For most people, Apparation is disorienting.
It's akin to a moment of drunken vertigo, or when you stand up too quickly with low blood sugar. For some few, it's a pleasant sensation of nothingness for a brief moment; a split second of complete peace because you have just dissembled every atom in your body and some part of your magical brain is busily focused on putting the physical you back together again in a completely different location in space and time. There have been reports of severe depressives repeatedly Apparating in an effort to seek respite from their mental anguish.
Splinching is, rather famously, just about the worst thing that can happen when Apparation goes wrong. A lapse in attention could see you appear at your destination in a mangled state 'not conducive to life' (this was the official wording used in the Coroners' reports). Or inside a wall. Or, in one celebrated case, on board a Soviet S class submarine, nearly causing a minor nuclear panic.
But bodily transmutation and simultaneous portal casting is advanced, adult magic, and there are guidelines for its safe practice. Some of these are spelled out in law and are more or less the same rules that govern driving, except that you don't need to be wearing your eye glasses when you take the test. You cannot Apparate while under the influence of mind-altering substances or if your mental or physical capacities are impaired. Depending on where you live, there are also rules that tell you how far you can Apparate, where you can Apparate to, and how many you are permitted to take with you. The history books have it down that the farthest anyone has ever travelled via Apparation (and lived to tell the tale) was approximately 1570 miles. A young, spell-book printer's apprentice vanished in Norfolk in 1834, reappearing in Estonia. There is still debate as to whether this was done on purpose. That he was missing most of his clothing and all of his body hair was a side-note. The point was that transcontinental Apparation could technically be accomplished. In his youth, Voldemort had made several round-trips between the UK and Berlin, for example. But it was a feat that undoubtedly took great skill, focus, intent and immense reserves of power.
Harry had two out of the four. That he lacked focus and intent was not entirely his fault, given it was an unexpected emergency. Hermione didn't re-appear so much as drop from a point near the ceiling. She landed hard on her side and was winded. There was an obligatory moment of panic because she could not see, but then her eyes adjusted to the low light. She was indoors. Despite this, there was a crispness to the air; a freshness that was new…and old. Familiar, more like.
She didn't know how long it was before she sat up, coughing, because of the plume of dust that floated through the slivers of sunlight cutting across the dark floor from boarded up stained glass windows. She palpated her belly, not knowing what to look for, but reassured when the baby gratified her with a series of kicks. It took a few more seconds of blinking and surveying before she gasped in shock. The same little nook. The same shelves, though now mostly barren and iced with cobwebs. The smell of ancient parchment. Her stomach clenched with memory and it was more than just the dry air that caused her eyes to tear up.
Hogwarts! They were in Hogwarts!
"Draco?" she wheezed, looking around her, growing more fearful by the second. "Harry?" But she was alone. No, not quite. She could hear footsteps in the corridor outside. They were fast and purposeful, and decidedly human.
"Draco!" she called out again. The footsteps stopped, and then they were running. She could not see the main library doors from where she was sprawled on the floor, but she heard them fly open. Three breaths later and it was not Draco, but Harry who appeared. He looked like he'd been in a boxing match. The entire left side of his face was bleeding, his left eye was swollen shut to a slit. The left sleeve of his coat was torn to shreds and stained with blood. Thankfully, he still retained his wand.
"What happened?" Hermione demanded.
"Got stuck," he said, clearly shaken. His exertion to find her was costing him dearly.
"Do you mean during Apparation?" she asked, aware she was practically shouting at him. She was on her feet now and gingerly prodding at his wounds. "God, Harry. Were you nearly splinched?"
He swayed, likely from blood loss. Hermione glanced around the alcove, finding and presently dragging a chair to him and forcing him to sit down. He was shaking like a leaf, and his skin was icy cold as she investigated his injuries. "Where is Draco?"
Mutely, Harry sat, blinking at her from under dark hair and a torrent of blood seeping from a deep laceration under his scalp. Hermione took the wand from Harry's slack grasp and immediately worked on sealing the cut. This relatively simple first aid spell set her nervous system alight, given that she had not used magic for many months. The sensation was almost unbearable; a strange restlessness that zinged up her casting arm and into the rest of her body. She stomped her foot in an attempt to alleviate a build-up she didn't quite know how to describe. Inside her belly, the baby kicked again and fretted. The horrid cramp came back again, only now it felt like a metal claw had caught hold of her from the inside, and was twisting…
"Hermione?" Harry asked, concerned.
The pain eased, and then passed. Focusing on her task at hand, she used the wand to slice a strip of material from her sleeve and gently wiped the blood from Harry's face. "Harry," she said, more forcefully this time, "where is Draco?"
Harry looked like he was about to pass out. She quickly transferred him to the floor. His arm had to be broken and there were what looked like dozens of splinters of wood buried in his flesh. Hermione was horrified, but determined not to show it. She was beginning to suspect that Harry had partially Apparated into a solid object – a piece of furniture, most likely. He must have pried himself out, breaking bones in the process. How he had managed to transport himself across oceans, let alone with others in tow, was something to be marveled at later.
"He's OK." Harry said, belatedly. "He's fine."
"Said to come to you…it's dangerous. He's gone to find Grey…he's here."
"Who? Admiral Grey?" Hermione repeated, stunned. "He's here at Hogwarts?"
Harry nodded. "Brought them all. Didn't mean to. I didn't-"
"Shh. It's alright, Harry. Just rest," she said, his head in her lap. There wasn't much room because of her belly. "I'm so, so sorry." And she was, for she had been the reason for the change in Harry's carefully crafted plans. She wasn't sure what to do for his arm. Cuts were one thing, mending broken bones was best left to a medical magic practitioner. Draco could do it. She thought of Padma, too, and this did not improve matters. Hermione gently slid Harry's head off her lap. She used the wand to excise a seat cushion from a padded armchair, and used the foam padding as a pillow for him.
"I'm going to find him."
Harry's closed eyes snapped open. "No! It's not safe! I said I'd stay with you here!"
"Harry, I have your wand. And if Draco's in half the shape you're in, I'm not leaving him anywhere near Titus Grey!"
His green eyes were clouded with pain. She wanted to cast an analgesic spell, but she didn't dare until she knew the extent of his blood loss. Otherwise, she could very well kill him. Harry grabbed her hand, wincing as she pulled away from him. "No…not just Grey…"
"I need to go," she insisted. "I'll come back as soon as I can, I promise, Harry."
"Not just him!" he said, so forcefully that Hermione had to hold him down. "Amarov is here as well!"
They were in Hogwarts. Not just within the grounds, but inside the Castle. Potter could not account for it. He told Draco he'd been aiming for the dockside warehouse where Ginny Weasley was sequestered with Neville Longbottom. The Scottish highlands, to put it mildly, was way off.
Apparating inside the Castle ought to be impossible as long as the Castle's formidable wards, aged into congealed permanence, still stood. It occurred to them that the wards may have been dismantled since Draco and Hermione last visited the Castle more than a year before, but Draco doubted it. Potter was just the right sort of wizard to put such impossibilities to the test. They had travelled from the US east coast, across the North Atlantic, covering an expanse of more than a thousand miles. It had been stretch for Potter to take Hermione and Draco with him, let alone Amarov and Grey. The Apparation field had to have been considerable indeed, and the power immense, to have carried all of them. Unfortunately, there was little left over for any attempt at precision, and that was why the five of them had been scattered to the four winds upon arriving.
Draco had the good fortune of being deposited on his feet, directly inside the Castle's enormous double doors, almost as if invited. He wasted no time using a slab of broken, jagged stone to saw off the cable-ties that bound his wrists. There were three gargantuan metal beams slotted across the doors, one on top of the other. The beams had not been installed during Draco's tenure at school. They were a more recent addition and spoke of the desperation that must have gripped the school's residents, during the worst of the outbreak.
Harry appeared with a crash in the Great Hall. He was entangled in the worst possible way with one of the long, wooden dining tables that were strewn across the large room. A painful few minutes were spent working out how to break Potter free from the table without causing him too much damage. His arm was in bad shape and would require some strategic manipulation and treatment.
"Get off me," Potter hissed, shoving at Draco. His face was contorted with pain. "It's fine."
It was not fine, but Draco was content to avoid any excuse that would distract him from locating Granger. Knowing her, she was already in trouble.
"Here, try this," offered Potter, casting a Location Spell. He explained it was similar to what he and Hermione had relied on to find Draco in Azkaban.
The spell displayed all persons currently contained within the Castle. It told them that Hermione was in the library and appeared, thankfully, to be whole, hale and moving about. With some surprise, the spell also told them several other things, all of it unwelcome. A careful, skulking figure, tagged under the name 'Alexander Sebastien Piotr Amarov' was on the second floor. An odd-shaped smudge beneath the name 'Titus Robert Grey' was at the foot of the stairs leading to the Astronomy tower. Grey, unlike Hermione and Amarov, was not moving at all.
"Shit," swore Potter, scrubbing his uninjured hand through his blood encrusted hair. "This complicates matters."
Not terribly, Draco thought, but he was used to keeping such thoughts to himself.
Further revelations were equally disturbing.
"What the bleeding hell?" Potter exclaimed, squinting at the hovering, translucent, three-dimensional Castle blueprints. "What are we looking at here? That can't be right."
It appeared that they were not the only people in the Castle, though 'people' was probably not the correct word. The unnamed figures, and they were undoubtedly human-shaped, seemed to be grouped in the kitchens. They were moving strangely, squirming together like a mass of thick earthworms.
"Why are they all huddled together like that?"
"It looks like a nest," Draco offered.
"Of bloody what?"
But they both knew.
"That's impossible," said Potter. "This spell shows you people. Real, live, people! Not zombies!"
"Magical zombies appear to have a quite unique capabilities," Draco said. He recalled the body of Argus Filch, and the dead caretaker's conspicuously missing organs. "And these ones have potentially been here for a very long time, no doubt attracted by all the magic."
"And what, you think they've been evolving or something? Forming some kind of demented zombie community? Nesting?"
"We need to get to Granger before anything else finds her," Draco said, by way of reply.
"I didn't mean to bring the other two," Potter said, blinking blood from his eyes.
Draco frowned at the cut on his head. "Sit down so I can see to that."
But Potter swatted at his hand. "There's no time! We find Hermione and get the hell out of here! Now."
They agreed that Potter was in no shape to go traipsing around the castle, in the event he ran into an armed Grey, Amarov, or whatever horrors were in the kitchens. Potter agreed to go directly to the library to locate Hermione and there he would wait with her. There was a brief argument about who would take the only wand available.
"I'm not sending you to watch over my wife and unborn child with just your wits, which I hasten to add, are even duller than usual at present," Draco snapped.
Potter was too unwell to register the insult. Though he was not so far gone that he missed other notable news. "Your wife?" he said, his voice rising an octave.
Draco sighed with impatience. "Her idea. She was running out of options to shield me from Grey's mission to condemn me as a war criminal. She thought marrying me might offer some protection. I had little choice in the matter."
"How romantic," Potter muttered. His stare was very cool all of a sudden. "You're the one that suggested she be Obliviated, aren't you?"
"It's a long story and too complicated for you to wrap your wounded head around, at the minute."
He seethed. "You fucking bastard. She deserves so much better."
Draco's smile could have cut granite. "As of this moment, I am the preferred alternative to Amarov. He must not find her before you do, Potter. Or before I find him."
Harry left without further issue. As agreed, Draco waited. Ten minutes, then twenty minutes. When he did not come back, Draco surmised Harry had managed to locate Hermione. For anything else to have happened was…well, it did not bear thinking about. And there was much to think about.
He went to Titus Grey first. Locating the Admiral did not require any great skill or cunning because the man was mostly embedded inside a stone wall. Draco was unsurprised. The image in the location spell had provided a sober hint as to the Muggle man's fate. Only about a third of his face, the top of his shoulder and the tips of the fingers of one hand was revealed. What a pity it wasn't the hand holding the revolver. The rest of him was encased within limestone. His purple, swollen face was a mask of acute agony. The corner of his pinched mouth opened and closed, his single bulging eyeball widened and fastened onto Draco.
Draco rummaged through the only accessible pocket of the Admiral's uniform. Inside, he found a small, weatherworn notebook, a pencil, and an extra clip of ammunition. This was useless without the gun, but he took it anyway. There were no pockets on his prisoners' jumpsuit, so he slipped the notebook and clip into the top of his lace-up boots. Idly, he wondered if Grey's policy was to recycle the boots after prisoners were executed. Probably.
When Draco made to move away, he felt something catch hold of him. It was the Admiral's fingers. They were desperately gripping at the material of the jumpsuit.
"Plsss…." begged Grey.
Draco didn't look at him as turned on his heel and walked away.
If you've been following the story, thank you! Feedback and concrit is very much appreciated and welcomed. Abuse, on the other hand, is not. I realise we're all kind of anonymous here on the big, bad Interwebs (even when signed in), but I like to think dinner party rules still apply, and should apply. None of us fanfic writers are paid to produce our work. We do it because we enjoy it, it's a hobby, and is rewarding in some fashion. It ceases to be an enjoyable experience when people are hostile in reviews and in PMs, in a way that is entirely non-constructive. That makes you want to stop reading your fic-related messages and when that starts to happen, you become less engaged or even fearful of reading comments. This leads to things like authors going dark or pulling their stories from archives. The vast, vaaaast majority of reviews are wonderful and useful and lovely. But I've noticed more are going in another direction. The sense of entitlement is becoming more prominent. Provide constructive feedback, by all means, but please be polite. It's the least we can do for each other. With regards to my inconsistency in updating, know that I try my best. I work two jobs, am still trying to finish my dissertation, and I'm a single parent. I work in a precarious industry with no benefits and am paid by the hour. It is distasteful to me to attach a dollar figure to the amount of time I spend on this story, but the point is I could. It's not a small sum and at the end of the day, it needs to make sense for me to keep doing it. Updates take time and effort. So please be patient. I promise the story will have a conclusion. Apologies for the rant and thank you for reading.