The pub car-park, scarcely unreasonably given the hour of the day and the time of the year, which had driven the ramblers off the moors and up on to the high fells, was almost deserted. As the van pulled up, and the three of them got out, a solid black-robed figure emerged from behind the rough-hewn slate walls of the pub and regarded them steadily, arms akimbo.
"Ah, hello, Mrs Longbottom," Martin said cheerfully but with a hint of underlying terror in his voice. Her gaze swept from him to the van and back again.
"I hope you've replaced brake pads from when you lent that thing to Neville last," she observed trenchantly. Martin shuddered.
"My god, you mean it was supposed to have brakes?" Draco muttered. Emily Longbottom looked at him and grimaced, amiably.
"Think yourself lucky, young man. His grandfather, god rest him, now he was a driver. I'll not forget in a hurry that holiday we spent riding thermals over the Dolomites on a Tinderblast Tandem Tourer. It was the year Harold MacMillan said "You've never had it so good". Don't reckon he'd have said it if he'd just spent a fortnight on the back of that broom, mind you."
Draco seemed momentarily at a loss for words. She gave him an appraising look.
"Anyway, I can't say I greatly care for what you've done to your hair. Gives you a bit of a look of a red setter, to my mind. Daft dogs."
Draco opened his mouth to respond to this, but was forestalled.
"Grandma," Neville said, "what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you. From what Betsey told me, I was expecting you half an hour ago. Though I might have guaranteed you'd wait till a bit closer to opening time, I suppose."
Mrs Longbottom looked pointedly at the still-bolted pub doors.
"By the way," she added, looking shrewdly at Draco, "your mother will be meeting us at the Research Facility. Shortly, I daresay. I sent Betsey on to her after she'd finished telling me her story. Fine doings!" She snorted. "Giving her clothes indeed. Little whippersnapper! I've had Altham & Bromley on the case since I got out of St Mungo's. Oh, and they've been looking at that so-called order, too. Betsey told me about that. Load of nonsense! They'll never make that one stick! Our Neville's as sane as I am. Though I will say it was thoughtful of you to get your chaps on the job as well, I'll not deny it. Good firm, that one of yours. For Londoners, I mean. Eh, but it's a pity you aren't a lass: but then, we don't get everything we'd like in this life, now, do we?"
"Thank you for your good wishes," Draco breathed expressively.
Neville swallowed, impatiently.
"Well, shouldn't we be getting on?"
At this point there came a mighty sound of creaking and unbolting. Martin looked across the expanse of tarmac towards the pub doors, and extended his arm, bent in a gentlemanlike manner.
"Mrs Longbottom?" he enquired politely, "may I treat you to a port-and-lemon?"
Emily Longbottom swept an expressive gaze along the valley and all the hollow hills within her purview and sovereignty.
"Well," she said, "perhaps maybe you can. At that."
Draco and Neville exchanged glances.
"Grandma - " Neville began protestingly. His grandmother Looked at him.
"Well?" she enquired. "I can assure you that this isn't an expedition I'm planning to conduct under-strength. We certainly need to wait long enough to be sure Draco's mother's going to be with us. In fact, I don't mind telling you, I'm not entirely happy about going in there just with young Narcissa - "
"Yes, but - " Draco interjected. Neville's grandmother looked at him, and said
"Well, obviously we'll make allowances. But - "
Her expression said it all. Draco gritted his teeth.
"Well, I suppose then we'll have to wait for my mother to get here. And I'm sure, before I go down some black hole in the hill with god knows what of the Dark Lord's left over artillery at the bottom of it, a double whisky will be most welcome. Or three. But don't think I think you're right about that, or ever have been. Ever. Or - ever."
His cold grey glare blazed straight into hers. Momentarily, she was disconcerted: she fell back half a step. He smiled, chillily.
The pub was dark: the blinds were down and there was a morning-after smell of stale cigarette smoke in the air. The bar maid seemed half asleep, dozing over a copy of the Sun. Martin looked around and marched decisively towards the bar.
They had scarcely begun on their drinks when the door of the pub opened, letting in a thin shaft of sunlight. Both Neville and Draco tensed, involuntarily, and reached for their wands as another robed figure made its appearance, silhouetted against the light.
"Hello?" a hesitant, but reassuringly familiar voice said.
At the sound of Hermione's voice both Draco and Neville relaxed, their hands simultaneously moving away from wand grips in a studiedly casual, Who, me?-never-worried-for-a-moment way. Draco caught Neville's eye and tried a hopeful grin: Neville's expression remained bleakly unchanged. Draco bit his lip.
"Over here!" he called out, waving towards her. She nodded and made her way over.
"And before you say anything we're waiting for my mother," he added rapidly. "What can I get you? And how did you know where to find us?"
"House-elf," Hermione said cryptically. "Half of cider. Please."
He nodded, and vanished towards the bar. Martin beamed at her cheerfully.
"I don't think we've met. Martin. Pendle and Craven Cave Rescue. I expect you - er - know everyone else."
His eyes went questioningly to her robes. Answering the thought rather than the words, she said,
"I did wonder, when Betsey told me I should dress traditionally."
She cast a nervous glance at Mrs Longbottom.
Mrs Longbottom snorted.
"Oh, what with all the real witches and wizards in these parts - to say nothing of all those over-excitable Muggles who dress up and clog Barley main street every Hallowe'en, and the students from the University, I don't suppose anyone would bat an eyelid s'what you decided to wear. But believe you me, where we're planning to go, traditional is definitely best."
She got up and walked decisively over to the door, apparently to check something outside. Neville had drifted over to the pool table, and was hitting the cue ball in apparently random patterns around the table. Martin smiled nervously at Hermione, muttered something about the van, and vanished into the car park.
At this point Draco returned bearing her drink. He flopped onto the chair beside her, and she gave him a faintly bewildered glance.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Draco, but what is your hair doing that extraordinary colour?"
He sighed, exaggeratedly.
"It's hair dye, Granger. It's something Muggles use. I'm surprised you need to ask. I'd have expected you to know all about it."
She refused to rise to the bait.
"Anyway," she said brightly, "leaving that aside, I've got news for you. I've just got here from Wiltshire. I Apparated straight up from the Manor."
"And?" Draco demanded. "How much of a home has the Ministry left me with?"
Hermione put her head on one side thoughtfully. "I wouldn't get too worried. Mrs P. and your Great Uncle Roger have been doing a fantastic job between them, and now your lawyers are on the case, too."
She noted the faintest possible slackening of tension in the clutch of his long fingers around his glass, but he simply nodded.
"Go on. I'm listening."
She leaned forwards. Her face was still glowing, and she could feel the adrenaline still surging around her system. Careful. Don't waste that. I expect you'll be needing it later.
"Well, if you'll believe it the Ministry actually tried to stop our helicopter landing anywhere on the Manor grounds. Two guys in robes absolutely galloped out to meet us as soon as we touched down in front of the house. They expected it to be all Muggles on board, of course, and they certainly hadn't reckoned on there being an Ellenborough Jeffries Rich partner there. They came on with wands out, spouting some guff about the place all being sealed up as a crime scene, and were obviously just itching for a chance to Obliviate us and send us on our way. Anyway, I whipped out my wand, and they just froze -"
Draco grinned, but made no move which might check the pace of this breathless narrative.
"Which gave Tom's lawyer a chance to introduce himself, which he did, and then naturally he asked first thing to see what evidence there was to suggest that a crime had even been committed. Well, their paperwork was all about you and only referred to the Manor as "the suspect's residence". So then Tom's lawyer got really snooty with them and pointed out that we were on Nelcorp land, and not in your residence at all, and their paperwork gave them no rights even to set foot on the Nelcorp side, and that so far as he could see they'd just attempted to draw their wands on him to prevent him representing the best interests of his client, contrary to some statute or other, and said he'd be recommending that Tom sue them for trespass and abuse of process and unlawful entry and about forty other things and to ask for additional statutory damages into the bargain. Anyway, before he'd finished they'd got intimidated and backed off to your side of the Manor."
She drew another breath, and continued.
"Well, we'd barely touched down, when Mrs P came marching across to the security gates and just looked at me - you know, the way she can - and said, 'I'm here to bring Mr Malfoy's compliments, and to ask you on his behalf when is that thrice demmed black-arsed pettifogger going to bestir himself to drive off this canting mob of lick-spittle Tyburn-visaged turnip-beetles from his great-nephew's land?' And Tom's lawyer didn't bat an eyelid, and said, 'Oh, I suppose those would be Malfoy ancestral instructions, wouldn't they? My compliments to whichever Mr Malfoy that might be, and please could you tell him that I am currently engaged in a meeting with another client, but that I will certainly inform the Malfoy client partner of his request for our services at the earliest opportunity'."
"So what happened then?"
"It really was amazing," she reported. "Tom had evidently got his temper up - he really does not like being pushed around by bureaucrats, you can tell - and he told his lawyer, fine, take as long as he wanted to get hold of someone to represent your interests because he was damned if he wanted to face you later and say he'd stood by and done nothing to stop a pack of government weasels crawl all over your house when you weren't around to watch out for yourself, even if you did have the business morals of a Nevada whorehouse keeper - oops, sorry -"
"I'm sure he intended it as a compliment," Draco said imperturbably. Hermione grinned.
"Well, I think he did, because he then added that anyway, if the son was anything like the father, murdering Dudley was more in the nature of public garbage disposal than a crime, even if you'd done it, which he reckoned you wouldn't have done. Anyway, I think Tom did get a bit alarmed when his lawyer said we'd have to get into your part of the Manor so he could use the fireplace, and I was wondering how we were going to talk our way past the Ministry men who definitely would have grounds for keeping us out of there, when Mrs P said that you and Narcissa had always trusted her to decide who could be let in when you were away, and that she was inviting us in, and if we could wait ten minutes there wouldn't be any trouble with the Ministry. So we trooped through a few minutes later and guess what?"
Draco waved a hand to encourage her to continue: evidently he felt ill advised speculation at this moment would be bad policy.
"Well, we walked through the kitchen and there were three Ministry types out cold with their heads on the table around a half-eaten Schwartzwalder Torte which looked absolutely scrummy - "
Draco hummed a musical phrase cheerfully. "Ah. Draught of Living Death, I expect. Undetectable flavour in chocolate." He caught Hermione's eye on him and added, hurriedly, "As I recall Professor Snape telling us in Potions classes."
Hermione gave him the full benefit of her best steely glance.
"Do you? I don't. And we did have Potions classes together, remember."
"Ah? Then it must have been in background reading round the subject in the holidays. You know. And?"
Hermione sniffed, but Draco's face remained immobile under her gaze. She sighed.
"Well, Mrs P herded us up to the muniments room, where your Great Uncle Roger was doing his nut, and as soon as he saw Tom's lawyer he just hissed at him: 'A traitor! That demmed jackeen shellfish has undone us all!' Anyway, when he could be calmed down a bit (Tom Patullo was wonderful with him, by the way, even though he would keep trying to find out if your Great-Uncle had ever met Jefferson, and it was obvious he didn't know, even though he did say a bit doubtfully that he thought a demmed Colonial with an amazingly fine black-eyed demi-rep in tow who had borrowed 20 guineas off him in Paris in 1785 might have had some such name or other) he told us that that still life in the breakfast room is a fake."
That rocked Draco forward in his chair. "What!"
Hermione nodded. "Yes. Goodness only knows where the original's gone. But that lobster's Gilt-Edge all right. It has been all along."
She could see Draco rapidly calculating what, if anything, he might have said to anyone in the breakfast room over recent months. Before he could agitate himself too badly she continued:
"Anyway, once Tom's lawyer had got hold of the idea that picture-napping and bugging had been happening big style in the Manor he got really excited, and called up someone who obviously was the senior partner at Ellenborough Jeffries Rich and they had a massive confab on the hearth in the muniments room, and the next thing I knew was that there were about three other lawyers in the room all looking unbelievably grim, and they insisted on calling up the Deputy Under-Secretary at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement on the spot and positively demanding to know whether the warrant for your arrest had been based on the lobster's evidence or not. And the stupid man lost his nerve - actually, I'm not entirely sure I blame him, because your Great Uncle was pointing his rapier up his nostrils, and Tom Patullo kept yelling 'Black Knights! Go! Go!' at unexpected moments - anyway, he lost his nerve and said, 'Yes, of course, what the hell else did they think they'd based it on?' And then the short tubby lawyer at the back revealed he'd been Pensieving himself during the whole conversation and could reproduce every word, and would do if need be. So then your lawyers told the Deputy Under-Secretary that they'd be applying to get the warrant set aside as based on inadmissible evidence and that once the criminal proceedings were dismissed - which they were sure they would be - they reckoned there was going to be no answer to your counter-suit against the Ministry for abuse of process, and that the damages would be enormous."
She paused for breath again.
"Anyway, that was all building nicely when I realised someone was tapping me on the arm, and I looked down and there was this House-elf I'd never met before telling me I had to get on a set of robes and come here now. So I did."
Draco exhaled gently.
"I see. Well, thanks for letting me know. Anyway, I think we're being called."
Indeed, Mrs Longbottom was standing at the pub door, beckoning frantically. Draco shrugged, apologetically. "Sorry you don't get to finish your drink. But I think that means ma's arrived and we're in for it."
They rose to their feet and headed for the door together.
The front entrance to Lord Voldemort's erstwhile research facility was a somewhat unimpressive fissure in the side of a limestone cliff. Narcissa was awaiting the rest of the rescue mission in the shade of a clump of rowan trees a few hundred metres away.
"Hello, darling," she greeted Draco. "I'm glad to see you managed to find Neville." She turned towards him. "Hello, Neville. It's nice to see you looking so - present."
Her brows knitted in puzzled concern as she took in his grey pallor and haunted eyes. Draco's eyes flashed her a warning. Without missing a beat Narcissa favoured Draco with a cool, appraising glance, raised an eyebrow, and murmured,
"And speaking of looks, darling -"
"I think your hair suits you short," Draco interjected hurriedly. She grinned appreciatively, and dropped a bundle at his feet.
"I've brought robes for both of you from the Manor. You'd better hurry up and get them on. Oh, and Draco, I picked up one of your brooms for you from the broom shed -it's one of the Nimbuses; I hope that's all right. From the state of the others, it looked like the Ministry men had been playing dodgems on the Firebolts."
Draco said something pithy and heartfelt. His mother looked at him blandly.
"Yes, I thought you might feel that way about it. I - er - mentioned it to one of the lawyers who were hanging around the place. I thought they ought to get it into your damages claim at the earliest opportunity. You know, I've never seen a member of that firm actually cry before, but when I told him they'd actually managed to score 5 millimetre deep gouges all the way down the handle of a limited edition Firebolt Carrera Super-Turbo I thought I was going to be drowned in the flood. Anyway, when I managed to get him mopped up, he told me to tell you that in his personal and professional opinion Cruciatus was too good for them, and you should rest assured that he wouldn't have a moment's peace until he'd nailed them to the floor. With rusty nails. Unless you thought screws would be more painful. Anyway, once we've solved this one you should send him an owl with your full instructions."
She left him to reflect on this, and continued with the rest of her briefing.
"Glad to see you managed to find some spare robes, Hermione. I take it I only missed you at the Manor by a few minutes. Oh, and Draco, do you have any idea of who that Muggle woman was, whom I found sitting in the kitchen surrounded by unconscious Ministry men, looking as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and swapping the most extraordinary sounding recipes with Mrs P? I didn't want to interfere, but I have to confess I'm certainly curious."
Without waiting for an answer, she pulled a roll of parchment from inside her robes.
"Anyway, these are the latest plans I could lay my hands on in a hurry. They won't be completely up-to-date, because there were certainly some Allied attempts to put this place beyond operational use immediately after Recent Events - " She looked hopefully at Neville and Draco. Draco looked regretful.
"Not our department, sorry. Dispensing did not have any dealings with Decommissioning. Hermione?"
Hermione shook her head. "Nor me neither. They stuck me doing necro-cryptography during the mopping up phase."
Mrs Longbottom snorted. "Well, we had some bloody useless Ministry types up here allegedly on decommissioning just after Recent Events, and I wouldn't have thought they'd have made any more impression on yon works than a stick of boiled spaghetti on a rhinoceros's backside. They looked as if they'd have run a mile rather than even get this close to it. No, Narcissa, love, I reckon those plans will probably be about right."
Narcissa bit her lip. "Well, that gives us some pros and some definite cons. Look, as you can see, there are three possible entrances. That over there is the main one."
At this point Martin, who had been looking increasingly baffled and agitated, interrupted.
"Look, er - I'm sorry - ah - "
"Call me Narcissa," she said, and smiled, dazzlingly. He blinked.
"Er, yes, well, Narcissa. My club has been over here plenty of times, and I can tell you all you find if you get beyond that fissure will be a heap of fallen rocks. And any of the other entrances into the system that's rumoured to be under that fell, that anyone's tried, either end in sumps too quickly to be of any interest, or are just too narrow to be practicable. It's a dangerous area, too. We've lost one or two people around here, over the last couple of years - "
"You do surprise me," Draco observed. "Well, whatever else the Allied side managed to defuse, it looks as though the Muggle repelling charms are still there in full force."
"Yes. Well, the route in through the top of the limestone pavement up there, that's the one I'm sending you, Mrs Longbottom, and er -?"
She looked hopefully at Martin. He beamed at her.
"Oh, I am sorry. Martin. Pendle and Craven Cave Rescue. I'm a friend of Neville's."
"Ah? Cave rescue. How interesting. And have you rescued many caves in your time?"
He blinked again. She continued remorselessly on before he had time to get his ideas together.
"Well, I take it you've got all sorts of ropes and things, and those rather intriguingly shaped clanky metal bits in that van? Good. You'll need them. You'll be going in through the top way. It's a bit narrow to ease your way in, I'm afraid, but then it widens out nicely just above the ravine. Just before the cavern which contains the first of the - er - difficult bits. You'll be going in there with Draco - that's why I brought the broomstick, you see - and, er, Mrs Longbottom - I thought that route would make the best use of your natural talents, if you don't object."
Whether Mrs Longbottom might have objected or not was never, in fact, revealed. She was seized by a sudden fit of coughing, and Narcissa continued rapidly on with the deployment of her troops.
"Well, as stated, that in front of us is the main entrance. Neville and I will be going in through that."
Neville's faint squawk of protest, and his grandmother's rather more audible sceptical snort were both almost lost in Narcissa's rapidly on-going exposition.
"That, Hermione, leaves you a rather nasty place to tackle, I'm afraid. Effectively, it's coming in from the left side of the hill, and just below the top: that is, here."
Her finger rested on the parchment just over a crabbed manuscript scribble: "Tradesmen's Entrance". Draco gave a disapproving "huff".
"What sort of plonker goes and builds a Tradesmen's Entrance into a top secret facility?"
Narcissa looked blandly back at him. "One who was using your father as a consultant, evidently. Look at this, if you don't believe me."
Her finger moved to point out "Wlk-in Humi'dr, disus'd." Draco shook his head, disgustedly. Having gained her point, Narcissa continued.
"As you can see, it isn't entirely straightforward, and I'm afraid you need to assume that the defences will all be in working order, and you'll have to be on your guard the whole way. But I'm sure that you and Chris will be more than equal to the challenge."
Draco gave his mother a speaking glance.
"Chris? And who the hell might Chris be, when he's at home?"
"Me," said a deep voice just behind Draco's neck. He jumped, and spun on the spot. Chris grinned at him and extended a hand.
"Chris Camilleri. Prophet photographer."
Draco looked at the hand rather as he might have regarded an over-amorous cobra.
"Prophet Photographer? Did you by any chance take That - "
"NO." Chris's voice was, perhaps, a little over-emphatic. Plainly realizing this was a mistake, he attempted to amplify.
"In that photographer's place, I'd have used a polarizing filter to cut down the glare - and, of course, shown your right profile instead. I certainly agree with you about that."
Draco took the opportunity to glare at his mother. She smiled tightly back at him. Chris continued obliviously.
"And then, of course, I'd have thought of something to lose those trunks."
"Such as, for example, waiting five minutes?"
Neville's voice was both unexpected, and almost wholly uninterested. It took Chris a minute to get the point. Unfortunately, Emily Longbottom got it at precisely the same moment. Her voice was high with horror.
"Neville Longbottom! You can't possibly mean that things with That Photograph were nearly even worse?"
Draco sounded almost unnaturally cheerful.
"Well, only if you look at it from the standpoint of embarrassment rather than aesthetics," he said. Mrs Longbottom glared at him.
"And if you look at it from the standpoint of morality, young man?"
He smiled frostily back at her.
"Oh, I leave that sort of thing to people like Neville's cousin Eustace. Not my area of expertise at all, wouldn't you agree?"
Before open warfare could break out, Chris looked speculatively at Draco, and added
"Photographically speaking, of course, I'm not sure about your current hair colour - "
Before he had a chance to go further, Draco flipped from one pocket of his robes a beer mat, which he had evidently purloined from the pub.
"I. Died. It. DM" was written in neat capitals on one side. Chris grinned.
Narcissa said firmly:
"Anyway, I don't know what you two have been using for wands so far, but if you've got your own with you, you should use them. That's not a place where you should take risks with a borrowed one. And the thaumatulurgical shielding on that place is strong enough to make any traces they might give off quite undetectable. Remember, all of you, by the way, you should be able to Apparate within the facility, but not into it, so don't try it until you're absolutely sure you're into the inner sanctum. Now, I suggest you three get yourself to the top of the cliff: and, Hermione, you might as well go with them: it's only a short walk down from the top to where you and Chris need to get into the hill: wait until me and Neville have got ourselves into position, and then you two groups need to get yourselves to your respective stations as fast as possible."
Her expression made argument unquestionable, even for Emily Longbottom. They heard, and obeyed.
Hermione caught hold of Draco's sleeve. Up on the warm limestone pavement the August sun bathed them in a gentle glow, and the moorland birds sang on the soft breeze. Little oak trees sprung to knee high around them from crevices in the barren rock. From far south of them there came a faint ragged echo reminiscent of artillery fire.
"What is wrong with Neville? He just looks - awful. I asked him, and he just shrugged and said it wasn't anything, and he didn't want to talk about it."
Draco looked at her. For a moment his eyes assumed a reptilian hauteur that she had not seen in them since schooldays. It chilled her to the bone.
"Well, in that case, why should I discuss it with you?" he enquired. She spread her hands in a rather desperate gesture.
"It isn't nosiness. I'm worried. I'd like to help, if I can, but how can I help if I don't know what I'm doing?"
"Nice to know someone's got the brains to realise that." There was a slight crack in the hard mask of his expression. She had a vague sense of something lost and helpless peeking out through it. She sank down onto a convenient edge of the limestone pavement.
"Sit down," she ordered him briskly, patting the rock next to her with a commanding hand. He looked at her for a moment, and then obeyed.
"Good. Look, Draco, why don't you stop pretending this has to be a one-man show any more? It isn't you playing a lone hand against the Establishment. You've got a team with you this time. Support. Friends. People on your side. Why don't you try to use them, rather than keep trying to struggle on alone?"
"Friends? I hadn't - " He paused, gulped, and resumed. "I'd assumed - I thought - that it was Neville who you saw as your friend. Actually."
She smiled at him.
"No. Both of you. Honestly."
"Oh." His voice had a note of genuine surprise in it. He rubbed his hands over his face, and yawned. "Sorry. And I'm the one who actually had a decent night's sleep. Even if it was in the cellar of a pub in the company of a drunk, dead Roman legionary. Who snored."
Hermione fixed him with a firm glare. "Stop trying to distract me," she ordered him. "Tell me about Neville."
There was a suspicion of relaxation about the lines of his mouth. "You want to watch that, you know," he said.
Draco shrugged. "Plenty of people find it overwhelmingly attractive, having their thinking done for them. I - er - I've noticed it quite a lot, in my life. If you go around being gratuitously decisive you could wake up one morning and discover yourself at the head of an army."
She sighed, pointedly.
"Well, it's obvious you won't be in it."
Draco's lips curved into an unmistakable smile this time. "Sorry," he said. "I've acquired this sort of allergy to having my thinking done for me."
Hermione snorted. "Luckily for me. In all the circumstances, I don't believe it would be reasonable for me to start complaining, don't you think?"
That caught him unawares. His face flamed, suddenly and unexpectedly. Hermione pressed home her advantage unhesitatingly.
"Tell me about Neville. Please."
Draco gave her a searching look. Evidently he accepted her sincerity, because he nodded.
"OK. Well, I'm sorry to say he fell into the hands of an objectionable bunch of bastards who seem to have got hold of a copy of the Dark Lord's Big Book of Psychological Torture, and a nice quiet country house to practice in, and decided to set themselves up as an Institute. They snatched him on Wednesday afternoon and I didn't manage to get to him until first thing this morning."
Under the determinedly light and flippant tone she could hear depths of guilt and pain which racked her. Unbidden, her hand went to her mouth.
"Oh my god," she breathed. "What did they - ?"
Draco shook his head with decision.
"Well, I'm not proposing to go into details. In the first place I don't know them all, and in the second it isn't for me to say. If Neville ever wants to tell you, then that's his affair. But you should assume that I do know what I'm talking about if I say I reckon it was about as bad as these things get. I - I'm not sure it would have been Neville I'd have found there if I'd been half a day later. And he's nowhere near all the way out yet."
She noted that his long fingers were systematically shredding the flowers from a small clump of heather that grew from a crevice close to him. It gave the lie to his steady, coldly impersonal, tone.
"From the odd remark he has made I get the impression he thinks a 'proper Gryffindor' - whatever kind of animal that's supposed to be - would have done more to fight back. And obviously I'm not the one who can convince him differently about that one. If you can do any better, then good luck."
She looked nervously at him.
"What were they like - the ones who were holding him?"
He thought for a moment. "Well, as you've probably guessed, I saw rather more of the Dark Lord during Recent Events than most people. And I can tell you, as if you didn't know already, that meeting him was seriously scary. It wasn't so much knowing that he could blast you into oblivion with one finger movement without a second thought, and was quite likely to do it just because his coffee wasn't to his liking, or you coughed at the wrong moment. It wasn't even knowing that everyone around him was so on edge that if he so much as looked at you as though he didn't care for you much you'd find yourself covered by at least four wands all ready to do Avada Kedavra on you next second in the hope of buying themselves a bit of goodwill. No - the really scary thing about him was that sense that every breath you took in his presence you took by his permission. And that he knew it. And you could see him, watching people, wondering what it would be - interesting - to get them to do next, just so they continued to enjoy the benefit of that permission."
He paused, and rubbed his hands over his face, again.
"That's the state those guys were looking for with their victims, I think. Though they'd have called it something different, I daresay. But the thing that really struck me - "
Hermione leaned forward intently. Draco's brow was creased in a puzzled frown, as though he was still trying to work things out, and then put them into words.
"The thing that really struck me was that, all the time I was around to hear it, the Dark Lord when he killed people, or tortured them, or got other people to do either, always did it because it amused him. Or they'd annoyed him. Or they'd got in the way of his plans for world domination."
His voice dropped to a whisper.
"In the whole of Recent Events I never, once, heard the Dark Lord tell any of his victims that he was doing it for their own good. I had ten minutes with those bozos in that clinic, and it left me feeling like I needed a bath. So - if you do get a chance to have a word with Neville, you might try asking him what a proper Gryffindor is supposed to do, when trapped for thirty-six hours - without a wand - by three people who compare with the Dark Lord - seriously unfavourably - in terms of honesty and lack of hypocrisy."
He took another deep breath.
"Perhaps your friend Potter might be able to offer some suggestions, too. If he can bring himself to condescend to speak to Neville, which he doesn't seem able to at present."
Hermione devoutly hoped she had been able to stifle her sharp intake of breath in time.
"And - ah - does Neville have any idea what was behind it?"
Draco nodded. "Oh, yes. He's got this moronic cousin in the Ministry, who thinks that he'd be a better custodian of the Longbottom loot whenever Mrs Longbottom pops her clogs than a moral degenerate - his words, I assure you - like Neville. Looks like dear Eustace decided to up the stakes a bit. And I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't at the back of my particular bunch of problems, too - I mean, the timing can't be coincidence, wouldn't you think? So, as soon as I've solved things here, I'm going after Cousin Eustace and - "
"You aren't going to be doing anything to Eustace, young man."
Mrs Longbottom's voice came from immediately behind them. Her approach had been so silent, and her care to avoid her shadow falling over them so absolute, that Hermione jumped.
And I wonder how much of that conversation she's been overhearing?
Mrs Longbottom favoured Draco, who glared resentfully at her, with a crocodile smile. She continued serenely.
"At least, you aren't going to be doing anything to him until I've had a chance to speak to him. I need to know whether he was working alone or whether there was any other member of the family involved. I've always had my doubts about Algie, ever since that meringue incident. And in any event, it's my place as Head of the Family to give Eustace a thorough talking to before anyone else gets in there. But I've no objection to handing the re - to your having a quiet word with Eustace and any of his co-conspirators after I've finished with them. I can see that there might be other things it's certainly your place to - discuss."
Draco's eyes glittered, and his lips curved up in an answering smile. Hermione gulped as a sudden pang of nausea afflicted her.
"Anyway," Mrs Longbottom said in a business-like way, "I came to tell you that young Narcissa says she and Neville are in position. You and I and that young Martin should be on our way. And I expect that photographer will be here in a couple of seconds - he was just taking what he called a couple of 'atmospheric shots'. So, young lady, you two ought to be able to get to your places on time, too. Good luck!"
She fixed Draco with a beady stare and they vanished towards the other end of the limestone pavement.
"Sorry to land you with the short straw," Neville muttered as he and Narcissa sidled in through the fissure and into a rough-hewn, narrow rock passage. As they passed beyond the fragmented sunlight of the opening few metres, and into the pitch-blackness beyond, both of them muttered ex Tenebris charms. Under the effects of the charm everything around them became clearly visible, but as though illuminated by corpse-light.
Narcissa raised her eyebrows with infinite - and heartbreakingly familiar - expressiveness.
Why ask me to spell it out?
He plunged on. "You know. Having to put up with me because Grandma won't."
Her flawless Jersey-cream brow wrinkled with an endearingly puppyish air of puzzlement.
"What a strange way of looking at life. I mean, it would be equally true to say I put Draco with your grandmother because I didn't think it was fair to inflict him on Chris at such an early stage in their acquaintance. Or because your grandmother is going to be unspeakably bossy with a young witch, even worse than she is with a blood relative I shouldn't wonder. Or I could make some comment about water and ducks' backs to explain why Draco is undoubtedly the right person to cope with her in her current mood."
Neville could hear his tone was dead flat, but it seemed too much effort to change it.
"You're being very nice about it."
Narcissa eyed him narrowly; she was apparently thinking about saying something, and then changed her mind.
"Well," she said briskly, "I've had my fair share of dealings with obstreperous elderly witches in my time. You should have seen what I got landed with as a mother-in-law when I first married into the Malfoys."
Momentarily, Neville could almost feel himself becoming interested.
'You know, Draco's never mentioned his grandmother."
Narcissa's expression suddenly became infinitely disdainful. There was a level on which that expression was too immediate, too precious. Too familiar.
"That's because she died shortly after he was born."
She paused for a moment, and then added:
"While carrying out a job for the Dark Lord which - ah - did not go entirely as she had planned."
Something about her choice of phrase caught his attention: the unbidden interested note in his voice deepened. He screwed his courage up, and coughed.
"And did it go the way Lord Voldemort had planned?"
There was a sudden rumble deep within the stone passages around them and a small shower of rocks clattered down abruptly from the ceiling of the passage, missing them by centimetres. Narcissa pursed her lips.
"Not exactly the sort of time or place to start breaking with tradition, you know, Neville, dear. Walls, as they say, have ears. And even round here, one or two of them might still be alive. If you do have the need to mention - er, this laboratory's late Chairman - again, I really recommend you should use the same form I do. And, if you hear any suspicious noises while you're doing it, I'd suggest throwing in one or two gratuitously cheesy honorifics, too. Something like 'Master of mages, Ruler of the Serpent' should do nicely. Personally, I always preferred: 'O destroyer of the malignant hippo', but, since you never actually met Madam Malfoy, you're unlikely to manage the note of deep and unfakeable sincerity I could bring off whenever I used that particular one."
There was a place very deep within him where laughter still existed, it seemed. It would have been so comforting to give it expression, but it still seemed to be locked firmly down. No access. Instead, he said coldly,
"And? You were saying?"
Narcissa looked momentarily distressed, but hid it rapidly. Her voice was level as she responded.
"I was saying that you don't have to apologise to me for anything. I chose you for this bit, not got stuck with you. As a matter of fact, if you looked at the plans closely enough, you would have seen that this route goes directly through what used to be the main research staff quarters. As this was never used as any sort of detention centre it doesn't have much by way of dungeons, and the most likely place where they'll have put the hostages will be in the staff accommodation."
She swallowed, and passed her tongue over her lips.
"And - I'm sure you'll have worked out for yourself that there's a non-zero possibility that we could find them alive but - not exactly intact."
He had not worked it out. Fool. You of all people. A dizzying kaleidoscope of horrific images spiralled through his brain. He was conscious of Narcissa watching him with concern. Her voice, however, remained cool.
"And, as you can appreciate, I didn't fancy having to cope with that while simultaneously having to cope with Draco failing to cope."
His lips curled grimly as he pictured it. Involuntarily, he shuddered. Narcissa put a slender hand on his arm.
"Look, just because I'm not the most interventionist parent in the history of motherhood doesn't mean I haven't noticed that you've been practically holding Draco together with your bare hands most of the time since Recent Events."
His voice was low.
"That's hardly something I mind doing."
Narcissa smiled. "No, thank god. Oh, and as far as getting stuck with people goes, I have it on good authority that the reason the allied commanders decided to pair Draco with you in Recent Events was that they had to do something with him, and you were about the only person they could think of who they could actually rely on not to frag him. And I don't supposed it ever occurred to him to apologise to you."
Reluctantly, painfully, but unstoppably, Neville's lips quirked into a smile at last.
"Well, perhaps in his own fashion," he murmured. There was a glint of answering amusement - tinged, perhaps, with relief? - in Narcissa's eyes. Then they rounded a corner in the passage, and both, simultaneously, drew in their breaths sharply.
Blocking the way forward was a company of samurai warriors with drawn swords. Only, under their helmets - there was nothing, save for burning holes where the eyes ought to be.
Narcissa drew her wand.
"Oh, damn," she said conversationally, "Looks like some of the defences are still up and running."
The sound of the swords scything through the air as the warriors advanced was the only noise they made. They brought the cold chill of the grave and a heavy stench of decay with them.
"What they never seem to bother to tell you in Defence Against the Dark Arts," Narcissa continued, "Is that these set-ups are almost always some minor tweak on a very small number of basic situations. Inretio! "
A huge weighted fishing net dropped from nowhere over the warriors, who, hopelessly entangled in its folds, began striking randomly out, tripping over each other, catching their swords and armour on each other, and becoming ever more inextricably entangled. Narcissa regarded her handiwork thoughtfully for a moment, and then added "Evanescite!"
The entangled warriors melted away like snow on a griddle. She wiped her hands together with an air of satisfaction. Muttering something which Neville could only partially hear, but which seemed to be a long riff extemporized on the theme of "Master of the enduring cliché - lord of the melodramatically nonsensical - sovereign of the stupendously over-elaborate set piece - " Narcissa continued her advance down the rock passage, wand still out. Neville followed in her wake.
Martin's gasp of sheer delight when he realised that the crack in the limestone pavement, scarcely bigger than a fox-hole, through which entry to the facility could be achieved debouched onto a nine inches wide ledge without standing headroom at the top of a sheer cliff only confirmed Draco's private opinion that the man was several sandwiches and a wicker basket short of a picnic. He immediately started immensely complicated preparations with vast quantities of gaudy Spectra ropes, muttering excitably to himself. Draco and Mrs Longbottom exchanged a glance.
"Well," Mrs Longbottom said, "strikes me the best thing to do is for me to go down first on the broom, and then Banish it back up to you when he's safely down. That way, I can cover us against anything coming out of the facility; you can guard our rear, and if he does slip or anything one or other of us might be able to break his fall, somehow." She gave Martin another dubious look. He was now chirruping cheerfully to himself, and humming little snatches of song. "Funny: I always knew he was a bit peculiar - all that lot from the Caving Club are - but I never realised he was that daft. I'll have something to say to young Neville about his insisting on bringing him along."
Before Draco could respond to this, Emily Longbottom had seized the Nimbus and launched herself over the cliff edge with an agility that belied her years. A split second later there was a thunderclap, and the cliff was lit from top to bottom by a blaze as of floodlights. There was a roar of sound, and suddenly the air was full of flying boulders, hailing themselves furiously upon her in a frenzied attack from all directions. Emily gave vent to a bloodthirsty battle cry, and put the broom into a steep dive, pulling out of it inches above the rocky floor at the base of the cliff, and swinging round and back up through the rock shower with the face of an avenging fury, lashing out at her stony assailants with hands, feet, and wand. Draco, aiming blasts of magical energy from his uncertain perch on the ledge, fired into the thick of them, splitting many to powder in mid air.
"Watch out!" he yelled, as one of the biggest managed by a deceptive side slip to elude his fire, and powered down on Emily Longbottom from behind. She rolled, desperately, dangling below her broom from one hand and her crossed elastic-sided ankle boots with the air of a manic grizzled tree-sloth. Then, with one frantic wrist movement, she blew the boulder out of the sky with her wand at point-blank range.
That seemed to draw the teeth of the rock-storm. As suddenly as it had blown up it subsided. The light died away; the pool cast by Martin's helmet-mounted cave lantern became a small island in a dark sea again. Draco, his eyes frantically trying to regain their magical night vision again after their bedazzlement, found himself blinking across a couple of feet of empty space at Mrs Longbottom, who was hovering opposite the ledge on the broom, scraped and bruised, and with the glittering light of battle in her eyes.
"You know, you'd have made a pretty impressive Beater," he said. She snorted.
"What do you mean, would have made? I'll have you know, young man, that I played Beater on the team that won the House Quidditch Cup five years running. The team whose Keeper kept a clean sheet for over half their games and which didn't lose a match during its last two seasons together. I don't suppose you've ever experienced anything like it."
Draco shook his head, fascinated. "Nope. Our team never even came close."
She smiled. "Well, they tell me it's still the Hogwarts record. They used to have the photograph of our team, the last game we all played together, over the mantelpiece in the common room. Unless they've gone and got rid of it out of some asinine notion of interior decoration, I daresay you'll have seen it often enough."
Draco's lips parted in surprise. "Good heavens." He looked at her narrowly. "Emily Chattox. Well, well, well. I must say, it'd never have occurred to me that that was you."
Mrs Longbottom's grin got wider and more saurian. "No. Well, I'll admit eight-five years does make a bit of a difference."
"So does chopping off about four feet of hair, and not having two black eyes and a bloody nose," Draco breathed appreciatively. "That must have been quite some game."
"It was. We'd just handed the Gryffindors the stuffing of a life-time, and I didn't think life could get any better." She paused, reflectively. "Maybe I was right." She drew a deep and decisive breath.
"Anyway, I can't sit here chatting all day. In the circumstances, I think perhaps we'd better hurry up and get in there sooner rather than later."
Draco nodded. Martin, he could see out of the corner of his eye, had finished his preparations and was about to lower himself over the edge.
"OK. See you at the bottom."
The green fog curled, ominously, round the bend of the narrow stone passage way. Hermione looked back behind them, but the curtain of flame that had sprung up to cut off their retreat before they had gone twenty yards down through the Tradesmen's entrance was still blazing. It was all too obvious that the only way to go was forwards.
Chris looked grimly at her. "Get behind me," he ordered.
Hermione could feel her face set, mulishly.
"Don't order me about -"
"Do it," he snapped. "It's only wide enough for one of us to go at once, anyway."
"I'm not doing it because you're a witch and I'm a wizard. Or because I'm old enough to be your father," he added rapidly. " I'm doing it because if whatever it is it gets me, you've more chance of thinking up something to get us both out of it than vice versa."
"That just sounds like rationalising your instincts to me -"
"Anyway," he interrupted, his teeth flashing in the sudden ghost of a grin, "if one of us does have to inhale that muck, my lungs are probably past praying for, anyway."
He caught her by the shoulders and thrust her behind him while she was still thinking about that one. He advanced boldly, wand out, into the green fog.
The shriek made her jump five metres back. Chris clutched passionately at his face. "Oh my god, my eyes, my eyes. Oh god, Ex tenebris, ex tenebris - Oh god , it isn't working. Oh, fuck, Hermione, that stuff blinds you - I won't be able to take photographs - ever again - "
He reeled back against her, hard. The smell of the fog was caught in his hair and on his robes: Hermione could smell its acrid scent. Something familiar; something she'd read -
"No, Chris," she yelled, grabbing him by the shoulders, and shaking hard. "This thing isn't affecting your eyes. Not your eyes. It's in your mind - think Room 101 - "
Then the green fog rolled over her too, and she lost contact with him. The only sound audible was a terrified whimper. She realised it was her own voice.
She looked vaguely around. The light was cold and greenish, slightly misty. There was no-one else there, except the man who had spoken. He was crouching back against the wall, clutching the bag, which swung from his shoulders, close against his chest.
"Who?" she asked dully.
"Hermione? Talk to me."
Her hand went to her lips.
"Is that - is that me?"
A hand reached out, groping for hers. It occurred to her, dully, that the man could not see her. She stretched out her own hand and touched his. It grasped hers, firmly. His other hand brushed quickly over her features, orienting him as to where she was standing, which way she was facing.
"Hermione: don't you know your name?"
One should, of course, know one's own name. And words for things - things should have names. It was wrong for things not to have names. I always know things' names. She shook her head, dumbly, then a deeply buried bit of her brain told her that that was foolish. The man could not see her. She spoke, hesitantly.
"I - can't remember. Anything."
On that recognition the fear came. She crouched back against the wall and sobbed, a huge raw sound coming up out of the depths of her heart and lungs. The man came close to her and put an arm round her shoulders.
"Hermione. I know who you are. We have to go on. You'll have to show me the way, though. You said 'Room 101' didn't you?"
"Did I? When? What does that mean?"
Had there ever been a place before this nightmare? She chewed on her knuckles. His hand passed over her face again, gently. Can I trust him? Was it him who did this to me?
He seemed to understand what she was thinking. "It means that what happened to you is your worst fear. Amnesia for you. Blindness for me. It was very clever of you to work it out so quickly. Well - remembered."
His voice twisted as if in pain. She nodded sadly.
"I can't remember anything."
"No. But you can tell me what you see. And I can remember for you. Trust me: I'll tell you what it means."
He took her hand and ran it over his face.
"Chris," he said earnestly to her. "I'm Chris. And you're Hermione. Look, we need to go on. What's in front of us? I can feel the sides of the passage, and then it suddenly widens out. What's after that?"
She peered forward. "Things come to a stop."
She looked at him, and pressed down lightly on his shoulder, pushing him gently to his knees. Then, she guided his hands forward. She could see him grope out, cautiously, until his gently questing fingers reached the jagged edge in front of them. Once she was aware he had felt all along it for as far as he could reach in either direction, she took his hand forward into the space over the abyss, and wiggled it around it the air, in the hope this would give him the right idea. On an inspiration, she also picked up a small loose piece of the stuff they were crawling on, and wrapped his fingers around it. He felt it, recognising it, and then, carefully, she unwrapped his fingers, deliberately letting it fall. It bounced off the raw rock sides below them, but its ultimate landing was too far below them to be audible. He breathed in, raggedly. She continued, nervously.
"That's what it's like, mostly. But - there's - there's a thing. Across - across?- it. But it's got - no things that you can feel, either side."
He exhaled, gently. His voice was very patient. "Tell me about the thing."
How to say anything about anything when the words have gone?
She looked at him, and then said: "Stay there a moment."
She crawled along the rock edge, and came back to him, her hands held a cautious distance apart. "Feel". She guided him to feel the gap between her hands, spacing it out on his arm when she thought he wasn't getting it.
"That much. That's the thing's- " she hesitated. "That's the thing's apartness. You know -"
She put both hands either side of his waist. "That way round. Not - "
She touched his head and feet quickly, in succession. He nodded to show he'd understood. "And that way? How big is the thing that way?"
She hummed, doubtfully. She ran her hand down from his head to his foot, and then did it again. "That much. Or perhaps a bit more."
"And what's it made of?"
That was easy. She pulled his hand down gently and touched it to the floor of the passage.
"Good. A rock bridge, then. Over a crevasse."
Rock. Bridge. Crevasse. She drank in vocabulary like a thirsty wanderer in the desert.
"Hermione, take us across the bridge. Please."
She guided him carefully to it, making him kneel down again. "There."
His fingers reached out, feeling either side of the bridge. "Yes."
She gave him her hand and stepped onto the narrow band of rock. Below them - it was not a good idea to look below. His posture was half crouching, one hand in continuous contact with the edge of the bridge, the other gripped tightly around hers, his feet shuffling rapidly forwards behind hers. It seemed a very long time until they were on the other side.
They had not taken two steps off the bridge before her vision suddenly cleared. Hermione spun on the spot, looking back across the crevasse to the green murk, which still lingered on the farther side. Her knees shook under her: she was not sure whether it was with postponed terror, or inconceivable relief. Besides her Chris coughed, and blinked, looking up at her from the rock onto which he had sunk.
He grinned at her, shakily. "I don't give a flying fuck what you say about it, but I'm bloody well going to have a cigarette. Now."
He pulled out the Gauloises before she could respond, and lit one with a trembling hand. Hermione looked back across the bridge again, and shuddered profoundly.
"Chris?" she said in a small voice.
"Is it - er, true that nicotine calms the nerves?"
He looked up at her with a deeply shocked expression on his face.
She made a face at him. "Well, it's not as if I was planning to make a habit of it. And you'd better not tell anyone, either. But in the circumstances - "
Silently he lit another Gauloise and passed it to her. She inhaled, inexpertly, and coughed. She could see him laughing up at her through the haze of smoke and her watering eyes. She grinned shyly back. And then started spluttering helplessly again.