The castle was eerily calm the following evening. With a crisp autumnal chill in the air, nearly everybody had retired to their common rooms straight after dinner. Ernie and I had gone to the library in an attempt to kill some time before we had to go by getting some homework done; but neither of us could concentrate. I hadn't told him what I would be doing with Neville, Luna, and Ginny, but we went over the breakout plan in very hushed tones until we noticed Anthony and Padma get up to leave.
Leaving the books on the table with two blank pieces of parchment - and thanking Merlin that Madam Pince wasn't about to see us do so - we strolled out of the library and attempted to appear completely casual as we followed Anthony and Padma down the corridor.
"Make sure you keep checking," I reminded, pointedly flicking my gaze to Ernie's pocket to indicate his coin ."You know what to do if-"
"Yes, Hannah," Ernie smiled fondly at me. "I know. Now who's the protective one, eh?"
I smirked, "Yeah, well, I told your parents two years ago that I would keep you out of trouble."
"Nice to know that they trust you more than me."
I raised my eyebrows at him, but felt the smile drain from my face when I noticed Anthony and Padma turn to go down another corridor, both of them glancing back at me. This was where I went a different way.
"You'll be okay, won't you?" Ernie checked.
"I'll be fine, I'm well away from all the action," I lied, trying to sound as bitter as I would feel if it were really true. I hesitated, pulling Ernie to a stop at the corner and checking that the corridor was clear before pulling him into a hug.
"Listen," I whispered into his ear. "Don't let yourself get seen. Don't get hurt, and don't be a hero," I pulled back, leaving a peck on his cheek as I did, "And - do me a favour - make sure that Susan's safe too, won't you?"
Ernie smiled, placing a hand on my cheek, "I'll be fine," he assured. "And I promise to keep Susan under guard at all times."
I returned a weak smile, feeling terrible about lying to him when he was being so sweet to me. But then again, I reminded myself as we parted ways, if he did know what I was going to do, he would only try to stop me.
Slipping my hands into my pockets and curling my fingers around my wand as I walked noiselessly through the school, I repressed a yawn. I hadn't been able to sleep the previous night, kept awake by a mind buzzing with all the new information I had just received; going over what I had to do at what time, trying to figure out what Gryffindor's sword might've been needed for, attempting to push the feeling of Neville's eyes on me to the back of my mind...
I came to a stop at the corner of the corridor that led to the Headmaster's office, an uncomfortable feeling slowly swelling in my stomach as I waited for the others to appear. My heart pounded as two young Gryffindor girls passed by, one of them flashing me a small smile, the other rather scowling. I didn't bother dwelling on whatever I'd done to deserve that, too busy worrying. Where on earth was-
"Ginny!" I gasped, and I couldn't stop myself from throwing my arms around her, my cheeks flushing with relief rather than embarrassment.
"I know, sorry," Ginny whispered as I freed her, a small laugh in her voice at my reaction. "Some Slytherins were picking on this little Hufflepuff girl - Neville and Luna are sorting it now, but I came to meet you so you didn't think we'd forgotten about you."
"I didn't think that." I lied.
"They shouldn't be long," Ginny continued, glancing over her shoulder. "They were quite young, and Neville tends to make quick work of bullies these days."
I smiled fondly, fiddling idly with the ends of my hair. "Amazing, isn't it? How different he is now..."
"I don't really think there's much difference," Ginny grinned, watching me closely. "He's still the same old Neville, just with a bit of added confidence and some more practice with spellwork. He's still kind, still loyal," An expression of knowing flitted across her face, "Still useless with girls..."
Much to my dismay, I felt my cheeks immediately heat up. Was it really that obvious? Ginny was a smart girl, but nobody else seemed to have noticed...
"Listen, yesterday, when you saw us in the cupboard - we had just fallen over, it wasn't-"
"I know," Ginny cut me off. "Neville explained. But come on, Hannah. Touching your hair whenever somebody talks about him, the way you look at him, how your cheeks get a little pink when he looks at you - you are hiding it quite well, granted, but you forget that I had a crush on Harry for five years before anything happened."
"I... I didn't actually know that." I confessed.
Ginny smirked, "That's because I was a better liar than you are," she teased. "Either way, I know how to spot it, and you've got it. Don't worry, I won't tell him. Although the two of you would be almost revolting cute together."
I laughed softly, "Maybe, but he doesn't even l-"
I stopped short, the oddly calming effect my conversation with Ginny had given dropping with my stomach as the nerves returned at the sight of Neville and Luna.
"Sorry about that," Neville murmured. "Didn't feel right leaving her."
"Is the girl okay?" I asked.
"You guys, I'm really sorry, but..." Ginny tapped the face of her watch impatiently.
"Right, yeah," Neville mumbled, glancing at his own watch. "Gin, you'd better go hide. Be careful, okay?"
"I always am. Good luck, I'll see you in a bit!" Ginny said, a look of sheer determination now on her face as she gave Neville a pat on the arm and turned to hurry down the corridor.
Neville looked at Luna, then to me, giving me a weak smile, "You'll be okay, won't you?" he asked.
"Of course," I dismissed quickly. "I am just doing Prefect duties, after all.
He grinned, hesitated, then stepped forward to engulf me in a hug. My breath caught in my throat as I tried not to breathe in the smell of him, wrapping my arms carefully around his neck and burying my face into his shoulder. Sure, I'd hugged him lots of times, but this was different: not only had he been the one to initiate contact, but it was the way he held me. I could tell that he cared about me as a friend, that he felt (of course, unnecessarily) guilty about getting me involved, and that he wanted to keep me safe. Yet suddenly, I'd never felt so safe in all my life.
"Come on, you'd best go," I said reluctantly, pulling back from him and only then noticing how cold it was without him holding me.
"Disillusionment Charm!" Neville suddenly remembered, turning to Luna, who nodded and tapped her wand on top of his head. As invisibility seemed to trickle over him from head to toe, I felt the coin in my pocket turn icy cold.
"How do I look?" he asked me.
I smiled faintly at the space where he'd been, although I could still see glint of dark hair or scarlet tie when the light hit him differently as he moved, and I held up my coin.
"It's started," I said, looking to Luna as she tapped the tip of her wand on her own head and started to disappear. "Break a leg, Luna."
"Good luck, Hannah," came Luna's unwaveringly calm voice, as if she was just going for a leisurely stroll around the Headmaster's office. I caught the light changing slightly and could just about make her out as she crept away, absently adding, "Don't forget to watch out for Nargles..." as she went.
"... Neville?" I hissed to the empty corridor, unsure if he'd gone yet.
No reply. I sighed, but as I turned to glance back to see if I could spot Ginny, slipping my coin back in my pocket, I felt a hand very gently land on my arm. Then, with the kind of delicacy that wouldn't wake a baby, there was something on my cheek - one soft, warm pair lips. I felt my eyes widen slightly as heat bled across my face from my cheek and listened to the very quiet footsteps following Neville down the corridor.
It was a few painstakingly long minutes before a new pair of footsteps began to echo down the corridor and reverberate beneath my own feet. I gulped, then bent to rest on one knee, crouched over my feet as if to tie up my laces, hoping I'd just be ignored.
"You there!" called the voice of Alecto Carrow, her breathing slightly erratic, hurrying up to me. "You - did you do this?"
I slowly looked up at her from my foot, eyes wide with feigned confusion, despite the fear and utter dread of being caught out bubbling in my stomach. "Do what, Professor?"
"You know what - this!" Alecto waved an empty bag of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder in front of my face. "A-and that!" She gesticulated wildly in the direction she'd come from, "And everything!"
I almost begged for the fear to come back as I was suddenly hit with the most horrifying urge to laugh at how distressed she was. And I had thought that Deatheaters were constantly supposed to remain cool and collected!
"I'm just doing my Prefect rounds, Professor." I replied innocently, pretending to tighten the bow of my laces.
"Well you don't seem to be doing much, little miss Perfect Prefect," Alecto snapped, giving my a little kick in the side. "Now run along to your beddy bye before I rip that silly blonde ponytail from your head!"
I got back to my feet, my eyes firmly on her, making sure not to glance down the corridor where the others were hidden. This wasn't part of the plan - I couldn't just go, but what if she saw that I was still out when she came out of Snape's office?
"Yes, professor." I said after just a moment's hesitation, all too aware that there was no way I could argue with her.
Satisfied, she sneered at me and hurried on toward Snape's office, the empty Darkness Powder bag flapping furiously from her stubby fingertips. By the time she had reached the stone gargoyle and glanced back over her shoulder, I had edged back behind the corner, just out of sight. But I spotted her eyes narrow, and followed her line of vision until I saw a glimmer of something white, like light reflecting off a mirror. Neville's shirt. This was why Ginny and I had been left without disillusionment charms; they were tiring for Luna to perform, and yet hers were in no way advanced. Any sudden movement and they were near useless. Nevertheless, Alecto turned to the gargoyle, gave it the password, and rode the stairs to Snape's office without another backward glance.
There was a lump in my throat as I hovered around the corner, wondering what to do when she came out, hopefully with Snape in tow. I pulled the coin from my pocket again - no change. This was a good thing; it meant that nobody had been caught yet, But even so, I wished I knew what was going on with the others. I turned the coin over a few times, carefully watching the corridors and half-wondering if I should send out a message on the coins, asking what was going on. What if somebody had been caught and hadn't had a chance to send a message out? Of course, I realised quickly that this scenario wouldn't be helped at all by a blind message from me, and I slipped the coin away again.
The stone gargoyle began to shift again far sooner than I had expected. Panic immediately slapping me in the face, I held my breath and dived behind the nearest tapestry, pulling in all my limbs as tightly as I could and profusely thanking my gene pool for giving me a body so easy to tuck away.
As I hid, I caught a quick glimpse of black robes and a stern, pale face following on the heels of the stout, red-faced Carrow. Praying beyond hope that Neville and Luna had managed to slip into the Headteacher's office, I listened to the footsteps of Alecto and Snape grow fainter, hardly daring to breathe until I heard them turn the corner.
Suddenly feeling a circle of heat in my pocket, I pulled my coin out again; Ginny had sent out a message to the others, saying that Snape was on his way toward them. I ducked out from behind the tapestry to see if I could spot her, just hoping for a flash of red hair for a bit of comfort, but she was well-hidden. Feeling very much alone, I turned down the corridor Alecto and Snape had just gone down, and pointed my wand at the floor, leaving a strip of sticky gloop across the stone.
I had Justin to thank for that one. Back in fourth year, we'd had a test one day in Charms that I was completely unprepared for. He leant me his notes at breakfast, but I was complaining that there wasn't enough time to remember it all. So, while Ernie and I went over the section I was particularly struggling with as we made our way to the classroom, Justin had left strips of this sticky gloop behind us in the corridors surrounding Flitwick's room. It hadn't delayed the professor very long, but it had given me a bit of extra revision time, and after the class Justin taught me the spell.
I sighed quietly, hoping Neville and Luna wouldn't take much longer. Whenever I was on my own for too long, I always started thinking about Justin and Dean and all of the people that should have been there with us, fighting Snape and the Carrows. I would start worrying and overthinking and quickly my train of thought would inevitably end up where it always seemed to: my mother. And even though I knew that it was good to remember, at night I still often dreamt of her, and... well, whenever she filled my head too much, I always felt a little blinded. Like I'd focused so hard on remembering that I had completely detached myself from reality. I didn't need that; especially when I had something as important as this to focus on.
But I didn't get a chance to get to that point. Far too soon - much sooner than any of us had expected - swift footsteps were echoing down the corridor again. At least three people, I distinguished, one or perhaps two of them significantly heavier. Then the sound of a thick, irritable voice. Snape, undeniably.
Feeling my pulse beat at my temple, I fumbled to pick the coin back out of my pocket. I couldn't hide behind the tapestry again - Snape was sure to notice me this time, being on the lookout for the others. So, with an idiotic disregard for my own safety, I merely charmed the coin to send a message to Neville, Luna, and Ginny as quickly as possible while the stickiness very temporarily slowed the teachers, then shoved the coin in my pocket and turned rushed toward Snape and the Carrows, this time both of them.
"Didn't I tell you to-" Alecto began, but I cut her off breathlessly.
"Professor Snape, I just saw Peeves - er- going into Filch's office. I think one of the fifth years put him up to it!"
A lie, and an awful one at that. But Snape seemed so distracted that he merely shooed me away and told Alecto to go check it out, much to her chagrin. I mouthed wordlessly for a moment, wracking my brain for some way to delay him further. When I didn't move aside, Snape looked down at me - although there was this preoccupied look in his eyes, like he was looking but not really seeing me.
"Amycus, escort Miss Abbott back to her dormitory, will you?"
Both Amycus and I went to object, but Snape was already gone and heading for the stone gargoyle, and then I was being dragged away by a vice-like grip on my arm. I struggled weakly for a moment, but there was nothing I could do now. Nothing but hope.