Hermione was certain of two things only. The first was that the two figures in the distance, flying toward Hogwarts, were Harry and professor Dumbledore. The second was that she had to get herself unnoticed to the Astronomy Tower because, with how high they were flying, that was the most likely place they would land. It was a logical assumption, backed up by the fact that it was from above the Astronomy Tower that the green light of the Dark Mark pulsed.
Malfoy's plan, whatever it was, succeeded.
Death Eaters were in the castle.
It was half past nine when Harry ran out of the Fat lady's portrait and barged into the Gryffindor common room, ignoring Ron and Hermione who were doing their homework on the couch in front of the fireplace. Breathless, he ran past them and up the stairs into his dormitory, ignoring Ron's inelegant 'Oi!' and Hermione's voice calling out his name. He ran out back to them less than a minute after, having retrieved from his suitcase everything he needed.
"No way, mate," Ron started in an exasperated voice after Harry chucked the Marauder's map into his lap.
"I've got homework to copy," he whined, chucking the map right back at Harry as he reached for the mug of cocoa on the coffee table in front of him. He was hoping that Harry would take the lengthy Transfiguration assignment that was due tomorrow as a good enough excuse not to stick him with the job of babysitting Draco Malfoy's name on a piece of old parchment, at least for tonight.
The candle lit room was warm and the air smelled faintly of cinnamon from the apple pies Dobby brought them earlier, but the peaceful comfort Ron and Hermione were feeling was gone when they noticed that Harry's mood was positively electric. Breathless as Harry was from running all the way from the headmaster's office, he seemed in such a mood that he might start jumping, shouting and dancing, all the same time, if only he wasn't too preoccupied with trying to catch his breath.
"Where are you going?" asked Hermione, who was comfortably reading a book on advanced Arithmancy, up until Harry barged in. A hint of alarm was in her voice since she noticed the folded Invisibility cloak under Harry's arm, knowing full well it could only mean trouble.
"It's after curfew," she said as she reached up and tugged on Harry's sleeve gently. She could feel Harry's silent excitement radiate in waves and she felt certain that she wasn't going to like whatever he was up to. Here we go again, she thought as he leaned his head closer to them so that they could hear his silent whispers.
"It's happening. Dumbledore's found a Horcrux and he's taking me with him."
Upon hearing those words, Ron immediately spat out a bit of cocoa that he was sipping onto his lap, the droplets luckily missing the Map, and Hermione gasped in horror rather loudly, covering her mouth with her hands in her usual manner.
"We would have left already, but I had to come here and fetch the Invisibility cloak," Harry said with a determined smile, ignoring their reactions as he reached into his pocket.
"Feels like a good time to drink this," Harry said before they could recover from the shock of his declaration and attack him with questions. He was grinning as he took the vial of the remaining Felix Felicis out of his pocket, uncorked it and drank its contents in a big gulp.
He savoured the sweet taste of the amber liquid, thinking that that was the last time in his life he would pour Luck down his throat, and closed his eyes in order to completely savour the moment.
"Harry, but where are you going?" Hermione repeated her question, this time in a shrill voice, her fear rising after she witnessed Harry drink the last of the precious potion. Harry was certainly acting nonchalant, as if he might have just drunk pumpkin juice, but she knew inside herself that wherever they were going must be very dangerous if there was need for that.
"Did professor Dumbledore ask you to drink the Felix or was it your own idea?", she added to her question.
"I don't have time to explain," Harry said in reply, and immediately the effects of the potion were visible. He seemed like he might have taken a calming drought instead of the Liquid luck as all his excitement was suddenly gone, replaced by poise and a sense of purpose.
"That is, other than it's in a cave that's in the middle of nowhere," he continued, "and no, he didn't tell me to drink it, I just felt like I'll really need it. Ron, watch over Malfoy for me," Harry repeated his request as he turned his attention to his friend in a pleading voice.
"But I've got..." Ron started but didn't finish; instead he made an exasperated expression as he pointed at the Transfiguration papers that covered almost the entire table in front of them.
"With Dumbledore away, it will be a perfect chance for him to do something stupid. Again," Harry emphasised, and they both knew he had a point there.
Ron sighed and nodded, knowing there was no point in arguing with Harry about something as silly as Malfoy right before his mission with Dumbledore. McGonagall probably won't give him too harsh a punishment for not completing the assignment anyway, he consoled himself, and he knew that Harry hasn't even started on his.
"Thanks, mate," Harry said, sounding very relieved and the gratitude in Harry's voice cheered Ron up, if only a bit.
"I've got to go now," he said, nodding to both of them, and started turning, but stopped when he felt Hermione grab his hand with her own.
"Promise me that you won't do anything stupid," she asked as she tugged hard at his sleeve.
He looked into her pretty, chestnut coloured eyes and saw fear and pain in them, and he felt guilty for making her feel that way, but he knew that he couldn't refuse Dumbledore's request for help, even though he knew he would leave his favourite girl behind in emotional turmoil.
"I won't, don't worry," he said as he leaned down to embrace her and buried his face into the chaos that her hair was, inhaling deeply, thinking to himself that the scent of her shampoo will probably be the best thing to bring back to memory in case he was to die tonight.
"Dumbledore already made me promise to do everything he tells me. That should be more than good enough for you," he said with a smile as his lips were behind her ear, and he gave her a small kiss there, knowing that Ron wouldn't be able to see the excess of affection.
He felt her shiver slightly as he released her and both he and Ron heard her sniffle gently.
Hermione's reaction to a situation like this was fretting and general panic, but Ron's way was to mask fear with annoyance.
"Bloody hell, Mione, they are only going to fetch a Horcrux, not march into the Malfoy manor and have a grand battle with the ugly snake and his stupid army," Ron said as he pushed himself up in order to help Harry free himself from what seemed to be becoming a suffocating embrace.
"Please don't make too big of a deal out of this," Hermione heard Harry's gentle voice in her ear as he gave her another kiss, on her temple this time, and in the next moment he was already walking away from them while unfolding the cloak in order to disappear from sight.
Harry didn't stop to turn around. He wanted to, but he felt Felix starting to kick in at its full strength. It was telling him that they'll be alright.
As he was stepping out of the portrait again, he knew Ron already took over comforting Hermione. Felix was also telling him that Ron will do what he asked of him and somehow he knew that that was a crucial part of the events tonight. All that he needed to do now was to be quick about getting to Dumbledore so that the whole business can be over as soon as possible.
Both Ron and Hermione were silent as they waited for Harry's return, but Hermione's silence was more of the brooding type as opposed to Ron's, who looked more resigned than anything else.
For the first time since the Golden trio was formed Harry Potter left both his friends behind and headed into danger by himself. There were times when one or both had to stay behind, but this was the first time they were knowingly left behind, sitting on a sofa in front of the fireplace in the Common room with mugs of cocoa and homework scattered around them.
With how unconcerned Harry seemed, it felt to them as if he was headed for detention with Snape instead of Voldemort-related business. They knew they couldn't help him this time around, but simply being aware of it didn't make them feel any better. They wanted to be involved because that's how the Golden trio worked.
It's what they were used to after six long years of mischief and disobedience.
More than an hour passed since Harry left.
Some of the charmed candles have gone out (the castle's signal to the remaining students that it's bedtime) and the light in the room grew fainter, which added even more to the ominous atmosphere.
The grandfather clock behind them rang eleven times, its chimes leaving no echo in the room, but just hearing the sound break the eerie silence sent unwelcome shivers up their spines.
Ron had the Map in his lap and his eyes were glued on it, because even though he thought the information on Malfoy's whereabouts was useless without knowing what he was actually up to, he knew that Harry was counting on him. He turned the pages mechanically every few minutes to check Malfoys common routes. Upon finding him absent on every one of them, he went back to monitoring the empty hallway in front of the Room of Requirement.
Hermione, lying next to him, had a book in her lap but no patience to read it, and instead occupied herself by staring at Ron's profile as he studied the Map, her mind clouded with worry.
Even though she was wrapped all around in a thick golden blanket which made her look like an oversized dragon egg, she stuck her feet under the redhead's thigh in search for even more warmth. Feeling her discomfort, which he knew had nothing to do with her cold feet, Ron mechanically reached for her leg and started stroking it over the blanket.
"Mione," he started with a sigh without looking up from the Map, "he drank an entire bottle of Felix Felicis in front of our eyes. He'll be fine," he said, trying to comfort her.
"And he's with Dumbledore," he added.
For him this was argument enough, but he knew that she wouldn't be calm even if Harry was out there with the entire Order.
"They aren't going to a battle, they just need to collect Voldemort's cursed earrings or something like that," he said and sniggered as various imagined pieces of gaudy jewellery which the Dark Bastard might have used to make himself the world's biggest pain in the arse flashed through his mind.
What he said was silly enough to drag a small smile on Hermione's face.
"But you've seen Dumbledore's hand," she said with a sigh as she pushed her back off the sofa and leaned on her forearms.
"Even he can get careless. He's probably a lot weaker now due to that injury. And there is only so much luck one can have when fighting the darkest magic in the world, even with the Felix Felicis."
She started pulling her feet from under Ron, but he grabbed them with both his hands when he felt her move, with the same speed as if suddenly he were on the Quidditch pitch and her feet were the Quaffle, letting the Map fall on the floor between his legs in the process.
Screw Malfoy for the moment, he thought. He felt that she needed him and that took precedence. Her feet now felt even warmer, trapped in the big hands of the handsome redhead who was almost her brother. He looked at her with his innocent and trusting blue eyes, and from his half-smile she knew that he was not even half as worried as she was.
She leaned into his body and put her head on his shoulder, feeling his strong arms pull her even closer to him.
After the Ministry battle they no longer felt any awkwardness from close physical contact in times of fright. They found that after being through so much blood and dirt together through the years, they lost almost all sense of propriety.
Last year in the Ministry of Magic he held her half naked body in his arms, having the blood flow from her bare chest all over him after Dolohov's curse tore her open. It was him that carried her all the way to the atrium of the Ministry and flooed her to St Mungo's. When they reached the healing wards, due to the shock he was in from his own injuries, he refused to let go of her body so that Lupin and Kingsley had to pry her from him in order to allow the Healers to get to her. Due to such events, a year later, it was only natural that their first instinct was to ignore any thought of embarrassment and huddle closer together when frightened as they were tonight.
Ron had Quidditch practice a few hours ago so he smelled like the Quidditch pitch, like grass and wood and leather, and she felt just a bit better when his masculine scent surrounded her. Knowing that Ron was there to hold her calmed her down if only a little bit while she was imagining the various terrors that might be out there, trying to kill Harry that very moment. She had no way of knowing that Harry was battling Inferi at the same time Ron was telling her that he was safe.
"But it's the darkest magic, Ron," she whispered into his shoulder. "There is nothing more dangerous that those monstrosities of his. And there must be at least one Horcrux that he's kept safer than the others," she said, but Ron just closed his eyes, shaking his head.
"You're not the only one that's worried," he said quietly.
"I'm sorry," she said as she ended the hug and got up to her feet, since she knew she was beginning to feel too restless. All the anxiety she felt almost made her stomach turn and she was glad that she had a very light dinner.
She could still feel her skin tingle on the places where Harry kissed her. She turned to look at the clock and decided that too much time has passed. Harry didn't give them a specific time when he thought he might be back, but in her mind he was now officially late.
Ron, who was still on the couch, now that he no longer had her in his arms, wanted her back, belatedly realising that holding her also calmed him down, and as he felt anxiety creep up his mind he lay himself down on his back on the warm spot where her body was moments ago.
"I'm going out for a walk," she declared as she stood with her hands on her hips, just as he was about to ask her to come back to him. She started hunting for her shoes.
He didn't reply. He didn't want her to leave. She disappeared from his sight for a moment as she got on all fours to look for the shoes under the sofa.
"You know, I love the times when you forget that you're a witch and go full Muggle on us," he said with a snort while staring at the cracked ceiling with half a mind to just grab her and forcefully pull her back onto the couch with him.
"And what do you mean by that?" came her muffled reply from the floor.
"Accio shoes!" he said, waving his wand half-heartedly, and he heard the shoes move and stop in front of Hermione's feet.
"That's what I mean," he said and felt quite smug for a moment.
Unlike Harry who, since he found out that magic exists, became entirely dependent on it whenever he was allowed to use it, Hermione's mind reverted back to that of a Muggle when under enough stress. More than once have Harry and Ron found her jumping up and down in the library, trying to grab a book that was out of her reach when exams were near, instead of just Accioing it to herself.
"Thank you," she said gently and put on her shoes without looking at him.
"I don't mind you going, but what if someone sees you?" he asked.
"I'll tell Filch I'm on patrol if I see him. And if I come across some of the other Prefects I'll just say that I thought I was on duty. Something stupid like that." She finally turned to look at him and noticed that he looked like a kicked puppy. She half expected him to whine and beg for her to get back on the couch.
"I'll go mad if I don't walk around for a bit," she said, feeling a bit guilty as she knew she was leaving him all alone to just stare at the Map, but still she hoped he would understand her need for solitude in that moment.
"You've gone mad a long time ago, Mione," Ron said in a small voice as he looked at her, and she felt his blue eyes pierce her.
It was a new habit of his, to stare at her in a way that made her feel very naked.
She felt that the boy who she once knew to have the emotional range of a teaspoon was changing fast and in a way that unnerved her. He became way more observant lately than was to her liking, because it was her that he was observing, more often than not. She noticed it all, even though she never said a word about it. She picked up the fallen Map and gave it back to him so that she wouldn't have to respond to his queer statement.
Ron went back to dutifully studying the Map as soon as she put it in his arms, holding it up like a newspaper.
"Where's Draco?" she asked timidly, saying the name very gently, hoping that the blond Slytherin was back in his room already so that there wouldn't be a chance of her running into him, no matter how much she wished to see whether his cheeks have sunken even more, or if the dark circles under his eyes turned a deeper shade of purple.
"Draco?" Ron spat out the name, breaking himself out of the semi-cheerful mood he was in and lifted himself on his elbows with his face twisted in an expression of disgust.
"Malfoy," she groaned impatiently, rolling her eyes.
"Calling him by his name now? Mione, for fuck's sake!" Ron shouted, anger boiling within him in a matter of seconds.
Naturally, he instantly regretted it, seeing as she closed her eyes and just stood there as she realised her mistake, preparing herself for an old fight but obviously feeling defeated already. He fought for calm and tried again, ignoring the wish to stand up, shout and wave his arms to emphasise a point.
"Mione, I understand that he's in a very shitty position this year, but he is still the same bastard we've hated since first year and not another of the house elves to be pitied!"
Hermione kept silent as she watched Ron work himself into a snit over the fact that she'd accidentally said Malfoy's first name out loud. Great. All I needed tonight. The cherry on top.
"Katie is alive only because she was lucky. I am alive only because I was lucky," he said with his voice becoming louder as the memory of the night he almost died came back to him at full strength.
"I would be dead if Harry wasn't by my side when I drank the git's poison! Which he, let's not forget, intended for Dumbledore to drink! Did you forget that was two months ago?" he asked as he looked at her with a bewildered expression. How can she still be so stubborn?, he wondered, wishing that there was something he could say that would make her see reason.
He got up to his feet and stood in front of her, close enough that she could hear his breathing and feel as if he could hear the pounding of her heart.
"Look at me," he said in a gentle yet commanding voice. She complied and turned to him, looking at him with a slight frown on her face.
"He's not a house elf, Mione. Not another pet project of yours," he said more gently than before, reaching for her wrist with his hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. She wanted to speak, but she knew that Ron had a good point. It's just that she didn't want to acknowledge it all, since she still hadn't given up hoping that something could be done to help Draco Malfoy, and by doing that – to help Harry.
"He would probably use Cruciatus on you if you tried to bully him into accepting help. Don't you think Dumbledore would have turned him into a spy or put him under his protection already if it was possible for him to have a change of heart?"
Hermione thought of trying to explain again that Malfoy's actions were an obvious cry for help, but she knew that it would all fall on deaf ears, so she started turning away from him in hope that he would let her stare at the fireplace instead of his angry face, but he grabbed her arm and dragged her down to sit onto the couch next to him in the same fashion she dragged Harry for an embrace over an hour ago.
The task of watching the name of one Draco Malfoy on the Marauder's Map was the hobby Harry forced down on Ron and Hermione from the beginning of the school year, but at one point, since Malfoy became such a frequent topic, both Ron and Harry noticed that the venom that was supposed to be in her voice when she said his name was gone and instead she switched to the same compassionate tone of voice she used for the house elves.
They knew she was a sucker for lost causes, but becoming understanding and compassionate towards Malfoy was too much for them to handle, even though his circumstances were not hard to grasp. His father screwed up an important mission royally, so the world fell on the younger blond git's shoulders when Voldemort decided to punish Lucius by trying to break his son, and now he was miserable for it.
But Ron also never heard her call him Draco before. Which he found bloody alarming.
She felt that Ron said all he wanted to say and knew it was finally her turn to speak. She drew in a bit breath since she knew her words will escape her in a torrent. She knew before she started that she will sound like an unreasonable child to him, but that still didn't stop her from trying to explain how she felt.
"I know, but haven't you seen him lately?" she said pointedly, but Ron only gave her a look which said that seeing Malfoy for a minute was a minute too much for him.
"He looks desperate, and I can tell that he hasn't slept or eaten properly for months. Don't you think it would be better for us if we at least tried to get him to open up and ask for help before it's too late? He is a bastard and a sleazy git, I know all that, but I also know that he's not evil," she finished with a sharp intake of breath and saw Ron's frown deepen when he realised how convinced she sounded at her last statement.
"At least, that he's nothing like the rest of them," she added, hoping it was explanation enough.
"But how can you be so certain of it?" Ron asked her, now sounding more sad than exasperated, but there was also a hint of suspicion in his voice.
"That's what gets me every time. Lately you speak as if you've been his therapist. How do you know for sure that he wouldn't turn on us even if we did manage to break him in somehow?"
Hermione lowered her gaze, and somehow Ron felt a shift inside her and knew that she will not answer his question directly.
"I don't care about Malfoy at the moment, Ron. I care about Harry, who is still not back. I feel like jumping out of my own skin," she said while she wrapped her hands around her shoulders as if she was cold, hugging herself while trying to stay calm and prevent the tears from welling in her eyes.
"Hey, come here," said Ron, regretting that he's raised his voice when he saw her like that. With his hand extended he invited her for an embrace. "I'm sorry. It's an old fight already, I shouldn't have shouted like that."
"No," she said, waving his hand away with her own. She knew she might start crying if she accepted the embrace and she had no intention of Harry coming back and seeing her face red and puffy.
"No, you're right," she said with a forced smile, "I have been making too big of a victim out of him. I'm fine. Check where Malfoy is, please," she said in a gentle voice, hoping that he didn't think he had upset her too much. He too was worried about Harry, there's absolutely no need for him to be worried about her as well, she thought. Ron sighed and did what she asked of him.
"Be careful. He is still in the Room of Requirement. I mean, most likely, I don't see him anywhere else," he said, folding over the map in his lap.
"Thank you. I'm off." She stood up and started walking away without turning, the same way Harry did earlier that night.
"Mione!" she was almost at the portrait hole when he shouted after her and only then had she turned her head to look at him, but he only stared at her, not really knowing what to say, other than to ask her to stay, which he still didn't, since he knew it would be too selfish.
"I'll be careful," she said, drawing up a brave smile.
He sighed as she left, leaving him to fret both over Harry and her in his silent, unmoving way. He couldn't blame her, but was worried too, despite all the things he said. Still, that did not make him take his eyes off the Map.
He sat on the couch and stared at the Map, listening to the crackling of the wood in the fire and the ticks of the clock-hands behind him. He thought it a very pointless activity, it was an opinion he voiced many times during the year. He decided that after he confirmed that Malfoy returned to his dormitory he would abandon the map and get back to his homework. That should be enough for Harry.
It was only ten minutes after Hermione left that he saw Malfoy's name reappear on the Map. He relaxed for a moment, thinking that the babysitting was soon to be over, but he felt his world turn upside down when next to the blond git's name appeared the names of five other Death Eaters.
"Fuck!" He shouted loudly, not bothering to think that some of the students in the dorm rooms might hear him.
For a fraction of a moment the only thought in Ron's head was that he would never hear the end of it from Harry, before the weight of the danger everyone was in settled itself in his chest.
His heart started beating at an erratic pace as he bolted to his feet with the Map still in hand, but froze in spot, not knowing what to do next. He knew he needed to sound the alarm, but who was there to tell?
Harry was gone. Dumbledore was gone. He had no idea where Hermione was, though he franticly turned the pages of the Map around, trying to find her name. It showed up once in one of the corners but he overlooked it in his panic.
He didn't see the name on the Map, but instead it lit up in his mind like a beacon. An Order member. She will know what to do, he thought.
He knew it would take him less than a minute to reach her office if he ran to her at full speed, and with the way the Death Eaters still haven't moved from the spot where he first saw them, they weren't likely to intercept him.
He shoved the Map in his back pocket and started running.