Isolation

He can't leave the room. Her room. And it's all the Order's fault. Confined to a small space with only the Mudblood for company, something's going to give. Maybe his sanity. Maybe not. "There," she spat. "Now your Blood's filthy too!" DM/HG. PostHBP.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/6291747/1/Isolation

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42. Blaze

"Bollocks."

After glancing at his watch, Draco quickened his pace.

Due to his encounters with Pansy and Snape, he now had less than five minutes to head to Binns' office and meet Blaise, as planned. He'd barely left the third floor in his hunt for Granger between the various obstacles, and he was half-tempted to forgo the detour at Binns' office, but he wanted to search upstairs anyway, and perhaps Blaise had had better luck than him.

Climbing the quiet stairwell to the fourth floor, he managed to avoid two Death Eaters, ducking inside the niches where the suits of armour had once stood. On this floor, he could hear familiar voices echoing all around him, travelling up and down the corridors and meshing together in a nonsensical jumble of noise. Among the clashing voices he recognised Longbottom's, Finnegan's, Professor Sprout's, and several others, but it was impossible to distinguish from which direction they were coming.

He continued on, passing a couple of students whose names he couldn't recall, but they paid him no attention. The further he went, the more distant the voices became; but then, this section of Hogwarts had always been quiet, which was why he and some of his fellow Slytherins had chosen this spot to gather when they'd needed to remain unseen. The corridors here were confusing and dimly lit; it was only from years of mapping out the route in his head that Draco knew where he was going.

The building shook and he lost his balance, stumbling sideways as the sounds of screams pierced the air, possibly from outside or somewhere in the castle. He glanced out of a window and the carnage in the courtyard made him pause and gasp. Aside from the many Death Eaters duelling with the students and professors, there were Giants hurling rocks and destroying parts of the building, Acromantulas crawling over debris and scattered bodies, suits of armour battling like men.

Fuck, he needed to find Granger.

Gathering himself, he rushed down the corridor, taking the final corner before he was outside Binns' Office. He leaned against the wall to catch his breath, wiping away the sweat-gems on his forehead with his sleeve, but he didn't have long to rest. His head snapped up when he heard the fast slaps of footsteps approaching, and Blaise came barrelling around the corner, dragging a rather flustered and bruised Lovegood with him.

"Go, Draco!" shouted Blaise. "Run!"

"What the-

"Death Eaters — lots of them — heading this way," he panted. "Move!"

The three of them sprinted down the hallway, and Draco could hear the horde of Death Eaters now, catching up to them. They took a left, then another left, finding themselves near one of the library doors, but they kept going until Blaise tucked himself into a niche yanking Lovegood in with him, and Draco followed. Safely concealed in the hollow, the trio waited, too breathless to speak, their chests aching with the effort to remain as quiet as possible. Blaise cautiously poked his head out, inspecting his surroundings for a moment before he released a loud and laboured sigh.

"Must've lost them," he breathed, turning to Lovegood and tilting her chin."You alright?"

"I'm fine, thank you," she replied politely, leaning up on her tip-toes to peck his cheek.

"Good. Right, we need to find Miles and the others."

"Wait a minute," said Draco. "I still need to get Granger."

"You didn't find her?"

"Does it fucking look like I did?" he snapped, incredibly irritated that Blaise had successfully managed to locate his witch while he remained empty-handed. "I barely left the third floor! Have you seen her anywhere?"

Blaise shook his head. "Sorry, mate."

"Fuck!"

Balling his hand into a tight fist, he smashed it into the wall once, twice, feeling the pain slide up his fingers, across his knuckles, until his whole hand was throbbing. But it wasn't enough. He wanted to punch it again. He was still high on adrenaline, practically vibrating with it. The combination of his unspent energy and his devastating frustration bred in him a volatile desire to just...destroy something. Whether it was his fist or the wall, something would have to break eventually, and he didn't really care which. Ignoring the sticky sensation of blood squelching between his fingers, he pulled back his fist again.

"I saw Hermione."

The shock of Lovegood's comment made him stutter on his own breath and his hand fell to his side. "What?"

"I saw Hermione," she repeated casually. "About five or ten minutes ago."

"Where?"

"Fifth floor. She was looking for Harry with Ron. She was heading upstairs."

Had Lovegood not been...well, Lovegood, he might have thanked her, or hugged her, or done something as equally bizarre because he was just so relieved. So relieved that the throbbing in his hand stopped and his heartbeat was in his ears. Finally he had something to work with; confirmation that Granger was alive, or at least had been five or ten minutes ago. But what if — No. He clenched his eyes shut to clear the dark thoughts that came with the final part of the realisation. He didn't want to consider that possibility at all. Refused to. He needed to get upstairs.

Spinning on his heel, he ran out into the corridor without even checking if it was safe to do so.

"Wait!" called Blaise. "Draco, just wait!"

"I need to go!" He kept running. No more hindrances.

"Stop!"

Draco felt a tug on his midriff where Blaise had snatched the back of his shirt, jerking him backwards to a sudden halt that very nearly made him fall. Nearly. Swinging his body around, he shoved Blaise with his shoulder, but the tenacious hold on his shirt remained and the urge to punch something — specifically Blaise's sodding face — returned. The blood on his hand felt warmer than before.

"Hey, just calm down for a moment," said Blaise before Draco could even open his mouth to shout. "You're being too careless."

"What the hell do you want?"

"We're going to come with you."

He huffed out an impatient breath. "No, I have been slowed down enough-

"Look, it's better if there's a group of us. Also, if any of the Order sees you, they're going to question your reasons for being here. If Luna and I come with you, she can vouch that your loyalties are with the Order now." He glanced over his shoulder at her, "Can't you, Luna?"

"Oh, yes," she nodded absently. "I'd be happy to let anyone know that you're not a Death Eater trying to kill them, Draco."

He stared at her with dull eyes, fighting the compulsion to roll them. "Brilliant," he mumbled, flicking his attention back to Blaise. "You two will slow me down."

"Not as much as a member of the Order will if you run into one," Blaise reasoned. "Be sensible about this, not senseless. You can't afford to be."

A growl rumbled in Draco's throat, but he threw up his arms in submission. "For fuck's sake, fine!"

.

.

Two flights of stairs and three stunned Death Eaters later, Hermione and Ron charged down the hallway of the seventh floor, almost tripping each other in their haste.

Taking a corner, Hermione squinted against the glare of a wild but small fire in the corridor, feeling the heat of it tingle her cheeks. She hated seeing Hogwarts like this; falling, burning, dying. It was like watching her home collapse and crumble, and it physically pained her to have to witness it. Waving her wand, she extinguished the flames, wondering if it was pointless when there were probably hundreds of fires blazing throughout the castle, and she wished she had the time extinguish them all.

But she didn't.

There was no time.

She carried on, pushing it to the back of her mind as she and Ron swerved around another corner and then, there he was.

Thank Merlin, they'd found Harry, and the smile that stretched up her cheeks felt so wonderfully out of place. She actually laughed with relief.

Harry and Ginny were holding hands, lingering beside the wall that separated them from the Room of Requirement, their conversation too far away for Hermione to grasp. She watched Harry pause mid-sentence when he spotted her and Ron racing towards him, and she felt a little guilty for interrupting whatever sentimental moment the couple had been sharing. Hermione estimated it had been almost ten months since they'd last seen each other and Godric knew they deserved something. Just a small piece of time to call their own amongst this hell.

Just a little whisper of love amongst all the angry noise.

Her heart panged for Draco, but she was grateful he wasn't here. She didn't know if she could do that; if she could bear to run around Hogwarts, constantly fretting about his whereabouts, wondering if he was okay. Wondering if he was alive. No, she had too much to focus on right now. Duty could so easily become distorted when love became involved and there were already too many of her loved ones here. Far too many.

"Where have you been?" asked Harry once they were close enough. "I've been looking everywhere for you!"

"We've been looking everywhere for you!" said Ron, turning to his sister. "Gin, mum told you to stay in the room."

"She needs to be out of there," explained Harry. "Just for a little while so we can go in." He fixed her with a pleading look. "But you stay right here, okay? And when we come out, you go straight back in."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," she huffed, "I'm not a child!"

"Ginny, please-

"Yeah, yeah, I'll go back in when you come out. Bloody hell, you'd think I was nine."

"Is anybody else in the room?" asked Hermione. "Or were you on your own in there?"

"Just me," she said, and then her eyes widened with recollection. "Oh, wait! Something weird did happen though. Tonks came through the tunnel-

"Tonks is here? Remus told me she was staying at home."

"I guess she changed her mind," Ginny shrugged. "Anyway, that's not the weird part. The weird part is she came with..."

Ginny trailed off when the castle began to quake again, more violently this time, like the very foundations of Hogwarts were trembling with fear. Steadying herself against the wall, Hermione released a small shriek of surprise and covered her ears when an explosion blasted apart the wall at the other end of the corridor, perhaps fifty feet away from where they standing. As the spray of stones and rubble scattered across the floor and the shaking subsided, she urgently tugged Harry's sleeve, catching his eyes and hoping he understood.

"Right," he muttered. "Right, we don't have enough time. I-I'm sorry, Ginny, but-

"It's okay," she sighed, grazing her thumb across his cheek. "Good luck with...whatever it is you're doing."

Harry hurriedly kissed her lips, and Hermione had the decency to avert her attention, while Ron quietly grumbled Bloody Hell behind her. After guiding Ginny to conceal herself in one of the abandoned niches several yards away, Harry returned to Hermione and Ron and they began the familiar Room of Requirement routine. After their third pass, the door materialised and they stepped inside.

Once they'd cleared the threshold and the door had closed behind them, all the bellowing noise and turmoil of the battle dwindled into a jarring silence.

Hermione's eyes went round as she surveyed the enormous room and its contents, darting from left to right and trying to make sense of it all. The room itself was a similar size to the Great Hall, but stored between the four walls were towering stacks of furniture, books, ornaments, and thousands of other obscure items that she'd never seen in her life.

"This is going to take a while," she murmured. "Are you sure it's in here, Harry?"

"Pretty sure," he nodded. "I spoke to Helena Ravenclaw, and she confirmed that Riddle spoke to her about the Diadem. Plus, when Luna took me to see the replica on the statue, I knew I'd seen it before and I'm sure I saw it in here on some bust of an old guy wearing a wig."

Hermione frowned, scanning the room for something that sparkled. "It's almost too obvious; hiding something in the Room of Hidden Things."

"I know, but he thought he was the only one who knew how to get in here."

Ron scoffed. "Bloody arrogant idiot, isn't he?"

"Hey, how did you know I would be here?" asked Harry, as they slowly began to meander through the tenuous piles of trinkets.

"We bumped into Luna," Hermione explained. "She said she'd seen you speaking with Helena's ghost and talking about hidden things. She also said you were heading upstairs, and when Ron mentioned the Room of Requirement, we guessed you'd be here."

"And where did you go before that? When I came back to get the others, you two weren't-

"Merlin! How on Earth did we forget tell you?" She reached into her bag, removing a couple of the Basilisk fangs and resting them on the flat of her palm so Harry could see. "We went to the Chamber of Secrets and got these to destroy the Horcruxes. It was Ron's idea!"

"That's genius!" exclaimed Harry, grinning at Ron. "Fair play, mate."

"Don't you start," said Ron, prodding at a statue. "If either of you call me a genius again tonight, I'm testing you for Polyjuice."

Hermione was about to smile at his comment, but she accidentally bashed her elbow into one of the tall stacks of items, and it swayed and creaked forebodingly for a few seconds before going still again.

"Come on, let's just find it," she said, raising Bellatrix's wand. "Accio Diadem!"

"Really?" drawled Ron. "Because that spell worked so well on the other Horcruxes?"

Her eyebrows snapped together with irritation. "It was worth a try."

"It's okay, Hermione," said Harry, leading them deeper into this maze of discarded things. "I think I remember where it is anyway."

.

.

"No, Draco!" shouted Blaise, tightening his hold on Luna's small hand. "Not the Grand Staircase!"

Draco paused in his sprint, scowling at his friend as he came to his side. "But it's the closest!"

"It will be hectic."

"Yes," nodded Luna. "It was quite a mess earlier. Pity really. That was my favourite staircase."

Draco absently wondered if Lovegood was oblivious to the gravity of the situation, but he paid her ridiculous comment no heed, keeping his eyes locked on Blaise. It really was just easier to ignore her.

"Then how the hell do you suggest we get upstairs?"

"Keep going, we'll use the South staircase," said Blaise. "That's the one I used and I only came across a few obstacles."

They carried on, scaling the stairs Blaise had suggested and Draco took them two at a time. He felt like he was soaring now, surging onwards like a runaway train with no control, powered by desperation and adrenaline. The intense combination was racing with his blood, streaming through his veins, and he almost felt drunk with it; light-headed and vigorous.

When they arrived at the seventh floor, Draco thought his senses became heightened and more sensitive to his environment. The air felt humid up here, like it was thick enough to choke. His nostrils flared to accommodate the invasive scents of smoke, rain, and blood, and the harsh mixture of them found its way to his tongue, making his mouth dry and his throat scratchy. Even the sounds of the battle seemed louder on this level, but he couldn't decide if it was a trick of Hogwarts' acoustics or a trick of his mind.

He'd stopped in the corridor to regain his composure and contemplate which direction to take, but now he felt frozen. Stuck. He absently stared at some ashes floating nearby, fluttering like dying moths caught in a breeze, but Blaise's voice fortunately cut his trance short.

"Which way?"

Draco blinked, turning his head from left to right, and then back to the left. "This way."

Perhaps he was allowing habit and his memory to guide him. After all, he had spent the majority of sixth year up on this floor, consumed with his task to ready the Vanishing Cabinet for the Death Eaters' invasion of Hogwarts. How things had changed. Here he was on the seventh floor, fighting for the opposite side, and somehow feeling less frightened now than he had then, despite all this carnage. This War.

The two Death Eaters saw Draco before he saw them, and he had a split second to think shit before there was a spell charging towards him, the heat of it prickling his skin by the time he even realised it. The dazzling ball of red light blinded him, forcing his eyes shut, and he waited for the impact.

But all he felt was something shove his shoulder, and he heard Blaise call out a Protego. He opened his eyes just in time to see the Death Eater's spell rebound off the Shield Charm and the heat from it diminished, replaced by Hogwarts' cold air.

The icy sensation spreading across his face was oddly comforting, galvanising, and it jolted him back into action. Raising Andromeda's wand, he fired a Stupefy, but it was deflected. Beside him, Blaise was also casting spells and he thought he heard Lovegood recite a few incantations, too.

Draco thought he heard one of the Death Eaters say, "Isn't that Malfoy's kid?" and for some reason the words infuriated him.

Rearing back his wand arm, he cast a non-verbal Oppungo and several bricks that had littered the floor launched themselves at one of the Death Eaters. One scuffed the side of his head and Draco released a yell of exertion as he fired an Impediment Jinx to successfully knock him out. Much to Draco's quiet surprise, it was Lovegood who immobilized the other one with a well-aimed Petrificus Totalus, and then Blaise used two Incarcerous spells to bind the fallen men.

"That was Crabbe's father," muttered Blaise, approaching one of the unconscious men and nudging him with his foot. "He's better with a wand than his son, but I guess that's not saying much. Nice trick with the bricks, by the way."

"Come on, let's go," said Draco, anxious to continue the search for Ganger. "They won't be out forever."

With Blaise and Lovegood close behind, Draco pressed on, keeping Andromeda's wand in his fist, ready for whatever was lurking behind the next corner. And he didn't have to wait long. Barely two minutes later, there was a loud cry, followed by the sounds of a scuffle and three or four voices quarrelling. Towards the end of the corridor, he could make out Percy and Fred Weasley duelling with three Death Eaters, and not fairing too well by the looks of things.

The younger of the Weasley brothers had a nasty looking gash on his cheek, his red hair mingling with the blood staining his face, while Percy clumsily fumbled with his wand, barely able aim a spell.

For the second time in a few minutes, Lovegood surprised Draco. She ran ahead a few paces and fired a spell, striking one of the Death Eaters' backs and sending him into the wall. Draco heard the sound of bones crunching as the man slid down the wall, unconscious. Blaise lifted his wand then, catching the second Death Eater with a Stupefy that knocked him out cold, and the final Death Eater was taken out by Fred with a powerful spell that took him off his feet and flying out of a window.

"Stupid — sodding — Death Eaters," panted Fred, trying to catch his breath. "Thanks, Luna. We were..." His voice faded when he realised who she was with and he narrowed his sour eyes at Blaise and Draco, scrutinising them with distaste. "What the hell are you doing with these two?"

"Oh," said Luna innocently. "Blaise is my boyfriend, and Draco is my friend."

It took a great deal of control for Draco to keep his mouth shut and remind Lovegood that they were far from friends, so he simply clenched his jaw and folded his arms across his chest, chewing the inside of his mouth and conceding that disputing her statement would hardly help. He waited for the inevitable questions and scepticism, and he could hardly blame the two Weasleys for their doubtful expressions and cautiously raised wands. If Lovegood had told him that the sky was blue, he'd probably question it.

"But they're Death Eaters," said Percy. "Or at least fighting for them. Didn't Malfoy let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts last year?"

Draco bit his tongue. Hard. Tasted iron.

"Yeah," nodded Fred. "Look, Luna, you're too trusting. I don't know what they've told you, but they're lying-

"They haven't told me anything-

"Come on, Luna. Get away from them-

"No, Fred," she tried. "Listen to me-

"Luna, don't be silly now."

"Hey, don't talk to her like she's a child," Blaise interjected, his tone sharp. "She's telling the truth. We're on your side."

"Sure," scoffed Fred, pointedly aiming his wand at Blaise. "And Voldemort's just a misunderstood ballerina who ended up with the wrong crowd."

Draco rolled his eyes. "You said you and your girlfriend would save me time," he mumbled to Blaise. "This is not helping in any way."

"Just give her a minute," he bit back. "She knows what she's doing."

"Come on, Luna, I'm serious now," said Fred, extending his hand for her to take. "Come away from them."

"But I don't-

"They've lied to you."

"No, they-

"And they can't be trusted."

"They're on our side. If you would just listen-

"Luna, I won't tell you again-

"And I won't tell you again, Fred Weasley!" she shouted unexpectedly. Completely unexpected because this was Lovegood, and Lovegood did not shout. "Blaise and Draco have been living in a safehouse for months! They're not Death Eaters and they are here with me! Remus and Tonks can both verify that if you don't consider me reliable enough! Hermione, Harry, and Ron can, too!"

Draco's eyebrows rose high on his forehead and he eyed the back of Lovegood's blonde head with barely-concealed shock. Never had he heard her raise her voice, let alone shout, and judging from the looks on the others' faces (excluding Blaise), neither had they. Settling his eyes on the Weasley brothers, he studied their conflicted expressions charily, silently willing them to believe her so he could recommence his hunt for Granger.

Again, he was being unnecessarily stalled, and the brittle threads of his temper were beginning to break, fraying at the seams.

"Luna," said Fred slowly. Warily. "Are you sure?"

"Oh, yes. I'm positive," she replied, her voice back to its customary wistful tone. "Very much so."

"But their parents-

"We are not our parents," Blaise stated stiffly, entwining his fingers with Luna's. "So if you're finished with your interrogation, we'll be on our way."

"Hold it," warned Fred. "I'm still not convinced. You might have used the Imperius Curse on Luna for all I know."

"For fuck's sake," Draco snarled through his gritted teeth, taking a few steps away from the others. "I don't have time for this. Sod the lot of you."

"Oh, are we going now?" asked Luna, also turning to leave and tugging Blaise along. "Yes, we really should keep looking for her."

"Wait!" called Fred. "Who are you looking for?"

"Hermione," she replied. "Have you seen her?"

Draco slowed his steps a little to listen to his response.

"No, but mum asked us to try and find Ron and Lee said Ron was with Hermione. He saw them up on this floor."

Sighing privately to himself, Draco carried on, relieved that he was apparently on the right track.

"We'll go with you then," Fred continued. "Might as well if Ron and Hermione are together. Plus, I still don't trust these two" — he gestured to the Slytherins — "So we can keep an eye on you this way."

Blaise's growl was slightly louder than Draco's.

Slightly.

.

.

Hermione held the gorgeous headpiece in her hands, gazing thoughtfully at the sparkling sapphire that winked at her when it caught the light. Gently gliding her fingers across the engraving — Wit Beyond Measure is a Man's Greatest Treasure — she couldn't help but feel a little attached to the item, admiring what it had once represented.

"Hm," she mumbled, frowning. "Do you guys realise how important this artefact is? I remember reading somewhere that this sapphire is one of the largest in the world-

"Probably not the best time for a history lesson, Hermione," muttered Harry.

"And you know, people believe that anyone who wears it will be gifted with wisdom-

"You have enough wisdom," remarked Ron. "Come on, let's just destroy it and get going."

She chewed her lip. "Seems a shame to destroy something so beautiful."

"It needs to be done."

"I know," she sighed, handing the Diadem to Harry and removing one of the fangs from her bag for him to take. "Go on then, Harry. You do it."

As her best friend placed the Horcrux on the floor and knelt down beside it, Hermione withdrew Bellatrix's wand from her pocket, listing various spells in her head should anything happen. The Diadem felt different to how Helga's Cup had felt; somehow more sinister and tainted, like the Dark Magic had been beating against her fingertips when she'd held it.

"Why do you look so fidgety?" asked Ron quietly.

"I have a bad feeling about this one," she said. "I just feel like I should be prepared."

Ron shrugged just as Harry swiftly stabbed the fang into the Diadem, and Hermione grimaced as she watched it shatter into four pieces with black, blood-like liquid leaking out of the sapphire. There was a tense second of silence, followed by a gust of howling, screaming wind that rushed upwards from the Diadem, sending her and Ron staggering back a few steps and Harry falling flat on his back.

"Shit," spat Ron. "Duck!"

All of the unstable towers of heaped objects rocked and wobbled, and Hermione had the breath of a moment to cast a Shield Charm large enough to protect the three of them before the first one came tumbling down. And then another fell. And another, until there was a sea of books, ornaments, and everything else surrounding their safe, impenetrable dome of magic. Waiting until the sounds of raining objects had ceased, she cast a quick spell to clear a path, and the trio crawled their way out of the pile.

"Okay," mumbled Ron sheepishly. "You might have had a point about being prepared."

"Yeah," nodded Harry. "Thanks, Hermione."

"It's fine. Can we just get out of this room before something else falls on us please?"

"Absolutely."

Hermione shoved open the door and yelped when the Headless Hunt stormed past, the mouths on their decapitated heads wide and roaring like madness, their horses galloping like thunder. As the last of them rushed by and Ron and Harry joined her in the corridor, she gaped at the mess. There were more fires now, blazing furiously, scorching her skin. A carpet of rubble lined the floor, and the walls were broken up with large, yawning holes so big she could make out the stifled glow of the moon behind the clouds outside.

"Merlin," she said. "How long were we in there?"

"Apparently a week," mumbled Ron. "Blimey."

"Shit, where's Ginny?" Harry blurted , frantically searching the area around them. "I-I asked her to wait right there! Where the hell did she go?"

"Harry, I'm sure she's fine-

"Hermione, look at the state of this place! Anything could have happened to her!"

"You know how smart she is," she assured him, grabbing his face so he'd meet her eyes. "Look, we've got one Horcrux left. Just one. We're so close to ending all of this."

"But we don't know where Voldemort is," said Ron. "Shit, I forgot I can't say his name-

"It doesn't make a difference anymore," Harry interrupted. "He's already here, and people are probably saying his name every two seconds. But you're right. We don't know where he is, which means we don't know where Nagini is."

"But you can look inside his head, Harry," said Hermione, offering him a brief but encouraging smile. "You can do it. Look inside his head."

.

.

Draco's muscles tensed when two more Death Eaters came into his line of sight. He recognised the unsightly face of Thicknesse, slightly shielded by the shadow of his hood, but the other was a stranger with black eyes and crooked teeth. Softening his footfalls and quietening his movements, Draco edged closer with his wand outstretched intending to catch them unawares, but their tagalongs shattered that possibility.

"Hey, Perce!" exclaimed Fred, and the Death Eaters' heads snapped in their group's direction. "Look, it's your boss!"

"Ex-boss," said Percy, launching a jinx at Thicknesse.

Draco only needed to cast one spell; within a matter of minutes both of the men were outdone and blacked out on the floor. The nameless Death Eater had gone down quickly, courtesy of a swift and precise Petrificus Totalus from Blaise, but the Minister had managed to hold his ground for a short while. With five against one, Draco had fired a Diffindo and sliced a gash into the man's face, and then the Weasley brothers had hammered him with a barrage of Stunning Spells until he'd fallen.

"I know everyone thinks their boss is an arsehole," said Fred, wiping the sweat from his brow. "But yours really is a massive arsehole, Perce."

"Agreed."

Fred nodded, but then he slanted his eyes over to Blaise and Draco, still dubious and untrusting. "By the way, just because you helped, it doesn't mean we believe you now."

"Piss off, Weasley," sneered Draco. "You think I give a shit about-

"Oh, look," mumbled Lovegood, who was standing a short distance away at the junction of another corridor, pointing at something the rest of them couldn't see. "There's Harry, Ron, and Hermione."

What?

Draco rammed Fred out of his way and ran to where Lovegood was standing, following the line of her pointed finger...and fuck. Fuck his flimsy soul, there she was. Right there. There with Potter and Weasley, perhaps sixty yards away at the other end of the corridor; too far to make out the familiar specifics of her features or even what she was wearing. The shape of her was blurry and distorted with the smoke clouding the air, stinging his eyes, but it was definitely her.

By the time the bedlam in his brain had calmed and the realisation had sunk in, Blaise and the two Weasleys had ambled over to join them, but he didn't notice. Didn't care. All he saw was her.

"There he is!" shouted Percy. "Hey, Ron!"

Draco dashed ahead, channelling all his energy into his legs, his feet barely touching the floor and his arms swinging to propel him forward. Fast, frantic, and unstoppable.

Ten yards closer and he called out her name — "Granger!" —but the echo of it was drowned out when a blast of wind pushed him sideways, compromising his balance. Gracelessly skidding to a halt, he glanced at the cavernous hole in the wall to his left, feeling a few raindrops kiss his cheeks. He readied himself to continue running, but a sudden flash in his peripheral vision made him hesitate, and he snapped his head to the side.

His eyes went wide but his pupils shrank beneath the glare of it. The spell was one of the largest he'd ever seen, and it was heading straight for them.

He blinked when Fred darted past him, and he instinctively reached out, grabbing the collar of his shirt and yanking him backwards, simultaneously lifting Andromeda's wand.

"Malfoy, what the-

"Protego!"

The spell hit. Draco's Shield Charm wasn't strong enough to neutralise it, but it did protect him and the others from the full force of it...it was so powerful, though. Powerful enough that Draco felt the floor collapse beneath his feet, and then he was falling. Plummeting.

The sound of the explosion was ferociously loud, bashing his eardrums, but he still heard Granger's scream. It sliced right through him, like the cold swing of an axe.

He was vaguely aware of Lovegood reciting a spell, and then he stopped falling.

.

.

Hermione had no idea what happened.

She'd been talking with Harry about what he'd witnessed in Voldemort's mind when she could swear someone had yelled her name. Yes, she was sure she'd heard her name — her surname actually — and she'd been turning her head to find the source of the voice, glimpsing the outlines of a few blurry silhouettes, but then the world had jerked forward with a deafening bang.

One second she was standing and the next she was flying.

Her body smacked sideways into the wall first and then her head was bouncing off it. She never really felt the impact, only heard the thump of her skull colliding with stone and it sounded like a gun firing right by her ear.

As she slid to the floor, Hermione felt light and numb, like she was suspended and detached from herself, floating above the situation like a ghost. Her eyes were watering, black dots speckling her vision, and there was a prolonged stretch of nothingness, only filled with a dull ringing that seemed to buzz like flies all around her.

"Hermione?"

She inhaled sharply, her lungs expanding until her chest hurt, and then her head was pounding. Pulsing. Sweet Merlin, it was painful, but she forced it away into a separate room of her mind as she carefully pulled herself up to sit, groaning with the effort. She could taste blood on her tongue and she spat, frowning at her red saliva as she brushed the dust and debris off her clothes.

"Hermione!" shouted Ron, coming to her side with Harry. "You okay?"

"I think so," she mumbled. Nothing felt broken or out of place. "Are you two okay?"

"We're both fine," said Harry. "Shit, you're bleeding."

She knew she was; she could feel the warmth of it dripping down her temple and some on her chin, but the boys were also bleeding. Harry had a jagged cut dissecting his cheek while Ron sported an ugly graze on his forehead, like someone had grated away a few layers of skin, and the thought of that made her wince.

"You're both bleeding, too," she told them, climbing to her feet with their help. She studied the scene around them, her eyes lingering on the huge hole in the wall and the destruction cluttering the hallway. "That was a big spell."

"I know," nodded Harry. "Hey, did you see Fred down there?"

"You saw him too?" asked Ron. "I thought I imagined it! I think Percy was with him but I couldn't see properly. Looked like there were some others, too."

"I thought I saw some people but I didn't get a good look," said Hermione, trying to recall those short seconds before the explosion. "I definitely heard someone call my name, though. It must've been Fred if you guys saw him."

But Fred would never call me Gra-

"Do you think they're alright?" Ron questioned anxiously, staring down the corridor. "And where did they go?"

"It looked like they were turning around," muttered Harry. "Maybe they saw it coming. I'm sure they're fine, Ron."

"Maybe we should split up and try to find them? And Ginny-

"No," Hermione interrupted, her voice firm. "I'm sorry, I know you want to look for them but we need to find the snake so we can finish this. Now, Harry, you said Voldemort was at the Shrieking Shack?"

"Yes."

"And Nagini was with him?"

"Yes, but he has some magical barrier around her," he explained, staring at his fidgeting hands. "He was telling Lucius Malfoy to find Snape."

Hermione willed the muscles in her face to remain still at the mention of Draco's father. Draco's Death Eater father. "I can't believe Voldemort's not even fighting. It's so cowardly."

"He thinks I'll go to him. He knows we're looking for the Horcruxes and if Nagini's with him-

"So you can't go then," said Ron. "He's expecting you. I'll go-

"No," Harry cut across him, "I'll use the Cloak-

"I know the most spells," reasoned Hermione. "It makes more sense if I-

"No!" the boys barked in unison.

"Oh honestly, this is hardly the occasion for sexism!"

Hermione was preparing to argue her point further when two masked Death Eaters appeared, one raising his wand. As the Killing Curse burst out the tip, she pushed Harry out of its path, feeling the green breeze of it rush past her ear, like it stroked her hair before it struck the wall. Ron fired a spell, successfully stunning one of the Death Eaters, but then three more emerged from the smoke, and Harry grabbed her and Ron, dragging them to the stairs as fast as he could.

As more spells from the Death Eaters skimmed past their bodies, missing them by mere inches, Hermione shouted the first spell she could think of — "Glisseo!" — and the stairs flattened into a slide beneath their feet.

They plunged down without any control.

Down, down, down.

.

.

Draco grunted, struggling to breathe.

He concluded from the bizarrely comfortable texture of the rubble beneath him that Lovegood had cast a Cushioning Charm before they'd landed, but there was a heavy pressure on his stomach and something prodding at his ribs. Dazed and disorientated, he lifted his head, blinking away the thick crust of dust in his eyes to discover a mop of red hair against his chest.

"Weasley," he growled, "Get your fucking arse off me!"

Fred popped his head up, his eyes confused and incredulous. "You...you just saved my life."

"Get off me, or so help me-

"But you-

"Get the fuck off me, you stupid tosser!"

Fred shifted, poking his elbow even harder into Draco's ribs and ramming a knee into his gut as he clumsily clambered to his feet. With the wind knocked out of his lungs and dirt clogging his windpipe, Draco coughed and sputtered as he pulled himself up to stand, clutching his aching side. After a couple of stretches to work out the cricks in his limbs, he looked around, scowling when he realised Fred was still staring at him with awe.

"What the hell is your problem?"

"You saved my life," repeated Fred.

"No, I didn't."

"If you hadn't grabbed me, that spell would've killed me."

"Shut up!" Draco barked. "You're giving me a headache."

Blaise wandered over to his side, his expression somewhere between surprised and smug. "You know," he said quietly, so only they would hear, "You actually did save his-

"Don't you fucking start," he snarled. "It was an accident. You think I give a shit about him?"

"No, I don't think you give a shit about him, but I think you're decent and human enough to save someone's life when it's in your power."

"Sod off, you sound like an idiot," he grumbled, eyes rolling. "Make yourself useful and levitate me up there so I can see if Granger's still there."

Silently casting the Mobilicorpus, Blaise elevated Draco into the air, up to the hole in the ceiling until he was high enough to survey the scene on the seventh floor. "Well? See anything?"

"No, they're gone," he sighed, unsuccessfully attempting to hide his disappoint as Blaise lowered him back down. "Fucking hell. Now what?"

"Ron's not up there either?" asked Fred.

"Excuse you," said Draco spitefully. "Private conversation and you're not invited."

"Well, if you're still looking for Hermione she'll be with Ron. We should stick together and-

"Stick together? What, you trust us now?"

Fred shrugged. "I don't think you'd save my life if you were a Death Eater, Malfoy."

"Don't encourage me to consider rectifying that, Weasley," he mumbled coldly. "Go away."

"Maybe sticking together isn't a bad idea," Blaise offered, subtly glancing in Lovegood's direction with a hint of worry. "The Death Eaters seem to be moving in groups. We'd be better off with more of us."

"Exactly!" nodded Fred. "Hey, just out of curiosity, why are you looking for Hermione anyway?"

Draco threw his eyes over to Blaise, frowning at the knowing grin that reached up his friend's cheeks and the amused tilt of his chin. But then something was streaking past the edges of his vision; fast and sudden, and Draco turned his head just in time to witness Terry Boot slam into the wall. Even from twenty yards away, Draco heard the loud and blunt snap of the Ravenclaw's neck upon the impact, and he could do little but stare as the body sank to the floor, a lifeless deadweight, his head bent at an unnatural angle.

Before the echoes of Boot's broken neck could even finish ricocheting around the corridor, a chuckling pack of Death Eaters swarmed into the hallway, their masks shimmering like scales in the dim light. Percy was the first to angle his wand and fire a spell, then Blaise, and then Draco. It was all so fast and intense; a blur of activity and flashing lights, and the only thing that Draco could focus on was the repetitive drumming of one word in his head.

Survive, survive, survive.

.

.

"NO!"

Hermione's fear was replaced by anger. That hot, raw sort of anger that needs to be burned away with action or yelling, or in her case, both. The spell that jetted out of her wand was strong and volatile, catching Fenrir in his side and sending him backwards, but she barely noticed the sound of him colliding with the wall. All she could really see was Lavender's still and eerily pale body, blood seeping out of the bite-shaped hole in her throat. Even when Ron yanked her out of the way of a crumbling pillar, her eyes lingered on Lavender's blue lips.

A giant's foot stomping only a few yards away diverted her attention, and she, Harry, and Ron dashed onward, trying to avoid its heavy steps as it punched a hole into one of Hogwarts' upper floors. She watched Ron's expression seize up with horror as six Acromantulas scuttled by, perilously close to where they were, carrying someone with them.

Hagrid.

Harry must've noticed because he ran towards them, screaming Hagrid's name and waving his wand, but they were much too fast. He followed them anyway, and Hermione dragged Ron after them, refusing to lose Harry amongst the pandemonium.

All around her were people she knew: professors, students, even many of the Death Eaters were recognizable from past skirmishes, and she watched the hexes fly between them, illuminating the night like one of Flitwick's firework shows. Her heart had never pounded so hard in her life. Keeping her eyes on Harry, she deflected a spell intended for him, and then another that would have hit her, all the while catching glimpses of familiar faces in the haze of the battle. Lee, Dean, Cho, Fleur; all of them zipped past the corners of her sight, and for the briefest of moments, she thought she'd seen Theo.

Deciding that was impossible and continuing in her pursuit for Harry, she ran down the front steps, sighing when Harry finally came to a stop, but then she realised why. The giant that blocked Harry's path was huge and hideous, bellowing like a horn as it swung its club, the ground quaking with its movements. Hermione had her wand ready to disable the beast, but a series of loud thuds disrupted her concentration and Grawp came trudging over, sizing up the larger giant. Both roared and charged at each other, wrestling and grappling savagely, and Hermione hoped that her friends avoided being trampled beneath their enormous feet.

A jinx whipped past her head and she was running again, pulling Ron with her towards Harry. Even at a distance, she could make out the dejection on his features, evidently affected from watching Hagrid being hauled away by the spiders. As cold as it sounded, she hoped Harry had the discipline to detach himself from it and keep going. They needed to carry on. They needed to finish this.

"Harry!" she called, but he didn't acknowledge her. "HARRY!"

He twisted his head, frowning at her and Ron, his lips pursed with the effort to keep all his frustration and despair bottled up, and Hermione wanted to hug him. But she didn't. Something exploded nearby and the wind turned hot, the rain like acid, and something slashed her arm. Shaking it off and snatching Harry's sleeve, she yanked him and Ron into the darkness, trying to steer them away from the erratic lights of clashing spells.

"The Whomping Willow," said Harry. "I can see it. Head for it."

Hermione blinked away the rain in her eyes, watching as the temperamental tree thrashed and writhed, its branches wildly twirling like it was just as distressed by the War as everything else on Hogwarts' grounds. Stopping short of its brawny, swinging branches, Hermione absently thought of Crooks as Ron levitated a twig to jab at that spot near the roots, rendering the Whomping Willow motionless.

"Nice," she nodded approvingly. "Okay, let's go."

"Wait," whispered Harry. "You two should stay here and-

"Oh for heaven's sake, Harry," groaned Hermione. "Seven years later and you still think we're going to let you go alone?"

"Yeah, seriously, mate," said Ron, pushing Harry forward. "Shut the hell up and go in. We're right behind you, as always."

Ducking down into the dirty tunnel, Hermione followed Harry, crawling her way through the tunnel, earth gathering beneath her fingernails. With the light of Harry's Lumos guiding their way, it didn't take them long to reach the end, but she grabbed Harry's ankle before he could get to close.

"Wait," she whispered, reaching in her bag to remove the Cloak. "Put this on."

He did, but his feet were visible, and she watched the soil shift as Harry wriggled himself near the tunnel's exit, which seemed to be blocked by something. Low voices leaked into the passage and the trio stilled, quietening their breaths to avoid detection. The scratchy, hissing tone of Voldemort harassed her ears, but she couldn't grasp enough of the other male voice to recognise the owner, assuming it was one of his Death Eater henchmen. The voices were too muffled for her to distinguish the crux of the discourse, so she simply waited, listening intently, only catching the odd word here and there.

"Disappointment."

"My Lord."

"Harry Potter."

"Elder Wand."

"Dumbledore."

"True Master."

Staring at Harry's disembodied feet, Hermione frowned when she saw the tips of his shoes swell, like he was curling his toes. She resisted the urge to tap him and ensure he was okay, knowing that he might jump and give away their hiding spot, triggering a premature confrontation with Voldemort and whomever he was talking to. She would admit that she was hardly patient at the best of times, but confined to the claustrophobic, underground passageway and knowing that people were probably dying back at the castle made the wait unbearable, and she had to force her breathing to remain quiet.

There was a thump above her head followed by a scream, and Harry flinched, catching her off-guard and very nearly causing her to gasp, but she stopped herself, biting her tongue. Footsteps hit the floorboards, slowly travelling out of earshot until there was nothing but silence, and Hermione nervously tapped Harry's shoe, whispering his name.

She heard him mumble a spell and whatever had been blocking the trapdoor shifted to the side, allowing them to shuffle their way up into the room. Her eyes immediately fell to the fallen and crumpled figure on the floor, draped in his usual black robes and suddenly they seemed so fitting. Fixated on the blood pouring out Snape's throat, Hermione felt a genuine stab of sadness and regret as she watched his life literally gush out of him. Beside her, Harry removed the Cloak and Snape's eyes widened a fraction, but all that left his mouth was an awful, gurgling sound that made Hermione's gag reflex spasm.

"What happened to him?" asked Ron.

"Nagini," replied Harry, edging closer to Snape and dropping to his knees. "Voldemort thought that Snape was the master of the Elder Wand because he killed Dumbledore."

Hermione eyed Harry's conflicted features closely, knowing what turbulent thoughts would be running through his head. Despite her telling him that Snape was a spy for the Order, Harry understandably regarded Snape with uncertainty; he had, after all, witnessed this man killing Dumbledore. And now this revelation that Voldemort might have mastered the Elder Wand...it was a wonder Harry wasn't tearing out his hair.

Looking back to Snape she gasped when she noticed an odd, glittering, blue-white substance leaking out of him. It cascaded out from his ears, eyes, and the hole in his throat, randomly reminding Hermione of stars caught behind clouds, barely twinkling in the dark.

"T...Take it," stuttered Snape, his voice weak.

Thinking quickly, she conjured a flask and thrust it into Harry's hand, watching him use his wand to transfer the substance until the container was full. Hermione hadn't realised she was clutching her hands tightly in front of her until her thumbnail pierced the skin of her palm. Taking a step forward, she crouched down a little, chewing her lip when Snape's dying eyes slanted over to her for a brief moment.

"We know you weren't bad," she told him softly, thinking she sounded almost childlike. "And we'll make sure everyone else knows when this is over."

His expression flickered, turning into something indefinable; something between resignation and peace. Staring at Harry again, he reached out, seizing the scruff of Harry's shirt and pulling him closer, locking their eyes. The final traces of life seemed to leave Snape quickly as all the colour drained from his face, but he parted his lips, swallowing heavily before he spoke.

"Green...eyes..." he rasped out. "D-don't look away...from me."

Hermione held her breath as the final puff of Snape's left him, misting Harry's spectacles.

.

.

Draco wasn't doing too well.

These Death Eaters were experienced and quick, Dark Magic spilling out of their wands so effortlessly, and Draco had suffered some damage as a result. He was fairly certain his left shoulder was dislocated, at least two of his ribs were bruised, possibly broken, and his lower lip had split, blood staining his teeth and trickling down his chin.

Dodging a vicious Curse, he retaliated with a Disarming Spell, but then he felt something stab his midriff and he sucked in a harsh breath, clutching his inured side. The wound wasn't particularly deep or worrying, but it burned like there was an unseen hand rubbing salt into it and his legs trembled as the pain swam around his body. With a groan vibrating in his windpipe, he pushed it all away, forcing himself to stay steady and focused. A few yards away, Blaise was also struggling to fend off the Death Eaters, frantically trying to defend not only himself, but also Lovegood; the Weasley brothers didn't seem to be faring too well either.

Draco lifted Andromeda's wand, aiming it at one of the Death Eaters attacking Blaise, but then there was a scratching, icy voice in his ear, practically spitting against his neck. It was Voldemort's voice speaking to the castle again, and everything and everyone went still.

"You have fought valiantly. Lord Voldemort knows how to value bravery. Yet you have sustained heavy losses."

Draco shared an anxious look with Blaise.

"If you continue to resist me, you will all die, one by one. I do not wish this to happen. Every drop of magical blood spilled is a loss and a waste. Lord Voldemort is merciful. I command my forces to retreat immediately."

Turning his attention to the group of Death Eaters, he scowled at the disappointment that stole their features, but they slowly began to back away.

"You have one hour. Dispose of your dead with dignity. Treat your injured. I speak now, Harry Potter, directly to you..."

.

.

Hermione watched the horror flash across Harry's features and she yearned to console him, but she felt frozen, routed to the spot as Voldemort's voice continued to harass the night.

"...You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself. I shall wait for one hour in the Forbidden Forest. If, at the end of that hour, you have not come to me, have not given yourself up, then battle recommences."

Hermione furiously shook her head at Harry.

"This time, I shall enter the fray myself, Harry Potter, and I shall find you, and I shall punish every last man, woman, and child who has tried to conceal you from me. One hour."

"No, Harry," she said sternly. "Don't even consider it."

"You heard what he said," he murmured helplessly. "More people will die if I-

"You think Voldemort will actually spare people if you go to him?" asked Ron. "Come on, Harry, he's hardly trustworthy. He plans to kill everyone anyway."

"Ron is right," Hermione nodded. "Look, there's no way you're going. We only have the snake left, remember? It will be fine. We should head back to the castle and try to think of a new plan now he's in the Forest." She reached forward to hold his hand, pulling him towards the tunnel. "Come on now. We'll figure something out."

Glancing at Snape's blue-ish face before she dropped down into the underground passage, a wave of guilt rippled through her, and the urge to return to Snape's side to lower his lids to hide his dead eyes pulled at her stomach, but she resisted. They had to get going. They only had one hour. One hour.

She could feel Harry shaking behind her as they crawled their way back through the tunnel, but she didn't comment on it, too preoccupied with wondering what was waiting for them back at Hogwarts.

.

.

His shoulder was throbbing and he didn't dare try to move his arm, simply gritting his bloody teeth and following the Weasleys in silence.

Blaise was limping alongside him, his arm slung around Lovegood's neck for support, telling Draco that the injury to her leg wasn't as bad as it looked. Ahead of them, the Weasley brothers carried Terry Boot's body, his shoes scraping across the stone floor, making a noise that sent shivers down Draco's spine. The castle was unnervingly quiet now, and as they walked by the bodies of two Death Eaters, Draco felt dread swarm in his chest as the scent of death hit his nostrils. With still no sign of Granger, he was beginning to panic a little.

"Where the hell are we going exactly?" he asked harshly.

"I'm guessing everyone's gathering in the Great Hall," replied Fred. "The medical wing would be too small to treat the injured."

Smothering a retort, he carried on, and it took them a good fifteen minutes to reach the ground floor from the sixth floor, hindered by blocked staircases and fallen debris. Along the way, they crossed several more bodies, including Ritchie Coote and Mandy Brocklehurst.

"Any chance one of you three can carry them?" asked Percy.

"No," said Lovegood. "Blaise and Draco are too wounded and I doubt I could carry them by myself. I could levitate them, though."

"No, they should be carried," mumbled Fred. "We'll come back and get them, or tell someone where they are."

When they reached the ground floor, the sounds of turmoil rushed up the corridor to greet them: screaming, sobbing, shouting; just every plausible heart-wrenching noise made by human or beast, all mangled into one piercing racket of trauma. Draco slowed his steps, suddenly alarmed and tentative about entering the hall.

But he carried on, needing to know.

The doors were already open, and when he caught sight of the scene within the room, he stilled, his eyes going round, his pupils dilating. Blaise and Lovegood had also stopped walking, studying the setting with slackened jaws. Draco never imagined in his lifetime that he would see Lovegood appear so affected by anything, but her face was alive with sorrow.

"Merlin," she mumbled, her tone fragile, yet still somehow wistful. "Do you suppose this is what the Muggles mean when they talk about Hell?"

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