Hermione had never much minded the dungeons before this. Sitting in front of Professors Snape and Slughorn, carefully measuring ingredients and reading instructions and, once, becoming increasingly frustrated over her ineptitude when compared to Harry and the spiky scribbles in his secondhand textbook – in doing all of these things, she had never had a chance to notice just how horrible they were, in reality. But she had been here for over twenty-four hours now, in this small and cramped space, a makeshift prison cell. And twenty-four hours was ample time to come to terms with the fact that, yes, the Death Eaters knew what they were doing; there would have been no worse place in Hogwarts for prisoners of war.
The ash-gray stone walls she was currently huddled against were feverishly damp; she couldn’t think where the moisture might have been coming from, and didn’t really want to know. Crowded in the close, dank corners were patches of mold and mildew that seemed to grow at almost visible rates of speed. The floor was hard and rocky; the walls and ceiling, equally so. Hermione was not even afforded a crudely-cut barred window, as would have been the case in any number of the novels she had read over the years. But this was not a novel; this was not a fantasy.
She leaned her forehead against the wall gingerly and sucked in a deep breath, closing her eyes and trying to calm her perpetually racing heart. More than twenty-four hours – and where was Ron? Where were Bill, and Fleur, and Mr. Weasley? Where was anyone – or was she the only one left? The air had been thick with screams and cries of protest for hours after Hermione herself had been unceremoniously dumped here; now the silence was almost worse. But surely… surely Ron was all right. He had left, had fled to safety, hadn’t he?
Yes. He most certainly had left.
The silence was perhaps the most unnerving part of it all. She could have dealt with the other horrors: The shouts of spells, the cries of pain as those spells found their intended targets. These were expected things in wartime; the silence was the in-between, the waiting, the suspended period between pain you already knew, and pain you had yet to know. In some ways, it was worse than the pain itself.
Hermione shifted a bit, drawing her knees up tightly to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. It felt like it had been years since she had impersonated Bellatrix Lestrange and broken into Gringotts, and had destroyed Hufflepuff’s cup in the Chamber of Secrets. Years since she had learned Harry was dead. It had felt so important, what they were doing, and somehow, she hadn’t even anticipated any ending other than a happy one. Wasn’t good always supposed to triumph over evil?
Just as she was about to twist in the opposite direction – another fruitless attempt at comfort, though she kept trying – there was a sort of shuffling, scraping sound from the wall behind her. She sat up at once, scrambling away from it, her trainers searching for purchase on a small patch of stone that had broken away from the rest of the wall; her wrist bent at an odd angle, and she cried out before registering it. The noise stopped rather abruptly as a bit of the stone went flying into the wall with a very solid-sounding thunk. There was more of that dense, terrible silence, and then –
Her heart leaped into her throat; she knew that voice, had sat in classes alongside the boy whose voice it was for six years. Just as quickly as she had backed away in fear, Hermione scrambled back over to the wall, hands scurrying over the wall. There was a slight chink between two of the eye-level bricks, only big enough to slip a folded piece of parchment through, but it was enough for sound to travel.
“Dean?” she whispered groggily, her voice hoarse from screaming and, afterwards, disuse. There was the same sort of shuffling sound, rock scraping rock, as though he was sitting up higher, too.
“Hermione.” Dean Thomas’s voice was weak with relief. It was a voice that Hermione had not heard since she, Harry, and Ron had left Shell Cottage, when Hermione had been disguised as the very woman who had played a large part in imprisoning her in the dungeon she now sat in. The fact that Dean, a Muggle-born like herself, was not yet dead, was nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps it was a miracle that she, Hermione, wasn’t dead either.
“How are you?” she asked gingerly, scooting closer to the wall and lowering her voice a fraction, desperate not to be overheard by whomever was keeping the pair of them within the rotting dungeon walls. Dean gave a hollow, humorless laugh.
“I’m all right,” he said, catching onto her change in tone and matching his accordingly. “I feel a lot better knowing you’re here, though. Being top of our class, you know – surely…” But he trailed off, and didn’t finish his sentence. Hermione could feel her cheeks heating, though it was a bit absurd to try and play at modesty in this situation.
“Oliver’s here, too,” Dean spoke up again. “He’s on the other side of me, we got brought in together – hang on –“ She could hear him moving away from her, across his own ridiculously tiny cell space, and when he next spoke again he sounded a bit more distant. “Oliver?”
“What?” Oliver Wood’s voice had never sounded so welcome. Hermione hadn’t ever had cause to really listen to it before – with his being obsessed with Quidditch, and her never being able to understand its attraction, it was rather obvious that they’d never had prodigious amounts of interaction – but he was here, and that meant he had fought. It brought her hope, however dim.
“Hermione Granger’s over here,” Dean said. He was trying very hard to be cheerful, Hermione could tell; nevertheless, something essentially natural was missing from the attempt. There was a pause, and then Oliver spoke again, low and heavy and dull.
“Fantastic. Can I go back to bed now?”
“But didn’t you hear what I said? Hermi –“
“I heard you,” Oliver said, annoyance laced in the words, dripping venomously. “So what? She’s just as stuck as the rest of us. No wand, no spells. No hope. Honestly, no offense, but I just don’t care, mate.” There was more scraping sounds of body on rock – someone moving somewhere, despite the fact there wasn’t much room to move at all – and the cells went silent again. Dean said nothing further, though whether it was from agreement or embarrassment, she didn’t know.
Hermione’s stomach had plummeted, coming to rest somewhere around her ankles. It was hard not to believe Oliver, to listen to his words and not want to give up as he had so obviously done. She inched away from the wall to the opposite corner, folding in on herself, burying her head in her folded arms and resting it on her bent knees. Her wrist seared with pain, but she paid it no heed. Her mouth was moving, almost of its own volition, and she found that they were forming a single word, over and over again. A pleading mantra, a hope to cling to. Ron.
She would not give up. She would not.
Bellatrix Lestrange could see the moon slowly rising over distant mountains from the window where she stood, its beams cutting thick, gossamer strips through the patches of stone and snow, visible even from this distance. The moon had already risen once on the remains of the battle – it had been nearly forty-eight hours since the siege, since the fall of those who had still clung to the hope that her master would not be victorious. It had previously shone upon hell: Bodies crushed and crumbled, half-trampled into the ground where they had fallen; thick splotches of crimson on the scorched grass; and the stone of the castle littering it all like oddly-placed tombstones. Now, it was peaceful, a twisted brand of heaven.
Bellatrix smirked, her eyes switching their focus, looking now not at the scene before her but at her own ghost-like reflection in the leaded window. How foolish they had been to think that the Dark Lord would do anything but triumph.
It was the Dark Lord she was waiting for now, though this wasn’t an uncommon thing in itself. She would have been walking alongside him now, were it not for the fact that he had required time to be alone. It was a dangerous request, to her ears – but, after all, the threat Harry Potter posed was now vanquished, and she had acquiesced his request. She had not spoken privately with him since before the battle, but no matter.
The ethereal Bellatrix in the window twisted her mouth into a gloating sort of leer, and at that moment, the equally ghostly reflection of the door behind her swung open. She turned breathlessly, her hands reaching forward to clasp each other across her abdomen in anticipation, as Lord Voldemort entered the room.
But there was something off about him. It was easy to see it, and even easier to see the pains he was going through to try and conceal it. Her lord was proud, he was powerful, and yet now – now he walked with the burden of the years he never wished to be reminded of. His head, though erect, looked at the same time bent with stiffness; the wand in his hand was clutched far, far too tightly. And Bellatrix said nothing about any of it. If her master was blind, then she must be also; this was how her world worked.
“My lord,” she said, the words floating out on a delighted exhalation of breath. She watched with bright, rapt eyes as he crossed to the broad desk in the center of the room and sat himself behind it. It was only then he looked up at her, and Bellatrix swallowed her shock; she had never seen those eyes so sunken, so dead.
“Bellatrix,” he said. “Come closer.”
She took a few steps across the wooden floor, paying no heed as it creaked and groaned in protest, as though sensing exactly who walked upon it. “My lord,” she repeated, leaning upon the desk with the very tips of her fingers. “The entirety of the castle has been searched. Every prisoner is accounted for and secured.”
Bellatrix watched as the Dark Lord nodded slowly, turning his wand very slowly, almost painfully, in his fingers. “Malfoy has suggested using them,” she added nastily, though not without a bit of scorn welling up in her throat, saying the name of her brother-in-law. “He seems to think they can be used in the restoring of the castle as a stronghold –“
“Lucius Malfoy’s plans do not concern me,” Voldemort whispered; his eyes, which he had averted again, found hers once more. “Your prisoners, Bellatrix, do not concern me.”
She felt small slivers of ice slip into her veins; the words, though not dangerous in themselves, sounded terrifying through his lips. “Yes,” she said, casting her eyes to the floor in deference. “Yes, of course – I only meant to –“
“Are you aware, Bellatrix,” he interrupted her, as though she had not spoken at all, “who previously occupied the desk you now lean upon?”
Bellatrix retracted her hands so quickly, one might have thought the polished wood had seared her palms. Voldemort laughed bitterly. “For years,” he continued softly, as though to himself, “Albus Dumbledore sat here and plotted – against me, against the wizarding world. And now… here we are!” He laughed again; she could not see the humor in what her lord was saying, and so remained silent.
“Dumbledore knew much, however. He was not a fool. It cannot be denied.” The Dark Lord looked down at the wand in his hands, his long, white fingers opening and closing about it like the grotesque petals of dead flowers. Bellatrix swallowed against a slight panic, without understanding quite where it was coming from, and waited for him to elaborate. But he did not.
“You may go.”
“I – my l-“
“You may go,” the Dark Lord repeated. His voice was soft and deadly, velvet concealing poisonous barbs, and it sent cool, cloying chills skittering up Bellatrix’s arms. Goosebumps trailed up to the back of her neck, and she shuddered involuntarily.
She backed away from the desk, her shoulder scraping roughly on the curve of a stone wall, before turning about and scuttling through the door of the headmaster’s office. She did not want to find out what would happen if her master was required to make his request a third time.
Lord Voldemort watched Bellatrix slip through the narrow opening in the door, the corner of his mouth lifted in a scornful sneer. He did not relax as the sound of her boots faded from earshot; he was a man of contradictions, and as much as he had wanted to be alone at that very moment, Bellatrix had provided a measure of safety. As long as she was here, he, Voldemort, could be the same person he’d been (more or less) for the past thirty-odd years, and that was something he could not reassure himself of alone…
Albus Dumbledore’s desk. He laid his hands upon it, arching them across his wand; the wood was cooling on the inflamed tips of his fingers, if only for a moment.
Yes, Dumbledore had known much… But still, he had the Elder Wand now, didn’t he? Didn’t that make up for whatever was happening to him?
He looked at the wand on the table under his fingers, slowly moving his hands away, hoping – vainly, he knew – that this time would be different.
But it was not. Small spots of crimson patterned the desk in an abstract semi-circle. The same sorts of spots peppered his wand: Some were nearly brown with age; others appeared to act almost like mirrors, reflecting his own eyes back at him. Perhaps if he turned his wand just right…
Voldemort let it fall with a clatter onto the desktop, the chair grating harshly on the floor as he rose to his feet.
He, of all people, could not be dying.
A/N: I told you that drop of blood was important! I can't remember specifically at the moment, so I'm not sure if anyone's theorized right about specifically why it's important... I'm really interested in hearing your theories, though! It's probably getting tricky anyway, keeping things straight. So if your brain hurts (like mine), you can feel free to sit back and refuse to theorize. I won't hold it against you.
This chapter was just on the far side of being late, so I'll probably wait slightly under a two-week update the next time around, just to make things fair. Thank you all so, so much for all the reading and reviewing!