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Chapter 12: XII.
Hermione kept her eyes fixed on the back of Draco Malfoy’s head as he led her and Oliver up the narrow, almost claustrophobic staircase leading up from the Hogwarts dungeons. She wasn’t sure what to make of his sudden appearance, nor the claims he had made when he had appeared. A part of her wanted to believe that he was leading her away from the castle, but years of negative feelings toward him told her he couldn’t be trusted at all. He had a Dark Mark on his forearm, after all; that alone should have sent her running in the other direction.
But why shouldn’t he be the help she had so desperately wished for, alone and afraid in her tiny makeshift prison, for all these weeks? She glanced down at the wrist that was no longer her wrist – Lavender’s wrist, the nails on the hand attached to it painted an absurd shade of pink. Surely, she thought, Malfoy wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble to smuggle Polyjuice Potion down to her and Oliver if there wasn’t a measure of sincerity behind his actions.
Hermione felt a small, unpleasant squirm in the pit of her stomach as she examined her rose-colored nails. It wasn’t hard to guess why her bottle had been made from a bit of Lavender; she had last seen her former roommate lying prone on the floor of the Great Hall, ominously still beneath a white sheet. That she had turned into her, although shocking, was less surprising than Oliver’s having taken on the appearance of Dean Thomas.
She had found within herself, up until this point, a small manifestation of hope, clinging to the thought that, though she hadn’t heard from him since the Death Eaters had yanked him from the adjoining cell, he might still be alive. Logic and reasoning now spoke otherwise.
Malfoy paused at the final landing of the staircase, bracing a hand on the wall beside him and craning his neck up to where the entrance hall sat above the three of them. Hermione, who had been walking in a straight line between him and Oliver behind her, nearly ran her nose into his shoulder blade in the poor lighting. Harry’s Invisibility Cloak lay draped over his arm; she resisted the odd urge to snatch it from him, as though by right it belonged to her now.
“When we get up there,” the Slytherin boy said in a low voice, tipping his head in the direction of the staircase, “you act like absolutely nothing is amiss. Act as though I’ve been ordered to take you somewhere, whatever you like, but if you see anyone, act as though you’ve seen” – he paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts – “Goyle. Or… or my dad. Someone.”
From behind Hermione, Oliver spoke in Dean’s ever-cheerful voice; her heart seemed to physically wince at the sound. “Why Goyle?”
Malfoy shot him a nasty look. “Anyone, all right?” he said impatiently, his voice rising slightly. He turned around again, and the lit tip of his wand bounced off the damp stone walls, casting thick, strange shadows. “Do not make yourselves noticed, have you got that?”
Hermione looked down again at Lavender’s pink-painted fingernails, having to once more remind herself that it was not her body she occupied. Her shirt, torn and ragged from its continued use over the past few weeks, fit Lavender oddly. “Yes,” she said at last; she couldn’t get over the strange sensation of having someone else’s voice come out of her own mouth, though she was, for a brief instant, glad it wasn’t Bellatrix’s, in this case.
There was a short pause, and at long last, Draco nodded, turning himself around so that his back was to them once again. “All right,” he said. It sounded as though he were speaking to himself, instead of the prisoners behind him. With deliberate motions, he placed one foot on the bottom stair of this final flight and began to ascend, wand held tremulously over his head, as a crusader would lift his sword, riding into battle.
Hermione’s legs felt weak and quivery as she started up the steps after him, though she didn’t know whether that was from fear, or for simply not being able to walk more than a step at a time for goodness really knew how long. She could hear Oliver’s breathing behind her; it had increased, and she could tell that he, too, was scared of what the pair of them might find once they arrived in the entrance hall. She thought it might be nighttime (though there was no definitive way to mark the passing of a day in the dungeons; she wondered, for an absurd moment, how Professor Snape had survived it), but for all she knew, Death Eaters patrolled the castle continuously. Her heart climbed into her throat, choking what little breath she had left; for a moment, Hermione thought that fainting was a very real possibility.
And then they were there, clustered in the small archway, looking out onto Hogwarts for, in Hermione’s case, the first time in weeks. It was still badly battered with battle scars – heaps of stone and wood, scorches where spells had met resistance and glanced off – but it was Hogwarts.
“Blimey,” she heard Oliver mutter behind her. Malfoy glanced back at the pair of them, a sour expression only minimally masking the anxiety beneath it. A light sheen of sweat glistened on his high, pale forehead in the light from his wand.
“Not a sound,” he reminded them tightly. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, turned, and walked into the open with a confidence it was painfully evident he did not truly feel. Hermione glanced back at Oliver, who raised Dean’s slight shoulders in a half-shrug. She sucked in a quick breath and followed after him, head down: A demure prisoner, to anyone looking on who didn’t know any better.
There didn’t seem to be any sign of anyone in the entrance hall, as yet, as the trio slowly and carefully made their away across the hall, heading for the massive oak double doors at the end of it, leading back onto the grounds. Despite Malfoy’s admonishments to remain absolutely quiet, the breathing of the boy behind Hermione had, if anything, increased in loudness and rapidity. She turned around to warn him to stay quiet, and as she did so, her eyes traveled unconsciously upwards.
Hermione stopped walking at once. Her mouth gaped in horror; she lifted a tremulous hand to press against her lips, whispering against her skin, “Oh my God…”
She had not seen Harry since Hagrid had emerged from the forest, carrying his lifeless body. And now here that body was, still devoid of everything that life had given him, dangling above the hall like a grotesquely displayed trophy.
For a moment, Oliver didn’t seem to have noticed why Hermione had stopped; his feet moved impatiently over the floor, urging her own, the bottoms of his shoes scraping on loose bits of stone. But soon enough his eyes lifted to hers, and then traveled naturally upwards, to whatever it was that had caught her attention. He swore out loud, an instinctive and uninhibited reaction.
“It doesn’t matter –“ Malfoy was hissing, having realized that the pair of them no longer followed behind him. He started back towards them, as though to herd them onwards, when a small pinprick of light flared into existence on the grand staircase, on the first landing, just before it curved out of sight.
Hermione recognized the voice as being one of the men who had frequently patrolled the small dungeon corridor, though she still had no idea what his name was. Like Draco, he held his wand high above his head, trying to cast as much light on the scene as possible. Oliver swore again, though more softly, and bowed his head deferentially. Hermione did the same; her heart was beating with painful speed.
“What’re you doing here?” said the stranger suspiciously. “I haven’t seen you around much since the victory.” His voice grew louder as he stepped nearer and nearer. “Are those prisoners?”
“My business has nothing to do with your patrols, Jugson,” Malfoy said venomously; he was doing a very good impression of lying, if indeed he had been missing in action from the scene around Hogwarts. Somehow, the fact that he had turned up outside her cell with Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, of all things, indicated to her that he hadn’t been in the vicinity of the castle.
She chanced a quick glance upwards; Jugson’s brow was low over his forehead, casting dark shadows into the spaces beneath his eyes. He’s one of the men from the Department of Mysteries two years ago, she thought wildly, the thought popping unbidden into her head; now that she had seen his face, his voice was instantly recognizable.
“Well, then,” he was saying now, lowering his wand in infinitesimal increments, “where are they headed?” Jugson jerked his thumb carelessly at Hermione and Oliver. “Need any help with ‘em?”
“No,” Malfoy said coolly. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then added, “There’s a labor job beside the lake. Father instructed me to bring them there.”
Hermione held her breath, but the answer seemed to satisfy Jugson. He turned to head back up the staircase, back to whatever he had been ordered to guard before his attention had been caught by Malfoy, Hermione, and Oliver, standing transfixed by the sight of Harry’s dead body. Letting out his own breath in one relieved rush, Malfoy turned to head back toward the doors, as well.
And at that exact moment, there was a shout from the archway they had just used to escape the dungeons; a shriek of rage that made the hairs on the back of Hermione’s neck stand straight up. Bellatrix Lestrange was standing there, her eyes wide and terrified at the sight of the three people standing in front of her.
“Stop them!” she shrieked. As she moved forward, something in her hand caught the light: A small glass phial, identical to the ones Malfoy had brought the Polyjuice Potion in. Oliver’s eyes widened in horror at it. She felt as though her feet had been cemented to the spot; she couldn’t have moved for the world.
And Bellatrix shot a spell at them. The Killing Curse, Hermione thought at once, her thoughts almost detached from the rest of her – but the jet of light was icy blue. It hit them like a wave of solid water, and then it was water.
And, dripping wet, Hermione looked down and saw her own hands, her own unpainted fingernails. She looked at Oliver; he looked as he always had at school, no trace of Dean Thomas left on him. Somehow Bellatrix had torn away the potion’s front, through something like the Thief’s Downfall, in Gringotts –
“RUN!” bellowed Malfoy, and she didn’t stop to question it anymore. Feet skidding on loose rock and plaster, Hermione hurled herself at the doors leading out of the castle, Oliver pounding along behind her. She was terribly conscious of the fact that neither of them held wands as, from seeming nowhere, two faceless Death Eaters loomed up before them. The one on the right raised his wand, aiming it straight at her heart - she squeezed her eyes shut without thinking –
From behind a massive pile of stone, Charlie Weasley emerged, his wand pointed at the offending Death Eater. He slammed into the door, his head making a sickening cracking sound as he did so, and he slumped to the floor, quite unconscious.
“Hermione!” Charlie called over to her. “Get out! NO! STUPEFY!” The second Death Eater had been making for Oliver; with another Stunning Spell, he was rendered as helpless as his friend. In the dull, clanging background, she could hear Malfoy and Bellatrix, hurling spells at each other.
She had so many questions, all at once. What had he been doing, hiding out in the Great Hall? How had he gotten away in the first place? Did he know anything about what the rest of his family was up to? But there was no way she could ask him any of these questions, and she didn’t think she would ever know the answer to them. Malfoy was backing toward the double doors, and he made a sort of shooing motion at her with his hand.
With a desperate last look at Charlie that she hoped was enough to convey her thanks, Hermione ran for the doors. Oliver had one of them halfway open, and she rammed her shoulder against it alongside him, trying to force it further open.
“Behind the backs of your own family, Draco?” Bellatrix was panting, accusation lacing the hysterical laughter in her voice. “We have raised you better –“ Her words were drowned out as she ducked one of Malfoy’s spells; it cracked a newly-repaired banister.
“Malfoy, go!” It was Charlie again; Hermione spat out a mouthful of hair as she twisted herself around, watching without being able to help it. He had clambered up from his hiding place and had trained his wand on the older woman, surprisingly calm. “I’ll hold her off.”
Malfoy didn’t need to be told twice; as his aunt cackled again with laughter, this time disbelieving, he scrambled for the doors. With a final push, it had cracked open enough for a person to squeeze through, and Malfoy dived through it first.
Oliver stood back to let Hermione go through, but she was still watching Charlie. Bellatrix had ducked his last spell and slashed at the air in front of her; thick, black coils of rope sprang into existence, lunging themselves at Charlie.
“Move! Move!” Oliver shouted, his voice high-pitched and panicky. The ropes wrapped themselves around Charlie’s legs, and he crumbled, hitting the stone hard –
She felt her shoulder being roughly shoved, and then she was through the door, and Oliver was squeezing through behind her. The last glimpse she had of the second-oldest Weasley brother was that of him lying prone on the ground, Bellatrix triumphant over him, and then she was off and running blindly, because there was nothing else that could be done.
A/N: I told you that the action would increase with these last few chapters! I kind of wish I could just post everything right now, and just let everyone read what happens -- I had a lot of fun writing these climactic bits at the end. There are only three more chapters to go after this, too -- roughly six weeks before I can mark this story as completed!
I know I say this a lot, and it'll sound a bit like a broken record -- but seriously. The amount of support this story's gotten overwhelms me, and I'm so, so grateful to everyone who's taken the time even to read this story. If I didn't have readers, I wouldn't be writing now, and I know that. You all are fantastic!