Almost immediately after Narcissa agreed to my request, I excused myself from the room and made my way back to the kitchen where the planning was going on. When I arrived, I realized Lupin had joined the discussion.
"It isn't a good idea to go in over your heads. Get in, gather information, get out. Don't try to recover the Elder Wand. Even if Voldemort isn't using it, he probably has it extremely well guarded." I took my spot at Draco's right, Ron sitting on his other side.
I didn't even have to look to know Hermione had walked into the room. Although all my attention was on the former professor, my hand sought out hers beneath the table as soon as she sat by my side. I laced my fingers with hers, caressing her hand with my thumb.
"Things may not be as bleak as they seem." Everyone's attention turned to Hermione, and I shifted slightly to face her. She waited for questions, but everyone else waited for her to elaborate. "I was just speaking to Mrs. Malfoy. She's willing to be our eyes and ears. Sure, she doesn't have access to Hogwarts, but she has access to the manor, where Voldemort spends nearly as much time."
"That's brilliant!" Potter seemed genuinely excited, and I watched as Hermione offered him a smile. After working out the finer details of how we were getting to Hogwarts and back, the meeting was over and it was time to prepare. Potter and Hermione were escorting us back through the portal and through the remains of Grimmauld Place. Apparition wasn't an option, either to leave the hideout and Grimmauld Place or to get into Hogwarts. We were leaving Dobby as a last resort, wanting to endanger as few lives as possible. He was better off at the hideout, for now, helping tend to the others.
Once we were through the portal, I was taken aback by the stench of destruction. Having been out for the count before the battle was over, I hadn't seen the extent of the damage. Ashes covered everything, like black snow. I wondered how the muggles had taken the event. Did the protection on the house shield all the damage as well? Under separate invisibility cloaks, we made our way through the ruins of the once proud House of Black. Tension was palpable in the air, and I had to clench my jaw and keep my hand steady to keep from reaching out a few feet in front of me, to grab Hermione and send her back. Just walking through the shaky house was dangerous, and there was no way to know if any Death Eaters had come back.
We made it all the way through the lower levels, and up into the main parlor. Nearly everything was ashes, the tapestry with the family tree falling apart, charred bits of the material littering the floor everywhere. Most of the front of the house was blown apart completely, and it struck me as amusing that muggles walked along the sidewalk right in front of the house and didn't give it a second thought. I suppose that answered my earlier question. When it seemed the coast was clear of any danger, we removed our cloaks.
Weasley and I were on the edge of the property, ready to Apparate.
"Be careful." Potter's show of concern was strange, but I figured it was a normal thing when it came to Weasley and Hermione. "Both of you." He pointedly looked at me, and again it was odd to see him attempt friendliness. I nodded, the corner of my mouth tilting up slightly. Maybe in a different life, a different world, Potter and I could have been great friends, much like him and Weasley.
Hermione showed her worry in a different way. She brought Weasley into a hug first, and he returned the embrace, like an older brother bidding his little sister good-bye. When she turned to me, it was clear she was making an effort not to try to stop me again. Her arms went around my waist, the side of her face against my chest. Such an open show of affection in front of her friends caught me off guard, and I was prepared to fight both Potter and Weasley off. I was surprised when they both took it in stride.
"Don't do anything reckless."
"Tell that to Weasley." I tried to put humor in my voice, watching said redhead out of the corner of my eye, gauging his reaction. He quirked an eyebrow, as if to challenge what I'd said. She pulled back, but before pulling away completely, she stood up on her toes and pulled me down by the front of my shirt, placing a soft kiss on my lips. Again, the way she openly showed affection caught me by surprise. I'd never thought of kissing her in front of her friends, knowing that they don't take kindly to me enough already. Not to mention, Malfoys are brought up not to show much affection, least of all in public. When she pulled away, I couldn't help but stand there, slightly dazed, until Weasley stepped off the grounds and onto the sidewalk. After one more glance at Hermione, I followed suit. With a pop we both appeared in Hogsmeade.
"You really care about him a lot, don't you?" Harry's whispered question caught me off-guard, and I wasn't sure if I'd heard him correctly. We were sitting in the portrait room of the stronghold, taking in the quiet atmosphere. All we could do was wait for them to return.
"More than I could ever really express." I was curled up in an armchair, a cup of tea in my hands as I stared at the fireplace that served as the portal into the stronghold. I took a sip, letting it warm my chilled bones. I hated waiting.
"It figures…don't know why I didn't see it before." There was a hint of laughter in his voice, and I looked away from the fire and at my friend.
"What do you mean, 'it figures'?" He smiled at me, but I continued to look at him curiously.
"Hermione…you're more intuitive than the rest of us. Of course you'd see good where no one else would. It makes sense that you, of all people, would reform Malfoy. It's impossible not to care about you Hermione, and this is from a nonromantic standpoint. I can only imagine Malfoy feels for you the way I do for Ginny." Suddenly, the smile turned somber, and his voice grew softer. "If I'd been in his position…knowing what a Sectumsempra could do…seeing Ginny about to be hit by one…" It suddenly clicked in my head that that was why Harry had so readily accepted him: for the sole reason that Draco had intercepted a fatal spell for me. "I would have done the same thing." His eyes darkened, and I knew all the terrible possibilities were running through his mind.
"It won't come to that, Harry. This will all be over soon and we can finally go about our lives the way we were meant to." He smiled again, and Ginny appeared in the doorway.
"Mum made dinner." Harry immediately stood, but I couldn't bring myself to follow.
"You guys go on ahead. I'm not really hungry." I couldn't eat, not with the constant worry for Ron and Draco clawing at my insides. Harry walked by me and placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezing in an attempt to comfort me. I smiled at him, albeit weakly, and he left. All I could do now was stare at the fire, praying they would emerge from it soon, my hands clutching my tea cup.
We wasted no time in heading towards Honeydukes. We sneaked into the store and down to the basement, where I'd been informed earlier that there was a passage that led to the school. Weasley pulled out a map and showed me. It led to a statue I'd seen before, the witch with the hunched back. He told me of another way off the grounds, the passage that went between the Shrieking Shack and Whomping Willow. We would have taken that one, if it didn't leave us outside. Chances were, both entrances were guarded, as Wormtail knew of them both, being one of the Marauders himself. Being within the walls was riskier, but it also brought us closer to our objective.
As we traversed the underground tunnel, each of us clutching a separate Invisibility Cloak, silence grew heavy. One of us was bound to break it, but I didn't think Weasely would be the first to do it.
"How much do you care about her, Malfoy?" He didn't even look back to gauge a reaction. I watched his taller frame, as he led the way before me. His voice lacked its usual contempt, and simply held a strange mixture of detachment and curiosity.
"If I knew you'd be interrogating me, I wouldn't have come." He scoffed at my words, ducking under a rock protruding from the side.
"That's rubbish and you know it. I'm trying to understand, so stop being a prick. Clearly, you care about her." By now, we were by the exit.
"Clearly, though I don't know why I need to explain myself to anyone, least of all you." He quickly turned to face me, his eyes holding the glare I was used to receiving. Before he could say anything, I lifted my hands in a sign of surrender. "Relax, Weasel, I didn't mean it like that." He looked at me curiously, his wandlight casting shadows on his face. "I thought, given your…err, history with Hermione, you'd understand more than anyone how easy it is to fall in love with her."
At the mention of my love for her, he looked taken aback. Of course, I didn't blame him. Malfoys were raised to not to show emotion, and to make sure those around them didn't think it was even possible. I knew he could hear it in my voice, though, the way I said her name. I made little effort to hide it at this point.
"I see." He said nothing else as we climbed up through the exit, cloaks carefully draped over us. There weren't any guards at the entrance, which immediately set off alarms in my mind. Weasley mumbled something about continuing, but I shot an arm out in his direction, stopping him.
"Wait." My voice was hardly a whisper. "Something's not right…" Everything was eerily still, not a sign of life anywhere. Granted, Hogwarts had been like this since the battle the Order failed to win against Voldemort, but it was different. Even though students no longer walked the halls, life had been present in little things. I could always sense the other Death Eaters nearby. This time, though, there was nothing.
"What?" I removed the cloak from my head, and it provoked a more heated reaction. "What the bloody hell are you doing, Malfoy?"
"There isn't anyone here." Weasley removed his own cloak, looking around, finally sensing the total emptiness.
"You're right. Why?" I shrugged. How was I supposed to know? Despite the seeming safety, we placed the cloaks back on and made our way to the Room of Requirement. We needed answers, and that was as good a place to start as any.
What seemed like hours later, I was still sitting in that chair and staring at the fire. Everyone had eaten together, and Luna had decided to bring me a plate of food. The ceramic was warm in my hands, a small comfort in place of the warmth I felt from Draco. I looked up at her and smiled sadly, knowing she was just as worried as I was, though she handled it better. I lay the plate in my lap, receiving the fork she handed to me and beginning to pick at my food.
She sat across from me, simply watching me eat. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence, as it tended to be when I didn't know what to say. For once, I was rendered speechless.
"It's ok to worry, you know." Her soft voice brought me out of the staring contest I was having with my plate. She wasn't facing me anymore, but instead looked at the fire. If possible, the intensity in her eyes magnified tenfold with the flames.
"I know." I felt tears prickling behind my eyes. I tried my hardest to never let the others see me cry. I was a third of the Golden Trio, a supposed role model and leader. I couldn't act like a scared little girl, despite how fitting that description was at the moment.
"They'll be ok. They always are." She seemed so confident in her words.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Have some faith in their ability, Hermione. They're both fairly brilliant in their own right." By now I'd managed to pick away at more than half my food, trying to ignore that it tasted like ashes in my mouth. It sank to my stomach, along with my heart.
"I can't help but expect the worst, Luna. All these scenarios keep running through my mind. I…it's difficult to explain, to tell you the truth." I looked sheepish with my head down, eyes stuck to my half-empty plate.
"Try me." She moved from her seat and walked towards me, kneeling by me and placing a comforting hand on my knee. Luna and I had never been close, but this seemed natural, and I couldn't help but essentially spill my fears to her.
"When I thought Draco had…" I took a deep breath. "When he was hit, I don't know what came over me. I love him, Luna. I've never been the violent type, but when it comes to him…there's a side of me I can't control. He brings out the best, and the worst, in me at the same time. I killed for him, Luna. Killed. I…I never want to feel that kind of despair again. I was lost, utterly and completely blinded."
"You're more emotional than you let people see. When you lose someone that important, or are at risk of losing them, all rational thought goes out the proverbial window. That's normal. I'd be afraid if you could think rationally and still kill someone. That would make us no better than them. Our emotion, the way we feel about our friends and lovers, that's what sets us apart." I looked at the younger witch as she finished her small speech. It was something that could have been taken from Dumbledore himself.
"Thank you." She smiled her characteristic dreamy smile and nodded. Our small peace, however, was interrupted by Narcissa's voice.
"Hermione!" My head snapped up as the older witch said my name. Her eyes conveyed her worry perfectly through the portrait, and my heart sank all over again. "Gather the Order. Draco and the young Weasley are in danger!"