Pretending Hermione was dead was a lot harder than Harry and Ron had expected. The grief that had swept the school was also a lot more severe than what they'd been expecting as well, which just seemed to put added pressure on them to look even more broken up over Hermione's death. The two boys had prepared themselves for the grief to be strongest in Gryffindor Tower, but they hadn't expected the outpouring of emotion from their three room-mates, Dean Thomas, Seamus Finnigan and Neville Longbottom. Neville especially was torn up about Hermione's death as she was the first friend he'd made at Hogwarts, and over the years she'd been there for him when no-one else was interested.
The other person to take Hermione's death badly was Ginny. Of course, both Harry and Ron suspected Ginny would be heartbroken at the news, as despite them being in different years, Ginny and Hermione had been pretty close. But neither of them were quite prepared for how broken up the red-headed witch was. Ginny was in tears almost all the time, and she clung to Harry and Ron as she thought they were the only people who truly understood how devastated she was by the loss of her friend.
On a more positive note for Harry, Ginny's grief had brought them even closer and they were now a proper couple. Harry had felt slightly guilty for taking advantage of Ginny in her grief, but as Ron pointed out, they would have ended up together sooner or later so there was nothing for him to feel guilty about. As it was, the only reason they weren't already a couple was that Harry had been so caught up in worrying about the threats to Hermione's life. If he hadn't been so preoccupied by his best friend's safety he and Ginny would have acted on their kiss over Christmas several weeks ago.
Following Hermione's death, Harry and Ron had taken some time off from lessons as it was what was expected from them, and it was only when they returned that they'd realised how devastated the entire school was. They weren't sure if it meant Hermione was far more popular than they'd ever realised, or if it was just general sadness that someone so young had lost their life. And of course, Hermione's death had come hot on the heels of what had happened at Hogsmeade. She was the second student to die within a few weeks, not to mention poor Colin Creevey and Professor Flitwick, both of whom were still in hospital.
It was also when the boys returned to lessons that they found that Draco Malfoy was mysteriously missing. Neither of them had noticed at first, but then they'd spotted Ernie Macmillan wearing the Head Boy badge and issuing detentions to some unruly students. The boys knew that Dumbledore had passed the Head Girl's position along to Padma Patil, although she wanted to remain in Ravenclaw Tower, but they hadn't realised he'd also relieved Draco of his duties. It was when they then spoke to Ernie that they discovered that Draco had gone.
"What do you mean gone?" Ron asked the new Head Boy with a frown.
"I mean he's no longer a student at Hogwarts," Ernie replied. "Haven't either of you noticed his absence?"
"We've had other things on our mind," Harry muttered.
"Right, sorry," Ernie said, wincing slightly as he realised he'd put his foot in it. "Anyway, Malfoy's gone so Dumbledore asked if I would take over as Head Boy."
"Are you in the Head Dorms?" Ron asked. Padma may have turned down the chance to move, but he wasn't as sure that Ernie would pass on the opportunity to have private quarters.
"Dumbledore said there was no need since it's only for a few weeks," Ernie answered, clearly annoyed with the headmaster's choice.
Thanking Ernie for his time, Harry and Ron headed off to go and see Dumbledore. There was something strange going on, and they intended to find out what. However, before they made it to Dumbledore's office, they passed the library and spotted a few of Draco's friends sitting at a table near the front of the room.
"What do you think?" Harry asked as he and Ron watched the group that consisted of Blaise Zabini, Theo Nott, Daphne Greengrass and a recently returned from St Mungo's, Pansy Parkinson. "I bet they know what's going on."
"I bet they do," Ron agreed. "But why would they tell us anything?"
"I don't know, but it's worth a try," Harry said as he led the way into the library and over to where the Slytherins were sitting.
Pansy was the first to notice the two Gryffindors and she looked up with a frown. "Can we help?" she snapped.
"We're looking for Malfoy," Harry said.
"As you can see, he's not here," Blaise replied. "We're not hiding him under the table."
"We know he's not here," Ron said. "We also know he's not in school."
"Gee, what gave it away?" Theo muttered sarcastically.
"Where is he?" Harry demanded.
"As you said, not in school," Blaise answered.
"That's all we know," Pansy added.
"Bullshit," Ron snorted. "You know where he is and why he vanished."
"And what if we do?" Blaise asked with a challenging glare. "Just what does it have to do with you two?"
"It has nothing to do with you," Daphne said forcefully. Blaise and Theo had told her and Pansy all about Draco, including where he was and why, and they were both as worried about their friend as the boys. "We're not going to tell you anything, so just go away."
"We will find out the truth," Ron warned.
"Good for you, now bugger off and let us study," Blaise snarled.
Knowing they weren't going to get anything out of the Slytherins, Harry and Ron left the library and made their way to the headmaster's office. Fortunately, Dumbledore was in his office when the pair arrived, and he was more than happy to settle down and talk with the two teenagers. Not wasting any time, Harry immediately asked the headmaster about Draco.
"I have to admit, I'm slightly in the dark where young Mr Malfoy is concerned," Dumbledore confessed. "I didn't even realise he wasn't in the castle until Lucius turned up and informed me that his son was at home and wouldn't be returning."
"When was this?" Harry asked.
"A few days after we moved Hermione," Dumbledore answered. "Tuesday, I think."
"Isn't it strange that he left school days after what happened with Hermione?" Harry questioned.
"It is unusual, yes," Dumbledore agreed with a nod. "But I can't find any connection between the two incidents. If Miss Granger's death were real, I would worry that Mr Malfoy had a hand in it, but as we know it's all false, that can't be the case. It must be pure coincidence that he chose to leave school early."
"He did seem awfully concerned about Hermione when she was in the hospital wing," Ron mused. "Do you think he knew about You-Know-Who's desire to kill her? Maybe he's reporting back to him, and that's why he left. The job was done, and he didn't even have to lift a finger."
"You think he was working for Voldemort and waiting for an opportunity to kill Hermione?" Harry asked his best friend.
"Why not?" Ron replied with a shrug. "We all know Lucius Malfoy may be pretending to be neutral, but his loyalty is truly with the dark. He's just covering his backside in case things go wrong again. It makes sense that his son is with the dark."
"I guess it does," Harry agreed. "But Malfoy's had all year to get to Hermione. They've been sharing dorms, he could have taken her out whenever he wanted."
"Maybe he was just trying to find the right time to make it look like an accident," Ron suggested. "If he just outright killed her, he would be a wanted murderer."
"What do you think?" Harry asked Dumbledore, his head swimming with the possibilities.
"I think Ron could well be on the right track," Dumbledore said quietly. "It's just a whisper I've heard, but according to my sources, the Malfoys are aligning themselves with the dark side. They're going to break their neutral stance."
"That's it then, Malfoy was working for You-Know-Who all along," Ron declared.
"It looks like we made the right decision about Hermione after all," Harry said, shuddering to think about how close they'd come to losing her. "We're just lucky we were able to move before Malfoy worked out a plan and struck."
"We were lucky, weren't we?" Ron asked, suddenly worried that something had gone wrong. "Hermione is safe, isn't she?"
"She's safe," Dumbledore reassured the pair. He hadn't been to see the young witch, but he'd heard from a few people that she was safe, and not taking her imprisonment too well.
"But?" Harry prompted, knowing Dumbledore was keeping something from them.
"But she's very angry," Dumbledore said. "Everyone who's been guarding her have all said the same thing. She's furious, and she's barely speaking to anyone. It's not going to be easy when you go and see her."
"We can cope," Harry said with more confidence than he felt. "It's for her own good, and when we tell her about Malfoy, she'll see that."
"Do you really think telling her about our suspicions is wise?" Dumbledore questioned. "We have no proof Mr Malfoy was up to anything. Given the way Hermione is reacting, telling her what we think might not be the best idea."
"Dumbledore's right," Ron agreed. "If we go around accusing Malfoy without proof, she'll just say we're overreacting or exaggerating again. If she still won't believe You-Know-Who is after her, she won't believe that Malfoy was trying to kill her."
"I guess not," Harry conceded. "It look like we're just going to have to hope that by the time school finishes in a few months, Hermione will have calmed down."
Hermione's quest to escape had not gotten off to a good start. Following her arrival at the cottage, she'd spent a lot of time prowling the cottage and gardens, looking for an escape route. Sadly it had become clear quite quickly that she couldn't get past the wards Dumbledore had set without her wand. Even with her wand bypassing them would be unlikely, but without her wand it was just hopeless. Not that it stopped Hermione from trying again and again to batter through the wards until she was exhausted.
With escape out of the question, Hermione had even tried pleading with every person she came into contact with, but they were all as bad as each other. Sirius, Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks were clearly the most uncomfortable with the situation, but they'd refused to be budged on the matter. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't persuade any of them to let her go or even agree to help her try and find a way out of her prison.
Hermione had hoped to have more luck with Molly Weasley, but if anything she was the most determined of her captors. Molly insisted that they were acting in Hermione's best interests, and nothing could persuade her otherwise. Even Hermione's attempts at emotional blackmail, failed to make any inroads. The fact Molly was a mother herself and was part of putting her parents through untold grief, wasn't enough to convince her that what they were doing to Hermione was wrong. Even when Hermione mentioned Molly's children and the fact she was letting them grieve for her unnecessarily, the red-headed witch had refused to listen to reason. She was convinced she was in the right, and nothing Hermione could say would persuade her otherwise.
At one point Hermione did get her hopes raised, the one and only time Molly's husband, Arthur Weasley was the one at the cottage. Hermione had sensed immediately that Arthur hated what was happening, and within an hour of him arriving at the cottage he'd apologised to Hermione and confided her in that he'd tried to stop the plan for going ahead. Hermione had played nice with Arthur, thanking him for his support, before trying to get him to help her escape. However, just as she seemed to be getting through to Arthur and she was convinced he was going to help her, Molly had arrived and foiled her plans. Spotting what was happening, Molly had sent her husband home and Hermione hadn't seen the wizard since. No doubt Arthur wouldn't be trusted to watch her again.
Following her brief glimmer of hope with Arthur, Hermione's life had fallen into a routine. She would spend her days searching fruitlessly for a way out of the cottage, all while ignoring whatever captor was in residence. By the time Hogwarts finished for the year and Harry and Ron turned up, Hermione hadn't spoken more than the odd grunt to anyone in months.
When Harry and Ron turned up, Hermione let herself believe that they would have come to their senses. She knew from Sirius that both boys had been in on the plan, but she'd hoped months of witnessing just what their plan had done to people would be enough to have them realising the error of their ways. Sadly, Hermione's hopes were short lived as her friend's immediately made it clear that they didn't regret their actions.
"I can't believe you two went along with this," Hermione seethed when Harry and Ron refused to back down. "I thought you were my friends."
"We are your friends," Harry replied gently. He couldn't deny he was hurt by Hermione's hostility, but he knew that they would have to stay calm if they ever wanted Hermione to see that they'd only had her best interests at heart. "That's why we did this. We're saving you from Voldemort."
"I couldn't care less about sodding Voldemort," Hermione screamed. "I'm worried about my parents. Did you ever think about the hell you're putting them through?"
Hermione nearly mentioned Draco, but since her friends didn't know of the relationship she didn't want to complicate matters. When she did escape, there was no way she was allowing Draco to join the Order, not after this. Instead they could just leave, and everyone could sort out their own mess without their help. Of course that would be after they made sure the whole world knew just what the Order were really like.
"I know this seems harsh, but it's necessary," Harry sighed.
"This is not necessary," Hermione spat. "And have you even thought about what happens when you no longer require me to be dead? How are you planning on explaining that I'm still alive?"
"I don't know," Harry confessed, frowning at the flaw in his plan which hadn't been picked up on earlier. "But we'll sort something out when it's safe for you to leave this place."
"We understand you're mad Hermione, but you'll thank us when you survive the war," Ron added, offering Hermione a small smile.
"I will never thank you for this," Hermione replied in a cold voice. She could see now that no amount of talking would bring Harry and Ron around, she was truly on her own and if she was going to escape it would have to be by herself and on her own terms. She couldn't rely on anyone else for help, as clearly she wasn't getting any. "I will hate you for the rest of my life. And when I get out of here, I will make you pay for what you've done to me."
"Don't be so ridiculous, Hermione," Harry scoffed, not taking Hermione seriously due to her anger. "I know you're upset now, but you'll come round and see we've made the right decision."
"No, I won't," Hermione answered flatly. "What I'm going to do is get the hell away from you lot. I promise I will escape this place, and everyone will find out exactly what sort of people the Order really are."
"If you could have escaped, you would have done it before now," Ron pointed out. Like Harry, he wasn't too fazed by Hermione's attitude, as he knew it was all just anger and like Harry he was hoping that when she calmed down she would see sense and understand why they'd taken the drastic action of faking her death. "Face it Hermione, you're stuck here. You might as well just accept it."
"Never," Hermione snarled, before turning on her heel and stalking back to her room.
Unfortunately she knew Ron was right about one thing, if she could have escaped, she would have. She was stuck here, and for the time being she could see no way out. She would have to hope that she could find a weakness to exploit, and that one day she would escape. She just had to escape, every day she was stuck with the Order was a day her parents and Draco were suffering, and she was desperate to alleviate that suffering. Her parents and boyfriend didn't deserve to be grieving for her, and Hermione promised herself that she would do everything in her power to ensure their grief was short lived. She just hoped that nothing too bad had happened to them before she got a chance to find them and show them that she was still alive.