you’re watching, it’s not you.” He paused. “I mean, and I felt special at first. … You have to think you’re going to feel that way again, or what’s the point, you might as well just die.”

Draco didn’t even know if he was making any sense. He didn’t think he was articulating the last year particularly well, but that was the thing about nightmares. They came out of your grip.

He glanced over at Granger, who was holding the tome in her lap. She looked awkward and uncertain, startled if not completely surprised, and he felt suddenly older than her, and somehow unclean, as if she were brand new, and he was revealing something horrible about the world to her. He wondered if he’d said too much, if he’d disturbed her.

He wondered, too, if she would tell Potter and Weasley. Even a few weeks ago he would have been absolutely certain that she would. Now, though, for some reason, he wasn’t sure.

He’d never told Pansy these things. And it wasn’t as if Pansy hadn’t asked. But he’d wanted Pansy to keep looking at him the way she always had, like he was something precious she aspired to cradle in her hands. Granger looked at him like she could lay him open with her eyes, like she wanted to. Even now, unsettled, there was flint in her gaze.

“You flinch sometimes,” she said. “When people go for their wands. Is that because …”

Pansy wouldn’t have said these things.

“Only twice,” Draco said, and then he stood and went to bed.

 


 

With under a week to go until the Scavengers’ Guild came to Diagon Alley, Hermione decided it was time to try the Fidelius Charm for the first time. They still had no real idea where they might place a new headquarters, but it would be vital to perfect every detail of the charm, so Hermione wanted to practice it before the real thing.

They cordoned off a small patch of woodland: this would be the area bound by the Secret. Harry would stand inside that patch while Hermione cast the charm upon Ron, making him the Secret-Keeper. If all went to plan, Malfoy would then be unable to see Harry, and Hermione would be unable to speak his location to Malfoy. They would perform several tests on the area, like Harry walking through its boundaries, which should be permeable yet undetectable, and Malfoy trying to Apparate into its bounds, which should be impossible. Then Ron would confide the secret to Malfoy to ensure that the information could expand from person to person in the proper way.

Hermione found herself full of jitters that morning. She knew it wasn’t the real headquarters, and there were no real stakes to the exercise, but she couldn’t help feeling that she was standing in the hall before her Charms O.W.L., running through everything she’d mentally prepared, full of anxiety that some unforeseen problem would come up.

She had prepared several sheets of parchment, shorthand notes that she could follow step by step. After lunch, they approached the cordoned-off area. Malfoy leaned against a nearby tree while Harry sat down within the ropes they’d conjured. Hermione faced Ron, who was holding her notes so she could read them.

“You’ll be fine,” Ron told her. She tried to smile, but his words had made no impact on her nerves. They rolled off the jagged edge of what she was feeling, as his and Harry’s exam-time reassurances always had.

Hermione took a deep breath, raised her wand, and began.

During the first attempt, she misspoke a syllable in the first of the charm’s twelve incantations.

During the second and third attempts, she stuttered over the fifth and eleventh incantations, respectively.

On the fourth attempt, her mind strayed for a split instant from the seventh incantation’s required thought pattern (a memory that evoked intense and unshakable security).

It went on and on that way. She reached two dozen attempts, then four, and with each new failure, Hermione felt more and more as if she were falling into one of her old nightmares. For months during fifth year, leading up to their O.W.L.s, she would startle awake in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, certain that she’d just walked into the testing room to discover that she’d forgotten to study the most important section of her notes—and then all of her supposed potential, her supposed great ability, would fall by the wayside and go unrecognized, and she wouldn’t be able to sign up for N.E.W.T.s or have any proper job prospects, and her parents’ disappointment would be coupled with her friends’ surprise and her enemies’ vindictive satisfaction, and the rest of her life would be filled with regret.

After half an hour, Harry urged her to take a break. Ron agreed, saying all she needed to do was take a walk around and try again in a bit.

Malfoy just watched her from where he was leaning against the tree. He didn’t say anything, but she could tell that he was surprised by what he was seeing. She found herself thinking of how he’d said, When have you ever not been able to do a charm? and it just made her stomach twist up more tightly. With every failure she was rewriting her identity as someone incompetent and unworthy. Even Draco Malfoy had thought of her as someone who, at the base of it all, could do any spell—someone who was powerfully magical. But he was wrong. They all were.

She did take a break, and a short walk, but it didn’t help. After nearly three hours, they stopped. Hermione’s throat was tight, and her eyes kept burning. There had been many attempts when she’d thought she’d done everything right—and yet the spell still hadn’t taken.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, unable to look at the boys. “I’ve wasted your whole afternoon.”

“What else were we doing, exactly?” Malfoy said. She glanced over. He was sitting among the tree roots now, his silvery hair dappled with the sunlight that was peeking through the boughs.

Harry stepped out of the cordoned area. “It’s all right, Hermione,” he said. “Everyone needs practice.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Ron said. “That’s what this was for—to practice. Remember last year, we thought we were going to be absolutely slaughtered at Quidditch? But we practiced every night, even when we felt like rubbish, and everything turned out all right.”

Hermione nodded, not wanting to tell Ron that this didn’t feel like Quidditch at all. It wasn’t a team effort—it was just her. This felt like a fundamental verification of what she’d always feared: that she wasn’t really talented, but just good for her age; that she wasn’t truly exceptional in any way, and certainly not brilliant enough to override what people would expect from her, being a girl, and being Muggle-born, and being herself. It just wasn’t enough. She wasn’t enough. If only there were a way for her to transcend herself … to …

But there was.

She drew a sharp breath, feeling like an idiot for not having thought of it sooner. “The diadem!”

Ron brightened immediately. “Hermione, that’s it! Try it with the diadem on. You’ve already done all the preparation. I’m sure that’s all you need to get it right.”

As Harry hurried back into the cordoned area, she fished the tiara out of her bag. The second it was in her hand, she felt a sense of security wash over her, and when she placed it upon her head, she felt several inches taller, and lighter, too, as if she were hovering slightly above the forest floor.

How stupid not to think of the diadem before, said a smooth, cool voice in her mind. Without it, she did foolish, forgetful things. Without the diadem, she was fallible and unexceptional, only human. With it, she was so much more.

She raised her wand, looked at her sheet of notes, and began to speak the incantations.

At first, the uncanny clarity brought her relief and confidence. With every new syllable she spoke, though, the clarity began to elicit a different effect. She started noticing every single moment in the charm that she was failing to perform up to standard. It wasn’t just an issue of correcting one little flaw. Her pronunciations were imprecise throughout, her wand movements inaccurate by matters of degrees. Her memories were more focused with the diadem, but they still lacked the propulsive force that, for instance, Harry drew on for his Patronus.

Before she’d even finished the charm, she lowered her wand.

“What are you stopping for?” Ron said. “That sounded great!”

“No,” she said. “It isn’t good enough. I’m not even close. I need to do much more work on it. We’ll try again another day—I’m going to practice by myself.”

She took the notes from his hand and walked back toward the clearing where she’d been practicing, the diadem still on her head.

Two hours seemed to pass in two minutes. She tried several other advanced charms that implemented some of the same techniques as the Fidelius, honing her memory recall, shaping and refining the feeling of the incantations upon her tongue, the particular way her lips and soft palate and jaw had to move in tandem to create the words’ precise and unusual syllables. These weren’t the ordinary Latinate spell roots, but words that had their bases in lost language. With the diadem, though, she was learning precision and perfection; everything was beginning to fall into place for her with a speed and power that she associated with her first year at school, the pure shock and exhilaration of being able to wave her wand and send a feather flying into the air, in defiance of her old life as a Muggle. And really, she thought, wasn’t it a blessing to be so far away from Muggle influence now? Wasn’t it a relief to be in the world of wizards, who were remarkable and special, the way she was—to have cast off the dull, comparatively barbaric mantle of her upbringing?

“How’d it go?” said Harry when she ducked back into the tent, the diadem replaced in her bag.

“Really well,” she exclaimed. She felt a bit intoxicated. The past two hours felt almost blurred; she couldn’t remember exactly which spells she’d done, or what she’d been thinking, really, but she had the feeling of intense productivity, as if she’d just finished four feet of parchment for Professor Flitwick.

It’s a Horcrux, she’d told herself continually while wearing the diadem. It’s a Horcrux. But the reminder was only perfunctory, really. Yes, it was Dark magic, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t still be useful. The diadem—it’s lonely, she found herself thinking, and although it felt strange to ascribe the feeling to an object, she knew that it was true. The diadem wanted to be helpful; it had already helped them. It could help them even more.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she said, sitting down at the dinner table. “I think we should all try the diadem on.”

Ron, who was stirring a pan of slowly browning green beans, laughed. “Hermione, I hate to be the one to tell you, but I’m not going to be able to manage that Fidelius Charm, diadem or no.”

“Not for that,” she said. “I just mean, who knows what we might be able to figure out about the Horcruxes if we’re all able to think with total clarity?”

Harry hesitated before answering. “I suppose you do … you do feel all right?” he asked. “I mean, it’s not like Ginny, where you’re … I don’t know, getting reliant on it?”

“I’m not reliant on it,” she said quickly. “I forgot about it completely for two weeks, didn’t I? I hadn’t touched it in ages before today.”

Harry and Ron exchanged a look, then shrugged. “All right,” Ron said. “I don’t see the harm. Pop it on, see what happens, take it off.”

“I don’t know,” said Malfoy.

They turned toward him. He’d been lying on the sofa in the sitting room, reading, but now he was sitting up and looking at her beaded bag, grey eyes narrowed.

“Why not?” Hermione said.

“I … don’t know,” he said again.

“Scared of the tiara, Malfoy?” Ron chortled.

Malfoy’s cheeks turned pink, and he rose from the sofa. “Yeah, Weasley, I don’t adore the idea of something with a piece of the Dark Lord’s soul in it.”

Hermione hastened to defuse the argument. “I know it’s dangerous,” she said, although even as she said it, she had the odd feeling of reading lines off a script. “I know it’s a Horcrux. But we have to think about the bigger picture. If this one helps us find the rest, then engaging with it is necessary. It’s the best tool we’ve got right now.”

Malfoy examined her face. Hermione didn’t know what he was looking for, what he was expecting to see, but as she met his eyes, she felt jarred, shaken awake, as if she were coming back into herself for the first time since she’d put the diadem on.

These days, whenever she and Malfoy spoke, she remembered what he’d told her the night that Harry and Ron had gone to bed early. She couldn’t shake the brief, brutal description of his mindset during the previous year. If you’re watching, it’s not you.

And then—only twice, he’d said, as if being subjected to the Cruciatus Curse a mere two times was something he should be grateful for.

She’d half expected him to be furious with her for asking, or, in the days that followed, to shun her, angry with himself instead for telling her. But he hadn’t made any allusion to the conversation at all. Sometimes she thought his voice sounded different when he spoke to her—less drawling, maybe, or more confidential. Like he wanted her to laugh at his jokes.

She hadn’t told Harry or Ron what he’d said. It didn’t seem right to tell them, but then it left her with a strange weight in her chest when she looked at Malfoy. Had he told anyone else at all? She didn’t think he would have told Crabbe or Goyle or his Slytherin friends—he liked to impress them, he liked them to think he was in control. But did that mean she was the only person in the world besides the Death Eaters who knew he’d been tortured by Lord Voldemort?

“We’ll be careful,” she told him. “Really careful. We can time it, all right? Ten minutes or something, that’s all.”

After another long moment, some of the tension in his expression eased, and he muttered, “All right.”

So, after dinner, they sat down in the sitting room and passed the diadem from person to person. Hermione felt a slight jealous twinge, seeing the others handle it, but she pushed it back. This had been her idea, after all.

Ron was the first to go. He placed the diadem on his head, the sapphires contrasting with his brilliantly red hair, and closed his eyes. He steepled his fingers the way he sometimes did when he was contemplating the best approach for a checkmate.

After three minutes or so, he let out a shaky laugh and opened his eyes. “Wow. It’s something, isn’t it?”

Hermione nodded eagerly. “Have you remembered anything new?”

“No. I mean, it isn’t really doing much for my memory.”

“It—it isn’t?” Hermione said, taken aback. “When I wear it, I can remember answers I gave to tests four years ago.”

“Well, that’s you, isn’t it?” Ron shook his head. “I feel like I’m … I dunno, like I’m a thousand miles away, or something.”

“A thousand miles away?” said Harry, uncomprehending. Malfoy was watching the proceedings silently from one of the armchairs, a look of lingering mistrust on his face.

“Yeah,” Ron said. “Like I’m looking down on everything and I can see all the little pieces moving around.” He shrugged. “Like a chess match. It’s all making sense, the blood status registration at Hogwarts, and everything we’re hearing on the Wireless. … I mean, that’ll be their next move, won’t it? Making it seem like blood status is something that actually matters in an official way, and then they can push that into the Ministry, too. I suppose they’ll be finding an excuse to register everyone next, not just students. And if they’re using you as a scapegoat, Harry, they can make it all seem like it’s something Dumbledore would’ve approved of. They’re trying to muddy the waters.”

Hermione nodded. Now that Ron said it, it seemed perfectly obvious that this was what the Death Eaters’ agenda would demand next.

“But what’s our move?” Harry said. “What are we supposed to do to stop them?”

Ron shook his head. “I think we’re doing all we can, mate. We’ve got our job from Dumbledore. The Death Eaters have the whole Ministry on their side. There’s too many of them for us to try and go against them outright. Hunting the Horcruxes is our way to checkmate.”

Harry sighed. “All right. Let me try it, then.”

Ron looked momentarily reluctant, but he took the diadem off and passed it to Harry, who jammed it over his untidy black hair and waited for something to happen.

“Well?” said Malfoy, after several long, quiet minutes of thought.

“Godric’s Hollow,” Harry said.

“What?” Hermione said.

“I … I just want to go there. I don’t know. I can’t really tell why. I mean, I wanted to go anyway, but this makes me want to go there even more.” Harry looked between them. “Do you think Ravenclaw’s trying to tell me something?”

Hermione frowned. “That’s not how it works.”

Ron bobbed his shoulders. “It’s probably your own instincts.”

“Instincts?” Hermione said. “But instinct isn’t … it’s not …”

A mulish look was forming on Harry’s face now. “Hermione, you said to try it on, and I’ve tried it on, and that’s what it’s telling me. I just have a feeling we should go there. I mean, the sword was in Dumbledore’s will, and I read in that Skeeter article, Dumbledore’s from Godric’s Hollow.”

“Yes,” Hermione said impatiently, “but none of his family will have lived there for decades. It wouldn’t have been passed to anyone there.”

“Well, we don’t have other leads, do we?” said Harry, sounding exasperated. “Why can’t we go?”

Hermione bit her lip. “Because I’m worried someone might be expecting us, Harry! The Death Eaters know that you and I, at least, are on the run. A town that both you and Dumbledore are connected to? The place where … well, where your parents’ graves are? Don’t you think they’ll be expecting you to visit?”

“Maybe that’s why I feel like we should,” Harry insisted. “Look, someone took Dumbledore’s bequests from the Ministry, which means someone’s trying to help us. Who’s to say that person isn’t looking for a place we might visit?”

This made Hermione hesitate. She hadn’t thought of that angle.

Harry seized on her hesitation and rounded on Ron and Malfoy. “What do you two think?” he asked.

Neither of them looked keen to give their opinion.

“I … I mean, everywhere’s dangerous at this point, right?” Ron said feebly. “I think we might as well.”

“I abstain from the vote,” Malfoy said.

“You can’t abstain,” Hermione said.

“Yes, he can,” Harry said triumphantly. “That’s two to one, Hermione. We’ll go tomorrow.”

She sighed. “Fine,” she said as Harry took the diadem off and chucked it somewhat unceremoniously at Malfoy.

Malfoy caught the diadem. He turned it over and over, examining it, before gingerly sliding it over his blond hair. The wrought silver ornament made him look slightly elfin.

Hermione wondered what was happening to Malfoy’s thoughts. It seemed that the diadem affected them all differently. What would the benefits be to him?

There was an unusual focus in Malfoy’s eyes, which reminded Hermione of Harry’s expression during their Occlumency lessons. Did Malfoy’s affinity for Occlumency extend to Legilimency? Was he looking into their minds now? Hermione knew that if she wanted to prevent him from dipping into her thoughts, then, she should avoid his gaze—but she found herself doing the opposite, watching his eyes slide over Harry and then Ron, waiting with a strange kind of anticipation for him to look at her. He’d revealed thoughts and memories to her, after all, that she never would have expected him to reveal.

The second he met her eyes, though, she felt a heated, panicked rush. No. There were things she wanted to keep private. The way she’d cried over Ron and Lavender last year. The way she’d lain awake in second year, thinking about what Malfoy had called her on the Quidditch field. The way she’d lain awake last week in this very tent, thinking about Malfoy’s rigid expression as he’d said, You have to think you’re going to feel that way again, or what’s the point, you might as well just die.

She looked away from him, her heart beating a bit too hard, her palms tingling and sweaty.

After a moment, Malfoy took the diadem off.

“What?” Harry said. “Didn’t anything happen?”

“Nothing useful.” He handed the diadem back to Hermione and stood. “I’m going to bed.”

 


 

The next morning, they Apparated several miles away from Godric’s Hollow, so that they could walk into the village without attracting attention. At the Apparition point, they spent an hour or so on their Transfigurations. Initially they’d thought that it would be the most inconspicuous to look like a family on an outing, but this raised the somewhat ridiculous discussion of which of them should be parents and which should be children.

“Well, you’ll have to be the mother, I suppose,” Harry said to Hermione.

“Families can have two fathers,” she protested. “Or no mother.”

“Hmm,” Ron said, grinning. “Sounds like you’re just trying to get out of giving birth to two of us.”

In fact,” Hermione said loudly, “maybe it would be best for there to be two fathers, because then none of us would need to look like blood relatives, so we wouldn’t need to do as many alterations.”

“God, are these my only options?” said Malfoy, looking between Ron and Harry with his nose wrinkled. “Can I be an adopted cousin, or something?”

“You can be the family owl,” Ron said.

In the end, they abandoned the family idea and merely settled for Transfiguring themselves as far from their usual appearance as was comfortable.

It was a cool, breezy day, the sky a flat sheet of white cloud as they walked into the village. Godric’s Hollow in August was filled with families, many of whom were walking around the picturesque little square in the heart of the village. Unattended groups of children were laughing and chasing each other down the narrow, winding streets. It was a beautiful place, and Hermione tried not to watch Harry too closely. His eyes kept straying wistfully to the children. She knew he was thinking about the childhood he’d lost here, the life he might have had if not for Voldemort.

They were moving toward the church when Malfoy stopped, facing down one of the smaller lanes. He didn’t say anything, but they all looked in the same direction.

Hermione saw it, too. At the end of the row of large, charming cottages was a wreck that the Muggles nearby couldn’t seem to see at all. Blasted half apart, one upper corner of its structure was open to the elements.

Harry couldn’t seem to speak. He just drifted toward it as if magnetized, and they all followed.

They stopped in front of the cottage’s wild, overgrown hedge and an ancient gate. Harry reached out, not seeming fully aware of his own motions, and brushed his hand against the gate. The next moment, a sign of golden wood was sprouting up. Words were engraved into it:

 

On this spot, on the night of 31 October 1981,

Lily and James Potter lost their lives.

Their son, Harry, remains the only wizard ever

to have survived the Killing Curse.

This house, invisible to Muggles, has been left

in its ruined state as a monument to the Potters

and as a reminder of the violence

that tore apart their family.

 

Around the words were lines of ink graffiti—words of encouragement. Good luck, Harry, wherever you are. … Long live Harry Potter. Harry ran one hand over the words, and as he read them, a smile grew upon his face, until he was beaming.

“Hang on,” Hermione said, an idea striking her. She took out her wand—none of the Muggles seemed to see them anymore, now that they were in such close proximity to the cottage—and tapped the sign. “Aparecium!”

All four of them took in a sharp breath. A handwritten line of script had appeared in the bottom corner of the sign.

Return to the site of survival

“The site of survival?” Malfoy said.

Ron was frowning at the words. “What do you think that means?”

“I think it’s for me,” Harry murmured.

Hermione’s eyes had strayed up from the sign, back onto the ruined building.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I think it means you’re supposed to go there.” She pointed to the blasted corner of the cottage, to the remains of the room, just out of sight, where the Killing Curse had rebounded sixteen years ago. “There, Harry. The place you survived.”

Chapter Text

“I still don’t think we should follow some unsigned note scribbled in a public place,” Draco muttered as they approached the Potter cottage again. “Anyone could have written it.”

“Yes, well, that’s why we just went on a miniature goose chase, isn’t it,” came Granger’s whisper from thin air. “To shake them off if they were watching.”

After reading the note, they’d drifted away from the cottage like disinterested tourists. They’d gone right out of Godric’s Hollow, swapped their Transfigurations for Disillusionments, and Potter and Granger—the two smallest of their number—had donned the Invisibility Cloak for good measure before they’d sneaked back into the village.

Now, standing in front of the cottage again, Draco didn’t like the idea of going inside. “What if they’ve set up some kind of ward or alert?” he said.

“As long as it’s not an anti-Apparition ward, it doesn’t matter,” Granger whispered back. “And we can check for that. Everyone remember the plan?”

“If anything fishy happens,” Weasley muttered, “Disapparate to that cave where we stayed after they found us last time.”

“Good,” Potter said. “Come on.” The ivy on the post beside the iron gate trembled slightly, as if in a breeze, as he and Granger climbed up and over it.

Draco sighed, but followed.

The Potter cottage was made of handsome weathered stone, though it was mostly obscured by the dark ivy that had grown wild over its face. The front door must have once been a bright, inviting crimson, but the paint had dulled in the intervening sixteen years, peeling and flaking between the boards, the door handle rusted.

“Let’s look for a side door,” Potter whispered. “I don’t think we should just … just walk in through the …”

Draco didn’t miss the strain in his voice. Draco suddenly imagined himself coming back to Malfoy Manor after a decade to find it overgrown, the gardens a mess of weeds, the windows stained, the upper storey blasted apart—the picture of neglect, disuse, and outright damage.

Weasley had clearly also sensed Potter’s discomfort. “Come on,” he said, “let’s try this way.” He took the lead, and they fell into step after his faint outline.

They picked around the side of the cottage, trying to follow the path of cracked flagstones so as not to leave depressions in the grass or dirt. At the cottage’s back corner was a small overhang, and beneath it, a second red door with black brackets.

Alohomora,” whispered Granger’s voice. The lock whined and scraped as it opened, and Weasley pushed the door wide.

They entered a small kitchen with slightly outdated fixtures. It might, at one point, have been a cozy place: Draco’s eyes lingered on nested copper pots atop the cabinetry, and on an enchanted plate mounted on the wall, where a painted rooster pecked eternally at some seeds in a few brushstrokes of grass. But time had worn away the comforts. The air smelled of rot, and the corners of the ceilings were spotted with mold.

It seemed that the sign had spoken literally. No one seemed to have touched the place at all since that Halloween night. Draco’s gaze fixed on a detail that felt somehow appalling: a single water glass that stood on the edge of the counter, near the sink. Someone might have just pulled a drink of water from the tap and left the glass there to rest.

Weasley shut the door behind them, sweeping a section of the hardwood floor clean. Otherwise, the dust was like thin carpet, undisturbed—except for a single pair of footsteps that led forward, into a dark, narrow hallway.

“Look,” Draco said. “Some—someone’s been here.” He didn’t like that his voice had come out higher than usual.

“We know someone’s been here,” said Granger, clearly trying for a matter-of-fact tone, but she sounded tense, too. “Whoever left the note.”

“Let’s go, then, shall we?” said Weasley. “Let’s not linger.”

“Yeah,” said Potter, his voice hoarse. “No Lumos—someone might see from outside.”

They entered the dark hallway, where Draco could only just make out the photographs in tarnished frames that hung on the walls. One recurring character looked so exactly like Potter that it couldn’t have been anyone but his father; another, a woman with long, dark red hair, must have been his mother. Draco hesitated at a photograph of them waving at a small, black-haired baby. In terms of years, they looked hardly older than Draco, but the love, pride, and concentrated affection in their faces, their intense focus as they looked at their son, made Draco feel a decade their junior. It was a look he associated with his own parents, and in that moment he missed his family so much it was like his lungs had been pressed shut by an outside force.

He forced himself to breathe, to walk, not to make a sound. They passed a small reading room with dust-laden sofas, something that looked like a guest bedroom, and emerged in the front room of the cottage, where a stairwell led to the upper storey. The stairs creaked horribly as they climbed, but soon they emerged onto a carpeted landing, and when they turned a corner, they could see a door ahead, at the end of a hallway.

Draco could feel a draft coming from that door. There was natural light spilling through the crack beneath it, a promise of the room that had been ripped apart on the other side. They approached with caution.

Two steps away from it, a whispery voice spoke. They all froze.

Harry Potter?”

“Hang on,” said Granger sharply. She and Potter slipped out of the Cloak, leaving them Disillusioned. She extended her wand and said, “Skadus dicoperare! Hominem revelio!”

She waited a moment, and when nothing happened, she added, “Periempta revelio!”

At this spell, a fine, shimmering mist seemed to descend over the door. After several moments, it cleared away, and Granger muttered, “Strange.”

“What is it?” Potter said.

“Well, there’s nobody here,” Granger said. “This is an Anti-Apparition ward, but it’s odd … it’s only a one-way ward. It’ll prevent someone from Apparating into that room, but once we’re inside, it won’t prevent us from leaving. So it looks like someone’s trying to protect the room, or its contents.”

“Yeah, but what about the voice?” Weasley said impatiently. “Is the voice dangerous?”

“I can’t be completely sure. If there’s a curse on the door, it’s not a common one.”

“Well,” Draco muttered, “the Dark Lord wouldn’t need to resort to common curses.”

“Exactly,” Granger said. “So, just remember: if anything happens, keep your head and Disapparate straight away.” She sounded nervous, as if she were talking to herself rather than to them.

“Right,” Potter said. He stepped up to the door, took a deep breath, and said, “It’s me. Harry Potter.”

The whispery voice spoke again. “What did Albus Dumbledore tell you he saw in the Mirror of Erised?”

Draco had no idea what this meant, but Potter drew in a sharp breath. “Himself,” Potter said, his voice suddenly tense with excitement. “Holding a pair of woolen socks.”

The lock on the door clicked open, but they didn’t move to open it. Potter’s outline had turned back toward them. “Nobody but me and Dumbledore knew that,” he whispered. “You realize what this means?”

“He must have left one of the Order to do this!” Granger whispered back. “In case something happened to him—he must have given an Order member this assignment!”

Yet when Potter turned back to the door, he still didn’t move to open it.

“It’s all right,” Granger whispered.

“I—yeah, I know,” he said. “I … I just feel strange.”

“Don’t blame you, mate,” Weasley said. “Here—want me to go first?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Weasley took the door handle and pushed.

Clean, fresh air rushed through into the hallway, whisking away the damp, musty scent that had accumulated over the better part of two decades. The sun was blazing through the white clouds, and there was something beatific about the light that fell in long shafts into the room before them, a chamber opened forcibly to the elements. They stepped inside, onto a floor that was warped by years of rain and littered with shreds of wallpaper, some that were little more than burned rags, others that seemed to have come down in more recent years. A chest of drawers stood against the wall, heavily burned on the side that faced one particular corner, pale pine on the side that faced away.

And there, in that corner, stood the barest skeleton of a wooden crib. Charred and worn down by decades’ rain, it nonetheless stood upright.

No one moved or spoke for what must have been a full minute. Draco couldn’t help himself: his imagination was already overlaying images on the scene before him—of a flood of green light, of the woman in the photographs crumpling onto the ground in front of the crib, her dark red hair strewn over her lifeless face.

Draco began to hear strange, hard breaths coming from several feet away and realized, with a shock, that Potter was trying, and failing, to restrain tears.

Still, no voice broke the silence, but Draco saw the Disillusioned Gryffindors coalescing before him like the joining pieces of some strange, half-invisible puzzle, Weasley and Granger finding Potter’s outline, Weasley putting an arm around his friend’s shoulder, Granger’s hand taking Potter’s. Draco’s throat was very tight. He felt as if he were intruding. He looked away, out through the destroyed wall, onto the street of Godric’s Hollow where Muggle children were still—bizarrely—running, laughing, playing, as though none of this were happening.

Eventually there was a sniffling sound, the wiping of a hand against a wet face. “I don’t understand,” Potter said gruffly. “There’s … there’s nothing here.”

“I’ll check the drawers,” Weasley said. “Hermione, want to check the shelves?”

Draco watched Potter’s outline move toward the crib, and then heard him let out a startled noise. Granger and Weasley instantly rushed over. Draco, unable to resist his curiosity, joined them.

“That whisper again! It asked how I caught my first Snitch. … In my mouth,” he told the crib. “I nearly swallowed it.”

And the air beneath the crib shimmered like a mirage in the desert, folding away to reveal a small wooden box. Granger made a stifled noise.

“Open it,” Weasley exclaimed. “Go on.”

Potter withdrew the box from beneath the crib and slipped the latch. It came open to reveal three objects: a Golden Snitch, a silver object not unlike a cigarette lighter, and a book whose title read The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

“There’s a piece of paper,” Granger said. “There—sticking out of the book!”

Potter withdrew the paper and unfolded it. “It’s his will,” he said, scanning it. “Dumbledore’s will. … ‘To Ronald Bilius Weasley, I leave my Deluminator, in the hope that he will remember me when he uses it. … To Miss Hermione Jean Granger, I leave my copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, in the hope that she will find it entertaining and instructive.’

“And the Snitch?” Weasley said.

‘To Harry James Potter,’” Potter read out, “‘I leave the Snitch he caught in his first Quidditch match at Hogwarts, as a reminder of the rewards of perseverance and skill, and the sword of Godric Gryffindor, as a reminder of the legacy of courage through every dangerous age.’ And at the bottom … there’s …”

Potter ran a fingertip over the bottom of the will. Draco leaned down to read it. There was a note scrawled at the foot of the page. The writing was shaky, as if written by someone half-asleep.

15/11 – 2 a.m. – Lillimont Lake

“That must be to get the sword,” Weasley breathed. “But why didn’t they just put it here with the rest?”

“Would you leave that lying around, Weasley?” Draco said.

“I don’t know if you can leave it lying around,” Potter said, folding the page back up and replacing it in the box. “That sword’s not normal. I gave it to Dumbledore, but it came out of nothing when I needed it. I reckon if this person just left it here, it might go … go back into the school.”

“What do you mean, into the school?” said Granger skeptically.

“I mean the school might sort of—reclaim it, until someone else does something brave. It came to me because I was rescuing Ginny, didn’t it? Where was it before then? I dunno. Maybe I’ve even got to do something to earn it, again.” Potter rose to his feet, the box clutched so tightly in his Disillusioned hands that the charm encompassed the whole box, making it disappear from sight. “Listen,” he said. “I … before we go, I want to … I have an idea.”

“Yeah?” said Weasley.

“I want headquarters to be here. This house.”

There was a long silence.

“Harry,” said Granger tentatively, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Everyone knows where it is, mate,” Weasley said, sounding uncomfortable. “Even if it’s under the Fidelius …”

Especially once it’s under the Fidelius,” Draco broke in. “Potter, it’s an entire house. Don’t you think the Death Eaters might notice it’s gone?”

“Yeah,” Weasley said. “Once they see it’s disappeared, they’ll know what’s happened. They’ll be able to line up down the street, just waiting for someone to make a mistake.”

“We won’t make a mistake,” Potter said. “We’ll put the garden, the hedge, everything, within the limits of the Charm. People can Apparate right in and out. It won’t matter that the Death Eaters technically know where it is.”

More silence. Draco shifted. It felt somehow inappropriate to tell Potter no, standing here in the wreckage of a life he’d never really had.

“Listen,” Potter said. “Volde—”

Weasley made a spluttering sound, and Potter let out an exasperated sigh. “You-Know-Who, then. He’s got one thing right.”

“Yeah?” said Weasley doubtfully. “What’s that?”

“It’s … it’s important where you put things,” Potter said. “It means something. You saw what was written outside, on the sign—people have already visited this house because it reminds them there’s hope for the whole thing to end. I don’t think there’s a better place to put a new headquarters for the Order.”

“Harry,” said Granger timidly, and at once Draco wanted to tell her not to say what she was about to say. “Harry, don’t you think … don’t you think you might be feeling influenced by … by how it feels to see all this?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Potter’s voice was rising.

“Of course you’re right,” she said quickly, “and it would be really meaningful, but don’t you think there could be a more secure, less … less noticeable place? Please, please don’t be angry, Harry—I’m only trying to think about what would be safest.”

There was a long second of silence, and Draco worried that Potter might start yelling, here in the open air, where sound could carry down to the street.

Instead, Potter lifted his Disillusionment Charm. He was still hidden from outside view, standing silhouetted against a remaining crag of wall. He didn’t look angry, but Draco had never seen him look so serious.

“I know we’re frightened,” Potter said. “I know we want to stay safe. But if that was what we cared about the most, we’d give up looking for Horcruxes and go to Siberia. If safety was what we cared about the most, we’d sit back and let the Death Eaters take over Britain, and those people who wrote on that sign would think we’d vanished. And they’d think, all right, well, guess we’d better give up too, then.” He shook his head. “This isn’t reckless, Hermione—and it’s not any more dangerous than any other place we’d be just out of sight. We’re not inviting them in. We’re sending a message that they’re not going to get in again.”

He looked around at the ruined room, at the cinder-encrusted crib, and then back at the others, silently and invisibly watching him. “I … I didn’t ask to be a symbol of all this, all right? But he made me one. That was his message.” Potter pointed toward the crib, toward the impact radius that had buckled the walls, toward the ruin of the nursery. “And now I’m of age, and I’m—I’m here, and I want to send one back.” He swallowed. The small motion was slow and effortful. “My life isn’t just a war memorial. And as long as I’m here, I’m not going to let anyone else’s life become one, either.”

These words were followed by the longest silence yet. Draco felt outside himself. Potter was speaking like a hardened general, like someone who had already accepted death.

It was as if Draco had entered another world, stepping over the Potters’ threshold. Part of him was in revolt, wishing to flee, to turn away, to forget that he had ever seen any of this. The sight before him felt like an omen. Was this the future that awaited him and his parents, the destruction of home and family? If he was caught with the Gryffindors, it certainly would be.

Was this a sorely needed reminder to get away from Potter, Granger, and Weasley—to disrupt the odd kind of comfort that had developed over the preceding weeks, to escape to safety while he still could?

A sniffling sound nearby took him out of his panic. It was Granger. She was trying not to cry.

Draco swallowed. There would be time to think about all this later. He let out a loud, somewhat theatrical sigh. “God, Potter. Do you always do that to win arguments?”

Granger released a wet-sounding little laugh, and Potter’s mouth twitched, then broke into a reluctant half-grin.

“Yeah,” said Weasley, “all right, then. I’m convinced. But let’s get out of here, shall we, before someone sees you standing there?”

The next few days were filled with new purpose, as they experimented with the items Dumbledore had left for the Gryffindors. Between Potter and Weasley performing various experiments on the Snitch and the Deluminator, Draco working with Granger to translate The Tales of Beedle the Bard from the original runes, and practice in Occlumency, it was almost a relief that they had no new leads on the Horcruxes. There simply wouldn’t have been time.

Then, three days before they were due to make their trip into Diagon Alley to see the Scavengers’ Guild, their short-term plans were turned on their heads.

“Hermione, Malfoy,” said Weasley, hurrying into the dining room that evening, where Draco was poring over Beedle opposite Granger. “Come here.”

“But—” Granger started to protest, not looking up from her translation.

“No, straight away.”

Granger looked up at Weasley’s strained expression, exchanged a worried look with Draco, and they all hurried into the sitting room. Draco wondered when, exactly, he’d started exchanging worried looks with Hermione Granger.

Potter was pacing before the fireplace, looking agitated, as the Wizarding Wireless blared at a louder volume than usual through the room.

“… the back-to-Hogwarts rush, these measures will serve to protect young witches and wizards from impostors. All those who fail to present their papers at the checkpoint will be Flooed back to their point of origin until such time as they can present proper identification. Aurors will be on standby, as well as representatives from the newly minted Muggle-born Registration Commission. Aurelia Smeckworth reports on-site with more. …”

Weasley tapped the Wireless twice with his wand, and the volume decreased.

“What are they talking about?” Granger said. “What is this?”

“They’re installing security measures in Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, and Platform 9¾,” Weasley said grimly. “For Diagon Alley, you’ve got to Floo in through the Leaky Cauldron and present your papers. I’m sure it’s all really to identify Muggle-borns, like we were expecting. You heard them—the Muggle-born Registration Commission,” he said, voice dripping disgust.

“Can’t we Apparate into Fred and George’s?” Granger said. “Or Floo into their flat?”

“They’ve warded the place shut,” Potter said glumly. “You’d have to Apparate outside the Leaky Cauldron and go in the front way, which means going through the checkpoint anyway.”

“And the Floo’s a no-go, too,” Weasley said. “The Department of Magical Transportation’s expanded by three hundred and fifty percent, they said. Everything requires prior authorization.”

“But … but …” Granger shook her head. “They can’t do this! How can they? People won’t want to live in a world where they can’t even nip down to the shop or call on a friend’s house without having to prove who they are!”

Draco sank into an armchair. “It won’t be forever,” he muttered. “It’s like Weasley says. It’s to register people. In a few months, once everyone’s registered, and all the unsavories are identified, they’ll say the threat’s passed, and things will go back to normal, mostly.”

“You know what this means, though,” Potter said. “In terms of the Horcrux, I mean.”

“Yes.” Granger sighed and slumped down onto the sofa. “Transfigurations won’t be nearly enough. A simple Finite Incantatem will melt them off—and Probity Probes detect Transfigurations, too. We’ll have to wait for the Polyjuice Potion to finish brewing.”

They all glanced toward the tent’s second, smaller W.C., whose door was permanently shut to contain the foul smell of the Polyjuice Potion. Granger had set up several Stabilizing Charms on the small room’s confines to keep the potion from spilling every time they packed up the tent.

Potter let out a frustrated sound. “I hate waiting. I hate the idea of that Horcrux getting picked up by someone and disappearing.”

“It’s already had over two years to disappear, if it got chucked out in fifth year,” Weasley pointed out. “It’s only a few more weeks.”

“I suppose.” Potter sighed. “All right, so, we’ll go next month, then.”

“September 22nd,” said Granger, already turning through a planner that had suddenly appeared in her hands. Draco was almost amused to see it, crammed with writing as if she were preparing for O.W.L.s all over again.

“Who are we supposed to Polyjuice ourselves into, though?” said Weasley.

“We need to go together,” Potter said, “so, a family really will be best this time.”

“Hogwarts term will already have started by then,” Granger said. “So we can’t use anyone we know, can we? They should be at school on September 22nd.”

“A family with kids under Hogwarts age, then,” said Weasley. “Or kids just out of Hogwarts, who haven’t moved out yet.”

“Good thinking,” Potter said. “And we’ll want it to be a family who can go through the checkpoint without being asked too many questions. A … well, a pure-blood family.”

Draco sighed. He knew they were all going to look at him in unison even before they did it. And the worst thing was, he already had an answer ready.

“Pansy Parkinson,” he said, somewhat reluctantly. “She has three younger brothers. They’re seven, nine, and ten, so, they wouldn’t be at Hogwarts.”

Weasley sniggered.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Weasley, trying and failing to clear his expression. “It’s just pretty funny, knowing that Ms. Better-Than-You Parkinson was an accident.”

Draco shot him a disgusted look. Actually, Pansy’s mother had been pressured into having Pansy when she was nineteen, at her very traditional grandmother’s request, to prove her fertility—a fact that had caused years’ worth of bitter conflict between Pansy and her mother. But Draco wasn’t about to tell Weasley that.

“You’ve been to the Parkinsons’ house?” said Potter. “Can you get us in there?”

Draco hesitated. Now that he’d said it, he was regretting it. Could this endanger the Parkinsons? In theory, it shouldn’t take more than a Sleeping Charm, or something similar, and a couple hours, and the Parkinsons would wake up thinking they’d slept in, none the wiser. In practice, however …

“Look,” Draco said, “if you do something to make yourselves stand out in Diagon Alley, you’d better be prepared to give away that it’s you and not the Parkinsons doing it. I’m not … you’re not …”

I’m not going to be responsible for Pansy’s family getting hurt, he thought, but he couldn’t make himself say it.

He found himself looking, almost unconsciously, at Granger. She nodded, as if she’d plucked the thought out of his head. He glanced away, frowning. He hadn’t said he was comfortable with her using Legilimency on him … but he had looked at her, as if hoping she would do it. For whatever reason.

“We can make sure of that,” she said. “We can take precautions to make the Parkinsons seem like real victims if something goes wrong. I’m sure the Death Eaters will be glad for an excuse to make us seem unhinged and dangerous, like a threat to society.”

“They’ll love that,” Potter said with a humorless laugh. “The idea of us preying on innocent pure-bloods. Front page of the Prophet, probably.”

“And that’s just if things go wrong,” Granger said. “We know what day we’re doing it, and we have weeks’ notice. We should be able to control the circumstances very tightly.”

“Hang on,” said Weasley, looking at Draco blankly.

“Yes?” Draco said.

“You said, if you do something to make yourselves stand out.”

He didn’t elaborate. Draco arched an eyebrow. “Yeah, Weasley. Would you like me to restrict myself to one-syllable words in future?”

Weasley didn’t even go red. “You’re trying to get out of coming,” he said.

“Get out of it?” Draco said. “Excuse me, when did I ever suggest I was going to come?”

But now, Draco realized, Potter and Granger were both looking at him like he’d done something horrible, too. “What?” he said indignantly, looking between them. “I’d prefer not to go dancing into the middle of Diagon Alley unless absolutely necessary. Would either of you care to tell me what use I would be to this little mission, exactly?”

“I dunno,” Potter said, sounding heated, “but it’d be pretty annoying to get there and realize we do need you for something, wouldn’t it?”

Draco shook his head. “Potter, that’s not my problem.”

“Merlin’s pants.” Weasley let out a disbelieving laugh. “I knew it. I knew it. Didn’t I bloody tell you he was going to get cold feet?” He was directing this, for some reason, at Granger.

“I haven’t got cold feet,” Draco snapped. “It’s not cold feet when you’re not even involved in something in the first place! You three have clearly been making assumptions about what I’m here for.”

“Oh, have we?” Potter snapped back. “What are you here for, Malfoy? A holiday?”

“No, troll-brain, I’m here to get back to my parents, obviously!”

“If that was really all you cared about,” Granger said, “why didn’t you stay put in one of the places we’ve sheltered? We could have come back and found you when we had new information about them.”

Draco felt a strange twist in his stomach. Granger was staring down at her planner, now, rather than at him, and she didn’t sound angry. Her voice was low and controlled.

But she was angry, or if not angry, something close. He could tell. That’s her fault for making assumptions, Draco thought wildly. It’s her fault for wanting me to—to—

To help them? Well, he had helped them already, so why they couldn’t be satisfied?

“What, exactly,” he said, “do you want from me?”

Weasley sighed. He didn’t even look angry or incredulous anymore—maybe resigned, which somehow felt a thousand times worse.

“If you don’t know by now,” said Weasley, “I’m not going to tell you.”

He and Potter left the room together. Draco sat in silence for a long moment, stewing in circular thoughts. All the time, the Potter cottage was at the back of his mind, the blasted edifice, the grim and hollow look in Potter’s eyes as he talked around what he’d lost.

“Some sort of declaration of loyalty, I suppose,” Draco muttered.

“Mm?” Granger said, looking over at him. She’d been frowning at the carpet.

“That’s what Weasley wants from me. A declaration of loyalty to the Order of the Phoenix, and for me to renounce everything I’ve ever done, and … and some kind of groveling apology, right? And for me to toss my whole life into fighting the Dark Lord like I’ve got no sense of self-preservation, like the three of you. So, basically, for me to be absolutely nothing like myself.”

Granger didn’t say anything. Her silence only made Draco feel more defensive.

“I told them, I said I’d help you with the Parkinsons. What, that’s not enough?” He shook his head and shoved his hair back. “I don’t even really want to do it. I bet I’ll be putting Pansy in danger, her whole family, and for what? For you three and your—and your—but I’m doing it! And that’s still not enough? What’s going to be enough, then? When I join up? When I put myself in mortal danger for you three and your cause? When I die, would that make up for everything?”

“We’d never ask you to die,” said Granger quietly, seriously. “Ron’s angry you’re not going into Diagon Alley, that’s all.”

Draco let out a frustrated sound and moved forward in the armchair until he was on the edge of its seat. “You don’t understand, Granger. It’s all the same thing, don’t you get it? There are no degrees here. Going into Diagon Alley has the same risks as hunting down the Dark Lord. I’m … I’m not being paranoid, all right, I’m not being dramatic. It’s death, or nothing.” He shook his head hard. “You haven’t spent time with—you don’t know the Death Eaters. They don’t reserve the Killing Curse for special occasions.”

She didn’t speak for a long time, but when she glanced over at him, he thought her expression looked softer. Some of the twisted feeling in his stomach eased, and he wasn’t sure why. What, he thought with slight irony, did he really care whether Hermione Granger thought he was spineless?

He was startled to realize that he knew the answer to that question. He did care, actually. He didn’t want her to think he was a coward.

That’s because I’m not a coward, he told himself, annoyed. It had nothing to do with her opinion and everything to do with accuracy.

Granger moved her planner from her lap to the sofa beside her. He eyed the lines of text all the way down its pages, her handwriting miniscule from years of overperformance on essays.

“I’ve been wondering,” she said. “What did you think of when you put on the diadem?”

Draco’s slightly open mouth closed hard, so that his teeth clicked together. Granger met his eyes.

“Stop,” he said, instantly looking away from her. “Stop doing that.”

“Stop what?”

“I know what you’re doing.”

“I … I’m not trying to use Legilimency on you, Malfoy.” She sounded surprised. “I’m not very good at it. I definitely can’t do it nonverbally, let alone wandlessly.”

“But—” He frowned, confused. Hadn’t she just seemed to know exactly what he was thinking about Pansy’s family?

He composed himself and shook his head. The point was that she couldn’t see inside his head. Good: everything was still private. So, why was he blabbing to her about the Death Eaters? He didn’t have to say anything. “I told you before,” he said. “Nothing important.”

“Fine,” she said, standing. “I’m going to go back to working on the runes.”

“Fine,” he said. “So will I.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“Oh, stop being a martyr, Granger, you’ll be up all night finishing The Fountain of Fair Fortune.

She sniffed, but didn’t object. So he slouched into the chair opposite her at the dining table, and they worked on their translations, and every so often he thought he felt her eyes on him, but he never looked up.

 


 

The tent was frosty for a few days after that, but they had so many things to distract them now that even Ron couldn’t seem to hold the grudge properly. Harry threw yet another question into the mix by informing them that Gregorovitch was dead, and Voldemort—whom they’d started referring to exclusively as You-Know-Who, as Ron’s nerves had reached such an advanced state about it—was now pursuing a thief. Harry had described this thief to them with nearly no identifying information, though, so Hermione insisted they shelve the question, to his annoyance.

Once The Tales of Beedle the Bard was fully translated, they turned their attention to the Parkinson transformation problem. Hermione, Harry, and Ron asked Malfoy every question they could imagine, outlining every detail of the Parkinson estate and what they would need to do to break in, use the Floo to Diagon Alley, and make their exit without being seen.

The plan was to deliver a batch of delicate chocolate-dipped madeleines, the Parkinson family favorite, the evening before. These were expensive cookies from Calaphor’s Confections, whose icing played and swirled in enticing patterns upon their golden surfaces: fireworks, flowers opening, raindrops colliding with a sugary blue pond. Ron choked on his breakfast and had to be rescued by Harry with a quick Anapneo when Malfoy told them exactly how much a box of five said cookies would cost.

They would fill each cookie with a delayed-reactant Sleepiness Solution. Six hours after ingestion, the eater would fall into fourteen hours of deep and dreamless sleep. The Gryffindors would come in through Pansy’s bedroom window—which she never locked, in order to sneak out during holidays—and Floo out from the Parkinsons’ house at eight in the morning. They would, if all went to plan, return to Diagon Alley by ten, with hours to spare before the Parkinsons woke up.

Still, there were details to work out, loopholes to close. The Parkinsons’ house-elf would need to be distracted, and Malfoy had told them that the gardener also came on Thursday mornings, an inconvenient coincidence. They needed to brew the Sleepiness Solution to order, too, to ensure that they could delay its effects by the correct amount of time. Hermione, who was moving into the final stages of the Polyjuice brew, left this other potion to Harry and Malfoy’s care, which resulted in the three boys taking a lot of unintended naps.

Meanwhile, slightly frustrated that Beedle the Bard was of no immediate use, Hermione had returned to practicing the Fidelius Charm. In her homework planner, she blocked off two hours a day for it: between three and five o’clock, she wore the diadem a little way away from the tent, whether woodland, clearing, or mountainside, and practiced through the various elements of the charm.

These hours quickly became the best hours of her day. With the diadem, she finally felt that she was the witch her teachers and friends seemed to think she was. She felt cool-headed and confident; she felt logical, unflustered, endlessly capable. With the diadem on, she was finally deserving of positive regard, and so it was almost maddening that these hours were spent alone, where no one could see this better version of her.

In fact, she began to feel, in the hours that she wasn’t wearing the diadem, its absence. At first, these feelings alarmed her—was this a dependency?—but no, the feelings had nothing to do with the diadem, really. They were about her own innumerable flaws, her own countless imperfections. The diadem, like a light shined into a dark place, had helped her to see what was already horrible about herself, what had always been horrible. And she’d known it all along, hadn’t she, in some quiet, unacknowledged corner of her heart? The truth was that she was incompetent, and only managed to get lucky in front of other people, so she had fooled them into thinking she was competent; the truth was that she was self-righteous, condescending, and insufferable, and Harry and Ron only put up with her because they felt sorry for her; the truth was that her parents were disappointed in her and probably always would be; the truth was that she was deeply unattractive and unable to compensate for it with all the other things she’d tried to use as compensation, which was why Ron had never done anything resembling commitment and also why Harry seemed embarrassed whenever they had a moment approaching chemistry; the truth was that she was a pathetic little Mudblood who would never belong in the Wizarding World and could only ever hope to belong by riding the coattails of greater wizards, real wizards.

Hermione didn’t speak about the diadem, or these important realizations, to the others. She knew they wouldn’t understand, and she knew that any mention of this kind of thing would alarm them, since it was a Horcrux, and then they might try to take the diadem away from her, and the idea was painful—not because she was so attached to the diadem, no, she wasn’t reliant on it (wasn’t she very strictly confining her usage of it to two hours a day?), it was just that it was a useful tool for self-improvement. This afternoon, a week into September, hidden away in her secluded copse to practice, she’d spent nearly the whole two hours trying other spells than the Fidelius, because she didn’t want to lie to her friends, and if they asked if she was ready to perform the Fidelius, she had to be able to tell them no, so that she could keep working with the diadem, working to become a better witch, a better person, no longer a failure. And surely this was proof that everything was normal, and that she was fine, because she was still doing things like worrying about lying to Harry and Ron, which was a normal thing to feel.

“Granger.”

Hermione whirled around, her wand still at the ready. But it was just Malfoy, standing between the trees. She lowered her wand. He was looking at the diadem with an expression that she didn’t like. He had never told her, after all, what the diadem did for him. Was he jealous of her? Did he plan to take the diadem for himself? She would have to make sure to keep it safely in her bag, where he couldn’t get at it.

“Yes?” she said.

“Potter’s made dinner. It smells repulsive, so, Weasley’s requesting you fix it.”

Hermione let out a laugh. It was higher, sharper than her usual laugh, she could hear that. She preferred this new laugh. “All right,” she said, approaching.

“Are you trying to learn the whole spellbook?” Malfoy said. “You’ve been practicing for weeks.”

“None of your business.”

Malfoy glanced over at her, one eyebrow raised. She wasn’t imagining it: his eyes were lingering on the diadem. She touched it, feeling defensive, her fingertips reveling in the cool texture of the silver.

“Helpful, isn’t it?” he said.

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. “Yes,” she said.

“Do you think you can do the charm, yet?”

“No.”

They had stopped outside the tent. Malfoy raised his eyebrows at her. “You’re not planning on wearing the thing to dinner, are you?”

Hermione considered for a long moment. One side of his mouth was curled, and she couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not. Would anyone notice if she wore the diadem to dinner? She didn’t want to take it off, really. On the other hand, she didn’t want to draw more attention to the diadem than necessary. Malfoy eyeing it this way felt questionable enough; the idea of Harry and Ron doing the same was unappealing.

“No,” she said. “I suppose not.”

Malfoy watched her, waiting. She lifted her hands to her head and touched the diadem. She ran her fingers over the silver filigree, over the sapphires. She pressed her fingertips into the diadem and shifted it back and forth on her brow, not wanting to lift it, wanting to leave it there until the coolness and clarity sank in so deep that they could never be removed.

Finally, with an effort that felt like she was lifting something far heavier, she took the diadem from her head.

A sudden headache skewered her behind her left eye. She took an unsteady step and hunched over, pressing her hand to her forehead, the diadem still clenched in her other hand.

“Granger?” Malfoy took a step toward her.

She wanted to move back, to hold the diadem close to her chest, to make sure he didn’t snatch it. But that wary look on his face told her that she shouldn’t be so obvious. No. It was better that he not realize she felt protective about it. Much better that way.

She forced herself to straighten up. “Sorry,” she said. “Headache, it’s been bothering me all afternoon.” And she dropped the diadem carelessly into the beaded bag as if it meant nothing.

Her thoughts were on the diadem throughout dinner, and on Malfoy. She watched him for clues of suspicion, but he seemed perfectly normal, sitting with his rigid posture in his chair, narrow face serious, grey eyes glittering coolly, only contributing when he could sound clever.

As dinner wore on, the anxiety began to pull at her again, the awareness of her inadequacy. She wanted to read something, but what good was reading when she would never really come to anything? She felt jittery and sad, and unsure how to alleviate it.

“Hermione?” Harry said.

“Oh—I’m sorry, what?”

“I said, are you all right? You look a bit peaky.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said at once, making herself smile, because he didn’t really care, after all, he was only asking because he felt sorry for her; that was the basis of their whole friendship, wasn’t it? He and Ron had turned back for the girl crying in the bathroom, because they were brave and good, and she was pathetic. But it was all right. She would put up a good show until tomorrow, when, between the hours of three and five p.m., she could focus again on her self-improvement.

 


 

Draco tapped quietly on the door. He had cast Muffliato down the hall, and he was fairly certain Granger was asleep, but caution was important.

“Come in, Hermione,” called Potter’s voice.

“It’s not Hermione,” Draco said.

A slight pause. Then the door cracked open, and Weasley stuck his face through, frowning. “What?”

“I need to talk with you,” Draco said, “obviously, as I’m standing here. Now, let me in, would you?”

Weasley sighed, then retreated. He hopped up onto his bed, his maroon pajamas clashing gloriously with the red-orange bedspread.

Draco shut the door behind himself. This was the largest bedroom of the flat, with two full beds, one for each twin. Draco had initially thought it was odd that two grown men would want to share sleeping quarters, until he’d seen the stacks of notebooks written by the pair of them at all hours of the night. They would presumably have spent half their life going from room to room to collaborate if they’d separated themselves.

“What’s up?” said Potter, sitting on the other bed, sounding wary.

“It’s Granger.”

“What about her?” Weasley asked, suddenly alert. “Is she all right?”

“I don’t know,” Draco said. “I can’t tell.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s that diadem. Something’s—something’s wrong with it.”

Weasley and Potter exchanged an uneasy glance.

“When I went to get her for dinner earlier, she was just … she seemed off. I can’t describe it.”

“She did take it off, though, right?” said Weasley.

“Yeah, but she sort of buckled over when she did it. She said it was a headache and obviously thought she was doing really well at lying.”

“She did seem weird over dinner,” Potter said doubtfully. “And she’s been quiet during Occlumency lessons the past few days.”

Draco crossed his arms. “Yeah. She’s got to stop using it.”

Weasley was looking guilty now. “You don’t think … I mean, this is new, right? She’s been wearing it every day for two weeks. I thought it was all right because she’s seemed so normal. I mean, she hasn’t lost her memory at all, she hasn’t gone all scared and quiet like Ginny did in second year … and it’s only two weeks. It took Ginny ages to get influenced by it.”

Draco thought of the way Granger had touched the diadem before all this, the way she’d looked at it almost tenderly. “I don’t know,” he said again.

“Well,” Potter said firmly, “we can’t let it get any further. We’ll talk to her tomorrow, all of us.”

“Yeah. Good,” Draco said. “But don’t … don’t mention that it was me who brought it up, all right?”

“What?” Weasley looked nonplussed. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Draco muttered, yet again. “Just don’t.”

True to their word, neither Potter nor Weasley mentioned his role. Over lunch, Potter said, “Listen, Hermione, Ron and I have been thinking about that diadem.”

Granger’s head jerked up. She looked shifty. “What about it?” she said, sounding more present than she had in a conversation in days.

“We just reckon it might be good if you took a break from it, that’s all,” said Weasley with a shrug.

“Did I do something wrong?”

This was such a strange response that Draco exchanged a bewildered look with both Potter and Weasley.

“Er—no,” Potter said slowly, “it’s just … to be safe, you know? It is a Horcrux, after all. I mean, I know it’s useful, but it’s still …”

“Oh, no, Harry,” Granger said. “Please, not right now. I think I’m really close with the Fidelius Charm. I can’t take a break now.”

Potter bit his lip and exchanged a quick glance with Weasley. “How close?” he asked.

Granger thought for a second. “Three days,” she said. “Three more days, and I really think I’ll have it. We can try it this Friday on the cottage itself. Is that all right?”

No one answered. She looked around at Draco, Potter, and Weasley, and let out a sigh. “I’m really sorry if I’ve seemed distracted. But I’m so frustrated about that book Dumbledore left me. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do with it. And I keep wishing I could be more help with Occlumency, too.”

“Oh, c’mon, Hermione, it’s all right,” said Weasley bracingly. “None of us know what Dumbledore was playing at with the things he left us, do we? And I’ve been useless for Harry’s Occlumency lessons for over a month.”

Weasley was sounding relieved, and as Potter engaged in consoling Granger, he looked slightly less wary, too, but Draco didn’t trust anything that had come out of her mouth. She’d said it all very convincingly, but he kept thinking of the way she’d dug her fingers into the diadem, hesitating, hedging, before being able to dislodge it from her head.

If this was the diadem trying to play them all, he had to find a way to stay a step ahead.

“All right, all right,” Draco said, interrupting Potter. “Yeah, very reassuring, we’re all really useless and have no idea what the old man was thinking when he wrote his will. The point is, Granger, you’ve been wearing the diadem for two weeks. I think we should see some results now.”

Potter and Weasley both looked annoyed. Granger didn’t. For a split instant, there was an odd calculating look on her face that, frankly, unnerved Draco, but he continued to pretend not to notice anything out of the ordinary.

“I don’t want to waste another afternoon like the one in the woods,” she said evenly. “I’ve told you I need three days, Malfoy, and if you don’t like it, you’re welcome to try the charm yourself.”

Draco gave an extravagant roll of his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Have your practice hours, then. But I’m going to watch. I think somebody should be making sure we’re all actually as productive as we’re pretending to be.” He gave her his best sneer and stood up, leaving the table before she could argue.

That afternoon, diadem in her hands, she tried to talk him out of following her. She tried avenue after avenue of argument, trying to pressure him to clean the kitchen, to help Potter and Weasley with the Parkinson plans, to check on the Polyjuice and the Sleepiness Solution, to draw up a lesson plan for Occlumency going forward, and on and on. Draco didn’t let a single point take hold. He yawned often, checked his extremely expensive watch more than once, and finally Granger relented, her face strangely rigid as she ported Charms of the Ancient Days and the diadem out of the tent.

It was a crisp, sunny September day. Draco sat on a large, flat rock, sunning himself like a cat while he watched Granger practicing. Every so often, she cast an irritated look back at him.

The second day was much the same. Granger tried to wriggle out of supervision. Draco insisted, embodying obnoxious obliviousness so completely that Weasley cornered him after dinner to ask him exactly what he was playing at. “I’m keeping an eye on her,” Draco muttered, “and I’m trying to do it without being completely obvious, so shut up.”

On the third day, he decided to play his hand. At the end of her practice session, before she had taken the diadem from her head, he told her, “The charm looks good.”

Granger looked suspicious. “Thank you,” she said.

“So, what are you planning on doing after you pretend to try it tomorrow?”

She froze. Her eyes flicked over to the tent—they were, yet again, in a patch of anonymous woodland—and back to Draco. “What … what are you talking about?” she said hoarsely.

He lifted his shoulders. “You want to keep wearing that diadem. Those two in there want you to stop. And if you do the Fidelius Charm correctly, they’ll make you stop. So, you’re planning to throw the attempt.” He paused, then added, for good measure, “It’s what I’d do.”

Granger swallowed hard. She looked deeply disturbed. As she pushed a straggly lock of hair out of her face, she whispered, “I’m sorry”—not to him, but to herself.

Hearing that whisper, Draco felt a new, cold feeling. Not alarm, not unease, but real fear. What was it doing to her? What was it telling her?

Whatever it was, he had to make her think he was on her side—her side, and the diadem’s, together.

“So, you … you’re …” She looked at him with a glazed kind of distrust. “You’re not trying to stop me?”

“Why should I? I’m a Slytherin, Granger. We don’t say no to a bit of extra power, because we’re not idiots.”

There was a sudden gleam in her eye. A smirk pulled at her mouth. Draco’s stomach lurched, hard. That expression wasn’t hers at all.

But in the next second she seemed back inside herself. “Right,” she said slowly. “I’m … I do want to do the Fidelius properly, Malfoy. That’s the reason for all this.”

“Yeah, sure. That’s part of it, I bet.” Draco’s mind was racing, still caught on that gleam, that smirk. The Horcrux was already displacing her inside her own body. For split seconds, yes, but still.

“You know,” he said casually, “if you do the Fidelius Charm right, though, we could probably convince the others that the diadem isn’t dangerous. They’re too busy to notice much right now. If you keep acting normally, the way you’ve been acting, I bet they won’t care at all that you keep wearing it.”

Granger bit her lip. “You noticed. You must have noticed me acting differently. I must have done something wrong.”

“Granger, Granger,” he drawled. “I’ve been paying attention to the diadem. No, you’ve been doing really well.”

“Really well?” she repeated, sounding slightly choked.

“Really well,” he said again. “Yeah. Do the Fidelius Charm properly. The more I think about it, the more I think that’s the way to convince those two that you should keep wearing the diadem. Good results, see?”

Granger seemed lost in thought for a while. She didn’t answer, staring off at the distant glint of a lake through the trees.

“Well,” Draco said. “You know where I stand, now, anyway. You’d better take that off before the others see you wearing it. It’s—” He checked his watch. “Two past the hour, after all.”

Over dinner, Granger’s eyes kept flicking nervously onto Draco. He held her eyes when she looked at him, but didn’t let himself seem perturbed at all by what he’d seen. There was no doubt that they needed the Fidelius Charm performed. If they could just get it done before the diadem got a further hold, then they could take that tiara and stick it in a locked box until they had the means to destroy it.

But if the diadem convinced her to throw the Fidelius Charm the next day, Draco didn’t know what they could do. He didn’t dare communicate any of this to Potter or Weasley, either, because Granger watched him from the moment he got up from the dinner table to the moment he retreated into the guest bedroom.

He lay awake late that night, unable to sleep, or to stop thinking about Granger’s stricken little whisper, I’m sorry.

It was nearly one in the morning when he heard it: the unmistakable creak of a floorboard outside.

Draco’s heart dropped. He suddenly understood how the diadem had taken hold so quickly, despite being worn—seemingly—only two hours a day.

Draco stood, took his wand from the bedside, and Silenced his own footsteps. He Silenced his bedroom door, and its hinges, before he opened it. And across the darkened apartment he saw her. Granger, sitting up unnaturally straight, her back to him, the diadem upon her head.

He knew without needing to see her face that she was asleep. He knew that the diadem, unable to wrest control from her waking mind, had seeped into her subconscious instead. He wondered how many nights of the past two and a half weeks she had been sent tottering through the apartment, drawn irresistibly to the beaded bag she always left on the mantel, sleepwalking into the grip of its contents.

He knew instinctively that if she turned around and saw him, she would attack, and she would do so not with her own dueling acumen but with the lethal skill of Lord Voldemort. He would have exactly one chance to take it from her.

He closed the Silenced door and ducked down so that he could barely see the crown of her head and the point of the tiara. Then he crept through the apartment. Halfway through, he remembered to silence his breaths as well as his footsteps. She was sitting as motionless as something made of stone, as if she wasn’t even breathing.

He emerged from the living room. She was so close ahead now, her head fixed forward as if she were gazing into a fire that did not burn in the empty grate. The moonlight was glowing on the diadem’s sapphires.

Draco straightened up. He steeled himself, and then—in one clean motion—his hand shot out and swept the diadem from Granger’s head.

She collapsed as if he had struck her dead.

Draco’s heart seemed to stop. He took a sharp breath and vaulted the sofa, letting the diadem clatter to the ground. “Granger,” he tried to say, before remembering he still had to lift the Silencing Charms. When he could speak again, he said, “Granger!” and seized one of her shoulders, shaking her. “Granger?”

Her eyes came open slowly, and relief flooded through him. She was alive—alive, if groggy and confused. “Malfoy?” she said. “What am … what’s …” She looked around the sitting room, and her eyes fixed on the diadem. She still didn’t seem to understand.

“It was controlling you in your sleep, Granger,” Draco said. Her eyes traveled downward, and he realized he was still holding very tightly to her shoulder. He let go immediately, feeling a strange rush of heat, and sat hard on the sofa next to her as she straightened up, rubbing her head.

“We’re putting that thing away,” he said. “None of us is touching it again.”

Granger froze, then turned to him, stricken. “No,” she whispered. “You don’t understand. I need it.”

“You can do the Fidelius Charm yourself.”

“I … I can’t!” The sentence burst out of her, and suddenly she was crying; the trance seemed to have shattered. “I can’t do it right … I can’t do anything right …”

“Granger,” said Draco, bewildered. “What are you—what?

“All I do is fail over and over again—in third year, all the Dementors were coming and Harry tried to teach me, he tried—and then, in fifth year, in the Department of Mysteries, I stopped paying attention and I nearly died, and Harry could have died too, trying to save me—and Dumbledore—Dumbledore—I was right there, I could have …”

“Granger. … Granger?” Draco’s heart was beating very hard. He had no idea what to do. She was shaking harder and harder, muttering through sobs so that he could hardly hear her, and he was still shaky himself from the residual panic, the thought that he’d somehow killed her in the moment he’d taken the diadem from her head.

Hermione,” he said.

She startled and looked over at him.

She was wearing the same oversized T-shirt she’d worn in her house, that Muggle shirt. He could see now that it had the name Granger Dental Studio on it, with an image of a smiling tooth, a logo that had faded so much over time that it was nearly invisible.

He couldn’t believe that this was the insecurity the diadem had managed to play on. He couldn’t believe Hermione bloody Granger was actually, seriously, legitimately insecure about her magical aptitude.

“Look,” he said, “did you know, last year, that all the first-years knew who you were?”

“Wh-what?” she said, looking startled.

“Yeah. Because you got so many ‘Outstanding’ O.W.L.s that the teachers were telling first-years about you, by name. God, even the Slytherin first-years used to talk about you like you were the second coming of Rowena Ravenclaw, and then the added insult that you’re not even a Ravenclaw. Absolutely appalling.” Draco shook his head in disgust. “You know Goyle talks about you all the time? You know he’d kill to have brains like yours? And it’s not just him. It’s bloody everyone who talks about you like that. You’re not actually big-headed enough to think you know better than every single person in Hogwarts, are you?”

“I … but they don’t know—didn’t I just tell you, when it really mattered, I couldn’t …”

“When it really mattered?” Draco said. “Oh, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter that you’ve been setting up protective enchantments wherever we go, or that you’ve learned those spells to check for hexes and curses, or that you packed ingredients for—apparently—every potion in the world. I suppose it didn’t really matter when my whole family nearly got killed in Grimmauld Place and you Apparated us out.”

“If I hadn’t Apparated into Grimmauld Place in the first place, there would’ve been no need to …”

“Stop.” Draco gave her an unimpressed look. “Now you’re just parroting my mother, and she’s never happy.”

Granger let out a small, surprised laugh.

“What?”

“I didn’t think … well, you always get so angry when people say anything about your mother.”

“Yeah, because that’s other people. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Granger sniffled and wiped her face on her shoulder. “I’m just so afraid of … of not being good enough to do anything. This charm … we really need it, and so of course I can’t do it. It’s like the second I know something awful will happen if I fail, all I can do is fail. I want to do important things, but I feel like if I am good at anything, it’s things like—like quizzes about Gilderoy Lockhart’s favorite color, and not what’s really important.”

Draco kneaded his temple with his fingertips. This person she was describing only seemed tangentially related to herself, but he knew it was useless to say that.

His eyes moved back onto the diadem, which glimmered innocently in the pool of moonlight where it had fallen. “What else did it tell you?” he asked, his voice quiet and slightly rough.

“It … it didn’t tell me …” She still sounded slightly defensive.

“What else have you been thinking the past two weeks, then.”

Granger swallowed and pushed her hands over her hair, moving the mass of frizzy curls back until, for once, he could see her full profile, her ears, the curve of her jaw. “That … that Harry and Ron don’t … that I’m not good enough for them, that they think I’m annoying and they’re just putting up with me. And, I mean, I could give you lots of evidence for that, Ron and I fight all the time and I know Harry just doesn’t like me as much as he likes Ron. I know I need them more than either of them needs me. And—that my parents are disappointed in me, which … I know they just wanted a normal daughter, I know they had all these plans for what my life was going to be … and of course, that I’m—I have to compensate for … for things.”

“What things.”

“You know. Being Muggle-born. Being, well, not very pretty.”

Her voice was small and ashamed. Draco felt as if he’d been elbowed in the stomach. He didn’t know what to do or say to any of these things. I’m sorry? What would that do? Disagreement with all of it? If she really believed these things, what would his opinion change?

The diadem continued to gleam, and he hated it. The hate felt more productive.

“You know what happens when I put that thing on?” he said with distaste, unable to fully hide his anger at the diadem.

“What?” Granger asked.

“I know all about the people in the room.”

For some reason, Granger’s cheeks had colored. “You mean Legilimency?”

“No. I mean, I could always tell Weasley was insecure about his money problems and Potter had a complex about being the odd one out, but with the diadem on, I mean, I could—I could rip people wide open with it, if I wanted. It made it so easy to see where the power is, and where people feel powerless. And Weasley looks at you and I can see he’s in love with you. Probably has been for years. And Potter looks at you both and—” Draco grimaced. “He’d just die if anything happened to either of you. God, it’s like reading his diary, or something. All three of you are like that. I don’t know anything about your parents, but—” He jerked his head toward Potter and Weasley’s bedroom door— “those two would take the Killing Curse for you, all right? For Merlin’s sake, it doesn’t even take the diadem to see it. They’ve all but offered multiple times over the last few weeks, haven’t they?”

Granger considered this for a while. Then she asked, “Why didn’t you want to talk about that?”

He let out a short, bitter laugh. “Well, you see, Granger, it also works on me. And as it turns out, I don’t particularly want to intuit what people are thinking or feeling about me, or where I stand in the room.” He let out a disgusted noise. “I put it on and I could see it all so clearly, what everyone … and a couple years ago I would’ve thought it was great, or funny, I would’ve loved using it … but I just wanted to … I don’t know.” He shook his head, looking out the window at the surrounding forest. “Wanted to get out. Not participate. Not have to be thought about, or exist.”

His voice was scratchy and tired. He wanted to go abroad from himself. That was all.

“I’ve felt that way before.” Granger settled against the opposite side of the sofa, hugging a soft throw pillow to her middle. “I went to a Muggle primary school, obviously, and it was awful. Not the school—I was awful. I hate thinking about the way I was as a kid. Always jeering at other people for getting anything the slightest bit wrong. So, obviously I had no friends, and when I got my Hogwarts letter, I thought, well, this is my chance to leave all that behind me.”

A smile pulled at her mouth, and Draco knew she was remembering opening that letter, the one he’d waited for so breathlessly the summer before first year, too.

“So,” she went on, “I prepared and prepared and prepared. It wasn’t just a new school, but an entirely new world, so I thought I could just—just strip it all off and leave everything I used to be behind, and I’d be so good at magic that everyone would want to be my friend. But then I got to Hogwarts, and I was still really lonely, and I heard Ron saying one day that I had no friends, and it sort of made me realize I’d brought my old self along with me. I couldn’t just unbuckle her and throw her by the wayside. It was still me.”

She lifted her shoulders. Met his eyes. “Sorry, Malfoy. I don’t think you can get out of it. What you used to be.”

“I know,” Draco said, settling against his own end of the sofa. “It was just a feeling.”

There was a quiet silence. They regarded each other, the diadem discarded, forgotten for a moment.

“Anyway,” Granger said, “if you could intuit what we were all thinking and feeling, then it can’t have been all bad.”

“Yeah? Why not?”

“I was in the room, too.”

Draco considered her. She looked calm. She looked, for the first time in several days, like herself.

“Yeah,” he said. As he’d worn the diadem, he’d analyzed her the way he’d analyzed the others, and the way her body had been angled toward him had meant cautious interest, and the tilt of her head had meant openness and consideration, and the way her cheeks had colored when he’d met her eyes had meant something he’d definitely never have expected from Hermione Granger. He’d read wariness and lingering hostility all over Potter and Weasley, but in her …

“Sort of seemed like you didn’t hate me, Granger.”

Her lips pressed together in one of those suppressed smiles that were starting to feel familiar to him, that were starting to feel satisfying to elicit. “No,” she said. “I don’t hate you.”

“I don’t hate you, either,” he said.

Chapter Text

Hermione was quiet as they packed up the next morning. She’d slept poorly, startling awake again and again with the fear that she’d find herself sleepwalking toward the door, one hand outstretched. She finally understood the feeling that Ginny had tried to articulate years ago—the feeling of being contaminated.

Luckily, no one seemed much in the mood to talk. It was still dark outside, and the moon was low, washing the tent’s crimson fabric into a dark gray. They’d risen well before dawn, hoping for the village streets to be empty so they could attempt the charm in private. The Potter cottage was on the outskirts of Godric’s Hollow, which would help, but it was best to be safe.

Hermione had convinced Malfoy not to tell Harry and Ron about what the diadem had done to her. She felt ashamed even to imagine confessing that she’d made such a glaring error—that she’d allowed the Horcrux to penetrate so deeply into her mind. They would want to know what the diadem had made her do and think, and she didn’t think she could recount it all again. Once had been painful enough.

She kept glancing up from her bag, where she was packing away the tent’s stakes, to look at Malfoy. Every silvery strand of his hair was in place, making him glimmer like a Sickle in the moonlight. His eyes passed coolly from Harry to Ron as the three folded the tent together, his thin mouth occasionally quirking when one of them made a joke.

It wasn’t until his eyes met hers that she realized he looked unusually tense and serious. She wondered if he was afraid that, after everything they’d spoken about last night, she would fail to perform the charm.

Of course you will, said a small, cold voice in the back of her mind. How could you perform it alone? You, with your posturing, with your pathetic over-preparation …

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut and forcibly dispelled the thought. When she opened them again, Malfoy had looked away.

Hermione felt an anxious tightness in her chest. Last night, she’d unloaded every ugly feeling of the last two weeks onto Malfoy—every ugly feeling of the last ten years, really. She’d confessed her worries about her looks to Ginny before, but that was the most superficial of the lot. Not even Harry or Ron knew her worries about her parents—the nagging feeling that, beneath it all, that they would have preferred her not to be a witch.

Now, in the light of day, it was difficult to believe that she’d trusted Draco Malfoy with those feelings. Even a year ago, he would have used any hint of those weaknesses to reduce her to tears.

Hadn’t he acknowledged that much, though? He’d said that at Hogwarts, he would have loved the diadem’s power, the ability to rip everyone apart. She wondered if that had been his way of implying that he wouldn’t use her secrets for that purpose.

She supposed she had no choice now but to pray that was the case.

It was still dark by the time they entered Godric’s Hollow, all under Disillusionment. The Potters’ cottage looked even more forlorn by night, the gaping hole in its upper corner filled with black sky.

They stopped. “Ready?” Ron whispered.

“I think so,” Hermione whispered back, her voice sore.

“You’ll be great,” Harry said. “Have you got the diadem on?”

“No. I … I’ve decided not to use it.”

“Why not?” Ron said. “That’s your superpower, isn’t it?”

Hermione knew he didn’t mean anything by it—the diadem was an extraordinary object—yet it still hurt, for some reason, to hear him silently acknowledge that she might fail without it. Even now, knowing what the Horcrux had done every night, she couldn’t help wanting to wrest it from Malfoy’s robes and put it back on—to feel that sense of infallibility one more time.

“I’m worried,” she said quietly, “that if I cast the Fidelius Charm while wearing the Horcrux, the fragment of soul might confuse the charm into admitting You-Know-Who into the secret, too. And of course, there aren’t any details of how Horcruxes might interact with the charm in my book, because it’s such an arcane Dark Art. I supposed it was better to be safe.”

Ron’s silhouette let out a slow, quiet whistle. “Good thinking. I bet that could happen.”

Harry accepted the excuse with no questions. “I’m going in, then,” he said. “Good luck.” The ivy on the gatepost rustled as he vaulted into the overgrown yard, and old stone crunched as he assumed his place on the cracked front path.

Ron held Hermione’s notes with the tips of finger and thumb, so that the parchment faded into view. Meanwhile, Malfoy’s indistinct outline drew his wand. He and Harry had decided to prepare for a fight, in case they were ambushed. For now, they were inconspicuous enough—Ron was holding her notes close to the hedge, to camouflage the single sheet of parchment appearing to suspend itself in midair—but, of course, the eventual casting of the spell would be unavoidably obvious. Assuming she got that far.

Harry lifted his colorless hands in a thumbs-up, and Ron squeezed her shoulder. “Thanks,” she whispered, and she found her eyes straying to Malfoy again, immobile by the gatepost. He hadn’t settled against the post as if he expected the exercise to take hours. She appreciated the tiny, probably unconscious gesture, and she found herself remembering his words about how the entire school spoke about her. Oddly, the thought managed to bolster her where endless reassurances from her friends always failed. Ron and Harry wanted her to be happy and confident—they had reason to compliment her, flatter her, exaggerate her capabilities. Unknown Slytherin first-years discussing her had no motive at all.

Hermione took a deep breath of the chilly air. She looked back to her notes and lifted her wand.

And then, as she began to speak, something wonderful happened. Her eyes fell shut, and she realized she didn’t need the notes at all.

The incantations spilled from her lips, memorized to the tiniest inflection over the course of weeks, the wand movements embedded in muscle memory. She spoke the two definitional incantations, and then the third in reverse, which would redouble their strength; she spoke them all as fluidly as she would have spoken her own name. As she cast the bounds of the charm, she fixed the Potters’ hedges in her mind, taking care to define a hundred yards’ safe air above the cottage, too, and a hundred yards’ safe earth below it.

Perfectly on time, the memory of security floated to the top of her mind like cream: a blissful, ordinary evening in the Gryffindor Common Room, first year. She and Harry and Ron were laughing about a joke Hagrid had made when they’d visited him earlier that afternoon. The fire was crackling in the hearth. They were safe, and together.

A memory of entrance. This, too, rose up easily—the image of Diagon Alley’s brick wall splitting open the first time she’d ever visited it. The memory played so vividly in her mind that she could almost hear the bricks shifting, shuffling against each other.

A memory of disappearance. Hermione had considered choosing any number of Vanishing Spells for this memory, but she’d settled on something all the clearer for how painful it still felt. She saw her parents asleep as she slipped through the door of their bedroom. She’d watched them greedily for one last second before she shut the door, knowing she might never see them again.

A memory of trust. She’d used the same memory for this incantation since her very first practice: Hagrid’s bristly face in the third year, kind and sympathetic. Hagrid, proffering his terrible rock cakes as she buried her head in her arms and sobbed about Ron and Scabbers, wracked with guilt but unable to apologize. She couldn’t believe she was responsible, because if she was responsible for Ron’s pet’s death, what did that make her? The worst friend in history, and she couldn’t go back to having no friends, she just couldn’t do it. And she’d told Hagrid all this, and he’d sat there beside her and patted her gently on the back until she was hiccupping.

Now, though, to her alarm, she found her mind veering in another direction. Another, untested memory was surfacing—a much more recent one. She was hugging her knees on the sofa in the tent. Tears were streaking down her face. And across from her, at the sofa’s opposite end, Draco Malfoy was watching intently, a light frown on his face. He wasn’t dismissing her. He was just listening, and listening, until she’d cried herself back into her body.

She was nearly at the spell’s end now, but she couldn’t let herself anticipate it—couldn’t let her focus break.

She whispered the incantations of closure. She moved her wand in a counterclockwise circle, and then, finally, a clockwise circle.

She opened her eyes.

A jet of brilliant blue light erupted out of her wandtip. It flowed onto Ron’s Disillusioned body, and he was unable to restrain a short cry of shock. The light poured out and out of her wand, built up and up around him like a layer of robes—and when his whole body was encased, it all sank into him in an instant.

Hermione’s heart sped. She recognized that light from the text’s description—a light like ice made liquid—and its faint greenish afterglow.

Had it worked?

Slowly, unspeaking, they turned to look at Harry. To Hermione’s eye, his outline and the cottage looked completely normal, but when her eyes found Malfoy, the shape of his Disillusioned head was swiveling, never fixing quite correctly on the building.

“Malfoy?” she said, her voice small and tired in the cool dawn air. “Is it …”

“It’s gone.” He sounded unsteady. “Potter, the cottage. Everything.”

“And me?” Hermione opened the gate and stepped onto the Potters’ front path. The moment she crossed the threshold, he said,

“You, too.”

“Ron,” Hermione said, her heart beating so hard now that it felt painful. “Write it. Go on.”

Ron took the quill and ink from where he’d planted them in his pocket, spread the sheet of notes on the gatepost, and scrawled the secret on the back of the parchment.

The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is located at Number 7, Hartbridge Way.

Ron gave the parchment to Malfoy, then hastened to join Harry and Hermione up the path. They all watched Malfoy, holding the parchment by the corner, his Disillusioned head bowed over the words.

Then Malfoy walked forward, over the threshold, into the bounds of the Fidelius Charm.

Elation flooded Hermione like the warmth of Butterbeer. Ron let out a great whoop, waved his wand in an exuberant sweep to melt away their Disillusionments, and swept Hermione into a hug that took her off the ground. She let out a disbelieving peal of laughter, and Harry, who had also let out a delighted yell, leapt forward to embrace her, too.

Hermione couldn’t take the feeling all in at once. It was like the rush of unrolling her O.W.L. results to see Outstanding after Outstanding—but so much better, exponentially and impossibly better, because this really meant something. This would keep them all safe.

“You’re a genius,” Harry said, squeezing her tightly, “you know that?”

“A bloody genius,” Ron was roaring. “A Fidelius Charm at seventeen!”

“You two, I can’t breathe,” Hermione said, laughing, her cheeks aching with the way she was smiling. Then, over the boys’ shoulders, she saw Malfoy standing framed by the gateposts, fading back into view under the setting moon. He looked awkward, as if he didn’t know where to go or whether he was welcome in the celebrations, but at the sight of him, gratitude flooded through Hermione. If not for the way he’d outplayed the Horcrux, she would still be wearing it, believing more and more with every minute that she was helpless without it. She waved impatiently to bring him over, beaming.

He strolled casually up the path to them as Harry and Ron broke away. “Not bad, Granger,” Malfoy said. “Probably good enough to earn an ‘Acceptable’ from Flitwick, I’d say.”

Harry and Hermione both laughed, and even Ron was still grinning. Malfoy’s thin mouth twitched, apparently unable to avoid a smile completely.

Hermione suddenly remembered the memory that had surfaced for the image of trust, and even in her giddiness she felt a rush of confusion. All the moments in her life that she’d felt trust—and last night was the one her mind had chosen? She hadn’t felt nearly so secure speaking to Malfoy as she had to Hagrid, or as she always did speaking to Harry and Ron.

But then, she supposed, as they turned to enter the cottage, trust wasn’t security. It was its absence. A step into nothing, with the hope that something solid would rise to meet you.

 


 

Sixteen years’ neglect look like this:

The collapse of structure. Broken windows from heavy storms and someone’s old disrespect. The unraveling and slow retreat of wallpaper. The exposure of wooden bones, and warp in those bones. Erosion on the outside, the crumbling of sills and lintels. Rot eating away at the inside. Subtraction.

And—accumulation. The absorption of water into every element. Growth, in every damp patch, of mold. Growth, on metal surfaces, of the red grit of rust. The appearance of small bodies: rodents, insects. Ancient leavings from scavenging animals. Dust frothing up on every surface. Scents hanging on the air, dirt, old wet, reclamation, so thick you could paint landscapes with them.

The first thing they did to the cottage that day was to force its old, water-swollen windows open. They stood outside and cast Charms that sent air pouring through the whole building, spilling out through the cottage’s rear face, whisking away every foul smell. They left the windows wide, inviting in the scents of autumn, as they scoured surfaces, pulled open old drawers, tugged furniture away from the walls, unscrewed rusted doorknobs, peeled off sheets of ruined wallpaper, ripped up the stained carpet in the side room, and pitched buckets of dust out into the yard, where it flurried away in rags like ashes.

Draco thought Potter wouldn’t be able to stomach the work, to see the filth his old home had been mired in, but he was wrong. Potter seemed determined to participate in every single foul thing the abandoned place required. In fact, he seemed a bit fanatical, and spent that first evening drawing up plans for what to handle next with a fervor he’d certainly never shown during any class at Hogwarts.

Granger and Weasley, apparently wanting to prevent Potter from getting too obsessed, instated a rule of four hours’ work on the cottage per day, maximum. The rest was reserved for planning their trip into Diagon Alley, and for Occlumency.

“We don’t need Occlumency anymore,” Potter insisted. “It doesn’t matter if they find us. They can’t get into the bounds of the charm.”

This, Draco had to admit, was a fair point. Granger had done the thing well. By the second day after their arrival, cloaked figures could be seen idling by the stream that ran fifty yards past the cottage’s back garden, or else sitting upon the weathered bench on the opposite side of Hartbridge Way. But as much as they lurked, they couldn’t get inside.

Draco knew that if the Death Eaters had been able to get into the cottage, they would have done so right away. Still, that didn’t stop him from feeling an instinctive jolt of panic when, on the fourth day, he looked out the window of the cottage’s upper storey and saw Nott’s stubbled face aimed in their general direction.

Granger saw him flinch. They were working in the master bedroom, peeling wallpaper away from the edges of a moldering skylight. “It’s awful seeing them there, isn’t it?” she said with a shudder.

Draco turned stiffly away from the window. “I’ve had better views.”

“Maybe we should grow the hedges,” Granger said thoughtfully. “I don’t think we’ll be able to hide them from this floor, but we can at least keep from seeing their ugly faces when we’re in the garden and on the ground floor.”

Draco considered Granger. She’d bound her hair back in a thick braid to keep it out of the way while they cleaned. She had a smudge of dirt on her chin, and her tan face was flushed from the effort of scrubbing by hand, the Muggle way. She’d warned them all in her usual bossy way that over-reliance on magical cleaning could threaten the cottage’s structural integrity.

“What?” she said.

He glanced at the door to make sure they were alone. Then he muttered, “Nothing. You look better.”

She hesitated. “Thanks. I feel better.”

In the days immediately following the Fidelius Charm, Granger had looked tired and worn. She’d told Potter and Weasley that it was a drainage effect from the Fidelius—that the charm needed several days to become self-sustaining, and until then, it would sap her energy.

Draco, who had glanced over the text of the Fidelius Charm, knew that this was nonsense. It wasn’t hard to guess that the exhaustion was the effect of her separation from the Horcrux. So, on the second day, he hadn’t exactly been surprised when she’d cornered him in the bathroom to plead for the diadem, to let her put it on for just a moment, just a few minutes, please, not to do anything, just to scratch the itch—

She’d raged at him when he’d said no. “You cowardly, selfish little snake,” she’d snapped at him, her eyes wild and blank, and she’d stormed away.

Not even an hour later, she’d found him to apologize, looking mortified. “I … listen, Malfoy, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine,” he’d said, continuing to siphon dust off a sideboard with his wandtip.

“No, it isn’t,” she insisted. “You’ve been such a help. I can’t believe what I said.”

“Me neither. Calling a Slytherin a snake as an insult? Painfully lackluster. You’ll have to do better next time.”

She mouthed at him, disbelieving. “It’s not funny,” she said.

“It’s funny enough.” He put down his wand on the sideboard and leaned back against it. “I’m not that sensitive, Granger.”

She snorted. “Oh, aren’t you? I seem to remember six years’ pointless arguments at Hogwarts that suggest otherwise.”

“Yeah, well. That was Hogwarts.”

“You say that like it was a million years ago.”

“Wasn’t it?”

The amusement faded from her face. They stood in silence for a moment, and Draco watched a shaft of dusty light move across her forehead as she shifted her weight.

After a moment, he picked his wand back up and returned to the sideboard. “It wasn’t you, Granger,” he said. “No need to get so bothered about it.”

Draco didn’t know how he felt about keeping these secrets with Granger. Every night since the Fidelius Charm, after Potter and Weasley went to bed, Draco crept down to the end of the hall in the tent-flat and tapped on Granger’s door. She’d appear there in her Granger Dental Studio nightshirt and give him her wand. Then he’d lock her in for the night, so she couldn’t go sleepwalking again.

The first few nights, Draco stayed up late in the sitting room to see if anything would happen. Around midnight on the first night, rattling and scraping started to shake her door. It grew so loud that Draco had to cast Muffliato on Potter and Weasley’s door. The second night, there was a gentler attempt—a few frustrated twists of the knob. By the third night, the Horcrux seemed to have lost its grip of her sleeping mind, and Granger’s room was quiet.

Now, whenever they spoke, all this was in the back of his mind. The image of her face in the dark, ashamed but determined, as she entrusted him with her wand. The hour they’d sat awake talking after he’d snatched the diadem from her hair. The relief he’d felt when she’d performed the Fidelius Charm correctly. The way she wiped her tears with her second knuckle. It was all very irregular.

Granger wound up enlisting Potter and Weasley to help with the hedges. All four spent the next hour walking the bounds of the front and back gardens, casting growth charms until the hedges were ten feet tall, as thick and healthy and opaque as the Shrouding Shrubs that Professor Sprout kept in Greenhouse Three. Granger was slower than the others. She kept pausing to add outcroppings of flowers. Then she’d stand back and look at her handiwork, smile faintly to herself, or brush her fingertips over the flower petals before moving on. Draco occasionally glanced over at this process without really knowing why.

“Oi,” Weasley said. “Pick up the pace, would you?”

“For Merlin’s sake,” Draco said. “Are you my employer, Weasley? Are you paying me for this?”

Weasley narrowed his eyes. Draco knew he was waiting for the second half of the remark, some crack about Weasley’s inability to pay anyone. But, God, the insult was just so well-worn after a month and a half of living together. Draco felt like it almost demeaned him at this point to pluck such low-hanging fruit. He settled for yawning in Weasley’s face and went off to do the garden’s southwest corner.

They weren’t living in the cottage itself, of course. They knew they would be sleeping in the tent, pitched permanently in the backyard, for weeks. And it wasn’t like the cottage was so promising, Draco often thought, feeling sour, as he did things like levitate dead centipedes out from behind a toilet. Even at its best, it would hardly be a palace. You’d have been able to fit the whole building into Malfoy Manor’s west wing.

And yet … when they’d finished working on the front room, and the old rug had probably twenty pounds of dust beaten out of it, and the warm red woven thing was replaced on the shining, smoothed-out floorboards, Draco felt that there was something to the place. There was something to sitting there on the old leather sofa, watching Granger stacking books of defensive spells on the newly polished shelves, watching Weasley massacre Potter at chess for the millionth time.

In these moments, Draco felt comfortable. So probably he was going insane.

Mostly, though, the days were filled with agitation over the upcoming visit to Diagon Alley. They’d decided that Potter was to play Pansy’s father. Even with Polyjuice Potion, accents could occasionally peek through, and Weasley’s accent was about as far from Mr. Parkinson’s as a person’s could be. But this left them in the uncomfortable situation of Granger and Potter pretending to be married, an idea that Weasley palpably loathed.

Granger didn’t seem to have acted on what Draco had told her—that Weasley was in love with her. Given her insecurities, Draco had half-expected that the only reason she and Weasley weren’t together was some idea in her head that he didn’t really want her, but apparently not. She had been unusually polite to Weasley since they’d moved into the cottage, getting into fewer squabbles with him about nothing, but she seemed ever more hesitant to be alone with him, and Draco thought he sometimes saw her eyes straying to Potter.

Draco supposed he should have guessed—Boy Who Lived, Chosen One, all that—but the idea of Granger pining after Potter annoyed him, for some reason. Probably because he dreaded Weasley’s reaction if the other two ever actually did get involved.

Anyway, Weasley made a terrible child, was the point. And Potter, while a marginally better option than Weasley, was still a thoroughly unconvincing Mr. Parkinson. In order to practice the family’s mannerisms, they’d done some Transfigurations to make Potter look more like Mr. Parkinson and Granger more like his wife. Granger didn’t do too badly—she was able to adopt Mrs. Parkinson’s prim, critical air reasonably well—but Potter … anyone who had ever met Mr. Parkinson would think he was Confunded, or more dangerously, Imperiused. Potter just couldn’t condescend the way he needed to. Draco imagined scenarios where he caved under pressure and started hexing people left and right in Diagon Alley.

As September wore on, the news on the Wizarding Wireless grew grimmer. Reports from the Muggle-born Registration Commission now included ever-longer lists of names of people on the run, referred to as dangerous fugitives who should be apprehended on sight. Draco felt a small, numb shock when Dean Thomas and Ted Tonks were read off the list. Thomas had been well-liked at school, milder and more thoughtful than most of the Gryffindors. As for Ted Tonks … Draco’s aunt had been disowned by the family for marrying him. If he died, it would mean Andromeda had lost him, and her entire family, for nothing.

Nearly every evening, dry academic voices on the Wireless could be heard delivering new reports about the dangers of Muggle-borns. “New studies reveal that magic can only be passed down from witches or wizards through blood,” the reporters said, “and as such, investigations into these so-called ‘Muggle-borns’ and how they have stolen Wizarding secrets are imperative.”

They never listened to the reports all the way through. Weasley or Potter always turned them off, glancing over at Granger, who would immediately busy herself with her planner or The Tales of Beedle the Bard, though she couldn’t hide her strained expression.

Sometimes Weasley gave Draco suspicious looks after these reports. At first Draco didn’t understand why, but eventually he realized: Weasley thought he might get ideas.

There was no denying that Draco did think about the Muggle-born reports. He thought about them while he cleaned the Potter cottage, while he got filth under his fingernails and sweat in his eyes. He thought about the broadcasts as he scrubbed his aching muscles in the shower, and for restless hours before he could get to sleep. The dissonance he felt about them was almost physically painful, because his feelings about blood status were tied up in his parents and his childhood and a world that no longer really seemed to exist.

The broadcasts included familiar, comforting phrases like ‘the community of wizardry’ and ‘the extraordinary nature of magical powers’ and ‘what separates the magical from the mundane, the spectacular from the Muggle.’ Draco had grown up around this kind of talk. He’d always been taught to take pride in his wizarding heritage. Every time he’d reached a new magical milestone—his first use of accidental magic, for instance, and the first time he managed sparks with his mother’s wand—his parents had burst with enthusiasm in a way they hardly ever let themselves show. They had Flooed other families to tell them, and they’d had traditional Wizarding celebrations for these events, and built into all this ritual was the fundamental idea that nobody else could really understand them, that only pure-blood families expressed Wizarding pride in such a true, legitimate way.

So, this idea in the reports that Muggle-borns had somehow “stolen” magic … Draco knew it was propaganda, but at the same time, he still felt in his gut the emotion that the propaganda played on. It was the fear that Muggles were encroaching on the Wizarding World, usurping what wizards had created for themselves. As if it weren’t enough to look through A History of Magic and see the history of witch-burnings and wizard persecution, which was the reason they’d gone into hiding in the first place—now Muggle-borns were flooding into Hogwarts, like his father had always said, as if they belonged there? As if they didn’t have a whole world of their own already? And if the barriers between the worlds continued to erode, who knew what it would mean for wizards and their always-delicate way of life, their reverence for everything magical?

Draco had never had a real reason to rethink any of this. All his friends had been raised to think the same way, after all—raised well, as his mother called it.

Life with Potter, Weasley, and Granger, though … it had begun to give him pause. He was living with a blood traitor, and someone raised by Muggles, and a Muggle-born. In pure-blood circles, there was deep suspicion about what these sorts of people would do to pure-blood traditions if given the chance: discard them, pollute them, corrupt them.

But Draco had lived with these three for nearly two months now, and the strange thing about it was how normal it all felt. The more he thought about it, the more he suspected that they wouldn’t actually give a damn if he wanted to carry on the magical traditions he’d been raised with. His whole life, Draco had felt that he, his family, and his friends were battling a threat to their way of life, grappling for power because the alternative to gaining power was ceding it, and to cede power would mean obliteration. But now, having crossed over enemy lines—living with the three people who were the most emblematic of enemy territory—he found himself wondering where the threat was, because if it was here, he couldn’t seem to find it.

None of these destabilizing thoughts did anything to ease Draco’s nerves about the Diagon Alley visit. Granger kept assuring him that framing the Parkinsons as victims would absolve them of any blame, but Draco couldn’t make himself believe it. The fact of the matter was, if the Parkinsons were used to damage the Death Eaters’ cause, they would be viewed as a liability. The Parkinsons weren’t Death Eaters themselves—at least, they hadn’t been when Draco had left Hogwarts—so at least they wouldn’t be personally punished by the Dark Lord, but the Death Eaters could do quite enough damage on his behalf.

As the visit drew closer and closer, Draco began to suffer from intrusive visions of Pansy’s family under Death Eaters’ wands, screaming from the Cruciatus. And the imagined scenarios seemed contagious. Sometimes, while Potter groaned over the chessboard or Weasley made ironic commentary on the Death Eaters lurking outside or Granger told them absentmindedly to shut up, as she was trying to read, Draco had sudden, lurid visions of them being tortured, too. Maybe he really was going mad.

Three days before the trip to Diagon Alley, there was a loud crack in mid-afternoon. Draco was working with Granger on the small library room, sorting the books with water damage from the ones without. They both hurried out to the back garden to find Weasley alone, working on repairing the small, shattered path that led to an algae-covered pond in the corner.

“Where’s Harry?” Granger asked. “Was that him? Where’s he gone?”

“It’s all right, calm down,” Weasley said. “He’s gone to get new carpeting for that room with the smashed windows.”

“Oh.” Granger heaved a sigh. “Did he take the Cloak?”

“Yeah, he’s got it. And we Transfigured him before he left.”

“All right.” Granger bit her lip and hesitated. She seemed to be making some sort of decision. “Look,” she said finally, “I … this evening, I was thinking …”

“Not now, Hermione,” said Weasley, going back to the path. “Bit busy here.”

Granger’s cheeks flushed. “Fine, then,” she said coldly. She turned on her heel and strode toward the cottage’s back door.

Draco was about to follow when Weasley said, “Malfoy, hang on, I want a word.”

Draco hesitated. Weasley wasn’t working on the path anymore. He’d put down his wand and was peering around Draco’s legs to see whether Granger had disappeared from view.

“What’s going on?” Draco said slowly. “Potter is all right, isn’t he?”

“What? Oh, yeah, he’s fine.” Weasley got to his feet. “Look, Malfoy, it’s—well, it’s Hermione’s birthday today. She thinks we’ve forgotten, but we haven’t. Harry’s gone to get a cake and some decorations and a bottle of Firewhisky.” Weasley glanced at the cottage again and grimaced. “She’ll be angry with me now for interrupting her, but … I think she was just about to bring it up, and it would ruin the surprise if she mentioned it herself.” He sighed. “Anyway, point is, Harry’s going to get back with all the decorations and I don’t want her to see us at it. We’re going to put away the tent and do the yard up. We only need half an hour or so. Could you keep her in the library just between half-five and six?”

Draco opened his mouth and closed it again.

“What?” Weasley said.

“Nothing,” Draco said coolly. “Just didn’t think you had it in you, Weasley. This could actually be considered thoughtful.”

Weasley reddened. “Oh, shut up. Will you do it or not?”

Draco shrugged. “Yeah, I’ll keep her. Merlin only knows how I’ll manage to occupy Hermione Granger in a library, though.”

Weasley barked out a laugh, seemingly before he could stop himself. Then he cleared his throat loudly and rubbed the back of his neck. “Thanks,” he forced out. “Er. And—thanks for helping with Parkinson as well, we know you’re worried about her, but nothing bad’s going to happen.”

He said this last very quickly, as if it would help him to ignore the fact of what he was saying.

Draco, totally blindsided now, could not actually form words. He just made a feeble sort of ‘eenngh’ sound, jerked his head in a nod that probably looked more like a spasm, and retreated to the cottage, wondering what in Merlin’s name had just happened. Had Ron Weasley just attempted to extend an olive branch? The madness was truly spiraling.

Granger was quiet that afternoon, while they worked through the books in the Potters’ library. Draco knew that she would like Potter and Weasley’s surprise, but it was hard not to want to say something about it when she had that miserable look on her face. He remembered how she’d spoken about Potter and Weasley under the Horcrux’s influence, terrified that they didn’t really care about her, and now they seemed to have forgotten her birthday.

But he managed to keep quiet. At six o’clock, he stood up from the mound of books, stretched, and said, “Shall we see whether Weasley’s blown up the garden yet?”

Granger must have been really annoyed with Weasley, because she didn’t defend him, just sighed, stood, and followed Draco out through the kitchen.

They came out of the side door. Granger stopped in her tracks. Draco watched surprise, then delight, spread over her face.

“Oh, Harry, Ron, you didn’t!” she cried, running to hug her friends. They’d strung fairy lights across the garden—somewhat clumsily, Draco couldn’t help thinking; he was used to his mother’s impeccable décor—and conjured a table on the small patio. It was laden with a small chocolate cake and a bottle of amber liquid. Sparklers were dashing through the air, forming the words HAPPY 18th BIRTHDAY HERMIONE.

Draco watched the three of them for a moment, hugging in this idyllic square of grass enclosed by ten-foot hedges, and he felt as if he were detaching from himself, from the scene. The whole of it began to feel surreal. How could an evening like this be contained in the same world where, even now, the Dark Lord’s forces were growing in power and number across the nation? The imagined pictures came again, more graphic than ever, forcing Draco to blink hard at the stone wall of the cottage—Weasley’s gangly body twitching and jerking as Bella shrieked with laughter, Potter’s glasses shattering as he writhed beneath a curse, Granger …

He looked back at them. Granger was beaming so widely that her eyes were crescents, pushed up by her cheeks. She was speaking animatedly to Potter and Weasley, and Weasley was chortling, probably recounting how he’d snubbed Granger that afternoon to divert her, and Potter was laughing, too, the back of his hand rubbing his lightning scar absentmindedly.

Three days from now, those three would walk into Diagon Alley, into the heart of things, and they were still woefully underprepared.

Draco approached them. Their small circle opened to admit him.

“Were you in on this, too?” Granger said, still smiling.

“Sort of,” he said stiffly.

“Thank you. It’s a wonderful surprise.” She glanced back to Potter and Weasley. “I can’t believe you two remembered, in all this.”

“Look,” Draco said, “I’m—I’m going to come into Diagon Alley with you three.”

A brief, stunned pause. The Gryffindors’ smiles turned to expressions of incredulity.

Draco crossed his arms. “You’re hopeless, Potter, you still have no idea how to act like Pansy’s father. And Weasley, it’ll be less obvious that you’re a 17-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body if there are two children. And—anyway, it’ll be safer.”

There was a brief silence. Then Weasley said, “Yeah. All right. So, is this just to get a piece of cake, or?”

Granger and Potter both started laughing. Draco shook his head, but a traitorous smile tugged at his mouth. “I’ll need something stronger than that, Weasley,” he said, picking up one of the small glasses of Firewhisky and downing it in a single go.

 


 

On the morning of September 22nd, they Apparated onto the far outskirts of the Parkinson estate. The Parkinsons had their own private Quidditch pitch, as Mr. Parkinson was one of Nimbus’s chief engineers. As they passed the pitch, Draco remembered playing three-on-three with Crabbe, Goyle, Pansy, Blaise, and Theo Nott, and a pang went through him. He wondered how the Slytherin Quidditch team was performing this year. It seemed almost ridiculous, the idea of team practices and scheduled matches still going on.

There was a side gate at the limit of the Parkinsons’ property. Draco tapped the lock and said, “Camellia”—Pansy’s grandmother’s name. It clicked and allowed them through.

The Parkinson house was a long, rambling property, not quite as elegant as Malfoy Manor nor as large, but with modern touches like the large glass sunrooms at either end. Draco led the way through the grounds in the half-darkness toward Pansy’s window. A flowering trellis led up to her window, a romantic touch that she’d always loved. When they stopped at its foot, Draco looked up and could almost see her there, sliding the window open, leaning one elbow against the sill, a catlike smile on her close-set features.

Draco climbed up the trellis, which clacked softly against the wall of the house. He’d done it a dozen times before, in the summer between fifth and sixth year, and soon the window was open, and all four of them were inside.

The others slipped out into the corridor at once. Weasley would find the family house-elf and slip her three drops of the Sleepiness Solution. Granger would use a Script Imitation Charm on something Mrs. Parkinson had written to forge a note to the gardener on the front door, rescheduling his visit. Potter would collect hairs from each family member and ensure that the potion had affected them correctly. It should have done: the cookies had been delivered by owl last night, each one personalized to a different member of the family, and Draco, spying through the kitchen window, had seen them eaten with relish.

Draco was about to undertake his own part of the mission—to find the Parkinsons’ papers—when he hesitated. He took a long, slow breath and brushed the lilac comforter with two fingers. Pansy’s light perfume hung on the air, a scent as familiar as his own home.

He was startled to feel his eyes prickling hotly. He blinked hard, feeling stupid, but his imagination was getting away from him now. Was Pansy, even now, turning over in her bed in the Slytherin dormitories, about to wake early as usual? She could always be found doing her homework in the common room at the crack of dawn, tapping her wand on her knee rhythmically as if it were a drumstick.

He wondered if she was still seeing Theo. The two of them had taken up some kind of relationship after Draco had broken things off last January, though Draco had always suspected its primary purpose was to make him jealous. But maybe it had become something else after his supposed death.

He was surprised to realize he didn’t mind the idea very much. His relationship with Pansy, like so much else at Hogwarts, seemed to belong to a kind of imagined version of himself now.

Still, it took several more moments for him to walk through the door.

Draco moved down the hallway laden with expensive art, then down the sweeping staircase that encircled a crystal chandelier, then across the marble foyer. He found what he needed in the kitchen quickly enough: their Floo Powder contained in a sculptural twist of dark glass. Then he took the heavy bottle of Polyjuice from his pocket and divided it between four stone flagons. There was enough in each flagon to last several hours, at least, and hopefully the flagons would still be small enough to remain inconspicuous.

Draco checked the ebony-faced clock on the wall, whose Roman numerals glowed brightly, slivers of enchanted opal. So far they were on time.

He made for a sliding door by the sunroom. Beyond it was Mr. Parkinson’s study, a long, dark room with a dozen models of broomsticks mounted on the walls: the Nimbus 2000 and 2001, the classic 1940, the old cult favorite 1280. Sketches to scale of an in-progress design for a Nimbus 2002 were strewn across the table that took up the center of the room. Draco only spared a glance for the elegant drawings, hurrying toward the personal desk by the French windows.

The desk’s third drawer was locked. “Camellia,” he whispered a second time, tapping it. The lock clicked open, and he pulled it wide. The Parkinsons’ papers were clipped neatly inside a folder that he tucked into his robes.

Draco was about to leave when his eyes caught on the desk’s surface. Scattered across the cherrywood were letters in Mr. Parkinson’s small, precise writing.

He paused. He’d been wondering for weeks whether the Parkinsons had finally declared their loyalties, whether—when he took the Polyjuice Potion—he would look down at his left arm to realize Mr. Parkinson had taken the Mark, too.

He began to rifle through the letters, searching for Bellatrix’s extravagant, looping script, or any other Death Eater’s hand he might recognize. But his eyes caught, instead, on a Hogwarts crest. He extracted the envelope from the rest, frowning, and withdrew the letter inside.

Words in Severus Snape’s handwriting read,

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Parkinson,

I regret to inform you that your daughter, Pansy, has been given her third disciplinary warning. As such, she has been assigned three days’ worth of detentions with Professors Carrow and Carrow. Her punishment will be at their discretion.

I privately advise that you write to your daughter to discuss her behaviour and how she might adjust to Hogwarts’s new environment. As her Head of House for six years, I assure you I attempted to make provisions for the recent loss of her close friend, but I can only do so much in the face of this kind of erratic, inappropriate behaviour.

Yours,

Severus Snape
Headmaster of Hogwarts
Potions Master

Draco scanned the letter again, his throat tightening. Erratic, inappropriate behaviour? What had Pansy done?

His eyes found the date at the top of the letter. This had arrived two weeks ago. Draco started to sift through the other letters upon the desk, giving the lamp a sharp tap to ignite it. In the flood of warm light, he spotted it almost immediately: Pansy’s handwriting, looping and calligraphic, in her favorite color of indigo ink. He snatched up the letter.

Dear Mum and Dad,

Thanks for your letter, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m fine after my detentions and I’d do it again. If you must know, Professor Carrow joked about what happened in May, actually joked about it. Everyone was furious, but I was the only one who said something. You wouldn’t have stood it, either.

Besides, everyone knows they’re only half-bloods anyway.

I’d have thought you’d be proud of me. You’re the ones who are always talking about loyalty. Write again soon, and I hope you’re safe.

Pansy

Draco gripped the letter so tightly that the parchment creased. What happened in May. Did she mean … but what else could she mean? He’d died at the very end of May, and the month had, before that point, been uneventful.

Had Pansy really backtalked the Carrows for making fun of him? “Stupid,” Draco whispered under his breath. What did it matter if one of the Carrows had mocked his death? What had they all expected? He’d died in failure and disgrace. Of course he was an object of scorn to the Death Eaters.

But Pansy—he could feel her fingertips stroking his hair, could taste the honey of her lip balm—of course Pansy hadn’t kept quiet. She’d been punished for it, too, and from what Draco knew of the Carrows, a punishment from them wouldn’t have been something to brush away in a single phrase, I’m fine after my detentions. But that was Pansy. Proud to a fault, scornful of weakness, all sharp teeth and vicious tongue.

“Malfoy?” said a voice.

Draco leapt and shoved the letter back into place. “Coming,” he said, striding out of the study and closing the door behind himself.

“Do you have the papers?” Granger asked.

He nodded. “Let’s go.” Weasley and Potter were standing by the hearth, already holding their flagons of Polyjuice, ready to drink. Draco took the one that Granger handed him, tipped it against his lips, and drank.

 


 

Hermione had spent so long with only Harry, Ron, and Malfoy for company that stepping out of the fireplace into the Leaky Cauldron made her feel an instinctive shock, as if she’d already done something terribly wrong. The grubby little pub was as busy as she’d ever seen it, but it wasn’t filled with regulars at their usual tables and barstools. Instead, lines of witches and wizards snaked through roped-off walkways, all trudging toward the back door and the entrance to Diagon Alley.

“Come on—move, move,” said the harassed-looking official manning the fireplace that Malfoy, Harry, and Ron had just stepped through. “Make way, there could be more any moment.”

Malfoy, now the broad-shouldered and dark-haired Mr. Parkinson, gave the man an icy look. “Yes,” he said in a rich baritone, “thank you for your contribution.”

As the man glared back at him, Malfoy ushered Harry and Ron toward where Hermione stood in line, swatting lazily at the two boys’ shoulders. This earned Malfoy a pair of glares from Harry and Ron, too, and Hermione said, under her breath, “You two.”

They both took deep breaths and untwisted their sour expressions.

“Our papers, darling,” said Malfoy, taking a sheaf of parchment from his robes.

Hermione’s cheeks grew warm. She knew it was Malfoy, and she knew it was an act, but having a complete stranger look her in the face and call her darling still felt mortifying. It was actually more mortifying, knowing it was Draco Malfoy, of all people, saying the words.

“Yes, thanks, dearest,” Hermione said, trying to remove any hint of irony from her voice.

One corner of Malfoy’s mouth twitched as she took the papers.

While they moved forward in line, Hermione handed Devon and Charles Jr.’s papers to Harry and Ron, making a show of telling them how to present them to the nice witch and wizard at the checkpoint. Hermione’s heart beat faster and faster as they approached the checkpoint, but when they reached the sour-looking witch who was checking papers for their line, the witch took one look at Hermione’s face and her expression transformed into a smile.

“Astrantia!” the witch exclaimed. “It’s so lovely to see you, so lovely to see a familiar face.”

Hermione thought her heart might have stopped. She had broken into an instinctive smile, but when she opened her mouth, no words came out.

Malfoy moved a step past her, and the witch’s eyes fell to him instead. “And Charles! It’s been too long.”

Malfoy offered a large, artificial smile and his hand, which the witch shook. “Finnida,” he said. “It has. They have you doing this sort of work, do they?”

Finnida’s nose wrinkled. “Unfortunately,” she said. “Terrible understaffing at the Department these days, I’m sure you’ve heard all about it … everyone who reports to me has been put on Floo monitoring duty, so here I am.” She sighed. “Not without excitement, though, this post. A Mudblood tried to come through yesterday evening, you know. Bold as brass, saying she just needed to get potion ingredients.” She looked from Malfoy to Hermione, clearly expecting commiseration.

“Hard to believe,” Hermione said, stroking her hair behind her ear in the way that Mrs. Parkinson always did, according to Malfoy. “At least you were there to stop it.”

Harry and Ron shifted uncomfortably at her side.

“Devon, Junior, give Finnida your papers,” Hermione said, ushering them forward. Harry and Ron looked up at Finnida with large, dark eyes and stuck out their papers. Finnida made a show of stamping them with a shiny, official stamp, then gave a fond chuckle as she did the same for Malfoy and Hermione.

“So much taller,” she said.

“It’s true what they say,” Hermione said with a tinkling laugh. “It happens too quickly.”

“Enjoy it in there,” Finnida called after them. “It’s much cleaner than usual.”

Malfoy aimed a thin, satisfied smile back at the witch as they exited the Leaky Cauldron. Hermione let out a slow, trembling breath as they entered Diagon Alley.

“Yes,” said Malfoy at her side. “Breathe normally.”

“Useful, aren’t you,” she said.

“I try to be.”

The four Parkinsons walked up past Ollivander’s, now shuttered, and the imposing marble façade of Gringotts. Diagon Alley still had its fair share of shoppers, but they were walking more quickly, and, if in groups, moving more closely together. Malfoy and Hermione adopted the stance that most parents seemed to have fallen into: Harry and Ron walked just in front of them, a parent at each of their backs.

“Here!” Harry said as they reached a small turn that was marked Acaysian Alley. “… Mum,” he added hastily, with an unconvincing tug at Hermione’s robes.

“Yes, dear,” said Hermione, restraining a nervous smile. “I see it.”

They turned down Acaysian Alley and saw it immediately. It was impossible to miss: the alley came to a dead end fifty paces ahead, and there, the florid material of the stall winked at them, covered in blue moons, fiery red suns, and brilliantly yellow stars. A sign twisted over its entrance in ribbon over and over again: The Scavengers’ Guild.

As one, they ducked through a hanging flap of cloth into the stall. “Wow,” breathed Harry, sounding every bit the ten-year-old. After weeks in the tent, Hermione thought she could no longer be surprised by the sudden expansion of space, but this was something else altogether. The stall, which from the outside had had no more than seven or eight feet’s height, had opened up into a space as tall as a cathedral. It comprised a single narrow passageway, like the alley outside, but every inch of vertical wall space was hung with items: cups and saucers and plates mounted in brackets, gas lamps and large waxen candles, musical instruments hanging from hooks, a fifteen-foot row of shabby-looking wands, patterned carpets and bolts of cloth, on and on and on.

And clearly, the Scavengers’ Guild wasn’t suffering from Diagon Alley’s new restrictions. The place was packed with people—but rather than milling around on the ground, they were floating around the walls in large wicker baskets, like those that might hang beneath hot-air balloons, each quite unsupported.

To Hermione’s immense relief, the items weren’t all jumbled in together. The Scavengers seemed to have a category system, and soon enough Harry had spotted the section devoted to jewelry, demarcated by a large, glittering sign with a diamond ring that jutted out from the wall. It was fifty feet off the ground, the jewelry glowing like a patch of shimmering scales high overhead.

More baskets lined the base of the wall, each large enough for one or two people to stand inside. “Devon, you come with me,” Hermione said, opening the side of one basket, “and Charlie, you go with Dad, all right?”

Ron entered the basket with her, and Harry and Malfoy took one nearby. She and Malfoy tapped their respective baskets once with their wands, and they rose into the air. Hermione tried not to focus on the increasing height, instead watching the Scavengers’ wares pass. They ascended past a sea of rings that shivered on long, bent nails driven into the wall. They passed bracelets and bangles and anklets. Finally, they reached the necklaces, a section of wall six feet across that reached up and up into the distance.

From below, the stall’s upper reaches had looked clogged with people, but up here, Hermione felt as if they’d entered a private room. The nearest person was twenty feet down the wall and thirty feet below. They could speak without fear of being overheard.

“Merlin, there’ve got to be thousands,” Ron said, dismayed.

“Well,” said Harry from the opposite basket, “let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, d’you reckon? Remember, it’s gold, has Slytherin’s S on it, and it’s set with emeralds. About the size of a chicken’s egg.”

And so they set to it. They rose side by side in their wicker baskets, picking through silver chains and ebony beads, passing over glass hoops and jade carvings. Hermione squinted and touched until her eyes felt strained and her hands smelled bitter, like old silver.

“Do you have the time?” Malfoy asked her, after a while. Hermione startled. She’d completely forgotten that she needed to be checking when they were due to take another dose of Polyjuice Potion.

“Er, yes,” she said, fumbling with her sleeve. “Of course. … Five to!”

She couldn’t believe they’d passed an entire hour already. She’d thought this process couldn’t possibly take more than two, but she hadn’t counted on the amount of detritus that the Scavengers would have harvested.

They all surreptitiously took their flagons from their pockets and drank. On and on they rose, foot by slow foot. At one point, Harry seemed oddly dazed by a necklace set with sapphires, and was halfway to putting it on when Malfoy snatched it out of his hand and shoved it back onto the wall. Ron eyed a necklace dripping with diamonds longingly, and said, “How much do you reckon that is?”

“Oh, a Knut or two, I’d say,” Hermione said, scanning a tangle that seemed to be about fifty feet of fine gold chain knotted together.

Half an hour later, they reached the top of the section, still empty-handed. “Nothing,” Hermione said bitterly.

“Nothing,” Harry agreed. “You don’t think they could have found it and realized it was Slytherin’s, do you? I mean, in the memory, Voldemort knew what it—”

Don’t,” Ron said through gritted teeth.

“What?”

“Don’t say the name! We’re in public!”

Harry looked around in exasperation. “The nearest basket’s all the way over there. No one’s going to hear—”

“But if someone did hear—”

“Oh, never mind that,” Hermione said. “Let’s get back down. We need to ask the Scavengers if they’ve seen, or sold, anything like it that they can remember.”

They returned their baskets to the cobbled floor of the stall, somewhat to Hermione’s relief, and hurried toward the back. Fred had told them that the Scavengers could be found in the portrait section, in a room behind a portrait of a king eating a pile of corn twice his height. The portrait didn’t take long to locate, as it was at ground level, and the mountain of golden corn was nothing if not eye-catching.

Hermione, per Fred’s instructions, knocked five times on the king’s stomach. The king let out an earsplitting belch, turned over his shoulder, and called toward a window in the background, “Celine?”

“What?” yelled a voice from the shuttered window.

“Haggler,” the king called back.

The portrait cracked open, and out stepped a tall Chinese woman. Her long black hair was braided with bright pieces of cloth, and her arms were laden with glittering silver jewelry and sparkling tattoos.

“Want to haggle, do you?” she said.

“No, it isn’t that,” said Hermione, drawing herself up. She let her eyes linger in a disapproving sort of way on the woman’s tattoos; she didn’t think Mrs. Parkinson would have liked them. “We’re looking for a specific piece and we can’t find it on your walls. We’re wondering if it’s come through your hands.”

The woman jerked her head, and they all followed her through the portrait hole into a dim but comfortable room, littered with poufs and rugs and, apparently, everything else the Scavengers had collected that they weren’t keen on giving up. Several others Scavengers were loafing in the room, sprawled on velvet divans, counting stacks of unrecognizable coppery coins, wearing gaudily mismatched clothes.

“I’m Celine Shih,” said the tattooed woman. She had a low, smoky voice.

“Astrantia Parkinson,” Hermione said with a thin smile. “Charmed.”

“Charles Parkinson,” Malfoy said. “And our two sons, Devon and Charles Junior.”

“It’s amazing here,” Harry blurted.

Celine Shih seemed to soften, looking at Harry. “Thank you, little one,” she said, crouching in front of him and smiling to reveal a gold-capped tooth. “What’s your mother looking for today?”

“It’s a family heirloom,” said Harry, with a convincingly uncertain look up at Hermione.

“Yes,” Hermione said. “A locket that belonged to my great-grandmother. Its clasp was always weak, and we think it detached somewhere in the streets of London when my sister wore it out last.”

“Mm,” said Celine, arching one eyebrow. She slouched into a chair that was elevated like a throne. “And when was that?”

Hermione pursed her lips. “My sister, naturally, has forgotten when she last had it. She always was careless.”

“We kept it in our home until two summers ago,” Malfoy offered. “It’s made from pure gold, engraved with an S, for Scilla, and inset with emeralds. We’re a family of Slytherins, you see. Have been for centuries.” He offered another one of Charles Parkinson’s broad, artificial smiles.

“The catch is stuck,” Hermione added, “so it refuses to open, if that helps you identify it.”

“Emeralds,” said Celine. She tapped her long fingernails on the arm of the chair. “We always watch for emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and citrine … Hogwarts parents are fond of the house stones. We put them on the wall and they’re gone by the next month.” She shook her head. “We’ve only had a few emerald pieces in the last two years. Three rings and a very beautiful bracelet.”

“You’re absolutely certain?” Hermione said.

Celine narrowed her eyes. “I never forget our wares,” she said.

“My wife didn’t mean to offend,” Malfoy added smoothly. “The locket is important to our family. You understand.”

“Very important,” Hermione said. “You wouldn’t be able to describe how you find these objects? In case we wanted to search for ourselves?”

Celine’s eyes roved from Malfoy to Hermione, then to Ron and Harry. She looked suspicious, and Hermione thought she might be trying to sniff out whether they were trying to compete with the Scavengers’ business. But the Parkinsons looked very obviously related, and evidently Celine doubted that they would have birthed two children just to con her, because she said,

“It’s a spell I developed. You start high up, on a broom, and narrow down on a trace of magic. It won’t work anywhere like Diagon Alley, or in Wizarding settlements—so much magic overloads the spell. But in barren areas—Muggle areas, that is—it finds a breadcrumb, and leads you down the trail.”

She stood, whisked a piece of parchment from a small, heavily jeweled case, and used a peahen feather quill to jot down the details. She handed the sheet to Hermione.

“Thank you,” Hermione said.

Celine opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a sound blared from the other side of the portrait. A magically magnified voice was booming, “Please descend in an orderly fashion to the ground and prepare your papers.”

All the Scavengers leapt to their feet. Celine pulled the portrait back open. “Out,” she said. “Out!”

They all rushed back into the stall, where the wicker baskets were retreating quickly from the heights of the walls, their passengers tripping and stumbling out in their haste to obey the voice. Hermione took in a sharp breath. Half a dozen figures had appeared at the entrance.

“What is this?” Celine demanded, striding through her customers toward the robed figures. “What do you want? All our permits are in order.”

The figures were dressed in Ministry uniforms rather than Death Eaters’ robes, but Hermione thought she recognized the face of Yaxley. “Random inspection,” his voice boomed.

The Parkinsons exchanged looks and ducked back through the portrait into the Scavengers’ lounge. “There’s no way,” Harry hissed. “This isn’t a coincidence. How did they know? My scar hasn’t hurt at all! And no one could possibly have overheard what we were saying, they were all miles away.”

Hermione’s mind raced. Could someone have heard their voices echoing unnaturally far? And even if they had, what in their conversation would have given away their identities, besides … besides …

Hermione let out a gasp and clapped one hand over her mouth. She looked at the others. Realization had struck Ron’s and Malfoy’s faces as well.

“You said … you said his name,” Ron said.

“Is this really the time,” Harry said angrily, “to—”

“Harry,” Hermione said, “you said it that day in the clearing, as well. And that day when we were making dinner. You said it right before all the protective spells broke.”

Harry’s ten-year-old face gaped up at her. “What?

“That’s how they’ve found us,” Ron moaned. “Merlin’s pants, didn’t I tell you all it felt like bad luck?”

“Makes sense,” Malfoy muttered. “Only people like you ever said it, after all. You and Dumbledore.”

“They can do that?” Harry said.

“Yes,” Hermione said, “it’s called a Taboo, and I read about it in A History of Magical Surveillance. It’s an archaic form of magic—and it’s normally limited to a much smaller scope, within a mile radius or so … to Taboo an entire country would take the kind of ability that only people like You-Know-Who would have.”

The truth settled between them, but it brought Hermione no satisfaction. This might help them avoid problems in the future, but the present situation was what needed their attention.

Malfoy seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “We can’t be found here,” he said.

“Brilliant,” said Ron. “Did you figure that out by yourself?”

“I mean in this room,” Malfoy hissed. “It’ll look suspicious. Get out, join the queue, get your papers ready. Go.”

They exited the backroom and slipped into the crowd, mingling with anxious-looking shoppers who were clutching their papers in their hands. The crowd jostled and jostled, shuffling them forward. But the Scavengers’ stall hadn’t been built to contain hundreds of frightened people all on the ground. Hermione heard a small, high voice say something, and when she looked back, she realized she and Malfoy had been separated from Harry and Ron.

She tried to push back, but the tide was too strong. “We’ll wait for them outside the tent,” Malfoy said, seizing her by the forearm so they didn’t get separated, too.

Hermione checked her watch as they neared the front of the stall. The line was chaotic, but moving quickly, and they still had another twenty minutes before they needed another dose of Polyjuice. They were safe enough on that front, at least.

The stall was echoing with the other shoppers’ anxious voices, creating a turbulent stew of noise. When they were feet from Yaxley and the other five Ministry employees, however, Hermione could finally hear what they were saying to everyone who approached. “Wands and papers out.”

Hermione registered these words, panic flooding her, as the queue spat her out in front of Yaxley. Wands. Wands. Ollivander had been in Voldemort’s custody—and they knew that she and Harry were on the run—and Ollivander could identify her wand, and Harry’s.

“Ah,” said Yaxley, his expression easing. “Mrs. Parkinson, isn’t it? Your papers, and your wand, if you please, and we’ll have you on your way.”

“Yes, fine,” Hermione sniffed, trying to stay composed. She turned over the papers, but she had no choice but to hand him her wand, too.

He gave her papers only a cursory glance before returning them, but when he placed the wand on a small set of scales and read the slip of parchment that spat out of its side, he froze.

Yaxley looked up at Hermione, opened his mouth, and closed it again. The surprise on his face was veering into suspicion, and Hermione didn’t know what to do, what to say. She knew she should be formulating an excuse, but all she could feel was panic, blotting out her thoughts like the roar of the ocean.

Then a ringing baritone said, “Corban. What a pleasure.” Malfoy had strode up to her side. Hermione had the crazed instinct to seize Malfoy’s wand, hex the living daylights out of Yaxley until she could retrieve her wand, and make a run for it—but of course it was a ridiculous idea. Harry and Ron were back there in the crowd, and with five other Ministry officials standing in the entrance, checking others’ wands and documents, she wouldn’t be able to do so much as lift her wand before being overpowered.

“Charles,” said Yaxley, blinking up at Malfoy.

“My wife giving you trouble, is she?” said Malfoy, with a self-satisfied chortle. “Here. Wands and papers.” Yaxley checked Malfoy’s items and returned them, but he kept hold of Hermione’s wand.

Malfoy’s smile faded from his square face. “Is something the matter?”

“There is, now that you mention it.” Yaxley straightened, nearly to Mr. Parkinson’s height. “Your wife is carrying a wand that belongs to a known fugitive and Mudblood.”

Hermione didn’t know whether she should feign outrage. She glanced up at Malfoy. They needed to present a unified front—but how to make sure their stories aligned?

After a moment’s silence, Malfoy let out a long sigh. “You see?” he said to her in a slightly patronizing way. “You see? Didn’t I say?

From his tone, Hermione could guess the response he was looking for. She let out a defensive huff. “Charles, please. I don’t want to hear it.”

Malfoy turned back to Yaxley. “It’s a new wand,” he said. “She’d been having trouble with her own for months, and I told her we ought to go to a reputable salesperson to have a new one made. But she insisted on an Ollivander reseller.” He ran a hand through his thick dark hair. “To be fair, we’d heard that with all the wands getting taken off Mudbloods, there were a number of quality wands in circulation. … But you say—what, this one is a fugitive’s wand?”

“I find it to be a perfectly good wand,” Hermione said sharply. “And we paid good gold for it, Charles.”

Malfoy made a convincing grumbling sound, throwing up his hands. Hermione felt a sudden wave of relief that he was here to act the pure-blood. They were actually managing it, concocting a story in conjunction on the spot. It even seemed to be working on Yaxley, whose brow had unfurrowed.

“I see,” Yaxley said slowly. “Be that as it may, this wand will be very valuable to some of our current … ah, investigations. Any information you can give us could be useful, too. And of course, I’ll want my Aurors to run a number of tests on the wand itself. I’ll have to ask you both to accompany me back to the Ministry.”

Hermione’s heart dropped, but Malfoy said, sounding dismissive, “Yes, naturally. It won’t take long, will it? Our sons are—”

“They’re at home by themselves,” Hermione broke in. “They’ll be expecting us soon.”

She exchanged the briefest glance with Malfoy and saw understanding in his expression. It wouldn’t help things for Harry Potter to be dragged into the Ministry alongside them, that much was for sure.

“Mr. and Mrs. Parkinson,” Yaxley said, a note of soft menace entering his voice now, “let me be perfectly clear. This is not routine. This wand is of the utmost importance, not just to me, but to—” He raised his eyebrows, his eyes glittering— “my superiors.”

Hermione exchanged another look with Malfoy, this time long enough for Yaxley to see. She let some of her fear show on her face, and Malfoy forced a hard swallow, as if in realization.

“Ah,” Malfoy said. “Yes. We understand. As long as you need, Corban.”

“And of course,” Hermione added, “we would be honored to … to assist.”

“Good,” Yaxley said, sounding satisfied. “Drummond, Borrofield! Come with me. You three, stay and finish checking the rest of this lot.”

Hermione’s heart thumped hard as she folded Mrs. Parkinson’s papers back into her robes. They might have avoided immediate detection, but how long could they maintain this façade? Would Yaxley really believe that, by sheer coincidence, her wanted wand had popped up in a place where Voldemort’s name had just been spoken? They had to think of a way to tie the threads together somehow—but how to avoid incriminating the Parkinsons in the process? Or was that already doomed?

Her stomach lurched hard with yet another horrible possibility. If Yaxley’s Aurors performed Priori Incantatem on the wand, would it reveal the information in the Fidelius Charm?

As she followed Yaxley out of the stall, she glanced back in time to see Harry and Ron emerging at the front of the queue. Harry’s eyes widened, and he made to lunge forward, but Hermione looked to Ron and shook her head violently. Ron seized Harry’s wrist and yanked him backward, into the crowd, out of sight.

Hermione let out a shaky breath. She trusted that Ron would get Harry to safety, at the very least, and they’d brought their D.A. coins for just this kind of emergency. She would be able to communicate that they were safe, as long as they remained safe, that was.

As they walked up Acaysian Alley, a Death Eater leading them and Ministry employees flanking them, Hermione glanced up at Malfoy. For the first time that day, she could see a shadow of Draco Malfoy on Mr. Parkinson’s square face. There was something in the way his eyes were fixed ahead, fearful and wary. Fear was beating steadily through her own body, too, her heart pounding against her ribs like a furious fist against a tabletop.

Still, she and Malfoy had talked their way out of immediate suspicion, hadn’t they? Maybe, just maybe, they could talk their way out of the rest, too.

Two things, Hermione thought grimly, were certain: they were walking into the belly of the beast, and she was glad not to do so alone.

Chapter Text

The Ministry had changed.

Draco had last visited during the summer before fourth year. His father had stopped by, Draco in tow, to visit a few choice contacts in the Department of Magical Games and Sports. “My son, Draco,” he’d said to innumerable people, and Draco had smiled and shaken hands while his father told them that he flew for Slytherin, and eventually—what a coincidence!—Cornelius Fudge happened to look in on Ludo Bagman at the same moment they were visiting with him.

They’d left that day with tickets to the Top Box tucked into his father’s robes. Draco remembered swaggering through the large, light-filled Atrium at his father’s shoulder, feeling that every door was open to him. He’d flipped a Galleon over his shoulder into the Fountain of Magical Brethren as he’d gone.

Now the Fountain was gone, and the center of the Atrium boasted an enormous statue of black stone: a witch and wizard perched on twin thrones.

Only as Yaxley led them past its base did Draco notice that the thrones were made from multitudes of human bodies, pressed and twisted into each other, seeming—though they were quite still—to writhe like animals. They were naked, and humiliatingly so, their feet and elbows and clawlike hands shoving into each other’s stomachs and breasts and buttocks. They were Muggles.

He had the sudden urge to turn toward Granger, to distract her before she could see it, but before he could move, she stiffened beside him. When he next chanced a glance at her, Mrs. Parkinson’s dark eyes were flashing and fixed on Yaxley’s back, her lips parted as if she were measuring her breaths. She’d seen.

“This way,” Yaxley said, beckoning them toward the lift. As they skipped to the front of the queue, he added, “Borrofield, fetch Crabbe for me. He should be up on Level Two. We’ll be down in the detention area—Room Four should be free.”

Borrofield nodded and peeled away.

Draco let out a laugh, allowing himself to sound uneasy. “Hold on, now, Corban—the detention area? Don’t you have an office we could speak in?”

Yaxley gave a dismissive wave as the lift’s golden grilles clattered open. “All procedure, Charles, no need to worry.” But there was a hint of enjoyment in his voice.

Just before the doors to the lift closed, Draco snuck a last glance at the great golden clock that hung in the Atrium. He and Granger had both managed to sneak their third drink of Polyjuice Potion during the walk through London to the Ministry, which had taken far longer than he’d hoped it might. Now, again, they were nearing the hour: ten minutes before they needed to replenish their disguises. Draco wondered if he could uncork his flagon in his pocket and conceal it in the wide sleeve of his robes.

He saw Granger’s hand fiddling in her own pocket and knew that she was altering the coin the D.A. had developed, sliding her fingertip clockwise around its circumference to make the numbers rise. They’d developed a simple set of numerical codes to indicate their status: safe, in transit, in danger, in emergency, and in captivity. Now that they were no longer in transit, he wondered which she would choose to describe their current situation.

But Draco didn’t know what it would do, really, to tell Potter and Weasley that they were in danger. If the two Gryffindor boys didn’t act like complete idiots, they would be able to get out of the Scavengers’ stall without Potter’s wand being spotted: they would simply have to hand over their papers, showing that they were below Hogwarts age, and thus below the age that they should possess a wand. But they certainly couldn’t burst into the Ministry, disguised as children, and demand that their parents be handed over. Yaxley was treating them cordially enough now, but Draco knew they hadn’t escaped suspicion: Drummond had relieved him of his wand before they’d left Diagon Alley. Draco’s hands felt very empty, and though he had never spent much time with Yaxley, he still worried that somehow Yaxley would recognize his wand: hawthorn, ten inches, unicorn hair core.

The lift clattered to a halt. “Level nine,” said its cool female voice. “Department of Mysteries.”

Granger’s motions were noticeably stiff as they exited the lift, walking down a long, dark corridor toward a sealed door. Before they’d neared it, however, Yaxley detoured them down a stairwell toward the courtrooms.

Draco felt the Dementors before he saw them. A clammy coldness crept over his body. His chest constricted, as if iron bands had been fastened around his torso, and any thoughts of the Polyjuice in his pocket, or of excuses that he and Granger might be able to conjure, leaked away. Memory rose up instead, surging in him like magma, burning away reality. He could feel the old fine carpet against his cheek, abrading his skin, as he lay upon it, twisting and twitching, his mouth gracelessly open. The fire was hissing and spitting like a serpent, and the serpent herself was twining between the legs of the velvet armchairs … though nearly blind with pain, he could see Nagini moving…

“You have displeased me, Draco,” said Lord Voldemort’s silky voice. “Did you not promise me you could give me what I asked? Did you not swear it on your life … on your beloved family’s life?”

He heard himself gasping, “I … I’m …”

“Did you not promise me the life of Albus Dumbledore?”

“Yes, but I—I just need more ti—”

“Yes? Yes, what?” There was a smile in the Dark Lord’s cold voice. “Now, now, Draco … where is your courtesy? Where is your respect for your master? … Crucio!

Draco screamed. The pain was skating over the surface of his skin like a thousand delicate cuts. The pain was inside him, splitting bone, skewering nerve.

It was ten seconds, or several minutes, or possibly a lifetime, until the intensity lessened enough for him to form words—“Yes,” he sobbed, “m-my Lord …”

The wand lifted. Draco was drenched in sweat, his body limp and still. The pain had gone. His face was wet with tears. He heaved, lying there on the floor, but nothing came up. He heard voices from beyond the door—his mother screaming at Bellatrix, and Bellatrix yelling something back—

Yaxley’s voice split the memory in two. “Expecto Patronum!

Silver vapor brought the present back to him. Draco’s mouth was still open, as it had been in the memory, his heart pounding. A sheen of sweat had covered his clammy forehead; he wiped it with the back of his forearm and felt his fingers twitching.

He realized there was a force upon his other arm. He looked down and saw Granger gripping onto him just above the elbow—when had she done that? He realized with a small shock that he was leaning substantially on her, her body straining with the force of holding up Mr. Parkinson’s frame.

As the silvery cloud continued to issue from Yaxley’s wand, the tightness in his chest eased, and his legs took his full weight again. Still catching his breath, he glanced down at Granger. She faced ahead, but didn’t let go, a wife holding her husband’s arm in seeming support. Her own face was drawn, but when she moved, she seemed steady.

Yaxley seemed satisfied by the vapor, and continued to cast the charm intermittently as they moved into the courtroom halls. The silvery glow reflected off the walls’ dark tiles, and the tall, hooded Dementors that were gliding throughout the hallway shied away from the light, moving closer to the rows of people huddled on wooden benches outside the courtroom doors. Draco watched their terrified faces in the glow of Yaxley’s incorporeal Patronus. Some had tear tracks glistening on their cheeks. One boy, who couldn’t have been older than eleven, had buried his face in his mother’s arm, his shoulders heaving.

Draco found himself fixating on Granger’s grip, the simple feel of her hand through his robes. She was holding on uncomfortably tight—that was Granger for you, he supposed—but the human contact seemed to be anchoring him here, in this time, far away from the dark year.

As they moved toward the end of the hall, it occurred to Draco that the other Ministry official, Drummond, was trembling. He had to stop intermittently to lean against the wall, and hardly seemed to be paying attention to them at all. Draco, under the pretense of detaching his arm from Hermione, placed his palm against her pocket, pressing the flagon into her hip. She met his eyes, and he glanced to Drummond. She followed his eyeline, then lowered her head in an almost imperceptible nod.

Draco uncorked the flagon in his own pocket. When Yaxley moved ahead of them to knock on a door with a brass number ‘4’ on it, he and Hermione turned away for an instant, under the pretense of looking down the crowded hall, and drank quick swigs from their flagons of Polyjuice.

The flagon felt horribly light as he replaced it in his pocket. They would have this hour, but how much longer? Mere minutes, probably.

Though Yaxley had said it should be free, the door to Room Four opened at his knock, revealing a little witch with flyaway grey hair. “Oh,” she said, looking flustered, “Yaxley, we—we hadn’t expected you back until—?”

She moved back ever so slightly, and Draco saw who was sitting at the table behind her, poring over what appeared to be a family tree. A velvet bow was perched atop the woman’s head, she wore a lace ruff at her throat, and a serene smile was spread across her wide, toadlike face.

Dolores Umbridge looked up, a silvery cat Patronus circling her ankles. As her eyes passed over Draco, he felt a new discomfort course through his body. He remembered answering to this woman with the Inquisitorial Squad. At school she’d been a bit of a joke among the Slytherins, really, one of Fudge’s lackeys, never answering to anyone with real power, but now that the Dark Lord had taken the Ministry, nothing seemed very funny about her anymore.

“Ah,” said Umbridge, getting to her feet and brushing imaginary dust from her robes. “Are you ready to begin interviewing the next of the Mudbloods, Yaxley?”

“No, don’t disturb yourself, Madam Umbridge. I need to ask Mr. and Mrs. Parkinson a few questions, but I can find a different room.”

“Oh, no need for that.” Umbridge let out her simpering little laugh and rolled up the family trees. “Mafalda and I will simply call for another Auror if you’re unavailable. We should really be getting on with it, or I’m sure we’ll be here until after closing. … We don’t need another Wednesday, do we?”

A malicious smile curled Yaxley’s mouth. “I don’t know. I don’t mind seeing the Mudbloods passed out. Less trouble that way, aren’t they?”

Umbridge laughed again. “You’re quite right. Come, Mafalda—we’ll retrieve our files and then we’ll begin.” She trotted forward, beckoning to Mafalda with one crooked finger. Mafalda, holding quill and ink, fell into line behind her.

Umbridge paused in the doorway, glancing from Draco to Granger. Her smile was fixed. “And … it’s usually such a pleasure to see you, Charles, Astrantia, but … it seems this isn’t the happiest place to meet?”

“We’re here to give vital information to the Ministry about Mudbloods, thank you,” said Draco coldly. His mouth felt strange around the word, as it had in the Scavengers’ stall. He supposed that after hearing it on the Wireless in all those reports, it was only natural that it had begun to sound different, to feel different.

The hard, sceptical look in Umbridge’s eyes softened. “Of course. Do pardon me, Charles—I should have known.”

Draco dipped his head in a stiff nod. “No offence taken.”

“Chilly, isn’t it?” Umbridge remarked to Mafalda, tugging at the neck of her robes, and as her lace ruff shifted, Draco saw it.

A golden locket had peeked out from under the lace. It was inscribed with an intricate letter S and inset with green, glittering emeralds.

Granger, beside him, took in a short gasp. Draco cleared his throat loudly to cover the sound, and as Yaxley entered Room Four, Draco had to take Granger’s elbow to steer her inside, followed by Drummond. She glanced at him, her eyes wide with disbelief, and he dipped his head to let her know he’d seen it, too. But there was nothing they could do now, with no wands and a hall full of Dementors between themselves and freedom.

The door closed, and Yaxley summoned more silver vapor. Soon the room was warm, if not altogether comfortable, with its single wide table and half-dozen chairs.

“Please,” Yaxley said, indicating the table. “Sit.”

Draco sat down at Granger’s side. Yaxley sat opposite them and placed Granger’s wand before him, while Drummond hovered at Yaxley’s shoulder, his own wand in hand.

“Now,” Yaxley said, “tell me where, exactly, you bought this wand, Mrs. Parkinson.”

Granger flicked a lock of dark hair behind her ear in the way she’d perfected, which was so reminiscent of Mrs. Parkinson herself that Draco could nearly see her telling Pansy not to slouch. “Well,” she said crisply, with a faint, convincing note of annoyance, “I would think that was obvious.”

“Would you?” Yaxley said coldly. “Please, then. Enlighten me.”

“You saw us in the Scavenger’s Guild only twenty minutes ago, didn’t you?” Granger eyed her wand. “They carry wands, and that one caught my eye. It looks something like my old wand, you see. I knew it had to be one of Ollivander’s, and—” She raised her hands and looked toward the ceiling, letting out a little sigh “—yes, I know the man has demonstrated unacceptable leanings, but he himself is a pure-blood and our family has patronised him for decades, so I see nothing wrong with preferring his work, thank you.”

Draco was downright impressed. It was as if she’d met the woman herself. Then again, Pansy had inherited some of her mother’s manner, and … well, he supposed, Granger had certainly witnessed enough scorn from Pansy to be able to recreate it.

“I see,” Yaxley said. “The Scavengers didn’t happen to tell you where they found this wand, did they?”

“Oh, yes, I interviewed them quite thoroughly about it. I wasn’t going to pick up any old wand, was I?” Granger sniffed. “They said they found it in London.”

“Where in London?” Yaxley said impatiently.

Granger glanced upward, the fine wrinkles around her eyes deepening, in a good impression of recollection. “Near one of the old enclaves. Grimmauld Place, I think.”

Yaxley sat forward in his seat. “When was this?”

“Two months ago. We were looking for something for Charles Junior’s birthday—it’s July 28th.”

Yaxley let out a short breath, and disappointment soured his expression. Of course, Draco thought—two months ago, Grimmauld Place had still been under Order control, so it would be unlikely that the Death Eaters could learn anything new from the wand, if it had been lost then. Still, Draco thought, if Hermione was trying to wriggle out of tests being performed on the wand, she was sure to be disappointed.

A quiet knock on the door. When it opened, Draco’s throat grew very tight.

Alistair Crabbe entered the interrogation room. He was a huge man, half a head taller again than his son and built like Greyback, with dark hair shorn short.

“Ah, good. Crabbe,” Yaxley said. “Drummond, you may go.”

Drummond, eyeing Crabbe, looked glad to leave. He placed Draco’s wand on the table in front of Yaxley, then scurried for the door in a way that made Crabbe’s lip curl. When the door had closed, Crabbe looked over at Draco and Granger for the first time, and surprise registered on his blocky features.

Draco felt certain, for a moment, that Mr. Crabbe would look into his eyes and know somehow that it was him. Mr. Crabbe had taught him how to swing a Beater’s bat at age eight, how to grip onto a broom handle to land at age six. He and Mr. Goyle had been all but surrogate parents to Draco for most of his life. He wondered if they had stood together at his funeral, if they had mourned him, in their way.

“Alistair,” Draco managed to say, inclining his head.

“Charles,” Crabbe grunted in a deep bass. “What’re you doing here?”

“Well,” Yaxley said, “we can speak freely among the four of us. Crabbe, Mr. and Mrs. Parkinson have come across the wand that belongs to Hermione Granger, the Mudblood that the Potter boy has been traveling with. She would be a most valuable hostage to the Dark Lord. … Most valuable.”

Potter?” Granger said, her dark eyes round. “We could help him find Potter?”

Crabbe sank into a chair that groaned beneath his large frame. Beside him, Yaxley looked almost delicate, and when Crabbe picked up Granger’s wand, it looked like a twig between his beefy fingers. “Could we track where it’s been?” he said in that soft, deep voice.

“I thought of Priori Incantatem,” Yaxley said. “Someone from Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. They’ll cast a stronger Priori Incantatem than most.”

Crabbe dipped his head in a slow nod. “Or …”

“Or?” Yaxley said.

“An Unspeakable. They work on Time and Space, in there.” Crabbe glanced upward, to the ninth floor, and the Department of Mysteries.

Excitement came over Yaxley’s face. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, good idea, Crabbe. Perhaps there’s some kind of trace of location on the wand. Merlin knows what they could do. I’ll go up and have a word with Ghosh.”

He swept Granger’s wand off the table and left.

Draco glanced over at her, wondering if she would be willing to sacrifice her wand in order for them to escape safely. If he could only grab his own from where it lay on the table and Stun Crabbe … but the table was too wide to reach across without him flinging himself bodily toward Yaxley’s empty seat, and Crabbe had taken out his own wand now, turning it over and over absentmindedly.

Several minutes passed before Granger asked, “You’re well, Alistair?”

“Well enough,” Crabbe said.

Draco swallowed past the lump in his throat. Doing his utmost to eliminate any strain from his voice, he asked one of the questions he’d been thinking about for three months. “And how is Vincent?”

Draco was startled to see a distinct coldness, even disdain, appear in Crabbe’s face. “Doing better than your girl.”

Granger sat up straighter in her seat. Draco said, “Pansy is perfectly well, thank you.”

“That’s not what Vincent’s telling me.” Crabbe hunched over the table now, his lip curling. “Has Garton told you?”

“Whatever it is, yes, I’m sure he has,” Draco bit out. Mr. Goyle and Mr. Parkinson had been best friends since their school days—what wouldn’t they have shared with each other?

Crabbe let out a rough laugh. “I don’t blame him for keeping it quiet. He didn’t want to tell me, either.” He smirked and lowered his voice. “He’s been having trouble with Gregory, too. He and Pansy let all that business in May get to them, sounds like.” He paused. “You know, with the Malfoys and their boy.”

Draco’s stomach clenched. “Is that right?” He waited for Crabbe’s expression to grow sober at the mention of their deaths.

It didn’t. Instead, an almost greedy smile spread across Crabbe’s face. “Knew they had it coming to them. Just knew it. Lucius was big for his britches the first time around. You said it yourself, didn’t you, Charles? They were always going to get cut down to size. … Well, I could’ve told you they’d be dead within a couple years, way they were going. Pretending like they were friends with the Dark Lord—hah. And that boy of theirs.” He shook his head, letting out another short, harsh laugh. “Never treated my son like much, did he? Smarmy, preening little idiot. No real loss there.”

Draco felt as if he’d been socked in the gut. All the air had gone out of his body.

“Al—Alistair,” said Granger. She sounded shocked.

Crabbe shrugged, looking over at her with a malicious glint in his eye. “Yeah. I can see what you’re scared about. Way that girl of yours is going, you’ll have to pull her out of Hogwarts if you don’t want her ending up the same way as the Malfoys.” He shrugged his massive shoulders. “It’s a lack of loyalty, that’s what it is. But I’m not worried, ‘cause I raised Vincent right. He told me months before it happened, he knew the Malfoy kid was done, and good riddance. He’s told me, too, he’s said outright—if Pansy and Greg are too cowardly to fight for the Dark Lord, he says, I’m done with them, too. Because that’s as good as being a filthy blood traitor, isn’t it?”

In the deafening silence, Crabbe started turning his wand over and over again. “Galton’s worried about Gregory. And he should be. Why aren’t you worried?” His dark eyes moved from Granger back onto Draco. “We notice things, you know. We see you two haven’t declared your loyalties. We wonder about that, we do.”

Draco knew he needed to make some kind of excuse as to why the Parkinsons were being slow to join the Death Eaters. He had to think of something, but his mind was blank. The only thing happening in his head was the slow repetition of Crabbe’s words: No real loss there. … Smarmy, preening little idiot. … Never treated my son like much, did he? And he remembered what Weasley had said a month and a half ago. I never thought I’d sympathize with Crabbe and Goyle, but I don’t know how they put up with you.

Crabbe himself had told his father he knew Draco would fail. He’d said, Good riddance.

Draco was finding it hard to breathe.

Granger’s voice broke the silence. “All I’ll say, Alistair,” she said with magnificent coldness, “is that you don’t know whether the Dark Lord has even given us the honor of an invitation to his inner circle. Or are you claiming that you have the influence to extend those kinds of invitations yourself?”

Crabbe’s expression darkened, but before he could say anything, Yaxley returned, a scowl on his long pale face. “Nothing from the Unspeakables,” he said. “Ghosh did perform Prior Incantato on this blasted thing for me, but it was all Disillusionments and protective charms. The remnants had faded out long before it got to anything useful. She might’ve ditched it because we have Ollivander. Maybe she guessed we’d try to find her wand.”

“Have you tried the Prima Satteranium charm?” said Granger.

This managed to penetrate Draco’s numbness. He looked over at her, trying to hide his disbelief. What was she doing? Was answering questions just so deeply engrained in her by now that she couldn’t hear a problem without suggesting an answer?

Prima …” Crabbe repeated slowly.

Satteranium,” she finished. She glanced between him and Yaxley and raised her dark brows. “You two do know that I was a part-time specialist at the Assembly for the Development of Experimental Charmwork before I had the boys?”

Draco’s disbelief transformed into curiosity. Pansy’s mother had done no such thing. Granger was up to something.

He chanced a glance at Crabbe, worrying that he might remember that Astrantia Parkinson had never been a member of the Assembly. No, though—Alistair Crabbe could hardly have named what his own wife had done with her free time, let alone be bothered to keep up with the wives of his acquaintances.

“What’s this charm?” Yaxley asked Granger. “Prima—what does it do?”

“It measures the association between any magical object and a living being,” she said. “If the Granger Mudblood had a strong enough association with it, it could be used to track her through that bond. It was, as I say,” she added, “a highly experimental charm. It isn’t taught, and even I occasionally had difficulty with it, but I would have thought a wizard like Ghosh …”

“But you can do it, then,” said Yaxley sharply, a note of excitement in his voice.

“Haven’t I just told you I had difficulty with it?” Granger said, her lips pursed. “And that was a decade ago.”

Crabbe rose slowly to his feet, looming over them all. He squared his shoulders, emphasizing the powerful arms that made his robes strain. “Do you want to help the Dark Lord,” he said with quiet menace, “or not?”

Granger swallowed and let the disdain melt from her face. “I … yes, of course I do. I’ll try. Just … just place the wand there, then.”

Draco watched with bated breath as Yaxley set Granger’s wand on the table. He and Granger both rose to their feet and moved toward it, and Draco felt his body tensing the way it had once tensed during Quidditch practice, ready to make a capture.

“It may take a while,” said Granger, holding out her hand for another wand as if the gesture meant nothing. “A few attempts. … But I’m sure I can. Yes. For the Dark Lord.”

Yaxley placed his own wand into Granger’s hand.

Granger took a deep breath and stepped back from the table. Her gaze flickered, for an infinitesimal moment, toward Draco.

“All right,” she said, focusing on her wand again. She drew a breath.

She lifted Yaxley’s wand.

In that instant, Draco lunged forward, snatched her wand from the table, and aimed it at Crabbe. Granger aimed at Yaxley. Both Death Eaters’ hands shot into their robes, but they hadn’t even drawn their wands when the nonverbal spells struck them.

Crabbe’s bulk was so formidable that the red jet of light from Draco’s Stupefy didn’t even make him stumble. Instead he went rigid where he stood, then toppled to the ground with a resounding thud. Granger’s spell, on the other hand, had been a Full Body-Bind, which smacked Yaxley back into the wall. Rigid as a board, he teetered to one side and crashed to the stone floor, too.

Granger was breathing hard. She approached Yaxley, whose eyes were still wide open, fixed forward on her, his face fixed into an unmoving snarl.

She knelt before him. “I’m afraid,” she said, “you’ve underestimated the Mudblood Granger.” Her voice shook, but there was determination on her face. “As you can see, we aren’t afraid to come after your precious pure-blood families, Yaxley. We’ve done it to the Parkinsons and we’ll do it to the rest of your loyal followers, too.”

She stood and stowed Yaxley’s wand in her robes. She glanced back at Draco, who had already taken his own wand from the table. Then she approached Crabbe, not without some trepidation, and took his wand from within his robes.

“Let’s go,” she said.

They exited Room Four and locked it behind them.

 


 

Hermione glanced over at Malfoy as they climbed the stairwell back up to Level Nine. They’d peeked in at all the courtrooms, and Hermione had claimed to be looking for Madam Umbridge, to report sensitive information directly to her. A dark-haired, austere-looking witch had told them that Madam Umbridge had gone to her office to fetch the remainder of her files for her court proceedings.

Malfoy hadn’t made a sound during all this. Actually, he hadn’t spoken a single word since what Crabbe had said to him. At least he’d Stunned Crabbe when she’d needed him to.

As the grilles clattered open, and they boarded an empty lift, she said, “Are you all right?”

Malfoy glanced down at her and said, “What do you think?”

Hermione’s cheeks grew warm. It had been a stupid question. How would she have felt if she’d found out Mr. Weasley had been indifferent to her death, or if Harry had found out she’d died and said, Good riddance? What else could Malfoy feel right now besides shock?

“I’m really sorry,” she said quietly. “That must have been horrible.”

Malfoy didn’t reply.

“You know, maybe Cr—maybe Vincent didn’t tell his father what he was really thinking. If he was my father, I’d be scared to tell him the truth. Maybe—”

“Stop,” he said. He sounded more tired than angry.

Hermione closed her mouth and let out a long exhalation through her nose. She didn’t push the point.

Soon enough, other witches and wizards were crowding into the lift from the Atrium, and then from the upper floors, pushing her closer to Malfoy. Her shoulder touched his arm, and he tensed, but didn’t draw away; it was the same way he’d acted with the Dementors below.

She couldn’t stop thinking of the terrified faces of the other Muggle-borns on the benches. The temptation to conjure a Patronus and sweep the Dementors away had been so powerful, but she had never had such a strong Patronus as Harry, and if she failed … if the Dementors realized that there were impostors in their midst … no, they needed the Horcrux first. The Horcrux was the most important thing. It was a stroke of incredible fortune already that they’d found it.

Floor by floor, the Ministry employees who had boarded the lift exited it. By the third level, the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, it was nearly empty, and on the second, the last tall, curly-haired wizard exited, leaving her alone with Malfoy again.

“How … how do you think Umbridge found the Horcrux?” she asked.

He shook his head. The words seemed to make little impact. He was just looking ahead, his face slack, his thoughts clearly a thousand miles away.

“Level one,” said the voice in the lift. “Minister for Magic and support staff.”

The grilles clattered open to reveal a finely appointed corridor with thick purple carpets and gleaming wooden doors, each of which bore a shining brass nameplate. Hermione had never been to this part of the Ministry before. Malfoy was also looking around as if their surroundings were unfamiliar, actually as if he were still dazed by a recent blow, so she took the lead, striding forward until he fell into step at her heels.

“If we can find Umbridge in her office,” she whispered back to him, “I’ll bet we can overpower her. Then we’ll take the Horcrux and get out of here as quickly as we can.”

He didn’t answer. She glanced back at him, and he managed a rough, “Yeah.”

“If we have to put up a cover,” Hermione whispered, “should we have a kind of code word to attack? How about ‘pure-blood’? That should be easy enough to work into conversation.”

Malfoy nodded as they turned the corner, emerging into an open area filled with evenly spaced desks. Workers were waving their wands with perfect synchronicity over sheaves of brightly colored papers, which rose, folded themselves, and fell into stacks at the sides of the desks. Hermione’s eyes fell on the stacked papers and realized they’d been folded into rough pamphlets, whose headings read,

MUDBLOODS
and the Dangers They Pose to a Peaceful Pure-Blood Society.

An illustration accompanied the words: a smiling rose being slowly strangled by a weed with fangs and a malevolent leer. Anger coiled in Hermione’s stomach, but she forced herself to display only calm. We’re here for the Horcrux, she reminded herself. The Horcruxes are what can stop all this.

The nearest pamphlet-folder glanced up at Hermione and Malfoy and lowered her wand, looking somewhat glad for a respite.

“Lost, are you?” she said.

Hermione surveyed her, in her simple uniform, with disdain. “Madam Umbridge’s office,” she sniffed.

“In there,” the worker said, nodding toward a door at the front of the regiment of desks.

Hermione strode forward, her hand curling around the handle of her wand in her pocket. As she and Malfoy approached the door, her steps faltered. Set into its center was a horribly familiar electric blue eye, fixed in a golden ring, swiveling from left to right.

Hermione felt a fresh surge of anger, and this time it was mixed with revulsion. The Death Eaters must have found Mad-Eye Moody’s body after the escape from Privet Drive—and raided it for its most valuable contents.

Her hand shook with rage as she knocked thrice on the door. She glanced over her shoulder. Malfoy looked less dazed than before. He was watching the door, and its eye, warily.

The door opened, and Hermione’s heart seemed to stop altogether. Their luck was poor: Umbridge was not alone. Two Aurors stood attendant at her lace-draped desk, and none other than the Minister for Magic himself, Pius Thicknesse, resplendent in gold and black robes, had opened the door.

“Astrantia,” said Thicknesse, his heavy slab of a forehead lifting in surprise. “Charles.”

“Minister,” said Hermione and Malfoy at the same time. “Such a pleasure,” Hermione added, extending her hand toward him. He took it and brushed it lightly against his mouth, making Hermione feel another wave of disgust.

He’s not responsible for all this, she reminded herself. He was Head of Magical Law Enforcement before this. … He’s under the Imperius Curse. Unfortunately, they had no chance of breaking the curse without the original caster present, and knowing that Thicknesse was acting against his will didn’t change the chill she felt to look into his oddly blank eyes.

Thicknesse stood back, allowing her and Malfoy into the office. It was a nest of unwelcome memory, adorned with the gamboling kitten plates and floral décor that Hermione remembered from Umbridge’s Hogwarts office.

“Ah,” said Umbridge with a sickly sweet smile, the Horcrux gleaming at her throat. “Minister, the Parkinsons came in to give information on wanted Mudbloods. I trust everything went well, Charles? Astrantia?”

“Very well, Dolores,” Hermione said, trying to fight back the surge of loathing she felt. “We thought we might ask for a …”

She couldn’t help it. Her voice trailed off as her eyes passed first over a poster of Harry’s face, emblazoned with the words UNDESIRABLE NO. 1, and then onto a book that stood atop a bookcase. Familiar blue eyes gazed back at her from its cover, eyes that she had just been forced to recall in vivid detail, lifeless and staring, as the Dementors had drifted past her in the courtroom hall. The cover of the book read, in curly green text, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and the subheading, by Rita Skeeter, bestselling author of Armando Dippet: Master or Moron?

Umbridge followed Hermione’s sightline and smiled even more widely. “Astrantia,” she said with a cluck of her tongue, “do you mean to tell me that you haven’t read it yet?”

“Not yet,” Hermione said. “Unfortunately.”

“We can’t have that! It’s simply marvelous.” Umbridge tittered in that innocent way that Hermione detested so much. “To think that Albus Dumbledore acted like a Muggle-lover for decades, when he knew all along the dangers of Muggle-borns. Here …” She bustled to the bookcase, took the book, and pressed it into Hermione’s hands, her toadlike eyes bulging in apparent glee. “Take this one, and I’ll buy another. Skeeter deserves my Galleons, if no one else!”

Hermione’s thoughts were whirling—what did Umbridge mean about Dumbledore knowing the dangers of Muggle-borns?—but she smiled in a way that she hoped looked conspiratorial. “Oh, you’re too kind. I look forward to it.”

“Dolores,” Malfoy said, his voice mostly steady, “we wondered if we could have a quick private word.”

“It’s about our Pansy,” Hermione added. “We know she idolized you when you taught at Hogwarts, and…”

Pius Thicknesse cleared his throat quietly from the door. Umbridge’s eyes flew to him. She hastened back to her desk, where she swept a stack of folders into her arms. “Ooh—I’m very sorry, Astrantia. I must be getting back down to the courtrooms. Dawlish, Marten, and I only needed some final identifying information on the Mudbloods downstairs. … Why don’t you walk with us? We can always discuss dear Pansy on the way down.”

They had no choice but to follow. Hermione fed The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore into the beaded bag in her pocket as they moved back through the purple-carpeted corridors of Level One, Pius Thicknesse murmuring in quiet, indistinguishable tones to Umbridge, who had a sycophantic smile pasted on her face. Hermione experienced a surge of hope when Thicknesse bade them goodbye at the main corridor. He peeled off toward the large door at the end of the hall whose plaque read Minister for Magic and disappeared inside.

They called the lift, but as they waited, Hermione felt the press of panic anew. They couldn’t follow Umbridge all the way back down to the courtrooms. Malfoy was affected by the Dementors too strongly to be of much use if they did. But the locket was so close… if she could only reach out and grab it…

They couldn’t start a fight in the open corridor, where everyone could hear. They would have to wait until the lift door closed. But, Hermione remembered, the next floor down was the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. If other Aurors entered the lift, they would have no hope at all of overcoming their numbers. This was it: the best chance they would have. A window of seconds.

The lift arrived, and they filed in. “Well?” Dolores said, smiling up at Hermione. “How has Pansy been managing in her… seventh year, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Hermione said as the doors clattered shut. “She and her pure-blood friends have been—”

Malfoy moved immediately. Hermione tore her own wand from her robe pocket, ready to cast.

But the Aurors reacted with near inhuman speed. Dawlish was already sending a hex whizzing toward Malfoy, and Marten, the taller of the Aurors, flung himself in front of Umbridge, even as Hermione dove for her throat, her hand clawing, scrabbling, desperately seeking the Horcrux. Petrificus Totalus! Hermione thought, trying to aim, but Marten ducked the jet of light, and his counter-jinx hit her squarely in the chest. She let out a hard gasp, and her body slammed backward into the controls of the lift, which lurched to a stop mere seconds after it had started its descent.

Umbridge had let out a high-pitched squeal at the first spell, but now her wand was in her hand, too, and Hermione saw, as she flung herself out of the way of Marten’s second hex, Umbridge cast a whirling disk of venomous purple light toward Malfoy.

“No!” Hermione yelled—too late. Malfoy had lurched backward, slashing his wand out to deflect Dawlish’s Stunning Spell, and moved into the path of the whirling disk.

It sliced deep into his shoulder. Dark red blood sprayed out in a way that looked lurid, unreal.

Hermione screamed. She acted without thinking. Dawlish’s deflected Stunner had ricocheted into the controls, and the doors of the lift were shuddering halfway open again, revealing the purple-carpeted floor of Level One a foot and a half above the threshold. Hermione threw herself into Malfoy and knocked him through the opening doors. Even as they toppled onto the purple carpet, Hermione spun back on her heel, flicking her wand in a last, desperate motion—Gellara!

The doors of the lift didn’t just slam shut. They melted together in a single smooth rippling motion, as if five-thousand-degree heat had rolled over them, sealing away an instant of Umbridge’s furious scream. It wouldn’t hold them long—ten minutes, perhaps, until they tried the correct combination of counter-jinxes—but it would hold them.

Hermione spun back toward Malfoy, who was on his knees, one hand clasped over the wound, sucking in hard breaths. “Malfoy?” she panted. “Malfoy!”

“It’s—bad,” he said, his voice harsh. His head twitched toward her, and now she saw the way his black robes were glistening. Blood had already soaked through them down to his biceps, down to his pectoral. “No, no no,” she breathed, kneeling, fumbling in her pocket for her beaded bag. She grabbed the Dittany from where she’d stored it, but when she poured three drops over the wound, it hissed and didn’t react. It wasn’t an ordinary wound. Umbridge had cast a powerful curse.

But Malfoy was lurching to his feet, his face crazed. “Stairs,” he said through gritted teeth. “Can’t—can’t be seen.”

He was right. Hermione looked up in dread, wondering if anyone had heard the duel inside the lift, or the split instant of Umbridge’s scream before the Sealing Charm had transformed the lift into a holding chamber—but no one was coming out of their offices, or around the corner.

Supporting Malfoy at the elbow of his good arm, Hermione staggered toward the stairwell and kicked the door wide. Scourgify, she thought, flicking her wand back at the red droplets they’d trailed. She tried to bear as much of his weight as she could as they eased down the steps, stopping intermittently to eliminate their bloody tracks.

As they reached Level Two, though, she heard the door open on the floor below them. Someone was coming up from Level Three. She rapped Malfoy, then herself on the head, Disillusioning them, and they darted through the door of Level Two.

The Department of Magical Law Enforcement was very different from the plush-carpeted Level One. At the end of a short corridor, a pair of heavy oak doors was flung open to reveal a loud, crowded area filled with cubicles. Voices rang across dark hardwoods, and what looked like a boxing ring had been erected in the center of the cubicles, encased by shimmering enchantments, two Aurors dueling within.

“Here, in here,” Hermione whispered, hauling Malfoy’s sagging body toward a narrow, unimportant-looking door. She felt a rush of relief as they slipped into an ordinary broom cupboard.

Colloportus!” she panted, and the lock clicked shut. “Muffliato!” she added.

Then, in the light of the flickering orange orb overhead, she removed their Disillusionment charms. Even as she did so, she felt her skin bubbling, her bones stretching, her robes now ill-fitting on a taller frame. The Polyjuice had worn off.

Malfoy faded back into view. He was himself again, too—and the sight of him terrified her. He had collapsed back into a jumble of wooden crates, agonized sounds coming from his half-open mouth. His lean frame was swimming in Mr. Parkinson’s too-large robes, the soaked area of which had daubed blood up his neck. Every hint of color had drained from his skin, leaving him marble-white, and his arm hung limp, his fingers twitching. In the unsteady orange light, his pale eyes were wild, fixed upon her.

She was beside him in an instant, one hand hovering uselessly over the injury. “Do you know what that curse was?” she said frantically.

He let out an agonized laugh. “Think I will—if you—don’t?” he gasped, fixing his long fingers over the slippery gash. “God, I think it’s—getting worse …”

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think, but all she could think of was the shock on his face as the spell had lacerated him, and the smell of blood now permeating the broom cupboard. If she’d had the diadem, she thought wildly, she would have put it on, knowing its effects, knowing everything, just to remember a bit more clearly. Or had she never known the answer to this? How were she and her seven years’ study meant to compete with Umbridge’s decades of accumulated knowledge? She was too young for this—she was untrained, she was …

“Please,” he panted.

Her eyes opened. Malfoy was still looking at her, his face shining with sweat, his grey eyes too bright. “Come on, Granger,” he said, his voice filled with pain. “Come on. … Just—another … test.”

She swallowed hard. If this had been a test, it would have been fourth year. “… Identification strategies,” said Moody’s growling voice in her mind. “So, you’ve been hit in battle. What do you do? Sit around crying and wailing and waiting for the pain to end? Not unless you want to die, you don’t. No: you’ve got to know what’s happened first, if you’re going to do anything. Three simple questions, then.” The chalk hitting the blackboard violently. Moody’s emphatic scrawl. “How did it look? How did it sound? What has it done?”

How had the curse looked? Hermione closed her eyes and saw it: a disk of purple light. Not pulsating, not bouncing, but spinning fine and exact like a buzz-saw. So it wasn’t a self-multiplying curse or a single-striker, but a curse rooted in repetition. It hadn’t been indigo, like blood-specific curses, or lilac, like wasting curses, but vivid violet: brute force, physical magic.

How had it sounded? Silent. So it wouldn’t be a Conscious Curse, or a curse with a natural derivative like burning, freezing, or electrifying.

What had it done?

“I have to look at it,” Hermione whispered.

Malfoy’s head twitched in the tiniest nod. “Do it.” His eyelids were moving unsteadily now, hooding his eyes.

Hermione lifted the shoulder of the too-large robes and aimed her wand as carefully as she could with her shaking hand. “Diffindo!”

The seam split and revealed the wound. It was deep into the flesh, and Hermione felt faint, longed to look away, but knew she mustn’t. Blood was still coming from the injury, as fresh and bright as that first spatter in the lift had been. It was unnatural. It was regular. It was as if, with every pulse, the wound was being made anew.

The answer came to her like a lightning strike: a section in Darkest Curses for the Darkest Foes, which sat on one of the shelves in the Potter cottage at this moment, which she had read in June for the express purpose of the Horcrux hunt. The Curse of Perpetual Tearing, notte to be defended, a moste grievous vyolence unto a prized enemy, shall cause pain uppon pain a hundredfolde as if the Curse hadde ben caste ten thousand times…

She knew the counter-curse. She remembered.

Hermione drew her wand, placed its shaking tip to Malfoy’s shoulder, drew a clockwise triangle above the injury, and whispered, “Antagra Vertere.”

A hissing noise issued from her wandtip. Out from the injury came a seam of white light, like a trace of lightning. Malfoy let out a cry through gritted teeth, his tall body rigid. His bloodied hand thrashed out, found her wrist, and squeezed so hard that pain shot up her own arm. “Okay,” she gasped, “hold on, it’s all right, it’s going to be all right—”

Ah,” he panted as the last trace of light was jerked from the wound and into Hermione’s wand. The counter-curse had taken, but his hand was still clamped around her wrist, his face still contorted in pain. Hermione fumbled to withdraw the Essence of Dittany again. She clamped her teeth on the cork to unstopper it and tipped three drops onto the wound. Malfoy’s body jerked as a puff of greenish smoke issued from his shoulder. When the smoke cleared, the wound was sticky and congealed.

But he didn’t make any sound of relief. His eyes had fallen shut. His body slackened, and his hand fell limply from her wrist. He was as white as chalk.

Hermione froze in place. “M-Malfoy?” she said, her voice high and uncontrolled. “Malfoy?

He didn’t move.

She scrambled closer, bending over the crates to press a hand to his chest, then to his neck, trying to feel a pulse, but everything was slippery and hot with blood, and her own pulse was pounding so hard, too hard to allow her to feel anything but fear. Had she done something wrong? What could it have been? Her knees were on the crates now, her body hunched low over his, and she thought wildly of Crabbe’s words in the detention room, the way the phrase no real loss there had clearly plunged into Malfoy like a drill. She was remembering what she’d told him—that they wouldn’t ask him to die for them.

She seized his face between her hands. His skin was slick with sweat. Strands of white-blond hair fell over her fingertips. “Draco,” she said, her voice feverish. “Draco!

For a long moment, nothing.

Then his eyelids flickered and eased open.

Relief surged through her, as cold and strong as winter wind. She drew a long, shaky breath. Merlin. She’d thought—she’d actually thought … but it wasn’t true. It hadn’t happened. He’d only blacked out for a moment, probably from shock or pain.

Now his eyes refocused. A note of confusion colored his expression. She felt his breath against her cheek, and all at once, she realized how close he was, how far she had leaned toward him. She could see the delicate webs of his irises, like spun silver, and a tiny scar like the mark of a fingernail upon the curve of his cheek, and every mote of sweat that had beaded upon his brow.

Hermione felt suddenly paralyzed. His gaze was moving slowly, almost curiously over her face, lingering first on one cheek and then the other, on the tip of her nose, on her forehead, and then, finally, on her lips, and Hermione felt something quite aside from fear clench in her stomach. She felt as if she were trapped in the moment before the Time-Turner began to spin, when time stretched impossibly between present and past, absolutely immobile like held breath. She realized her hands were still pressed to either side of his face, warm and tan and trembling against the marble of his complexion.

She drew back from him so quickly that she nearly tripped on a crate. “I—you still need something for the blood loss,” she blurted out. “Yes. I-I’ll have to brew a Blood Replenishment Draught at some point. But for now …”

Why was her pulse racing? The fear, that was it. They weren’t safe yet. it had scarcely been five minutes since the elevator, somehow, though time felt uneven and unreliable at the moment. Hands clumsy, she fished out a stack of Skiving Snackboxes and extracted a box of Nosebleed Nougat and a Blood Blisterpod. She twisted off the purple half of the Nougat, then proffered it and the Blisterpod toward Malfoy. “Here. The Blisterpod is a low-grade blood replenisher. This half of the Nougat should keep it from feeding new blood into the wound.”

He took the chew and the pod with a trembling hand and slipped them between his lips, and his jaw worked slowly for a moment. Then he swallowed.

Hermione checked her watch. Yes. Time was of the essence. They had to get back down to the Atrium before Umbridge, Dawlish, and Marten cut their way out of that Sealing Charm. The effects of the Nougat and the Blisterpod would take ninety seconds or so to set in; hopefully they would give Malfoy enough energy to move. She wished she could use Rennervate to revive him, but that spell agitated wounds and would almost certainly reopen his shoulder.

She got to her feet.

“Where are you going?” Malfoy said.

“I’ll be right back,” Hermione said. She swigged the last dregs of her Polyjuice Potion. It would hardly buy her five minutes, but hopefully it would be enough.

Once transformed, she left the closet and strode into the Auror Office, walking with purpose, eyeing any Auror who looked her way with disdain. She wasn’t questioned. She scanned the cubicles, not letting the bursts of light and crackling sound from the sparring chamber distract her, nor the yells from the spectators.

As she rounded a corner, she saw her: Nymphadora Tonks, her hair blue as an evening sky, frowning down at a stack of paperwork.

Hermione hurried up to her cubicle, where several photographs of Tonks and Lupin hung, smiling, among many maps and charts. “Nymphadora Tonks?” she sniffed.

“Yeah?” Tonks glanced up. “Who are you?”

Hermione waited for another bang to come from the sparring chamber, and as voices called out in the aftermath, she lowered her voice and whispered, “It’s Hermione Granger. I’m under Polyjuice.”

Tonks blanched. Her face grew very pale. “Hermi—what in the name of Merlin—”

“We need to get out of here. They’ve figured us out. The alarm will go up any minute now. Is there another way out besides the Atrium?”

Tonks asked no more questions. “Quick response exit,” she said immediately, her voice low.

“What’s that? Where?”

“The Aurors use it so we don’t have to deal with those bloody lifts when there’s an emergency. It’s at the west corner of the floor through the iron grilles. Password’s ‘Bowtruckle.’”

Two minutes later, Malfoy was staggering back to his feet as Charles Parkinson. Hermione had siphoned the blood out of his robes and repaired the fabric. He was leaning more heavily on her than ever as they tottered out of the broom cupboard and down the western corridor, away from the noise of the Auror Office, toward a pair of black iron grilles.

They were halfway down the hall when the alarm bells began to clang.

Over the din, a magically magnified voice rang throughout the hallways: “Attention all Ministry of Magic employees. Two highly dangerous fugitives have broken onto Ministry premises and attacked members of the Ministry. They are armed and …

Hermione and Malfoy hadn’t waited for details. At the first sound of the bells, they’d broken into a sprint, Malfoy’s face contorted in pain. Even as they ran, doors were flying open up and down the hall.

“Bowtruckle!” Hermione gasped, breaking out of her run in front of the grilles. They leapt apart to reveal a massive black hearth, and a silver box of Floo powder dropped down on a metal arm. Hermione glanced back and saw Malfoy steps away, cradling his arm, his face twisted in pain. She climbed into the grate as the Department of Magical Law Enforcement officials began to shout, to point, to chase after them. Malfoy climbed onto the grate, too, and Hermione said in a quiet but clear voice, “Parkinson Estate!”

She flung the Floo Powder on the grate, and the whirl of green flame erupted around them. By the time they staggered out on the other end, Hermione’s skin was beginning to itch and bubble, melting, transforming.

Harry and Ron, who had been waiting before the hearth, jumped up out of their seats and opened their mouths. “No time,” Hermione panted. “Help me with Draco, he’s badly hurt. We need to leave now. They’ll be here any moment.”

Harry nodded, seized them by the elbows, and turned on his heel. In the instant before they Disapparated, Hermione caught a glimpse of the sitting room. Harry and Ron had done a good job: the place was in ruins, and the Parkinsons themselves lay, still unconscious, amidst the rubble. This had been part of the plan, if things went wrong: to smash the place up so it looked like the Parkinsons had put up a good struggle.

Hermione could only hope it would be enough. She had a small, sinking feeling that it wouldn’t be.

They stepped out of the suffocating darkness into the back garden of Number 7, Hartbridge Way.

Hermione doubled over, panting for breath, as she finished transforming back into her own body. When she had caught her breath, she straightened up and gazed around. The sun was high overhead, the grass and tall hedges a rich, reassuring green, the tassels on the twins’ tent moving in the breeze. The relief of being back at headquarters was a physical thing, as if she’d been released from a vise.

She took a long, slow breath. They were safe.

She glanced over at Draco. He was transforming back into himself, and looked nearly delirious with pain. “You need to rest,” she said. “Ron, Harry, help?”

“We’ll get him,” Ron said. They ducked into the tent, Draco held up between Harry and Ron, Hermione holding the flap for them.

Ow,” Draco said through gritted teeth as Harry jostled his arm. “God, watch it, Potter. I thought you were supposed to be coordinated.”

“And I thought you weren’t supposed to act the hero.”

Draco made a disbelieving noise. “I wasn’t acting the—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ron said.

Hermione followed the boys into Draco’s room, where they helped him out of his shoes and bloodstained outer robes. He lay back slowly on the bed, eyes squinted shut, his mouth open as he breathed, his hand fixed over his injury.

“What happened?” Harry said quietly.

“I’ll tell you later,” Hermione said. “Go on, you two—I’ll catch you up in a moment.”

Harry and Ron nodded and retreated from the guest bedroom, closing the door behind themselves. Hermione hesitated, then approached Draco’s bedside. She felt an odd rush of heat, remembering the way he’d looked at her in the Ministry, under the flickering orange light.

“Well,” she said. “That could have gone more smoothly.”

A pained smirk twitched at Draco’s mouth. “You don’t say.” He settled back into the pillows, face drawn with discomfort. “Didn’t even get the bloody Horcrux.”

“But we know who has it, now.”

“Yeah, great. So now you three just have to rob a top Ministry official who’ll be under guard every hour of every day. Doubly so, now that she’s already a known target. Can’t see how you could possibly fail.”

“It’s funny,” Hermione said, tapping her chin in mock thought, “how you say ‘you three,’ as if you won’t chime in about all our plans, complain about how we’re doing it wrong, and eventually, mysteriously, wind up involved.”

“What are you suggesting, Granger?”

She shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said innocently. “Maybe that being the arrogant little snot of the group doesn’t actually exclude you from the group.”

For a moment, Draco looked somewhat disturbed by this observation. Then he pulled a massively exaggerated yawn to cover it. “Yeah, well,” he drawled, “I think it’s about time I retire from the group. I mean, with this injury I’ve got, I don’t think you all seem nearly grateful enough. Maybe I’ll just sit in the garden, watching you flop around uselessly, and wait for you to come crawling back to me.”

“That’ll never happen.”

“Oh, really? Why?”

“Because you always need to have the last word, Malfoy. Which, I hate to say it, makes you the one doing the crawling back.”

“Excuse me? I always need to have the last word? Granger, have you had a conversation with yourself recently?”

“No, I haven’t. Is that something you do in the mirror? Is it fun?”

Draco glared up at her. “Granger, are you not going to let me rest, even now that I’ve got an honest-to-God war wound to nurse?”

She restrained a smile. “We’ve still got some Sleepiness Solution left. I’ll bring it in a moment.” Her smile faded. “But I … I wanted to tell you something, actually.”

She took a deep, slow breath, surveying him. An odd, bittersweet feeling had come over her. These moments had been happening more and more often, recently, like premature nostalgia for the life she was living at that moment. Whatever this was that she’d developed with Malfoy, this … this odd friendship, or at least, mutual openness in a way that they had no real business being open—she wanted it to survive. She could admit that much to herself.

She imagined a world where she simply didn’t tell him about the piece of parchment in her pocket. It was oddly tempting.

“Spit it out, Granger,” he said.

“All right.” She tried to smile. “I … I spoke to Tonks at the Ministry. And I asked her where your parents are. They’re in a village on the coast called New Cathcove. She brought them to a beach house where her mum used to take the family.” Hermione drew a slip of parchment from her pocket and set it on the bedside table. “This is their address.”

Draco didn’t say anything. His eyes were fixed on the parchment for a long time, but eventually they moved back to Hermione.

His face had changed. The omnipresent hints of suspicion and fear and self-satisfaction in his expression had faded away, and there he was: the Draco Malfoy she was beginning to see more often, even to recognize, to know. This was the Draco Malfoy who had stared in her home when she’d asked about Dolohov, and again in Ron’s room when she’d been frightened of him; he was the one who had been shaken by the phoenix song. This was the Draco Malfoy who had told her in the sitting room, blank-faced, how it felt to live on the edge of death. He could open himself by degrees, set himself ajar. He was the one who had said her name to shake her back to herself.

But she’d given him the parchment, and so, that was it. Any confidence between them was nothing when compared to seventeen years’ upbringing, a lifetime’s reassurance of his own pure-blooded superiority. He would bring his parents here. He would be theirs again. The old Malfoy would be steadily rebuilt on a foundation of centuries, of ancestry, of tradition.

This Draco Malfoy, ephemeral thing, would slip back inside, into the dark sea behind his mask, and, like ice in water, he would disappear.

“Get some rest,” she said.

But she looked at him a moment longer, because she wanted to remember the sight.

Chapter Text

Umbridge?” Ron and Harry said at the same time, aghast.

“I know,” Hermione said. “I can’t work it out either. How did she get her hands on the locket, especially if the Scavengers never found and resold it?”

Ron recovered first. “Could be someone else found it,” he suggested. “Or maybe Mundungus did nick it at some point. He dumped all his stuff into the black market, didn’t he? It could’ve changed hands.”

“Well,” Harry said, “as long as we get it off her before it changes hands again.” He sighed. “I wish you could’ve just grabbed it, Hermione …”

“You don’t think we tried?” Hermione said hotly. “How do you think Draco got that injury?”

Ron gave her an odd look. “Since when do you call Malfoy ‘Draco’?”

“What?” Hermione blinked. “Oh, I—I didn’t even notice.”

“Never mind that,” Harry said impatiently. “What happened?”

Hermione relayed how they’d escaped the Death Eaters’ custody and tried to steal the Horcrux. By the end of the story, Ron had gone pale.

“It’s all right,” she reassured him. “I don’t think Umbridge could have guessed I was trying to get the Horcrux. I wasn’t close enough. From her vantage, I’m sure it looked as if I was trying to grab her, rather than the locket.”

Harry nodded. “That’s something. Otherwise she might start wondering about it.”

“Exactly,” she said. “On the other hand, Dra—Malfoy said, and I think he’s right, that she’s bound to be under heavier protection now that we’ve made an attack on her. I’m sure they’ll tighten security at the Ministry, too. They know we’ve got Polyjuice Potion on our hands, so they’d have to be idiots not to use Probity Probes and other detection methods at the entrance.”

They sat in heavy silence for a moment. Then Harry said, “Still. We know where the Horcrux is, now, even if it’ll be hard to get it off her. It’s not like she sleeps at the Ministry.”

Hermione’s spirits lifted slightly. “That’s true.”

“Think about it,” Harry said with tense excitement, standing up from the delicate iron chair and pacing the cottage’s small patio. “We have one out of the four Horcruxes, and we know where the snake and the locket are. That only really leaves the cup. We’re loads better off than we were at the start of summer.”

Ron, who had been quiet since Hermione’s description of the duel in the lift, let out a small snort at this. “Sorry, mate, but it’s not exactly reassuring to know that one of them is with You-Know-Who all the time.”

Harry waved this off. “We always knew we’d have to make an outright attack on him at some point, didn’t we? I don’t think we should worry about the snake for now.”

Hermione’s eyes strayed back toward the tent. She was exhausted, though it was only late afternoon. The day seemed to have lasted a week. She thought of Draco, who had fallen asleep almost instantly after drinking the Sleepiness Solution she’d brought him, his sweat-strung hair falling across his forehead as his head had tipped against the pillow. The silent, sunny guest room had been so peaceful after the chaos of the Ministry. As he’d drifted off, she’d had the urge to lie down in the plush upholstered window seat and close her eyes, too, rather than going outside to recount the entire ordeal to Harry and Ron.

She glanced back to them. Harry made brief eye contact with Ron, then stepped off the patio into the garden’s lush, overgrown grass. “I’m going to start putting dinner together,” he said, and as Hermione made to stand, he motioned her to sit. “No, no need to help.”

Hermione didn’t argue as Harry hurried into the tent. But when she turned back to Ron, she felt suddenly nervous. He was still pale, and he was sitting up a bit too straight.

“I … I wasn’t worried about the Horcrux,” he said.

“Sorry?”

“You said, ‘It’s all right, Umbridge couldn’t have guessed I was trying to get the Horcrux.’ That’s not what I was worried about.”

Hermione knew, then, why Harry had hurried away. She’d even been waiting for it to happen, after what Draco had said—that Ron was in love with her.

She felt the urge to leap up from her own patio chair and dash after Harry into the tent, making some excuse over her shoulder. She didn’t want this to happen—not now. She wanted to rest. The image of the wound in Draco’s shoulder was still passing intermittently over her vision, like surf coming up to lap at a sand dune, and Ron was doing this now?

“I almost couldn’t go back to the Parkinsons’ place,” Ron went on in a rush, “knowing they had you. That coin was the only reason I didn’t go into the Ministry. Harry and I talked about it. He was for it, actually, going after the pair of you, but I knew you’d want me to make sure he was safe.” Ron was rubbing the back of his neck. His ears were bright red.

Hermione couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Her hands were fixed hard over her knees. She felt as if someone had cast an immobilizing charm on her.

“I know I was a prat last year,” Ron said, “with Lavender. Over summer, I kept thinking about how we never really, properly made up last year, after all of it. And maybe that’s why I never … because I didn’t know whether you were still thinking about it. But today was …” He swallowed hard. “Well, I … I sort of realised I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Hermione could see how much it took to say the words. Ron’s whole face had gone red, now, and he swallowed nervously, and his fingers were interlocking and unweaving, and God, she didn’t want to hurt him. But he’d said it, and so she had to reply. There was no getting out of it.

“Ron,” she said faintly. “That … that’s really …” She closed her eyes, took a shaky breath, and started again. “If this were last year, or even a few months ago, I would have been over the moon.”

The sight of Ron’s face falling, his realisation that this confession wasn’t going to go the way he’d hoped, was agonizing to her. She wanted to stop talking. She wanted, actually, to cry.

Be brave, she told herself. Don’t cry. Don’t make him comfort you, on top of everything.

“But I don’t feel the same way anymore,” she said, trying to inject strength into her voice. “I thought about it all through June, too. And you know how badly I wanted to be with you last year. But now it’s … things have changed so much, so quickly, and I feel differently now.”

Ron’s face was no longer red. He looked drained, defeated. “Why?” he said, sounding hoarse.

“I don’t know,” she said hopelessly. All she knew was, when she thought about how she’d sobbed over Ron in bathrooms last year, comparing herself with Lavender, feeling unlovable and dependent, it all felt definitively in the past tense, practically in the third person. It was far away from her now, and growing farther every day—a passing storm of feelings, the cumulative effect of years’ bickering and fighting as if they’d already been in a passionate relationship. Now she felt clearer-headed. She’d come out of the storm.

She no longer blamed Ron for their fights; she could feel that they belonged to her, too. Yes, he could be thoughtless, but Hermione knew she could be oversensitive. She knew she held grudges too deeply and responded with too much force. And that was the problem. She needed the freedom to draw all the way back from Ron when they fought, for weeks at a time if necessary, the way friends could, rather than ending every day in stony silence or defensive glares or hurtful words when they were in a rough patch.

Hermione had never thought two people needed to be totally similar to love each other properly, but sitting there, in the garden, she imagined Ron with someone a bit more like himself. She imagined someone more easygoing, who could laugh away his accidental moments of insensitivity rather than taking them so deeply inside that they hardened into anger and resentment. For him to be with that kind of person would be so much easier for him—for the both of them.

A breeze blew through the garden. Ron’s face was pained. Hermione felt a strange, sad pang of fondness for this boy who loved her, so fiercely protective in moments of hardship, so brave, loyal, and supportive—but Harry was those things, too. And, she realised, she wanted them both in her life in the same way: as her two best friends, joking and Quidditch-obsessed and a bit careless, neither of them so in control of what she was feeling.

She wished she could take his hand in comfort, but she knew it would hurt him even more.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I think we missed our chance.”

 


 

Ron was trying. Hermione could tell. After his confession, he couldn’t seem to look at her, or say anything polysyllabic to her—but his silences were heavily guarded rather than hostile, which was something. He hadn’t lashed out at her, either, though he had made jeering comments to Harry a couple of times, with the air of someone who desperately needed a negative outlet.

Harry didn’t snap back. Hermione knew he was making allowances. “I’m really sorry,” she told Harry the next morning, when they were making breakfast and Ron was out in the garden. “I know he’s taking it out on you.”

“It’s fine,” Harry said. “I’m just … surprised, I guess. I thought you felt the same way.”

Hermione sighed. “I did. I mean, I used to. I think going on the run, and Dumbledore dying, and … I don’t know. I feel like such a different person these days than I was at Hogwarts, if that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“How’s breakfast coming?” said Ron’s voice from the tent’s entrance. They both startled and looked across the sitting room, where his face was framed in the flap, looking at them with something like mistrust.

“Fine,” said Harry with an unnecessarily guilty expression.

“Fifteen minutes, Ron,” Hermione added.

Ron grunted, avoiding her eyes, and ducked back out of the tent.

Hermione glanced at Harry. “He doesn’t think we …”

Harry took a while to respond, slicing onions with steady hands. He was the one who helped her cook the most, having had years’ practice with the Dursleys. “He’s brought it up, yeah,” he said quietly. “I told him that it’s never … that we’re not … I don’t know if he believed me, though.”

“Maybe I should tell him—”

No,” Harry blurted. “Er, sorry, Hermione, I just … don’t think he really wants to talk with you about any of this, right now.”

“No, of course,” said Hermione. “You’re right. It was a silly idea.” Her face felt even more heated. “I’m going to go and check whether Draco’s awake. I mean, Malfoy. I mean—oh, never mind.”

She let out a long breath as she cracked the door to Draco’s room. It was strange to feel relieved at the prospect of Draco Malfoy, but out here there were wounded looks from Ron and awkward silences from Harry and the constant feeling of her stomach being wrung like a washcloth. In there, things were simple. Simpler, anyway.

Then she slipped inside and found Draco sitting up in bed, shirtless.

Hermione’s entire face went hot. “I—er,” she said, looking away. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” Draco said.

Her eyes strayed back to him. He’d conjured white bandages onto himself, strapped across his chest and beneath one arm to apply pressure to his shoulder. Unlike Harry and Ron, who jumped and hurried into their room whenever Hermione saw one of them leaving the bathroom in a towel after a shower, Draco didn’t seem to care at all about being half-naked in front of her. Not that he has anything to be self-conscious about, she caught herself thinking for a split instant, before looking away again, mortified. Where had that thought come from? What was wrong with her?

“What, Granger?” he said, sounding amused now.

“Nothing,” she said, very loudly, to the middle distance. “I expected you to be clothed, that’s all.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Does this break your vow of lifelong chastity?”

She gaped at him. “You—I—excuse m—

“My shoulder’s feeling much better, by the way. Thanks for asking.”

“I was going to ask!”

“Yes, well, you seemed distracted, so I thought I’d cut to the point.”

And now he was smirking at her. Hermione wanted to die.

It was strange, actually, seeing that smirk again. For the first time in a long while, he looked like the boy he’d been at Hogwarts, pleased and smug and unjustifiably arrogant. Almost refreshingly uncomplicated.

Except—since when had Draco Malfoy been good-looking? When had that happened? She’d never thought about his looks at school at all. She supposed his being a spiteful little toerag had sort of precluded those kinds of thoughts, but now that they didn’t loathe each other anymore …

This was ridiculous. She had to steer this conversation back onto course. “You look like you’ve done a good job on the bandages, at any rate,” she said, bustling over to the bedside. She tried to channel Madam Pomfrey, whom she was certain had never gone red upon seeing someone’s left pectoral. Or someone’s prominent collarbones. Or the smooth contours of the spot that someone’s biceps melted into their deltoids. Yes, these were things that Hermione was absolutely not noticing at all. “I’ll make a Numbing Draught after breakfast,” she said, her voice still too loud, “and we can soak a new dressing in it to change this afternoon. I’ll bring some breakfast in a moment.”

“I can do all that myself, you know.” He still sounded amused. “I’m not actually bedridden.”

“You should be. That was a serious curse. Do you want it to start bleeding again?”

“Yeah,” Draco said. “It’s my dearest wish, Granger. Could you come and wrench it open, please?”

She grimaced. “You’re hilarious.”

“I know.”

There was a brief pause. Hermione took a deep breath, glancing back toward the door. Draco seemed completely fine, but she wanted an excuse to linger, not to go back out into all that.

“What?” said Draco.

She looked back at him. “I-it’s nothing.”

Draco lifted one thin eyebrow. “God,” he said, looking almost impressed. “You’re a worse liar than Goyle, Granger. I didn’t think that was physically possible.”

She sighed. He was going to have to deal with the new atmosphere when he came back out into the tent. She might as well tell him. She took a step back and sat down on the cushioned window seat, playing with one of its red tassels. “Well, if you must know, Ron told me … yesterday, he …” Her face was turning hot again.

“Ah.” Draco’s lip curled. “I get it. You can spare me the grisly details.”

Hermione scowled at him. “I thought you’d have wanted the details, to make fun of us.”

“I’d rather not get actually, physically murdered by Weasley, thanks.” There was another short pause, and Draco said, “I did tell you. If you didn’t prepare for it, then that’s your own fault, really.”

“I was prepared,” Hermione said. “I mean, I think it went as well as possible, under the circumstances.”

“Which circumstances?”

“Well, I … I said I didn’t want to be with him.”

“Right.” Draco turned over the book that had been sitting in his lap; Hermione saw that it was The Tales of Beedle the Bard. “So,” he said, “you’ve picked Potter, then.”

“I’ve … what?” Hermione’s guilty feelings melted into surprise, and then, suddenly, amusement. A laugh spilled out of her. “Excuse me, have you been secretly theorizing about this, or something?”

Now she saw, with increasing incredulity, that there was a pink tinge just brushed upon the curves of Draco’s high cheekbones. “Look, Granger,” he said, “just because I’m stuck here with you three and I have to be subjected to your adolescent love triangle—”

“There is no love triangle!”

“Oh, yeah?” he drawled. “You haven’t been pining after Potter at all? We’re not leaving you?

Hermione was so astonished to hear her own words verbatim from Draco’s lips that she just stared at him, openmouthed. She’d had no idea that he’d been paying attention to what was happening between the three of them, or indeed that he cared about anything that didn’t affect him personally.

“What’s it to you?” she said.

“Nothing. Like I said, I’m stuck here. What else is there to think about?”

And she could recognise that he, unlike her, was a very good liar. He sounded lightly exasperated, and his grey eyes were flashing with very convincing annoyance.

Yet somehow, she could still tell that he was lying. He, Draco Malfoy, had seriously been spending time thinking about whether she loved Ron back, or whether she had secret feelings for Harry.

She couldn’t help it. She let out a slightly deranged giggle.

“Shut up,” Draco said, looking up at the ceiling. The pink tinge had spread across his cheeks.

She got to her feet. “I’ll be back in a—” She had to stifle another giggle. “—a moment. Harry should be nearly done with the eggs.”

She was nearly to the door when Draco said, “Granger. Hang on.”

Hermione looked back at him.

He was holding up Beedle the Bard. “You flagged ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers.’”

Hermione’s amusement faded. “Oh. Yes, I’d meant to come back to that—there was a rune I couldn’t find in Spellman’s Syllabary. The triangular one at the top of the page. Did you recognise it?” She frowned. “I don’t know if it’s even a rune … I’ve read and reread the section on derivatives and I think it might just be an illustration.”

“It’s not an illustration,” said Draco. “It was drawn in.”

Drawn in?” Hermione hurried back to his bedside, grabbed the book out of his hand, and held it up to her face. From about an inch away, she could see that he was right. The mark hadn’t been printed, but drawn by a quill; she could see the irregular bleed of the ink into the parchment.

“You’re right,” she breathed. “But what does it mean? Do you know what it is?”

“No. I’ve never seen it before.”

“You know, it looks familiar … I could swear I’ve seen it somewhere before.” Hermione closed her eyes. A triangle enclosing a circle enclosing a line. Where had she seen it?

Where did she ever see arcane and unusual symbols? Her mind flew to Luna Lovegood, and then she remembered, suddenly, a shape gleaming on Xenophilius Lovegood’s chest at Bill and Fleur’s wedding. Was it the same symbol? Was she misremembering?

“Malfoy,” she said, “you didn’t talk to Mr. Lovegood at the wedding, did you?”

“Why would I?” he said with supreme distaste.

“Hold on.” She tugged the door open and called, “Harry! Ron!” Harry nearly dropped the pan of eggs that he was shoveling onto Ron’s plate. “Come here,” she said. “Quickly.”

Ron stood up from the table, looking a bit alarmed at her urgency, too much so even to appear uncomfortable. He and Harry both joined her at Draco’s bedside, and she shoved the book under their noses. “Have either of you seen this mark before?”

“I—I don’t think so,” Ron said, though he was frowning.

Harry stared at the page for a little while longer. “Wait a moment,” he said slowly. “Isn’t it the same symbol Luna’s dad was wearing round his neck?”

“Well, that’s what I thought too!”

“Then it’s Grindelwald’s mark.”

Ron, Hermione, and Draco all stared at him. “Grindelwald?” Hermione said.

Harry related the strange story: Viktor fuming over the mark at the wedding, claiming that Gellert Grindelwald had left this mark carved into a wall at Durmstrang.

“I’ve never heard that Grindelwald had a mark,” Hermione said, brow furrowed, sitting on the edge of Draco’s bed. “There’s no mention of it in anything I’ve ever read about him.”

“Me, neither,” Draco said. “We …” He averted his eyes. “At home, we have a small collection of Grindelwald’s old belongings. Old leaflets, early writings, that sort of thing. That doesn’t show up anywhere.”

“And what’s it doing in a book of children’s stories, if it’s a Dark symbol?” Hermione said, tracing the mark curiously with a fingertip.

“Dumbledore left the book to you, didn’t he, Granger?” Draco said. “He probably drew it there for you to find.”

Hermione nodded slowly. “Yes … I suppose that makes sense. But why would he want us to know about Grindelwald’s mark? And does it have something to do with the book, or was he just trying to hide the symbol somewhere it wouldn’t be noticed?”

“Hang on,” said Ron slowly. “Krum said that mark’s carved on a wall at Durmstrang. … You don’t think You-Know-Who might have hidden Hufflepuff’s Cup where the mark is? I mean, Grindelwald was You-Know-Who’s forerunner, wasn’t he? Maybe You-Know-Who wanted to show how inspired he was by Grindelwald’s example.”

Hermione bit her lip. “That would be bad news for us. First we’d have to leave the country. Then we’d have to find the school itself, and Durmstrang is very secretive, even more so than Hogwarts and Beauxbatons …” She felt daunted at the concept, but at the same time, there was something reassuring in turning back to the mystery. It was smoothing away the discomfort of Ron’s confession, joining them with their purpose again.

“I don’t know,” Harry muttered. “If Dumbledore already knew about this mark when he left this book for you, if he really thought there was a Horcrux there, then why didn’t he just tell us that?”

Ron shrugged. “Why’d he leave me the Deluminator, and leave you that old Snitch? He hasn’t exactly made it easy on us, has he?”

Harry’s expression darkened. He was looking at the ground, and Hermione knew he was feeling the frustration with Dumbledore that had been plaguing him since the headmaster’s death. Occasionally, Harry would mention in a loaded sort of way that Dumbledore’s family had lived here, too, in Godric’s Hollow, not even a mile from where they were now. Or he would bring up that snippet of Rita Skeeter’s now-posthumous biography, about the supposed dark mysteries of Dumbledore’s family …

Hermione let out a small gasp. She suddenly remembered it, stowed away in her bag: the copy of The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore that Umbridge had pressed upon her in the Ministry.

“Harry,” she said, pulling out her small beaded bag and fishing the book out from it. “I’ve just remembered. We got this at the Ministry. If you want to read it …”

She trailed off. She hadn’t expected Harry to look quite so stricken at the sudden appearance of Dumbledore’s face, twinkling out at them from the cover.

She hastened to add, “It’s Skeeter, mind you, so a lot of it is probably rubbish. But I know you’ve been thinking about what Muriel said, and maybe this could have some answers. We do need to understand what Dumbledore was thinking, especially if going all the way to Durmstrang is a possibility.” She paused, then added more gently, “You knew him best. He really cared about you, I know he did. Would you want to … to read it, and see if you can tell what he was getting at?”

Harry swallowed hard. Then he gave a curt nod and took the book.

Hermione glanced at Draco. “You don’t know where Durmstrang is, do you?”

“Why should I?”

“We overheard you once, saying that your father wanted you to go there, but your mother preferred Hogwarts.”

Draco mulled this over. “Yeah, well, my father’s definitely visited. He used to be friendly enough with their old headmaster. You know, Karkaroff.”

A short, unpleasant silence. Hermione’s brain extended the sentence automatically: … before he fled the Dark Lord’s service, and was murdered for it.

Hermione’s eyes slid onto the scrap of parchment that still sat on the bedside table, the address she’d given Draco yesterday. She’d told Harry and Ron over dinner last night that she’d found where his parents were. They’d finished restoring a majority of the rooms in the cottage now, and Hermione imagined Draco bringing his parents back here, the Malfoys in the tent, she and Harry and Ron in the cottage. Divided into Gryffindors and Slytherins as before, everything back in its preordained place.

She glanced at Draco. His lips were thinned, and he was looking at Beedle in Hermione’s lap.

“I don’t know where Durmstrang is,” he said. “But I suppose I could ask.”

 


 

Draco’s whole body ached when he climbed out of bed that afternoon. The pain moved through his body like a ricocheting Bludger, bouncing viciously from shoulder to toe and back. He settled on the window seat with two slips of parchment in his hand: one, in Granger’s handwriting, bore the address in New Cathcove; the other, in Weasley’s, said, The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is located at Number 7, Hartbridge Way. He looked down at the information in his hand and tried to understand what, exactly, was happening inside his own head.

Draco prided himself on his introspection. He could usually understand himself and his urges with perfect clarity, and it was other people who acted in foolish or inexplicable ways. Yet when he looked at the address in New Cathcove, the information he’d hoped for since the end of July, he found a tiny, incomprehensible part of himself wishing that Granger hadn’t given it to him.

If he’d been in her shoes, he wouldn’t even have asked Tonks about it. He was an asset, after all, and to give him the means to get what he wanted … it was like holding the door open, letting him walk free, when he could be useful to the Gryffindors in the future.

Draco found himself feeling a kind of pride in exactly how useful he’d been so far, and he didn’t understand that feeling, either. Was it simply that he was naturally driven to complete a mission when he saw one? He’d always been competitive, of course. He loved to solve a mystery, to win. He loved to catch the Snitch: a feeling of conclusion.

No, though. It was more than that. He thought about the locket around Umbridge’s neck and he wanted them to seize it. He thought about the diadem, and he wanted to see it destroyed.

So far, he hadn’t really let himself consider the possibility that the Gryffindors might actually achieve their task. But knowing that two Horcruxes were destroyed, having a third in hand, and knowing the whereabouts of two others … five of six accounted for … the task was no longer such a vague, unreachable idea. It was starting to take shape as something that the four of them could, possibly, complete.

The four of them … Draco frowned. There it was again. He was thinking as if he were one of them.

But wasn’t he one of them? Hadn’t Granger said it yesterday? Being the arrogant little snot of the group doesn’t actually exclude you from the group. He’d given them information over and over again, had helped them plan for months now. At first it had been because his own safety had been at stake, but if safety had been his only motivator, he would have withdrawn from the mission the moment the Fidelius Charm had been cast. He would have refused to go against the Dark Lord’s cause.

He hadn’t done either of those things. In fact, he’d only become more involved since they’d moved into the cottage, training the Gryffindors in their infiltration efforts, plotting for their success. For Merlin’s sake, he’d nearly died for their goal yesterday. And why?

He found himself thinking of the shock of Crabbe’s words in the Ministry. The way he’d stopped dead in Pansy’s bedroom, unable to leave for a moment. The yank in his chest when he’d heard that Goyle was making his father suspicious, that he and Pansy might be shying away from the path that had been laid down for all of them.

Draco supposed it was the feeling he’d tried so hard to bury since he’d accepted Dumbledore’s offer. He couldn’t let his life go. He wanted to be alive again.

And for that to happen, the Gryffindors needed to kill the Dark Lord. This was the only pathway back to his life: the destruction of the Horcruxes. The end of the Dark Order.

So let them hunt the Horcruxes themselves, insisted a voice in his mind. He knew that his parents would take the same view. They would absolutely forbid him from being involved in the hunt; they would be appalled that he’d gone into Diagon Alley. Even in retrospect, Draco could hardly believe he’d done that, himself. Wasn’t it sheer Gryffindor idiocy to have done it?

But … if he’d stepped back and allowed the Gryffindors to go by themselves, they would have failed. They might even, all three of them, be in Azkaban, or dead. And now, instead, with his help, they were one step closer to destroying the Horcruxes—one step closer to a world where Draco could live.

At the end of last year, Draco had thought about what he’d wanted to tell the other Slytherins: sit down, stay silent, let the events of the world play out without you. That’s how you survive. But if he’d done that with the Gryffindors, his only chance at regaining his old life would have disappeared.

It was a strange feeling, knowing that his involvement had been pivotal to their success so far. Stranger still was the fact that it didn’t make him feel guilty. Rather, he felt as if he were prying his life back out of the Dark Lord’s hands, bit by bit. Last year, the Dark Lord had tortured him and disgraced his mother and consigned his father to waste away in Azkaban after all their devotion, all their faithful service. The Dark Lord had been willing to throw Draco’s life away just to humiliate his parents.

In essence, the Dark Lord had thought he didn’t matter—and Draco had taken that belief into himself, that nothing he could ever do would stand up against the might of the Dark Order.

But he’d resisted the Dark Lord for nearly four months, now. Four months, and they had one Horcrux in hand, a piece of the Dark Lord’s precious soul, and their sights on another. By that math, it could all be over in another year. If his parents stopped him from helping with the mission, on the other hand, who knew how long it might take…?

What if he merely waited to contact them? Or sent an owl? They were safe in New Cathcove, weren’t they? What if he waited… even just until they had retrieved the locket?

But as the idea formed, disgust surged through him. Draco came back into himself as if he’d been pinched awake from a dream. He didn’t know where all this was coming from. Granger, probably, and the way she’d started talking to him lately, like he was an irreplaceable part of this. Was he really considering not going to his parents? No. They would have done anything to keep him safe, and he would do the same for them. He would bring them here, within the bounds of the Fidelius Charm, and if that meant having to pull back from the Horcrux quest, so be it.

Draco gripped the pieces of parchment tightly and stood.

It didn’t matter that he’d helped the Gryffindors this far. His parents didn’t need to know that, and the Gryffindors would just have to manage without him from here on. He could ask his father about Durmstrang’s whereabouts, pretending some kind of unrelated curiosity, and that would be it, the last bit of help he gave them.

When Draco knew nothing else, even—apparently—his own feelings, he knew this much. He was a Malfoy first. The rest of the world came second.

He turned on his heel and Disapparated.

The pressurised darkness of Apparition clamped down on his shoulder, sending pain spiraling through him with twice as much force. It wasn’t exactly a gentle way to travel. When he reappeared in a small, dark living room, he was gasping, his vision swimming slightly.

The Breakwater, the Tonks’s beach house in New Cathcove, was perched on the coast. Draco could look out the back window and see tongues of gray water lapping at the colorless sand.

But something was amiss, he realised, as he clutched to his bandaged shoulder. The glass coffee table was filmed with dust. There was no sign of a struggle, but the place felt empty and lonely.

“Mother?” Draco called. “Father?”

His steps unsteady, he moved toward a narrow hallway and pressed the Muggle light switch. A glass bulb ignited down the hallway, revealing two open doors. Draco glanced into two bedrooms: one with a bed large enough for a couple, another with a twin. This must have been where Tonks had slept during her family’s holidays. Draco felt a twinge of disdain. Some holiday, this shack of a place.

Yet in the photograph of a teenaged Tonks and her parents—Tonks sporting a mohawk of brilliant green—all three looked thrilled, sunburned but waving out at Draco as if they’d just had the day of their lives. It was unusual to Draco, the mixture of Muggle house and Wizarding photos, the collision of the two worlds, but it also felt oddly mundane.

Draco retreated down the hall, and as he entered the kitchen, he saw it: a sheet of parchment on the tiled counter.

He snatched it up. The writing upon it wasn’t either of his parents’ handwriting, but of course, there were spells to disguise such things, and they would have wanted to avoid that identifying trace, if the Breakwater had been discovered as an Order-connected house. This had to be it—they’d gone to a more secure location, and this would lead him there.

He read:

N,

After three weeks without contact we are abandoning the idea that you will, as you assured us, “Come back to fill us in.” We cannot sit idly by while our son is under constant threat. We plan to return to London and reunite our family ourselves.

We do appreciate your quick action.

That was it. Nothing on the back. No signature.

Draco just stared at the words for a long moment. Then he let the parchment drift back onto the counter.

They were gone. He’d missed them, and not even by a close margin. They hadn’t been here for over a month.

Draco felt something cold coming through him like a tonic and it was a moment before he identified the emotion. Then the ache in his shoulder redoubled. He glanced around the beach house one last time, heart thumping slowly in his chest, and Disapparated again.

The pain was even worse this time. By the time he reappeared in the tent’s guest room, he was hunched over, his hand fastened to his shoulder. He thought the wound might have come open again beneath the bandages. He felt something wet and hot in the injury.

When he straightened up and opened his eyes, Granger was there, standing before the window seat with a flask of bright yellow potion in her hand. “I heard you Disapparate,” she said, standing and holding up the flask of potion. “And I’d just finished the Numbing … the …”

She hesitated, glancing into the corners of the room, clearly expecting Draco’s parents to appear there. As the seconds wore on, and as she studied Draco’s expression, realisation showed on her face.

“They’re not there,” she said, her voice small and tentative.

“Brilliant deduction, Granger,” Draco muttered. He climbed into bed, trying not to think about the dark waves of pain that were thudding down onto his shoulder. “I suppose you’re happy, are you?”

“Happy?” She frowned. “Why would I be?”

“Because you don’t have to—” His voice was rising. “Because now I—” He let out a disgusted sound and looked away.

A brief pause. Then she said, “I’m sure they’re safe. If they’d been caught, it would have been on the Wireless.”

“Yeah? You’re sure, are you? Well, thank God for that.”

“There’s no need to be nasty,” she said testily. “I gave you that address and there’s no reason I should be pleased that they weren’t there.”

“Of course there is,” he snapped, “because they wouldn’t have let me keep doing this.”

Granger didn’t say anything for a moment. When he looked up at her, her face had reddened.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” Draco demanded. “You’re glad they’re gone, because it means I still have to be on your side!”

“People can feel more than one thing at once,” she snapped back. “I can be sorry that you don’t know where they are and also—and also—”

“Also what?”

“Relieved that you’re not going to turn back into that person they make you!”

Draco stared at her. It took a moment for him to find words. “What’s that supposed to mean,” he sneered, “the person they make me? They’re my parents, Granger. I am what they made me.”

“You’re not.” She was holding so tightly to the flask of Numbing Draught that her hands were trembling slightly. “You know you’re not. I think the reason you’re lashing out at me is because part of you wants to keep looking for Horcruxes.”

“Oh, yeah? That’s what you think, is it?”

“Yes! You said it yourself, they wouldn’t have let me keep doing this. You didn’t want them to stop you!”

Draco’s heart was beating very hard. He felt a wave of furious resentment toward her and Potter and Weasley for being so steadfast, so unconflicted, and toward Tonks for not finding some way to contact his parents, and even toward his parents for leaving the safehouse.

But mostly, he felt disgusted and ashamed with himself, because Granger was right. He glared at her, her brown eyes flashing, the sunlight carding through the immense tangle of her hair, and he hated her for being right about this. The cold feeling that had flowed through him after he’d read the letter hadn’t been disappointment, or even worry for his parents. It had been relief: relief that he could come back to Headquarters and continue what they’d been doing, that his mother and father needn’t know, that he could continue to hunt the Horcruxes, like a blood traitor.

And maybe he was a traitor. Draco wondered if you could betray something if you had no loyalties. He wondered, in that moment, if he’d ever had loyalties to anything larger than fear and self-regard. Had he ever really believed in the Dark Lord’s cause, or only in his own desire for safety and superiority? For Merlin’s sake, when was the last time he’d even thought about the fact that Granger was Muggle-born? At the beginning of all this, it had been so natural to look at the others and think, blood traitor … Muggle-raised … Mudblood. Now, even as that word came into his mind, he felt a hard, uncomfortable lurch, and memories surged up as if in Granger’s defense: her terrified face inches from his in the Ministry supply closet; her gentle suggestion to grow the hedges after he’d seen Nott outside headquarters; her expression of delight when she’d seen her birthday surprise. He held the fact that she was Muggle-born in his mind and realised, with a surreal rush, that the idea felt neutral, practically mundane. Where was the disdain he’d always used to feel? The disgust?

Nothing seemed to make sense. Draco squeezed his eyes shut, and the world was a red pulse, thudding like a hammer against him. The pain was coming hard and hot through his shoulder. “I just want my life back,” he said through gritted teeth. “What, is that a crime?”

There was a long pause. Then she said quietly, “Draco.”

He looked up at her. She was swimming slightly. Her hair was Gryffindor gold where the sun touched it. She looked bewildered.

I want my life back, too. That’s why we’re all doing this. I know you think we’re just trying to be—to be stupid noble Gryffindors, and fight for some grand cause, but that’s not …” She swallowed and sat down hard on the window seat. It looked like something was stuck in her throat. She blinked rapidly, her eyes bright. “I mean, the cause is our lives. It’s the seventh year we’re not having. It’s—it’s being in the stands at a Quidditch game, and getting a bit worried about exams, and going home for the holidays. It’s just sitting there in the Great Hall and having a laugh with our friends. … It’s not all about morals. Or, I mean, if it is about morals, it’s because those are the morals that let us have a happy life. And Voldemort doesn’t want me to have that, or any of us. Even you! I mean, you’re a pure-blood! You believe in all those things that he believes in, and he doesn’t even want you to have—”

“I don’t know.”

The words were out of Draco’s mouth before he could think about them.

Granger’s lips were slightly parted. She looked at him in astonishment for a long moment. “What … what did you say?”

Draco’s throat was so tight that he could barely speak. He looked away from Granger. “I don’t know,” he muttered again. “What I think about … about those things.”

“Oh.” Her voice was very small. “Well, that’s. Good.”

He could feel her eyes fixed on the side of his face. He said, “Yeah,” not really knowing what he was saying yeah to.

“Your shoulder must really hurt,” she said, standing suddenly.

He seized on the topic with a kind of desperation. “Yeah. It does.”

“Sorry, I’m sorry, I’ve just been sitting here holding this!” She let out a shaky laugh. “It’s a weaker version of the Numbing Solution we made last year with Slughorn. In February, I think. I don’t know if you remember. Anyway, I’ve diluted it with another half-scoop of beetle eyes, so you should at least be able to feel the injury enough to know if it’s started hurting more intensely, which could be a bad sign…”

She kept babbling, taking her wand from her pocket and conjuring loops of bandages upon the bed, then daubing the Numbing Solution onto a patch of the white cloth. Draco watched her doing it with a kind of detachment, only half-listening, knowing she was still thinking about what he’d said, too, turning the words over and over in her head the way he was turning them over in his. It felt absolutely mental that he’d admitted his uncertainty aloud.

At the same time, he knew it was between them only. He hadn’t told Potter and Weasley about the diadem, and he knew Granger hadn’t told them what the Dark Lord had done to him, or what Crabbe had said in the Ministry. He didn’t know how he knew she’d kept quiet—he just did. And this, too, she would keep to herself. He watched her preparing the bandages, still monologuing about the components of the Numbing Solution, and this bossy, overbearing girl seemed nothing more than a cover, for a moment, for the girl who asked him questions that probed all the way into what he was, and never used the answers to injure him.

She corked the flask. “Old bandages off, please,” she said.

Draco slipped his robes off his shoulders, watching her as he did. She was looking away again, her face turning red. The feeling of flustering her was new. It made him feel a pleasurable kind of relaxation, as if to compensate for her visible uncertainty.

He took his wand from the bedside table and flicked it. His old bandages loosened, slid away from him, and coiled up on the table, stained with blood. He glanced down at his shoulder, the motion of his head causing him another twinge of pain. The wound had opened, but not severely. A thin, dark fissure and a single bead of blood working its way down his chest.

Granger took a slow breath. She seemed to be steeling herself. Then she leaned forward and smoothed the ointment-dampened bandages over his shoulder. A frizzy lock of her hair brushed against his cheek. Draco took a short, surprised breath and smelled something clean and light, like citrus and pear. The same scent he’d smelled in the Ministry supply closet as he drifted in and out of consciousness. And as her fingers smoothed the bandage into place, the Numbing Ointment took effect, and a fantastic sense of relief washed over his shoulder, muffling the pain to a whisper. His thoughts stopped racing. He took another breath of the light, sweet scent, the smell of her hair.

Then she was pulling back and flicking her wand, and the bandages tightened and wrapped securely into place. “There,” she said. “It should last you the rest of the day. We can change them tomorrow.”

He nodded, and she headed for the door. When her hand was on the knob, he said, “Thanks.”

She glanced back and a light smile pulled at her lips. “Of course,” she said. Then she was gone.

As the door clicked shut behind her, he heard her voice again—the way she’d said, I want my life back, too, with barely concealed yearning. He almost couldn’t believe that the Gryffindors were motivated by self-interest as much as he was. He had only ever really thought about them as Dumbledore’s little heroes, fighting the Dark Lord because they were driven by ideas of chivalry and had no concept of self-preservation.

He thought again of the way she’d put the diadem onto her head in the Room of Hidden Things, and he thought he finally understood. He’d done the same thing, he realised. He’d walked into Diagon Alley, knowing what might happen. They did these things because there was no world for them if they didn’t.

Chapter Text

Draco spent most of the remainder of September in bed. Hermione changed his bandages at first three times a day, then twice, then weaned him off the Numbing Solution. Even when it became clear that he was well enough to change his own bandages, she found herself continuing to come in and do it herself.

She supposed it had something to do with the atmosphere around the cottage and the tent. She’d hoped that Ron would become accustomed to the idea of staying friends, and that as he did so he would regain his warmth and humor, but he seemed to be sinking in on himself instead, growing more and more dejected. One day he would be able to look at her and speak a few stilted sentences. The next, his eyes would be reddened, and he would be quiet throughout their attempted planning sessions. Harry, chronically non-confrontational about these things as he was, proved no help whatsoever. And so Hermione found herself in the topsy-turvy world of dreading meals with her two best friends, but feeling almost eager for the hour or so a day she spent with Draco Malfoy.

Draco could be annoying, as she’d known for the majority of her sentient life at this point. He could be juvenile and overdramatic. But his recovery seemed to confirm that the juvenility and dramatics were mostly done for comedic effect, rather than being actual tenets of his personality. It was a kind of character he put on. Hermione had started combing through the Potters’ library to find texts about Durmstrang and Grindelwald for Draco to read while he was in bed, hoping to find traces of the triangular mark, and though he would sigh and roll his eyes and complain loudly about all that he did for them without so much as a thank-you, he did actually read the books. Whenever she came in, he’d be paging through them, marking them with slips of parchment when he found something of potential use.

“This one says, ‘… the very halls of Durmstrang still bear traces of the infamous Dark wizard who once walked the school,’” he said one day, sounding disgusted. “So, that’s got to be referring to the mark. But they move right on. Don’t actually say anything useful about it.” He chucked A Modern History of Wizarding Scandinavia to the end of the bed.

Hermione sighed, turning through International Wizarding Schools and Assorted Curricula in her usual spot in the window seat. “That’s the problem with a lot of these Wizarding historians of the early 20th century,” she remarked. “They seem to think some details are only there to add flavor to their descriptions, rather than being intrinsically meaningful.”

“Not to mention,” Draco muttered, “they’re all so terrified by the idea of being seen as sympathetic to Dark wizards, they won’t even touch the topic.” He scoffed. “It’s like they think writing about Dark spells is the same thing as getting the bloody Dark Mark.”

Hermione didn’t reply for a moment. She turned her page, though she hadn’t finished reading the previous one. She’d never heard Draco make that kind of offhand reference to Voldemort or the Death Eaters.

“Speaking of which,” she said tentatively, “I’ve been meaning to ask. Erm. That Protean Charm he put on … on the Death Eaters. I know it can’t allow him to trace everyone who’s got the Mark, or summon them forcibly, or Karkaroff wouldn’t have been able to run. But if he were to try to summon you, he couldn’t tell that you’re still alive, could he?”

Draco was still looking down at his book, but she could tell he’d stopped reading. He took a moment to answer, and when he did, it was in a forced-casual tone that didn’t convince her. “It’s not that different from the usual Protean Charm, Granger. When he touches his own Mark, he changes the Mark on whichever of our bodies he’d like. It doesn’t actually matter whether that body’s alive or dead.” He paused, then, more stiffly than ever, added, “We’re just objects to him.”

Hermione hesitated. “But that still means that the Charm would break eventually, when the body decay intrudes upon the Charmed area.”

Draco hesitated. Then he looked up from his book. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s … yeah.”

He looked unsettled, and she could tell he hadn’t thought of that.

“Well, then,” Hermione said, trying to sound businesslike, as if this were any other logistical detail, “We need to figure out a way to break the Charm from this end at a realistic time. Obviously we won’t want to undo it through injury; it would have to be a major wound. But I think there’s got to be some kind of Unraveling Counter-Charm for these things. Did Dumbledore mention what … what sort of burial you were meant to have been given? Did they use Embalming Charms?”

“Our family don’t do that sort of thing. The Lestranges and the Notts, yeah, but that’s so they can have their annual crypt viewings.”

“I’m sorry—crypt viewings?

Draco’s lip curled. “Yeah. Theo took me to one in third year. They all queue up and parade through the crypts, and there’s generations of dead Notts lying there on platforms made out of Italian marble. I think the oldest one is from the 15th Century, but he looks like he died about five minutes ago. And they read them each a line from a memorial poem in Blood Most Ancient, Power Most Profane. It takes hours. I’ve never been so bored in my life.”

Hermione couldn’t help an astonished laugh. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly,” said Draco, and then they were both laughing, Hermione looking up at the ceiling, Draco snickering down at the pages of his book.

“It costs a fortune, too,” he went on. “Because they’ve got to get the Embalming Charms extended every six months for the whole family, and it’s not exactly a normal branch of charmwork, is it. There’s only a handful of specialists in the whole country. … Not that Theo’s family hires Brits for it. The Egyptians are the best, obviously. Been embalming people perfectly for millennia.”

Hermione had stopped grinning. She was trying to imagine having a family tradition like that. “It’s actually sort of fascinating,” she said. “I mean, I suppose Theo would find cremation to be an insane ritual.” When Draco raised an eyebrow, she said, “A lot of Muggles incinerate their bodies and keep the ashes in an urn.”

“They what?” Draco said, gawking at her. “They burn—like on a pyre?”

“No, there are special machines for it, actually.”

Draco looked deeply disturbed.

“It’s better than parading through a—a museum of dead people,” Hermione said, feeling slightly defensive.

“Yeah, well, no one’s pretending the Notts aren’t weirdos.”

Hermione smiled and closed her book. “I’ll start looking into Unravelers, in any case. It’s only been a few months, but I think it’s better to break the charm too early than too late and have Voldemort get suspicious.”

Draco flinched. Hermione’s smile faded. “The Taboo can’t get through the Fidelius Charm,” she reminded him. “They can only hang around outside.”

“It’s not …” He gave his head a little shake. “Never mind. Go stick that nose in a book, would you?”

“Yes, you do the same,” she said, standing. “And try to finish that one quickly, please. I’ve just found a set of histories of Wizarding Austria that might have something useful; I know Grindelwald’s campaign was particularly aggressive there.”

“Merlin’s beard,” Draco muttered as she went for the door. “It never ends with you, does it?” But when she glanced back at him, his eyes looked amused.

September wore into October, and the trees outside turned glorious shades of russet and gold. One afternoon, Hermione found herself walking through the cottage to realize that it had transformed from a dismal shell into a quaint, inviting place with spotless floors and brightly repainted walls. The photographs of the laughing, waving Potters no longer seemed such a tragic reminder. James and Lily Potter’s smiling faces belonged in this place, which had become a home again.

The last room they restored was the ruined nursery. They’d talked around what to do with this room since they’d arrived in the cottage. In the end, rather than multiplying the bricks to remake the walls or rebuilding the roof, they installed sheets of glass in every gap and hole, tenting glass ceilings up over the room as if it were a greenhouse. The damage to the cottage’s structure remained, but the sun shone through the sites of impact.

They collapsed the tent and moved into the cottage on the same day that the bandages came off Draco’s shoulder, revealing a seam of scar tissue a centimeter wide. Harry, Ron, and Hermione moved into the two bedrooms of the upper storey, Draco into the guest room on the ground floor.

Headquarters was gold and red, sun and comfort, but the world outside was growing darker and colder. They heard the report on the Wireless a week and a half after their escape from the Ministry.

“… and lastly, members of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement have discovered treachery from within the Ministry’s own ranks. The suspect, Nymphadora Tonks, formerly of the Auror Office, is believed to have enabled the violent attack on the Ministry that occurred last week. Aurors visited her dwelling yesterday evening, where she and her husband, werewolf Remus Lupin, resisted arrest, resulting in wounds to the Aurors in question. They are now at large and have been named to positions four and five on the Ministry’s Undesirables list. The Auror Office has also issued an alert for the suspect’s mother and father, the latter of whom is a Mudblood in illegal possession of a wand. Both are at large and suspected to be dangerous. All four fugitives should be Stunned or otherwise immobilised on sight.”

Long after the report had faded from the air, the four of them were silent. It was a chilly night, so they’d lit a fire in the grate, but Hermione couldn’t feel her fingertips. She couldn’t feel much of anything. She had done this, she knew. Her ten seconds of conversation with Tonks had been enough for someone to notice. She kept turning the moment over in her mind. Could she have done anything differently? She’d thought about Disillusioning herself, but at close quarters, in a brightly lit office, around dozens of Aurors trained to spot magical concealments … she’d assumed she would have drawn more attention to herself than by simply walking through under Polyjuice. She had to believe that was true.

“Where do you think they’ve gone?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” Harry said, ashen-faced. “But wherever they are, I hope they stay hidden. If they get caught, they’ll be interrogated.”

Or killed, Hermione thought. When she looked at Draco’s pale, shaken face, she knew he was thinking the same thing: that if Tonks and Lupin died on the run, they had traded their lives for Draco’s and Hermione’s.

“They’ll be all right,” Hermione said, trying to convince herself. “Of course they will. Tonks is an Auror. And Lupin knows so much about Defence. … They’ll be able to stay safe.”

“What about the Taboo, though?” Harry said hoarsely. “Lupin uses Voldemort’s name. He has forever. I remember being surprised by it in the third year.”

“But surely Tonks must know about the Taboo, working for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?” Hermione said. “Yaxley is the head of that department now. Aurors were the ones who came to investigate the Scavengers when we broke the Taboo there. They must know.”

“This is why Dumbledore shouldn’t have told any of you about my family,” Draco said hoarsely. Hermione glanced at him. His face had taken on a greenish tinge. “God. What was he thinking? If those two are given Veritaserum, I’m done for.”

“Not necessarily,” Hermione said. “There are ways to dodge around Veritaserum—to give partial truths instead of the full truth. Besides, the Death Eaters wouldn’t know to ask about you and your family. If they asked Tonks who the other members of the Order are, for instance, she wouldn’t have to list your family, because you never actually joined.”

But even as she said it, her eyes turned to Ron. If Lupin or Tonks were interrogated, there would be no such loopholes for the Weasleys. She felt horribly tense. Would he blame her for this? With his family at risk, would he demand to know why she hadn’t thought of something less risky than talking to Tonks?

He didn’t look at her. “My parents should take Ginny out of school,” he murmured. “Hestia and Dedalus are already in hiding. My family and Kingsley are really the only Order members left in the open. Ginny should be with the family so they can go on the run quickly.”

Harry looked weighed down with guilt, and Hermione knew he was thinking about how, if Ron hadn’t come on the Horcrux hunt, he could be at home, with his family, able to say this to them himself.

Hermione took a shaky breath. “But none of this has happened yet. Lupin and Tonks are on the run. You two and your families are both still safe.”

“I wonder if we could find them,” Harry said. “We know Tonks and Lupin. If we could just … just figure out where they’ve gone, and bring them here …”

Hermione latched onto the idea gratefully. “That’s a good idea. It’s definitely worth thinking about. We can add that to our brainstorming sessions.”

“Sure,” Ron said, sounding hollow. “One more thing we don’t know how to find.” He shook his head and got to his feet. He hadn’t looked at her the entire conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Harry excused himself soon after, probably to talk with Ron. Hermione expected Draco to go, too, but he settled into one of the beaten leather armchairs, which they’d pilfered from the tent’s sitting room for the cottage.

“You don’t think Tonks and Lupin are at the beach house in New Cathcove, do you?” Hermione asked.

“They’d have been caught,” Draco muttered. “That house will have been registered with the Improper Use of Magic Office, so that they could do spells there without setting off Statute of Secrecy warnings. It’ll be under the family name.”

Hermione swallowed hard, the guilt intensifying. Because of the choice she’d made, Ron and Draco both had to worry anew, on top of everything else they already had to worry about. “I’m sorry,” she said in a tiny voice, unable to meet his eyes.

Draco blinked at her. He seemed to have been shaken out of his rumination. He looked a bit puzzled now. “For what?”

“For … for … I could have thought of another way for us to escape the Ministry. I should have figured out another—”

“What? Don’t be ridiculous,” he said with mild disbelief. “We barely made it out as it is. If we’d tried to get out the front way we’d have been caught.”

Hermione tasted blood. She’d chewed her lip too hard.

“Stop it,” Draco said. “I’d have done the same thing, all right?”

She finally met his eyes. “You’re not angry with me?”

He looked incredulous. “Granger, you stopped me from bleeding to death in a Ministry broom cupboard, and you think I’m angry with you?”

She let out a small laugh. “Right. I … well.” Feeling a small pang of relief, she leaned back against the sofa cushions. “Also, you can stop calling me Granger all the time, you know.”

One corner of his mouth twitched. “Oh, can I? I have Your Majesty’s permission?”

“Well, it makes you sound like Snape when he’s threatening to dock points from Gryffindor, is all I’m saying.”

“Maybe that’s why I do it.”

Hermione huffed. “Also, your hair’s gotten ridiculously long. You’ll look like Snape, soon, too.”

Draco drew back at this, clearly wounded. “You’re giving me advice on my hair?”

She raised one eyebrow. “Yes, Draco, I am, because it wouldn’t take you three hours and two bottles of Sleekeazy’s to get your hair under control. What, have you never cut your own hair before? It would take five minutes.”

He averted his eyes. “Pansy used to do it for me. She liked my hair.”

Hermione’s spirits sank again. She thought of Pansy Parkinson, the girl who had mocked her gleefully at Hogwarts, who had said Hagrid’s voice just sounded like grunting, a lot of the time, in fifth year. But Crabbe had described her as straying from the path of the Death Eaters. Hermione wondered if the Parkinsons had been interrogated—if they would be punished for their unintentional involvement in the quest for the Horcruxes. She wondered if Pansy herself would be punished, to manipulate the other Parkinsons.

“Do you think they’re all right?” she said quietly. “Pansy and her family?”

Draco glanced at her. “What do you care? She was awful to you.”

Hermione hesitated. Another moment of strange, casual admission: if he could recognize that Pansy had been horrible to her, he had to recognize that he himself had been, too. She remembered the day after they’d returned from the Ministry, the way he’d said, his voice tight, I don’t know what I think about those things. A halfway admission, but it meant he was thinking twice about the way he’d been raised.

She wondered exactly how much thought he was devoting to it.

Don’t invest yourself in this, she told herself. His beliefs weren’t her responsibility.

And yet he had seemed so uncertain when he’d said it. He’d looked destabilized, as if he were hunting for an answer and couldn’t grasp it. She knew that at this time last year, he would never have questioned the ideas about blood status he’d inherited, the so-called principles that everyone in his life had enthusiastically espoused for seventeen years.

“Yes,” Hermione said carefully. “She was awful to me. But maybe she’s changed. People aren’t only what they used to be.”

She glanced at Draco. With one look she could tell his guard was up: something in the fine lines around his silvery eyes. She remembered how he had seemed inscrutable to her in the mountains outside Hogsmeade, as if the face he’d worn for six years at Hogwarts had disappeared in patches. That was no longer the case. She knew the boy opposite her, who was in some ways recognizable as the boy from Hogwarts and in others transformed. She could tell when he was at ease or on his guard, when he was joking or uncomfortable, when he was even trying to make her laugh. It occurred to her that he had reappeared.

 


 

With restorations on the cottage complete, they found themselves with an ocean of time to conjure up ideas of where Lupin and Tonks might have fled, as well as, more centrally, a plan to get the locket. Unfortunately, all of their ideas for the Horcrux seemed to come to dead ends before they could even think of particulars. Even if they found out where Umbridge lived, surely she would have ridiculous amounts of security? And hadn’t Draco’s injury taught them the futility of trying to take on multiple trained Aurors?

It also seemed to Hermione that she and Draco were the only ones wholly focused on their hunt at the moment. She just didn’t know what to do about Ron. Sometimes he said nothing at all during planning, just sitting in the corner turning over the Deluminator in his hands, which had become a bit of a compulsive tic with him; the silvery item never seemed to leave his person anymore. Whenever she pointed out that one of his ideas wouldn’t work, he seemed to fold in on himself, as if her attempt to plan logistically were a referendum on her feelings. One day, his apparent resolve not to snap at her finally broke, and he snarled, “Where’s your idea, then? Or are you just going to say everything I do is wrong, now?”

She’d stared at him a moment before saying in a high, shaky voice, “Ron, I just told Harry his idea about tunneling wouldn’t work, either, and neither would Draco’s about a fake raid. And all three of you have told me my ideas won’t work all week, so—”

“Yeah, great,” said Ron, shooting to his feet with a dark, mutinous look on his face. “Thank bloody Merlin we’re getting somewhere, at least. It’d be a real shame if I were doing all this for nothing.”

And he stormed off as her shock turned to outrage. “If he were doing all this?” she repeated, her voice still trembling, but with anger now. “If he—what does he think the rest of us have been doing?”

“Hermione,” Harry muttered, “calm down. Let’s just—”

“I will not calm down,” she snapped. “I’m so sick of walking on eggshells! Why do I have to be calm, if he’s decided he’s going to act like this?”

“Because,” drawled Draco from where he was lying on the sofa, “this place will be a lot more livable with only one exasperating person in it, that’s why.”

Her teeth were still gritted, but his words punctured her anger somewhat. It took her a moment to figure out why.

Only one exasperating person, he’d said. So Draco thought Ron was behaving badly, too. Draco was siding with her, where Harry was and always had been absolutely dead set on remaining neutral.

But, of course, Harry only seemed to care about playing Switzerland when Ron was being difficult. At Hogwarts, whenever Hermione had made a mistake, like the Firebolt blowup or Scabbers’ supposed death, Harry had had no problem siding with Ron. But had Harry ever sided with Hermione? No; the only break in Harry and Ron’s friendship had been when they were fighting with each other. Even Ginny, who would fume all day about Ron’s traditional streak, was too loyal a sister to suggest that Ron was really out of line during his fights with Hermione. Maybe, in retrospect, this was why she’d felt so alone during the Lavender situation the previous year. She’d been in love with Ron and heartbroken, already a consuming thing, and all around her were people who were part of his life first and hers second.

Hermione couldn’t help but think that it was nice to have another friend. One who would look at a situation and take her side, not caring about annoying Ron.

“Fine,” she said, sitting back down before the sheet of parchment with crossed-out ideas. “Let’s … let’s keep thinking about potential diversions, then.”

But Ron wasn’t the only distracted one. Harry spent long hours just drifting through the house, looking at all the work they’d poured into it, brushing his hands over old furniture in a way that told Hermione all too clearly what he was thinking about. He was reading The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, too—very slowly, as it clearly brought him no pleasure. He seemed to begrudge every bit of information that Rita Skeeter had unearthed that Dumbledore hadn’t relayed to him personally.

Then, halfway through October, Hermione heard a shout from Harry’s bedroom around 11 p.m. They all spilled from their bedrooms and congregated in the living room. By the time Draco joined them, his hair mussed and drifting with static, Harry looked wild-eyed.

“What is it?” Hermione said. “What happened?”

“Was it your scar?” Ron demanded. “Did you see anything? Is my family—”

“It’s not that. Look.” Harry turned The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore outward and showed them a photograph of a young Dumbledore, wiry and auburn-haired, with his arm around a blond, handsome, mischievous-looking youth. The caption read:

Albus Dumbledore, shortly after his mother’s death, with his friend Gellert Grindelwald.

Hermione, Ron, and Draco stared at the words.

Draco was the first to find his voice. “Grindelwald?

“His friend?” Ron said, looking poleaxed.

Harry swallowed hard. “It was the summer after his last year at Hogwarts. The summer his sister died. There’s a letter in here between them. Dumbledore was …” Harry looked disoriented, betrayed. “He and Grindelwald were planning together. When they were our age, he was helping Grindelwald make plans to—to rule Muggles.”

“No way,” Ron breathed, taking the book from Harry’s hand. “You can’t be serious.”

“But that’s not—the thing is—that photograph,” Harry said, clearly struggling for words. “That picture of Grindelwald … Grindelwald is who Voldemort’s been hunting!

Ron looked up slowly from the book.

“What?” Hermione whispered. “What do you mean?”

“I told you about the thief that Voldemort saw in Gregorovitch’s memory, didn’t I? Voldemort’s looking for the thief, has been looking for months now, but he doesn’t know who he is yet.” Harry tapped Grindelwald’s face. “It’s him. But Grindelwald must have stolen it from Gregorovitch decades and decades ago, for him to have been this young in his memory.”

“What’s ‘it,’ though?” Ron said impatiently, setting the book aside.

“I don’t know, do I?” said Harry.

“Being that he stole it from a wandmaker,” Draco drawled, “you don’t think it could possibly be a wand, Potter?”

“Obviously I’ve thought of that,” Harry said through gritted teeth. “Look, I thought Voldemort was after wandmakers because of what my wand did in summer. I thought he wanted to find out more about the connection between our wands, the twin cores. … But when Voldemort interrogated Gregorovitch, he didn’t ask him anything about connected wands. He just kept asking, Where is it, where is it.” He gave his head a hard shake. “But it doesn’t make sense that he’d want another wand, because he wasn’t using his own wand over summer. I saw the one he was holding. He’d taken someone else’s. So, if he’s already tried using a different wand against me, and mine still beat him somehow, why try another? Why would the result be any different?”

Hermione shook her head. She wanted to tell Harry he was being ridiculous, so adamantly claiming that his wand had beaten Voldemort of its own accord, when it had to have been his own magic, used unconsciously. But they’d already squabbled about it enough.

“Maybe there’s some kind of tool that Gregorovitch uses to make wands,” Ron suggested. “Maybe You-Know-Who wants to make his own, because he thinks it’ll be better.”

Hermione opened her mouth, feeling impatient, wanting to say, What do you mean, better?

But she hesitated, not wanting to brush off Ron’s idea, in case he snapped again.

And as she hesitated, she began to have second thoughts. Of course, there had been some wizards who boasted that their wands were better than others, weren’t there? She’d read about them in A History of Magic. It was all codswallop, obviously—the wand was only as powerful as the wizard—but …

“There’s always the chance,” she said, unable to keep the skepticism out of her voice, “that Voldemort believes in one of those stories about extra-powerful wands.”

Ron and Harry both looked blankly at her.

“Oh, come on, you two,” she huffed. “Professor Binns mentioned them over and ov—”

“What wands?” Ron interrupted.

Hermione opened her mouth to answer, but Draco was already ticking them off on his fingers. “The Wand of Destiny. The Godhammer. The Wand of Ages. The Deathstick.” He raised one eyebrow at their apparent surprise. “Favorite topic among Slytherins,” he added.

“Did you say the Deathstick?” Ron repeated.

“Yeah,” said Draco. “That’s what Ellerion the Unquiet named his wand. That was the most recent of them. A hundred and fifty years ago or so.”

“The Deathstick,” Harry repeated. “That does sound like something that might interest Voldemort.” He frowned. “I don’t understand how one wand could be better than another.”

Hermione sighed. “They can’t be. It’s all just rumor-mongering. These wizards wanted to seem fearsome and impressive, so they claimed their wands were more powerful than others’.”

Harry considered this for a moment. “But if Voldemort thinks one of them is real, and if he thinks he’s tracked it down … that could make sense, then!” He began to pace the sitting room. “And, hang on a moment. Maybe Grindelwald believed it too. Maybe that’s why he stole this wand from Gregorovitch, because he thought it was more powerful—and now Voldemort’s after Grindelwald to get the wand from him!”

“Good,” Hermione said, lifting her hands. “Fine. Let him chase after it. As long as he’s on some wild goose chase, he isn’t here terrorizing people.”

There was a short pause. Then Ron said, “We are sure it’s a wild goose chase, then? I mean, there’s no chance this wand actually will help You-Know-Who?”

Hermione let out an exasperated sigh. “Of course not. The wand is only as good as the wizard. There’s no evidence whatsoever of any wands in history giving their owners an advantage. I don’t think we should spend time worrying about this, or what Voldemort is doing. Like I say, if he’s off looking for ‘the Deathstick,’ or whatever other mystical wand he thinks is so important, then it gives us free rein to look for the Horcruxes.”

“Hermione,” Harry said impatiently, “I don’t know how you can think this doesn’t mean anything. Dumbledore left you Grindelwald’s sign in that book. He wrote it there himself. Now we find out that Voldemort is chasing after Grindelwald? You really think that’s a coincidence?”

Hermione opened her mouth, then closed it again. She nibbled on her lip, sitting down on one of the sofa arms as Harry continued to pace. When he put it that way, it did seem more than coincidental, but Hermione felt as if the picture was still foggy. There was something they weren’t grasping, something they didn’t fully understand.

“Hang on,” Ron said with sudden excitement. “I’ll be right back.” He ran for the stairs, and they watched him go before sinking back into their stew of thoughts.

“Maybe,” Draco said after a moment, “Dumbledore wanted you to get that wand.”

“That’s an idea,” Harry said slowly. “Maybe … maybe the sign means we’re supposed to beat Voldemort to Grindelwald and ask him about the wand before Voldemort can.”

“Yes, but why wouldn’t Dumbledore have just told us that?” Hermione said in exasperation. “He never mentioned anything about any special wand to us before. It must be something to do with the Horcruxes. I don’t think this wand has any—”

Ron’s footsteps thundered back down the stairs behind them. They all turned, and Hermione’s heart plummeted.

Ron was holding up Ravenclaw’s Diadem. “I think it’s time to break this out again,” he said.

No,” Hermione and Draco said at the same time.

“Why not?” Harry said, looking nonplussed. “It helped you with the Fidelius Charm, didn’t it? And it gave us the idea for the Basilisk fangs. I think it’s a good idea, Ron. Go on, put it—”

“You can’t!” Hermione burst out.

A long, uncomfortable silence. Ron lowered the diadem, looking suddenly suspicious.

Harry looked alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

“I …”

Hermione’s eyes strayed to Draco. There was a slight grimace on his face, but he gave his head a small, irritable jerk, as if to say, Well, I suppose we have to.

Hermione swallowed. “Harry, Ron,” she said quietly, her mouth very dry. “I didn’t stop wearing the diadem because I was afraid it would let Voldemort into the bounds of the Fidelius Charm. I stopped because it … it was sort of … taking me over.”

Harry was staring at her. She could feel Ron’s eyes on her, too, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She gazed down at her slipper-clad feet and went on in hardly more than a whisper. “It was making me sleepwalk to it and wear it at night, when I was vulnerable to it. And it made me think things … awful things about myself, and about …”

“Hermione, why didn’t you say any of this?” said Harry. His voice was thin. He sounded both frightened and bewildered. “Why didn’t you tell us it had started to affect your thoughts, or anything?”

“It convinced me the thoughts were coming from me. Because they—they were coming from me, it was everything I’m—” Her nose was burning. Her eyes were hot. She didn’t want to cry. “It was stupid.”

“But how did you stop it?” said Ron’s voice, quiet and hoarse.

“I didn’t.” She sniffled and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “It was Draco. He realized what was happening and … and saw it possessing me the night before I did the Fidelius Charm. He kept it away from me. We had a sort of system to make sure I couldn’t get to it at night.”

She glanced up at Draco. He looked stiff and uncomfortable, his arms folded.

“He knew?” Ron said.

“What?”

“He knew. Malfoy knew about all this, the whole time, but you couldn’t tell us?”

Hermione looked at Ron, now. The diadem was clutched hard, gleaming, in his hands. There was a kind of panicked defensiveness on his face, and anger, too. She thought she understood. Ron felt guilty that he hadn’t realized what was wrong with her, that she’d been possessed by Voldemort under his nose—and he couldn’t accept that he’d failed to notice it. So it had to have been something she’d done, a choice she’d made.

Draco spoke, taking Hermione by surprise. His voice was quiet and dangerous. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Weasley.”

Ron ignored him. His voice rose, his face growing steadily redder. “I thought we were supposed to be your friends.”

Hermione glanced at Harry, and he, too, looked utterly blindsided, even betrayed. Her clarity dissolved. Panic took over. It was like falling back into the diadem’s clutches for an instant, the visceral fear that she was about to lose her friends forever.

“You are,” she said desperately, looking between them. “Of course you are, Ron, don’t be ridiculous—”

“Don’t tell me I’m being ridiculous. You’re the one who kept this from us for months!”

“That’s only because I was afraid you’d think that I …”

“You didn’t have a problem telling him,” Ron snapped, pointing at Draco.

“But it wasn’t like that,” Hermione pleaded. “He found me in the middle of the night, he’d already figured it out, it wasn’t a choice that I made.”

Ron let out a hard laugh. “Oh, yes, it was. Maybe not at first, but every single day since then, it was. What if I’d put this thing on and gotten possessed, eh?” He brandished the diadem, which was glittering madly in the light. His voice was rising to a shout. “Or Harry? Would you have cared enough to tell us the truth then?”

He’d meant it to wound, and it did. Hermione took half a step back.

Harry seemed to find his voice. “Ron, that’s out of order.”

Ron didn’t even seem to hear him. There was an ugly, malicious satisfaction on his face that made him look nothing like himself. Spots of reflected light from the diadem were flying over his freckles. “You didn’t even think of us at all, did you?” he yelled with a kind of abandon that told her this had been accumulating for weeks. “Why would we matter? Or have you been working with the Horcrux all along? You’ve been busy keeping secrets with a Death Eater, after all!”

Hermione’s body flooded with heat, and her shock transformed into an incoherent roar of rage. Her vision discolored, her heart pounding. How could he? How could he suggest that not confessing her disgrace meant she was helping Voldemort? When, out of all four of them, she was the one Voldemort’s regime was meant to eliminate? And how dare he imply that Draco was still a Death Eater, not even a month after he’d nearly died to help them? All this, on top of the humiliation that Draco, rather than her best friends of seven years, was the one who’d had the emotional intuition to realize that something was wrong with her. All this built upon itself in an instant, and the roar of rage intensified until she could hardly even see, and she screamed back, “THIS IS WHY, RON!”

Deafening silence fell over the room. The color drained out of Ron’s face until the skin behind his freckles was as white as cloud. His shoulders came forward slightly as if he’d been punched in the chest.

Hermione didn’t know where it had come from. She didn’t know why she’d said it.

Worse, it was true. This sort of anger, destructive and ugly and bitter—it was like being back in third year again, after Scabbers, or fourth year, after the Yule Ball, or sixth, when she’d seen him in that corner with Lavender. The things they did to each other. This was why it wasn’t right.

Ron was breathing rapidly. His eyes were bright. He looked disoriented, like he’d just come out of a trance. He looked around, first at Harry, then Draco. His hand moved uncertainly toward an end table, and he dropped the diadem, which was glinting like someone’s eyes, onto it. Ron swayed slightly as it came out of his grip.

“I can’t do this,” he said hoarsely. “I’m done.”

He turned on his heel, a crack split the air, and he was gone.

Chapter Text

They stayed up for hours that night waiting for him to return. Potter made three cups of tea, and they took seats in the sitting room, each of them trying, and failing, to read a different book.

Around one in the morning, Draco decided it was time to break the silence. “I suppose we should leave, then.”

Potter looked up from The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. “What do you mean, leave?”

“I mean he’s the Secret-Keeper, Potter. If he gets caught, he could give this place away.”

“He won’t be caught,” Potter said. “What do you think, Ron’s just going to go into Diagon Alley and say, Hi, everyone, I’m back?”

“Where else is he supposed to go?” Draco said coolly. “You can be sure the Burrow’s being watched, and that flat the twins have, too. If he tries to sneak back into one of those places in the middle of the night—”

“He could travel back to Hogwarts,” said Hermione in a small voice from the armchair closest to the fireplace. She’d cried silently for half an hour, but had so obviously been trying to hide it that Draco hadn’t said anything. She seemed to have shrunk to three-fourths her usual size since Weasley left: her shoulders were folded in, her legs tight together as if she’d been put under the Leg-Locker jinx. Even her hair seemed deflated, with the way she’d been anxiously smoothing it down.

“After all,” she said, “he was supposed to have been at the Burrow with Spattergroit this whole time. They never knew he was with us. Maybe now with Tonks and Lupin on the run, he’ll want to be near Ginny.”

“Snape’s there,” said Potter wearily. “If that slimy git gets suspicious that he was never sick and does Legilimency on him, or sneaks him Veritaserum …” Potter shook his head. “Ron’ll find a way to get in touch with his dad. They’ll get him back into the Burrow somehow, and he can just pretend he’s still recovering from his Spattergroit until he’s cooled off. He’ll be fine.”

Draco wanted to tell Potter he was being an optimistic idiot, but he found he couldn’t be bothered. He could still hear Weasley’s voice saying, You’ve been busy keeping secrets with a Death Eater. He’d been surprised by the way the words had hit him. Why did he care that Weasley still looked at him and saw a Death Eater? It wasn’t like it was a huge surprise. And when had he ever given a damn about Weasley’s opinion?

He wondered why he cared what anyone thought of him, at this point. Crabbe’s father or Crabbe himself or Weasley or the rest of the Wizarding World. He knew what he was, and that should have been enough.

He was reasonably sure he knew what he was, anyway.

“Draco’s right, though,” said Hermione with a bit more strength. “We should be prepared for the worst case.”

“I’m not leaving,” Potter said. “We’ve worked too hard on this place, Hermione.”

Hermione sighed, rubbing her forehead. “Well … we’ll have to be on the alert all the time. I’ll pack my bag again with the essentials. The Horcrux, the tent, Polyjuice, some books. You two, pack some robes for me to put in, too. I’ll keep the bag on me, and if we hear anyone Apparate in and Ron doesn’t say it’s him, we Disapparate right away to that cave we used in our old escape drills, all right?”

Hermione hurried up the steps while Potter collected the teacups and saucers. But once Hermione’s door had shut upstairs, Potter’s motions slowed. He looked over at Draco.

“Listen. Er. Draco.”

“Yeah?” Draco said.

“Thanks. For what you did for Hermione.”

Draco gave a curt nod.

Potter looked into the hearth, where the fire had burned to embers. “I can’t believe Ron and I didn’t see it. It’s really lucky that you did. I mean, not lucky, but—yeah, thanks.” He hesitated. “And for what it’s worth, I don’t think Ron meant any of that, what he said. I mean, he was holding the Horcrux, and he hasn’t been feeling right for weeks. We know you’re not a Death Eater anymore.”

“Aren’t I?” Draco said stiffly. “I still have the Mark.”

There was a pause.

Then Potter shrugged. “All I’ll say is, if you are still a Death Eater, you’re doing a pretty shit job of things.”

After a moment, Draco let out a short laugh. “Yeah. I suppose I would be.”

 


 

Draco expected Weasley to barge back in within a day, asking for forgiveness, but two days went by, then three, and he didn’t reappear. This seemed to wound Hermione and Potter in a way that neither could articulate. They kept shooting looks at the empty seat at the dinner table, and pained expressions crossed their faces whenever they mentioned him. But it was also true that day-to-day life was smoother without the mood swings that he’d been prone to before his departure.

They kept the Wireless on at all hours, now. If Tonks, Lupin, or Weasley was captured—and Draco was certain any of the three would constitute a major announcement—headquarters would need to be evacuated immediately. Days passed, though, and the only interesting thing the Wireless mentioned was the official willing of Malfoy Manor to the Lestrange family, after a legal battle including several other claimants: minor cousins of Draco’s, all of whom his parents had loaned large sums to on multiple occasions. The idea of those leeches clawing at his family’s legacy made Draco so furious that he had to leave the room and pace the garden for a while, scarf wrapped tightly around him to keep away the increasing chill.

Potter checked the Marauder’s Map every day, but Weasley never showed up there, either. It seemed Potter’s instincts had probably been correct, and Weasley had gone back to his family. Draco would have thought that with some distance, Weasley’s recognition of the Horcruxes’ importance would have brought him back, no matter his feelings of rejection. But if he hadn’t been captured, hadn’t returned to Hogwarts, and hadn’t gone home, what else could he be doing?

“You don’t think he’s trying to hunt down Hufflepuff’s Cup on his own?” said Hermione one night, without any context whatsoever, long after Potter had gone to sleep.

Draco sighed, but he was grateful for the excuse to flip his book shut. His eyes were exhausted. “You’ve got to stop thinking about it.”

“I know.” She bit her lip. “But if I hadn’t shouted at him—”

“He wanted you to shout at him.”

“That’s probably true. … I just don’t understand why he hasn’t come back.” Hermione stretched her legs out on the sofa, looking miserable. “Have you thought any more about where your parents might be?”

Draco set his book on a side table and scrubbed his hands through his hair. “No idea. They said London, and we hardly ever went to London. Bella’s family has a house there, but obviously my parents wouldn’t go near it now. I think they must be trying to contact other Order members. The twins have that shop, and their father works at the Ministry, so …” He sighed. “Anyway, I don’t see how I could get word to them, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters,” Hermione said. “All this worrying about people we have no way to reach, it’s just awful.”

“Yeah. Really makes you consider the merits of the Dark Mark.”

“Ha ha,” said Hermione, giving him a stern look. Draco smirked and sank down in his armchair, letting his eyes close.

“Can I ask you something?” Hermione asked after a moment.

“Depends what you’re asking.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Yes, then.”

“Do your parents have any friends who are Muggle-borns?”

Draco opened his eyes, suddenly feeling much more awake.

It had been nearly a month since he’d admitted to having second thoughts about blood status. Some days he still felt angry with himself, embarrassed that he’d said something like that out loud. He was a Malfoy, for God’s sake. Maybe everyone had blood-traitor thoughts at times, but to go so far as to say it out loud … had it been guilt? The pain in his shoulder, maybe?

But then, sometimes, he felt something else, something altogether more unsettling. Sometimes he found himself curious, in a wary kind of way, about parts of Hermione’s Muggle upbringing. These moments triggered a kind of panicked repulsion, the need to get the curiosity out of his head. He’d feel a wash of shame and self-loathing. His parents would be appalled. His whole family would be appalled.

So he felt wary, now, coming close to the topic, but her question didn’t directly address what he’d said. “No,” he said curtly. “None.”

“Do you think they ever did?”

“Doubtful. They wouldn’t have met any Muggle-borns in Slytherin as kids, anyway.” He paused. “Why?”

“Oh, well, I was just wondering. Do you think, if your parents made friends with a Muggle-born, they might think any differently? Even a little bit?” She hesitated, then added, clearly trying to sound offhand, “I mean, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

Draco’s suspicion, his defensiveness, faded. He could tell from her tone that this had been the actual question she’d wanted to ask; she really was an atrocious liar. And the conversation wasn’t really about blood status, then. They were moving out of dangerous waters.

Moreover, he was surprised to find that the answer to the question was easy.

“Yeah,” he said. “I think so.”

Hermione’s expression brightened. “I do, too.”

He raised one eyebrow. “Did you think I’d say no to that?”

“Well, I don’t know,” she huffed, fluffing the sofa cushion behind her head. “Your mind works in strange ways.”

“I don’t exactly go around blabbing to anyone about—about the things we’ve talked about,” Draco muttered. “Actually, most of it I don’t tell anyone at all.”

She smiled. “It’s the same with me. It’s funny, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long silence. He looked over at her. Her eyes were closed, and so he watched her for a moment, the low red of the dying fire playing over her features. She looked soft and vulnerable in a way she rarely did, lying curled up like that. A lock of hair had straggled over her cheek, shadowing her eye.

Draco found himself remembering the moment in the Ministry cupboard that he’d awoken to find her face inches from his, her expression frantic, her hands slipping against his skin. At that moment, he’d felt like he’d never seen her before, like that had been the first time he’d really looked at the rich warm color of her brown eyes, the slightly plaintive curves of her brows, the color of her always-bitten lips.

He looked away from her, frowning. His heart was beating a bit too deliberately, like someone knocking at a door to come in.

As October wore on, the three of them spent every day in the cottage library. The days began to wash into each other. They would wake up and spend mornings through lunchtime trying to brainstorm ways to get to Umbridge.

“If we could just contact Kingsley,” Potter said often, “and get him instated as Umbridge’s security detail…” But that idea struck a hard dead end when Kingsley was added to the Undesirables list after an apparent run-in with Death Eaters.

“I wish we could do something for the Order members on the run,” Potter said fiercely.

“How could we?” Draco said. “We haven’t even got our Secret-Keeper anymore. We can’t share the secret.”

An uncomfortable silence as thoughts of Weasley hovered in the air around them.

“He knows that, too,” Potter muttered. “I don’t know what he’s playing at.”

Hermione drew a sharp breath. “Hang on,” she said. “There’s another way. Draco, we still have that piece of paper that Ron wrote the address on for your parents. You’d better give that to me straight away, so I can keep it in my bag and keep it safe.”

The latter part of their days felt, if possible, even more frustrating and unproductive. They pored through every single book that could mention Grindelwald’s mark, their research punctuated only by dinner. Many of the texts were so dry that to read a hundred pages in a day was a great achievement. Draco always went to bed with his head swimming in information about early 20th-century Europe. He felt as if they were moving in endless circles, and that with every day they failed to make a breakthrough, he was failing everyone who was in danger, his parents, and Pansy and Goyle, not to mention all the Order members on the run, who could at any moment be forced to reveal him.

Then, one particularly chilly night, Potter came into the sitting room with the bottle of Firewhisky they’d sipped from on the evening of Hermione’s birthday. “All right, you two,” he said. “No more reading.”

“Excuse me?” said Hermione, looking like he’d just blasphemed in a church.

“You heard me. Here.” And he tossed a glass to her, then Draco. Hermione let out a squeak and caught hers. Draco dropped Against the Dark Arts: a History of Wizarding Power Struggles and caught his, too.

“What’s this?” Draco said, narrowing his eyes.

“We’re taking the night off,” Potter said firmly. “I’m going mental. I know you two are, too. We’ll never find anything if we lose our minds in here. Besides, it’s Halloween. They’re feasting at Hogwarts right now.” He filled his own glass, then flicked his wand. The bottle of Firewhisky poured Draco’s and Hermione’s drinks of its own accord, then set itself upon the mantel with a clunk.

“Halloween,” said Hermione, with a strange, pensive look. “It is, isn’t it? I’d completely lost track of time.”

There was a pause. Draco knew this was the night that the Dark Lord had found this cottage sixteen years ago. It was no wonder that Potter wanted some distraction.

“Fine,” he said, setting his book aside. “But I’m not going trick-or-treating with you, Potter.”

“Shame,” Potter said. “I was looking forward to seeing your giant pumpkin costume.”

“He could be a ghost,” Hermione suggested. “He wouldn’t even need makeup.”

They tittered. Draco did not dignify either of these comments with a response. He sipped the amber liquid, which was hot and bitter, with a sweetly lingering aftertaste. For several long minutes after Hermione and Potter’s chuckles faded away, none of them spoke. Draco tried to think of some topic of conversation, and realized it had been so long since they’d spoken about anything besides the Horcruxes, or the war, or missing persons, or Dolores bloody Umbridge and her bloody security detail, that nothing at all came to mind.

Soon Draco’s glass was empty. When he held it out, Potter refilled it without a word.

Hermione broke the silence. “It’s not bad, is it?” she said somewhat awkwardly, still nursing her first glass. “Firewhisky, I mean. I always preferred Butterbeer, but this is nice on a cold night.”

“There’s a bottle of Firewhisky hidden in the Slytherin Common Room,” Draco said. “It’s a tradition. You can’t tell anyone below fourth year where it is, and if you finish the Common Room Bottle, you have to be the one to buy the replacement.”

“That’s not bad,” Potter said.

“Sort of fun, really,” Hermione said. “I wish Gryffindor had something like that.”

“Well, we are the superior house.” Feeling satisfied, Draco sank down in his armchair so that his hair rubbed against the leather. Out of stubbornness, he hadn’t cut his hair since Hermione had compared him to Snape, but she was right. It was practically Pansy’s length at this point. He realized his face was tingling with warmth. The Firewhisky was hitting him quickly.

“We did have Fred and George,” said Potter, polishing off his own first glass. “They used to nick food from the Kitchens whenever we won a Quidditch match.”

Draco snorted. “That wasn’t a Gryffindor thing. We did that, too.”

“I miss it so much,” Hermione sighed, tracing the cracks in her leather chair. “Hogwarts.”

“Me too,” said Potter.

“Yeah,” Draco muttered.

“What do you wish you could do again most?” Hermione said, holding out her glass for a refill. “Harry, I suppose it’s Quidditch for you?”

“I don’t know,” said Potter. “I don’t think so, actually. Visit Hagrid, maybe. Or … well.” His voice became low and bashful. “There were those couple months that I had with Ginny.”

“You really miss her, don’t you?” said Hermione softly.

Potter couldn’t seem to form words. He nodded and took another long sip.

“And I—I suppose you miss Pansy, Draco.” Hermione glanced at him. Color had tinged her cheeks, from the drink, probably, a dusky rose shade.

“We broke up halfway through last year,” Draco said.

“Oh. I didn’t realize.”

Draco shrugged. “We weren’t great together. She let me get away with anything.”

Hermione looked amused. “I would have thought you’d like that.”

“You would, would you?” Draco said. The words came out lower than he’d intended, and he was looking at her hairline, for some reason, the way her hair looked very soft right there, the wisps of her curls.

She gave him a hesitant smile, then looked away, back to Potter. Draco felt an unusual wash of heat over the back of his neck. Feeling a bit confused, he looked down at his drink and took another sip. “Yeah, anyway,” he went on, bolstering his voice back into a confident drawl, “she started going out with Theo Nott. They’d be good if they kept it going.” He shook his head. “Theo’s sort of an idiot sometimes, but he’s actually liked her for ages. I don’t even think she realized.”

“I wonder what they’re doing right now,” Harry said.

“What, Pansy and Theo?”

“Well, I mean, everyone. Neville and Seamus and Luna and—and Blaise Zabini, and the Creeveys, and everybody. I don’t know. Bloody—Ernie Macmillan.”

They were all grinning, then. “I know what Ernie Macmillan’s doing,” Draco said. He straightened up in his armchair and puffed out his chest. “I’ve already drawn up my N.E.W.T. study schedules, of course,” he said in Ernie’s pompous tones.

Potter puffed out his chest, too, blustering, “I’m already getting in twelve hours of study on weekends, myself …

“But twelve hours is a bad day,” Hermione added. “I can—” A giggle escaped her. “—can fit in fourteen if I stop eating.”

“Fourteen and a half, when I stop using the toilet,” Potter managed before they all broke into laughter. Potter, who had been standing by the mantel, settled to the ground cross-legged near the fire, smiling.

It was almost easy after that. They’d broken out of the dour, pressurized routine, and soon enough they were talking about all the other students, and then reliving their O.W.L.s, and Hermione was badgering Draco to tell them his scores while Draco scoffed and Potter lay back on the woven rug and laughed. They talked about broom models and holidays and troll hunters. Hermione and Potter recounted the bizarre experience that was Muggle primary school, and Draco allowed himself to listen without reacting; the drink let him do it, helped him glide over thoughts of what it might mean that he was listening to stories of Muggle life without jeering, or even really wanting to.

And soon the talk turned back to Hogwarts, anyway, and what jobs they’d considered after school. To dragon wrangling and experimental Transfiguration. The night darkened, the stars outside seeming to brighten, but maybe that was the Firewhisky, too. They drank glass after glass, until the bottle was low and their voices were tired and scratchy, and Draco felt like his body was unknitting, all the advanced knots of tension of the last few months coming loose, and he kept glancing over at Hermione, for some reason, watching the way her hair caught and spun the light like a hypnotic object of focus.

Then, halfway through telling a story about his First Magic ceremony, Draco realized Potter had fallen asleep right there on the rug.

“Rude,” he said.

Hermione let out a giggle, and a hiccup. “He’s been out for a while. … I was wondering when you’d notice.”

“Think we should move him?” Draco said. The words were sloppy. His tongue no longer seemed on exactly the same track as his mind. Also he felt as if his brain was orbiting his head. This was probably normal.

“Let him rest,” said Hermione, the edges of her words wandering, too. She gave her wand a nondescript wave, and Potter’s glasses slid from his face and folded themselves, and the patch of rug beneath him swelled up into a makeshift mattress. “It’s good he’s gotten to sleep. Especially since it’s the anniversary.”

“He didn’t say anything about it.”

“Welcome to Harry,” Hermione said. “Never mentions anything that bothers him. I was shocked he even brought Ginny up.” She bobbed her shoulders. “Not really a surprise once you get to know him. His aunt and uncle were really horrible. Really, really horrible, I mean, they’d barely feed him for weeks at a go, you know. … Sometimes I think he’s still not used to people caring what he thinks or feels.”

Draco doubted she would have said it without the drink. But now she was looking down at Potter with a soft sympathy, even tenderness. It occurred to Draco that this look bothered him.

Accio,” Draco said lazily. The bottle of Firewhisky sped into his outstretched hand. He poured himself yet another glass.

Hermione extended her glass for him to refill. She wasn’t gazing at Potter anymore. Good, he thought vaguely. He let the tip of the bottle rest on the lip of her glass and lifted its body, aware that the simple action was requiring a bit too much focus, and he might possibly, maybe, be a bit drunk. He filled her glass until it was a sparkling column, then glanced up at her. She was watching him pour. She looked like October in that moment, with the tumble-toss of her brown hair and the glowing flush of her tan skin and a bead of amber liquid sparkling on her lower lip, loosely woven orange jumper, firelight. Draco could tell she was drunk, too. When she blinked, her eyelids glided slowly over her brown eyes as if she were halfway to sleep.

“Do you know what?” she said with a tiny hiccup.

“What?”

“Your hair really does look ridiculous.”

Draco let out a dramatic sigh. “Merlin, fine. I’ll let you cut it. You could’ve just asked.”

He expected her to splutter, to say that she hadn’t meant that at all, because obviously she hadn’t, but she leaned her head back on the sofa and laughed. Then her face grew very serious and she said, “Don’t tempt me. I’ll do it.”

Draco smiled idly at her. “Yeah? Do it, then, Granger.”

“Again with the Granger.” She drew her wand. “Fine. Come on. Up.”

“God. What? Are you serious?” Draco got to his feet, swaying as he did. “You’re actually going to—?”

“Yes. You brought it on yourself. You’re welcome.” She pushed him lightly into the hall, her hand pressed against his shoulder blade, gentle but firm.

“You don’t have to manhandle me,” he said.

“Yes, I know, your life is a parade of endless suffering.”

Draco didn’t look back at her, because, he realized, he was grinning so widely and unevenly that his cheeks hurt a little bit. His head was spinning and he felt weightless. “Look,” he said, “not to question your credentials—” Cerdentals, he heard himself saying. Cerdentals. Honestly. “—but have you ever even cut anyone’s hair before?”

“Yes, I have. My cousin’s. When I was nine.”

“And how’d that go?”

“Er,” she said, “it grew back eventually, didn’t it?”

They both tripped over the threshold into the downstairs bathroom, one after the other, and as they stifled their laughter, trying not to wake Potter up, Hermione tapped the lamp with her wandtip, where a soft golden light appeared. The fixtures of the bathroom came into view, still sparkling clean. Everything was glittering off itself, everything reflecting. Draco sat on the edge of the claw-foot tub, which was very uncomfortable, and stretched out his legs. He looked up at her as they both set their half-full glasses of Firewhisky on the toilet seat. She was grinning and shaking her head, clumsily pushing up her sleeves, wand in one hand. “This is stupid,” she told him. “Just really idiotic.”

“I know. You’d better hurry up, before I change my mind.”

She climbed into the tub, but tripped getting in. He turned instinctively to stabilise her, his hand catching her forearm, and even as they broke into a fresh bout of half-suppressed laughter he noticed that her skin was soft and warm under his palm, and that he was surrounded by that scent, citrus and pear. She braced herself against the wall and regained her balance, and with an odd pulse of heat in his palms he let go of her, and she said, “All right, it’s happening. Sit up straight. Say goodbye to the Sleekeazy-advertisement hair.”

“Unbelievable. Bossing me around like,” he said, but he forgot to finish the sentence, straightening on the edge of the tub, still feeling on the verge of laughter.

Then he glanced up into the bathroom mirror and saw their reflections. Hermione, clearly unaware that he was watching, had lifted one of her hands to his hair—but her fingertips had paused hardly an inch from him, hovering indistinctly in the dim light. Her smile was fading, and as it did, so did the feeling of repressed laughter in Draco’s chest. Something like confusion or curiosity had appeared on her face. She looked like she’d only just realized she would have to touch him to do this, and as he waited for her to do it, he realized he was holding his breath.

Slowly, cautiously, she let her fingers sift into his hair. Her hand was warm, and as her fingertips slid over his scalp, lifting and carefully tugging, her wandtip scything away white-blond wisps, Draco felt an unfamiliar rush of shivery heat, then cold, sensory confusion. Minute by minute his hair began to frame his face in the usual way, rising over his high forehead, clipped closely near his ears. Neither of them was speaking, and the silence seemed to be rising in volume somehow. He became attuned to the small motions of her breaths, which, as she leaned closer, he felt on the back of his head. Her hands had begun to move more tentatively, and he knew she was feeling the atmospheric shift, too, as if the very air around them was being gripped in someone’s hands and drawn taut.

Time swam oddly around Draco, and it seemed an eternity had passed, or maybe no time at all, when she lowered her wand in the mirror and pocketed it, finished. His hair looked precisely the way it usually did. Apparently her overactive memory extended to this. But she didn’t say anything. She was looking down at the crown of his head, obviously flustered, her cheeks flushed, like she didn’t understand what she’d just done.

Then, quite suddenly, she looked up into the mirror and saw him watching her. Draco’s mouth went dry. They were both motionless. Hermione’s lips were parted, her face very still, her eyes like autumn.

Then, again, that confused curiosity showed in her expression. He watched her hand rise in the mirror. She laid her palm softly against the back of his neck.

His mouth opened by a millimeter. A breath issued out, audible in the tiny room.

Her hand moved upward, slipping past his ear. Her fingertips grazed the line of his jaw, and the very corner of his mouth, and brushed against his cheekbone, and there her hand rested, against his cheek, which, he realized, was flushed pink. Actually, his entire face had filled with heat. He couldn’t focus on any one thought in particular. The sudden stillness of everything inside him. If he turned away from the mirror to face her. If he rose to his feet and touched her chin, her face. These were things that he could, at this moment, do.

But then Hermione gave her head the tiniest shake, as if coming out of a reverie, and took her hand quickly away. “It’s done,” she said.

She did not speak loudly, but the words still ruptured the silence with a kind of violence. Draco was jarred back into his body. He felt wrong all of a sudden. He realized how much his head was twirling. He rose unsteadily to his feet as she climbed out of the tub, and he had the vague sense of wanting to say something besides “Yeah,” but he couldn’t manage more than the single syllable.

Hermione looked even more flustered than before. She seemed to have forgotten about her glass. She was already opening the bathroom door. “I’m—I should go to bed,” she said, moving back into the dark hall, her face half shadow and half light. There she hesitated, maybe waiting for him to reply, studying him like she didn’t know what he was.

But she did know, Draco thought, vision tilting slowly. She knew everything that had been done to him and everything that he had done to other people. She knew what had the power to hurt or disturb him. She knew how he looked in satisfaction and in pain. She knew his uncertainties. She knew what he was made of.

But then he supposed he knew the same things of her. He knew her loyalty and her impatience and that exasperating righteousness. Her venomous streak and her occasional soft uncertainty. Her fondly irritated sighs. The fears she kept at bay. The crinkled shape between her eyebrows when she laughed.

He knew how her fingertip felt at the corner of his lips. Somehow this seemed to change the rest.

“Goodnight,” she said, and then she was gone.

 


 

Draco woke up the next day with a splitting headache. Hermione had been involved in his dream somehow, he was nearly sure. He could have sworn he’d awoken with her already in his mind.

God, he thought, what had that been, last night? What the bloody hell had they been doing? In the piercing sunlight it seemed insane, so adolescent, the pair of them snickering and lurching down the hall in the dark, their hands brushing each other. Her fingers in his hair. Her hand tracing his face. The memory mortified him.

He kept thinking about it as he slapped cold water on his cheeks in the bathroom, the same bathroom where not even hours before, he’d been inexplicably unable to stop looking at her. Hermione Granger, all books and opinions and stubborn earnestness, no poise or elegance or subtlety at all. And him, Draco Malfoy, staring at her like she was—like he was actually—

It doesn’t matter, he told himself, irritated. The natural conclusion was that he’d been drunk to the point of complete uncontrol. That had to be it. He knew she was attracted to him—he’d known it for a month now, hadn’t he?—and he enjoyed the feeling, that was all, the slight power of it. He’d indulged a bit in flustering her. Sort of stupid, yeah, but he’d been drunk. Meaningless.

When he came down the hall into the kitchen, though, he found Hermione standing at the cooker, and when she glanced over her shoulder and met his eyes, Draco felt a lurch in his chest. He felt her palm against his neck. Her finger brushing his ear.

He felt destabilized. He didn’t know where to look.

“Good morning,” she said with a small, tentative smile.

“Morning.” His voice sounded so stiff. Why?

A silent moment, interrupted only by the sizzle of tomato in the frying pan. Even as he looked at her, color rose in her cheeks.

“It—it doesn’t look bad,” she said. Her voice was higher than usual. “Your hair. I was afraid I’d mucked it up and didn’t realize.”

“No,” said Draco. He tried to sound normal. “Yeah, it’s fine.” He realized he’d stopped in the threshold, mid-step. He made himself move to the cabinets, open their yellow-painted doors, and take down plates and cups, clattering around a bit more than was really necessary. “Next time,” he drawled, “it’s your hair on the line.”

Hermione let out a laugh. There was relief in it. “Sure,” she said. “That’ll go well.” She turned the slices of tomato in the pan and brushed her hair back from her face. Her cheeks were still pink, her eyes carefully trained on the fry-up.

Draco realized he’d paused mid-motion again, looking over at her, his hands halfway out of the cabinet, holding saucers. He didn’t know what was happening. Was he still drunk?

“Morning,” said a bleary voice. Draco and Hermione both jumped and turned around. Potter was standing in the threshold to the hall, a hangover personified. His hair seemed to have found several new, previously undiscovered directions to point in. His glasses were askew.

“H-hello,” said Hermione, far too brightly. “How are you feeling, Harry?”

“Like someone hit me with a Beater’s bat.” Potter’s eyes passed over Draco, and then he did a double-take. “Hang on. Did you … is your hair different?”

Between the pulses of his headache, Draco managed to say, “Observant, aren’t you?”

Hermione made a stifled sound.

Potter’s eyes moved from Draco to Hermione. There was an odd look on his face, but after a moment he just said, “All right. Well. I think that night off should last us a while, don’t you?”

Draco and Hermione both heartily agreed.

The night had yielded the intended effect, though. Their mental gears seemed to have restarted. New plans formed for Umbridge: if they could Confund a friend or family member, maybe they could set up a meeting with her in a less secure location. They began to take notes from the Wireless whenever she was mentioned, building out a web of acquaintances.

They were also reading more quickly and with more detail than before. Hermione had borrowed The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and one afternoon, she noticed, at the bottom of the letter Dumbledore had written to Grindelwald, that the ‘A’ in ‘Albus’ was replaced with the same triangular mark from The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

They puzzled over what this might mean. “Well, first of all,” Potter said, “it means the mark definitely is Grindelwald’s. It’s not just a coincidence, or a student rumor of Krum’s, or a Lovegood conspiracy theory, or anything.”

Draco, who had also been reading through The Life and Lies, turned it all over in his mind. It had been disorienting to learn that Albus Dumbledore, of all people, had thought like this. But in a way it was almost reassuring. So, Dumbledore had been a real person, with a real past and real opinions. He hadn’t been as mild and doddering as he’d played at. If he did act like he understood the Death Eaters, and even Draco, it was because he’d once had something in common with all of them.

“I bet he and Dumbledore came up with the mark together,” Draco said. “Grindelwald took ‘For the Greater Good’ out of this letter, after all. I’d say the mark’s theirs, too.”

“No, that can’t be right,” Hermione said with a frown. “Viktor said he carved it on the wall at Durmstrang when he was a student there. That would have been before the summer they met.”

“Then it must have been something Grindelwald told Dumbledore about,” said Potter, looking strained and irritable, the way he always did when they acknowledged Dumbledore’s checkered past. “I still think it’s like a kind of Dark Mark. He used it to recruit people, and that’s why Dumbledore signed the letter like that. You know, a badge of loyalty to the cause.”

“That still doesn’t explain what Dumbledore meant, leaving it in Beedle the Bard,” Draco said.

Silence fell in the library. They were sitting on the rug amid a pile of cushions, books strewn all around them. Harry picked up Wizarding Prisons and Rehabilitation Methods, a book of Hermione’s, then lowered it, brow furrowed. They’d read in that book several days ago that Grindelwald was still alive, and being kept in Nurmengard, the prison he’d built for dissenters during his own reign.

“I have an idea,” Potter said.

Draco exchanged a wary look with Hermione. They’d privately discussed the possibility that Potter would suggest this idea and latch onto it, in the way that Potter occasionally became obsessed with very bad ideas.

“Harry,” said Hermione in a rush, “we’re not going to Nurmengard.”

“Yeah,” Draco said. “No way, Potter. Even if we could find where it is—”

“Hang on, what?” Potter blinked owlishly. “I wasn’t going to say anything about Nurmengard.”

“Oh,” Draco and Hermione said at the same time. They exchanged another look. Mild embarrassment, this time.

This trading-looks thing that they were suddenly doing—it was new, since Halloween, and Draco didn’t know what to make of it. He remembered the start of summer, when he’d seen Hermione exchanging these sorts of looks with Weasley and Potter. He’d thought disdainfully about how predictable it seemed, how dull, for someone to be able to guess your thoughts with a single glance. But it didn’t feel like that from the other end. It was like an ongoing silent conversation, a running inside joke.

They hadn’t spoken about Halloween night. Since then, though, Draco had thought he could feel Hermione looking at him whenever he was facing away from her, washing dishes or adjusting the Wireless. He’d turn back toward her and her eyes would be on a book or a sheet of notes, but her cheeks would have that tinge to them, her face a bit too unconcerned. And yesterday night, they’d passed each other in the narrow downstairs hallway, and both of their steps had seemed to catch as they moved around each other, and in the instant he’d glanced down into her face, he’d felt for the hundredth time the ghost of her fingertips upon his cheek. And he’d wondered whether she was remembering it, too. He wondered whether the memory came to her whenever they were close enough to touch, like now, sitting on cushions a foot apart, and whether she remembered it with a disorienting lurch before she went to sleep, and over lunch when they were sitting across from each other.

Did she consider it a mistake? It had hardly lasted five seconds, the touch, and she’d made no reference to it. But if it was a mistake, just a stray instinct induced by Firewhisky, why did she keep looking at him like that?

Had she wanted to keep touching him? Had she, possibly, even been waiting for him to do what he’d drunkenly thought about in the moment—stand up, turn to face her, take her by the wrist—

Quite beside all that, did he want to have done those things?

Draco felt like he was going insane. Maybe they’d just been in this house together for too long. Yes, that could be why he was having these thoughts—thoughts that were inappropriate, actually, because he was a Malfoy; he was his parents’ son; he was the Slytherin ideal. And she was… well, she was…

Distracting. She was distracting.

Draco realized he’d been studying Hermione’s face for long seconds. He didn’t know how long. He looked away quickly. Potter was looking at them with that blank confusion again.

Hermione cleared her throat. There was that blush. “Well,” she said, “what was your idea, then?”

Potter gave his head a shake and looked down at the spread of books. “I want to talk to Bathilda Bagshot,” he said.

“That old witch who told Skeeter all this?” Draco said, flicking a page of The Life and Lies with distaste. “You’ve already got it all in here. Why bother?”

“She might know more about Grindelwald than made it into the pages of the book,” Harry insisted. “He was her nephew, wasn’t he? And both instances of Grindelwald being involved with the symbol are from when he was school-aged.”

“I don’t know.” Hermione bit her lip. “Visiting someone so connected to Dumbledore, with Death Eaters patrolling Godric’s Hollow day and night, just waiting for us to step out of line? It’s …” She gave Potter an apologetic look. “It’s the same feeling I have about visiting your parents’ graves, Harry. It seems so risky—and didn’t Muriel say Bathilda was already half out of her mind?”

Potter grimaced, but didn’t reply.

Draco, however, looked down at The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and an idea struck him. “Skeeter,” he murmured.

“What?” said Hermione.

“Rita Skeeter. In fourth year, she all but told me and my friends that she uses Veritaserum on people to get them to talk. That’s what she must have done to Bagshot to get information out of her; the woman’s got to be a hundred and forty. If we could get to Skeeter, then we can find out everything she’s got about Dumbledore and Grindelwald—even the things she didn’t think were worth putting in.” Draco flipped to the back of the book and tapped the page. “Yeah. Here.”

He turned the book toward the others so they could read:

Tip-offs, fan mail, gifts, complaints, protests, lawsuits, and death threats can be owled to my assistant at this address:

Titania Smethwyck
Receiver’s Box 320C
Office of Magical Postal Receipts
Number 48, Pinpitt Lane
London

Hermione and Potter were both looking tense with excitement. “Draco,” Hermione said. “This is an idea. All we have to do is go to this address—”

“And wait for the assistant to come check the box,” Potter broke in. “Then we follow the assistant to her house. Skeeter’s home address is sure to be there somewhere. And if not, you can use Legilimency, Hermione.”

Hermione winced. “I’d rather not, but … but yes, in a pinch, I think I could.”

“Let’s do it tomorrow,” said Potter.

Tomorrow?” Draco said.

“Yeah, why wait? This isn’t like Diagon Alley. It’ll be simple. Here’s what we’ll do. …”

 


 

Early the next morning, they Apparated a block away from Number 48, Pinpitt Lane, all three huddled under the Invisibility Cloak, Disillusioned to solve the issue of their visible feet.

Hermione was in front of the two boys, and they were moving so closely together that her hair was brushing Draco’s chin. He wasn’t thinking about Halloween. He wasn’t. Or the way her hip kept touching him as they moved. Her shoulder brushing his upper arm. The six or seven inches’ difference in their height.

He was so distracted when they reached Number 48 that Hermione had to whisper, “Stop,” pointing toward the door. From further away, it had looked like a boarded-up frame. Muggles dressed for work were passing by it without seeming to notice it at all. But when they stopped in front of it, the boards disappeared, and an elegant door of black-painted oak appeared, embossed with the golden words, Office of Magical Postal Receipts.

They stood back and waited for the first employees to enter. Soon enough a witch in crisp violet robes unlocked the door and strode through, occupied with a bundle of letters that seemed an inch from blowing away. Harry stuck his foot out, caught the door just before it closed, and they all navigated themselves in.

They came through a short, dark hallway, and then all three stopped in their tracks. They’d emerged into a huge interior space the size of the Great Hall. The center of the space was occupied by a massive system of funnels, tubes, and boxes. Above and around it, dozens of owls whirled, hooting and screeching at each other, dropping letters and parcels into the funnels, which looked like gramophone speakers, and which expanded to accept oversized parcels with various groans and bangs.

Once they’d recovered from the shock of the sorting contraption, they sidled to the side. “Can you see box 320C?” said Hermione, squinting through the Cloak’s silvery fabric.

“That way,” said Draco, nodding toward the left side of the mass of tubes. Each tube twisted and squiggled and eventually culminated in a box, on which were stamped big black numbers and letters.

They shuffled along the edge of the wall, sank down to the floor, and waited. More employees filed through the front door over the course of the next hour. On an upper level, a clear charmed surface spattered with owl droppings, exhausted-looking sanitation wizards began to cycle around overhead, performing Vanishing Charms, umbrellas held over their heads. On the ground floor, witches and wizards in their violet robes began wheeling carts full of boxes, scrolls, letters, and parcels from place to place. One man was levitating a parcel before him that was some four times the size of his body, calling out importantly, “Out of the way, please! Priority order!”

The place was chaos—and that was before the patrons started coming in, clomping up the mess of wooden steps to get to their boxes, complaining to the workers when their mail was damaged.

“Well,” said Potter, “at least we don’t have to worry about keeping quiet.”

The morning crept by as they waited for Titania Smethwyck. Draco eyed one witch checking 302B: when she opened the box, which on its outside was no larger than a shoebox, he could see an entire room beyond, filled with neat stacks of letters. The witch levitated the letters out stack by stack into a large wooden crate, which a violet-robed wizard then wheeled out for her.

Smethwyck arrived in mid-morning. She was a thin, mousy-haired witch who looked miserable. Her hands were bandaged, and Draco remembered the article that had come out about Hermione in Witch Weekly in their fourth year—how someone had mailed her Undiluted Bubotuber Pus. He supposed Rita Skeeter probably got about a dozen of those a day. He remembered, with an awful squeezing feeling, how he’d laughed with Pansy, Crabbe, and Goyle as Hermione had fled the Great Hall in tears.

They stood as Smethwyck levitated the contents of Skeeter’s Receiver’s Box into a carrying crate. It was small enough to fit in her arms, and she headed for the exit, wincing as she shifted her bandaged hands.

Draco, Hermione, and Harry hurried after her. Just before Smethwyck reached the exit corridor, Hermione stuck her wandtip out from beneath the Cloak and whispered, “Confundo!”

Smethwyck slowed to a halt, a dazed look coming over her face. Then she began to walk again, more slowly this time. They followed her out of the Office of Magical Postal Receipts. She wandered into a small, deserted side alley and began to look around, as if she’d lost something.

Hermione, who, under Disillusionment, had plucked a hair from the head of a passerby, drank from a small vial of Polyjuice. A moment later, she had transformed into a small, dark-haired woman. She slipped out from beneath the Cloak.

“Titania!” she exclaimed.

Smethwyck leapt and turned. “Er,” she said, looking at Hermione with alarm.

“It’s me,” Hermione exclaimed. “Penelope Clearwater. You don’t remember? Oh, it’s all right, it was so long ago.” She let out a high, airy laugh, and Draco was impressed, as he had been in the Ministry, by her acting ability—especially when, as herself, she couldn’t lie her way out of a Bertie Bott’s carton.

“I thought I recognized you,” Hermione went on, “and I just had to speak to you. I read that you were Rita Skeeter’s assistant now. That’s fantastic. I’ve just finished reading her latest book!”

Draco slipped the tip of his wand out from beneath the Invisibility Cloak and focused very hard on the idea of Titania welcoming Hermione back to her home to catch up over tea. Confundo, he thought, and the spell rushed invisibly into Titania Smethwyck’s shoulder.

“Penelope,” Titania said, nodding now. “Lovely … lovely to see you. Do you have a moment? We could go to mine for a cup of tea.”

“That sounds lovely,” said Hermione, beaming. Titania took her arm, and with a crack, they were gone.

Not even a minute later, Hermione reappeared before them with a slip of paper clutched in her hands and a set of Titania’s robes under her arm. “Got it,” she whispered, checking the entrance to the alley. “Where are you?”

They ushered her back under the Cloak. She took their arms, and they Disapparated.

They rematerialized on a small country lane. At the top of the lane, perched atop a hill, was a house that had clearly been extended in several garish ways. Most obviously, a large new wing was tacked onto its back end; through its glass walls, Draco could see a swimming pool, and above the swimming pool, a chandelier the size of a small elephant.

His lip curled. Honestly—new money.

Hermione took another flagon of Polyjuice from her beaded bag and slipped a hair from Titania Smethwyck’s head into it. She sipped it with a grimace, and a moment later, she was stepping out onto the country lane, mousy-haired and icy pale, her hands painfully swollen. She conjured bandages onto them, then ducked behind a nearby bush and returned in Titania’s robes, tucking her own clothes back into her beaded bag.

“Ready?” Hermione whispered. “Let’s go.”

Draco and Harry followed Hermione up to the house on the hill. She drew a deep breath and rapped three times on the door, turning her wand over and over in her bandaged hands.

The distant clicking of high heels. Soon there was the sound of many locks clicking, and Rita Skeeter was drawing the door wide, her blonde hair curled in extravagant ringlets, one penciled eyebrow lifted high. “You couldn’t have Flooed me, Titania, dear?” she said, with a wide, false smile. “I’m about to go t—”

Her eyes dropped, too late, to the wand in Hermione’s hands. Hermione had already flicked it, and then Rita Skeeter’s arms were snapping to her sides, her legs flying together in the Full Body-Bind.

Draco and Harry hurried over the threshold as Hermione levitated Rita through the door. They hurried through Skeeter’s bizarrely composited home: the bones were that of a simple, sensible house, but the place had been plastered in too-large, too-bright art and obviously expensive statues that might have belonged in a French garden, but certainly not at the end of a simple pine banister. Soon they came out into the glass wing that Draco had seen from the lane. The swimming pool glittered, steam rising from a smaller, heat-charmed section at its end. Hermione let Rita down on a green velvet chaise at its side.

“Hello, Rita,” Hermione said, conjuring a chair and sitting beside the chaise. “I have a few questions for you.”

She flicked her wand, and Rita’s face was released from the bounds of the jinx. Draco expected her to spit at Hermione, or even to scream, but the reporter’s face was drawing, instead. She looked terrified.

“Please,” she gasped. “Don’t hurt me. Is it the current project? I’ll stop writing it, I swear to Merlin, I … it’s only in the very earliest investigative stages … or if you’d like it to have a new angle, I can write to whatever he’d like. I can write it however you need! You all loved the Dumbledore book, didn’t you?”

Draco saw surprise on Hermione’s face, then comprehension.

“What’s Skeeter talking about?” Potter breathed, so quietly that Draco could barely hear from right beside him.

“She thinks Hermione’s a Death Eater,” Draco whispered back.

Hermione recovered quickly. “Oh, I don’t intend to hurt you,” she said with a good try at smooth menace. “Or even Miss Smethwyck. As long as you tell me exactly what I need to know.”

“Of course,” Rita said, her eyes bulging. “Anything. I haven’t got anything to hide. I’m a Slytherin. A half-blood. I swear.”

“In that case … you use Veritaserum on your interviewees, I understand?” Hermione hesitated, then added, her voice silkier than ever, “It will be less painful, I think, than Legilimency, or … other methods.”

Harry grimaced. “She’s good at that, isn’t she?” he whispered.

“I think she got it from Yaxley at the Ministry,” Draco muttered.

“Yes, it’s in the wine cellar,” Rita gabbled. “Far left, top corner. It’s in a bottle that looks like mulled mead, ’87.”

“Good,” said Hermione. She Disapparated, and in the moment that she was gone, Rita seemed to strain at the Body-Bind, her face stretching, her eyes rolling all around as if looking for help, sweat beading on her brow.

Draco felt an odd sinking feeling, and after a moment, he recognized it as something between pity and disgust. Skeeter was terrified of what might come next. Draco supposed this must have been how he’d looked in the manor those evenings, when they’d welcomed the Dark Lord over the threshold—so ready to do anything to escape pain or death. There was no dignity in fear.

Hermione reappeared with the mead bottle and a glass. “Aguamenti,” she said, filling the glass, and transferred a drop of the Veritaserum into it. The water glowed for a split instant, then returned to its usual colour.

“Drink up,” Hermione said, tilting the glass against Skeeter’s lips. Skeeter drank, her eyes fixed on Hermione with both fright and loathing. But as she swallowed the water, all the tension drained from her expression, and her eyes went blank.

“All right, Rita,” Hermione said, sitting back down in the chair she’d conjured. “Let’s start with this. Tell me when and how you interviewed Bathilda Bagshot.”

“Bathilda is old and lonely,” said Skeeter in a flat, emotionless voice. “She lives in Godric’s Hollow alone, and when I visited as a fellow writer, flattering her that I was a fan of her history books, she was delighted to ask me in for tea and biscuits. Without her knowledge I dosed her with Veritaserum over four day-long interview sessions this March. I’d been working on the biography for a year and a half, but naturally my work accelerated in the wake of Dumbledore’s death.”

Draco could see anger flashing in Hermione’s eyes, but she kept her voice level as she said, “Tell me everything Bathilda told you about Gellert Grindelwald.”

If Skeeter found the question strange, or in any way noteworthy, none of those feelings showed on her face. “She was very complimentary about her great-nephew,” she said, voice eerily blank. “Bathilda picked Grindelwald up from an international Apparition site the summer that he was eighteen. She described him as brilliant and surly, with a feeling of being misunderstood after his expulsion from Durmstrang. She said he was handsome, and charming when he wanted to be. Not even a day of Grindelwald’s stay had passed before Bathilda suggested he introduce himself to Albus down the street. She listed Dumbledore’s credentials and academic accomplishments, and Grindelwald seemed sceptical but impressed. Within two more days they were engrossed in each other. The entanglement was almost certainly romantic. I omitted this from the book because I felt it might soften readers to the young Dumbledore’s motives and distract them from his choice to engage in Grindelwald’s ideals.”

Draco felt a moment of fleeting surprise, but Rita went on without pause.

“When Bathilda had conversations with her great-nephew, they were almost exclusively about Dumbledore. She described Grindelwald as more than smitten, closer to obsessed, even possessive of the young Albus. Grindelwald felt that all the great woes of Albus’s life were due to the encroachment of Muggles into the Wizarding World. He fervently expressed to Bathilda that Dumbledore deserved better than a father locked in Azkaban and a dead mother. Bathilda viewed him as misguided, but a protective friend and loved one to Dumbledore.”

“To your knowledge,” Hermione said, “did Grindelwald ever mention or explain a mark that looked like a vertical line enclosed by a circle enclosed by a triangle?”

“No,” said Rita. “I noticed a similar mark in the letter that Dumbledore wrote to Grindelwald. I asked Bathilda if it meant anything. She had no knowledge of it.”

Hermione looked disappointed, but went on. “Did Bathilda know what Grindelwald and Dumbledore discussed in the time they spent together? Did she ever overhear conversations between them?”

“Yes. Bathilda would occasionally pause outside the door of Grindelwald’s room, where he and Dumbledore spent most of their time. She heard partial discussions of traveling across the world to Wizarding outposts in Nairobi and Sydney. She heard discussions of the structure of the ideal Wizarding society, which Grindelwald believed should be an absolutist system, and which Dumbledore suggested should be ruled by multiple leaders. She heard enthusiastic discussions about valuable Wizarding objects and legends, such as Felix Felicis, Invisibility Cloaks, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Deathly Hallows, Hands of Glory, and famous swords and wands.”

At the word wands, Draco felt Potter go rigid beside him.

“The Deathly Hallows?” Hermione said. “What is that?”

Skeeter’s eyes were blank. “A legend of some kind. Bathilda described it as I’ve just described it to you, in a list of conversational topics. I didn’t research it. I omitted these topics from the book because I thought this kind of enthusiasm would endear readers to Dumbledore unnecessarily.”

“Of course you did.” Hermione’s lips pursed. “You said famous wands. Did Bathilda ever discuss any of these wands with Grindelwald?”

“Yes,” said Skeeter. “Bathilda was rosy-eyed about both Dumbledore and her great-nephew. A historian, she was thrilled to find two young men with such an interest in the past. She had several afternoon tea sessions with both Dumbledore and Grindelwald, each of which she relived to me in detail. Wandlore was discussed during the third of them. They asked her about such wands as the Deathstick, the Wand of Destiny, and the Godhammer. They asked whether the wands had identifying features or commonalities. They went on to ask about the lives of the wizards who possessed the wands. Bathilda reminded them of the lack of historical fact surrounding these wands.”

Draco glanced at Potter, who was staring ahead, his eyes wide. Draco looked back at Rita’s slack, emotionless face. Surely this wasn’t coincidence? Surely this meant that they’d actually guessed the reason for the Dark Lord’s flight abroad?

“I omitted these discussions from the book,” Rita went on, “because—”

“—you felt they might endear the reader to Dumbledore,” said Hermione, unable to hide the edge from her voice now. “Yes. I get the picture. … Did you ever think about interviewing Grindelwald himself?”

“Yes. He lives in Nurmengard Prison, which is located in international waters and co-managed by the magical governments of several European nations. I wrote to the Finnish government, usually the most lenient of the managing nations, to request visitation permission, but was denied.”

Hermione sat in silence for a moment. Then she said, “Have you ever interacted with the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, Dolores Umbridge?”

“She and the Minister of Magic sent me a complimentary card after the release of my latest book, which I keep on my mantel. I’ve never met nor spoken to her.”

Hermione stood. “Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Skeeter,” she said. She pointed her wand at the reporter’s face. Even in Rita’s stupor, Draco thought he saw a hint of fear in her eyes. But Hermione only said, “Obliviate.

Skeeter’s eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she lay unconscious.

“Come on,” Hermione whispered, hurrying toward the entrance of the pool room. “This way.” Draco and Harry moved after her, and when Skeeter was out of sight, they ducked out from beneath the Cloak.

“The wand,” Harry hissed. “The wand, Hermione!”

“Yes, I know!” Hermione whispered, but she didn’t stop walking.

“What are we doing?” Draco said. “Why aren’t we Disapparating?”

They passed through the brand-new kitchen, past the old, shabby pantry, past a massively oversized portrait of Rita’s face, smiling and posing for them, brandishing her Quick-Quotes Quill at the camera.

“Umbridge,” Hermione whispered back. “She mentioned she was a fan when we were at the Ministry, remember? If she’s sent fan mail to Rita, maybe it has a home address for return mail.”

“Good thinking,” said Potter. “There!” He pointed into a room with a hugely oversized hearth and a long table that seemed to be made from solid gold. They hurried to the ten-foot mantel and picked through the many gushing cards and notes proclaiming Rita’s wit, brilliance, and fearless journalistic integrity.

“It’s here,” Draco hissed, spotting Umbridge’s handwriting. He snatched up the card, but his heart sank. “The return address is a Ministry owl box.”

“Damn,” Potter whispered. “Well, it was still a good thought. Do you think we could … Hermione?”

Hermione had stopped several feet away, holding another card.

When she looked up at them, she was beaming. “This is it,” she whispered. “This is where we’ll find her.”

Draco strode over to her side and examined the card in her hand. The parchment was midnight blue. Glittering flakes of snow tumbled down through the background, passing through silver script that read:

 

Dear Ms. Rita Skeeter,

The Ministry of Magic is pleased to invite you
as a media correspondent to:

THE 1st ANNUAL MINISTRY OF MAGIC CHRISTMAS GALA
FOR THE CELEBRATION OF MAGICAL UNITY

Formal attire is required for entry.

We regret that we are unable to accommodate plus-one
invitations for media correspondents.

The Christmas Gala will be held at 8 p.m.
on the night of December the 23rd
at Malfoy Manor.

 

Chapter Text

Malfoy Manor was a 17th-century estate with a single point of entry: the elephantine, wrought-iron front gate. The grounds were sealed by anti-intruder wards, which extended underground and created a closed circuit overhead. Now that the estate had passed to the Lestranges by magical law, Hermione knew that they wouldn’t be able to sneak past the wards—not even Draco.

The front gate was their only option, and in the days after their visit to Rita Skeeter, they spent every waking hour trying to think of a way through it.

The Daily Prophet had printed a long, splashy, very helpful feature about the Christmas Gala—they’d been nicking copies of the paper from a poorly disguised Wizarding home on the other side of Godric’s Hollow. According to the article, the Ministry was contracting nearly two dozen companies for the gala, all pure-blood-owned, of course. Among them was a private security service called the Greengrass Guard. Draco had described Elinor Greengrass to them: strict, ruthless, and rigorous. There would be no hoping for laxness or luck at the front gates.

“But,” Draco said one afternoon, as they sat on the library floor, poring over the diagram he’d recreated of the Manor, “the gates are fifteen feet wide, and there’s the Cloak.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, “but Snape will have told the Death Eaters about the Cloak by now.”

Hermione sighed. “If that’s the case, I’m sure they’ll place a Semi-Permeability Charm on the entrance, so that if you haven’t been given express permission to enter, you’ll be immobilised if you try to get in.”

A brief silence. Hermione’s eyes lingered on Draco. His hand was still resting on the diagram; she saw hints of conflict in his eyes. She tried to imagine how she would have felt if her childhood home had changed into a haven for Death Eaters.

No, though—that wasn’t quite right. The manor had always been used for the Death Eaters’ purposes. He was the one who’d changed.

Hermione wanted to ask him about it, but in front of Harry, she knew Draco would deflect. She could imagine the easy drawl: Yeah, I really miss the place the Dark Lord promised to murder me. So many happy memories.

Draco looked away from the diagram and leaned back against the sofa, crossing his long legs at the ankles. The neck of his dark green jumper pulled so that the weathered edge of his scar from the Ministry showed. He thumbed a strand of hair away from his forehead.

Hermione forced her eyes away from him.

She’d waited for this to stop happening after Halloween. But it had been ten days now, and she still kept noticing him: at breakfasts, when he tapped one finger thoughtfully on the back of his fork; or during these brainstorming sessions, when he wrote down notes in a quick but fluid hand; or whenever he came within three feet of her, at which point she remembered the feeling of his cheek, flushed and soft under her fingertips, the shape of his cheekbone, the hard angle of his jawline.

She knew he’d caught her at it, too. The noticing.

Sometimes she even thought she saw him noticing her, too.

She looked blankly down at the parchment. Without even blinking, as if an apparition were laid over her vision, she could see Draco’s expression in the mirror on Halloween, both cautious and vulnerable, like in that second she could have done anything and he would have just watched it happen. Even his features, naturally as sharp as edges honed to cut, had seemed to soften in uncertainty.

Focus, she told herself. “I really think,” she said too loudly, “our only option is disguise and infiltration.”

She pulled out another excerpt from the Prophet and laid it atop their notes. The clipping was a hiring advertisement from the gala’s caterers, Lizzie Spizzworth’s Finest Feasts and Magical Mixologists. It read: “Now interviewing service workers for prestigious single event at high pay. Only exceptionally professional and experienced candidates will be considered. Confident use of Culinary Charms, Balancing Enchantments, and Anti-Spilling Spells a must.

“If we’re service staff,” Hermione said, tapping the ad, “we’ll be able to move freely among the guests.”

“If we’re using disguises,” said Draco, “why can’t we just be the guests?”

“Because then we’ll have to deal with the guest list, too, obviously.” She gave him an unimpressed look. “You just don’t want to serve people off those silver platters you grew up taking for granted.”

“Granger,” he said, placing his hand to his heart. “This mention of my wealth and status wounds me deeply.”

She and Harry both snorted, and Draco looked pleased with himself. “It’s not that, anyway,” he went on. “Guests will have more access to Umbridge. They’re looking for traitors even inside the Ministry, so she’s bound to have an Auror guard everywhere. A bathroom or powder room might be the only place they’d leave her alone.”

“What,” Harry said, “service staff can’t use the toilet now?”

“Please, Potter. They won’t use the same bathrooms as the guests. They’ll go to the East Wing.”

Harry and Hermione looked at each other. Hermione’s lips were pressed together in a desperate attempt not to grin.

“Ahh … the East Wing,” said Harry in his poshest voice.

“I do say,” Hermione said. “I’ll take supper on the veranda of the East Wing in future.”

Draco raised one thin, pale eyebrow at them, looking baleful. “Are you done?”

“I mean,” Harry said, “probably not.”

Hermione let out one helpless giggle, composed herself, and cleared her throat. “Anyway—the biggest question is still how we’ll disguise ourselves. Transfiguration’s far too vulnerable to counter-spells, and the Ministry are on the lookout for use of Polyjuice. Maybe some kind of glamour charm? I doubt those would be powerful enough, though.”

Pensive silence settled over them.

After a full minute, Harry groaned, stretching so that Hermione heard his back crack. “We’ll have the sword by then,” he said. “What if we just slash our way through the gate?”

He spoke casually, but Hermione heard the anticipation in his voice. Five more days, and they would journey to Lillimont Lake to make contact with the messenger from the Order—and receive the Sword of Gryffindor.

Hermione knew Harry’s excitement wasn’t just about the sword, either. She knew that he expected Ron to return for this.

Hermione wasn’t so sure. It had been nearly a month since Ron had gone, with no word. As always, she felt an anxious pang to think about him. The fear that something might have happened to him was only worsened by the fact that they couldn’t do anything if it had.

The feeling wasn’t only worry about his safety, either. Whenever she thought about Ron, who might still be in love with her, who had stormed out because he loved her, she thought of herself and Draco at Halloween, and she felt a powerful rush of guilt.

She’d been more flirtatious that night than she’d ever dared to be with anyone. And, drunk as Draco had been, he’d been flirtatious, too. That idle smile when he’d dared her to cut his hair, as Pansy had once done—

Do it, then, Granger.

Hermione shuffled together some papers, her face warm. It was irrational to feel guilty about Ron. She’d told him she didn’t love him anymore, that it couldn’t work. She was allowed to think other people were good-looking. Besides, nothing had even happened with Draco. Haircut aside, it had been one drunken touch. One!

Well—two, she thought. The moment she’d pressed her palm to his shoulder blade to push him into the hall.

Three. When she’d stumbled into the bathtub and he’d turned, caught her forearm instinctually, a bit roughly, and held on just a moment too long.

The thing was, she knew precisely how much Ron would have loathed the idea of her attraction to Draco Malfoy. And it wasn’t only Ron. When they’d been at the Burrow in July, hadn’t it been a constant, enthusiastic discussion topic whenever the Malfoys were out of sight—how detestable they were, how cowardly and arrogant, how evil? “I don’t know how you let them sleep in your house, Hermione,” Ginny had said with outright disgust. “If it were up to me …”

And she’d shot a look of such intense loathing at Lucius Malfoy that Hermione had felt it secondhand, like the rush of heat on opening an oven door.

But Draco wasn’t his father. He was different, and not in negligible ways, but substantial ones. For the past week and a half, Hermione had felt as if she were arguing with a Greek chorus in her own mind, trying to explain to a host of imaginary people that she knew him, maybe more than anyone in the world did, and that in fact, she liked what she knew. She liked how he was protective of his parents and his friends, sensitive and private about their shared lives. She liked that he actually was—as he’d once claimed—witty, and that when he made his smart remarks, he glanced at her like he wanted to know if he’d amused her. She liked that he was responsive to interpersonal detail in a way that neither Harry nor Ron nor even Ginny had ever been; she had no other friends who cared about the fact that sometimes a silence wasn’t just a silence, sometimes a glance wasn’t just a glance, sometimes people felt a dozen things at once. And that responsiveness did make him a defensive person. But she also liked that she knew how to glide past those defenses.

She liked that he ruminated on the past like it was a bittersweet taste.

She liked that he was doing the right thing.

She looked over at him now. Draco’s eyes had settled again on the diagram he’d drawn. Malfoy Manor, he’d written at the top in extravagant, looping capitals. And he’d doodled a peacock on the hills of the grounds, which looked more like a turkey. God, it was almost sweet.

She looked down at her notes and tried, for the hundredth time that week, to focus.

 


 

They had no breakthroughs about the Christmas Gala in the lead-up to the 15th. What they did have were a lot of circular conversations about this wand that the Dark Lord was chasing. Draco was tiring of it. Meals mostly consisted of Potter trying to convince Hermione that the wand was important, to which Hermione always responded that even if some wand with powerful properties did exist, it clearly hadn’t helped Grindelwald keep power, so why should they worry?

The night that they were due to journey to Lillimont Lake, they stayed up late, waiting for 1:45 a.m. to Disapparate. They were upstairs in Hermione’s room, where Potter was steaming laundry with his wandtip, killing time. Draco was trying to lounge in a rather uncomfortable, creaky chair in the corner, and Hermione was lying on her bed, wearing that orange jumper she’d worn on Halloween and dark Muggle jeans. Draco kept glancing at them, for some reason. The material was so strange, the way it ran and fit along her legs, hugging the curves of her calves.

She and Potter were having yet another debate about the wand. After a while, Draco picked up their translation of Beedle the Bard from the end table and flipped to the triangular mark almost idly.

Then, suddenly, a thought hit him. He stared down at “The Tale of the Three Brothers.”

He didn’t understand why he and Hermione hadn’t thought of it before. He supposed they’d been so focused on Grindelwald’s history, on the idea that this children’s book was simply a convenient place to hide something that looked like a rune, that it had been out of focus in the background.

“Potter,” he said, “have you actually read the story? The one Dumbledore marked?”

Potter broke off mid-argument and frowned at Draco, his wand going still over a pair of half-dry trousers. “Well, no,” he admitted, bumping his glasses up his nose with a knuckle, “but I still—”

“There’s a wand in it. One with more power than others.”

Potter dropped the trousers and his wand. For a moment he just gaped. Then he turned to give Hermione a stunned, disbelieving look. “And you didn’t think to mention that?”

“Harry, it’s a fairy tale,” Hermione said impatiently, sitting up on the bed. “It’s about three brothers meeting Death. The wand in the story is supposedly Death’s own magic wand. It’s not a real—”

But Potter was already crossing her bedroom, grabbing the translation from Draco, and reading it so quickly his eyes blurred. After a moment, he started to read it aloud, indistinctly at first, then more forcefully, with rising excitement. “… so the oldest brother, who was a combative man, asked for a wand more powerful than any in existence: a wand that must always win duels for its owner, a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death!”

Potter looked between Draco and Hermione, his mouth slightly open. “This is it,” he breathed. “This is what Voldemort’s looking for. This—” He looked back down at the page and scanned again. “This Elder Wand, a wand that can win any duel. For the leader of the Death Eaters, a wand that can conquer Death!

“Harry,” Hermione burst out in exasperation, “Grindelwald couldn’t have had a wand that could win any duel, when he famously lost the duel he had with Dumbledore!”

“But the brother in the story loses the wand,” Draco said, suddenly very invested in the debate. “He gets stupid about it and brags about it in some inn, gets murdered when he’s asleep. Someone could have stolen it from Grindelwald at some point. Probably by the time he dueled Dumbledore, he was back to using a normal wand.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes to slits, the kind of scepticism that could cut. Draco found one corner of his mouth twitching. That expression had become extremely familiar.

“Well,” she said, “I think this is all highly circumstanti—”

“Hermione,” Harry interrupted, “you’re forgetting something.”

“Oh, am I? And what’s that?”

“Voldemort has Ollivander. Ollivander knows more about wands than anyone in Britain, and he was being tortured and interrogated. He would have told Voldemort if this Elder Wand were impossible. Voldemort must have heard about the Elder Wand, and Ollivander backed up the idea, and that’s why he went off to look for it!”

Hermione opened her mouth, but there was a long silence, and very slowly, she closed it again. She looked, for the first time in five days and as many debates, uncertain, even shaken. It was just like her, Draco thought with some amusement, to believe in something extraordinary only when it was substantiated by Britain’s foremost expert. God, she really could be rigid, for someone who’d been introduced to the concept of magic halfway through her life.

Draco glanced back to the translation in Potter’s hands, amusement fading into temptation. It was undeniably alluring. An unbeatable wand … he would have liked to see the look on the Death Eaters’ faces if he could outduel them all at seventeen. He could show Crabbe’s father what he was worth. And … well, if he’d had a wand like that last year, nothing would ever have happened to him.

“Still,” Hermione said finally, “I don’t know if it changes much.”

Potter let out a disbelieving laugh. “How can you say that?”

Hermione had regained her composure. “Look, maybe you are right. Let’s say this mark is the sign of this Elder Wand. I’ll concede that would explain why Dumbledore left it for us: because he wanted to warn us that we might be facing more danger if Voldemort found the wand.” She drew a deep breath. “But Dumbledore didn’t tell us to go after it. What he did tell us, very explicitly, was to track down and destroy the Horcruxes. Besides, Voldemort could defeat nearly anyone in a duel already; will this wand really make him so much more powerful? And,” she added, when Potter seemed about to respond, “don’t forget, we’re going to the lake in—” She glanced at the clock. “An hour, and then we’ll have the sword. That’s a massive step.”

Potter hesitated.

“Come on, Harry,” Hermione pleaded. “Think of the locket. We’re doing really well. We can’t stop now.”

After a long moment, Draco said, “She’s right, Potter.”

Potter glanced at Draco with surprise. “I would have thought you’d want the wand.”

“Of course I would. But I also don’t fancy bumping into the Dark Lord on his quest. Besides, say we somehow find Nurmengard, break in, and get Grindelwald to tell us who stole the wand from him. Even after that, it’s been decades. The wand could’ve changed hands a dozen times.”

“Exactly,” Hermione said, giving Draco a grateful look. “I’m not saying it’s completely unimportant. Look: if we find and destroy all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort still hasn’t realized it’s Grindelwald he’s chasing, then—fine, let’s try and find this wand before he does. But until then, we really, really need to focus.”

Potter sighed. He looked defeated. “Fine, you two,” he said. “I’m going to make a cup of tea.”

He left the room. Draco listened to his footsteps retreat down the hall, hearing Potter’s words echo oddly. You two, he’d said, looking from Draco to Hermione as if they were a unit. Draco realized he’d sort of enjoyed that.

Well, why not? he thought with a kind of satisfaction, settling back in the horrible chair. He and Hermione had excellent judgment, working together. They’d outplayed Aurors and Death Eaters to break out of the Ministry of Magic, starting without so much as a wand between them. They’d outplayed the Dark Lord’s soul in the diadem, so that she’d learned the Fidelius Charm and escaped unscathed. Obviously they made an effective team.

Draco glanced over as Hermione lay back on her bed with a sigh. Her hair fanned out around her head, and moonlight fell upon it in strips through the blinds. Something seemed to soften in his chest. They hadn’t been up so late since Halloween.

A light frown settled on Draco’s face. It had been two weeks now, and he was forgetting more and more of that night in a drunken wash. Yet he could still feel the smoothness of her arm, still see the cascades of her hair falling and shifting every which way, still feel the hesitancy of her fingertips, as if it had been five minutes ago.

“Hermione,” he said.

“Mm?” She turned on the bed, onto her side.

He opened his mouth and realized he didn’t actually have anything to say. He’d said her name for no reason, so that she’d look at him. For a moment he just looked back at her lying there, moon-brushed, tugging at the sleeve of that orange jumper, which was a bit lumpy. Her shoulders were rounded, surely from many years’ excessive study, and those Muggle jeans were faded at the thigh. She looked soft to the touch like snow or cotton. Sitting there absolutely sober, broken springs digging into his back, Draco thought about how he could have kissed her on Halloween.

He hadn’t let himself imagine it that night. And in the weeks since, he’d always cut himself off before the idea could fully form, always stopping, always deferring. Now the image washed suddenly, unstoppably over him. He was back there in that bathroom and rising to his feet, half-blind with drink and sensitive as a nerve ending, and she was flushed and tentative, and he was sliding a hand around her waist, into the dip of her lower back, pulling her into him. Kissing her.

“What?” Hermione said, looking slightly self-conscious, a small smile on her lips.

Draco felt a rush of mortified heat and looked away. “Nothing,” he said. His heartbeat felt shallow. He felt dazed, disbelieving.

God, he thought. God—he was an idiot.

No, the past two weeks hadn’t just been the claustrophobia of headquarters. It seemed obvious now, stupidly obvious, the attention he’d been paying to her words and looks and motions, the way he’d tried and tried not to notice her. And of course he’d had to try, because Hermione Granger was the opposite of everything he was meant to want. Righteous, combative, messy, so earnest it was painful, always trying so hard and so visibly. The consummate Gryffindor. A Muggle-born.

Yet even as this list unrolled in his head, questions were proliferating, unstoppable: would she have tasted like Firewhisky, like sugar? And what would she have done if he’d kissed her? Would she have frozen in shock or responded with heat, as vigorous in this as she was in everything else?

The idea of her responding, of her pressing up into him, made his stomach drop. Draco’s mind went utterly blank.

“Thanks for backing me up,” Hermione said. “Before.”

“What?” Draco looked at the pile of laundry where Potter had been standing, nothing in his head but a blank hum. “Oh. Right. Yeah.”

He tried to think of something to say. Anything. “Have—have you always been like that?” he said, now thinking about her gesticulating at Potter as she made her points, her cheeks slightly flushed, her voice impassioned. This wasn’t helping to distract him at all. Now he was thinking about crossing the room, stopping at the end of her bed and leaning down, watching that brilliant colour rise into her cheeks. Kissing her here. Now, even.

“Have I always been like what?” she said.

“So certain about everything,” he managed to say.

“Oh.” She looked a bit surprised. “Well, I—I’m not certain about everything. You know that.” She glanced at him confidentially, and Draco felt a warm spot like a thumbprint somewhere inside his chest. Yes—he did know. As headstrong and rigid as she was, he knew exactly where she faltered, where she could be vulnerable and uncertain.

“But I’ve always been opinionated, yes,” she went on, smiling again now. “My parents tell everyone about the time I researched the NHS’s dentistry policy when I was eight and delivered a plan for comprehensive reform at dinner.”

“NHS,” he repeated.

“Oh.” Her smile faltered for a split second. “It’s the Muggle National Health Service.”

And again, more powerfully than ever, he felt that strange, traitorous curiosity. Real questions were forming now, not just vague feelings, building on top of each other. He wanted to ask whether this ‘NHS’ was better or worse than St. Mungo’s, which had been understaffed and mismanaged for years. Decades, the way his mother spoke about it. He wanted to ask how “dentistry” was even supposed to work.

At the same time as these thoughts were unspooling, though, he was aware that his posture had grown stiff and awkward, and his father’s voice was intruding into the back of his mind. Muggles, it said disgustedly, distantly, like an echo, and Draco found himself staring hard at the floor, face tense, something turning in his stomach. His parents … what would they have thought about him wanting to kiss Hermione? What would his friends have thought? The rest of his family? … but no, there was no need to wonder. Draco knew exactly what they would have thought. He’d heard everything they’d called his aunt Andromeda. Filthy Muggle-lover, said Bellatrix’s disgusted voice, thought our father would die of shame—and his mother’s cool, casual tones, A blood traitor like that is no sister of mine. Draco could hear Pansy’s laugh, disbelieving and appalled, could imagine repulsion on Crabbe and Goyle’s faces, jeering disdain on Blaise and Theo’s. He tried to clear his mind, but it wasn’t working. He didn’t want the curiosity, but he didn’t want these echoes, either; he didn’t want anything; he wanted to be alone; he wanted to get the voices out of his head and think unaffected for two bloody seconds.

His brain felt pressurized. Think of something else, he told himself. Anything else.

He closed his eyes. Her fingertips on his cheek, her face in the mirror, her uncertainty. Everything else seemed to fade, his head going blissfully blank. Everything else was complicated; everything else was fear and judgment. But that night had been simple, private, elemental, the drink taking them outside choice or responsibility. A kind of release.

“I’m going to see where Harry is with that tea,” Hermione said, something odd about her voice. He opened his eyes, but she was already crossing the room. The door was already closing, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

He still hadn’t really processed any of it by the time they Apparated to Lillimont Lake. The air smelled like frost, and the moon was a white sickle. Draco was relieved to be out in the cold, with some distraction.

The lake was small, hardly larger than the cottage’s back garden. “Hello?” Potter called, stepping out onto its pebbled bank. His wand was clutched in his hand, and a white mist formed in front of his mouth as he breathed. It hadn’t been nearly cold enough to see their breath back at headquarters. The Apparition must have taken them to the farthest reaches of Scotland.

Draco stayed behind in the trees with Hermione. Both their wands were drawn, too. They didn’t think it would be a trap, not really, when this messenger had left them the will and the other bequests. Still, it was best to be safe. Draco was under the Invisibility Cloak, but his wand hand peeked through its folds, ready to cast.

Hermione was close to a pine tree, one hand spread across the rough bark. She hadn’t spoken to him since her room. He wondered if something of his thoughts had shown on his face. He wondered with a kind of humiliation if she’d guessed his attraction before he’d even known it himself.

Motion ahead jerked him from his thoughts. His wand whipped up, ready.

But it wasn’t an attack. It wasn’t even a person.

Before them, materializing at the edge of the lake, where the still water had frozen into the pebbles, was a Patronus: a beautiful doe, dazzling silver, reflecting off the icy lake. For the first time in half an hour, thoughts of himself and Hermione dissipated completely. Draco was transfixed by the sight, and so, it seemed, was Potter. It was a long moment before he took a step toward the doe, his wand hand faltering.

The doe stepped away, pausing every so often so Potter could follow, drawing him around the edge of the lake. Draco and Hermione followed, picking through the trees as quietly as they could.

When Potter came up on a small bluff that overlooked a deeper part of the lake, the doe took several steps out onto the water. Potter hesitated, clearly unsure how he was supposed to follow, but the doe didn’t go far. She halted, bowed her head until the tip of her nose brushed the thin, dark ice, remained this way for several long, still moments—and vanished.

Potter stared down into the water at the spot the doe had touched. He lowered his wand hand.

“What’s he doing?” murmured Draco.

Hermione bobbed her shoulders and didn’t turn toward his voice. Draco, looking at the back of her head, felt an odd prickle of worry.

Then Potter called, in a carrying whisper, “The sword! They’ve left it here. I—”

Harry spun suddenly, and Draco and Hermione lifted their wands again. He’d faced a section of trees twenty feet away from them.

“Hello?” Harry said again. “Someone there? Remus? Tonks? … Kingsley? … Lumos!

The beam of light fell across the edge of the lake and into the trees, but though Harry squinted, he didn’t seem to see anything. Neither did they hear the crack of Disapparition.

“Look,” Harry said, with the air of throwing caution to the wind, “if you’re in the Order, come out, would you?”

The wind shifted through the trees, a forlorn rasp.

Hermione tensed. A brainwave seemed to have struck her. “Harry,” she whispered, hurrying out from the tree line. Potter gave her a concerned look—this wasn’t part of the plan—but Draco wasn’t worried. If this had been an enemy, they would have attacked right away when they saw Harry alone.

Draco followed Hermione out of the trees, tucking his wand hand back beneath the Cloak, and stopped beside her and Potter on the edge of the bank. Draco looked down into the dark, icy water. There it was, glinting, unmistakable: the ruby-encrusted hilt of the sword of Godric Gryffindor.

“Harry,” Hermione said in a low voice, “maybe this is someone in the Ministry who’s secretly sympathetic to the Order. Maybe that’s how they got hold of Dumbledore’s bequests. And that’s why they’d want to stay hidden—so we can’t give them away if we get caught.”

Potter’s brows drew together. “Could be,” he muttered. After a moment, he raised his voice again, still facing the trees. “Whoever you are, if you can get word to any of the Order of the Phoenix—Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, Kingsley Shacklebolt, or anyone else who’s on our side—if you can find a way, tell them to meet us here. On December the 1st, let’s say. That’ll give you some time to spread the message. 11 p.m., all right? And…” Potter finally lowered his wand. “Thank you. For the sword, and … and everything.”

There was a long, silent moment.

Then—from the trees—

Crack.

Whoever it had been, they were gone.

His face set, Potter turned back to the icy lake.

 


 

The sword lay on the kitchen table, perfect, unmarred by the centuries. Beside it lay the diadem. Harry was leaning against the counter with his hands wrapped around a cup of tea, his hair still damp from the lake water, a blanket draped over his shoulders.

Hermione was facing away from Draco, her head so full of thoughts it was nearly painful. She wished they had a Pensieve.

“Who do you think it was?” Harry said. “Can you think of anyone with a doe Patronus?”

Hermione shook her head, nibbling at her lip. She had run through all the members of the Order, all the members of Dumbledore’s Army … not a doe in the lot.

“Whoever it is,” said Draco, sitting at the kitchen table, “why didn’t you tell them to contact the Weasleys? Or Hagrid or McGonagall? They’re the only ones in the Order who are still out in the open.”

“That’s why I didn’t mention them,” Harry said. “If this person gets caught, we don’t want them to be able to give everyone away.”

“Yeah, but why should they be able to find anyone who’s on the run any better than we could?”

Harry threw up his hands, looking exasperated. “I don’t know, all right? It’s just a chance. We’ve got to take every chance we can.”

In the lull, their attention moved back to the objects on the table. For the first time since the short conversation with Draco in her room, Hermione’s thoughts focused completely. She felt tense excitement filling the room, wall to wall. At last, they had not just a Horcrux, but the means to destroy it.

“Do you reckon he’ll be able to feel it?” Harry said quietly. “When we get rid of it?”

“None of the books on Horcruxes went into that much detail,” Hermione said, “but I don’t think so. It’s been split away from him completely. There’s no more connection between them. That’s what gives the object its power.”

She didn’t want to look at the diadem. Even now, the way it glittered at her was enticing, reminding her of the bliss she had felt to wear it—to abandon who she really was in favor of the cold certainty of Lord Voldemort.

That was the thing people never spoke about: how remorselessness could feel wonderful, an untethered sensation, like the power of flight. It was sometimes so blissful not to care.

“I want it gone,” she said, and she was surprised to hear how hard her voice was. “I don’t want it to be here anymore. I still … I still have dreams about it sometimes.”

Harry looked troubled. “Hermione,” he said, “that’s …”

He broke off. Draco had stood, taken the sword from the table, and extended the ruby-encrusted hilt to her.

There was something insistent about the way he was standing, turned fully toward her, as if he’d noticed she hadn’t spoken to or even looked at him since their conversation, as if he was asking for her to engage.

And as the sword glittered between them, she remembered him at her bedroom door after the diadem had tried to take her over, locking her in every night to keep her safe. She remembered him defending her to Ron, saying, You don’t know what you’re talking about—because Draco did know. He knew exactly what the destruction of the diadem would mean to her.

But she still couldn’t make herself look at him, because lying there in her bedroom, in the horrible spiraling silence after she’d reminded him she was Muggle-born, she’d felt so small and alone.

She curled her sweaty fingers around the shining hilt without a word or a glance up at Draco. Instead, she drew a deep breath and looked to Harry, who gave an encouraging nod.

She stepped up to the table. The kitchen seemed to blur around her. She forced her eyes to fix on the diadem. Was it her imagination, or was the light moving strangely on its surface? Were the sapphires shining more and more brightly as she lifted the sword above her head, as if they could sense the danger? She heard an echo of that cold, sweet voice in the back of her mind, the one who had told her those terrible and yet seductive things—that she was nothing, had always been nothing, but that if she only chose the right path, she could be rebuilt in an image that was worth everything … she was weak, she was flawed, she was undesirable and unworthy, and how laughably foolish that she had begun to care about Malfoy, how pathetic to think her inferiority would simply fade away in his eyes, how presumptuous, she, born of Muggles, of worthless filth—

No.

The voice that rang through her mind was her own.

No. In a world filled with hatred for what she was, there could be no room for doubt or self-loathing. Again and again, for the rest of her life, it would have to be her voice that declared her worth.

She slammed the sword down upon the diadem and cleaved it in two.

 


 

Hermione’s feet slipped on porcelain, and a warm, careful hand beneath her forearm held her up. A low voice was laughing, mixing with her own, ringing against the tile. She was in the Prefects’ Bathroom, but it had changed. The massive bath sunk into the floor had been replaced with a claw-foot tub. The light was warm and dim.

It was sixth year, after hours, and hadn’t she had this dream a hundred times? Hadn’t she spent half of sixth year dreaming of Ron happening into the Prefects’ Bathroom just as she wrapped a towel around herself?

Her eyes were closed. The world was a sleepy abstract of black and red. She didn’t know why she was standing in the bathtub. There must have been a reason. She was laughing again, whispering, “Quiet … we have to be quiet, someone’s going to hear us.”

His hand slid from her forearm up to her shoulder, where she was still holding the corners of the towel together. His thumb teased at the edge of the cloth. “No one’s going to hear,” he said.

It wasn’t Ron’s voice.

Hermione didn’t open her eyes. Her body was humming like an electric wire. “Are you sure?” she murmured as his fingertips brushed across her collarbones, taking her hair slowly behind her shoulders, the motions lazy but deliberate.

“I’m sure,” Draco said.

Then the floor fell out from beneath her, and she was falling, plummeting endlessly downward, accelerating toward a surface she knew would shatter her.

She woke up with the echo of his voice in her ear.

Hermione’s face burned as she sat up, breathing hard. Her hands were still aching with sensation, as if they’d just unwound from his robes.

Outside, the sky was still pitch-black. They must only have returned from the lake four or five hours ago, but she felt wide awake. She threw the covers off herself and got out of bed, feeling a mix of panic and frustration and anger.

Standing at her bedroom window, which looked out over the cottage’s back garden, Hermione closed her eyes. The image appeared instantly. Draco’s face in the mirror. That night, mind loose with Firewhisky, she’d looked at his softened, uncertain expression and wondered what he’d been thinking.

In that instant, she’d let herself wonder if she’d changed in his eyes as completely as he’d changed in hers. More than that—she’d hoped for it. In the back of her mind, she supposed she’d been hoping for it ever since.

After last night, she had her answer.

It’s the Muggle National Health Service, she’d said. Such a mundane sentence, and yet he’d looked as if she’d uttered a disgusting swearword. That hard expression on his face, his silence, had skewered all the way into a soft, vulnerable part of her. God, the way he’d closed his eyes, as if he couldn’t even look at her anymore.

Hermione slipped into the bathroom and hunched over the sink, staring at herself in the mirror. She didn’t know how she could have let this happen. Hadn’t she told herself for months not to invest anything in his thoughts and values? He was a Malfoy. She was herself, a Muggle-born, and she could never be anything different.

She’d known all along that there were certain rules she had to follow with Draco. Yes, they had saved each other’s necks multiple times now, but she knew his upbringing. She knew what he’d believed unquestioningly for seventeen years. If it was possible to trust someone with your life, but not your happiness, that was the way she trusted him.

It had been safe to develop a rapport, to be amused by him, to understand him. It had even been safe to appreciate the type of friendship they’d developed, which had been based on mutual confession, on slowly developing comprehension. But the unsafe thing was to let herself care, really care, about his opinion of her. That was the line, and on Halloween, she’d stepped, staggered, lurched over it.

She wondered if she was some kind of emotional masochist. After all, she’d been most interested in Ron when Ron was interested in someone else. And Draco … he’d claimed to think they were friends, but she knew they didn’t have the same concept of friendship. At Hogwarts, he’d been ‘friends’ with Blaise Zabini, but from the way Draco spoke about Zabini, he clearly thought of the friendship as nothing more than convenient association.

That was what this was, too. Convenient association. Forced association, really, since he had nowhere else to go—no one else who even knew he was alive. Maybe Draco found her an entertaining diversion, but in all likelihood he had nothing invested in her. He’d already made it clear that he thought her attraction was funny.

Maybe he thought it was a bit pathetic, too. Maybe he was embarrassed to think about it, and that was why, after two weeks, he hadn’t mentioned what had happened on Halloween.

Or maybe he was disgusted by it. She remembered him staring at the floor last night as if he’d had a toothache. Maybe, despite their supposed friendship, he still thought of her as … as a …

Hermione’s throat grew tight, and her eyes prickled.

The feeling of panic grew, and it shrank her as it went, until she felt tiny. She squeezed the edges of the sink until discomfort shot up her fingers, until she couldn’t feel what she’d felt in the dream anymore.

She gritted her teeth and whispered, “No.”

She felt the diadem splitting under her hands. She heard the high-pitched, distant, vengeful scream of Lord Voldemort.

She looked at her own furious expression in the mirror. She was finished with feeling scorned and lonely and inadequate. After last year, never again, never for any reason.

She wasn’t going to give Draco the ability to hurt her. No more dreams. No more noticing. No more speaking to him unless she had to, until she got this stupid, naïve preoccupation under control. As if it even mattered when compared to the Horcruxes, and the war.

No more.

 


 

On the first day, Draco tried to convince himself he was imagining it.

He told himself Hermione had slept poorly. They’d returned home from Lillimont Lake at 2:30, after all, and she’d destroyed a Horcrux. He told himself she’d tossed and turned, and that was why she looked sleepless, and that was why she wasn’t really speaking to or looking at him. She wasn’t speaking to Potter much, either; that was a good sign. Surely it was just distraction.

He asked her after dinner, “Something up, Granger?”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally, turning a page in So You Want to Be Someone Else: Largely Legal Methods of Wizarding Identity Reformation. But he saw that her gaze was fixed on the top left corner of the page, unmoving. He knew that when she was really too distracted by reading to speak, her eyes whipped back and forth across a page like a speed-painter’s brush.

Potter had lowered his own book. “Is it the Horcrux?” he asked.

“No,” Hermione said, definitely a bit curt now.

Potter hesitated, but went back to his book.

Potter wasn’t the most observant person, Draco thought, but he did try. That was something he had in common with Goyle, although he never would have said that to Potter at risk of being hexed.

Draco tried to refocus on Cleaning Jinxes: Befuddle Your Friends and De-foul Your Household! But halfway through a description of a jinx that would transfer dust onto a friend’s face, he realized he was rereading the same six words over and over, and also that he was waiting for Potter to get up and go to bed. Potter almost always turned in before Draco and Hermione—probably to watch Ginny Weasley’s dot on the Marauder’s Map, which he’d drunkenly mentioned doing at Halloween and, blessedly, seemed not to remember confessing.

Once Potter was in bed, Draco could ask Hermione again what was going on with her, and maybe she’d give a real answer. He knew there were some things she’d told him that she’d never told Potter, a fact that gave him a kind of satisfaction.

He’d hardly gotten through two more pages of Cleaning Jinxes, though, before Hermione stood up. “I’m going to bed,” she said, already climbing the steps. Both Draco and Harry watched her go.

“You reckon she’s all right?” Potter asked, when they’d heard her bedroom door close upstairs.

“Why are you asking me?” Draco said. “You’ve been her best friend for seven years, haven’t you?”

Potter shrugged, but he was looking at Draco a bit too shrewdly for Draco’s taste.

“She’s probably just tired,” Draco muttered, going back to his book, suddenly in a bad mood.

After the next day, he knew it wasn’t a figment of his imagination. Hermione looked alert and well-rested. She treated Potter with perfect normalcy. She was focused, and put-together, and she brought long, detailed pages of notes to the library for their brainstorming for the Christmas Gala.

What she didn’t do, ever, was look at him. And when she spoke to him, it was with the kind of shuttered coldness that he associated with Severus Snape.

Soon she began to distance herself from him outright. When he cooked, she would no longer set the table and hum as she went. After dinner, rather than relaxing in the front room, she shut herself into her bedroom.

Draco tried to seem coolly unaffected, to deteriorating results. The first day or two, he managed to act normal enough, but soon, during brainstorming, he found himself bringing up obscure facts that he remembered from Transfiguration, or History of Magic, or the Grindelwald books, waiting for her to give him an impressed look. She never did. Over meals, he mused aloud about arcane theoretical sub-branches of Arithmancy, hoping she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to launch into an excited monologue; he spoke about foreign Wizarding cultures and traditions, knowing they interested her; he even brought up details about his own life, being far more open than he would have liked in front of Potter. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Five days in, he said something to her about the weather, for Merlin’s sake, and Potter looked at him like he was out of his mind. Hermione ignored this completely, finished her orange juice, and walked into the other room.

It might not have been so bad if his own mind hadn’t been in disarray. Since the night of the lake, he couldn’t seem to get his imagination under control. Thoughts of Halloween transformed until suddenly he was picturing kissing her against the library bookshelves, on the sofa in the front room, in the kitchen beside the stove. When she bound her hair up in a massive, frizzy bunch, he looked at the wispy curls at the back of her neck and imagined running his fingers over the skin there. Her constant lip-biting had become a kind of torture for him, the soft wetness of her mouth.

He imagined kissing her until she came open—until she told him what, in the name of Merlin’s last rotting tooth, she was doing.

But over the course of the week, a seed of suspicion sprouted at the back of his mind.

Draco had gone through a million possibilities, and at this point, he didn’t know what else it could be. The fact was, she’d been strange since the night they’d gone to the lake. She’d been strange since the conversation when Draco had first allowed himself to imagine kissing her. He couldn’t even remember what they’d been talking about, only the rush of his thoughts and feelings, the conflicted shock of realizing the attraction he’d felt since Halloween.

She must have seen it in his expression. If not through Legilimency, then through intuition, she’d realized that he’d wanted her.

And this was her reaction. Absolute repulsion.

Draco didn’t understand. He’d thought she was attracted to him. He’d started to enjoy that particular tidbit of information. She’d seemed pleased to be friends, too. Who felt this way about a friend? Had he somehow misinterpreted every single signal he’d received from her?

But a hypothesis had formed for that mystery, too. She was Hermione Granger. Member of the Order, Gryffindor Prefect, founder of an elf rights society and a defense group to resist the Dark Lord. Right from the very beginning, this was who she’d always been.

And he was still the person who’d tried to murder Albus Dumbledore. He still had the Dark Mark on his forearm. Sometimes, last year, he’d used to look down at the Mark in the shower and wish he could just tear it off himself. He’d started doing that again, standing in the tub downstairs, in the very spot she’d stood on Halloween.

Maybe this was the extent of Hermione’s willingness to forgive. Maybe, despite all appearances, she still felt a deep-seated repulsion toward him, and the idea of involvement between them had crossed a serious boundary, one so offensive to her that she had to demonstrate how she really felt.

Maybe, he thought bitterly one afternoon in the library, that was why she’d looked so conflicted on Halloween night. Because when she was sober, the idea of touching him was morally, ethically repellent to her.

Draco told himself the theory was wrong. It had to be wrong. When had he ever been this off the mark on reading anyone? And this was Hermione, the worst liar he’d ever met. He knew her.

He’d thought he’d known her.

“Are you paying attention?” Hermione said.

Draco blinked.

“Yes,” he lied.

“Good,” she said shortly. “Because we don’t have time to waste, you know.”

Hermione turned away with unnecessary affront. She began to turn through the clippings from the Daily Prophets that they’d accumulated over the past two weeks.

“We’ll find a way in, Hermione,” Harry reassured her. “We’ve still got a month. It’ll be all right.”

She seemed to soften as she looked at Harry. Draco felt a hot stab of irritation and found himself resisting the urge to flick Potter’s glasses off the bridge of his nose.

Clear your mind, whispered the voice in his mind that always returned to him at moments of high emotion. And he tried, but spikes of annoyance kept breaking through, shattering his focus. It was several minutes before Draco managed to slip into that blank, unfeeling state.

After a long moment, Harry broke the silence, his voice tense. “There’s always the Imperius Curse.”

“Harry,” Hermione said, looking shocked.

“We’re not using it to hurt anyone, are we?” Harry said. “We just need someone on the inside. If we used it, we might not need to get into the manor at all.”

Draco reclined on his pile of cushions and leaned his elbow against the sofa. Who would’ve guessed that Potter had it in him? “Not an option,” he said idly.

“Why not?”

“The Unforgivables aren’t Wingardium Leviosa, Potter. The Imperius gets harder the farther you are from the target, and the longer you control them, and the more naturally you want them to act. Death Eaters practice for years to get the kind of control you’re talking about.” Draco picked at one of the sofa cushions’ tassels. “We’re trying to break into a Ministry event, remember? Any idiot in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement will know what an amateur Imperius looks like. … Besides, we’d have to cast the curse when the caterers arrive, hours before the guests show up. We wouldn’t make it halfway through setup and decoration.”

“All right, all right,” Harry said grudgingly. “I get the idea.”

“We need something failsafe,” Hermione muttered, flipping through a thick, cracked, apparently untitled tome. “A potion would be ideal, but I’ve cross-checked hundreds of potions against the capabilities of Probity Probes, and it looks like our only options would be potions with really rare or expensive ingredients. Our money’s running low as it is.”

“How low?” Draco said.

“Well,” Hermione said to Harry, as if he’d been the one to ask, “the Galleons Mr. Weasley withdrew for us when we were at the Burrow are three-quarters gone on food. I’ve switched to my parents’ bank card, in case we really need a magical purchase, but, I mean, we’d need hundreds more Galleons to make one of these potions.” She shook her head. “Even then, I’d worry that the anti-intruder wards would set off alarms at traces of the magic, if we drink something that exotic or powerful.”

Harry sighed, slouching down in his chair. “Fantastic. No power. Let’s just fish a Halloween mask out of a bin at Marks and Spencer and give that a go, then.”

Draco snorted, but Hermione froze. Then she shot upright on her cushions.

“What?” Harry said.

“Of course,” she breathed. “Yes, of course! Why didn’t I think of it? … Because they wouldn’t be able to detect it. … The wards wouldn’t pick it up, either. And no one would expect it.”

“What,” said Harry, looking bewildered, “a Halloween mask?”

“No, of course not,” Hermione said impatiently.

“Well,” Draco said, “please feel free to enlighten us at any time.”

She looked him in the eyes. Her expression, which had been so closed and cold, was suddenly open and enthusiastic, and Draco felt a kind of relief like the unclenching of a muscle. He realised exactly how much he’d missed that expression—the simple feeling that she liked being around him.

“Do you remember,” she said, “the night we were at my house in July?”

Draco’s hand tightened involuntarily on the sofa tassel. He wanted to say something clever and offhand, something to make her remember that, as recently as last week, they’d had enjoyable, friendly conversations. But all that came out was, “Of course.”

“You thought there was an Engorgement Charm on a bear on television.” Her voice was rising. “Well, for movies, Muggles change their looks all the time. They wear something called facial prosthetics. They’re a kind of makeup.” She looked to Harry. “We can go to London, to a studio that specialises in these kinds of things, and get ourselves transformed into different people using Muggle methods!”

Harry looked thunderstruck. “Hermione.” He let out a laugh. “Of course—Finite Incantatem won’t touch Muggle makeup!”

They both looked to Draco, waiting for his reaction. But Draco felt like his insides were filling with a heavy weight.

The idea made sense. It was possibly the only thing that made sense. And yet the idea of going into the heart of Muggle London, letting Muggles transform him … he didn’t want to think what his parents would have said.

“Is it safe?” he said warily.

“Of course it is,” Harry said with a scoff. “What do you think they’re going to do, cut off your nose?”

Draco didn’t answer. There was an uncomfortable silence, and little by little, the excitement faded from Hermione’s face. She looked away from him, her expression closing off again.

“It’s all right,” she said. “If you’re not comfortable with it, you don’t have to come.”

At first he thought it was a challenge, like the kind Pansy had used to give him. Oh, you don’t have to come into Hogsmeade with me, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do.

Then, distinctly, he caught a glimpse of hurt on Hermione’s face.

Draco felt something sharp, like a pinprick to the center of his chest. His first instinct was defensiveness. All he’d asked was if it was safe. How was he supposed to know what Muggles did? Those docker people in Muggle hospitals spent half their time chopping patients up, didn’t they?

But of course, Hermione hadn’t just taken the question at face value. She’d guessed the discomfort he felt at the idea of mixing with Muggles, his instinctive aversion—and it had hurt her.

Draco tried to understand. It was the first thing he’d said all week that she’d really reacted to. And yet her voice had been filled with resignation. It’s all right, she’d said, with the tone of a foregone conclusion. Hermione Granger, the pushiest, most relentless person in his life, possibly in the world, who demanded more from everybody—when it came to this, she expected nothing else from him.

Then, in a moment like a lightning strike, Draco remembered. He recalled the exact words she’d said the night they’d gone to the lake, the very last piece of their conversation. It’s the Muggle National Health Service.

And he hadn’t said anything in reply. He’d just sat there, unspeaking, trying to suppress his parents’ voices, trying to suppress his curiosity, trying not to think about kissing her, trying to find some silence in his head, straining and straining at himself—but Hermione hadn’t seen any glimpse of his thoughts. She’d had no idea what had been happening inside him. All she’d seen was that after she’d mentioned her Muggle parents, her life in the Muggle world, he’d gone silent.

He must have seemed disgusted, disdainful.

The weight in Draco’s stomach seemed to come alive, squirming horribly inside him. He suddenly remembered something he hadn’t thought about in years: the day before second year that he and his father had seen Hermione’s parents in Flourish and Blotts. His father had said to Mr. Weasley with cool revulsion, The company you keep, Weasley. … And I’d thought your family could sink no lower. He hadn’t even bothered to insult Hermione’s family directly, had considered them beneath the effort. All the way home, Lucius had made snide comments about them, about Muggles and their offspring, and Draco had gleefully agreed with every one.

Did Hermione think he still felt that way about Muggle-borns?

What did he think?

He’d tried so hard not to delve into the subject, bent on avoiding every chaotic, destabilized feeling the subject awoke in him, but he couldn’t lean on avoidance forever. This was why she’d shut him out. This was what she needed to know.

But he needed to know, too. He couldn’t go on like this.

What did he believe?

Heat built in Draco’s head like a low-grade fever. He still had his relatives’ and friends’ voices in his mind, reminding him of everything he’d been raised to think, everything he’d believed his whole life, the elegance and refinement of pure blood, its innate superiority. And yet, in practice, what did that boil down to? He wasn’t better at magic than Hermione. He knew of half-bloods that were richer and more influential than his family. What did any of it actually mean?

With a pulse of something like anger or confusion or incomprehension, he thought about how, that day in Flourish and Blotts, he could have interrupted. He could have just made some excuse for them to leave, and Hermione and her parents wouldn’t have been hurt. It would even have been easy.

Why had his father needed to say anything about it at all?

He thought, if he could live that moment again right now, he would have steered his father out the door. He would have found a reason.

Suddenly, with a dizzy feeling, like he’d held his breath too long, he wanted Hermione to know that. He needed her to know. But he didn’t know how to express it, other than to say, the words pushing out haltingly, ungracefully—

“Yeah. I’ll go.”

Hermione looked up at him with naked surprise. “You … you will?”

She was looking at him the way she hadn’t all week. Her eyes were the warm, sweet brown of honeyed tea, and her slightly parted lips looked soft. Draco had the sensation of drawing breath after three minutes underwater. In that moment he felt like the library was slipping around him, like he was losing his grip on something. He’d agreed to go into Muggle London.

He tried to relax back against the sofa, tried to sound unconcerned. “Yeah, well, I’ve just had it on the Chosen One’s authority that nobody’s going to cut my nose off, so, I suppose.”

He wanted her to smile, but she didn’t even seem happy. She looked disturbed, almost panicked. Heat was moving through Draco’s whole body now, washing over the back of his neck, the undersides of his arms. I’ll go, he thought again, trying to make the thought feel stable, normal. I’ll go, I’ll go. He was going to somewhere new. And to go somewhere new, he had to leave something behind.

He’d left so much behind already, he would have thought the feeling would feel familiar, but every time it was the same. Every time it was tying on a blindfold. Every time it was walking into the dark.

Chapter Text

Hermione woke up tired the next morning. She’d had the dream again last night, headier and more intense. This time, though, her eyes had been open. She hadn’t thought, at any point, that it was anyone but him.

She lay in bed a while, looking at the ceiling, thinking.

The week had been, frankly, awful. Harry had noticed her change in attitude, of course. After three days of her silent treatment, when she’d been out in the garden for some air, her hands cupped around the bluebell flames she loved to conjure, he’d come to her and said, “Look, Hermione—did something happen with Malfoy?”

He already sounded suspicious, as if he were ready to fight Draco if he’d done something. Hermione had felt a rush of fondness for Harry then. She could have hugged him, if it wouldn’t have set his hair alight.

“Not really,” she’d said. “I suppose I just … I got my hopes up a bit, that’s all. That he’d really changed.” Her voice came out quiet and small, and it was a relief to be herself, not the persona she’d been putting on in the cottage.

Harry had held out his hands toward the bluebell flame, warming his fingers. After a moment, he said, “He sort of seems like he has, though, doesn’t he?”

“He’s—yes, I mean, in some ways, of course he has. Hunting the Horcruxes, being friendly with both of us. … But have you ever actually heard him contradict the things he always used to say? All that pure-blood obsession?”

“Well, no,” Harry admitted. “I suppose he just doesn’t really talk about it anymore. It’s still different from how he used to act, though.”

“Yes, but …”

She hadn’t been able to finish the sentence. But it doesn’t feel like enough. Saying it would have shown her hand—would have shown how much she cared, unwillingly, what Draco thought.

Still, she thought Harry understood anyway, in that unspoken way he often seemed to.

She’d told herself over and over that distance was the only answer. Soon it would be easier to hold Draco at bay, and then she’d stop thinking about his opinions on Muggles and Muggle-borns with this feeling like teetering on the edge of a cliff. She’d told herself this was the only way to keep herself safe.

But part of her kept doubting.

All week, she’d thought Draco had seemed unhappy. It wasn’t an obvious thing. He hadn’t made any mention of her behaviour, though she hadn’t really expected him to, proud as he was.

Yet there had been a shift in his manner. She’d seen hints of confusion, then dissatisfaction, even dejection. And through it all, he’d kept trying to talk to her. Over and over, he’d tried, always using the same casual tone, as if everything were still normal between them, as if this time he could break through to her, or this time, or the next. Every day it felt worse to be so abrupt. He’d brought up one of her favourite sub-branches of Arithmancy on Monday, and the effort it had taken not to enthuse about it had been excruciating.

Clearly he did feel their relationship was something more than convenience.

That’s not the real point, she told herself, angry about the small, hopeful bubble that seemed to have swelled up in her. The point was his beliefs. The point was that she refused, point blank, to argue her own worth to him.

But then, yesterday, Draco had said he would come into Muggle London, and her thoughts had been thrown into disarray. She didn’t know what to do with the information. He’d agreed to go into a sea of Muggles without complaint, without any smart remarks, without even a sneer or a look of disdain. All this, when scarcely a week ago he’d heard one simple reference to her upbringing and shorted out like a circuit?

It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, she reminded herself. He hadn’t said anything about Muggles, anything about what he thought or felt—just that he would come. And if he wanted to see Malfoy Manor again, then he had to come, didn’t he? Holding his nose out of necessity wasn’t the same thing as change.

Still, she hadn’t expected even for a moment that he would do it, let alone without protest.

She found it especially hard to be frosty to him over breakfast that day. Maybe it was the new disorganisation of her feelings. Maybe it was just because she was so exhausted, or because Harry slept late and it was only the two of them, cutlery clinking against their plates, Draco looking tired and wan and a little bit sad. Whatever the reason, she noticed the delicate indigo colour of the circles beneath his eyes, the arches of his brows, the Y shapes in the cartilage of his ears, the way his lower lip looked bitten. His hair was rumpled in a way that made her imagine its texture.

“Didn’t sleep well?” he asked, his voice quiet and scratchy.

“No,” she said, quiet too. “Nor you?”

Draco hesitated, clearly taken aback at her engagement. “No,” he said. “I haven’t slept well all week.”

Hermione didn’t answer. Something quavered in her at the answer, the tentative reference to her coldness. It felt so good to speak to him like a normal person again, even for just three words. She missed the ease they’d had.

She missed him.

As the silence stretched, the feeling intensified, running through her. She missed him. She missed his little stories about his life and his friends, his reluctant, closed-off nostalgia. She missed the way he said Granger with light, laughing irony, and she missed teasing him back, and seeing him smile. She missed the way he’d look away when he mentioned anything about the previous year, the feeling that she was the only one he trusted with the truth. She missed him reassuring her in casual, nearly invisible ways when she was so deep into her worries about the war that she couldn’t see straight.

She missed looking at him. The acute point of his chin, the quicksilver eyes. The lips that her dreams told her would be slightly rough, like linen. The occasional pink in his cheeks, when he let on too much and wanted to backtrack.

For a wild moment she considered just demanding what he meant by it, by agreeing to come into Muggle London.

But if he gave the answer she didn’t want to hear? If he revealed disgust, even distaste?

The idea still felt like a stiletto knife sliding into a nervous centre.

Distance, she thought, taking a deep, slow breath. Distance.

He didn’t try to speak to her again for the rest of breakfast. It was a relief, but also made her feel a pang she hadn’t anticipated. It’s good if he’s given up, she thought at once, now properly angry with herself. It meant she didn’t have to be outright cold anymore. He’d gotten the message. She could avoid without wounding, now.

Still, when she left the table, she thought she could feel him watching her.

That afternoon, with the crux of the infiltration plan in place, they began to work out the specifics. Hoping to target Umbridge in the bathroom, they decided Hermione should be the one who attended as a guest, while Harry and Draco would apply for Lizzie Spizzworth’s.

Their first thought for Hermione was a fake invitation and a false name on the guest list—but altering the list would have involved getting into the Ministry’s Office of Domestic Magical Affairs. Faking an invitation would be difficult, too. When they’d been at Rita Skeeter’s house, Hermione had tried to duplicate the invitation, or to Transfigure it to read a different name, but it had been charmed to resist both, so they’d left it behind, not wanting to arouse suspicion by stealing it.

It came to them in the evening, as they sat before a merrily crackling fire in the front room. Rita Skeeter’s invitation had read, We regret that we are unable to accommodate plus-one invitations for media correspondents.

“For media correspondents,” Harry said triumphantly. “Not for members of the Ministry.”

“What are you saying?” Hermione said. “You want me to—to Confund a Ministry employee into asking me to the gala?”

“No,” Harry said.

“Well, good, because that would be—”

“I’ll Confund him. Or Draco will. You just need to start a conversation.”

Hermione gaped at him.

“Not a bad idea,” Draco muttered.

“I was thinking Percy,” Harry said, “but—”

Absolutely not,” Hermione hissed. “I’d rather drink Bubotuber Pus! How can you even suggest—

But he knows what your voice sounds like, so it wouldn’t work.” Harry hesitated. “It did make me think, though. Mr. Weasley should be at the gala. Maybe we can … well, ask him how Ron is, if he still hasn’t come back by then.”

Hermione felt a guilty squeeze. “Yes. Er, that’s a good idea.”

There was a pause. Then Harry sighed. “I really thought he’d be back for the sword. I mean, he was so keen on feeling like we were getting somewhere with the Horcruxes. … I thought he’d want to know.”

“Coming back means apologizing,” Draco said with cool distaste. “Are you sure he could manage it?”

Harry bristled. “Ron hasn’t got a problem apologizing, Malfoy, unlike some.”

Hermione went very still. An unpleasant silence spread throughout the room.

Draco sat up slowly on his cushions. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Harry looked like he regretted saying anything. For a fraction of a second, his eyes strayed toward Hermione.

“Oh, be quiet, you two,” Hermione blurted, trying to sound dismissive, as if this were any other meaningless squabble. For Merlin’s sake, Harry, she thought furiously.

“I don’t think Ron’s at the Burrow,” she rushed on. “I think he must be trying to find Hufflepuff’s Cup on his own. That’s all I can really think of—that he wants to come back having done something to help. That must be it.”

Harry cleared his throat. “Right. Well. We can ask Mr. Weasley at the gala, is the point.”

Draco was looking at Hermione, a light frown sharpening his angular features. He didn’t seem to have heard a word Harry had said.

“And whoever asks you,” Harry went on, more loudly, “it should be someone whose family is in good standing with the Ministry.” He glanced at Draco. “Er, do you know any Slytherins just out of Hogwarts who work there?”

Draco finally looked away from Hermione. He thought for a moment, then gave a curt nod. “Yeah. Theo Nott’s older brother is a Trainee Auror.”

The tension in Hermione’s stomach released. She let out a slow breath. The plan, she thought. Good. Just focus on the plan.

“An Auror’s too risky,” she said. “We need someone without combat training. Someone who won’t realise that they’ve been Confunded.”

“Marcus Flint, then. Department of Magical Games and Sports.”

Hermione couldn’t help but make a face.

“What?” Harry said.

“Oh, nothing,” she said with distaste. “But … well, he’s older. Wasn’t he a seventh-year when we were third-years? He’ll be twenty-two now, or something. And he’s mean-looking,” she added.

Draco was looking down at his notes, but Hermione thought she saw his lip twitch.

“Hermione,” Harry said, his patience clearly wearing thin, “you won’t actually be getting into a relationship with Marcus Flint.”

“Yes, well, I’ll have to see him more than once, won’t I?” she shot back. “Once the initial Confundus Charm wears off, he can’t just decide he felt a bit impulsive that day and cancel by owl. He has to be—” She was blushing now— “actually interested. And I’m sorry, Harry, but the only memory I have of Marcus Flint is when he tried to scare you off your broom by pretending to be a Dementor.”

“Ahh,” Harry said wistfully, aiming a grin at Draco. “That was a great match, wasn’t it? I seem to recall blasting a Patronus at the four of you.”

Draco hadn’t had many retorts the past few days, but he raised one eyebrow at Harry and said, “Your finest moment, Potter. How’d it feel to peak at thirteen?”

“Fantastic,” Harry said.

Draco settled back on his cushions, running a hand through his hair. “There’d have to be a reason why Flint didn’t already know a pure-blood girl our age.”

“Easy,” Harry said. “Hermione, you can say you’ve just graduated from an international school, and you’ve just moved here, and…”

“… and it would be just so helpful,” Hermione went on in a low, flattering voice, “if someone would show me around Wizarding London and introduce me to the right people.”

“Yeah,” Draco said slowly. “Yeah, it could work. … He has a type, though. And Quidditch is basically his entire personality. And his family’s really traditional. You’ll have to know every tiny thing about pure-blood rituals.”

“Where am I even supposed to meet him?” Hermione said.

“Circe & Clíodhna,” said Draco without even hesitating. “It’s a Wizarding bar not far from the Ministry. Basically all the Slytherin alumni go there after work on Fridays. Flint told me about it summer before last.”

“Perfect,” said Harry. “We’ll do it this Friday, then.”

“But—but that only gives us a day and a half to prepare,” Hermione said.

“Hermione, we really don’t want him asking someone else. We don’t want anyone involved in this.”

Hermione sighed. That was true. The last thing they needed was Marcus Flint’s jilted lover poking her nose into who exactly this new girl was.

She tried not to think of the jokes Draco would have made about the idea of Marcus Flint’s jilted lover.

“A day and a half is plenty of time,” Harry went on, gaining steam. “We’ll go into Muggle London tomorrow morning to make an appointment for our disguises—I reckon we won’t just be able to stroll in somewhere on the spot. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll take some Polyjuice and go drop off the Spizzworth’s applications, and Draco, you can help Hermione figure out how to get Flint interested. We’ll get the disguises done Friday morning and you’ll meet him that evening.”

There was a silence. Hermione realized she was waiting to see how Draco would react.

“Yeah,” Draco said. “All right.” He sounded nearly careless.

Hermione hated the candle of feeling that still burned in her chest, small and bright, no matter how she tried to blow it out.

 


 

On Thursday morning, Draco awoke feeling almost nauseated. He’d lain awake for hours last night, nerves flaring, running through reams of memories of his parents. Not just all the things they’d ever said about Muggles and Muggle-borns, either, but the way they’d looked at him when he was younger, the constant glow of pride in their faces.

He’d remembered his mother letting out one broken sob when she’d clasped him in her arms at Grimmauld Place, the night they’d faked their deaths. He’d never heard anything like that from her. He expected no one besides his father ever had. By the time the embrace had broken, she was already collected again, her thin pale face rigid with suppressed emotion.

He’d remembered his father coming out of the Floo from Azkaban. His mother had seemed to melt into his father’s arms, and then, when Lucius looked at Draco, thin and grey-faced from the effect of the Dementors, he’d extended a shaking hand and drawn Draco into the embrace. For the first time in a year, huddled against his parents, Draco had felt safe.

He’d felt like a child again. He never would have admitted that that was something he’d missed.

His parents had given him everything he’d ever wanted. They’d raised him with a degree of love, attention, and affection that he knew was unparalleled even within his group of friends, who were generally prized and pampered at home. They’d never asked him for a single thing—except, maybe, that he become the man they’d raised him to be.

Draco had never in his life taken a step that felt so opposed to their wishes. Defecting from the Dark Lord, even hunting the Horcruxes, was one thing—he’d done all that to keep the family safe, to take steps toward restoring their lives.

Going to Muggle London was different. He tried to tell himself he was acting out of necessity, but it just wasn’t true. He couldn’t lie to himself so easily anymore. That curious part of him kept hissing questions in the back of his mind, kept demanding to know more, to understand, see this world where Hermione and Potter had grown up, that his family and friends hated so much.

Maybe, he thought, he would arrive there and easily see why they acted with disgust. That was a possibility. Maybe he would finally see the evidence for what his family had always said about Muggles being dirty, oafish, like sheep, a disgrace for wizards to associate with.

But if not? If there’s no reason? whispered the voice in his mind.

For once he didn’t know whose voice it was. Maybe his own. And he had no answer for its questions.

When he came out of his room, Potter was already in the kitchen, cooking breakfast.

“Hi,” Potter said.

“Morning,” Draco said, squinting through the weak rays of sun. “Why are you awake? I thought we weren’t leaving for an hour and a half.”

“We’re not. I wanted to talk to you.”

Draco hesitated, then sat down at the kitchen table, feeling much less groggy all of a sudden. Was he going to find out what Potter had meant by that apology comment yesterday?

“Talk, then,” he said.

Potter tapped his wand on the stove, and the flames beneath the saucepan shrank to small golden teeth. He turned, his face serious.

“Er.” Potter rubbed the back of his neck. “First of all, you’ve been a big help the past few months. So, there’s that, and, yeah, thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said Draco, suspicious. Somehow he doubted this was a conversation revolving around gratitude.

Potter hesitated for a long moment. He seemed to be considering how best to phrase whatever it was he was about to say.

“Look,” he said finally. “I can’t be sure what’s going on in your head. I don’t know if you’ve gone back on all that stuff you used to say in school, or whether you’re just quiet about it now, or—”

Draco’s heart had begun to beat very hard. He wasn’t prepared to talk about this with anyone, let alone with Potter. Defensive words came out of him before he could even think. “Good thing I don’t owe you an expl—”

“That’s not the point,” Potter cut in.

Confused, Draco broke off.

“I don’t need to know what you think,” Potter went on. “Honestly, at this point I don’t much care. You’re helping us, so whatever the reason is, fine.” He crossed his arms. “But I do care about Hermione. And when we go into London today, and tomorrow, and whenever else we need to, just …”

His eyes bored into Draco, as shrewd as they had been the day Hermione had first started giving him the silent treatment. “Whatever’s been going on between the pair of you—and I don’t need to know,” he added quickly, “or anything. I’m not asking. I’m just … I’m pretty sure you don’t want to make things worse. Am I wrong?”

Draco hesitated for a long moment, feeling wary. So all this had been building up in Potter’s mind this week. That was unexpected.

He moved his head in the tiniest shake.

“Right, then,” Potter said. “In that case, I’m asking you to just—act normally, would you? Talk about the plan, and Flint, and whatever else. Ask questions about things. Don’t … don’t jeer at anything.”

“Potter,” said Draco stiffly, “I know how to be polite.”

“Oh, so you just chose not to be for six years, then.”

“Yes. Obviously.”

A flicker of amusement in Potter’s eyes disrupted his seriousness.

“It’s not like she’ll answer any questions I ask,” Draco muttered. “She won’t say anything to me, if you haven’t noticed.”

Potter sighed. “Yeah, well …”

But at that moment, they heard footsteps on the stairs down the hall. Potter lowered his voice. “I’ll answer the questions,” he said quietly. “It’ll be fine. Just don’t overthink it.”

He turned back to the stove as Hermione entered the room, poring over a map of London.

Draco stood, motions stiff, and began to set the table, though he was still mulling over what Potter had said. Don’t overthink it. … I don’t need to know what you think … I don’t much care.

It was strange how much relief those words brought him. With his thoughts about blood status nearly nonstop these days, he’d started to feel like there were no safe thoughts to have. If he questioned his parents’ ideals, he was a blood traitor who would be derided by everyone from his old life. If he tried to cling to those principles, that dubious voice in his head awoke and started hissing at him, and he thought of Hermione trying to hide her hurt expression. Moreover, the thoughts felt so loud, as if all usual rules of privacy had shattered and Hermione or Potter could see the turmoil swarming all over his face.

He’d needed Potter’s reminder. All anyone knew was what he chose to show. He could show normalcy today, even if he didn’t feel it.

Still, it was with a feeling of slow panic that Draco ate breakfast and prepared for their departure. He still didn’t feel ready when they packed their things, slipped their wands into their pockets, Disillusioned themselves, and Disapparated.

Crack.

They were standing in a puddle in a small, dim alley, a crack of blue sky high overhead.

“All clear,” Potter said.

Draco’s palms were clammy at his sides. They lifted their Disillusionments, walked down the alley, and emerged into a broad, bright street.

Draco couldn’t remember when, if ever, he’d seen Muggles in these kinds of numbers. Mostly, when he and his parents had needed to come into London before, they’d used Floo to get to their Wizarding destinations. Every year, coming to Diagon Alley, they'd taken him by Side-Along Apparition directly into the Leaky Cauldron, and, like all his friends' parents, they'd always paid the substantial fee to Apparate directly into Platform 9¾, too. The most he’d seen of Muggle London had been the view through the windows at Grimmauld Place, which was in a secluded square.

Here, in the centre of some busy neighbourhood, the flood of information overwhelmed him. Everywhere were Muggle clothes: jeans in every shade of blue, oddly shaped hats that fit tightly over heads, clunky shoes striped with neon, coats made of silvery fabric that glistened with recent drizzle. Nearby, a pair of Muggle children were laughing and playing with toys of a hard, shiny material, which buzzed and flashed. A man bustled out of a nearby shop wearing what looked like a pair of black earmuffs, which were attached by a long cord to a glimmering grey oval in his hand; he was humming to himself.

“All right,” said Potter, obviously unperturbed by any of this. “Which way do you reckon, Hermione?”

“Well,” she said, “in the absence of a phone book, I think we should ask for directions or recommendations from the first salon or hairdresser we find.”

“Sounds good,” Potter said. “Lead on.”

Draco trailed after them up the busy street. Rolling down the road were car after car after car. Draco had seen cars, of course; the Ministry had a fleet of them, and occasionally Ministry officials would glide up to the manor gates in one of those black machines. But his parents had always considered it distasteful to use them, and of course they’d never needed to resort to the Knight Bus for transportation, so it was all very alien. He glanced through the window of a boxy, bright yellow car and saw a woman gripping a thin leather-bound wheel with one hand, twiddling a series of dials with her other. The next vehicle was as different to the first as a flying carpet was to a broom—a clunky, roaring thing with a fifteen-foot-long metal box affixed to its end, rolling along on an additional dozen tyres.

“There,” Hermione said, pointing across the street. “Come on.”

And she stepped onto the shiny black material of the road—toward a moving car.

“Wait!” Draco blurted, grabbing her by the elbow.

She looked at him with bewilderment. “What?”

“It—it was—” He pointed at the blue car, which was rolling slowly past now, the driver also giving Draco a funny look. “It’s still going.”

Hermione’s confusion deepened. “Yes, at about five miles an hour.”

Draco opened his mouth, then closed it again.

“They’ll stop to let you pass if traffic’s this slow,” explained Potter, looking highly amused. “They’re not just going to roll into you. Look.”

And he jogged onto the black road, lifting a hand at the next driver, who pulled to a halt. Potter crossed safely.

“Ah.” Draco realized his fingers were still curled around Hermione’s arm and let go at once. “Right.”

Hermione made a funny noise that quickly turned into a cough. Draco’s cheeks felt hot as he followed her across the street, and the three of them pushed into a hair salon.

Draco felt even more out of place inside. All around the salon were silver machines, some like hoops, others like bowls, several of which were lowered over the heads of seated Muggle women wearing black aprons.

“Good morning,” said Hermione brightly to the woman at the front counter.

The woman looked up from the magazine she was reading and gave Hermione’s bushy hair a long, startled look. As her eyes slid onto Potter’s hair, her expression turned to something like dread, but finally she looked to Draco, and her expression eased. It was to Draco she addressed the question: “Here for an appointment?” she said. “Or … your friends are?”

Draco’s whole body tensed. He was acutely aware that this was the first time he’d ever spoken with a Muggle. The closest he’d come had been that man at the Quidditch World Cup, and his parents had done all the talking then; Draco had watched from behind with a kind of morbid interest.

He glanced at Hermione and Potter, who were both looking back at him, faces unreadable.

He looked back to the Muggle woman. She had shiny dark hair that reminded him of Pansy’s. She had a metal stud in her eyebrow—some kind of Muggle religious symbol, maybe?

“No,” Draco said. “We’re looking for a studio specialising in facial prothletics.”

She blinked. “Facial what?”

Hermione cleared her throat. “Prosthetics. We’re film students—we wondered if you had any recommendations.”

The woman’s look of disapproval faded, and she rubbed thoughtfully at her chin. “What are you trying to look like?” She glanced back to Draco. “Vampires?”

Draco blinked at her, stung.

“No,” Potter said. “We don’t need monster makeup, or anything. We’re trying to look like different people for our film. A bit older, maybe.”

“Give Leo Clifton’s a go. It’s over in Kensington, right near the Notting Hill station.”

The second they were outside again, Draco said, “What did she mean, vampires?” It was hard not to feel miffed, not to mention confused. His father had once done some liaising with a vampire enclave in Germany, and none of the vampires they’d met on that trip had looked anything like him. Neither had they exactly been avatars of good looks.

“Well, Muggles don’t think they’re real, obviously,” said Potter as they headed back down the street toward the alley where they’d Apparated in. “And vampires are all really pale in Muggle movies.”

“Why are they pale?”

Potter glanced at Hermione, who was watching her feet as they walked. “I dunno,” he said. “I suppose because it makes them look like they haven’t got blood?”

“But they do have blood,” Draco said. “Just because it’s not circulating, doesn’t mean—”

“Yeah, well, how are Muggles supposed to know the details?”

Draco felt agitated. Just then, another person wearing those odd black earmuffs walked by, holding the same shining grey oval.

“What are those earmuffs for?” he blurted, unable to stop himself. “It’s not that cold.”

“They’re headphones,” Potter said. “You can listen to music through them. It comes out of the CD player. The grey thing.”

“CD player?” Draco repeated. He was aware of how stupid he sounded, even infantile, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. After weeks of suppressed preoccupation over what the Muggle world really was, how it behaved, how it operated, he was here, in the thick of it. He had this feeling like the rush of adrenalin before a Quidditch match, or possibly the realization that he was in a dream, with a puzzle that he needed to solve before he awoke.

Besides, Potter had told him to ask questions, hadn’t he? And wouldn’t it seem twice as stupid to pretend like nothing around him existed? At headquarters he’d been able to act like he wasn’t thinking about it. Here, with everything pressing in on him, there was nothing else to think about. This was all.

“A CD is something that holds music,” Potter said. “It’s been recorded onto it. Like …” Potter was clearly struggling for words.

Then Hermione spoke.

“Imagine an Echo Charm,” she said, “but cast on a disc. If you put the disc into a player, it’ll play the song as many times as you’d like.”

Draco looked down at her. She hadn’t faced him, and her voice had the kind of intense restraint that suggested Occlumency.

It’s the Muggle National Health Service, he heard her say.

It suddenly seemed so pointless that he hadn’t asked the questions then.

“Come on,” she said, slipping into the alley.

Another quick Apparition later, they were walking into a shop whose sign read LEO CLIFTON: PROFESSIONAL MAKEUP FOR THE STAGE AND TELEVISION. A little bell clattered on the door as they walked in. “Give us a minute,” called a voice from the back of the shop.

“Thanks,” Hermione called back.

Draco glanced around Leo Clifton’s shop. There were shelves upon shelves of bottles, most of which appeared to be filled with paint. Other shelves held makeup, which didn’t look so different from the lipsticks and eyeshadow that his mother had once kept in a cabinet at the manor. And posters hung on the wall with those unmoving Muggle faces, advertising what must have been those ‘movies’ Hermione had described.

Draco found the frozen images uncanny at first, but he also found it hard to look away. The photographic images didn’t move, but second by second, he felt as if he were deciphering more and more of their stillness, seeing hints of expression in a squinted eye or an open mouth that he wouldn’t have noticed if the people in the posters had been moving the normal way.

Just then, a small man with combed-back chestnut hair came bouncing out of a back room, pushing up his glasses with an apologetic smile. “So sorry for the wait,” he panted. “We’re shorthanded here today. I’m fixing up a Minotaur and a 3,000-year-old alien as we speak! But the moulds are setting now, so, what can I do for you? Leo Clifton, Leo Clifton.”

He offered his hand to each of them in turn. Draco hesitated, lifting his hand only halfway before Leo Clifton seized it and shook with great enthusiasm. The man’s handshake was cool and dry and confident.

“Lovely to meet you,” Hermione said. “I’m Penelope Clearwater, and this is Neville Longbottom and Stan Shunpike. We’re film students, and we’re trying to look like different people for a short movie we’re shooting over the next month.”

“Different people, eh? How different?”

“We’d like to be completely unrecognizable,” Hermione said.

“We’re trying to fool our acting class,” Potter added. “Also, Stan and I, we’d like to look around ten or fifteen years older.”

“Hmm.” Leo Clifton studied the three of them. Draco shifted uncomfortably. The man’s eyes were piercing, and he was looking at each of their faces as if they were marble blocks he intended to carve.

“Well, the hair will have to go, for starters,” he said. “I could cover your faces and recognize all three of you from a mile away. You—” He waved a hand at Draco— “could get away with dye, but you two … well, they wouldn’t really fit under wigs, would they? We’ll straighten this …” He was moving his hand over Hermione’s head now as if casting a wandless spell. “… and shave you, I think, Neville.”

Potter startled. “Shave?”

Clifton smiled. “It grows back. Bald caps are more trouble than they’re worth. The rest should be easy enough.” His eyes flicked back to Draco. “Your bone structure will need some disguising, too, so we’ll give you a nice full beard, and bronze up that complexion …”

Clifton took out a notepad and began to jot things down, looking between them and muttering things like, “New nose for you, I think,” and “Light eye bags should do the trick.”

The man was reminding Draco more and more of Ollivander. Here was a man who clearly loved what he did, who had clearly done it for decades, who spoke his vocation like a second language. As Clifton discussed payment with Hermione, Draco’s eyes fell on a section of the wall he hadn’t noticed before. Here were hung not posters but news clippings. THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTERS, read the first, with a full-page photo of a clearly elated Clifton. THE FACE OF BRITAIN’S FACES, said a magazine cover, and in that one, Clifton was holding a statuette and standing at a podium—again, beaming.

It occurred to Draco he might be standing in a famous person’s studio.

In fact, with the vastness of the Muggle world, two hundred Muggles for every one wizard, he could well be speaking with a man who was known to more people than any wizard in Britain. Someone more famous than Potter, or Albus Dumbledore, or even the Dark Lord.

Draco felt oddly lightheaded. It was as if he’d kicked off from the ground at the start of a Quidditch match, but left half of himself behind. He felt as if he were moving farther and farther away, looking down at the entire world, and his smallness within it, and suddenly seeing the impossible breadth of Muggle civilisations—so many Muggles, billions of them, of whom Leo Clifton was just one. After seventeen years of not thinking about any of this, of viewing anything outside the Wizarding World as utterly without interest, virtually non-existent, Draco felt minuscule. He felt like he needed to sit down.

“Tomorrow, then! Eleven sharp. Looking forward to it, Ms. Clearwater.” Leo Clifton flashed those brilliantly white teeth at them again, lifted his hand, and jogged toward the back room, calling, “You’d better not have touched those noses!”

Draco trailed out of the shop after Hermione and Potter. He blinked in the cold November sunlight, dazed. He looked around at all the Muggles passing, and heard snippets of conversation between friends and families hurrying down the street.

“—the most beautiful car, bloody expensive, obviously, but …”

“—she’s always been rude, Jane. Always, always. Didn’t I tell you …”

“—hand back the reports by next week at the latest …”

“—Mum, you’re not looking. Mum! …”

Draco’s daze was turning to numbness, and it felt stupid, and trite, but two words were ringing in his head over and over. Just people.

They were people like he might hear walking up the street at Diagon Alley. People involved in their jobs and lives and families. Parents as protective as his were, or as disinterested as Pansy’s, or as expectant as Hermione’s.

He saw tired-looking workers wanting a day off. Men in expensive watches giving orders. A couple holding hands and looking at each other in the kind of glowing way that Draco could all but feel. People irritated, and laughing, and sad-eyed, and devoted.

“Do you fancy lunch?” Potter said, eyeing a shop across the street that advertised chips.

Hermione checked her watch. “Yes, let’s. We’ve got plenty of time.”

Draco swallowed, nodded.

Soon they were sitting in a booth inside the shop, and Draco was licking salt off his fingertips. His head had stopped whirling. Everything now felt very slow and calm and quiet, to a nearly surreal degree. At the counter, a machine kept letting out a bright, cheerful ding!

He watched Hermione’s hands fidget with the chequered, greasy paper in its shiny red basket.

“What’s this,” he said quietly, tapping his own basket. “What’s it made of.”

Potter hesitated, then glanced at Hermione.

“Plastic,” Hermione said. “It’s a synthetic material. Not found in nature, that is.” Her voice was still guarded.

“How do you … how is it made?”

“That kind specifically, I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s a diverse scientific process. This kind of plastic is different from the kind that makes up these booths, for instance, or the cash register.”

She pointed to the machine that let out another ding!

“Right,” Draco said. He looked over at the machine and the sweaty-looking teenager who was tapping its surface, speaking to customers.

At that moment, the present customer, who was complaining in a loud, obnoxious voice, turned away. The teenager caught Draco watching the interaction and gave the tiniest roll of his eyes, clearly at the end of his rope. Draco could practically hear him saying, People like that, eh?

It was such a minuscule thing. Such a tiny, human thing. But suddenly Draco’s throat grew so tight he thought he might choke.

He saw his parents sitting at the end of their glimmering dining table and speaking about Muggles with fear and disgust. He saw the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters standing in a circle around the Muggle from the village, whose body was twitching and jerking. He saw himself and his friends in the Slytherin common room in first year, eleven years old, laughing about the filth of the Muggle world and everything that came from it. It was one of the ways they’d related to each other, how they’d felt they were special, different, and important.

Draco realized he was sweating. All the energy he and his friends and family poured into hating Muggles, when Muggles didn’t even know wizards existed. The one-sided loathing suddenly seemed almost farcical, the behaviour of obsessives. That boy at the register just trying to get through the day, Leo Clifton and his monster masks, the girl in the street trying to get her mum to pay attention to her—these were the people they all hated?

These were the people he’d been told were brutish and inferior, worthless and subhuman, and yet sinister, too—the people who would bring about the destruction of pure-blood life?

Draco felt out of his own body. He felt as if he were seeing himself from across the grubby little chip shop, a wizard in a plastic booth, small and out of place, plucked from the roots of his family and the ancient ideals of his house, set adrift in a maelstrom of differences he’d thought were irreconcilable.

Then he looked away from the counter and saw, with a flood of relief, that Hermione was looking at him. Her gaze felt like an anchor in the storm. He looked into her eyes; he needed her not to look away. He could see doubt in her expression, and frustration, too—the kind she usually wore when she was puzzling out seemingly unsolvable logistical issues.

Let her look, said that numb voice in his mind. Let her look at him and try to solve him.

Let her see the way something in him was collapsing, no longer able to support itself.

Draco had the sense of standing upon a threshold, looking out into wild, uncharted territory. If he truly no longer believed what his family lived by, if he really was a blood traitor like his aunt, his old life was lost. Even if the Dark Lord fell, there would be no going back. This new world, unmoored from everything he’d known, would be all he had.

It was terrifying.

But it was something else, too.

It was quiet out there, over the threshold—as quiet and still as a field with no breeze.

In the new world there would be no chorus of voices in his mind, no Bellatrix hissing in his ear, always reminding him what was expected of him. He would be able to think, just think and feel, without the sensation that someone was watching him all the time. He would be able to ask simple questions, and consider their answers, without feeling guilty and disloyal and bitter and furious, hating his own interest, hating himself for breaching the contract of his upbringing. He would be able to care openly about Hermione, be friends with her openly, make her smile whenever he wanted, even have his thoughts of kissing her … he could want her, and it could be simple. Allowed.

She looked so lovely to him just then, her hair falling in a thousand directions, scarf tossed carelessly over her shoulder, salt and oil upon her lips.

He wanted the world that had her in it.

 


 

Hermione didn’t want Harry to leave the house.

She fretted and fussed and delayed. She went over their falsified applications until mid-afternoon, when the winter sun began to sink and Harry told her he had to go now or the submission box could be closed for the day.

She watched him Disapparate with a feeling like she was stepping over the edge of a high dive. And then she and Draco were alone in the kitchen. She looked determinedly at the sink but saw only him in her peripheral vision, tall and tensed and silent.

She felt the week between them like a physical object. She felt, too, the way he’d looked at her in the chip shop in Kensington. The closest thing she’d ever seen to that expression had been the moment he’d been struck by the curse in the Ministry.

“Well, we’ve only got a day,” she said, her voice high and thin. “Come on.” She gathered up parchment and quill, and he followed her out of the kitchen, down the hall, into the darkened dining room. She was so aware of how close his steps were behind hers.

“So,” she said, busying herself with lighting the lamps. “Circe and Clíodhna. In case something goes wrong, is it warded against Apparition?”

“No,” Draco said, settling at the head of the table.

“Good.” Hermione spread a sheet of parchment near the opposite end of the table and made a note. “You or Harry will obviously need to come, too, to Confund Flint.” She could hear her words speeding. She tried to calm down; she tried to breathe normally. “And I think two dates should be enough to keep him interested between the initial meeting and the gala, provided he actually is interested. Provided this is even possible.”

“It’s possible,” Draco said. He drew his wand and flicked it, and a Warming Charm spread through the dining room. The temperatures were dropping quickly, and drafts slipped in around the cottage windows.

Hermione sank into the chair before her parchment, trying to focus. “All right. Tell me. What’s Marcus Flint’s—” She grimaced. “Type?

Draco lifted his shoulders. “What you’d expect,” he said. “Cultured. Aloof, but flattering. Subtle and restrained. Intelligent, with lots of opinions, but wouldn’t say any of them in public. Alluring. Has strong drinks, but not many. You should drink Firewhisky with Madagascan Glassapple, he’d love that.” He hesitated. “Beautiful,” he said. “Poised.”

“So, imaginary,” Hermione said.

Draco’s lips pulled. Not quite a smile.

Hermione felt a rush of frustration. How could he look so collected? After this morning, after this entire week, how could he sit there at the end of the table and look only a bit on his guard? She felt so messy in comparison, so confused.

“Here,” he said after a moment, levitating an empty Firewhisky glass from a nearby shelf. It landed gently in front of her with a clink.

“What’s this?” she said.

“Practice.” Draco rose to his feet. “You’re at the bar. I’m Flint.”

“Oh. I …” She wanted to protest, but … four evenings with Flint. That could be ten hours of interaction she had to fake her way through. She wouldn’t be Transfigured or Polyjuiced. She always felt free when transformed into someone else, but with her own voice and body—even if her face was unrecognizably made up—it would feel different.

This was a logistical exercise, that was all. It would be useful.

“Fine.” She pushed away her parchment and put her shoulders back, trying to channel cultured and aloof, as Draco approached. He pulled out the chair beside her.

“No,” he said before even beginning to sit.

“What?” she said as he retreated to his starting position. “What could I possibly have done wrong in point four milliseconds?”

“You looked over like you were waiting for me to sit. You can’t look interested.”

“You said he liked to be flattered.”

“Yeah,” Draco said, “but if you look eager, that’s not flattering. It’s only flattering if you seem unattainable and then you give him your attention, because then your attention’s worth something, see?”

“Slytherins,” she muttered.

And this time he did smile, a small smile that made her look away with a painful squeeze. She pulled her parchment toward herself, made a quick, useless note, and pushed it away again.

This time she kept her eyes fixed on the glass, running her fingertip around its rim, as Draco slipped into the seat next to her.

“Evening,” he said, his voice soft and smooth. “What are you drinking?”

Hermione began to turn toward him.

“Slowly,” Draco murmured.

Her head froze mid-turn, and she took a deep breath, then began to move again, lazier, more languid, until finally she was facing Draco.

She’d been so focused on the glass that she hadn’t realised how closely the chairs were placed, or that he’d angled his toward her. He was hardly a foot away. Her gaze slipped immediately to his cheek, then to his arms, which were folded on the table, his dark jumper pushed to his elbows. His hands were long and slender.

This did not feel like a logistical exercise.

She didn’t realise her face was flooded with heat until he said, “I’m going to hope Leo Clifton can cover that up.”

“I won’t be blushing tomorrow,” she said defensively, without thinking.

He hesitated. “Why not?”

Because it won’t be this.

“Because,” she said, her throat tight, “it’s—it’s just innately silly, pretending.”

“Well, that just seems like a lack of imagination.”

“This isn’t meant for imagination. It’s meant for preparation.”

After a long moment he said, “I suppose.”

In the short pause, though, she did find herself imagining. She pictured herself at a dimly lit bar made from dark, glossy wood, votive candles flickering at intervals, a tall slender cocktail in front of her, Draco’s stool turned toward hers. Looking at her the way he had in Kensington, from the other side of the booth, like if she looked away he would drown.

“Again,” he said, startling the image out of her head. “What are you drinking?”

She tried to think herself back into character. “Firewhisky and Madagascan Glassapple. What about y—?”

“Still too eager. Don’t ask him questions yet. He’ll want to lead.”

“Fine. Lead, then.”

A tinge of color appeared in Draco’s cheeks. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

“You wouldn’t have. I’ve only just moved—I graduated from the Multinational Wizards’ Academy in Dubai a few years ago.”

“Interesting time to come to Britain.”

“Yes. The rising philosophy here suits my family’s values.”

A long pause. Draco looked down at his own face in the polished wood of the table. Then, carefully, he said, “If you say something like that, you’ll need to be ready for the sort of things he’ll say. Because he’ll expect you to say them back.”

“You mean about Muggles. And Muggle-borns.”

Draco nodded.

“It’s fine,” Hermione said. “I did it as Mrs. Parkinson. It’s … if I have to.”

A thick silence filled the room. Hermione could have scooped it out of the air by the palmful.

Then the words were bursting out of her, unable to repress:

“You don’t say those things anymore.”

Draco grew very still.

“You don’t talk the way you used to talk,” she rushed on. “And—and this morning. You came into London, you were surrounded by Muggles, you talked to Muggles, and you went there with me and Harry. You asked about things. You didn’t say a word about … anything.”

Draco was still regarding himself in the table’s surface. He had never looked more like a statue than in that moment, face of alabaster, impenetrable. It was almost a shock when he reanimated, turned to face her. He looked like he might choke if he tried to speak.

Hermione heard the invitation in the silence. She could keep asking, keep pushing, where once he would have deflected.

Or she could run. She could stand up, flee the questions and the possibilities, flee from him.

She didn’t move.

“Does it mean something,” she managed to say, “that you’re doing these things?”

“Yes,” he said almost at once, as if he’d been waiting, hoping, for her to ask.

Hermione’s mouth was as dry as parchment. Something cold was flooding through her. Was it hope? Disbelief? Longing? A stronger fear than ever?

And maybe he could see her fear, because the intensity of his expression lessened. There was wariness there, but softness now, too. She knew that look. Halloween.

“That is what was this week was about, then,” he said.

Words trembled on the tip of Hermione’s tongue. All week she’d kept them inside, trying to wall herself off, remove herself, keep herself safe.

But she didn’t know how. Her entire life it had been this way. Once she cared, she couldn’t make it stop. She was wholehearted; she was her whole heart.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m trying to be sensible. Because I can’t be sure that you won’t … that you’re not going to …” She heard herself rushing, tripping, but she couldn’t slow down. “I mean, be realistic. I’m being realistic. You of all people should understand that I have to think about myself, and given our history—for years … given everything, I felt I was being too … too …”

His expression had stiffened. “Too lenient,” he said. “About my past.”

“No. Too optimistic about right now.”

The words were painful to say. His actions of the last few months, of the last week, of today, hadn’t been those of someone who would hurt her. Hermione wanted to believe that.

But she’d been wrong before.

“I’m scared,” she whispered.

Draco looked as if a heavy weight had settled onto him, something unfamiliar, between pain and humiliation. It was a long moment before she recognised the look as shame.

His voice unsteady, he said, “I know.”

There was a long, still silence. He watched her like someone awaiting a verdict.

“Do I need to be scared?” she asked.

She could see his pulse going in his throat, hard and quick. When he spoke, his voice was very hoarse. “No.”

Hermione searched his face and saw almost instantaneous hints of uncertainty, of intent, each there and gone at once.

Then he lifted his hand to her cheek, and her mind went blank.

He touched the spot where she’d touched him on Halloween. For a moment his fingertips just rested there, and now, if anything, he looked afraid. Like she might vanish under his hand. Hermione felt like she’d forgotten how to breathe.

Slowly, haltingly, she tilted her face up toward him so that his palm pressed to her cheek. She remembered tipping into the night at the end of July, a thousand feet above the Earth’s dark face. It was the same feeling here, absolutely still, in a silent dining room. Freefall.

He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers.

The silence rang around them like vibration. For an instant neither moved, held in the cold shock of contact. Then Hermione leaned slowly into him. His lips parted. His hand slid into her hair, warmer than she’d dreamed it, and rougher. Of course his palms would be callused from the friction of a broom handle. But the kiss was frictionless, as easy as breathing. The tip of his nose pressed into her cheek, and his mouth shifted against hers, slipping, then closing upon her lower lip, soft and sure. She was shivery, suddenly overwarm. She drew a shaky breath through her nose and caught some clean, vague, anonymous scent. She wanted to move close enough to know it.

Draco reached forward with his other hand at the same time she did, and their wrists knocked clumsily in midair, and Hermione smiled, and felt him smiling unevenly back into the kiss, and they broke for an instant, letting out small, nervous laughs, and she couldn’t believe this was happening, after this week—she couldn’t believe how her heart was pounding, how badly she wanted to keep kissing him.

His hand found her waist, and hers the back of his neck, and their lips met again, this time less graceful, more forceful. He took her lip between his teeth, his hand tightening in her hair. Hermione felt something building like a shout in the center of her chest, like magma surging through the heart of a volcano, currents sunk deep in the ocean, everything buried and full of motion. She needed to put it somewhere. She grasped the front of his jumper and pulled, and he made a low sound and stood, taking her to her feet, the collision of their chairs shockingly loud in the whispery soundscape of unsteady breath and the contact of their skin. One of his fingernails scraped against her scalp. His other hand splayed across her back. They stepped clumsily to the wall, and he pressed her slowly against it. His hands came to her face, pushing her hair back as she stood tiptoed, her fists wound into the back of his jumper, holding him into her.

He broke the kiss, still close, his breath whispering over her cheek. Hermione’s eyes eased open, and she looked into his with a humming blankness in her mind. The short fine lashes, nearly translucent. The gaze, so often casual or careless, now riveted on her with something raw and open, almost too personal to see. His hair had fallen over his high forehead; his mouth was kiss-swollen and looked sensitive. Her heartbeat struck and struck and struck like a clock stuck on the hour. She was sure he could feel it, his thumb resting upon the pulse point in her throat.

He closed his eyes and leaned forward until his forehead rested gently against hers, breathing hard, and one of the breaths was her name, only half-formed and hardly a whisper, ghosted over her lips like a breeze, spilt out of him like he didn’t know what he was doing. She thought maybe he hadn’t even known he’d said it.

Hermione realised how wrung-out she felt, as if she could have laid her head upon his shoulder and fallen asleep. The week had been like a typhoon. Here was its eye. She closed her eyes too and lifted her chin, just barely, until their lips touched again. Light and warm like rain in sun. She couldn’t think enough to do more. Inside her was a disbelief like helium, and she was falling slowly upward, dizzied, lifted toward something as unfathomable as the sky. She let the kiss disengage, but then Draco kissed her in exactly the same way, placing his lips gently upon hers for just a moment, like he wanted to tell her, I know—I know—I feel it too.

Chapter Text

“So,” said Harry, as Leo Clifton led Hermione into the back room.

Draco practically jumped. He’d been watching Hermione smiling at Clifton, making polite conversation, the way her profile caught the bright lights of the studio.

Now he looked over at Potter, who was leaning on one of the displays of brushes and powders.

“So … what?” Draco said.

Potter raised his eyebrows. “So, you two have made up, have you?”

Draco looked away, cheeks warm, back at a poster of a giant alligator. “I suppose you noticed she was speaking to me in full sentences again. That Seeker’s eye doesn’t miss a thing, does it?”

“I noticed more than that,” Potter muttered.

Draco stole a mortified glance back at Potter, who’d also gone rather red now. Why had he brought it up if it was just going to embarrass them both? For Merlin’s sake.

Of course, Draco supposed, it would have been hard to miss the way he and Hermione had looked at breakfast. She’d come in to find him making breakfast before Harry had woken up. Fifteen minutes later, everything had been mysteriously burnt.

“I can’t take anything you say seriously,” Draco said, “when you look like that.”

“Oh, like you look any better?” Potter said.

As one, they glanced into the mirror behind the counter and snorted. Draco wouldn’t have recognised himself if he’d seen the face in a picture. In the end, Clifton had opted for a wig rather than dye to achieve the proper texture: a nest of black curls like a thunderstorm, which matched the facial hair that had been glued and gummed to the lower half of his face. Using cold, slimy putty and rubber fixtures, he’d given Draco a snub nose and full cheeks, then swabbed his eyebrows with black paint.

“You look like a sea captain,” Potter chortled.

You look like a Viking,” said Draco. Potter’s shiny bald head glinted in the studio lights, and the film that Clifton had applied to both their faces aged Potter to his late thirties at least, several prominent wrinkles in his brow, deep crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. Potter, too, had a beard; his was shaggy and dark blond, ending in a small braid.

Clifton had also, to Draco’s horror, applied something to their eyeballs called ‘contact lenses.’ Draco would happily have gone his whole life without reliving the process, but he had to admit they were effective. Potter’s eyes were now as dark as Snape’s, and Draco’s were a vivid blue.

“Let’s get some lunch,” Potter suggested, checking his watch. “He said it’d take an hour or two to get through her hair.”

Draco agreed, and they went for curry in a nearby Indian shop that was ten degrees too warm. Draco asked occasional questions about the paintings on the wall, and the various machines the Muggles were using, which Potter answered without laughing. Mostly.

Muggle London felt a bit less overwhelming today, but maybe that was because Draco was so distracted. Every few seconds, mid-conversation, even mid-sentence, he’d think of Hermione and what they were doing, what they’d chosen to do. What he’d chosen. He thought of the way she tasted, like mild lip balm and something salty, and the way she’d looked at him that morning—like the sight of him made her happy, nervous, excited. It all washed over him again and again like an insistent tide.

His mind hadn’t fixated this way since … well, since he’d had to think about the Vanishing Cabinet every waking second. But those thoughts had been all terror and stress. He hadn’t known it was possible to be equally fixated on something that made him feel like this. He hadn’t known it was possible to feel this way at all. It wasn’t the smooth, smug satisfaction he’d felt in the days after he and Pansy had gotten together. When he thought about Hermione—when he thought of her melting into him in the dining room, the hesitance and then the heat, the way she’d angled him against the kitchen counter that morning—his heart seemed to stutter, and he felt disoriented, and then a delirious squeeze of disbelief followed, seeming to saturate everything around him with color.

He was preoccupied.

As it transpired, Clifton had underestimated the time required to tackle Hermione’s hair. It was four hours before he emerged, grinning sheepishly, an unrecognizable girl at his shoulder.

The hair was the first, most obvious change; it lay over Hermione’s shoulders as if Clifton had poured two bottles of Sleekeazy’s into it. But the rest of her face was just as bewilderingly foreign. He’d built out her jawline, and heightened her cheekbones, and given her an aquiline nose and arched brows. With red paint on her lips, she looked exactly as haughty as she needed to.

“Well?” Clifton said. “What do you think of the leading lady?”

Hermione looked at Draco with laughing eyes, bright green now. He found himself smiling nervously, compulsively, the uneven smile he’d found on his own lips in the mirror last night as he’d washed his face. He’d tried to shake it away, to repress it, but it was something he couldn’t control.

Potter let out a laugh. “It’s brilliant, Leo.”

“Take care of that wig, Stan,” Clifton called after them as they left.

Soon it was half-four, and they had reached the peacock-blue door painted onto a brick wall that was the entrance to Circe & Clíodhna. Draco had heard a lot about the place, but had never actually been inside. He stepped directly through the wall, to the seeming unconcern of the passing Muggles, into the bar.

It was a long, dark, low-ceilinged lounge, its elegant walnut counter lined with brass trimmings. The only lamps were blue and indigo, giving the few people inside a ghostly cast. Glowing glass shelves hovered behind the bar, bearing liquor bottles of a hundred colors, and booths were tucked against the walls, divided by velvet curtains for privacy.

Hermione, who had entered before Draco and Harry, was already sitting at the end of the bar. Draco tried and failed not to look at her. She was toying with her hair interestedly, examining its new texture. The sultry blue light glossed the slope of the back of her neck, and his fingertips tingled with sense memory—the feeling of running his hand up into her hair. There was that disbelief again, making him feel as if he were hovering an inch or two off the black oak floor.

Potter ordered drinks, and they situated themselves in a booth in the back corner, which offered a good vantage of the rest of the bar. Half an hour later, a shaft of light widened across the room as the door opened, admitting five—ten—twenty people in Ministry uniforms, all laughing and chatting.

Draco saw him almost at once, blunt-jawed and half a head taller than the rest, with hair as flat-topped as a well-kept hedge. Marcus Flint, talking to a witch with dark red curls.

“There,” he muttered across the table to Potter. “Now.”

Potter stood, slid out of the booth, and made for the door, muttering apologies and excuse-mes as he slid through the crowd. As Potter passed Flint, Draco saw him grasp his wand in his sleeve and turn it subtly toward Flint, who hesitated on the spot, looking dazed. Draco grimaced into his gillywater and lime, hoping Potter hadn’t overdone it. The Confundus was a delicate spell at the best of times, flexible enough to plant ideas or to wipe a mind temporarily blank. It was easy to overwork, and the last thing they needed was Flint’s associates wondering why he’d suddenly started drooling onto the table.

After a moment, though, Flint’s haze cleared. He slid into the booth with the other Ministry workers, but his eyes were now fixed at the end of the bar, on Hermione. Her hand was resting on the stem of a delicate glass filled with lavender liquid that occasionally spat violet sparks. Firewhisky and Madagascan Glassapple. The lure.

Not even ten minutes later, Flint approached her.

Draco tried not to watch it play out. He tried to act normal, to keep up with the small talk Potter was offering across the table. But his eyes kept straying. He could make out the low, breathy affect Hermione had given to her voice, and soon Flint was sitting next to her, unable to take his eyes off her.

Draco couldn’t help noticing that Flint was more muscular than he was, and several inches taller. He noticed, too, that Hermione’s body was inclined almost imperceptibly toward him.

Draco felt a hard, unexpected stab of jealousy.

He frowned down at his gillywater and lime, taken aback. He’d never been a jealous person before. Pansy had flirted with other boys all the time, especially Blaise, toying at making him jealous, but he’d always been so certain of her affection that it had wound up being like a joke between them.

But Hermione … she’d loathed him for six years. It struck Draco all over again how unlikely this was, even perilous. The last person she’d had feelings for had been Ron Weasley, for Merlin’s sake—and the things that had once given Draco such confidence, his family and his status and his wealth, had dissolved. He was alone, adrift, supposedly dead. What did he have to offer anymore?

The jealousy gave way to worry, frustration, even embarrassment. Draco could half-see his unrecognizable face in the black glass table. He looked so ridiculous in his disguise, his forty-year-old sea captain disguise. He wanted to be himself. He wanted Hermione to be herself. He wanted to imagine them all the way out of the confines of what they were doing, out of their plots and risks and careful infiltration, into a world where he could walk up to Flint right now and say, I believe you’re sitting in my seat.

He squeezed his lime wedge into the dregs of the gillywater, which hissed and spat and swirled like a miniature storm.

After what had probably been an hour, although it felt like a year to Draco, Hermione threw back her head and let out a cool laugh. His cue.

Draco stood with relief, approached the bar with their empties in hand, and after sliding them onto the walnut wood, let his wand slip into his grip. He let another Confundus hit Flint’s broad back, then waited at the bar, listening.

“You know,” said Flint, “the Ministry’s holding an event next month. I think I’d like it if you came.”

 


 

“I got some useful information out of him,” Hermione called out from the bathroom. They were back at headquarters, and Draco was sitting with Potter in the cottage’s front room, both their faces raw and tender from peeling off the false beards. They were stewing some Murtlap Essence in a small cauldron to apply to the irritation.

“Such as?” Draco called back.

“The restrictions on Diagon Alley have been lifted, for one thing. They think they’ve registered a critical mass of the population now.”

“That’s great news,” Potter exclaimed, levitating the Murtlap out of the cauldron into two small bowls. “You can go to Madam Malkin’s and get dress robes for the gala anytime. We won’t have to bother with the paper falsification, and that’s one less visit to Leo to pay for.” Potter grimaced. “Maybe we won’t bankrupt your parents after all.”

“Exactly,” Hermione said with a guilty smile, emerging fresh-faced from the bathroom, her hands filled with the bits of rubber that had, until recently, been her disguise. With her face back to normal, with her hair this way, she looked nearly the way Draco remembered her at the Yule Ball.

“And thank goodness, too,” she went on, plopping down on the sofa, “because Flint’s asked me to dinner at a restaurant in Diagon Alley next Friday.”

“Where?” Draco asked.

“It’s called Erialo. I’d never heard of it, but—”

Draco spilled some of the Murtlap on the rug. “Erialo?

“Yes, why? Is it nice?”

“You could say that,” Draco muttered, flicking his wand to Vanish the spill, trying not to picture Flint and Hermione leaning across a table in a candlelit corner. “My parents got engaged there. It’s the most expensive restaurant in Diagon Alley. Flint must know someone on staff—you’ve usually got to book two months ahead of schedule.”

“Well done, Hermione,” said Harry, looking impressed. “He must really fancy you already.”

She blew a strand of hair out of her face. “It wasn’t exactly difficult. I just agreed with him about everything and acted like I’d never been more interested in anything than the flying formations of the Wimbourne Wasps in 1985. I didn’t even have to use five percent of what I’d prepared for my cover story.”

Draco continued applying the Murtlap to his cheek, feeling a bit too relieved that Marcus Flint hadn’t suddenly transformed into a brilliant conversationalist.

They spent an hour discussing the possibilities of the dinner, until the redness had faded from Draco’s and Harry’s faces. When Potter went to bed, there was a brief silence. Draco gave Hermione a furtive look from his armchair, feeling oddly uncertain. The morning, and kissing her in the kitchen, felt a long time ago. He couldn’t stop thinking about the way she’d leaned toward Flint.

She thinks he’s boring, he reminded himself. She was just acting.

“I liked the drink,” Hermione offered, breaking the silence.

“The Glassapple?”

“Yeah.”

“Mm. Maybe you really are the woman of Marcus Flint’s dreams.”

He wanted her to grimace. He wanted her to say, God, I hope not.

Instead she laughed and said, “Well, at least he’s not so mean-looking anymore. He used to have that scowl on all the time … but when he’s not looking at you like he wants to wring your neck, it’s not so bad.”

Draco didn’t know what he was supposed to say to this. He felt even more stiff and uncomfortable. Did Hermione expect him to agree? Why was she talking about the upsides of spending an evening flirting with Marcus Flint?

“Oh, really?” he said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Shall we start planning your engagement?”

Hermione looked over at him with surprise, and after a moment, disbelief passed over her expression. “Draco,” she said.

“What?”

“Are you—” She laughed. “Are you jealous?

“No,” he said. Even to his own ear it was stoutly unconvincing.

Hermione looked bewildered, but pleased, too. “We need him to get to the Horcrux. That’s the only point of this.”

“I know that,” he muttered. “It’s just—he can … can buy you a drink.”

Hermione’s amusement faded into thoughtfulness.

“I liked the bar,” she said after a moment. “I kept thinking … well, that it would be a nice place to go.” She fiddled with a lock of her hair. “You know. Together. If, after … or if none of this were …” She paused, then shook her head. “I’m being silly.”

“No,” he said at once. “No, I was thinking that, too. That’s what I meant.”

Hermione smiled, and she was looking at him warm and steady, and Draco felt less uncertain.

“The atmosphere was nearly what I was picturing yesterday,” she said. “In the dining room.”

Draco propped one elbow on the chair’s arm, rested his chin on the heel of his palm. “Really,” he said  with a lazy smile. “I thought that was supposed to be for ‘preparation, not imagination’.”

She smiled back. “It was. Apparently we’re just not very good at following clear directives.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m great at following directives.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah.”

Hermione let one hand fall to the sofa cushion beside her. “Then—sit here.” The words might have sounded bossy, except for her slight hesitation.

Draco did as he was told. He rose and approached her, intensely attuned to the way her eyes followed him, then settled on the sofa next to her, close enough that their thighs brushed. “And?” he said.

“And stay there.” She leaned toward him like a sapling in wind, and he expected her to kiss him, but instead her head sank against his shoulder, and she curled up against his side. There was that stutter in Draco’s chest again. He found himself thinking about the way she fit against him, neatly, like a puzzle piece. She was warm, her nose still pink from where the prosthetic had peeled off. Draco’s hand settled on her shoulder, hesitant at first, then more securely. His thumb brushed circles over her shoulder, down to her upper arm.

“These are pretty easy directives,” he said.

“True.” She yawned. “I suppose I’m tired of things being hard.”

“Yeah,” said Draco. “Me too.”

 


 

November ended with the season’s first flurry of snow, and with a positive outlook for the plan. Hermione went to dinner with Flint, which was deeply boring but technically successful, and Draco and Harry were both hired on by Lizzie Spizzworth, a tiny, excitable woman who enthused over their Anti-Spilling Spells.

“So proficient!” she exclaimed. “As if you spent your days doing nothing else!” Which, for the week leading up to their interviews, had been true.

Hermione was still nervous. She worried that Harry would say something about what was happening between her and Draco, that he might try to intervene. She even worried that Ron would suddenly reappear just now, at the moment with the most potential to injure him. She still felt guilty about Ron, sometimes.

But mostly she felt a quiet, disbelieving giddiness that she wished she could bottle and drink. Sometimes it made her want to laugh. Draco. Draco Malfoy was the person making her feel this way, the one who turned immediately when she entered a room and got that breathless, alert look about him, the one who engaged when she was rattling off ideas about chained charms, the one who could, with a brush of his hand against her thigh during dinner and a tentative glance, make her heart race.

They stayed up late every night in the front room, talking about international Wizarding politics and Muggle politics alike. At first he mostly listened to the latter. Then he started asking questions; then, eventually, he would make comments—that certain cities sounded interesting, or similar to Wizarding locations and customs. He asked about her family, every obscure cousin she had, and their jobs and their lives and their children, and she described details of her childhood, and at one in the morning they’d have sunk so far down on the sofa that they were lying parallel, and they’d fall together effortlessly, kissing silently, dreamily.

She became familiar with the look he wore after they’d just kissed for a long time, that glittering look, satiated but never fully satisfied. To everything she did, he’d react: if she brushed her hand against his waist, he’d mirror it, tracing his thumb over her hip; if she smiled into a kiss, he’d cup the back of her neck and pull her closer. He noticed everything, he was studious, he was both attentive and intuitive to a degree that made Hermione feel like she’d stepped into a spotlight for the first time in her life.

She was trying to have some self-control about the whole thing, but it was difficult, when she wanted him, and he showed her he wanted her, too—kissing her whenever they were alone, on the forehead or the cheek or the side of her neck, absentmindedly touching her shoulder when he passed her in the kitchen. During the day they’d make up stupid excuses to pull each other into side rooms, or outside, where their breath would rise around them as they kissed, where she’d stand on tiptoe and kiss him against the side of the cottage, and brush specks of whitewash out of his hair.

And there was this way he’d begun to smile sometimes, a kind of smile she’d never seen on his face before—like his expression had slipped completely out of his control. Usually when they were joking back and forth, it would happen. He’d lose his composure. It made him look different. A bit older, maybe.

At 10:45 p.m. on December 1st, they prepared to Apparate to Lillimont Lake. Harry had been unable to stop talking about it all day, wondering how many Order members would come, if, perhaps, the person who’d sent the silver doe would show themselves.

It was five to eleven when they emerged, breathing hard, from the darkness into the icy cold.

There was a single silhouette at the edge of the lake. The second they appeared, it spun, wand at the ready.

There was a short gasp. Then, with a trembling hand, Minerva McGonagall lifted the hood of her cloak. She was pale with shock.

“Professor McGonagall!” Harry burst out. As they hurried to her side, Hermione’s heart pounded. It felt so strange to see the Transfiguration professor here, in the middle of the woods, not having seen a single member of the Order for months.

“Potter …” McGonagall whispered. “Granger? I …” She flinched as Draco stepped out from under the Invisibility Cloak, and stared at him for a long time with obvious disbelief. “Mr. Malfoy,” she said weakly. “I don’t …”

“Is anyone else coming?” said Harry eagerly.

Professor McGonagall pulled herself together. “I received a message with the time and place of this meeting. It wasn’t you who sent it?”

“A message?” Hermione said, frowning. “Isn’t the mail at Hogwarts being checked?”

“It didn’t come by owl, Ms. Granger. It was sent by Floo into my office.”

“That fits,” Harry said, exchanging an excited look with Hermione. “Professor, we think someone at the Ministry has been secretly helping us. If they had access to an unmonitored Floo line, that makes sense. They have a doe Patronus, that’s all we know. Can you think of anyone it might be?”

McGonagall’s lips thinned as she thought. “I’m afraid not, Potter,” she said eventually. “You’re sure it was a doe? Not a goat, perhaps?”

“Definitely not a goat,” said Harry, disappointed. “Well, keep an eye out.”

“Of course. … But how—where have you been, Mr. Potter? The entire country—”

“Here,” said Harry, pressing the slip of parchment with Ron’s writing into her hand. “Read this.”

She scanned the parchment, and her eyes widened.

“Hermione cast a Fidelius Charm,” said Harry with pride, taking the parchment back.

McGonagall looked disoriented. “But what have the three of you been doing? Where is Mr. Weasley?” She made a sharp motion toward the parchment. “I trust I recognise his handwriting after six years of his essays.”

“He was with us,” Hermione said in a small voice. “You’re right—he’s Secret-Keeper. But …” A lump rose in her throat. “We haven’t seen him in a month and a half. You don’t know if he’s at the Burrow, do you?”

McGonagall’s face sank with consternation. “I’m afraid I have no idea.”

There was a pause. Then Harry said, “As for what we’ve been doing, we’ve been working on something. It’s important. … Something Professor Dumbledore told us to do.”

McGonagall’s eyes widened. When she spoke, she sounded breathless. “Albus left you a mission, Potter?”

He nodded.

“And you require assistance? That’s why you’ve called this meeting?”

“Well … no,” Harry admitted. “Not exactly. But we need to know everything that’s been going on. We haven’t been able to get in touch with anybody. … We’ve been stealing papers, but what’s going on with the rest of the Order? What’s going on at Hogwarts? Is—” His voice faltered. “Is everyone all right?”

Hermione saw the keen look in his eye and knew he was thinking of Ginny.

Hermione cast Muffliato, and McGonagall cast several Warming Charms. They sat on boulders near the edges of Lake Lillimont to talk, and to wait, in case anyone else arrived.

“Do you think the Weasleys might come?” Harry said hopefully, looking around the lake.

“I would very much doubt it,” McGonagall said with a sigh. “The world outside Hogwarts has been effectively cut off from the world within, but the Carrows have made threats to Ginny Weasley that suggest the family is being constantly monitored. An Apparition from the Burrow in the middle of the night would be highly suspect, grounds for interrogation. … Hagrid informed me that he received a similar message, but Hagrid is unable to Apparate, and we felt it was too risky to have two teachers away from the school, lest our dear new Headmaster notice.” Disgust tinged her tone.

“What’s Snape doing?” said Draco, addressing McGonagall for the first time.

Professor McGonagall turned that piercing stare onto Draco. Hermione could see him stiffening beneath it, could see his defenses rising, as if he were a feral animal approached by a predator.

“He is changing Hogwarts to meet the wishes of his master,” she said eventually. “We teachers still stand in opposition to the regime. As best we can, we try to bypass Snape, Filch, and the Carrows. … They’ve begun to use corporal punishment and outright torture for students who demonstrate disloyalty to You-Know-Who.”

Her thin brows drew together, but a satisfied glint was in her eye. “They have also tried to recruit students to do their dirty work for them. However … to my surprise, I will admit … even students of their own house have made that particular tactic difficult.”

Hermione glanced at Draco. He looked even paler than usual; she could just see the worry in the compression of his lips.

“Professor,” Hermione said, “in September, when we were … well, pursuing this mission of ours, Draco and I wound up at the Ministry …”

She related their narrow escape, disguised as the Parkinsons. Professor McGonagall listened with her hands fastened over her knees; by the end, her knuckles were white.

“Yes,” she said, her voice thin. “Yes, we all heard about that. It caused quite a stir at Hogwarts—although the students assumed, naturally, that Mr. Potter was your partner-in-crime.” She sighed. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news, Ms. Granger, Mr. Malfoy. … But Ms. Parkinson’s parents were taken for questioning about the event. They have been in Azkaban ever since.”

Hermione’s heart dropped. Draco had gone rigid on the boulder beside her. Hermione wanted to take his hand and squeeze it; as it was, she whispered the question she knew he couldn’t manage:

“And Pansy? Her brothers?”

“Her brothers, as I understand it, were placed in the care of a great-uncle. Ms. Parkinson herself …” Now, to Hermione’s surprise, a note of something like admiration crept into Professor McGonagall’s steely voice. “Ms. Parkinson has become … unruly.”

“Unruly?” Harry repeated.

“Yes. The Malfoys’ supposed deaths, and now her parents’ imprisonment on Death Eater orders, have affected her greatly. I believe she told the Carrows, if I am remembering the phrase correctly, that she would perform the Cruciatus on their instructions ‘when the Dark Lord flapped into Hogwarts and made her’.”

Hermione let out a choked sound halfway between laughter and incredulity. Harry’s mouth was hanging open.

But Draco made no reaction. His face was stricken, immobile. McGonagall was watching his reaction like a hawk.

“Your friend Mr. Goyle,” she went on, “then refused to discipline Ms. Parkinson, earning them both a substantial punishment. I kept them back after their next Transfiguration lesson to give them advice on reducing the aftereffects—and to let them know that I, and the other teachers, stood behind them.”

Draco finally found his voice. “Stood behind them?” he said, his voice hoarse. “Stood behind—can’t you do anything else? You can’t stop the Carrows, or—?”

McGonagall gave him a pitying look. “Mr. Malfoy, if a teacher contradicted You-Know-Who’s servants, what do you think would happen? Would you rather have Fenrir Greyback or Bellatrix Lestrange teaching your friends Transfiguration? I will not have myself removed from Hogwarts. … But I have told Ms. Parkinson and Mr. Goyle that if they need an outlet for insubordination, let it be my class instead.”

Hermione stared at the elderly witch, as rigid as she had always been, seated on the boulder with her bun drawn back tight. The idea of Minerva McGonagall inviting insubordination from Slytherins in her class was as disorienting as anything they’d heard in months.

McGonagall paused, studying Draco intently. “I have since heard from Madam Pomfrey that a number of younger Slytherins have begun to follow your friends’ example. Some, of course, have fallen in line with the Dark Lord’s wishes. Others … well.” She adjusted her spectacles. “Slytherin House appears to be confronting deep divides within itself, Mr. Malfoy. It is a time to find where our loyalties lie.”

She said the last sentence with particular stress. Draco looked away, discomfort in his expression.

Hermione frowned, uncomprehending. What did he have to be uncomfortable about? Pansy may have stood up to the Carrows, but Draco had done ten times more in hunting the Horcruxes. And now he wasn’t even taking credit for what he’d done?

It’s not like him, Hermione thought. It wasn’t like him not to advocate for himself.

She found herself blurting out, “We couldn’t have gotten this far without Draco’s help.”

Professor McGonagall turned a surprised gaze on her. Draco’s eyes flicked onto her, too, guarded.

“That is—” Hermione swallowed. “He’s … he’s been helping us with what Dumbledore’s left us to do. I would have died in the Ministry if he hadn’t been there. His loyalties are with us.”

With me, she found herself thinking.

For the first time, McGonagall’s expression seemed to soften. She looked back to Draco. “I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Malfoy.”

His grey eyes flicked up to her, and he nodded once, still wordless.

Professor McGonagall checked a silver wristwatch. “I should return to the school,” she said, rising from her boulder. “At the moment, I am supposedly having a nightcap at the Hog’s Head … Aberforth is covering for me, but I should still—”

“Aberforth?” Harry blurted. “Aberforth Dumbledore?

“Yes,” said McGonagall bemused. “Why?”

“He lives in Hogsmeade? He’s—he’s in touch with the Order?”

“The barman,” Hermione exclaimed. “I knew he looked related to Dumbledore when we were there for the funeral!”

Harry was on his feet now. “That’s who’s been in the mirror,” he breathed, staring out at the lake.

They all just looked at him, uncomprehending. He looked back at them, eyes refocusing.

“I have a fragment of a two-way mirror,” he said. “Sirius gave it to me, and I could have sworn I’d seen Dumbledore’s eye in it over the summer. It must have been Aberforth. He must have the other one! Which means we can communicate with him!”

McGonagall, rather than growing excited, was watching Harry with a kind of sadness. “I’m afraid there isn’t much to communicate, Potter. With the Order scattered this way … Hestia Jones and Dedalus Diggle disappeared shortly after a check-in on your aunt, uncle, and cousin. We’ve had no word from Kingsley, Remus, or Tonks, and if the Weasleys make any act of opposition …” She shook her head.

“No,” Harry said fiercely. “It’s not over, Professor. We’re here, aren’t we? We have a new headquarters, a safe place. You can get word to Hagrid, and we can let him in, too. We can get in touch with Aberforth. We can start pulling together again.” He held up the piece of paper. “If anything happens, and you’re in danger, come here, all right? If you hear anything new about Vo—about You-Know-Who, or about the Death Eaters’ movements, come and find us. And when you can find a time to sneak Hagrid away, to let him know, too—”

“Come and find you,” Professor McGonagall said. “I get the idea, Potter.” But she sounded affectionate rather than brisk.

For a moment they stood in silence, McGonagall regarding Harry with a wistful kind of pride. Hermione realised that her eyes had filled with tears. “It’s been years since I saw that address,” she said finally. “James and Lily would have been proud.”

Hermione looked at Harry, waiting for him to look bashful, or shaken. He didn’t. There was a steely resolution in his face, and Hermione felt, in that moment, as if she was seeing someone other than the boy she’d met that day on the Hogwarts Express in first year.

“I know,” Harry said.

 


 

“What was that?” Hermione asked Draco later that night, when they were up in front of the dying embers of the fire, his fingers loosely combing through her curls. “When McGonagall was talking about your loyalties.”

Draco’s hand stilled. “What do you mean?” he said.

She gave him a wry, unimpressed look. “You know exactly what I mean. Since when have you not been the first to defend yourself to everyone, all the time?”

Draco half smiled, but he couldn’t form a satisfactory answer. The truth was, he couldn’t pinpoint why he’d kept quiet—why, if McGonagall wanted to insinuate that he still harbored Death Eater sympathies, he hadn’t just told her what he’d done since summer.

Maybe he felt like it wasn’t very convincing if it came from him, that if he listed the ways he’d gone against the Dark Lord in the past several months, someone need only list all the things he’d done last year as a rebuttal.

Or maybe it was his new inability to stop thinking about those things he’d done at Hogwarts, and in his childhood. It had been happening more and more, the last week, as he settled more deeply into this new world—a world where he made conversation with Leo Clifton and stilted small talk with the Muggles at the registers in shops, where he asked questions about Hermione’s family more and more naturally, where Bella’s voice grew more distant every day.

When he wasn’t thinking about Hermione, and the blind rush of kissing her—when he wasn’t trying to make her smile—he thought about his younger self. He kept imagining that tiny eleven-year-old, walking through the halls and whispering to Crabbe and Goyle about whose families were blood traitors and Muggle-lovers, talking like he’d known anything about how the world worked. He knew McGonagall looked at him and saw that child. And maybe, in that moment beside the lake, he hadn’t wanted to speak up for that child.

But then again, maybe he just felt like he didn’t need McGonagall to understand. What was her goodwill to him? Was he supposed to lay his mind bare to win the favour of someone whose opinion was only of passing importance to him?

In that moment, when McGonagall’s steely eyes had found his, probing, expectant, Draco had thought of Hermione instead, and everything she knew about the dark year, and his new thoughts. And he’d felt such a feeling of relief that she knew him, that there was nothing to explain between the two of them. When she’d spoken up for him, he’d wanted to take her hand right there, in the moonlight.

Time seemed to accelerate as the Ministry gala approached. At first it seemed miles away. They had three entire weeks, and Draco and Harry brought home their uniforms for the gala, which Draco loathed; they were about as well-cut as potato sacks. They had so much time that they got distracted during planning and talked about everything McGonagall had told them instead, about Hogwarts.

Then there were two weeks until the gala, and Hermione had gone to Madam Malkin’s to order dress robes, and visited the Scavenger’s Guild to buy her and Harry new, unobtrusive wands, and Flint had put her name on the guest list. Draco’s thoughts about the new, grim Hogwarts began to take up less space in his mind. He began to think of how, in the not-so-distant future, he would walk up the sweeping steps of the manor and be home again, and thoughts of his younger self began to take greater primacy. He felt like he was being followed around by ghosts of himself.

One snowy night in mid-December, McGonagall Apparated into the cottage’s front room, making them all shout with shock, and informed them that she would be able to bring Hagrid to Lillimont Lake by Side-Along Apparition over the Christmas holiday, so that he could read the precious slip of paper with Weasley’s words written on it. This buoyed Hermione and Harry’s spirits immensely.

That night, Hermione told Draco about how, in third year, when she and Weasley had been fighting nonstop, Hagrid had always been there to cheer and encourage her. And in the back of his mind, Draco saw himself lying in the Hospital Wing that year, embellishing his injury from that Hippogriff to get Hagrid fired, thinking it was so funny, and he felt that unease again, and a sinking feeling throughout his whole body, and he couldn’t meet Hermione’s eyes.

“What is it?” she said, lifting his chin with two fingers. “Where do you keep going these days?”

And the fact that she noticed, that she knew him so well as to spot even a moment’s disengagement, made something in Draco hum. “I’m right here, Granger,” he said, slipping his arm around her back and pulling her half-onto his lap. “No idea what you’re talking about.”

She smiled and kissed him. Kissed his forehead. “You’ll tell me eventually,” she said, toying idly with his hair, and he looked up into her face and said,

“Yeah, probably.”

Then the gala was a week away, and Hermione came back from Diagon Alley with a bag from Madam Malkin’s that she refused to let Draco look inside. There was no longer room to think about anything else but the gala. Every waking hour, they were reviewing all their contingency plans for every possible hiccup, every possible failure of every step in the plan, what to do if everything went wrong.

Even when he and Hermione were up late together, they couldn’t seem to speak of anything else than the gala, the manor. Some nights they didn’t speak at all. They just kissed, with increasing urgency, in front of the fire while the blue shadows of snow deepened outside, or in his room, sometimes laughing about the way the mattress creaked. And he’d hold her in the silence and feel something like panic spreading through him, thinking about how much danger they would soon be in. Were they really going to do this? Plunge themselves headfirst into the Ministry, surrounded by Aurors and Death Eaters and the entire Department of Magical Law Enforcement?

And then, suddenly, it was the morning of December 23rd, and Draco looked up from the armchair in the front room, wearing his black Spizzworth’s uniform, to see Hermione walking down the stairs in her dress robes. He’d slept poorly the night before, but all thoughts of tiredness and even nerves evaporated at the sight of her.

She was walking carefully on the creaky steps, because the crimson satin fell down to her feet, which were clad in glittering black shoes. These were not the charmingly juvenile dress robes they’d all worn at the Yule Ball in fourth year, looking like children raiding their parents’ formalwear. This was a gown fit for a society event, sleeveless and elegant, with an asymmetrical capelet that she unlaced and slid off her bare shoulders as she turned around the banister. Draco caught a glimpse of her back, the line of the robe dipping almost all the way to her waist, and realised his mouth had gone as dry as parchment.

Draco wished they had about six more hours before leaving, so that he could take in every element: the soft shimmering details at her hip, red thread embroidered sparingly upon red material; the delicate twin streamers of crimson fabric that laced up at her shoulders; the smoothness of the skin at the divot of her collarbones.

Hermione coaxed the volumes of her hair over one shoulder and stopped at the bottom of the steps. She glanced from Harry to Draco and smiled, though it was a hesitant smile. “Do I look all right?” she said. “I know he’s going to change my face, but …”

“It’s great, Hermione,” said Harry. “You really look the part.” He glanced over, but whatever he saw on Draco’s face made him look away again at once. “It’s almost time,” he said, checking his watch. “I’ll run upstairs and get the new wands, and then we’ll go see Leo. Yeah?”

“Sure,” Hermione said as he jogged up the steps.

The instant he was out of sight, the instant they were alone, Draco crossed the room in a half-dozen strides and pressed his lips to hers. A pleasurable little shudder went through her body that made Draco feel like he might actually go mad; his head was full of white lightning and his fingers slipped over her waist, over the smooth skin of her back, thrill after thrill shooting through him. There was nothing in his mind but how she felt, Hermione, how her hair sprang free of her fingertips and brushed the side of his face, how she let the capelet flutter out of her grip to take a fistful of his robes and tug him down into her.

Too soon, Potter’s footsteps sounded close above them again. They broke apart, both breathing hard. Draco wanted to say something. He wanted to tell her how she looked, but he felt somewhere beyond words. As she looked up into his eyes, another feeling seared through him, one he knew better than any other. Fear.

And he saw it mirrored in her face. She was afraid, too.

Draco wondered at that moment if he was a coward. He’d always put himself first, and he’d never thought that was a particular problem, or a particular indicator of cowardice. But maybe he was a coward, because he thought about saying, We don’t have to go.

It confused him. He felt as if he were backing down the path he’d begun to walk. Hadn’t he resolved months ago, in his recovery bed after the Ministry, to hunt the Horcruxes, to restore his life?

And yet … looking at Hermione, he felt a new, spiraling sense of dread of the possibilities. The idea of her being hurt suddenly seemed so loud, so horribly present. He could be found out himself—he could be killed, just now, just when he was most of the way into a new world that he had barely begun to explore.

But if they just stayed at headquarters, he could change out of these ill-fitting robes, and they could have another night like Halloween, a dozen nights, a hundred; they could laugh and chat with Potter in the evenings, and pretend the world wasn’t disintegrating on their doorstep, and later, when he was alone with her, he could kiss her just there, on the blade of her shoulder, just where her hair tumbled down.

Draco thought he might have done it—delayed and delayed and delayed. Stayed safe.

But he knew she never would.

A painful lump in his throat, he stooped, swept the capelet off the floor and back into her hand, and retreated to a respectable distance as Potter jogged back into view.

Hermione tried to pretend nothing had happened, though there was a rosy glow in her cheeks, and she kept casting furtive looks his way. As Draco looked at her, running through details of the plan to Harry for a thousandth time, he tried to galvanise himself. He thought of the Horcrux shimmering around Dolores Umbridge’s neck. Three had been destroyed. If they hid here, they’d never find another, he knew that. And he remembered how she’d told him as he’d lain in bed, his shoulder pulsing with agony, The cause is our lives.

So he thought about Circe & Clíodhna, and Erialo, and events at his home. He pictured himself at Hermione’s side, out in a world that was safe … but the image seemed a thousand miles away, a photograph at the end of an eternal unlit hallway. And when Hermione looked at him and asked, “Ready?” he knew she didn’t believe the lie he told.

 


 

Standing at the manor gate, arm in arm with Marcus Flint, Hermione couldn’t believe she was actually here.

They’d queued for a quarter of an hour, talking about Flint’s week at work as dozens upon dozens of Ministry officials filed forward through the gates. Flint was dressed in dark green dress robes with silver clasps; every so often he looked down at her dress robes, his eyes fixed on her chest in a way that made her adjust her capelet with discomfort.

She thought of Draco, and his hand rough against her back, and the way he’d kissed her in the cottage with a kind of urgency he’d never had before—as if it were his last chance.

Her palms were clammy. She wiped them discreetly on her robes. Don’t, she told herself. Everything is going to go according to plan.

The sun had set hours before. The wrought-iron gates, which stood wide open, were wreathed with tiny golden lights. Malfoy Manor itself sat at the end of a long, hedge-lined drive, atop a hill. The sight was ethereal and undoubtedly beautiful, but a haze of foreboding hovered over the place, too. It was imposing rather than inviting.

“Marcus Flint,” said Flint, handing his invitation to a uniformed security witch at the gates. “And my guest, Marilea Linhardt.”

The security witch glanced over a list that hovered before her. She was burly and stony-faced, the letters GG emblazoned on the breast of her uniform. Her wand was fastened into a wrist holster, one flick away from being ready to hex. Hermione glanced over the four others of the Greengrass Guard who stood at the gates, stiff and immobile, ready to react in an instant.

The new wand she’d bought at the Scavengers’ Guild weighed heavy in her pocket, her only protection should everything go wrong. There could be no concealed bag of tricks here. The guards were searching everything. Even now they were opening half a dozen bottles of mulled mead to inspect their contents, despite a mustached wizard’s furious protests.

The security witch returned Flint’s invitation and nodded them through. Hermione didn’t smile up at him; Marilea Linhardt did not show affection, only approval and disapproval.

“This place is one of the oldest Wizarding houses in the country,” Flint told her, taking her arm roughly and without question. He spoke with bravado, as if he’d put the manor together himself.

“You’ve been before?” Hermione said idly.

“Yeah. I used to know the family who lived here before the Lestranges.” Flint sounded, for the first time since he’d met her, a bit reluctant to speak. “They got mixed up in some … well, no one really knows the details.”

Hermione gave him a sidelong glance, a raised brow. “Friends of yours?”

Flint was quiet for a moment as they crunched over the gravel. The soft golden lights illuminated the fluttering feathers of several albino peacocks, which roamed up and down the hedges.

“Yeah,” he said. “And they were loyal to the end, mind,” he added quickly, looking down at her, as if needing to ensure she didn’t get the wrong idea. “They didn’t turn blood traitor when things got … but that was when Dumbledore was still alive, so, things were more dangerous then. No one could have known what might happen.” Flint seemed to have found his way out of the woods. He was nodding to himself now. “No one could have known,” he said again.

Malfoy Manor loomed overhead now, a façade of worn grey stone spread with tall French windows, every pane rippled with age. Its eaves were decorated with statuettes, dragons and chimaeras that seemed to gambol and play forty feet above, and the windows were all flooded with inviting light. Hermione’s sense of foreboding only increased. It was all she could do not to hold onto her wand in her pocket. She thought of Draco and Harry, who had come in with Lizzie Spizzworth’s hours earlier, who were now, hopefully, nestled in the heart of the manor.

She and Flint swept up the long stairs and into a marble foyer that sparkled with decorations. Real, never-melting icicles gleamed from the banisters, and fairies with delicate, gauzy wings fluttered over the lintels of the broad doorways. A towering Christmas tree twenty feet high reached up to kiss the lowest dangling point of a chandelier, which hung from an intricately molded ceiling. It seemed unreal that this was the place Draco had grown up, that this wasn’t a museum or a historically preserved site but the place that he’d played with friends, learned how to interact with the world.

She tried to look neither interested nor impressed. “You’ll have to tell me who all these people are, Marcus,” she said in Marilea’s low, breathy tones, glancing around. It was a relief that she’d recognised nobody so far, a parade of unfamiliar faces in early adulthood to middle age. Now she did, however, see Rita Skeeter leaning against a nearby table, sipping a blood-red drink, photographer at her arm and Quick-Quotes Quill skating away on a notepad before her.

Flint thrust out his barrel chest, looking important. He scanned the crowd. “Those are the Greengrasses,” he said, pointing to a couple in their forties. “They own the security company. That’s Algernon Wolflaw, Office of Domestic Affairs … only a half-blood, but well-liked. He had a hand in planning all this.”

He nodded to a young couple, two red-haired women in dress robes, one in black and deep purple, the other in grey and misty white. He lowered his voice. “Lidia Taylor and May DeRisa, Department of International Magical Cooperation. Some funny business with their family trees, but they wheedled out of supervision somehow.”

“Charming,” Hermione said, wondering if she should try and approach Taylor or DeRisa. If they ever did need papers forged, perhaps they could be useful contacts.

Flint was already pressing forward, though, his big hand too tight on her waist. “I’ll introduce you to some of the others in Magical Games and Sports inside. Come on.”

Hermione let herself be steered, and they followed the stream of people across the foyer into something like a ballroom. Crisscrossing hardwoods stretched fifty feet to a small stage where a band was arranging a series of eccentric-looking instruments, all with many more strings and pegs and curlicued shapes than Muggle instruments would have involved. The ceiling was high and arched, and along one wall was a hearth that could have fit a small bus, where a long, low fire was simmering. A banner stretched over the hearth that read, in sparkling green and red letters, 1ST ANNUAL MINISTRY OF MAGIC CHRISTMAS GALA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF MAGICAL UNITY. On the opposite wall, a matching banner read MAGIC IS MIGHT!

Hermione’s unfazed expression must have slipped, because Flint was grinning down at her. “What do you think?”

She allowed a small, knowing smile. “Not quite the scale we manage in Dubai … but I’ve seen worse.”

“Never impressed, are you? I like that in a witch.”

Flint’s hand slid from her waist onto her lower back, then dipped dangerously low.

“Would you care to find me a drink?” she said, stepping forward, away from his touch.

He looked displeased for a moment, but nodded and stalked off through the accumulating crowd, leaving Hermione at a small table in the corner. She let out a slow exhalation, scanning the room for Draco, Harry, Umbridge, or the Weasleys.

They’d decided their first task would be to find Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, to show them the address of headquarters. They were certain the Weasleys wouldn’t linger at the gala long, but it was unlikely they would skip it altogether, when seeming like they’d assimilated into this new society was so important. She’d tucked the piece of parchment with the information into her bra; it itched whenever she moved.

Suddenly voices were murmuring. A kind of ripple seemed to move through the room, and Hermione followed the looks that everyone was sending back toward the grand entryway.

A chill flooded through her. They’d known she would be here, of course, she and her husband. This was their manor, now. Yet the sight of Bellatrix Lestrange, heavy-lidded and imperious, sweeping through the door with her husband Rodolphus, still made Hermione go very still. She remembered Bellatrix in the Department of Mysteries, lashing out with her wand, her spells flying with such mad power that they had splintered through layers upon layers of wood and glass.

On Bellatrix’s other side was Yaxley, who—unless Hermione was much mistaken—looked thinner than he had at the Ministry. He also appeared to be limping. Hermione wondered how he and Crabbe had been punished for the events of the Ministry, and even as she thought it, Crabbe crossed the threshold too, enormous and imposing, though his face, too, looked drawn, and his gait was unsteady.

And there, behind them … Hermione couldn’t help drawing a small, sharp breath. Vincent Crabbe was walking at his father’s shoulder, Millicent Bulstrode beside him in dress robes of pale green. There was a defiant look on Crabbe’s blunt features, as if he dared anyone to ask why his father might not be in perfect working condition.

Hermione knew she was unrecognizable. Yet when the rest of the group followed, she shifted further back into the corner. More and more faces she knew, all of whom could be dangerous. Garton Goyle, pale-faced and pockmarked, muttering something to his son Gregory with obvious irritation. An ethereally beautiful woman with obsidian-dark skin, ushering along Blaise Zabini, who looked prouder and more disgusted than ever. Then there was Theodore Nott, short and slender and sandy-haired, beside an older brother in Trainee Auror’s robes. Pansy Parkinson was gripping Theo’s arm, and Hermione saw, with a feeling of unwilling fascination, that a rain of fine cuts were laid upon her cheek, half-healed.

As the Slytherins dispersed out into the room, into many welcoming shouts from Ministry members, a disgusted voice muttered from the table next to Hermione,

“Let’s all clap for our ruling class.”

Hermione glanced over and received another shock. Standing at the table immediately next to her were two people. One was a plump, black-haired witch she didn’t recognise, but the other, she did: Sturgis Podmore, broad-shouldered, with a thatch of blond hair. He’d gone to Azkaban their fifth year after being put under the Imperius Curse by the Death Eaters. She remembered studying his photo in the Daily Prophet.

He’d left the Order after his release from Azkaban to recover, but surely he was still sympathetic to the cause? And hadn’t the witch accompanying him just insulted the Death Eaters? What if he had been in touch with other Order members?

Dare she say something?

The witch’s dark eyes played over Hermione warily. Clearly she was worried Hermione had heard the comment. Hermione looked away quickly, not wanting to let on, but before she could decide whether or not to engage with them, Flint returned, holding two glasses of pale blue wine.

“Twilight-infused Sauvignon,” he said, setting Hermione’s glass in front of her. “I—”

He broke off, his eyes settling on Podmore and the witch. “Ah. … Podmore, right?” Flint grunted, sounding a bit suspicious but not outright unfriendly. “Obliviation Squads?”

Podmore nodded once. “Flint, I believe,” he said, extending his hand. They shook briefly. “And this is my girlfriend Nora Prewett.”

Hermione opened her mouth to introduce herself, but Flint was already doing it for her. “This is Marilea Linhardt.”

Podmore and Prewett both extended their hands. Hermione shook, wondering if there was some way she could communicate with Podmore, some kind of code to indicate her loyalties, and to question his.

“Marilea went to school in Dubai,” Flint went on. “Tell them about the MWA, Marilea. We’re all Hogwarts here.”

“Er—yes,” Hermione said, her heart beating very quickly. “It’s … well, from what I’ve read about your … about Hogwarts, the schools are quite different. We don’t have a house system at all, and we’ve only been coeducational more recently; it was a witches-only academy until the 1980s …”

She kept speaking, but her voice wasn’t cooperating. Marilea’s breathy tones kept slipping, and she was herself again, rattling off facts from the front of a classroom. She felt like she’d lost the thread of her character, trying to make a decision about Podmore on the spot.

Flint, luckily, didn’t seem to be listening to her words at all. He was scanning the room, his eyes lingering interestedly on some of the Slytherins who’d mixed into the crowd while he’d been gone. But Hermione met the witch’s eyes and her voice faltered. The witch was staring, unblinking, into her face, her cocktail glass suspended millimeters from her lips.

This stranger knew Hermione’s voice.

How?

It hit Hermione like a thunderbolt. It wasn’t ‘Nora Prewett’ at all. It was Tonks.

Podmore had noticed something was off. His hazel eyes flicked from Hermione to Tonks.

“Flint,” Podmore said suddenly.

Flint looked back to them. “What?”

“Crabbe was trying to flag you down,” Podmore said, pointing to the very opposite end of the room, where both the elder and younger Crabbes were in conversation with Zabini.

Flint looked momentarily discomfited, and Hermione knew he was aware of the elder Crabbe’s status as a Death Eater. He glanced down at Hermione. “I should—er, I’ll speak with him alone. You don’t mind?”

“Of course not,” Hermione said. “I’ll wait for you here.”

The instant Flint had folded into the crowd, Hermione, Podmore, and Tonks drew in together, practically into a huddle.

“Wotcher, Hermione,” Tonks whispered, her face filled with disbelief and something like respect.

“Hermione Granger?” Podmore whispered, his large brown eyes filled with worry. Tonks nodded.

“Tonks,” Hermione said. “You’re safe. You’re all right. How’s Remus?” Her eyes fell to Tonks’s stomach, which was just as curvy as the rest of her body. “Why are you here?

“Remus is fine. We’ve been moving from place to place,” Tonks whispered. “We and Kingsley, we’ve been burning through sympathisers’ houses before they can find us. We’ve been at Pod’s place a week now, though, getting ready for this. We’re trying to find the Weasleys. Get organised again.”

Hermione turned toward the wall and slipped the parchment out of her bra, then showed it to both Podmore and Tonks. “Read this. Quickly,” she whispered.

They did, their eyes widening. Tonks’s unfamiliar face began to glow with a gutsy, very Tonks-like excitement. “Yes,” she breathed. “That’s the ticket.”

Hermione’s eyes flew to Flint, who was crossing the room toward them again with a deep scowl. “You can’t tell anyone you saw me,” she whispered, tucking the parchment back down her dress robes. “I was never here, do you understand?”

Podmore took a sharp breath. “Is he here?” He mouthed his name: Potter?

Hermione glanced around. No one was looking; no one was listening.

She nodded.

Podmore’s hand flew to his mouth. Tonks’s face lit up.

“We’re here on Order business,” Hermione whispered urgently. “Not a word. Do you understand?”

They nodded, and as Flint arrived at the table, Hermione stepped back and pulled her low, breathy voice back into place. “Well, it was lovely to meet your … friends, Marcus …” She eyed Tonks and Podmore with all the disdain she could manage. “But I’d love to meet some of your colleagues. Didn’t you say the whole department would be here? …”

As she let him steer her away, she passed a bald, bearded figure holding a silver tray topped with tiny tartlets: Harry. Their eyes locked. As a guest swept a tartlet off the platter, ignoring Harry completely, he made their signal for everything on schedule, tapping his chin twice with a knuckle.

Weasleys? she signaled, a discreet flash of three fingers. Umbridge? a discreet flash of her pinky.

He twitched his head in a shake.

Hermione nodded. She longed to tell him about Tonks and Podmore—she wanted to let him know that Remus was safe, that Kingsley was safe, that they had two more allies—but she couldn’t break away from Flint just now, or he would start to feel like she was avoiding him.

Her heart rate settled as Flint introduced her to colleague after colleague from the Department of Magical Games and Sports. The band began to play. For half an hour or so, Hermione finally got to use all the Quidditch knowledge she’d studied for, keeping up with a conversation about the Quidditch World Cup of 1974 in Syria. The mostly male department members kept giving her surprised and admiring looks, and Flint subtle thumps of congratulation, which irritated Hermione. No, she didn’t actually care about Quidditch, but it wasn’t as if real female Quidditch fans were rare.

But she tried not to get too involved. They were situated at a corner of the hearth where she could monitor the door. And at 9 p.m., they appeared in the threshold: Molly and Arthur Weasley, looking shabby and out of place. Many gala attendees paused to curl their lips at the Weasleys, or simply shuffled away, looking afraid to be too near them. Mr. Weasley was wearing a resigned look; Mrs. Weasley’s round face was stoic.

“Excuse me, Marcus,” Hermione said. “I need to find a bathroom.”

He nodded, only half-seeming to hear her, and she forged quickly across the room, not wanting the Weasleys to get too far into the crowd. They were only a half-dozen paces into the ballroom when Hermione reached them and faked a small, unobtrusive stumble, spilling her Twilit Sauvignon onto the shoulder of Mrs. Weasley’s robes.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Hermione said, catching her balance on both Mr. and Mrs. Weasley’s arms. She’d practiced the maneuver for upwards of an hour on Draco and Harry, and it worked perfectly. Caught off guard, they held her up, and she leaned in, saying close to their ears,

“It’s Hermione. Follow me.”

Both the Weasleys drew sharp breaths. To their credit, they managed to control their shock quickly, wrangling their faces back into something like annoyance.

“I feel dreadful,” Hermione said more loudly, pulling back to usher them out into the foyer. “Here, let me clean that.”

Rather than simply using her wand, she took a fistful of napkins from a nearby table and began to dab them against Mrs. Weasley’s shoulder. They passed another stern member of the Greengrass Guard, then moved down a narrow side hall lined with oil landscapes in gilt frames, where signs indicated a bathroom. They stopped in the middle of the hall.

“No problem at all, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, letting Hermione continue to fuss as an older woman bustled out of the bathroom, rummaging in a large black bag.

The instant the woman was out of sight, the hall deserted, they slipped through a nearby door into a closet and dropped the act.

“You mustn’t be here,” Mrs. Weasley whispered, her face pale and suddenly terrified. “What were you thinking? You must leave now!”

“No time to argue,” Hermione hissed, pulling the slip of parchment from her robes. “Read this.”

The Weasleys did as they were told.

Mr. Weasley looked very serious as he glanced back up at her. He, like McGonagall, had clearly recognised his son’s writing. “Is Ron here, too?”

Hermione’s heart dropped. She’d expected it. She’d told herself to expect it. And yet this confirmation that Ron was not at the Burrow made panic flood through her.

“He hasn’t been with us for two months,” she whispered. “He hasn’t been to the Burrow?”

Mrs. Weasley’s kind face slackened further. She didn’t seem able to speak, just shook her head.

“Nor to Bill and Fleur’s?” Hermione added with a note of desperation.

Mr. Weasley shook his head. His chest was rising and falling, his breathing uneven. “I visited Shell Cottage last week,” he managed to say. “It’s where the family is meant to meet if something goes wrong. … Bill and Fleur are there alone.”

Hermione felt her own breaths growing shallow, too. She tried to clutch at her purpose. She had to focus. She could worry later, when she was safe, when they had the Horcrux.

“St-Sturgis Podmore and Tonks are in the ballroom,” she whispered, her lips numb and clumsy. “They want to speak to you. We’re all trying to regroup. Pack your things when you can and bring the whole family to headquarters, and any tents you can find. You won’t have to hide anymore … we can make a plan. I have to go.”

“Wait,” said Mr. Weasley, catching her arm. “The Malfoy boy. Is he still with you?”

It broke through her numbness. “Y-yes, why?”

“His mother found me outside the Ministry. I know where they’re staying.”

 


 

Draco felt as if he were in a nightmare.

He’d had dreams of home over the past few weeks with increasing regularity. In the dreams, there had always been something off about the manor, something he couldn’t pinpoint, something about the angles, or the colors.

But simply moving through the halls from the East Wing to the main rooms, finding nearly everything just as he’d last seen it over the Easter holidays, was somehow a thousand times more disorienting. After missing his home for months, it was a kind of agony to be back here. All the spacious rooms and familiar furnishings, the former trappings of his life, still identically remained, as if he hadn’t disappeared, as if he hadn’t died, as if his absence meant nothing.

He hadn’t dared go down to the west end of the house, to his room. He was already feeling almost feverish.

“You all right, mate?” said a spotty woman a few years older than him, balancing a pair of hors d’oeuvres trays as they exited the kitchen. “Someone say something to you?”

It was as good an excuse as any for his distraction, so Draco nodded.

“The guests in these places are always the bloody worst, aren’t they,” said the woman with a knowing wink. “Chin up. Lizzie always takes us out to the Leaky Cauldron the night after, her treat. We can down a litre of Firewhisky and swap stories about the biggest arseholes.”

And she strode down the long green carpet that spanned the manor’s main hall.

Draco carried a tray of clean glasses after her, past the sculpted bust of Callalya the Catastrophic, past the long painting of the Battle of the Hebridean Blacks. He emerged at the top of the staircase in the foyer, looking down at the plane of smooth white marble, the chandelier, the tremendous Christmas tree.

By the time he reached the bottom of the steps, he was sweating again. He’d worked in the kitchen so far, had managed to avoid going into the room ahead, which his family had called the hearth room.

It won’t look the same, he told himself. They’ll have cleared all the furniture away.

That was worse. With the furniture cleared, the floor would be exposed. He remembered the stretch of old carpet that ran along the hearth, rubbing into his cheek. He remembered the Muggle man at the Dark Lord’s wandtip, the way his body had jiggled like a marionette, bare heels splayed upon the parquet floors. The Dark Lord had cut away his shirt, and cut lines into his skin, and the man had screamed, and then he’d been upside-down.

And Draco had stood there and laughed, his voice melting into the rest.

An hour later the man had been dead.

Draco had taken the Mark there, in that room. It had been agony, but he’d done it willingly, thirsty for the chance to undo his father’s supposed mistakes. In the echo of voices from the gala he could practically hear his own voice now, everything he’d spat at the Death Eaters in these halls—all the jeering he’d tried to withstand by lashing out with insults at Muggle-borns and half-bloods and blood traitors. All the ways he’d chosen to belong.

Draco swayed at the bottom of the steps and looked through the open doors into the night, down the long twin hedges lit with tiny lights. There they were again, the ghosts that chased him. They were everywhere. Spots burst in his eyes. He saw his eleven-year-old self tearing down that gravel path, yelling at Crabbe and Goyle, Hurry up, for Merlin’s sake—you two are so slow. He saw himself riding a toy broomstick over this balcony, zooming over the marble, and bragging to Pansy that she could never catch up. He saw himself at age fourteen, moping as he slid down the banister, making fun of Hermione to his mother, trying to mask his own insecurity that—yet again—a Muggle-born had outscored him in every test.

This place was his past. It was everything he’d ever been. And now he was separate from it, out in the open, in the new and quiet world. And if blood meant nothing, he’d acted that way for sixteen years for nothing. Every word, every thought, every action, had been for nothing.

In third year, just after slapping him, Hermione had called him foul. She’d called him evil. He’d tried to laugh about it later, but even then it had rung half-hollow. He saw himself through her eyes now, deriding the Gamekeeper who had comforted her. … He saw himself turning to his mother in Madam Malkin’s and saying, hardly over a year ago, If you’re wondering what the smell is, Mother, a Mudblood just walked in.

Draco couldn’t breathe. There was a taste in his mouth like bile. He turned left unthinkingly, away from the threshold of the gala. He made for a side corridor, then tried to shoulder through a nearby door. It was locked, but he said through gritted teeth, “Alohomora,” needing privacy, needing to be out of sight, and it came open. The passage beyond was dark and cold, a set of steep steps. He descended a few and whispered, “Lumos,” and set down the tray of wine glasses, and leaned against the stone wall, letting out hard breaths.

The last few months, he’d grown more and more acquainted with self-doubt, but this—this was something else, this thick, treacly self-loathing, burning through his veins like magma. After these long months, learning to trust Hermione, to care for her, to fear for her—after these past few weeks, which had been an oasis of trust and understanding in the chaos of the last year—

Draco suddenly couldn’t understand how she didn’t still loathe him. How could she look at him without seeing all these things that suddenly, in retrospect, made him feel a shame so violent it was like panic? And what was he supposed to do, now that he was seeing his past self this way? He’d changed his mind, he’d changed his actions, but he was still contained in himself. He couldn’t tear his old self out of his body. He would never be able to.

Of course McGonagall had looked at him with suspicion. For the rest of his life people would look at him that way.

Shouldn’t they? he thought, suddenly feeling bitter and vengeful and full of hate. Since when had he ever looked at someone and forgiven them everything they’d ever done? Hadn’t he held petty, stupid grudges, a thousand minuscule judgments? Why should he be any different? Why should anyone even care if he’d changed?

Then a sound made Draco jerk so violently he nearly toppled down the stairs.

“Hello?”

It echoed up from below, small and feeble.

For a long moment Draco could only stare down the dark flight of steps to their invisible end, his heart pounding even harder now. His thoughts seemed to have frozen, his mind suddenly blank.

“Is someone there?”

It was a girl’s voice.

With a sense of sick dread compounding inside him, Draco began to climb down. Usually they stored extra furniture down here for their summer garden parties. Usually this place was dark and forgotten.

Now, as he neared the foot, he saw that a heavy door had been conjured into place, sealing off the space beyond. Draco’s heart beat in his throat, and he held his wand aloft as he slowed, casting the light forward.

There was a barred window in the door. A face was staring out at him, grimy and starved-looking, eyes wide and pale in the gloom.

It was Luna Lovegood.

Chapter Text

L—” Luna’s name stopped at the tip of Draco’s tongue as he remembered his disguise.

“Who are you?” she asked. Her voice, always so dreamy, was a parched slip of a thing now.

Draco managed to eke out the name on his Spizzworth’s application. “A-Aidan March.”

“You aren’t a Death Eater.” It wasn’t a question, but it made Draco’s left forearm tingle. Luna’s eyes travelled over his caterer’s uniform. “Are you here to help us?”

“Us?

Luna drifted back from the door. As Draco held his wand closer to the barred window, he made out a man lying motionless against the wall nearby, though he looked not so much like a man as a corpse, emaciated and grimy, a mass of filthy grey hair hanging around his skeletal face.

It was Ollivander. The wandmaker bore hardly any resemblance to the man who had clapped with delight when Draco, eleven years old, had swished this very wand through the air to produce a shimmering tail of white flame.

Fear and disgust pulsed through Draco. It was all he could do not to step backward from the sight. This was what awaited him, Hermione, and Harry if they were captured tonight—this, and worse.

“Is that a uniform?” said Luna, moving back in front of the window. Though her voice was hoarse, she sounded innocently curious, too, as if Draco had swung by for tea and light conversation.

“I … I work for a caterer. There’s a Ministry of Magic gala upstairs. … Hundreds of people.”

“Oh. I see.” She nodded, seeming to consider. “I suppose it would be quite difficult to get us out unseen, then.”

Quite difficult, Draco thought, was the understatement of the year. As he thought of Bellatrix, his fear redoubled, sending ice over his skin. If Malfoy Manor was now being used for this purpose, his aunt must have taken precautions to ensure their captives didn’t escape.

He didn’t know what to do. He had to think pragmatically. He knew that if he told Hermione or Potter about this, they would insist on trying to save Luna and Ollivander, but it wouldn’t help the captives if the three of them got chucked into this cell alongside them. Their circumstances would only worsen if Potter, in particular, were killed. It might not be worth the risk to try—might be the better option to take the Horcrux, go, and focus on the Dark Lord’s fall.

And yet even the idea of keeping this from Hermione made him feel that oppressive sense of shame again. He could only imagine her fury and disgust if he walked away, if he didn’t tell her about this until after they’d returned to headquarters.

But it would be to keep her safe, he thought. To keep all of us alive.

Still—Ollivander’s gaunt, twitching face … the way Luna had said, Are you here to help us?

“Why are you here?” Draco said shakily.

“My father’s the editor of The Quibbler. Have you heard of it?” she added with some pride.

Her love for her father’s ridiculous rag had never seemed less funny. “Yeah,” Draco said.

“Good. Good,” Luna said absently, nodding. Her hand shook as she moved a lock of dirty blonde hair back from her face. “Well, I suppose they don’t like what he’s been printing lately. … He’s been writing stories about the Order of the Phoenix, and how we should band together to support Harry Potter. So, they took me from the Hogwarts Express when I was on the way home for Christmas Break.”

She looked around the cellar. “They hurt me rather a lot when I arrived. … I’ve met Bellatrix Lestrange before, you see. She was pleased to see me again.” Her large, ghostly eyes looked suddenly hollow. “After an hour or two, they had a few people chase me through the woods. … They told me I could leave if I could reach the gate before them, but now that I think of it, I doubt there was ever a gate at all.”

Draco felt ill. Of course—Luna Lovegood had been at the Department of Mysteries with the rest of Potter’s friends. Draco could imagine the pleasure Bella would have had, torturing one of the people responsible for the loss of the Prophecy.

Then they would have owled evidence back to Luna’s father to prove they had her. They would have made some oblique reference to her torture, and ensured he knew that worse could always happen to her.

Luna seemed unperturbed by Draco’s silence. “Would you mind telling me what day it is?” she asked. “Only it gets hard to keep track in here.”

“It’s the 23rd.”

“Oh.” Luna sighed. “That explains why I’m so hungry.”

“They haven’t fed you?”

“Only once since I arrived here, and that was the nineteenth. You wouldn’t be able to bring us something to eat or drink, would you?” She paused. “It would be a real help,” she added.

The hope in her voice was piteous. Merlin, Draco thought, his stomach in knots—she’d already resigned herself to living here, like this. Maybe even dying here.

He tried to remember the evening of the nineteenth. Had he and Hermione been huddled in front of the fire that night, warm and safe, Draco toying with thoughts of abandoning the plan and staying in headquarters forever? And all the while, had Luna been under Bellatrix’s Cruciatus, or fleeing through the woods in the Malfoy grounds wild-eyed, twigs snapping in her blond hair, tripping into the mud?

Draco felt as if he’d crashed down to Earth after a hundred-foot fall. He’d known the war for the loyalty of the Wizarding World had ground onward while they’d been in their safe haven, but the reports on the Wireless had started to feel so distant, sanitised as they were by the Ministry.

For strategy’s sake, the Death Eaters wouldn’t kill Luna. Draco knew that. He also knew they’d do anything and everything else, if not to manipulate her father, then out of boredom or frustration. If this was what she looked like after only four days’ captivity … Draco resisted the image of the girl propped against the wall like Ollivander, months later.

Something was coalescing inside Draco, a fragile, tentative knot of determination. Hadn’t he found a hidden way into Hogwarts last year? Hadn’t he solved an unsolvable problem? And this was the manor. He knew this place the way he knew himself.

There must be a way to manage it again.

“Give me ten minutes,” he rasped.

As he started up the steps, climbing out of the darkness beneath the manor, he glanced back down the steps at Luna’s face, an amorphous smudge dwindling like a dying candle. In truth he had no idea what he was doing, except that he was going to find the others, and then there would be no going back.

Draco faced forward again and held his wand aloft and climbed. Somehow the steep stairs looked three times as long as when he’d descended into the depths, and the manor suddenly seemed treacherous, despite the glittering splendour above—or maybe precisely because of that splendour. The home of his childhood seemed to turn transparent, hovering like a mirage in a shining layer over reality. The ancient house shared his name. It had shaped him, it had made him, it was elegance and grace and refinement. Hours before, standing at the foot of the sweeping drive, he’d felt relief and even pride to see it again, to remember where he came from.

But here, inside and deep beneath, in its hidden places, this was its foundation, after all. Torture and debasement, his own and others’. Hideous actions, his own and others’. Lavish finery, concealing the truth that belonged to him and the lies he’d inherited.

Draco’s legs were tiring, and he had that whirling feeling, again, of nightmare. Pressing in on him was the crushing sensation of captivity. That was the manor, in the end. Enclosure. But he kept climbing. He could not, would not stop. There would be a way out. There had to be.

 


 

Hermione waited until Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had disappeared from the hall before returning to the gala. Just inside the door, a blond-bearded someone caught her eye. It was Harry. She flashed three fingers and gave a small nod: the Weasley part of their plan was complete.

A triumphant look flashed across Harry’s face, and he flashed his pinkie finger, then nodded, too. Hermione’s heart leapt. Umbridge had arrived—and Harry had succeeded in giving her a drink that contained the crucial part of their plan. Fast-acting laxative powder.

Under the guise of looking around for Flint, she navigated close enough to Harry to whisper,

“How long ago?”

“Seven minutes or so. She’s in the sunroom.”

“And Draco?”

“Kitchen, I think.”

Hermione nodded, then peeled away. She scanned the room for Draco with an anxious pang—she knew this was the room where Voldemort had used the Cruciatus on him, and that he’d hoped to avoid it as long as possible. Still, they needed him here soon, on the off-chance that Umbridge somehow slipped between her fingers, or if something else went wrong. All their dozens of contingency plans involved him.

Just then, a wailing scream split the air throughout the ballroom, high and inhuman. The band broke off, and a panicked surge of voices rose through the gala. Hermione pressed herself against the wall, terrified that they’d somehow been detected, that this was some piece of anti-disguise magic they hadn’t planned for—but then she saw two members of the Greengrass Guard forcing their way through the crowd toward one of the windows, which a tall, portly wizard had cracked open. It was a Caterwauling Charm, Hermione realised.

“What?” the wizard was saying indignantly. “It’s stifling in here! I can’t get a bit of fresh air?”

“Cast a Clean Air Charm if you need fresh air,” the guard said, cool and stony-faced, shutting the window again.

Sonorus,” said the other guard. Her magically amplified voice announced throughout the ballroom: “Guests will please note that Caterwauling Charms have been applied at windows and all unapproved exits to improve event security and prevent any burglarising. Thank you and please enjoy your evening.”

As they exited the ballroom and the music started back up again, Hermione’s heart was still pattering quickly. She was grateful it had happened. They hadn’t planned for Caterwauling Charms, and that bit of security rendered several of the contingency plans useless. Hermione mentally crossed them off the list, but she frowned, feeling suspicious. Sealing off the entire manor seemed like an extreme measure to ‘prevent burglarising’ …

Then she saw Flint scanning the crowd with dissatisfaction. She feigned relief and navigated toward him.

“Marilea,” he said. “There you are. Thought you’d run off with someone and set off the Caterwauling Charm.”

She laughed a low, melodic laugh. “I’m sorry. I thought I was leaving you in good company.”

“They’ve all gone off to dance now.” He extended one large hand. “Care to?”

Hermione hesitated. The entrance to the sunroom was at the end of the ballroom, a set of big glass doors fogged by the heat of the crowd. She needed to get in there to monitor Umbridge. What if her prey left for the toilets through another exit?

But Flint clearly already thought that she wasn’t paying enough attention to him. She needed as little friction as possible, so that when she left to pursue the Horcrux, he didn’t feel suspicious.

She decided to play at self-consciousness. Marilea had to have a weakness, didn’t she?

“O-oh,” she said, faltering as she looked back at the many dancing couples. “Er … could we have another drink, first?” She glanced from side to side, as if on the brink of reluctant admission, then said, “You may find it hard to believe, but I have a difficult time loosening up. Sometimes.”

With relief, she saw Flint’s harsh features soften. “Sure,” he said. “Later. It’s still really early.”

When he placed his hand on her back again, it was in a more respectful location than before, almost reassuring. For the first time, Hermione felt a twinge of guilt about this charade. Flint had been so self-centred and aggressive throughout that she hadn’t considered that he might develop legitimate feelings for Marilea.

But then they came out into the sunroom, and Flint knocked into someone just beyond the door, and Hermione forgot all about her guilt. He’d walked directly into a tall, attractive couple: the man burly and fair, with windswept sandy hair; the woman dark-skinned, with microbraids wound up into an elegant bun. They looked older than they had at Hogwarts, ineffably more adult, but unmistakable. Oliver Wood and Angelina Johnson.

The silence that dropped between the former Quidditch rivals was excruciating. The band, dulled on the other side of the door, played on; an enchanted fountain burbled in the humid air. Hermione cast an awkward look around the sunroom, which was filled with row upon row of plants that would have made Professor Sprout proud.

Flint was the first to speak. “Wood,” he said. “Johnson.” Then, with a smirk, he said, “Mad who they’ll let into these events.”

“Yes,” said Angelina, looking Flint over. “It is.”

Hermione felt the weight of Angelina’s dislike, but it seemed she didn’t dare insult Flint openly. This seemed to satisfy Flint. The smirk widened into a smug look that Hermione hated. She wished she weren’t at his side.

It felt bizarre, standing here in front of the two older Gryffindors. Hadn’t she partnered with Angelina during DA meetings half a dozen times, Stunned her back into piles of cushions and had Angelina’s formidable Impediment jinx cast upon her, too? And Hermione had listened to Harry complain about Wood’s sadistic captaining for three full years … and now here he was, here they all were, in a new world.

“Angelina Johnson and Oliver Wood,” Flint introduced to Hermione. “We went to Hogwarts together, though they were in the house with most of the Muggle-lovers. Gotten over that now, have you?” He was definitely jeering now, taunting Angelina and Wood, both of whom were drawn as taut as bowstrings. Hermione could see Angelina’s fingers digging into Wood’s wrist as they both tried for patience.

“Thought so,” Flint said, with a sip from his glass of Firewhisky. “We can all get along now, though. School’s over. New rules out here in the real world. … This is Marilea Linhardt, you two. Marilea, Wood plays Keeper for Puddlemere United, and Johnson’s in the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, athletics division.”

Angelina and Wood both stuck out their hands, looking reluctant. Hermione avoided their eyes and shook as quickly as possible.

“Marilea went to school in Dubai,” Flint went on. “She’s thinking about being a Quidditch commentator, and…”

Hermione’s attention slipped. There she was. There, coming out from behind a Flutterby Bush in a vast adobe pot, was Dolores Umbridge.

Umbridge wore satin dress robes in fuchsia and her usual saccharine smile, and the Horcrux gleamed upon her chest. She was deep in conversation with none other than Bellatrix Lestrange.

Two Aurors were flanking Umbridge, two tall, expressionless men. Hermione let out a slow breath. It was a stroke of luck that both Aurors were men. There was nearly no likelihood that they would insist on standing guard in the powder room, where the guests might need to privately adjust their clothing. Draco had informed her and Harry that it was the height of rudeness to watch glamour magic being performed, in particular, and that if Hermione saw anyone erasing wrinkles in the powder room, she should keep her eyes averted.

“… simply can’t express our gratitude for your generosity, Madam Lestrange,” Umbridge was simpering. “The Minister was so honoured that you would open your doors, especially after all the wrongs the Ministry has done you over the years. The Minister himself will be here soon, of course …”

“Marilea?” said Flint.

Hermione started and looked back to them. “Pardon me,” she said. “That woman’s quite eye-catching, isn’t she?” She glanced back at Bellatrix, who looked haughty and disdainful as usual, but not dissatisfied with Umbridge’s flattery.

Wood and Angelina exchanged uneasy looks. Flint shifted too. “That’s Bellatrix Lestrange,” he said, his voice half its earlier volume.

“What, Flint?” said Angelina. “Not going to extol her virtues? I thought you lot looked up to her.”

“Shut up,” Flint said through his teeth.

Hermione pretended not to notice any of this. “And the woman with her?”

“Dolores Umbridge,” Flint said, sounding more at ease. “Senior Undersecretary to the Minister.”

“What lovely dress robes,” Hermione said. “Such an unusual shade.”

But Umbridge and Bellatrix had begun to laugh at something, and such a wave of hatred ran through Hermione at the sight of Umbridge laughing with Sirius’s murderer that her voice came out high and tight, not at all like Marilea’s. Flint gave her a surprised look, but it was Angelina’s expression that made Hermione’s stomach drop. Her eyes had fixed on Hermione’s face with the hard focus that the Chaser had assumed every time she threw a perfectly aimed goal.

As Flint glanced back toward the fogged-up doors to the ballroom, Hermione met Angelina’s eyes and gave her head a tiny, urgent shake.

Angelina looked stunned for an instant. Then she dipped her head in an equally tiny nod.

“In any case,” Hermione said to Flint when he looked back down at her, “I’m surprised this is only the first annual gala. Wasn’t there a call for something like this before? …”

They carried on an easy, shallow conversation for several more minutes, Hermione keeping an eye on Umbridge.

Then Umbridge’s face contracted with surprise and dread. Hermione’s pulse began to speed. She felt the weight of the wand in her pocket again. Soon enough Umbridge was shifting awkwardly in place, and the vengeful part of Hermione filled with satisfaction. She remembered the loathsome woman in the Ministry—so excited to tear Muggle-borns away from their loved ones. The more discomfort in her life, the better, as far as Hermione was concerned.

Then Umbridge was making her excuses and hurrying toward the door, the Aurors following her.

Hermione made herself count to ten. Then she winced, squinting one eye until it watered. “Marcus—I need to dash to the powder room—my makeup. … Shall I meet you on the dance floor?”

He brightened. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll see you in there.”

Hermione slipped out of the sunroom into the hall. Umbridge was trotting with increasing speed toward the powder room, which served as a sort of antechamber to the bathroom. There was a line of a half-dozen women down the hall, but Umbridge bypassed all of them, to several disgruntled looks. She disappeared into the powder room.

The line was inconvenient, but they had a plan for this. Either Harry or Draco was supposed to keep an eye on the wait time, and if this happened, they were meant to tell the other women about the other bathrooms spread throughout the west wing.

But as Hermione joined the line, neither Harry nor Draco appeared.

Seconds ticked by, and Hermione’s mouth grew dry. Where were they? What could they possibly be doing? They didn’t have forever, and the longer Umbridge took in the bathroom, the longer the line would grow—the more conspicuous they would be.

Just as Hermione was about to resort to the Puking Pastille sewn into her neckline, he appeared at the entrance to the foyer. Draco, passing the Greengrass Guard who monitored the hall, moving with purpose toward the line. Hermione felt limp with relief. She could just make out his features beneath the makeup, and the sight of him, the reminder that she wasn’t alone, bolstered her.

“Excuse me,” Draco announced, stopping at the head of the line. He’d turned his smooth drawl into a buzzing, nasal voice. “As we’ve had a number of complaints about the wait, we’ve decided to open up the toilets on the second floor temporarily. There are two more just up these stairs. Follow me.” The line in front of Hermione peeled off, hurrying after Draco toward the stairwell he’d indicated.

She couldn’t help but think that Draco’s eyes had looked panicked as he’d passed her. She tried not to think about it, tried to focus only on the Horcrux. If something had gone wrong, she couldn’t do anything about it now, at the crucial moment.

She moved to the door and said, rubbing her fingertip against her lower eyelid as if irritated with her makeup, “I only need the powder room.” The Aurors’ eyes moved over her, then off, as she entered. The door clicked shut behind her.

The layout of the room was just as Draco had described. To one side was a luxurious counter of Italian marble, where twin mirrors were lit by hovering bulbs. In the corner opposite the counter was the door to the bathroom. There were three other women in the powder room: two queued against the wall for the W.C., and the last, a squat older witch in velvet whose hands were down her dress, pulling at an evidently problematic bra.

“… know she’s a higher-up,” one of the queued women was muttering, “but I’ve been waiting for ten minutes, and she just barges past …”

“They’ve opened up the upstairs bathrooms,” Hermione said over her shoulder to the queued women as she approached one of the mirrors.

The two women glanced over. “Really?”

“Yes. I’d try those, if I were you. I overheard Madam Umbridge saying she didn’t feel well. She may be a while.”

The women exchanged a glance, then nodded to Hermione. “Thanks,” one said, and they both exited the powder room.

Hermione continued to toy with her eyelid for a moment, but the older witch in velvet didn’t seem close to leaving. “Honestly,” Hermione said with a light sigh. “They call it Ellwina’s Everlasting Eyeliner and yet I could swear it needs fixing every twenty minutes.”

The other witch let out a hearty laugh. “Same with this Sticking Charm. Though you’re too young to need that, of course.”

“Soon enough,” said Hermione with a friendly smile. She drew her wand, leaned close to the mirror, and pretended to touch it to her eyelid. Then she leaned back, as if to admire the effect, and flicked it in the other witch’s direction, thinking, Confundo!

The other witch’s face went momentarily slack. Then confusion passed over her face, and her expression cleared. She tugged her dress back into place before bustling out of the powder room. Hermione was alone.

At once, she stopped fidgeting with her eye and assumed her place in front of the bathroom door. For a long moment she waited, her body so full of tension that she thought she might be sick.

The toilet flushed.

Muffliato, she thought, flicking her wand back at the door to the hall. Colloportus.

Locking the door was a big risk, probably the most suspicious part of the operation—but for these thirty seconds, she couldn’t have any other guests getting in. She turned back to the bathroom door and drew a shaky breath. Then—Alohomora.

The bathroom door clicked open.

Time blurred and jerked. One moment Hermione was flying over the threshold, met with the sight of Dolores Umbridge washing her hands. In the same moment, Umbridge let out a shriek, her hand flying for her wand. But she was too late. Hermione had already cast—

Obliviate!

The spell struck Umbridge hard, and she sank back against the wall, her eyes rolling, momentarily unconscious. Hermione leapt forward and caught her before she hit the ground. She unclipped the locket from Umbridge’s neck and paused for an instant, remembering what she was holding, feeling that aliveness within it, as the diadem had felt alive. A shiver shot down her back.

She shook herself back to life, stuffed the Horcrux down her dress into her bra, and slipped a golden bracelet from around her wrist. She Transfigured it into a passable copy of the locket, which she fastened around Umbridge’s ruff.

Her heart beat harder. Almost done now. She drew a deep breath and whispered the spell she’d hated practicing, for it was the same spell she’d used on her parents. “Novaria.

Umbridge’s eyelids flickered, but she didn’t yet wake. Hermione dragged her forward into the powder room, and as she hauled Umbridge upright against the closed bathroom door, she removed the Muffliato and unlocked the door to the powder room again.

She turned back to Umbridge. Confundo, she thought, flicking her wand. Rennervate.

Umbridge’s eyes flew open.

“I said,” Hermione said, frowning, “your dress robes are lovely.”

Umbridge’s wide, pouchy face still looked disoriented. For a long, horrible second, Hermione was worried the false memories hadn’t taken—that Umbridge remembered something other than washing her hands at the sink, opening the door, and, after a brief moment’s dizziness, being greeted by a compliment from Marilea Linhardt.

Then Umbridge’s expression cleared. “Thank you,” she said, with a wide-eyed look at Hermione’s robes that clearly said she didn’t feel the same about Hermione’s appearance.

Then she trotted out of the powder room. She wobbled for a moment at the door, which alarmed Hermione, but she seemed to shake it off.

She was gone. It was done.

Hermione’s mouth opened, and she drew several long, deep breaths. Her heart was beating as if she’d just sprinted miles, but triumph flooded through her. The plan had gone exactly as they’d hoped, and the Horcrux was warm against her breast. They had it. The locket was theirs. Now the only thing was to make their excuses and leave the grounds, and no one would be the wiser.

But when she left the powder room, Draco was stationed against the opposite wall again.

Her heart dropped. She hadn’t imagined the panic in his eyes. Something had gone wrong, before—they weren’t meant to have any contact after her encounter with Umbridge, not until they were outside the manor.

“Excuse me,” she said to Draco, “I’ve been told this house has a bust of Callalya the Catastrophic. Could you direct me to it?” Their code for a private place to speak.

“Right this way,” he said.

“I’ve got the locket,” she whispered as she followed him down the hall toward the foyer.

He glanced down at her and nodded once.

Hermione’s heart beat harder. He hardly even seemed pleased that they’d done it, that they’d gotten the object they’d been striving for months to steal.

As they passed through the foyer, Hermione realised one of the Greengrass Guards’ eyes were following them. Draco was leading her not back into the ballroom, but toward a side hall, where another catering employee was carrying a tray of empty glasses. Guests probably weren’t meant to be in this area.

But Draco had noticed, too. “I’m so sorry the refreshments weren’t up to your standard,” he said—not very convincingly, Hermione thought. He sounded almost sarcastic. Of course, Draco Malfoy pretending to work in the service industry had been a ridiculous mismatch all along.

“I don’t need your apologies,” she said coldly as they passed the suspicious guard. “I want to tell Ms. Spizzworth herself that I’ve never had such undercooked crab in my life. It’ll be a miracle if no one gets food poisoning. …”

Hermione thought she saw the Greengrass Guard give an irritated roll of the eyes, but the woman said nothing as they entered the side hall.

“What is it?” Hermione breathed. “What’s going on?”

“Just wait. Here.” Draco led her to a locked door and tapped the handle with his wand. Hermione’s feeling of foreboding increased as she looked down the steep stairs, which melted into total darkness.

Then Harry jogged up out of the dark, and even past his disguise, even in the half-light, she could see the panic on his face. “Come down,” he whispered. “Now.”

 


 

“What are we going to do?” Hermione moaned. Her eyes were wide and terrified.

Draco’s throat was tight as he leaned back against the wall. He still hadn’t had an epiphany about how to get the captives out of the house, and worse, the heavy door was still locked. Alohomora had failed to open it, as had three other unlocking spells, as had a series of cutting and blasting jinxes. They had, however, managed to pass a tray’s worth of hors d’oeuvres and two large glasses of water through the barred window, which Luna and Ollivander were in the process of wolfing down.

They hadn’t told the pair Draco’s identity, which could be plucked out of Luna’s or Ollivander’s heads if an escape attempt went wrong. To their knowledge, he was still Aidan March, sympathiser. However, they had shown Luna and Ollivander the slip of paper with the address of headquarters. Under the bounds of the Fidelius Charm, only Weasley could transfer the secret to a new party in speech, sign, or script—so even if Bellatrix used Legilimency on the captives, she wouldn’t be able to find the cottage. The memory of the paper would seem obscured and hazy.

“You’re sure you never heard them using a specific spell to get inside?” Potter asked Luna and Ollivander.

“No,” said Luna. “They tap the door with their wands, that’s all.”

“So it’s nonverbal,” Harry muttered. “We just need to land on the right spell, then.”

“No,” rasped a voice from inside the cell. Luna’s face disappeared from the window, and after a moment’s scraping, Ollivander’s face appeared. He was breathing hard from the effort of standing upright, and every second or two, muscles twitched beneath his thin, wrinkled skin. “I … believe it to be … a wand-native locking spell.”

“Oh, Merlin,” Hermione whispered.

“A what?” said Potter.

“A wand-native locking spell,” Hermione said. “It’s a fairly advanced spell—it ensures that a magical barrier can only be unlocked by certain wands.” She hesitated, biting her lip so hard that Draco saw her lipstick transferring to her teeth. “In this case, the Death Eaters’ wands.”

Draco looked from Hermione to Potter. They couldn’t actually be considering this. Absolutely not. “No,” he said, hating how his voice sounded high and scared.

“We have to try,” Potter said.

“We can’t,” Draco said sharply. “Even if we do steal a wand from the most dangerous people in this place and get the door open, what are we meant to do after that? We’ll get ourselves killed. How does that help anyone?”

Hermione looked conflicted. “It does seem likely we’d all be caught,” she said in a near-whisper.

“We won’t be,” Potter insisted. “They flew in some of the equipment on brooms. We’ll Disillusion Luna and Ollivander. It’s dark enough now that they won’t be seen in the grounds. Then we take a few of those brooms and fly through the gate to avoid a standoff with the guards.”

“We’d still need a way onto the grounds, though,” Hermione said. “You saw the Caterwauling Charm go off earlier. This must be the real reason that Charm’s in place. … We can’t sneak out through a window or side door. We’ll have to leave through the front entrance, and Disillusionment definitely won’t fool the guards in the foyer.”

“What you’ve done is very good,” said Luna appreciatively, looking Hermione and Harry over. “Are you disguised too, Aidan? You don’t sound as old as you look. I would never have known Muggles could do this kind of Transfiguration.”

“Yeah,” Draco said, “but the man who did it is in London, so he’s not much use.”

But Hermione was frowning into t