Chapter Forty-four


Hermione groaned as she was dragged back to consciousness. The sound of laughter filled her ears and she struggled to figure out why. The last thing she remembered was going down to breakfast on Saturday morning, being high on the thrills of bitch-slapping Ron…

She slid her eyes open and yelped. Draco was lying not three feet away from her, sleeping peacefully, smiling slightly around the thumb in his mouth. The laughter in the background paused at her startled cry, then started back up again, louder now. Great. She was probably caught in the middle of yet another prank…

No. She was in the hospital wing. Someone had pushed her and Draco's cots together, probably because of the chain, and the railings had been raised on the other side of his cot; she reached behind her and felt another railing behind her. Odd. Madam Pomfrey usually only put the railings up when the patient using the cot was having fits or seizures of some kind.

Hermione pushed herself up on one elbow and started to call out to whomever was laughing behind her, but the sight of Draco's attire stopped her dead. He was wearing a black sweater, gray slacks, mismatched socks, a green cape and a fluffy pink tutu.

Hermione looked down at herself, startled to see her own bizarre outfit. "What the…?"

"Hey, Hermione," said a weary voice behind her.

"Neville? For crying out loud, who is that laughing?"

"That would be Harry. You all got hit with a Euphoria Charm yesterday."

"A Euphoria Charm? But those are so difficult to do, not to mention highly illegal… is that why Harry's laughing?"

"Nope," Neville said. "He's laughing because I'm trying to tell him what all you lot did while under the effects of the Euphoria Charm."

Hermione groaned. "Tell me there weren't witnesses."

Neville cleared his throat, but before he could reply, Draco suddenly let out a mad cackle in his sleep and started spasming like mad. "Malfoy! Malfoy!" Hermione called anxiously, trying to wake him. "Neville, what's wrong with him?"

"Oh, he does that a lot. You all did." Neville came around to Draco's side of the bed so that he could face her. Shortly after he stopped, a few feet back from the railing, Draco's fit subsided and he lay still. A moment later he curled up and stuck his thumb back in his mouth.

Hermione exhaled slowly, relaxing. "Well, that was… wait. Yesterday?"

"Huh?" Neville asked blankly.

"You said we got hit with a Euphoria Charm yesterday," Hermione reminded him.

Neville nodded apologetically. "It's Sunday afternoon."

"Sunday afternoon? We've missed almost the entire Hogsmeade weekend," she complained, sighing.

"I imagine you'll miss the rest of today, too. Obviously you can't go anywhere until Malfoy isn't under the influence anymore."

She heard the sounds of bare feet hitting the floor and a moment later Harry came round to stand beside Neville. "Hmm. Malfoy in a tutu. Did someone already take pictures, or should I go try to find a camera?"

"Colin was here. And a half-dozen other people," Neville told him. "I hear you can contact Dennis Creevey to order prints."

Hermione groaned. "I don't suppose they left us alone, did they?" she asked, pointing to herself and Harry.

Neville shook his head. "Sorry. A lot of Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors aren't too happy with you after that thing in the entrance hall." Hermione blanched. "Oh, I don't think they're really angry," Neville assured her hastily. "A few of them, maybe, but… most understand. They're just… not looking to do you any favors, is all." As if recalling a particularly unpleasant memory, he shuddered.

She sighed. "Who all did we alienate, Neville?"

"Well, um… let's see. The Patil twins, Lavender, Dean, Seamus… Michael, Terry, Anthony… Ernie… Hannah, Justin… the Hufflepuff Quidditch team…"

"The entire team?" she repeated incredulously.

Neville nodded. "As far as I know, but I'm not familiar with their reserve players…"

Harry chuckled. "Well. Now that we've made enemies out of all four houses, we might as well up and drop out of school, eh? Go our own way? Start a little detective agency or something. I'll put up the starter loan—"

"We are not dropping out of school, Harry," Hermione said severely. She sighed again. "I… has anyone brought me spare clothes or anything?"

Neville nodded. "Ginny took care of it. She feels slightly guilty, skiving off and everything, but she was just a tad worn out, is all. Everybody's cracking up, really. You should have heard poor Wood ranting about insanity."

"Wood?" Hermione repeated. "Oh, dear. Tell me we didn't upset him too much."

"Come to think of it, no," Neville said. "He's the one who knocked you lot unconscious. With his broomstick."

"He knocked us unconscious?" Harry asked, sounding mildly affronted. "What did we do to him, then?"

"You tried to assassinate him," Neville told them conversationally, rummaging through a pile of clothes and books on a nearby chair.

"Oh. Well, then I guess we'll have to forgive him," Harry joked, reaching up to check his head for lumps, fingers automatically going first to his inactive scar and then over the rest of his skull.

"Why are you in such a good mood?" Hermione asked him, rubbing the invisible chain idly.

Harry shrugged. "It's all kind of funny, really. At least, so far. Neville still hasn't told me how Malfoy got in the tutu."

"Well, after you lot decided you wanted to form a club of world-saving superheroes and ran out of the entrance hall—"

"What?" Hermione interrupted.

Neville smiled sympathetically at her and handed her copies of Hogwarts: A History, The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Seven, and An Advanced Guide to Transfiguration. "Don't worry, Hermione. Ginny managed to mend the scarves you cut up and she even mended your books."

Hermione's eyes widened in horror and fury. "Who damaged my books?" she demanded.

"You did," Neville replied. "Well, one of you three. You taped them to your cape and stuff."

"My cape," Hermione repeated, cradling the books to her chest. "My cape. Yes. Right. Of course I had a cape. Why not?"

Harry shook his head. "That's how I felt for the first few minutes. Wait until he gets to the part where we were running around yelling 'Whee.'"

"I like that part," Neville admitted. "That was before you put me in a loincloth." Seeing the startled look on Harry and Hermione's faces, he laughed nervously. "Well then, let me explain. First of all, Ginny's fairly certain Fred and George hit you with those charms before they left school. Ron had an alibi—in the common room the whole time—but—"

"We don't need to talk it over; it's not hard to figure out," Hermione interrupted. "Go on."

"Well, the charms made you pretty much insane until Wood knocked you out and I brought you up here. The antidote had to be special ordered—Snape's run off again—so you're lucky Dumbledore managed to get some so soon—"

"Lucky. Right. That's what we are," Harry drawled.

"Madam Pomfrey says everyone's different, so Malfoy could still be out a while," Neville said.

"Well, that's something," Hermione said, feeling a large weight lift from her shoulders. Nothing like an unconscious Malfoy to cheer a person up.

Neville released the rail on the edge of her bed and he and Harry sat down on the corners of her cot while Neville explained the whole thing. By the time Neville finished, Ginny had arrived with dinner for them all, and she apologized profusely for not stepping up, but neither Harry nor Hermione faulted her for not wanting to cope. Draco continued to spasm periodically but didn't awaken, so the only annoyance he created was when his flailing limbs yanked Hermione's arm about painfully. Ginny drew the curtains around the cot and kept watch over Draco while Hermione changed, and once she was clothed in comfortable attire and full of the best food Ginny could procure and certain that her books had suffered no lasting damage, Hermione joined Harry in laughing cheerfully about the entire psychotic event. The more Neville described, the more they remembered of their own volition, until most of the details of the event were sketchily outlined in their own memories. Madam Pomfrey came in to check on them shortly after they ate, shoveling some more of the antidote potion down Draco's throat and muttering irritably about how she should have taken up a nice, safe, hassle-free profession, like dragon taming.

Around eight o'clock, the chain jerked again on Hermione's wrist and she turned to make sure Draco's flailing wouldn't harm her. She found Draco sitting up instead, peering blearily around at them all.

"Bloody Gryffindors," he grumbled. "Why the hell am I in the hospital wing, and how in god's name did you get me in a tutu?"

Madam Pomfrey released them all the moment she saw Draco awake and past the effects of the Euphoria Charm. Ginny had "forgotten" to bring Draco a change of clothes, but he was a tad too weary and irritated to bother being upset with her or with the large numbers of laughing Gryffindors in the common room. Harry, Hermione and Ginny said goodbye to Neville in the common room and accompanied Malfoy through the wall and into the relative safety of the guestroom.

"I think I'll stay with you lot tonight," Ginny said. "Everyone's been asking me all sorts of questions, and I think some of them suspect that I ditched the party last night."

"What party?" Draco asked.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "The one where we tried to save you three from yourselves. Do you remember anything yet?"

He shrugged uncomfortably. "Bits and pieces. Telling Granger I didn't want to be Captain Hook, congratulating Wood for killing Potter…" He shook his head. "It's all kind of a blur. The way stuff you did while drunk starts coming back to you during the hangover."

"Well, we've managed to alienate some of our strongest allies," Harry said thoughtfully. "Including most of the Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw students in our year and the Hufflepuff Quidditch team… I suppose we should work on some way to get back on their good sides again before Ron can manage it. If he poisons them completely against us… well, we can't fight the Slytherins, Ron, and the rest of the school, too. At best we can count on maybe Neville's support… and Snape's." Harry frowned. "Wow. And here I thought our lives would get less weird once we killed Voldemort."

"Let's not think about it tonight," Hermione said wearily. "No one can get into this room but the four of us and anyway the train will be here tomorrow to take us away for the holidays."

"Oh, god," Draco groaned. "My mum's going to treat you like you're a friend of mine. And the guys will want to come over… what will I tell them?"

"I'm not looking forward to it either, but it's probably a lot better than running around here with everyone staring at us and plotting against us," Hermione said. "Besides, I imagine attitudes will cool down over the holidays…"

"Or heat up, once everyone's had a little time to plan and hit the joke shops in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade," Harry finished dryly.

"Regardless, let's just pack up our things and get some sleep, okay?"

Harry, Ginny and even Draco muttered their agreement. The effects of the Euphoria Charm left Harry, Hermione and Draco feeling rather odd—their energy levels began spiking, so that one minute they were wide-awake and the next they were practically zombies. Ginny went and collected her things from her bedroom and they all prepared for tomorrow's train ride. Harry, Hermione and Draco fell on the bed without complaint for once while Ginny curled up in one of the armchairs, and they all managed to get a good night's rest for the first time in quite a while.

Harry, Hermione and Draco awoke to Ginny frantically shouting for them to awaken, but the Euphoria Charm's aftereffects were still making them all groggy and they continued to doze. Finally Harry managed to open an eye and peek at his watch.

"Oh, my god!" he shouted, sitting bolt upright. "We've got twenty minutes until the train leaves!"

"What?" Draco hissed, jerking awake and pushing Hermione away from him.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Ginny exclaimed. "I woke you guys up before I went down to breakfast, or at least I thought I did, and when I got back…"

Draco tried to scramble out of the bed, forgetting the chain and nearly dislocating his shoulder. "Wake her up," he snapped at Harry. "I will not miss the train on account of her."

"Shut up, Malfoy; I'm trying," Harry snarled, shaking her shoulder. "Hermione. Hermione, come on!"

"Listen," Ginny said, "I really don't want to be late, and you know what it's like to find a compartment—"

"No, go ahead," Harry told her. "Save us seats, will you?"

Ginny nodded. "Hurry," she said, and darted out of the hall.

"Hermione? Herm, wake up! HERMIONE!"

"Granger, get up!" Draco shouted, yanking hard on the chain.

Hermione yelped as pain lanced through her arm. "What's your problem?" she demanded, rolling onto her side and cradling her arm.

"My problem is we're about to miss the train!"

"What?" Hermione sat up and stared at the clock in alarm. "Oh, my god!"

The three of them dove as one for the piles of Muggle clothing and robes they'd laid out the night before and then rushed for the bathroom. Hermione leaped into the shower and pulled the curtain closed.

"We don't have time for another one of your showers," Draco said.

"I'm not showering; I'm changing. We don't have time for Harry to hold you at wand-point," she retorted, already ripping her shirt and robes apart with spells.

"Can you do that spell to brush my teeth?" Harry called through the curtain as he jumped into his jeans. Hermione's wand poked out between the curtain and a jet of orange light hit him in the mouth. "Thanks," he said, yanking a comb through his hair—just because it never lay flat was no excuse to give up on it—and then rushing out of the bathroom. Draco finished dressing and considered asking Hermione to perform the same spell, but his pride won out and he went to the sink himself, scrubbing irritably at his teeth with one hand while brushing his hair with the other. Hermione leaped out of the shower fully-clothed and groaned at the sight of her hair in the mirror; it was worse than usual.

"For crying out loud," she groaned, attacking it with her hairbrush. "I ought to just shave my head."

Draco spat out a mouthful of toothpaste and grinned at her hopelessly tangled hair. "I'd tell you not to bother with the brush, but if you leave the room looking like that, you're liable to scare the first-years."

Hermione, to his surprise, merely chuckled. "You sound like Parvati. She doesn't seem to get that we can't all be as exotically beautiful as her."

Draco snorted. "If you ask me, the Patil twins aren't half as pretty as they think they are," he said darkly, remembering with a pang of anger how Padma Patil had turned down his invitation to go to the Yule Ball—citing her sister being in Gryffindor as a reason—and ended up going with that clod Weasley.

"They have gorgeous hair," she said, her tone distracted and a little wistful.

Draco blinked, startled to realize he and Hermione were actually having a civil conversation. Deciding to chalk it up to the Euphoria Charm's aftereffects, he said, "Well, not if you're standing behind them. They have this horrible habit of tossing their hair. I got hit by Parvati's hair once. Full in the face. Felt like I'd stood a little too close to the back end of a horse."

Hermione burst out laughing. "Oh, that's priceless," she breathed. "They do that all the time, too—they think it's so pretty."

Draco could help but feel a surge of pride and pleasure, the same way he always did whenever someone reacted well to one of his stories. "It's not pretty when it's slapping you in the eyes," he replied. "And you know what? It smells kind of funny. Like eggs."

"It's all those products they use to keep it healthy," Hermione explained. "Parvati used to try and get me to use some of them."

"Your hair smells way better," Draco told her emphatically. "And I've never seen you try to use it as a weapon."

Hermione laughed again, and Draco grinned at her. Harry poked his head into the bathroom and gave them a suspicious look. "What are you doing?" he asked, confused.

"Nothing, Harry."

"Mind your own business, Potter," Draco snapped, his good mood evaporating. "Waiting on Granger to finish her hair."

Hermione sighed and put her brush down. "Come on," she muttered. "Let's just… I'll wear a hat."

Harry stepped back to let them out of the bathroom. "Listen, um… we're really running out of time, and I'm already packed…"

"We'll hurry, don't worry," Hermione said. "Go ahead. Malfoy isn't stupid enough to pick a fight with me when we might risk missing the train. Crookshanks, come!" Hermione's cat leaped down from its perch on the desk and padded over to her, reluctantly allowing her to stuff him in his carrying basket.

Harry nodded. "I'll try and stall them. Hurry." Harry grabbed Hedwig's cage and his trunk and rushed out the door.

Draco groaned. "Oh, great. I completely forgot we're on the seventh floor. How the hell do you people manage to come up and down here all day without collapsing from exhaustion?"

"Practice," Hermione muttered as she began outfitting herself with scarves, gloves and other cold-weather gear. "That's why the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws tend to be leaner than the Hufflepuffs and Slytherins. Be thankful we're not up in my dormitory; my year is on the top floor."

Draco grimaced and shoved a few more items into his trunk. "Huge castle like this and most of it isn't being used for anything—you'd think they'd put everyone lower to the ground."

"The castle wasn't always empty," she said. "And the spells on the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw rooms have stood for thousands of years. And we'd have to come up here anyway for astronomy—"

"Oh, for crying out loud," Draco groaned as he pulled the hood of his cloak carefully up over his hair. "You're not the only one who's read Hogwarts, A History, you know."

She stared at him in pure, undiluted shock. "You've read it, too?"

He nodded, rolling his eyes. "I may not have memorized the damned thing, but anyone with half a brain reads that book before they get here and keeps a copy lying around. How else are you supposed to know anything about the secrets in this place?"

Her shock increased to near-comical proportions. "I've been trying to get Harry and Ron to read it since first year."

He shrugged. "I did say anyone with 'half a brain,' didn't I?"

He expected her to take offense, but she just chuckled and seized the handle of her trunk in one hand, Crookshanks's basket in the other. "Hang on—where's your owl?" she asked.

He scowled. "Dead, probably. I was sending my father a letter with him when the Death Eaters broke out of Azkaban, summer after fifth year. I never saw him again."

"I'm sorry," Hermione said quietly, looking down at Crookshanks's basket.

Draco ignored her. "Can we get going, please?"

Hermione nodded and led the way out of the guestroom, into the empty common room. "Oh, forget this," she muttered, dropping her heavy trunk. Students were discouraged from bewitching their trunks to follow them down to the train platform—primarily because it was a spell not everyone could manage, and hundreds of heavy trunks floating around in a throng of pushing, shoving students could get downright deadly—but as they were undoubtedly some of the last students left in the castle, there wasn't much point. Hermione, however, knew more than enough spells to get their trunks down to the entrance hall without carrying them, and speed was of the essence. She jabbed her wand at their trunks and Crookshanks's basket, and all three pieces of luggage went flying out of the common room, knocking the Fat Lady's portrait out of the way as they went.

"McGonagall will have a fit if she catches you," Draco said even as he hurried to follow Hermione through the portrait hole.

Hermione shrugged. "We'll never make it in time if we don't run, and I can't run with that stupid trunk," she said as she slammed the portrait behind them, ignoring the Fat Lady's indignant protests. She and Draco began to jog through the castle.

Draco shook his head. "Typical."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Hermione asked dangerously as she darted into a secret passage without warning, forcing Draco to skid to a halt and follow her before his arm jerked.

"It means that you always act like you never do anything wrong, but you break rules all the time. Even when you aren't running around saving the school. Just like that bit with the damned dragon in first year, and—"

"Oh, shut up," Hermione said with a sniff. "I do not act like I don't break the rules. I break the rules when I have to. I do not, however, think it's intelligent to risk getting expelled just to have a bit of fun. I can have plenty of fun without risking my magical career doing it."

Draco rolled his eyes. "For a Gryffindor, you sure worry about consequences too much."

"Of course I do," she snapped. "Do you have any idea what would happen to me if I got expelled, huh? Your father might have been killed supporting Voldemort, but from what I understand, your mother's managed to save the majority of her reputation, and you've got dozens of Ministry contacts, to say nothing of what advantages your bloodline gives you elsewhere. I am Muggle-born. I'll have no connections in the outside world besides those I make here, and being Harry's friend, much as I love him, is a tad time-consuming. Why do you think I try so damned hard? I can't rely on the family fortune and having a cousin in position to get me a job! If I lose magic, if they snap my wand in half, I won't have any opportunity to succeed in the Muggle world, either. Even if I could fake having an education, I haven't been to high school. I don't know advanced math and advanced literature and advanced physics! I couldn't keep up with Muggle schooling and magic, too, not with all the intrigues and the war on top of everything else. You will have a mansion and a name that holds weight in the wizarding world. I'll be an expelled student with nowhere to go, like Hagrid. Or Pince, who dropped out in her fifth year when she got pregnant. Or Filch, who's a squib. The best I could hope for would be working behind the counter at Fred and George's joke shop or serving ale with Madam Rosmerta."

"Whatever," Draco muttered, but he found her words distinctly unsettling. He had never really worried about getting kicked out of school. The Malfoy name had always carried too much weight for that, until the war last year, which had been too tense and depressing for him to risk drawing attention to himself. Now that he thought about it, though, he wasn't sure his mother would lobby to keep him in the school the same way his father would have. She was not as concerned with appearances as he had been, and Lucius's death had put a considerable strain on their finances. They were still wealthy, to be sure, but their assets had been frozen temporarily at the end of his fifth year, and they had been forced to pay certain fines and reparations. His mother had started getting a lot more careful about their spending, even going so far as to sell some of their possessions.

They burst out of the secret passage and Draco was startled to realize he had absolutely no idea where they were. Hermione, however, turned left and started jogging purposefully. "How do you know about all of these passages?" he asked.

"Harry's map shows the entire school," she told him, darting behind a painting. "This one leads to the third-floor corridor that was out-of-bounds in our first year."

"Are you sure it isn't still out of bounds?" Draco asked nervously. "I seem to remember something about 'most painful death.'"

"That was when Fluffy lived there."

"Fluffy? Giant three-headed dog, Fluffy? What the hell was it doing in the castle?"

"Guarding the Sorcerer's Stone," Hermione replied coolly. "Was doing a damned fine job of it, too, until Quirrell figured out that playing music puts him right to sleep. Bewitched a harp to keep playing until he'd snuck past Fluffy. Thankfully Harry had gotten a flute that Christmas."

"Look," Draco said, feeling a strong sense of curiosity, "I'm not saying that it was a bad thing, you saving the school from the psychotic professor who wanted to bring the Dark Lord back to life, but what in god's name possessed you lot to go up against a three-headed dog with nothing but a flute?"

Hermione shot him a startled look, surprised that he at his interest and apparent lack of condemnation, but she tried to take it in stride. "Someone had to do it," she said with a shrug. "Besides, Fluffy, as it turned out, was one of the simplest challenges involved."

"You didn't know that at the time."

"No, but we didn't exactly think it would be easy," she replied. "We knew that Quirrell—or rather, Snape, whom we thought was the culprit at the time—was a full-grown, fully-qualified wizard. We were three eleven-year-old kids."

"What all went on down there?" Draco asked curiously.

"Why do you care?" she asked, frowning.

He shrugged and tried to look less interested than he was. "There were all sorts of rumors about it, but no one knew the full story. Rumor had it there was a troll and a puzzle that would poison anyone who messed it up."

"Technically, it only had three doses of poison for whoever messed it up," she said. "Two were wine. One bottle let you move forward, one bottle let you move backward. You had to drink something, or else be trapped in the room indefinitely."

"I'm surprised Potter figured it out."

"He didn't. I did." She shot a glance at Draco to gauge his reaction as they climbed out of a hole in the third-floor corridor, hidden by a large portrait of a dungeon. She couldn't be sure, but she thought that for just a moment he'd looked a tad… impressed. Watching him closely out of the corner of her eye as they resumed jogging, she added, "I also figured out how to get us out of the Devil's Snare."

"Devil's Snare?"

"Mm-hmm. It was waiting at the bottom of the trapdoor beneath Fluffy. By the time I came down, it had already started strangling Harry and Ron." She smiled as they leaped over the same trapdoor she and Harry and Ron had jumped through in their first year. "I almost panicked before I remembered that—alohomora!" Hermione interrupted herself, pointing her wand at a large wooden door in their path. She reached for the handle and yanked. And yanked. And yanked some more.

"What the…?" she muttered, and pointed her wand at the door again. "Alohomora!" She tugged at the handle again, but it refused to give.

"Come on, Granger," Draco drawled. "You should have mastered that spell in second year."

"I mastered it two weeks after my first trip to Diagon Alley," she snapped. She tried it a few more times, then tried another spell, and another. The door refused to budge.

"Would you give it up already?" Draco said impatiently. "We'll have to go around."

"There is no going around," Hermione snapped. "Other than the passage we came through, the only way out of this corridor is through that trapdoor."

Draco glanced down at it. "Where does it lead?"

"The last time I took it? To a big patch of Devil's Snare." She sighed and spun around. "We'll have to go back up to the fifth floor and—"

"That'll take forever!"

"Have you got a better plan?"

Grumbling, Draco turned to follow her back to the passage's entrance. They were still a good twenty feet away from the portrait when Hermione stopped, frowning. "What now?" Draco demanded in irritation.

"The portrait. It's empty."

"So?" Realization hit him a moment later. "Oh, great. Good going, Granger. Led us to a locked door and the guy we're supposed to give a password to has wondered off."

"He can't have!" Hermione exclaimed, peering frantically at each corner of the painting.

"Well, he did."

"Malfoy, it's a dungeon painting, you prat! The guy in it was chained to the wall, see? His chains are missing. One of the other portraits cut him out. My god, Cyrus Skullovitch is loose in the castle!"

"Cyrus Skullovitch? The Cyrus Skullovitch? Wizard serial killer Cyrus Skullovitch?"

"That's who the portrait was of," Hermione confirmed. "That's why the picture has him chained up here."

"Great. So he's probably off killing a half-dozen other portraits. Who would do something that stupid?"

"I don't know. Peeves, maybe, but he isn't a portrait, so he can only maim canvas."

"Or," came Peeves's voice from directly overhead, "he can persuade one of the other portraits to rescue poor, poor Cyrus, chained up in a dungeon." Peeves cackled as they looked up. "Double, double, toil and trouble, Peevesie's got you trapped in a bubble!"

"You unleashed Cyrus?" Hermione demanded.

"I? I would never do something that foolish! Of course, I might have mentioned it to Cadogan how poor misunderstood Cyrus's been chained up for centuries! They were right—he went rushing off to free Cyrus, babbling about noble quests!"

"Who were right?" Draco asked.

"Isn't it obvious?" Hermione asked, eyes narrowing. "The Weasley twins."

Peeves cackled and blew a raspberry at them before zooming out through the wall. Hermione glowered after him and stomped over to the door. She knelt down and peered into the lock. "Jammed," she reported. "Something's been stuffed in the keyhole."

"Then get it out! We're missing the train!"

"Exactly," Hermione said grimly. "Just as Fred and George intended us to." She pulled out her wand and brandished it at the lock. "Waddiwasi!" she shouted, and the soft ball of gunk flew from the keyhole and landed on the floor. "Alohomora!"

"Hurry up!"

Hermione reached for the handle… and discovered it hadn't budged. She frowned and peered into the keyhole again—and discovered the gunk was back. "What—?"

"Alohomora!" Draco shouted, pointing his wand at the door. He leaned over Hermione to tug at the handle again, to no avail. "Damn it, Granger! Move over!"

Hermione did, frowning thoughtfully. As Draco attempted to remove the ball of gunk and unlock the door again, Hermione bent down and picked up the first bit from the keyhole.

"It keeps coming back!" Draco growled, kicking the door in frustration. "What is this rubbish?"

"Weasley's Wizard Wheezes," Hermione said miserably. "It's a double-fire spitball. Basic refilling charm that lasts for ages, meaning you can spit dozens of—"

"You mean to tell me those rat bastards had Peeves stick some sort of refillable spitball in our only exit and set a serial killer loose in the freaking castle portraits just to make us miss the train?" Draco demanded, his voice rising furiously.

"Or worse," Hermione said with a sigh, leaning against the wall and closing her eyes. "Theoretically we could be here for ages without anyone ever finding us. There's nothing in this corridor to give anyone a reason to come here. We'll have to wait for a ghost or—"

A deafening roar sounded, followed by a loud splintering noise. Hermione's eyes snapped open to see Draco, standing in front of the shattered door with his wand raised, his expression black, bits of wood clinging to his hair and clothing. The door had been completely decimated, and, before the dust had finished settling, Draco started forward, tugging impatiently on the chain.

"That's destruction of school property," Hermione said, shocked but, if she was being honest with herself, slightly impressed. She had never seen Draco do such a strong bit of magic before. She knew he couldn't be all thumbs, to have been made a prefect—as Deputy Headmistress, McGonagall had to approve all choices, so Snape's favoritism wasn't enough to earn Draco a badge. Watching him cut loose, especially in such a destructive manner, was a sight to see… and though she hated to admit it, it would have taken her quite a while to come up with the idea to blow up the door.

"No one uses that corridor anyway," Draco muttered, running faster now, fast enough that Hermione had to struggle to keep up. "It's not like this place hasn't seen its fair share of damage. I'll repair it when we get back if it's still there. Provided you don't rat me out to Dumbledore first."

"I won't have time," Hermione said crossly. "What kind of charm did you use?"

He smirked at her. "Can't blow up a door on your own, can you?"

"I could have done it a number of ways, if I'd thought it up," she retorted. "I was just wondering which incantation you used."

"Yes, well, I doubt you could have managed it anyway," he replied, grinning viciously at her.

"Oh, please. Your side lost, remember?" she snapped.

"Shut up," he hissed, no longer smiling.

Hermione did so, if only because she was running out of breath from exertion. She wasn't much of a sprinter, let alone a distance runner, and it appeared Draco was. Not that it surprised her. He probably had a lot of practice running away from things.

They didn't slow down until they reached the marble staircase, at which point Hermione skidded to a halt and Draco nearly fell. He rounded angrily on her and stopped at the horrified look on her face. "Our stuff," she gasped. "It should be right here."

"It must be on the train already," Draco said, cursing. He rushed down the stairs, half-dragging Hermione behind him, and out onto the lawn. "Oh, no!" he wailed. "The carriages are gone!"

"We'll never make it in time now," she groaned.

"My trunk. My broomstick! My trunk! This is all your fault!"

She gaped up at him. "My fault?"

"You had to brush your hair and take your stupid shortcuts and you've sent our luggage to a train we're not on! We'll never catch it without my broomstick!"

"It wasn't my fault Peeves trapped us in there!"

"You're the one who pissed off the Weasley twins!"

"You're the one who started this whole mess!"

"You were asking for it! You stupid bloody Gryffindors with your stupid…"

Hermione ignored him and stalked off down the trail. "Are you coming or not?" she demanded of Draco. "We've got to get on that train. No way am I spending the holidays alone here with you."

Draco refused to move, folding his arms across his chest. "Don't be stupid. If we miss the train we can take the Floo."

"How, exactly, are two people chained to each other going to Floo?"

Draco cursed again and muttered a phrase in what sounded like Latin. "The bus. The Knight Bus."

"Where's your money?"

Draco snorted contemptuously. "I'm not paying for you, Granger."

"Well, if you want to take the bus, you're going to have to. My money is in my trunk."

"So? I'll…" Draco broke off with a curse. "My money's on the train, too. Damn it, Granger!"

"This isn't my fault, Malfoy. It's Fred and George and Peeves's."

"I'm aware of that," he snapped. "We're stranded here, no money, no brooms…"

"We'll go down to Hogsmeade and Apparate," Hermione said. "I'm sure that if we—"

"I failed my test," Draco muttered, avoiding her gaze. "I don't get to try again until March."

Hermione made a frustrated noise. "I'll take you Side-Along Apparition."

He snorted again. "Even if I did trust you not to 'accidentally' splinch me, you don't know where we're going. You've never been to my house before and it's probably too far away for you to manage it anyway."

"I'll take us to the Order. London isn't that far away."

Draco shook his head; he didn't fail to miss the worry in her voice. "I don't think so. Besides, we're staying at my house until Christmas, remember?"

"We can go there and… and…" Hermione broke off with a sigh. "And I won't be able to take you in without clearance, and I don't have it, because we're not due there for another couple of days."

"I'm not letting you Apparate me anyway," Draco pointed out.

"We'll… we'll get a portkey…" Hermione floundered for something, anything to get them out of Hogwarts.

"We'll never get clearance for one anytime soon, especially not around the holidays," Draco said with a sigh. "As if it wasn't bad enough to be stuck to you, now I have to be stuck here, alone with you."

Author's Notes: No, I'm not dead. I'm simply struggling to work on this. My interest in HP has waned and life has a funny habit of trying to kill me. I fully intend to finish this story… someday; it's taking far longer than I ever imagined it could. But I won't abandon it; I swear. Thank you to everyone who's been with me thus far, and thank you to anyone who plans to stay. I'll try to keep this story alive and entertaining—and maybe now that I've just stranded Draco and Hermione alone together temporarily, maybe I'll finally be able to manage it.