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Chapter 26 : 26.
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The next morning Hermione woke to a muffled growling coming from the opposite side of the tent. Alarmed, she reached for her wand, lighting it as she did so to reveal Malfoy’s white-blonde head, one arm slung across his face. The growl sounded again, and Hermione laughed quietly in relief. Boys. Their stomachs are as big as their mouths. Getting up, she went to the stove and started preparing breakfast.
“Merlin Granger, bang those pans a little louder, would you?”
“It’s 7 o’clock Malfoy, we need to get going…unless you’d rather sleep longer and skip breakfast?” She heard his stomach growl again. Malfoy grumbled as he heaved himself out of bed.
“I’ll be in the shower.”
Not bothering to hide her smirk, Hermione returned to grilling the oatcakes she’d brought along for their journey.
“And there’s no need to smirk like that Granger.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said archly.
With a dark glare, Draco grabbed his towel and marched into the bathroom.
10 minutes later, Hermione was at the table eating oatcakes and drinking coffee. Not my favorite meal, she thought to herself. She never had been a good cook.
Freshly showered, Malfoy walked out of the bathroom toweling his hair. Hermione looked at the beads of water dripping down his neck and into his robes. Why does he have to be so damned attractive? She turned away and busied herself getting more coffee.
“Where’s mine?” Draco demanded.
“Do I look like your house elf? Oatcakes are in the pan. Coffee is in the pot.”
With extreme dignity, Malfoy conjured a plate and helped himself to the remaining oatcakes and coffee. Hermione studied him curiously. It was obvious he wasn’t used to serving himself, from the way he fumbled with the spatula to his clumsy handling of the coffee pot.
“What’s it like?” she asked.
“What’s what like?”
“Having someone do everything for you.”
“It’s great,” he answered automatically. “Lifestyles of the rich and fabulous, you know.”
“Why are you asking anyway? It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m just curious.”
Prepared to drop it, Hermione finished her coffee and stood up.
Draco sighed. “Disempowering.”
“That’s what it’s like,” he said shortly.
“Oh,” Hermione said quietly. “Well, I’m a horrible cook, and…”
“It’s different,” Draco cut in. “I don’t know how to make a bed, or start a stove. If I hadn’t come to Hogwarts, I would hardly know how to dress myself.”
Angrily, he swigged the last of his coffee and vanished the plate and mug. “We should go. D’you know how much longer is it to the cave?”
“According to the map, we’re about 2 hours out.”
He nodded. In a short time, they’d packed everything up and were once again following the narrow path through the forest. Rested and refreshed, they set a good pace.
“Ok, let’s slow down a little bit,” Hermione cautioned. “I think we should be coming up on the waterfall any time now…”
“Can I see the map?” Malfoy asked.
“Here.” She handed it to him and took a grateful break as he leaned over it.
“It’s over here to the left somewhere, off the trail about a mile. I wonder if it’s marked?” he mused.
“I doubt it. I think whoever it was that discovered the cave and wrote the map wanted to make this place as hard to find as possible,” she said.
“Should we step off the trail now?” he asked. “It looks like we’re standing by this big oak that’s marked on the path, but I can’t be sure…”
“Only one way to find out!” Hermione said briskly.
“Never knew you to be much of a risk-taker Granger,” Malfoy smirked.
“I’m not, but there’s no scientific way to find out where exactly we are, so we may as well make a guess. An educated one, that is,” she added.
He rolled his eyes. “Of course. I’d never expect a guess of yours not to be an educated one.”
They pushed through some prehistoric-looking bushes and headed northeast, following Hermione’s compass toward the spot they expected the stream to be.
“Do you hear that?” Hermione asked.
Draco stopped and listened. “I think it’s water!” he said excitedly.
“I thought so!” Hermione beamed. “If we find the stream we find the waterfall!”
They found the stream in no time at all. With renewed energy, they pursued it against the current, pushing ever northward toward the dark smudge where the map marked the cave to be.
“Wow,” Hermione whispered.
Malfoy was frowning. “Well there’s the waterfall, but where’s the cave?” He turned the map upside down and tried peering at it through the light that streamed through the thick trees. Nothing. “Bollocks!” he swore. We’ve come so far, but not far enough…
He turned to Hermione and was infuriated to find her grinning. “What is it, Granger?” he growled. “What could possibly be funny?”
Now she did laugh. “Don’t be a twit. The cave is here – we have to go through the waterfall, remember? Or wait…maybe I forgot to tell you… Anyway, in the dream I had the water parted and then I saw the opals.”
He flushed. “Oh, er, right. I suppose I do remember you saying something about that…maybe. Well – gentlemen first.”
Hermione snorted under her breath. “What gentlemen?”
A shaft of mid-afternoon light fell perfectly on the roaring water, sending rainbow-caught spray hovering over giant boulders. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Hermione said.
“I guess so – but beauty can be dangerous,” Draco replied.
“I won’t disagree with you.” She glanced swiftly at his strong profile.
“Ok, how are we going to do this?” he muttered.
Skirting by him, Hermione moved toward the roaring falls, twirling her hair into a loose bun as she went. She put a hand out to steady herself against the rock face and set a cautious foot onto the closest boulder. “Aaaaah!” she squealed, scrabbling for a handhold as she felt her foot slip on the slick green moss.
“It’s alright, I’ve got you.” A wave of nostalgia came over Hermione as Malfoy’s hands circled her waist and held her fast, lifting her safely away from the waterfall and back onto the stream bank.
Panting, she met his eyes. “Thank you.”
He nodded, staring at her intensely. Swallowing hard, he slowly released her waist and stepped back. “You’re welcome,” he said quietly. Hermione stepped back as well, feeling like she was struggling to break free of an orbit that was pulling her ever closer to collision.
“I’ll go first,” Malfoy said decidedly.
“But if you fall, I won’t be able to catch you…” Hermione said worriedly.
“How do you know?” he asked with a solemn stare.
She bit her lip and shrugged, fighting a blush before clearing her throat. “Ok then,” she said shortly. “Just…just be careful, please.” The last word was a whisper.
“I’m always careful, Granger.” Just not always safe.
More agile and surefooted than she was, Draco leapt easily onto the large boulder and slipped through the water like a shadow, first performing a water-repelling charm.
In a moment he’d disappeared. Hermione took a deep breath before putting a leg back on the boulder and trying again to hoist herself up. An arm reached through the curtain of water and steadied her, pulling her forward. She didn’t resist as Malfoy swung her through the water and into the cave.
“Merlin, you can’t be more than 120 lbs. soaking wet,” he smirked once he’d set her down.
“123,” she said with dignity, straightening her robes while Malfoy chuckled. There was almost no light behind the waterfall. She pulled her wand out of her sleeve, but Malfoy beat her to it. He lit his wand and the cave burst into color, just as it had in her dream.
“By the blood of Merlin…” Malfoy said in awe.
It was like being trapped in a rainbow. The cave was shallow, but opals shimmered in every crevice, arcing up over the walls and ceiling. The floor alone was bare. Hermione didn’t know how long they stood there, frozen by the beauty of a thousand sparkling fire opals, more magical than anything they’d yet witnessed. Finally, Hermione shook her head and came to her senses. “Let’s gather as many as we can and get back to Hogwarts.”
“Right,” Draco said, focusing on their task. He walked to the nearest wall and grabbed hold of a particularly large opal, struggling to pry it from the surrounding dirt and stone.
“Here,” Hermione said. “It’s called a ‘pickaxe’…miners use them to dig for precious gems and such.”
“What’s a miner?” Malfoy asked.
“What’s a…? Oh, um, never mind.”
He looked at her curiously, but took the tool and didn’t ask any more questions.
“Ah-ha!” he said triumphantly, holding the brilliant stone in his hand.
A slow clapping came from the entrance of the cave, and Hermione gasped in horror.
“Well, well, well…isn’t this cozy?” Blaise Zabini lounged against the cave entrance, the opalescent colors playing across his face making him look more manic than before.
“Blaise,” Malfoy growled in surprise, already twirling his wand and getting into fighting stance. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"How did I escape a rundown greenhouse and a few worthless guards?" Zabini snorted. "Please Draco. I thought you knew me better than that. But I'll admit I did have a little...help."
A loud baying suddenly sounded outside the cave entrance.
“Werewolves!” Hermione said with another gasp.
Blaise laughed cruelly. “Always so clever, weren’t you Mudblood? I say ‘were’ – I have a feeling you won’t be alive after today.”
“Blaise, what do you want?” Malfoy spat between clenched teeth.
“Ah, Draco…my old…rival. We were never friends, were we? You made that perfectly clear. You know, I’d have been happy to let you live, but now I see that you’d be a liability to our cause.”
He stopped and shook his head, inching closer to them. Hermione braced herself and clutched her wand more tightly.
“Keeping company with a Mudblood…what would the Dark Lord say?”
Draco swallowed. Don’t lose focus.
“Fenrir!” Zabini called, and in a moment a gigantic werewolf with mottled gray fur leapt through the waterfall. Hermione bit her tongue to prevent a scream.
Then more shaggy shapes were cutting through the rushing water. Draco felt his wand hand start to tremble. There was no way they could escape. We’ll have to fight our way out.
Yes, but how?
Wait, what?? Draco and Hermione glanced at each other, baffled.
You can hear me? Malfoy asked her telepathically.
Yeeees…. You can hear me? She asked. He gave a slight nod before focusing again on their foes.
The little cave was packed. Draco and Hermione stood with their backs to the wall, a mere 10 feet from the half-moon of 8 werewolves and Blaise Zabini. Fenrir Greyback was by far the biggest werewolf in the pack, and, Hermione knew, the most deadly.
Do you have a plan? She asked Malfoy.
Stay alive? Draco suggested. He heard her snort in his head.
Thank you for that stunning contribution to our survival.
Anytime, Granger, an-y-time…
“Now, how should I kill you…?” Zabini mused. “Dismemberment is an option…” The werewolves slavered eagerly.
“Hmmm, but I have always had a special love for the Cruciatus.” Zabini’s eyes burned murderously in his gaunt face. He pretended to think for a minute: “Well as there’s two of you, I don’t see why I have to choose…I think I’ll dismember you,” he said, aiming his wand at Draco. “And I’ll torture you into insanity,” he added to Hermione. “Quite a blow to someone whose only source of pride has been her mind…” he laughed at Hermione’s stricken face.
Suddenly Hermione's features hardened and she ground her teeth together, tightening her grip on her wand. “Do you remember what I told you, Zabini? Earlier this year, outside of Hagrid’s cabin?” Her voice was a livid whisper. “I said I’d kill you one day.”
He laughed hysterically. “My, you are delusional aren’t you? Look around you! It’s 9 against 2…and 8 of my team are full-grown werewolves.”
Draco and Hermione looked at each other. Hermione smirked. Let’s see how well werewolves fight fire.
He smirked back and nodded. “NOW!” he shouted aloud, sending a curse flying at Blaise. Hermione honed in on the werewolves just as they leapt for her.
But she was ready for them. Her eyes glowed like molten lava. Both Draco and Zabini temporarily ceased their furious dueling to watch. Fenrir Greyback was in mid-leap as Hermione swept her right arm into a wide arc. When she twisted her palm around a long, fiery whip emerged. Greyback had time for one dismayed howl before she brought the whip lashing into him.
“What the….??!!” Zabini stared openmouthed as Fenrir’s head – severed and smoldering – rolled to his feet. But in half a second he was again battling Malfoy. They were evenly matched, dueling so fiercely Hermione couldn’t tell if she was feeling the heat of her whip or the heat of their curses, each seeking to kill. The remaining werewolves were circling Hermione warily. Two more had fallen to Hermione’s fiery scourge; now they’d learnt to be cautious.
One threw caution to the wind and howled viciously, striking at her with razor-sharp claws. Spinning swiftly, Hermione brought the whip lashing into the beast’s belly, but not before he’d hooked his claws in her wand arm.
Seeing their newest leader in his death throes, the rest of the werewolves turned and ran for the cave entrance.
“Malfoy!” Hermione called.
Temporarily disabling Blaise with a Jelly Legs hex, he turned toward Hermione’s cry, instantly comprehending her warning.
Gathering his strength, he threw the force of his mind at the waterfall as the first werewolf moved to leap through it. The wall of water transformed into a wall of ice. The unlucky werewolf slammed into it and fell to the cave floor, never to move again.
The last 3 turned now with howls of fear and fury. Barreling back, they got into fighting stance. The blow to Hermione’s arm had made her lose her fiery scourge, but she transferred her wand to her left hand and twirled it, testing the grip.
The werewolves were cowering toward the far wall, their growls intermingling with high-pitched whines. Malfoy and Zabini were still locked in a death-duel. Every so often missed curses would go ricocheting into the cave walls. With each hit more and more opals were destroyed, exploding in a burst of color.
“AVADA KEVADRA!” Blaise screamed, but Draco ducked and the jet of green light sailed over his head, hitting a point just above the werewolves. Opals exploded, and the cave wall crumbled. The jagged rock was about to break over the cringing beasts when Hermione acted.
“PROTEGO!” She shouted the shield charm without thinking about it, giving the 3 werewolves time to scrabble out from under the suspended wall of shattered stone and dirt.
Werewolf and human watched one another, each confused. Hermione was struggling – she wanted to kill them, didn’t she? They were monsters. She’d had no trouble killing the other 5. But it was clear they didn’t want to attack her… They had been trying to escape, after all, she thought, biting her lip.
Now they were just a few feet away, watching her warily. Suddenly Malfoy cried out and Hermione gasped.
Blaise was laughing as blood soaked his rival’s robes. Draco grew whiter by the second and Hermione realized in horror that he’d been slashed lengthwise across the chest.
“Nooo!” she screamed.
“NO!” she screamed again, blocking his curse and leaping in front of Malfoy. Zabini was an exceptional dueler. Drawing from dark magic, he was throwing curse after curse at her, and Hermione was using all her intelligence to counter them. The heat of their duel created a force field around them, and they circled each other unconsciously – the dirt floor beneath them crackling with energy.
Zabini’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time, Mudblood.”
“You and me both, Zabini.”
“Don’t worry though, I’ll make sure I deliver your broken body to your pathetic friends after I’ve killed you. Out of the goodness of my heart.”
He threw back his head and laughed, dropping his arm slightly. Hermione acted – and a jet of blue light struck him squarely in the chest. He barely had time to register surprise before he crumbled.
Hermione stood frozen in shock before she came to.
“Malfoy!” She fell to her knees where he lay, looking around for the werewolves as she did so. They were hunkered down on one side of the cave, watching the scene and looking from her to Zabini’s body. She realized they were asking her permission. It made her cringe, but she gave a curt nod and they circled him to feed.
He’d have showed no more mercy for us, she reminded herself.
“Malfoy….” She whispered, cradling his head and pulling his robes from his chest desperately.
His breathing was shallow, but he was alive. She gasped at the gash streaking across his pale chest. His eyes fluttered closed. “No! Stay with me, stay with me…” he opened them again, and wearily focused on her face. “You’re going to be fine.”
Ignoring her own exhaustion, she focused her energy and began tracing her wand over the deep gash. She’d never healed anyone close to death before. It took all her power of concentration, but gradually the blood flow stopped. The wound began slowly, achingly, to close.
The singsong tones of her healing spell grew quieter and quieter. The gash was no more than a purple scar when she finally passed out.
Hermione woke to find that what little light had been in the cave was gone. Panicked, she scrabbled for her wand.
Merlin, the werewolves…Zabini… “Malfoy!”
Her hand came in contact with the body lying prone next to her, but she still couldn’t find her wand.
Oh! Of course, I’m such an idiot.
She twisted her wrist and a ball of flame emerged in her palm, illuminating the cave. Immediately her eyes found the werewolves. They blinked at her from the corner of the cave where Blaise had fallen. One was chewing on a bone. The 2 others had obviously just awoken. Thank Agrippa – they could easily have attacked and killed us as we slept.
Glancing to her right, she caught sight of Malfoy’s pale face and chest – the purplish slash that was already a scar. She breathed out tension she hadn’t known she’d been holding as she watched his chest rise and fall. Leaning over, she felt his pulse. It was weak, but it was there. Malfoy groaned at her touch. Gently, Hermione brushed his hair from his face before standing up, turning to the ice wall that still blocked them from the outside world. She took a deep breath and her eyes glowed gold as the ball of fire grew.
The wolves began to whine and paw the ground, stepping closer to her but still keeping their distance. With a flick, she turned her palm to the crystalline wall and pushed the fireball at it. A sweep of her arm and the ice had melted; water flowing joyously over moss and stone.
The werewolves howled. Moonlight spilled through the rushing water and bathed the cave in a soft glow.
One last thing, she thought with a sigh.
She focused her energy, and without looking at his remains set Zabini alight, until a pile of ashes were all that remained of his evil person.
The werewolves hovered near the mouth of the cave.
“Go – you’re free,” she told them. I wonder who they were before Greyback turned them. The werewolves Fenrir turned and kept from human contact were generally fated to never take human form again. Hermione was amazed these had emotions enough not to mindlessly attack and kill her. I’m glad I spared them.
One approached her and cautiously held his muzzle out. Hermione placed her hand on the coarse fur between his eyes, stroking gently.
“Goodbye then. Maybe someday we’ll meet again,” she said.
One by one they leapt through the rushing waterfall and away into the trees.
“Granger?” A weak voice called through the gloom. “Were you just petting a werewolf??”
“Malfoy, you’re awake!” Hermione ran to his side and leaned over him. “How are you feeling?”
“Like seven hells. And you didn’t answer my question.” He groaned and painfully raised himself onto his forearms.
She rolled her eyes. “Well you’re certainly not dead. I think you were more likeable when you were out cold.”
He glared at her. “You can’t get rid of me that easily, Granger.”
She bit back a smile.
“Anyway, yes, to answer your question – I was petting a werewolf. They didn’t happen to be as beastly as I originally thought. I feel kind of bad for killing the others, actually…”
“BAD for killing Fenrir??”
“Merlin no! Of course not. I wasn’t talking about him – he’s not even a werewolf…he’s a…a, well, he was a monster.”
“And the other werewolves weren’t?” asked Malfoy incredulously.
“No, I don’t think they were. At least, not the 3 that just left. We bonded, actually.”
“Only you, Granger.” Malfoy shook his white-blonde head and laughed before wincing, clutching his chest with a gasp.
“Are you ok?” Hermione asked in concern.
She helped him to his feet and they stood together, surveying the wreckage. Bits of opal were scattered everywhere; Hermione began to panic, searching every wall for even one opal that was still whole.
“Wait, wait – where’s Blaise??!” Malfoy’s voice was tight with fear. “How did he escape? Where did he go?”
“He’s dead,” Hermione said shortly. “I burned his body.” She didn’t tell him she’d let the werewolves take him after. It wasn’t something she was proud of.
“Oh,” Draco said, exhaling loudly. He watched her. “Are you ok?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I’ll live.”
Frantically, Hermione dug through rubble at the back of the cave, throwing aside shattered pieces of opal.
“No, no, no....what are we going to do?” she murmured.
Malfoy was searching every crevice in the broken rock face.
“There’s got to be at least one that made it through the fighting intact,” he reassured her. But his voice was wavering. If we came this far, through all that, not to return with an opal…
“There are no more whole ones, I can’t find any – I can’t,” Hermione said, a sob creeping into her voice.
Draco felt his heart sink. The throbbing in his chest was getting worse. Every breath seemed to pull at the seams of his wound.
In a blind rage, Malfoy struck the wall with his fist, feeling the dirt crumble under his knuckles.
“Useless!” he said furiously.
“We tried, but it’s no use. There’s nothing that can save my father. We tried…” he broke off, fighting tears.
“No, Malfoy – move your hand!” she said excitedly.
“What?” Stepping away, he looked at the hole his fist had made in the wall.
A dirt-covered opal was peeking out between some twisted roots.
“Do you still have the pickaxe?” he asked.
“Here!” she said, rummaging in her little bag and handing him the tool.
Gently, gently, he pried the opal loose, beating back roots and falling dirt as he worked.
Finally, it tumbled out of its berth. “No!” he yelled, scrabbling to catch it.
It stopped just before impact, and Malfoy turned to see Hermione with her wand outstretched.
“It’s ok, I’ve got it.” She hovered the magnificent opal into Malfoy’s hands. Gently, he brushed it off and turned it toward the moonlight.
“It’s perfect,” Hermione breathed.
“Do you want to keep it?” Malfoy asked.
“Ok, if you trust me with it…” she said, biting her lip.
“At this point, Granger, I’d trust you with anything,” he said seriously.
She met his eyes and blushed.
“Well, should we rest here and go back at first light?” she asked, stowing the opal safely in her purse.
“Yes. For Merlin’s sake, let’s get out of this miserable forest.”
The next day they woke to light pouring through the shimmering waterfall. Still in pain, Draco moved slowly, but declared himself well enough to travel when Hermione expressed concern. They ate the rest of the now-hardened oatcakes and made their way back to the trail. The going seemed much quicker than it had before. Maybe it was the completion of their task, or an eagerness to escape the Dark Forest.
Or maybe it’s that no giant spiders are holding us up, Draco thought.
Every so often Hermione’s attention would be caught by shadows leaping along to their left or right, and once she swore she saw the yellow gleam of eyes peering out from a distant copse of bushes. The werewolves. They’re following us.
She felt no fear of them. Some instinct told Hermione they were watching over her.
Before she knew it they’d burst out of the forest and were standing at the head of the trail.
She almost wept with relief to see Hagrid’s little cabin before them.
Skirting it quietly, they practically ran to the doors of the Great Hall.
“What time is it?” Malfoy asked.
“Just after 10 p.m.,” she said.
He nodded. “Everyone should be in bed – Filch doesn’t generally patrol during Christmas Break.”
“Let’s go,” Hermione said, absolutely exhausted. The events of the past two days were catching up with her. Sleep has never sounded so good.
They slipped inside and parted at the staircase that led to the Gryffindor common room.
They chuckled awkwardly.
“Well,” Draco continued. “It’s been…” he waved his hand in the air and sighed.
“It’s been the craziest couple of days I’ve ever had,” Hermione finished for him. “And my best friend is Harry Potter.”
He laughed in earnest this time.
“Yes it has been. Anyway, thank you Granger – Hermione – for everything. I don’t know how…” he stopped.
“It’s ok. I wanted to help, remember?” Hermione said softly. “I owe your father my life. And you, too…” she added, thinking of the Acromantulas.
“I’m pretty sure we’re even on that score,” Draco said with a frown. “That reminds me – what are we going to tell people about Blaise?”
Hermione sighed. She didn’t even want to think about Zabini. “Can we figure that out later? I’m about to pass out.”
“Ok. Well, goodnight Granger…I mean, goodnight Hermione.”
She gave him a gentle smile and walked wearily up the stairs to her common room.
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