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An Even Match by Sabrielle
Chapter 28 : 28.
 
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Hermione woke at 6 a.m. the next morning, watching snow flurries dance outside her window.


She shivered.


Do I have to go out there?


She lay in bed, thinking of everything that had happened in the last half-year that led to this point.


Am I doing the right thing? Is this worth it?


She was going to try and rescue a Death Eater. From Azkaban. The most impossible prison in the world. It was strange, but she felt detached from her fear. Like it’s not even happening to me. In another hour Narcissa would come to collect Draco, while Hermione would fly to Azkaban with the two Thestrals that would be their means of escape. She shivered again and took a deep breath in.


He saved your life. He’s not just a Death Eater; he’s a husband and a father.


She remembered Draco’s face when he heard that Lucius would be sentenced to the Dementor’s Kiss. The hopelessness there.


She swung herself out of bed.


“I’m going to do this,” she said aloud. Crookshanks poked his head out of his nest of covers and watched her curiously.


“Meeeow?”


“I know Crookshanks. Today I’m going to make history. And you can’t come with me.


“Not that you’d want to,” she added with a sigh, looking out over the snow-covered grounds.


Grabbing her towel, she headed for the showers.


Half an hour later she slipped into the Great Hall to try and take a bit of breakfast. Malfoy was the only one there.


He looked up when she came in and started.


“Malfoy, you’re spilling your juice.” She lifted an eyebrow and smiled.


“Um, Granger? Why do you look so…so….”


“It’s just a little eyeshadow and some hair potion,” she said matter-of-factly.


“Okaaaay. But we are going to Azkaban, remember? Filthy, cold, disgusting…I mean, I’m not complaining, you look…” he paused again and then cleared his throat, shrugging nonchalantly. “You look fine, just a little done-up for the occasion, that’s all.”


Hermione laughed. “It’s tradition, Malfoy.”


“What?”


“It’s tradition. Before going into battle, it’s traditional to dress up. To look your best, in case…well, you understand.”


He stared at her. “In case you don’t come back?” he said softly.


She shrugged. “I’m not saying anything’s going to happen. It’s just in case.”


“Right.” Draco stood up and walked over to her, where she was fumbling to pour her coffee.


“Here, let me do that,” he said. He was close to her, and she took him in. The rich, spicy cologne she’d come to know so well, the little scar on his forehead from his Quidditch accident earlier in the year, his icy grey eyes.


“Thank you.” She took the coffee gratefully and started to turn away.


“Granger – I mean, Hermione,” he reached out, grabbing her upper arm and pulling her back to him. Her eyes are so gold. He took a breath. “You don’t have to do this,” he whispered.


“I know,” she said. “But I want to.”


He leaned over her until she had to tilt her head up to look into his face.


He’s going to kiss me, she thought with a flutter of excitement.


And then the Great Hall door opened.


Hermione gasped and jumped away just as Snape came sweeping through the archway.


He glowered at them curiously, taking in their flushed cheeks and guilty expressions.


“What – may I ask – is going on here?”


“Nothing, Professor,” Malfoy and Hermione babbled at the same time.


“I was just…”


“He was just…”


“Coffee!” Draco exclaimed.


“Yes! Coffee,” Hermione repeated. “We both needed coffee, and he was trying to take it from me, but I wouldn’t let him, and then…”


“Alright, Miss Granger, that’s quite enough.” Snape looked at her with narrowed eyes. He doesn’t believe us, Hermione thought.


“Draco, your mother is in my office. Go to her immediately. And Miss Granger…try to come up with better excuses next time. You are, after all, one of the brightest witches at this institution.” With one last glare, he swept away. Malfoy followed, looking at Hermione with something like desperation before he, too, disappeared.


*******************


I don’t like it here. I don’t like it here. I DON’T like it here. A voice screamed in Hermione’s head as she tied the two Thestrals behind a large rocky outcrop on Azkaban’s west shore. The prison itself was on an island – barren, icy and utterly remote. Hermione could tell it was the kind of place that stayed cold even in the height of summer.


A mist hung over everything, blanketing the land in an air of desolation. The Dementors. They’re causing this mist.


Unconsciously she reached into her robes and gripped her wand. One of the Thestrals snorted, and Hermione realized she’d forgotten to give them their reward. It had been hard enough getting one to cooperate (she’d had to steal far more meat from Hagrid’s storage shed than she’d meant to) but getting the other to fly with her when there was no one on his back was another thing entirely. They’d finally allowed her to rope them together after she wrapped another 20 pounds of raw meat and put it in her bag, indicating that they could have it when they landed. At least they’re smart, she thought. All she’d had to do was shout “Azkaban!” and they were off, soaring high above the wintry storm at breathtaking speeds.


“Ok, ok, I know. You deserve this,” she whispered soothingly, unwrapping the huge chunks of meat and laying them at the Thestrals’ feet. “Just wait here, alright?” They watched her with intelligent eyes before tearing into their meal.


Through the mist Hermione could barely make out the prison – a giant stone structure that presided over the island with daunting strength.


Well, here goes. Hermione threw the hood of her soot-grey cloak up and made her way toward the prison fortress. By her watch she had 30 minutes before Draco and his mother were to arrive for the Last Visit. She spurred herself to go faster, scrabbling over slimy boulders and slick hills of ice.


15 minutes later she was pressed against Azkaban’s outer wall, breathing heavily. The Anti-Enchantment Charm on the prison made it impossible for Hermione to break in by magic. This next part of her plan would be entirely dependent on cunning. And luck, she thought with a nervous twinge.


Leaving things to chance was not her forté.


Craning her neck, she could see Dementors keeping watch, hovering high over the prison’s battlements. Thank goodness for the mist. With her cloak on, she blended right into the hazy shadows.


But how do I get a guard’s attention? She thought frantically. There wasn’t much time before she had to be disguised and waiting for Draco and Narcissa. But with Dementors hovering far above, she was scared to draw any kind of attention to herself. There has to be someone manning the door…


She stared up at the huge wall of iron.


“Oh!” she gasped, skirting around a boulder to the right of the giant doors. Just in time, she thought, as a grizzled wizard hobbled around the other corner. He was leading a party of 3 people – Narcissa Malfoy, Draco Malfoy, and a tough-looking gaoler with a shaved head and thick mustache at the rear.


Shoot, shoot, shoot! Why couldn’t it have been some skinny little whippet of a prison-keep? Why HIM? There’s not even any hair on his head! Hermione cursed.


They were almost at the gate now. With a defeated sigh, Hermione pulled Harry’s Invisibility Cloak from her bag and threw it on, slipping behind the group just as the iron doors lurched shut.


Even from behind the hulking gaoler, Hermione could see Narcissa’s shoulders shaking. She and Draco had decided not to tell Narcissa anything, just in case they were caught and the plan was foiled – that way she wouldn’t be considered an accomplice.


But Hermione felt a twinge of guilt as she watched Narcissa struggle with her grief. She shook it away as she considered the task at hand. Deal with the gaoler first.


He lumbered along, just an arms-length away from her. Quietly – oh-so-quietly – Hermione reached into her bag and felt delicately about. Ah-ha! There you are…she pulled out a rag wrapped around a tiny bottle of sleeping gas. Clear and odorless, it worked within seconds. The strong gaoler struggled silently, Hermione’s rag over his mouth, before succumbing to the poison’s effects.


Merlin, he must be 200 lbs at least! Hermione heaved the unconscious body behind a stone pillar, dropping out from behind the others. No one turned around. Swiftly, she trimmed a few hairs from his mustache before stirring them into her Polyjuice Potion. She watched it turn a mustard yellow and grimaced. Here we go again…and she choked it down.


“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” she said under her breath, turning her meaty hands over and studying the scarred palms. She concealed the gaoler carefully in a grimy alcove and hurried to catch up to Draco and Narcissa.


“There ya are,” came the nasally voice of the prison guide. “Where’d yew get off to?”


“Now see ‘ere – I shouldn’t ‘ave to tell yew every time I have business elsewhere, ‘aight?” Hermione said in the gaoler’s gruff voice.


“Alright, I didn’t mean no ‘arm. Was just arsking, that’s all.”


Hermione grunted.


Draco peered at her curiously, and Hermione gave him a quick nod. Relief flooded his eyes before he turned again to the front.


Hermione got the feeling they were going down, deep into the bowels of Azkaban, where no light ever touched. Cold, damp, and miserable, the Dementors’ influence seemed to strengthen the longer they walked, guided only by torchlight.


Suddenly Narcissa bent double, clutching the algae-covered walls for support.


“Mother!” Draco rushed to her side, and Hermione had to hold herself back from doing the same. Stay in character, stay in character…she knew the gaoler would never display such kindness.


“Come on, come on, just a bit further,” the guide wheedled. “I ain’t got all day.”


“I can’t, I can’t – oh Draco, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…”


“Mother, it’s all right, I’m right here with you. You won’t do this alone.” Hermione’s heart caught on the desperation and love in his voice.


“But I’m scared,” Narcissa choked. “I don’t think I can see him. I don’t want to see…what if he doesn’t remember us? What if…”


“Mother.” Draco’s voice was strong. “It will be all right. We have to see him. It’s our last chance.”


“Don’t say it!” Narcissa gave an anguished sob.


“Look ‘ere, if you can’t see ‘im we need to go back,” said the guide impatiently. “Right?” he looked at Hermione curiously.


“Er…right,” she said. Shit, shit, stay in character… “Right! Get goin’, you lot. You want to see the wretch or not? Makes no diff’rence to me, just as long as ye make it quick, whatever it is.” She gave her best impression of a leer. She must have passed muster, because Narcissa took a great breath of stale air and slowly straightened up.


“I’m ok,” she said waveringly. “I’m ok,” she repeated, laying a hand on Draco’s arm. He tucked it into his and nodded at her gently.


“Alright,” he said.


They continued down the passage to a door with a narrow barred window. Hermione’s heart beat in her chest. She knew what they would find, and it would not be the Lucius they remembered. She ached for Draco, and Narcissa too. I just hope we’re not too late.


The guide stopped at the door and turned around, blinking at Hermione.


“Oh! Er, right,” she said, scrabbling around in the gaoler’s robe pockets with clumsy fingers.


Whew. She breathed a sigh of relief as she closed her hand around a large rusty key in one of the hidden inner pockets.


She moved to the door purposefully, not daring to look through the metal bars. If I’m feeling this nervous about seeing Lucius, what are Draco and his mother feeling?

A loud click! of the lock and the door creaked open, helped by Hermione’s trembling hand.


It took a minute for Hermoine’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. The cell was tiny: dank and dark, stinking with the smell of mold and other indescribable horrors. Then she saw him – a lank figure huddled in one corner of the cell on a bed of filthy straw. For a moment Hermione was frozen. Even having seen him before the Dementor’s Kiss in her dream, she wasn’t prepared for the always-pristine Lucius Malfoy to look this defeated. He hadn’t even looked up when the cell opened.


“Father? Father…?” Draco stepped around Hermione and took a sharp breath in.


“No! Oh Lucius.” Narcissa broke down in tears again, standing behind Draco with a manicured hand over her mouth.


Slowly, Lucius Malfoy raised his head. For a moment Hermione thought he hadn’t recognized his family, but then the dullness in his pale grey eyes sharpened.


“Draco? Narcissa? Am I still dreaming…?” he croaked.


“No Father,” Draco said, voice trembling. “We’ve come to visit…before, before…”


Lucius staggered to his feet, bracing himself against a slimy wall. He straightened up, and Hermione saw that he was struggling to retain the vestiges of his former self.


“Ah yes,” he said wearily. “Before they take me.”


He stared at his wife and son with burning eyes.


“Leave us!” he commanded, looking at Hermione with a trace of his old imperialism. Hermione was almost relieved. At least he hasn’t lost himself entirely.


“A’ight, then,” she said in the gaoler’s gruff tones. “But mind yew make it quick.”


“Aye,” the wizened guide agreed. “Wouldn’t want all three of youse to be ‘ere when the Dementors come.” He chuckled evilly before scurrying past Hermione.


She shut the prison door and stood beside it.


“Well my work ‘ere is done,” the guide told Hermione. “I’ll summon the Dementors, shall I?” he grinned with blackened teeth.


“Aye. And be quick about it,” ordered Hermione. I want to get out of this evil place as soon as possible. And the Polyjuice Potion wouldn’t last forever. By Hermione’s count she had about 30 more minutes before she’d change back into herself.


A few minutes passed, and then Hermione shivered, fighting back her worst memories. The Dementors. They’re coming, she thought, struggling to keep control of her mind.


And then two spectral figures rounded the corner, looming towards her. POUND POUND. “Oy, that’s time!” she yelled through the bars of Lucius’s cell before thrusting the key in the lock and wrenching the door open. Narcissa looked up, startled. Her face was wet with tears. Draco looked at Hermione, panicked.


The stone! Did you give him the stone?! Hermione asked him telepathically, willing herself to ignore the Dementors’ influence.


Draco started. “Wait!” he said loudly. “Father,” he whispered. Lucius was sinking back into himself, shrinking toward the far wall and staring fearfully at the Dementors hovering outside the door. “Father!” Draco whispered again. “Here, for good luck.” He shoved the stone into his father’s grimy hands and strode swiftly to the door, giving Hermione one desperate, meaningful look as he passed. She nodded to reassure him, but her heart was pounding. The Dementors flooded every crevice around them with despair. And then they were alone. Draco dragged Narcissa, screaming and crying, down the corridor, where the guide was again waiting with lantern in hand – and that sick grin on his wrinkled face.


Lucius stared at the stone in shock as the Dementors floated into the room, hovering above him with dark intent. They bore down, but as they did so the light swirling through the magic opal grew brighter. Pushing himself from the wall, Lucius gripped it tighter and thrust it fiercely before him as the Dementors went in for the Kiss. There was an indescribably loud SCREECH as the Dementors were thrown back. The cell exploded in color, and Hermione watched in disbelief as first a dragon, then a giant snow leopard spilled out of the stone to attack the Dementors. The dragon plunged into one of them as Hermione’s shining leopard raised one huge paw, claws extended, to tear into the other Dementor. Another unearthly cry, and both Dementors were gone – tattered black robes the only evidence that they had ever existed.


Hermione stared open-mouthed around the empty cell. The dark, despairing feeling had lifted.


Lucius was recovering too. His eyes were wide as he watched the two Patronuses cavort happily among the ruins of the Dementors before slipping back into the glowing opal.


“Miss Granger…??” Lucius asked in disbelief.


“What?!” Hermione said, alarmed. Oh. She looked down at her delicate hands. That was fast.


“Hi!” she said. “Um…you’re probably confused. See, the thing is…well, um…you know what? We actually have to go. Now. But I promise that when we escape here, or if we escape here, rather, I’ll tell you everything,” she babbled.


He’s just watching me…she thought uncomfortably.


Then his eyes cleared and he shook his head.


“Right. Right.” He took a deep breath. “Ok, Miss Granger. Explanations later. What’s the plan?”


“This!” she said, and she threw the Invisibility Cloak over him. “Come on, we don’t have much time. I think I remember how to get out of here.” She bit her lip. Damn it! I thought I’d still be disguised as the gaoler when we walked out of here. “We’ll just have to risk it.” She threw up the hood of her cloak and unbolted the cell. “Let’s go.”


Cautiously, they made their way through the dank corridors. Lucius was weak from his imprisonment, and the going was slow.


“Wait here,” Hermione whispered, putting a hand out to stop him. She hurried around to the alcove, and was relieved to find the gaoler still passed out from the Sleeping Gas. I wish I could alter his memories, she thought. But it couldn’t be helped. She threw his large, dirty robe back on him and left him to sleep it off.


“Are you still there?” she asked when she came back around the corner.


“I’m here,” Lucius said.


“Ok.” Looking right and left, Hermione slipped behind a pillar at Azkaban’s mighty entrance. How are we going to do this?! she thought desperately. Guards patrolled intermittently, and Dementors still hovered above the tall gates.


“Well, come on then!” Hermione heard the little guide’s irritable voice before she saw him. He was leading a group of what looked like new guards around the prison. Thank Merlin! She clenched Lucius’s wrist through the Invisibility Cloak and they fell in at the back of the group, Hermione thanking her stars that her dark grey cloak blended in with the new recruits’ robes.


“Any questions?” the guide glowered at them all fiercely. Not surprisingly, no one had anything to say.


“A’ight then, on with ye! I’ll expect ye back next week, 5 a.m. sharp. Mind ye’re on time, naow, or I’ll make sure it gets back to the Minister! He takes a strong interest in this ‘ere establishment, so he does.”


With that, he undid a series of bolts and wheels on the iron gate and eased it open. As soon as they were through, Hermione slipped off to the left and disappeared into the misty landscape.


****************


“You made it!” Draco exclaimed in relief.


“Of course we made it!” Hermione said. “What does that mean? You didn’t think I’d be able to do it?”


“Don’t get your panties in a twist, Granger,” he smirked. “But wait…where’s…?” a shard of fear pierced his chest.


“Right here, son.” Lucius pulled the cloak off, collapsing onto a boulder wearily.


Draco went to him. “Father…”


“Draco, my son.”


Draco felt a lump form in his throat.


“Where’s your mother?”


“Hermione and I thought it’d be better if she was seen first thing in the Ministry…just so she isn’t suspected…the guide thought we were leaving from the Apparition Point together, and left us before I doubled back here. Mother was supposed to Apparate me back to Hogsmeade anyway before continuing on to the Ministry to finalize your Kiss of Death certificate. She doesn’t fully know what’s going on, but she understands enough…”


“Of course. Your mother’s a smart woman.”


Hermione cleared her throat. “We should get going. We’ve stayed here long enough.”


Lucius raised an eyebrow. “Tell me about it.”


“Oh, er, right – I meant…”


“I know what you meant, Miss Granger,” Lucius said softly. “And I quite agree. By Thestral? Clever of you.” He looked at her again.


“Father, you’ll ride with me.”


Hermione grabbed the Invisibility Cloak next to Lucius and dropped it in her bag, whistling softly to call the Thestrals’ attention.


Weak and weary as he was, it took awhile for Lucius to mount his and Draco’s Thestral, but before long they were again soaring through the clouds, away from the evil that blanketed Azkaban’s rocky isle. Back to safety. Back to Hogwarts.



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