Draco could feel his heart in his throat, a violent, pulsing thing beating against the thin skin there in a way that was almost, but not quite, painful. He pressed an unconscious hand to the spot, as though to will it to slow down, but it was a fruitless effort. He might have never been willing to admit it aloud, but he was scared; his heart would slow for nothing.
The path leading from Hogsmeade Station was narrow and twisting, and his feet ached from constantly tripping over tree roots that had grown into it – and that was after he had had to Apparate several miles outside of Hogsmeade in the first place. It had been a precautionary measure, in case the Death Eaters had replaced their Caterwauling Charm on the village, and Shacklebolt had probably been right to suggest that course of action. But still – Draco felt he was somewhat entitled to complain.
How had he allowed himself to be dragged into this mess in the first place? He could have refused, could he not? He could have allowed himself to remain shut up in the old Weasley bedroom, smelling of sand and saltwater and something he thought might have been mothballs. But his parents were still here, and in some way borne of hearing all his life that blood was important, he knew he needed to do something to try and save them. Even if it failed in the process.
There was something momentous about this night, and having a part in it, even just being alive to witness it at all. After several more days of extensive planning and even more extensive arguing among the residents of Shell Cottage (those both voluntary and otherwise), their plan was in action, and if everything went right, tonight could very well end the war. Draco could hardly remember a time when he could have said that with any degree of seriousness; even before the Dark Lord’s return, war had still permeated the air in thin, whispered wisps.
From a nearby fir, some sort of bird let out a loud cry that sounded a bit like a cackle, and Draco jumped. The Invisibility Cloak slipped a bit over his head, and he carefully used the hand not gripping his wand to reposition it a bit. It was another thing Shacklebolt had insisted on, although slightly more questionable, and Draco wasn’t entirely uncomfortable wearing it, especially knowing as he did that its original owner was dead…
He didn’t want to think about it. He might have hated Potter, might have done everything in his power to beat him in every scholastic aspect, but it was still weird to think of someone so young – someone who, in essence, he had grown up with – dead.
Quite suddenly, he rounded the last familiar bend (it seemed to take so much longer when he wasn’t riding in a carriage from the train station), the great iron gates leading into Hogwarts rose up before him. He stopped walking, even though the rational part of his brain told Draco that nobody could see him, even if they were looking; it was, after all, an Invisibility Cloak.
Then again, he didn’t want to underestimate the power of any of the people behind those gates.
Something moved in the thick shadows nearest the edge of the iron rails, and Draco’s heart started to thump, if possible, with even more pressing urgency. The shadows manifested themselves into the shape of a person as he squinted.
“Who’s there?” It was Goyle – Goyle, of all people, still sounding thick and slow, even now. Goyle lifted a massive hand and scratched the side of his nose absently, his wand held loosely at his side, a thin shape in the rapidly-falling twilight.
“What did you hear?” Draco faintly recognized this other voice, too, although he couldn’t place a face to it at the moment; no doubt it was one of the many, many Death Eaters his father had allowed under the roof of Malfoy Manor at one time or another in the past year, begging scraps of news from whoever he could glean them from in his exile.
“Footsteps,” Goyle managed at last, the words sounding as though it had taken some amount of effort to produce them in the first place. Draco had to fight hard against rolling his eyes, though he didn’t really know what was stopping him from doing so.
“Doesn’t matter anyway, does it?” the second voice said, the condescension of the words leading the concealed boy to suspect that Goyle’s companion was rolling his eyes, too. “No one can get through that gate, not unless the Dark Lord’s marked ‘em.”
A small bell seemed to ring in Draco’s head: This is your moment, it pealed. Steeling his nerve somewhat, he crept closer to the iron, Goyle’s retort somewhat lost in the rush of blood pounding through his eardrums. As quietly as he could manage without being seen, he freed his left arm from the folds of the Cloak and slowly pressed his arm to the cold metal.
With a great creak, the gates began to swing out toward him.
“What did you go and open the gates for?” Goyle’s companion cried out in a panic, rounding on him, still not seeing Draco tucked away in a particular thick shadow made from one of the stone boar-topped pillars.
“I didn’t –“
This seemed to Draco to be as good an opportunity to act as any; the small warning bell between his ears was making itself known again, perhaps. In a flash, he yanked the Cloak off his person, stuffing it down the front of his robes, and pointed his wand at the second, less-distinct figure standing next to his old school friend.
The man’s wand flew through the air, a darker shape against the already-dark sky, and was lost to the trees lining the path leading back towards Hogsmeade; Draco made no move to catch it. Both Goyle and the man Draco had disarmed whirled on him. Goyle’s lips began to form Draco’s name, but the other man spoke first.
“HEY! What the devil –“
“Stupefy!” The nameless man, still enraptured in the anger of having his wand yanked from him, was not prepared for the Stunning Spell. The red jet of light hit him square in the chest, and he paused for a few moments, mouth hanging wide, before collapsing in an undignified heap to the ground.
“M-Malfoy?” Draco hated the fear in Goyle’s voice as he turned to him next. His mouth was set in a firm, resigned line. “But… where have you been? Your mum’s been worried sick –“
“There’s something I’ve got to do,” the blonde boy interrupted, flicking his eyes once to the ground before glancing back up at the hulking boy, confused-looking as ever. “Sorry, Goyle.”
But he wasn’t sorry – not really. Draco pointed his wand at his old friend’s chest and repeated, “Stupefy.” In an even less graceful fashion, Goyle slumped onto the hard-packed dirt, unconscious before his head collided with the ground.
Without looking back, Draco began his march up towards the castle.
George groaned as Ron’s trainer squeaked on the old, sandy floorboards of the sitting room of Shell Cottage for the umpteenth time. “Merlin’s beard,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “If you’ve got to pace like that, could you at least be quiet about it?”
Ron shot his older brother a filthy look, but quit his movements all the same. George doesn’t understand, he thought sourly, shoving his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans only to remove them again seconds later, wiggling them impatiently. He just doesn’t get it…
But whatever else was wrong with George (and Ron was on his way to thinking up a few prime examples) was lost for the time being; Kingsley Shacklebolt poked his head into the room. George stood up from the armchair he’d been occupying at once; across the room, Percy, who had been watching his brothers squabble silently, rose to his feet as well.
“It’s been an hour,” said the tall, dark wizard shortly. “That’s how long we were supposed to give Draco. Let’s go.”
Once in sight of the castle, under the Invisibility Cloak once more, Draco was almost surprised at how easy it was to slip by people unnoticed. There wasn’t a lot of activity at this time of night, anyway, and he wondered, for an idle moment, where everyone was. In London, probably, or at least not here – surely the victorious didn’t sleep amongst the rubble and ruin, did they?
From gaining entrance to the castle, he had found the stores of Polyjuice Potion quite easily, something that surprised even him. Off the entrance hall was a small cupboard that had once held brooms and half-empty bottles of Mrs. Skower’s All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover, presumably for Filch’s use, although the old caretaker had seemed to spend more time yelling at students than cleaning in Draco’s days at school.
In any case, someone had had the bright idea (or possibly the not-so-bright idea) to turn the supply cupboard into the potion stores, and the shelves had been lined with dozens of small bottles of varying colors, all resembling thick sludge behind the glass.
Draco didn’t really want to think about why the potions where there, and what use the old potions stores in the dungeons were now being used for. He had grabbed two of the bottles without looking at their disturbingly fresh-written labels, slipped them into one of the inner pockets of his robes, and was now pressing on across the rock-strewn entrance hall once more. He would start in the dungeons; that was where the Slytherin common room was, and he was familiar enough with the corridors there. Perhaps he would be lucky.
The emptiness made the noise of his shoes on the badly-cracked flagstones sound like small explosions. He winced a bit as he brushed up against a small pile of stone, sending loose pebbles clattering to the floor, and instinctively clutched his wand tighter in his hand. His palms were slick and sticky with sweat, but it somehow didn’t feel right to wipe them on the Cloak; and, anyway, he wasn’t sure it would help.
The archway leading onto the stone steps to the dungeons was a gaping, blackened mouth in the dim hall; Draco had never seen it this dark in the cavernous room before. The torches along the walls were cold in their sockets, little more than twisted hunks of metal. He chanced a glance around the deserted space, nerves creeping coldly into the pit of his stomach, and decided to take the risk.
“Lumos.” The tip of his wand flared, blue-white light nearly blinding him. He wondered if the light was invisible, concealed by the Cloak as it still was, but Draco didn’t at that moment feel like performing the necessary minor experiment to check. Holding his breath without quite realizing he was doing so, he started down the stone steps.
The air was cold – not quite cold enough for Ron to be able to see his breath in front of him, but getting there. Thinking idly that it really shouldn’t be this cold in late June, even after the sun went down, he thrust his hands into the pocket of his jacket, the backs of his knuckles scraping uncomfortably on the zippers that held them closed.
The rest of the Shell Cottage group was fanned out behind a small row of people at the front. Ron stood between his father and Kingsley; on Arthur Weasley’s other side was Bill, with George next to him. Percy stood on Kingsley’s other side, followed by Ginny. Only Fleur and Molly Weasley were absent from the line.
A row of Weasleys, prepared to fight.
“We’ll not make any moves until Draco’s returned,” Kingsley murmured suddenly; it was an unnecessary proclamation, as they all knew the plan by heart now. From the light cast by an unknown wand, Ron saw his father swallow once, and nod. Kingsley turned over his shoulder to repeat the order, in slightly louder tones, to the rest of the group at large. It was unnervingly quiet, to have so many people there and for them to be saying almost nothing.
Ron’s breath hitched in his throat. Draco will bring her back, he thought desperately, swiping furtively at the hot tears that sprang to his eyes without his wanting for them to.
He’ll bring her back to me.
Draco’s instinct had not failed him before, and they did not fail him now. The further he wound into the damp, narrow dungeon corridors, the more certain he felt that something was down here, only it didn’t occur to him until it was too late to retreat that he didn’t quite know what that something was.
He rounded the corner that led into the corridor where Potions classes had once been held, and the familiar smell – water and stone and a faint undercurrent of something unpleasant that was probably mould – made him shiver involuntarily. Something once as innocent as attending classes had now turned into a search for Granger, and anyone else who might be alive. It was a sobering thought.
The light from the illuminated tip of the wand in his hand bounced oddly off the walls, and then, quite distinctly, Draco heard a person cough – a sick, wheezing cough. His heart stuttered, and he froze where he walked, one hand splayed against the wall as though to keep him upright. “Who’s there?” his voice ventured bravely into the dark.
The cough came again, somewhat more restrained this time, as though whoever was sick was trying hard to hide it.
“I’m not playing.” The fear in his voice was masked with bravery that he very much did not feel. “Tell me your name.” He held his wand higher, and a gasp escaped from his throat. Where doors had once studded the stone walls, entrances into progressively creepier dungeons, were now thick stone bars with minute cutaways. Prison bars.
A female voice, further down the corridor; Draco moved toward it instinctively, wand held in front of him, the tiny light at its tips shaking only slightly. Whether the movement of his hands was natural or fear-induced, he couldn’t say, and even now he berated himself for having to feel fear at all.
Draco stopped in front of the cell where the voice had come from, and, wondering even as he did it if it was a bad idea, drew the Invisibility Cloak from his head. The fabric slithered to the ground, more fluid than solid material, and between the bars, the face of a figure swam into view.
“Granger,” Draco said dully. Hermione blinked back at him, and then lowered her chin onto her arms, propped on her knees, a posture she adopted so readily it was evident she had adopted it often these past few weeks. He saw, with a sick thud of horror he wished he didn’t feel, that her wrist looked oddly bent and broken.
“What do you want?”
Draco made a little sound of impatience in his throat and did not answer; he offered up a silent wish (though he wasn’t sure who or what he was wishing to) that what he was about to do would work. He raised his forearm and, once more, pressed it to the bars; with a rusty-sounding creak, the door popped open, and he seized the tiny rectangular section and pushed it the rest of the way, widening the opening.
“Get up,” he said, not really caring that he sounded a bit rude. He wasn’t all that surprised when she didn’t acquiesce his request; she had no reason to trust him. “I’m getting you out,” he snapped, and, reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out one of the tiny bottles of Polyjuice Potion. “Drink this.”
“What -?” Hermione made as though she was about to climb to her feet – a step in the right direction – but stopped. “What are you doing?”
“There’s no time to explain, all right?” Draco hissed; he imagined he could hear footsteps, in some far distant part of the dungeon, even while he knew that he was imagining it. “Look, just –“ He made a noise of frustration deep in his throat. “You have to believe me.”
He didn’t think it would work. But somehow, in a strange, somewhat convoluted way, Draco saw a shift in her eyes, dully lit by the Lumos charm; she stretched out a hand for the bottle, and he tipped it into her palm. Breaking the wax seal and lifting the cork from the stopper with a small pop, she tipped her head back and drained the contents.
Draco closed his eyes; he hated seeing the transformation those who had taken Polyjuice underwent. And when he opened his eyes, Lavender Brown, another Gryffindor who had been in Draco’s year at school, stood before him. The last time he had seen her, she had been small and frail in death, a white sheet being pulled over her face.
Hermione – or Lavender, rather – wore a slight expression of shock on her face, as though she, too, knew the significance of having been given that particular face to wear for the evening. Her hands (the wrists attached to them whole and unbroken) shook slightly as she pushed a strand of hair away from her face. Wordlessly, the pair of them made to exit the cell, Draco stooping to pick up the fallen Invisibility Cloak.
“Wait,” Hermione said suddenly, laying Lavender’s slim, pale hand on his shoulder to stop him. “Oliver. He’s in the next cell over.” There was a pause; Draco just looked at her a bit helplessly, unsure what it was that she was asking him to do. “We can’t leave him,” she added desperately.
Draco groaned as loud as he dared; the thick silence down here made him feel as though any noise could be heard by the entirety of the castle. “Fine,” he spat savagely. He knew, somewhere within him, that his mission had been to save anyone else he could find, too. But now that he’d found Granger, all he wanted to do was get the hell out of Hogwarts and back to the Shell Cottage group, who were, he hoped, now assembled near the castle gates.
Rummaging in his pocket, he thrust the second phial of Polyjuice at Hermione, who barely caught it. “Hold that,” he ordered, and yanked the left sleeve of his robes up, preparing to lay his Mark on the bars again. As he did so, his lit wand shone on the bottle in Hermione’s hands, so that, for the first time, he could read the label.
A/N: Oops. I completely and fully intended to post this chapter yesterday... and then, for one reason or another, it completely slipped my mind until Wednesday had almost turned into Thursday. I feel really bad for missing my two-week window (and I keep pushing that window back!), but I've decided to post the next chapter in just under two weeks, to make up for it. Sorry, everyone!
So, what did you think of this chapter, yeah? This is the first in a series of four chapters (eleven through fourteen) that focus on the climax of the story! Yeah, we're there! And then fifteen is a denouement of sorts. I'm very excited for you guys to read them all, though! And thank you, as always, for all the reviews and reads and favorites this story's garnered so far. 178 reviews for 10 chapters, as it sits right now, is just so, so incredible. You all are fantastic!