Authors: furiosity and imadra_blue
Warnings: Violence, dark themes, gore.
Summary: Every hero, self-styled or otherwise, must undertake a quest, and Harry Potter's quest has already been set for him by those older and wiser than he. Where there is prophecy, there is also destiny, but there are forks in the dark path that Harry and his friends now walk. There are allies they know not, and enemies they'd know but for their smiles. There are lessons in the past that Harry would do well to learn, and guidance in the present from unexpected sources.
Notes: We are indebted to our beta-readers — alittlewhisper, goneril, lexique, mishty, pikacharma, tamsin_h, and therealw — who provided insight, Britpicking and hilarious MST notes throughout January. Thank you all so much for everything.
A man with nothing left to lose has two choices. One is to send all caution into the sky and go out in a ferocious blaze. The other is to wait and hope for fortune's wheel to turn in his favour once more. The final decision depends on the man: the Gryffindor will often do the former. The Slytherin is likeliest to do the latter.
Snape released his hold on Draco, who immediately stepped aside and began brushing off his robes, quite unnecessarily. They were on a grassy bank in a tide-washed estuary between southwest Scotland and northwest Cumbria, a part of what the Muggles called the Solway Coast. To their right was the Rockcliffe Marsh, to their left, the sea. It was still dark; the only light illuminating the stretch of coast was that of the waxing moon, but there was a grey cast to everything, suggesting that dawn was not far off.
Their final destination was further to the north. Snape cursed inwardly. He'd miscalculated the effort required for Side-Along Apparition and they would need to make the rest of their way on foot. A chill breeze carried by the sea was gathering strength; Snape gazed up at the sky and saw the menacing shapes of storm clouds moving in from the west.
Snape's arm ached where the Hippogriff had attacked him during his flight from Hogwarts. He muttered a quick healing spell and turned to Draco. The boy was staring at the water foaming by his feet, his head bowed. Snape couldn't see the expression on his face.
"Are you injured?" he asked.
"I'm fine," said Draco, lifting his head to look at Snape. "I'm to be killed, aren't I?" Snape stepped towards him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Draco flinched, but held his gaze. "I failed," he said, his voice hollow.
"You did not fail," said Snape, steering him away towards the uphill path that ran across thick growths of silver thyme. "It was wise not to commit murder in front of so many witnesses."
Draco gave a harsh, barking laugh, sounding rather like a very different descendant of the Black family.
"What's funny?" Snape asked as they reached the top of the bank. It continued to rise upwards, patches of sleeping harebells dotting the dark grass, but Snape and Draco's path ran around the sloping hill and to the north.
"Nothing, it's just ironic that you call what I did 'wise'. Does that mean you are calling yourself unwise?"
Snape smiled, though the expression was at odds with his inner state. This boy, however foolish and hasty, had a mind like a whip—much like his mother. "No. However, I had no choice but to act unwisely, and you—"
Draco interrupted him. "Why did you agree to make the Unbreakable Vow, Professor?"
"That isn't important," murmured Snape, shooting the boy a quelling look. It wasn't his story to tell. "This way," he added, motioning forward as they reached a fork in the road.
They walked in silence for a while, their footsteps lost in the sea's discontented murmur. The grey shadows were slowly growing lighter—somewhere beyond the clouds, the sun was rising. The road veered off to the east and their way now stretched across an expanse of grassland that led to a small river visible up ahead. The marsh was uncomfortably near now; Snape could feel the ground turn almost viscous, even beneath the thick soles of his boots.
A skylark rose into the air from a thicket of bushes on Snape's left, its high-pitched twitter heralding the morning's arrival. It hovered in the air for a moment and then flew swiftly southeast. Snape saw a peacock butterfly rise from a carpet of stinging nettles at the edge of Queerditch Marsh. The morning had come.
A quarter of an hour later, they forded the river, heading away from the marshland. Draco was quiet—too quiet. Snape realised he'd never answered Draco's question about his impending death—the truth was, he didn't have an answer for the boy. The Dark Lord had a number of faults, but predictability had never been one of them.
"It's here," he called to Draco, who jumped a little at the sound of his voice.
Snape waved his wand, causing a section of the grass-covered earth to lift away from the ground and hover at a height of about six feet. "Go on, you've been here before," he said to Draco. "I shall follow you."
With a frown, he watched Draco climb down the sturdy wooden ladder. The boy had a surprisingly resigned expression on his face, looking for all the world like he was climbing willingly down into his own grave.
Draco concentrated on the smooth, polished wood of the ladder under his palms as he descended. He heard a low thump above his head and looked up, immediately receiving a faceful of soft, earthy dust—he managed to shut his eyes before any of the dust got in them. The way back was shut, and Draco heard the sound of Snape's heavy boots on the rungs of the ladder up above. There was no way but down, now.
With a heavy heart, Draco resumed his climb, trying not to think about what waited for him in the next hour. He didn't care what Snape said; he had failed. He hadn't been able to kill Dumbledore. He didn't know what would happen now, but Snape's silence had heartened him. If it were certain that Draco was to be killed, Snape would have told him that, maybe even helped him escape. The man had only ever wanted to help him; Draco could see that now, as clearly as he could see that he had acted too rashly in accepting the Dark Mark.
That night atop the Astronomy tower, Draco had asked himself for the first time if his family had chosen the winning side. Dumbledore hadn't mocked Draco like the Dark Lord had, he hadn't laughed at his fear and uncertainty—he'd simply talked to him, like they had been equals. There had been a quiet strength and assurance about Albus Dumbledore that the Dark Lord lacked. The Dark Lord was purely terrifying—the lower Draco climbed, the tighter his insides seemed to twist at the thought of facing him again. As the descent continued, Snape's reluctance to speak plainly began to lose significance, and Draco grew more and more afraid. There was nothing for him here, only death. He knew this as indubitably as he knew his name, but he could not run, not now. It would only delay the inevitable and he'd end up like Igor Karkaroff, dead in some grimy shack without glory or a proper burial.
Whatever else happened, Draco Malfoy would not die like a rat.
His foot hit a flat surface instead of the rounded rungs of the ladder—he'd reached the bottom. Draco stepped aside, waiting for Snape to descend. When he did, they set off down the long corridor towards a square of soft, yellow light in the distance. The smells of earth and rotting moss were everywhere, and Draco wondered if this would be the last thing he remembered.
They walked into a low, arched room with wooden boards lining the walls and a well-packed dirt floor. The Dark Lord was sitting at the head of a long table, resting his elbows on the tabletop. He was speaking Parseltongue to a dark shape at his feet—that horrid snake of his, no doubt. Upon Snape and Draco's arrival, the Dark Lord turned towards them, his red eyes narrowing.
"Is it done, boy?" he asked, focussing on Draco, who immediately felt as though his very soul was being yanked out of his body bit by bit, and examined under that gaze, so that every shameful secret was laid bare.
"Albus Dumbledore is dead, my lord," Snape answered for Draco, and the Dark Lord swivelled his head to look at him.
"You are quite certain—"
There was a scuffling sound behind them. Draco turned around and saw Amycus—he knew everything was lost as soon as he noticed the vicious, gleeful smile on the pockmarked face.
"Dumbledore's dead, all right," wheezed Amycus. "Only it wasn't the boy that did him in, my lord. Snape killed him. Saw it with my own eyes, I did."
The Dark Lord's gaunt face betrayed nothing as he turned to Snape. "Is that true, Severus?"
Snape inclined his head without hesitation. "Yes, my lord. The old fool had tried to trick Draco, who is still quite young and—"
"Silence," hissed the Dark Lord. "I'm not interested in excuses, Severus."
Nagini lifted her head from her resting place and gave a low, menacing hiss as though to emphasise her master's words. The Dark Lord turned to Draco, who pressed his lips together tightly, waiting for the black wand to be drawn, for the flash of green light. He stuck his chin out and looked into the Dark Lord's eyes—a moment later, his impudence would no longer matter...
"I knew he wouldn't be able to do it," said the Dark Lord in his horrible, cold voice. "Just as ineffectual as his father."
Draco willed his body not to tremble, not to betray the fear that was spreading icy tentacles out from the pit of his belly, down into his legs. If I survive this, he thought desperately, I will not fail again, I promise. Please don't hurt my parents, please—
"It's your luck, boy, that I've got one more use for you," said the Dark Lord after an eternal pause. "Take him out of my sight, Severus, and return immediately. Now that the only one who could have been a real threat to me is dead, we need to discuss the next stage of my plan."
Draco felt himself being turned around—Snape's arm was around his shoulders. He was alive, he would—he would live. The thought was enough to keep him from hexing the beastly, lopsided leer off Amycus's face.
The air wafting in through the open window brought with it scents of rubbish and riverbed filth. Patches of light from dingy streetlamps dotted the narrow street of Spinner's End, stopping just before the banks of a dirty river. The sour wind turned cold, too cold for this time of year. Peter Pettigrew shivered and leant out to close the window, just in time to hear a loud popping noise in the nearby alleyway.
Peter shut the window, drew the curtains and spun to face the front door. Snape was home—he had to be, no others in this godforsaken hole were capable of making that sort of noise. Peter didn't want to contemplate the possibility of any other wizards finding him, yet contemplate it he did. He couldn't help himself. What if the Aurors had finally learned he was alive and were coming to drag him off to Azkaban? What if a member of the Order of the Phoenix had found him? What if Remus would burst through that door, intending on finishing what he'd started in the Shrieking Shack three years ago?
Three years. Peter shuddered. Had it really been three years? They had been the worst three years of his life, living in mortal dread of tomorrow, day in and day out. He'd gone to the Dark Lord to find safety, only to realise that there was none. He was treated worse than a house elf: beaten, mocked, threatened, forced to serve the Dark Lord's every wish—he'd even lost a hand. At least he'd known that Sirius would have killed him quickly and quietly; there was no such assurance with the Dark Lord.
Peter's gut twisted in guilt when he thought of Sirius. Last year, when he'd found out that Sirius had died, his whole world had come crashing down around his ears. He'd been able to live for fourteen years without guilt, knowing he was only doing what he had to in order to survive. When he'd learned that yet another friend had fallen, Peter's guilt had finally crept in like a disease, a cancer in his gut that would not leave no matter how much he wished it. Sometime during the three years he'd spent scrabbling to satisfy the Dark Lord's whims, he'd started to wish that he had made another decision. A better decision, one that didn't leave him a snivelling coward serving a madman. One that reunited him with his friends. One that saw him reclaim his dignity.
These were dangerous thoughts, Peter knew. Thoughts that could get him killed, but he couldn't stop them, not anymore.
The door opened and Peter's shoulders slumped as he saw Snape's stick-like figure silhouetted in the frame. Snape strode inside, looking just as he always did—displeased and restless. Behind him trailed a morose blond youth with a pale, pointed face. It took Peter a moment to recognise the youth as Draco Malfoy. What was he doing here? Peter hoped it wasn't because Snape fancied young boys. He wanted no part of that.
"Wormtail," greeted Snape as he motioned Draco to the threadbare sofa. Draco shuffled over to it, barely sparing Peter a glance.
"Snape," returned Peter. He stroked distractedly at his silver hand, wishing it was still term time at Hogwarts and Snape was gone.
Living here had been so much more tolerable without Snape looming over him, beady eyes gleaming in delight every time he had a chance to belittle Peter. Gone were the days when James and Sirius could come to Peter's defence...A wrenching, sick feeling unravelled in Peter's stomach at the thought of his former friends. He missed them. He couldn't tell when he had finally started missing them. It was just there, along with the cancerous guilt. A little voice in the back of his mind called him a treacherous, pathetic coward. It sounded eerily like his mother.
Snape moved to one of the cluttered tables, shoving aside a few thick tomes to find some spare parchment and a quill. "Draco will be staying here for a while. Make sure he is fed and watered. I'll expect supper for myself by midnight."
He began to scribble something down on the parchment. Peter edged a little closer to see if he could catch a glimpse. Snape snapped his head up, sallow face pinched in displeasure, and Peter backed away.
"I'm not here to serve your little toy," said Peter, chewing on the inside of his cheek. He couldn't shake the feeling that something very bad had happened.
Draco twitched at Peter's words and Snape snorted, casting a glance at the boy. "We've had this conversation far too many times before, Wormtail. When I return from attending the Dark Lord, I expect food to be ready. In the meantime, you might as well make yourself useful and ensure that Draco eats properly. If I were you, I wouldn't want his mother finding out that he'd skipped a meal."
Sealed parchment in hand, Snape swept past Peter and out of the house. A moment later, there was a muffled crack as he Disapparated.
Peter turned to Draco. He had a faint memory of him being something of a braggart, always taunting Ron and Harry. Thinking of the two boys put a queer twinge in Peter's chest, but he pushed it aside. He didn't have time to think about them now.
Draco didn't look like he was in the mood to pick a fight with so much as a Puffskein. His eyes were bloodshot and his face pale. He didn't move, just stared blankly at the book-covered wall. If the boy had to hide out here, then the Malfoys must have fallen into greater disgrace than Peter had ever thought possible. The thought filled him with a strange sort of glee. He still remembered the teenage Narcissa Black's unpleasant sneer that used to appear whenever Peter had been around. He doubted she'd ever even known his full name.
Draco finally spoke after a moment, his voice faint but dissatisfied. "It's dirty here."
"If you don't like it, clean it yourself," said Peter, annoyed.
He walked through the hidden door that led to the kitchen, reflecting that he might as well feed the boy. There was no telling what Snape might tell the Dark Lord if he didn't. Peter shuddered, grateful that at least he didn't have to be in the Dark Lord's presence any longer. Even Dementors were less stifling.
With a great wave of his wand, Peter filled a tray with dishes and glasses without chipping them much. Three flourishes later, two fat bacon sandwiches sat on plates, onions dripping with mustard hanging off the sides, hot chips surrounding them. The cupboards banging open and shut as the spell worked caused Peter's ears to ring. He waited for it to stop and then filled the glasses with pumpkin juice. There were a few things Peter was good at, and one of them was preparing food by magic, even if the crockery was sometimes worse for the wear.
He carried the tray out into the sitting room. Draco was still where he had left him; he didn't appear to have so much as fidgeted in the meantime. Peter sat down on the sofa beside him and placed the food tray between them. He picked up a sandwich, noticing Draco's nose twitch. Peter chewed the sandwich, staring at the boy. At least Draco was more interesting than the rather dry dissertations on the Dark Arts that comprised most of Snape's library. He'd only found one useful spell in all those books, and the non-academic books held no more entertainment for Peter. One could only read Lady Chatterley's Lover so many times.
Draco glanced down at the plate nearest to him after a moment and wrinkled his nose. "What is that?" he asked.
"Food." Peter shoved chips into his mouth, pleased that they had come out as salty as he liked them. "You don't like bacon?" he asked between mouthfuls.
Draco seemed to come more alive with every passing second; his gaze kept darting around the room, as though he expected someone to leap out and attack him.
"Oh well, more for me." Peter reached out to take Draco's sandwich, but the boy snatched it off the plate. He ripped a bite off with his teeth, glaring at Peter as though to challenge him, looking oddly rodent-like for an instant. Peter shrugged and returned to his own meal.
"Why are you here?" asked Peter. "Has school broken up already? Bit early, isn't it?"
Draco froze and set down his sandwich, hands trembling. "School's broken up forever," he said in a soft voice, staring at the floor.
Peter paused, a chip dangling between his greasy fingers. "What do you mean?"
"Dumbledore," said Draco, shuddering. "Snape—h-he killed him. Hogwarts is finished."
The chip fell out of Peter's hand, and a cold trickle crawled up his spine. He found his appetite suddenly gone—and that hadn't happened since he'd found out that Sirius had escaped Azkaban. Thinking of Sirius made the cold trickle worse. It seemed like every summer, more bad news was delivered to Peter. He couldn't explain why, but what little security he'd felt since moving into this sorry little house vanished as he gazed at Draco's pale face.
"What about Harry?" asked Peter, his voice cracking.
Draco's jaw tightened. "Potter's not dead yet."
There was still hope, then.
Peter wondered when he'd started attaching hope to Harry. It had probably happened sometime when the guilt had come to stay. Peter had done so many bad things, things he knew had been wrong even as he had gone about doing them. Somehow, Peter knew Harry could fix things. The boy had been merciful to him in the Shrieking Shack, though Peter hadn't deserved it. The enormity of Peter's bad decisions crashed down on him with the dawning of the thought that he had ruined that boy's life many times over.
He swallowed and looked at his chips, but their smell now only turned his stomach.
"I—I used to be a good friend of his parents'. There were five of us in the end." He was babbling, but he couldn't stop it. Dumbledore—the greatest wizard of their time, the only one the Dark Lord had ever feared—was dead. That it had been Snape who'd killed him made the thought even more chilling. "We used to have great fun. Just me, Remus, Sirius, James and Lily."
Peter's cheeks felt hot and he narrowed his eyes. He may have been the reason James and Lily were dead, but he wouldn't allow their memory to be insulted by some cheeky, disgraced child. "Don't you ever call her that again."
Draco swallowed and stared at him, his grey eyes a bit wide—for a moment, it seemed that he would bite out a nasty retort, but then he looked like a lost little boy, nothing more. Peter felt sick to his stomach. What kind of world was it where little boys were full of hate, hate for things other people couldn't even help?
It was a world he'd helped create, because he'd always been more concerned with his own well-being than anyone else's. In the back of his mind, his mother's stern voice informed him that he'd been raised to be better than that.
Peter left the room without glancing at Draco, stomach still churning.
The tightly rolled parchment fluttered down onto the table, startling Narcissa Malfoy. She had been sitting motionlessly in the garden, the scones untouched, the tea cold. All she could think about was Draco; she was sure something awful had happened to him. The morning's Daily Prophet lay open in front of her, the words DARK MARK OVER HOGWARTS stark and mocking, like an imprecation scrawled across some common bathroom wall. The letter that had fallen from the sky now lay on top of the newspaper, obscuring part of the article that Narcissa still couldn't bring herself to read.
She sat up straighter and glanced down at the parchment, then looked up to see what had delivered it, but the owl was gone. Narcissa recognised the thin, spidery writing across the top. She picked the letter up and then paused, hesitating. She hadn't even been able to check if Draco's name was mentioned amongst the injured—or worse, dead—in the paper. What if this letter brought bad news?
Narcissa's heart began beating faster as she realised that Severus would not be sending letters if Draco had been hurt. Severus had made the Unbreakable Vow. Whatever this letter contained, it could not be bad news. With deft fingers, she unrolled the parchment.
It has been done. Draco is safe. I urge you to leave the country to save yourself as well. I am bound by the Vow still and I shall attempt to keep Draco out of harm's way, to get him to you if the opportunity presents itself. Your family has not yet paid its dues in full, I fear. You are only a mother: I believe that with some persuasion, you may be pardoned for your flight, but you must leave now. Open war is upon us, and soon, this will be no place for you.
Narcissa let the letter drop to the table. Relief was too weak a word to describe what she felt inside; she wanted to dance around the garden like a little girl, to embrace the next human being who would cross her path, to sing. Draco is safe. What relief three simple words could bring.
Severus had advised her to leave, but how could she? She couldn't leave without her son. She would not need to save herself—what from? There had never been any threat to her life, only to Draco's, and Draco had succeeded in his task. If nothing else, the Dark Lord had always been a man of his word. Still, a shadow of a doubt lingered in her mind.
The letter said that Draco was safe, but it didn't mention his physical condition. Perhaps Draco was gravely injured and Severus did not want her to find out? Was that why he was urging her to leave the country alone—because Draco could not go with her? She needed to find Draco, to see him, to make sure he was all right. She knew exactly where to look for him, too.
Narcissa rose from the wicker chair and gulped down the cold tea; the vile taste made her instantly more alert. She rang the bell for a house-elf to come and take away the untouched food and hurried inside to change into her travelling clothes. She told two other house-elves to pack her and Draco's things—enough for a long, comfortable stay abroad—and Apparated to Spinner's End.
She chose a nearer Apparition point this time—Bellatrix had distracted her when Narcissa was here last. As she made her way towards Severus's house, she recalled the last time she walked along this sad, sorry Muggle street, with Bellatrix like a bloodhound at her heels. Nearly a year had passed since that frantic evening, nearly a year since Narcissa had first taken Draco to that awful place underground.
She knocked on the door, holding her breath. A peculiar feeling overcame her, as though she'd done this exact thing before—and there was that rat-like little fellow, Wormtail. He'd been here before and opened the door just like that...Narcissa's sense of déja vu subsided and there was Draco, asleep on a ratty, sorry-looking sofa, nothing but a nasty, grimy blanket covering his thin frame. Narcissa murmured a greeting to Wormtail and swept past him, practically running towards Draco, anxious to embrace him, to make sure his heart was still beating, like it had on the first day of his life.
Narcissa sank to her knees in front of her son and placed her hands on his shoulders, ran them down his arms. She could hear him breathing quietly, and her panic ebbed away. Draco made a soft noise that made her want to clutch him to her chest and never let go. She looked up at his face—his eyes were open, and he wore a displeased look that made him appear seven years old. Narcissa felt tears welling up in her eyes—he was all right.
"I'm sorry I woke you," she said, trying to keep her voice from breaking. He didn't like seeing her cry. "I am just so relieved you're—"
A realisation flashed into her consciousness, sharp and bright as a knife-blade. Her son, her Draco—he wasn't a boy anymore. He was...he had killed someone. She let go of him and gazed at his darling face, but he didn't look any different. He was still the same boy she'd watched grow up, with the same pale face, signature Black bone structure, his father's eyes...
"Hello, Mother," said Draco, his voice a little hoarse.
He sat up, his shoulders seeming somewhat stiff. Narcissa felt a flash of anger deep beneath the numbness in her chest. Why didn't he have a more comfortable place to sleep?
"Draco, my darling boy, we have to leave now. I know you must be tired, but you can sleep when we get to Madrid, you can sleep the whole day away if you like—"
"Madrid? Mother, I'm not going anywhere." His voice was clear and steady. Inside, Narcissa crumpled. Was this a flight of fancy, something she might talk him out of? Or had his success made him so elated that he did not see the dangers?
"Draco, I know you must be proud of what you've done, but—"
"Proud, Mother? What could I possibly be proud of?" His mouth twitched as though in pain, and he shut his eyes.
Narcissa rose to her feet, frowning. "You've fulfilled your task, haven't you?"
Draco laughed, like a dog barking—it was unnerving, how similar he was sometimes to that brat Sirius—and looked up at her. "I've barely managed to escape with my life, Mother."
Your family has not yet paid its dues in full, I fear.
"Oh," breathed Narcissa, finally understanding. So Severus had done it for Draco. Of course he wouldn't have written that in a letter that might be intercepted, of course. "Well, that's all the more reason for us to—"
There was a muffled cough, and Narcissa turned towards the source of it. The little rat-man was still in the room, standing by the open front door. That would not do at all. "Please leave us, Mr...Wormtail?"
The man appeared shocked, as though he was not used to being treated so politely, and backed out onto the empty street beyond the door. Narcissa cast an Imperturbable Charm upon the door for good measure and turned back to Draco.
Peter stared at the door in front of him, trying to will the Imperturbable Charm off with the power of his mind. It would probably be somewhat more effective than his charms, which had failed to remove it. He was dying to know what Narcissa Malfoy and her son were talking about. What had been Draco's task? Why had he failed at it?
Something was happening. Something was going to happen. Peter paced in front of the door, alternating between nervously stroking his silver hand and making sure his wand was still in his pocket. He needed to know, before he could do anything on his own. He couldn't just blindly act. He'd never been the type to make a move without a plan of action. Peter knew that his time was coming again. He had less information than when he'd betrayed James and Lily, but more motivation—the right sort of motivation.
The Dark Lord had to be brought down, and the only way to do that was to weaken him first. He'd grown powerful far more quickly than Peter had anticipated, but it didn't matter. The Dark Lord was lucky that Dumbledore had died, but he could still be weakened. Harry had to be able to destroy him; prophecies didn't lie. Peter was going to do everything in his power to help the boy. He didn't quite know when he had made this decision, but it was there in his mind—a firm and steady goal fuelled by something Peter didn't dare name. He wasn't a bad person; he knew that as unshakably as he knew that the Dark Lord was. The Dark Lord wasn't even a person, strictly speaking.
Peter had been weak before. He'd been afraid for his life, his sanity and his mother. His fear saw him betray his friends, his family and his father's memory. He'd killed thirteen innocent people and framed a good friend, just to protect himself. He'd cracked when the Dark Lord had tortured him. He'd told him everything, and the guilt still burned through Peter's conscience, even sixteen years later. Before, he had only been fighting for survival, but he could be strong now, because he knew his survival would not matter in whatever demented new world the Dark Lord was envisioning.
Peter swore he wouldn't break this time. He'd make his father—bless his soul—proud of him this time. The deaths of James, Lily, Sirius and Dumbledore wouldn't be for nothing. Peter would make it up to them, to everyone. He would be strong and brave, just like William Pettigrew had been—a real Gryffindor. He had no idea where this new strength had come from. Maybe like his hope, it had come with his guilt. He was still terrified, but he was tired of being treated like something nasty clinging to the bottom of Snape's boot. He couldn't stand to live like this anymore; he had to help Harry. After all, he did owe the boy his life, and a wizard's debt was something not even Peter could—or would—ever ignore.
Peter knew just how to do it, too. He wasn't stupid, after all, and even if he wasn't very good with hexes and charms, he wasn't terrible, either. He hadn't been sent to Spinner's End so he could 'assist' Snape; the Dark Lord had entrusted him to Snape for guarding, and Peter had guessed why. One of the spells in Snape's many boring books had proven very useful in confirming his suspicions. Remembering the events in the Riddle graveyard made Peter shudder in residual fear, but it was all so clear, so simple. Peter had a secret weapon now, and he intended to use it.
He just didn't understand why he'd been given this weapon. Did the Dark Lord think him too stupid to put two and two together? Was he not aware that for three years, Peter had listened to him mutter in his sleep? Perhaps not, but Peter knew that the Dark Lord thought him too timid, too weak to even think of using it. But Peter would prove him wrong. He'd prove them all wrong.
Peter heard footsteps and turned around to see Snape stalking down the street towards the house, looking preoccupied. His movements were jerky, like those of a child's toy wound too tightly. Peter hesitated, licking his lips as he remembered that this was the man who'd killed Dumbledore. He closed his eyes and sucked in his breath, remembering his father, his friends, his failures and his churning guilt. He had to do what he had to do. Like the Dark Lord, Snape thought Peter despicable and weak. Ironically, that was Peter's only strength now, the trump card in his sleeve. As long as he appeared properly cowed, no one would suspect him of treachery. He looked up at Snape, who seemed to not have noticed Peter at all.
"Narcissa is here," said Peter, letting his shoulders slump as he edged away from the door.
"What?" snapped Snape, swinging on him, greasy hair sliding across his ugly face.
Peter drew himself up now. "Narcissa Malfoy. She's here."
"You already said that, you imbecile. Why?"
"She's talking to her son. I assume it's some sort of private family business. She cast an Imperturbable on the door."
Snape eyed him, his beetle-like eyes glittering. He pushed Peter aside and pounded on the door. "Narcissa! Please let me in!" he demanded.
Peter reached for his wand, transformed into Scabbers and crept closer. Snape paid him no mind, continuing to knock loudly. After a few moments, the door swung open. Narcissa stood in the doorframe, her pale hair shining. The expression on her face was stormy. Peter heaved himself over the threshold, trying to scrabble along as quietly as possible.
"Why are you here?" asked Snape.
Instead of answering, she retreated from the door, and Snape walked inside. Peter crept in after him before Narcissa flung the door closed. The dim lighting and deep shadows of the house would ensure Peter would remain unseen in his corner, but he would hear everything.
"I told you that you should leave, Narcissa." As always when dealing with Lucius Malfoy's wife, Snape's tone softened a bit. "It's not safe for you here."
Narcissa crossed her arms, tossing her hair back. "I am leaving, Severus. And I'm taking my son with me."
"I'm not going—" Draco began, but one look from his mother silenced him.
"You misunderstood my message, Narcissa," said Snape. "It's not safe for you here, but it would spell both your death and Draco's if you attempted to take him with you."
"What do you mean?" Narcissa's voice was sharp, and Draco turned even paler than usual all of a sudden, so pale that even Peter's colour-blind rat eyes registered the change. He wondered where the boy kept all his blood, since it didn't seem to ever be in his face.
"I mean that the Dark Lord will allow you safe passage out of here, but he wants Draco to stay," said Snape.
Narcissa's mouth fell open. "What?"
Draco bowed his head with a resigned look, muttering something under his breath. Peter thought it sounded like "...been telling you all along".
Snape moved a little closer to Narcissa. Peter hung back in the shadows, but he thought he saw a touch of concern on the man's haggard features. "He's not telling me why, Narcissa, but the Dark Lord made it very clear that if Draco doesn't co-operate, there could be dire consequences for Lucius. I don't want your family affected by this war any more than it already has been—you know that—but Draco has to stay here. It is you who must leave. Things are about to get very ugly, to be disgustingly colloquial."
Narcissa started wringing her hands, tears threatening to spill down her pretty face as she looked between Draco and Snape. Draco sat down on the sofa, gripping one of the armrests with a trembling hand.
"Severus, he's just a boy. He can't stay here. Tell the Dark Lord he's useless, tell him that Draco will only make a mess of things again!" pleaded Narcissa.
Snape touched her on the shoulder, shaking his head. "It's no use, Narcissa. I've done all I can, but the Dark Lord refuses to be moved. He has a plan, one for which he needs Draco, and we must trust in him. You, however—"
"I can't abandon my child!" Her voice was shaky and brittle as she turned to her son.
"I'm not a child," Draco finally said, sounding and looking as petulant as a five-year-old.
"Narcissa, the Ministry is going to be looking at everyone with connections to the Dark Lord, even indirect ones," said Snape, drawing Narcissa's attention back to him. "The attack on Hogwarts will make the Auror pit bulls more vicious than ever. They'll be after everyone who is not a blood traitor. However, Dumbledore's funeral will be held shortly. You should leave while that is going on. They won't notice. They'll be too busy mourning the old fool."
Narcissa wrung her hands again, tears slipping down her cheeks. She flung herself on Draco, smoothing his hair like one might pet a cat. The boy looked justifiably annoyed and worked his way out of his mother's arms.
"My treasure," Narcissa whispered, letting her arms drop to her sides. "Severus will take care of you. Trust him in everything, won't you? He'll help you—" she whimpered and choked on her words, turning away to cover her face with her hands.
Both Snape and Draco looked uncomfortable for a moment, and then Narcissa turned back to them. Her white cheeks were glistening with tears but her voice was firm. Her entire bearing changed; Peter could practically feel the temperature drop around her.
"I will go to my uncle's old house in Madrid. I trust that you remember your obligations, Severus," said Narcissa.
Snape's smile was thin as a razor. "How could I forget?"
Narcissa turned from him, cast one last tear-filled look at her son, and then fled the room. Deciding that this was the best time to escape without notice, Peter slipped out behind her, using the shadows for protection. He would walk through the door in a few minutes and appear none the wiser. Sometimes it was good to be a rat.
Draco sank back down onto the rickety, uncomfortable sofa, wishing he could go to sleep and stay that way until it was all over. Snape was staring at the door, his face a mask of indifference except for a pulsing vein in his left temple. Draco bowed his head, pressing the heels of his palms tightly against his eyes, willing the image of his mother's tear-streaked face away. His seventeenth birthday was less than a week away, but he'd become an adult already, hadn't he? A child would have clung to his mother's robes and refused to leave her side, but Draco only wanted his mother to be safe. He'd worked to keep her safe all last year, without ever letting on that the Dark Lord had threatened their family. He'd put family before himself—surely that counted as another rung on the ladder to adulthood?
Draco took a deep breath and lowered his hands. His mother was wrong. He wasn't just a boy anymore. Maybe he was not a killer, maybe he was not as ready for the war as he'd thought he was, but he was no child. He'd prove it to her—and to the rest of them. He looked up at Snape, who was now gazing at him with an inscrutable expression.
"You've done well, Draco," said Snape after a moment. "I trust that you'll prove yourself admirably in the new task the Dark Lord has set for you."
"I solemnly swear that I'm up to no good."
Harry stared at the Marauder's map, uncertain of what he meant to find there. Dumbledore would never pace his office again. Malfoy would never disappear into the Room of Requirement again. The year was over, the train was leaving in less than an hour, and the war had finally come to Hogwarts. Harry studied the dots labelled "Ronald Weasley" and "Hermione Granger"—they were just downstairs, in the Gryffindor common room, but it felt like they were on another planet.
Harry was preparing to leave Hogwarts for the last time in his life. He didn't think there was anyone in the world who would understand what that meant—this place had been the only real home he'd known for six years, and now even that was being taken from him. He had chosen not to go back to school for his seventh year, but he wouldn't have made that choice had the circumstances been different. Had it not been for the war, maybe Harry would have stayed here forever.
"Mischief managed," he muttered, and stowed the map in his trunk. It would be useless to him after today. Maybe he should give it to someone who could use it—Ginny, maybe? His heart lurched at the thought of her and he shook his head firmly. He needed to make a clean break from Ginny; he couldn't afford to feel sorry for himself, it wasn't fair to her. Somehow, Harry knew that they would never be together again, not in this lifetime. For all his resolve, for all his courage, Harry knew that his own personal war against Voldemort would claim his life. It had never been an equally matched fight—Harry lacked power, experience and now even guidance. All he possessed was information Voldemort wasn't aware he had—information on the Horcruxes—and the firm knowledge that he would not back down; he would fight, as long as he could.
He stuffed a balled-up pair of socks into the corner of his trunk and looked around. He was done. He stared at the cracked spine of his Transfiguration textbook and frowned. He wasn't quite done, was he? There was another book he'd meant to take with him, a book that now lay behind a cage in the Room of Requirement. Snape. His Potions textbook could prove useful against that bastard, and Harry would not leave without it. He lowered the lid on his trunk and got to his feet. There was still time before the carriages began loading. He'd just grab his Invisibility Cloak and use that to get through the common room, past Ron and Hermione. He didn't want to hear another lecture about Snape's book from Hermione, and—
His Invisibility Cloak wasn't there. He'd thrown it aside in his mad rush to get to Dumbledore that night atop the Astronomy tower, and never bothered to retrieve it. Harry tore out of the dormitory and down the steps, pausing long enough to tell Ron and Hermione that he had to talk to McGonagall. They didn't even have time to react before he disappeared through the portrait hole.
He made his way up to the Astronomy Tower, heart hammering. It just wasn't possible that his father's Invisibility Cloak was lost. What if the Ministry people had found it and seized it? Harry didn't want to think about that; he'd never get it back in that case. He kicked at a tapestry bitterly. He was never going to see his Firebolt again; the Ministry representative had been very firm about that. It was "evidence", whatever that was supposed to mean. Like Harry's eyewitness testimony wouldn't be evidence enough.
Once he reached the Astronomy Tower, Harry walked up the spiral staircase to the ramparts. Everything looked just the same as ever; there were no signs of the recent fighting, except for one thing. A small, square plaque hung above what looked like a bloodstain. Site of the thirty-seventh battle for Hogwarts, it read. Harry walked past it, but made a note to tell Hermione about it. She'd love it; she probably knew all the details of the other thirty-six battles.
As if to counter Harry's bleak thoughts, the ramparts were bathed in sunlight and a small, twittering bird sat atop one of the jutting stones. Harry tried not to look at the corner where Dumbledore had stood, but his eyes were drawn to it regardless. Even weakened and ill, Dumbledore had been dignified and kind—to Malfoy, of all people. Furious anger bubbled up inside Harry as he remembered Malfoy's wand arm dropping to his side. Even a bully like Malfoy couldn't murder a defenceless old man, but Snape...Harry clenched his teeth. He would make Snape pay for what he'd done, even if it was the last thing he did.
He pushed the thought away for now, looking around for the place where he had stood, immobilised. It was not far from a statue of a tall, thin woman who vaguely reminded him of McGonagall. Harry walked closer and examined the inscription at the bottom of the pedestal—it was Rowena Ravenclaw. Her robes were old-fashioned and she held a thick book in one hand and a miniature telescope in the other. A small herb dagger hung at her belt, the Ravenclaw emblem carved into its hilt with intricate stonework. Harry looked behind the statue and there it was—his Invisibility Cloak. It had fallen between the statue and the wall, and seemed to have landed in a place that was always in shadow. That was probably why the Ministry grunts had missed it.
Harry sighed with relief as he picked up the Cloak and shook it out. It was only big enough to hide him alone, now—gone were the days when he, Ron and Hermione could all fit under it. Harry wondered what his dad had used the Cloak for, where he'd got it. Had it been a Christmas present, too? Harry tried to picture his dad unwrapping it, seated beside a fragrant, lavishly decorated tree—but all he could think of were the words "Godric's Hollow".
Harry folded the Cloak and slung it over his shoulder, heading back down the spiral staircase into the castle. He would get Snape's book and hide it inside the Cloak; that way Hermione wouldn't be suspicious. He wasn't sure how he could use the book, but his gut was telling him that he needed it, and Harry had learned to trust his gut instinct a long time ago. He arrived on the seventh floor and thought, "I need to find the book I've hidden." After he paced for a minute or so, a door materialised in front of him. Harry cast a quick glance around him to make sure no one was watching, and walked inside.
He was back in the cathedral-sized room filled with damaged furniture, books, clothes, toys and dusty bottles. It took him a moment to adjust his eyes to the harsh light streaming in through the high windows. Harry looked around, trying to remember which alleyway he'd taken on his previous trip here. A glowing red arrow appeared at once on the grime-encrusted floor further ahead. Of course—the Room would help him find the book. Harry followed the arrow, which glided slowly ahead of him, past the enormous stuffed troll and Malfoy's Vanishing Cabinet. He arrived at the acid-blistered cupboard and flung it open: there was Snape's Potions textbook, wedged in between the cupboard wall and the rusting cage.
Harry wrapped the book in his Invisibility Cloak and hurried back outside. He paused beside the Vanishing Cabinet, thinking back to the night Dumbledore had died. Malfoy had managed to repair the thing by himself, who would have thought? Harry had a grudging realisation that he'd underestimated Malfoy, underestimated his intelligence and his motivation. Bizarrely, Harry could relate to Malfoy now that he knew that Malfoy had been trying to save his parents. He had a fleeting thought that everything could have been so different, had Malfoy only been on the right side of the war...He clamped down on the thought, his jaw tightening. It was ridiculous. The likes of the Malfoys would never hobnob with the Muggle-borns; the best anyone could hope for was for bigoted pure-bloods who weren't yet Death Eaters to stay out of the conflict altogether.
Harry took out his wand, aimed and threw a Blasting Curse at the Vanishing Cabinet. He couldn't believe the Ministry hadn't taken the damned thing away from there. They were too busy trying to save face, now that Dumbledore was dead and things looked ever more terrible for the wizarding world. To whom would they turn now that the only wizard strong enough to openly oppose Voldemort was dead? To whom could Harry turn? He let the door to the Room of Requirement close behind him and then the thought hit him.
Dumbledore had left a portrait behind.
Last year, when Sirius had died, Harry had hoped desperately to find a way to talk to him, any way at all—but Sirius Black had left behind no portraits. Buoyed by a surge of reckless hope, Harry sprinted through the castle towards the Headmaster's office—Headmistress's, now—sure that he would be able to ask Dumbledore's advice. He'd seen him in the portrait, and if Phineas Nigellus Black was any indication, the portraits could be quite sharp. Just the thought of hearing Dumbledore's voice again was enough to lift Harry's spirits to a point he wouldn't have thought possible just two hours ago.
The stone gargoyle was silent and unmoving when Harry arrived outside Dumbledore's old office.
"Sherbet lemon?" he ventured. The gargoyle ignored him. "Is the Headmistress inside?" asked Harry. "I'd like to see her."
The gargoyle remained motionless. Harry expelled a frustrated breath and leant against the door, trying to listen in.
"May I ask what you think you're doing, Mr Potter?" came McGonagall's voice from above him. She was glaring from over her spectacles; her face had a worn, sour look, like she was upset about something.
"I only just— I hoped I could talk to Professor Dumbledore's portrait, Headmistress," said Harry with a pleading look.
McGonagall's features softened—it was barely noticeable, but Harry saw it. He hadn't spent six years under her tutelage not to know her a little, at least.
"What for?" asked McGonagall after a brief pause.
"I'm not coming back to Hogwarts next year, Professor, and—"
"Of course you aren't. Hogwarts will not re-open in September," interrupted McGonagall.
Harry's eyes widened. "What? Why?"
She suddenly looked older and more tired. With a sigh, she looked down and said, "The school governors have decided that it would be best to not let the school re-open during wartime."
Harry felt a hot prickle between his shoulder blades. "But they can't do that! That's letting the Death Eaters win!"
The corners of McGonagall's thin mouth curved downwards. "There is nothing I can do, Mr Potter. I suggest you bring your argument before the school governors, if it is so important. As for your request, since you are unlikely to see Professor Dumbledore's portrait again for a long time, I do think it would be wise to allow you to speak with him. I fear that you will be disappointed, however."
"Why?" asked Harry, but McGonagall moved past him and murmured a password to the stone gargoyle.
The door swung open and she motioned for Harry to follow her. He did, feeling more frustrated than ever—not only would he never see Hogwarts again, but the school would close and stand empty until Voldemort was destroyed. The staircase creaked and groaned as it moved them up to the office; something it had never done in Dumbledore's time. Did the castle know it would be abandoned? Was it dying already?
There were no more whirring instruments on spindly-legged tables in the office, though the sword of Gryffindor was still in its glass case behind the large redwood desk, and the Sorting Hat still snoozed upon its stool in the corner. Most of the former headmasters were not in their portraits—were they abandoning the school, too? Retreating to their portraits in other, more interesting places?
"You've got fifteen minutes, Mr Potter. There isn't much time until the carriages leave for Hogsmeade," said McGonagall, and disappeared through a door on the right.
"Oh look, Albus, it's your little boy hero," said a snide voice on his left.
Harry didn't need to look to know who had spoken—it was Phineas Nigellus Black, Sirius's great-grandfather. Harry ignored him, turning to look at Dumbledore's portrait. Dumbledore was leaning against the side of the portrait's frame, looking down at Harry with a bemused expression.
"Good afternoon, Harry," he said, his voice clearer than Harry remembered.
"Hello, sir," said Harry, grinning despite himself. "It's— it's good to see you."
"I daresay!" said Dumbledore. "I am, after all, very handsome."
Phineas Nigellus snorted. Harry blinked, remembering McGonagall's words about being disappointed. "Er— yeah. I was wondering if I could talk to you about—" he looked around and lowered his voice—"Voldemort's Horcruxes."
"Quiet, Harry," said Dumbledore, his face stern all of a sudden. "Do not speak of such things where someone might overhear."
"But I've got no choice, sir, I need your help—"
"I have already given you all the help I could," said Dumbledore. "You know that."
"But sir, the thing we found in the cave, it's fake! It's been replaced," argued Harry. "I don't know where to start looking."
"Of course you do," said Dumbledore. "You've known it ever since you were born, Harry. As for the rest—you have got all the information I could ever have given you, according to Phineas here."
Harry whirled on the portrait of Phineas Nigellus, glaring. "I have not got all the information! Why are you telling him anything?"
"You're an impertinent brat, Potter," said Phineas Nigellus in a languid voice. "Didn't you bother to find out how the portraits work, before you showed up here demanding answers of a weary old man?"
"Please, Phineas," Dumbledore cut in. "The boy's a Gryffindor, not a Ravenclaw, and he's not yet reached a point when the distinction loses its importance."
"If everyone keeps mollycoddling him, he never will!" Phineas Nigellus shot back, his painted eyebrows drawing together.
Harry had had enough of them talking about him as though he wasn't even there. "Please, sir," he said to Dumbledore. "I just need to know if I'm doing the right thing by going to my parents' house in Godric's Hollow."
"You see, Phineas?" said Dumbledore, and turned to Harry. "Are you looking for orders or reassurance, Harry? You will find neither, here. In your place, I would suffer orders from no one. As for reassurance, seek it from those who stand beside you, not an old spectre."
Tears stung Harry's eyes at the sight of Dumbledore's sad old face, and suddenly the canvas didn't seem harmless anymore. It was an impenetrable barrier that separated the living from the dead, and Harry understood—he would never really be speaking to Dumbledore when he talked to this portrait. He didn't need books to explain it to him; he just felt it. There was no twinkle in Dumbledore's eyes anymore.
"It's not the same without you, sir, it's—"
"Mourning will not further your cause," interrupted Dumbledore. "It is, perhaps, unfair, but you have had your entire life to mourn. Now is the time to fight. I believe that I have told you once that there is no overcoming darkness, no conquering it completely. You can only keep it at bay, but there is no denying it, no preventing the night from blotting out the light of the sun. But as long as there is love in your heart, that little bit of light can shine despite the darkest sky. You've got a chance to strike back against darkness, Harry Potter. Use it."
"Yes, sir," said Harry—absurd, childish pride was filling his chest and the tears in his eyes were no longer those of sorrow. Dumbledore gave him a benign smile and shuffled to the armchair in his portrait, where he promptly dozed off.
Harry turned to leave, but Phineas Nigellus's voice stopped him. "Potter."
Harry turned around, eyeing the portrait suspiciously. "Yeah?"
"You will do well not to attempt to visit your house," said Phineas, his voice soft. "The Fidelius Charm no longer protects it, and I doubt you'll find yourself in good company should you choose to venture there."
Harry frowned. "Has Grimmauld Place been taken over by the Death Eaters, then?"
"No subtlety," said Phineas with a sigh. "Yes, you stubborn boy, that is correct."
"Why are you telling me this?"
Phineas rolled his eyes. "As much as I dislike you, I can't say I'd like to see the wizarding world run by that jumped-up half-blood, Slytherin blood or not. You might still grow up to be less of an embarrassment to wizardkind—he, on the other hand, has no more room to grow."
"Uh, thanks. I think," muttered Harry.
"Come, Potter," said McGonagall's sharp voice.
Harry looked up and saw her, travelling cloak slung over her arm, a tartan-draped trunk floating beside her. His heart sank like a stone—so this was it. He was leaving forever. He didn't look back at Dumbledore as he walked away.
McGonagall escorted him up to Gryffindor Tower, where Ron and Hermione were sitting on top of their trunks outside the portrait hole, their faces anxious. Harry rushed up to the dormitory, stuffed Snape's Potions textbook and the Invisibility Cloak into his trunk, and levitated it out. He wouldn't even have time to properly say goodbye to Hogwarts.
Hagrid came to see them off. His great hulking shape loomed above the throng of students getting into the carriages. Noticing Harry, he turned and gave a feeble wave. As Harry got closer, he saw that Hagrid's eyes were still red-rimmed and puffy. Harry's insides lurched; he wanted to tell Hagrid to go and talk to Dumbledore's portrait, but he knew that it would probably upset Hagrid even more.
Hagrid looked down at him. "All righ', Harry?"
"Fine," said Harry. "What are you going to do now?" he asked, nodding vaguely in the direction of Hagrid's hut.
Hagrid grunted as he heaved Harry's trunk into the waiting carriage. "Goin' to take Grawpy trainin'."
"Training?" asked Hermione.
Hagrid nodded, bending down to pick up Ron's trunk. "Kingsley's got a friend from Russia that works with giants, see. He's goin' ter teach Grawpy how ter blend in better."
"Good luck with that," Ron muttered under his breath. Hermione gave him a look.
Hagrid, who had in the meantime finished loading their trunks into the carriage, straightened up, puffing. "Yeh'd better be goin'," he said, looking dejected.
Harry didn't know what to say, so he just held out his hand. Hagrid pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. "Take care of yerself, Harry. I'll see yeh soon."
The carriages rolled down the dusty path through the gates, towards Hogsmeade. Harry could already hear the whistle of the Hogwarts Express. Somehow it sounded sad and mournful, as though it, too, knew that it was not going to come back any time soon. Maybe it would never come back. Leaning out to look ahead at the long line of carriages in front of theirs, Harry thought it looked like a funeral procession.
Harry, Ron and Hermione were silent for most of the train trip back to London. Harry decided he wouldn't talk about his conversation with Dumbledore to anyone, not even Ron and Hermione. He didn't think they'd understand. He stared out of the window, trying desperately to memorise everything he could—every passing tree, every distant town and every flicker in the still air.
London greeted them with grey skies and a nasty drizzle.
When Ron told his parents that he was going to stay at the Dursleys' with Harry, Mrs Weasley wouldn't hear of it. Her normally kind face was forbidding as she and Ron shouted at each other, and she refused to look at Harry. Hermione, whose parents had accepted the news with some grudging and left the station after taking most of Hermione's things with them, stood beside Harry, looking helpless. Harry wondered if she'd told her parents the real reason why she was going to the Dursleys'. Somehow, he doubted it.
"I'm not a child!" yelled Ron, his face beet-red. "You can't keep me fastened to your robes all your life, Mum, and you've got no right to stop me! I'm seventeen!"
Mrs Weasley burst into tears, burying her face in her husband's shoulder. "I don't understand what I've done to make my sons hate me! First Percy and now Ron!" she sobbed.
Mr Weasley looked as lost as Harry felt; he patted his wife on the back awkwardly, exchanging glances with Ron, who had gone pale. He was shaking. Harry was about to pull him aside and tell him to go with his parents; he could come to the Dursleys' later...
Ron spoke in a low voice that Harry hadn't heard him used since they'd had their big row in fourth year. "Percy? Did you just compare me to Percy? I'm going with Harry because he's my friend, because I'd rather die for him than sit at home, knowing that he's out there somewhere, fighting. I'm not leaving because of you. I'm leaving because of me."
He pulled his trunk up from the trolley and stalked past Harry and Hermione, bumping Harry's shoulder and muttering, "C'mon." Harry cast a glance at the Weasleys and saw that Mrs Weasley was no longer crying. She was staring after her son, her eyes wide and fearful, her cheeks wet.
"You won't let anything happen to him, will you, Harry?" she asked in a quavering voice.
"I would die first," said Harry, his own voice firm and grave.
Mrs Weasley began to sob into her husband's shoulder again, waving her hand feebly in Harry and Hermione's direction. Mr Weasley nodded at Harry, slipping an arm around Ginny's shoulders and pulling her closer. She looked upset but determined, and Harry desperately wanted to hold her tightly one last time, but he knew he couldn't. Shouldn't. Too many people could see them. He held Ginny's gaze for a moment, gave Mr Weasley a nod in return, and set off after Ron, pulling Hermione with him.
Ron must have still looked dangerous enough to fear when the three of them approached the waiting Dursleys, because Uncle Vernon merely turned a violent shade of purple when Harry blithely informed him that Ron and Hermione were coming to stay. Aunt Petunia looked like she was about to protest, but Harry looked her in the eye and whispered, "I'm not going back if you don't let my friends come, too. Albus Dumbledore is dead. You don't want to find out what will happen to you if you break your promise to a dead wizard, trust me. " He was bluffing, of course, but she didn't need to know that.
The trip back to Privet Drive was uneventful, if one didn't count Dudley being stupid enough to try and feel up Hermione, who was squeezed between him and Ron in the back seat. Harry was smiling to himself the rest of the way; it would be a long time before Dudley forgot the feeling of two wands pressed to his throat by full-grown wizards. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had noticed nothing, and Harry thought he'd heard Ron mutter out of the side of his mouth, "Speak and you're dead, fat boy."
Once they reached the house, Harry and his friends took their things upstairs. Hermione regarded Harry's bed for a few moments, and then transfigured it into a three-tiered bunk bed with a ladder running up the side. Harry began to climb up to the top level, but Ron pulled him down by his ankles; both boys ended up in a heap on the floor, much to Hermione's amusement. They settled the argument over a game of Exploding Snap, with Harry earning the right to the top bunk fair and square.
Whatever came in two months' time, Harry knew this would be the best summer he'd ever spent at Dursleys'.
"You're not eating."
"I'm not hungry," said Draco, pushing his plate away.
Wormtail wasn't too bad a cook, but his creations were usually so loaded with fat that Draco would be full after a few bites. Shrugging, Wormtail pulled Draco's plate towards himself and began gobbling up the remaining chips, his chin slick with grease. Draco wrinkled his nose and turned away, revolted. He couldn't wait to get out of here. Snape had told him to stay put; Draco wasn't to risk capture.
Draco was used to spending time alone in the summer, so he wasn't particularly fussed. After his comment about Potter's dead Mudblood mother, Wormtail had stayed out of his way for the most part, which suited Draco just fine. The memories of the past year were slowly ebbing away as the empty days of boredom and waiting blurred together. Sometimes Draco felt like it had all been a bad dream—that none of it—using the Imperius Curse on Rosmerta, the cursed necklace, the poisoned mead, the Vanishing Cabinet—had actually happened to him.
Then he would wake up, sweating and panting, after yet again watching that flash of green light slam into Dumbledore's chest and extinguish his blue eyes. Dumbledore's last words in Draco's dreams were always "You are not a killer", but he knew that he was. If it hadn't been for him, Dumbledore would still be alive. There was just no getting away from that, no pretending that it had no significance. It had all happened to him, all of it. There was no dream to wake up from, only a darker nightmare that waited around the corner.
Worst of all, Draco knew that had he and his family been on the 'right' side, as Dumbledore had called it, none of it would have happened to them. His father would not be in Azkaban. His mother would not have been forced to flee to Madrid. Draco would be enjoying another lazy summer at Malfoy Manor. He would go on long walks through the grounds with his father, talking of the future. He would indulge his mother by dancing with her in her magnolia grove, to no music but the rustling of leaves in the wind. He would be looking forward to his final year at Hogwarts, after which he would—
There was a sharp knocking sound on the window; Draco looked up, startled. The curtains were drawn, so he got up from the sofa and walked to the window. Pulling the curtains aside, he saw a post owl balancing precariously on the narrow windowsill outside. Its round, yellow eyes were expectant as it stared up at Draco.
"Were you expecting any post?" he asked Wormtail, turning around.
Wormtail, whose mouth was still full of food, shook his head mutely. Draco opened the window, frowning—surely his mother wouldn't be sending owl post? He untied a letter from the owl's leg—it was addressed to him, and Draco knew this handwriting. He watched the owl fly away as he shut the window, pulling the curtains back into place.
I'm beginning to get really worried about you. I've tried going to the Manor to look for you, but it's empty and the house-elves told me that your mother has gone away—is everything all right? That night, after you left, we heard shouting and spells. All the girls were so scared. And then Dumbledore was dead and everyone was saying that Snape had done it. Hogwarts is not reopening in September; McGonagall announced it before we got on the train. Where are you? You haven't contacted anyone, not even me. Blaise, of all people, sent an owl yesterday asking if I'd heard from you. Please at least write to let me know you're okay.
Draco crushed the parchment in his fist, trying not to curse out loud. How fucking stupid did she have to be? She knew he would be on the run; he'd told her he would not come back when he'd left the common room on the night of Dumbledore's death. Couldn't the twit put two and two together? Blaise had had the presence of mind to write to someone else, why couldn't she—?
Of course Blaise was far more worldly than Pansy. It was why Draco preferred him to Pansy, wasn't it? He bit his lip. Blaise was concerned about him? All through the year, he'd said nothing to Draco about his mission, asked nothing about it during the time they spent together. Of course, they had rarely ever done any talking during that time, but...
Draco clutched the parchment tighter in his fist, digging his nails into his palm to keep the entirely inappropriate thoughts that flooded his mind from overwhelming him. He hadn't even said goodbye to Blaise, because of Pansy—she'd been demanding they talk, and he'd had a job to do, but she had been his girlfriend. Draco closed his eyes and turned back to the window, pretending to peer through the curtains.
"There's a war on, and you're worried about the amount of time you and I spend together? I told you I was doing something for the Dark Lord."
"You won't even tell me what that is! It's like I'm not even here most days, and you don't even try to kiss me and—"
"We've been through this, haven't we? I don't like doing that in front of your stupid friends, and you're never without them!" He'd never told her that he didn't like doing it, full stop, that he'd much rather be kissing Blaise Zabini, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
"I wouldn't be with my friends all the time if you'd make time for me!"
"Look, this is getting ridiculous. I can't spend time with you, I've got a job to do."
"But we're going out!"
"Maybe we shouldn't be going out."
"What?" Her eyes had narrowed, and she was breathing heavily through her nose. "You don't mean that."
"You're right, I don't," he lied. The clock on the wall struck, and Draco panicked. He had to go. "Pansy...my work for the Dark Lord, it's almost done. I'm leaving Hogwarts tonight but I'll find you when I can. I'll be back. I promise."
"I have to go."
"Bad news?" asked Wormtail, snapping Draco out of his thoughts.
"No," he said.
He turned around, stuffing the parchment in his pocket. He had to find a way to send word to Pansy, to keep her from writing to him again. Someone would know that they were going out, clearly someone was bound to be watching her owls. If he was found before he could complete his task...Draco didn't want to think about that. The Dark Mark on his arm alone would ensure that he would be thrown in Azkaban along with his father, and they would both be dead not long after that, he knew.
"I need to send an owl, is there one about?"
Wormtail stared at him. "Not without Snape's permission," he said after a long pause.
"Do you know when he'll be back?"
Wormtail shrugged, got up from the sofa and began collecting the empty dishes onto a tray. "I don't know. I don't even know where he went."
"That's because you have no business knowing," said a voice from the door.
Draco turned to see Snape standing there with a...covered basket that, judging by the smell, held fresh-baked pastry. Draco blinked slowly as Snape strode further into the room and set the basket down on the table. Wormtail's expression matched Draco's surprise as he stood there gaping, tray tilting dangerously in his hand.
"I noticed you weren't eating properly," said Snape, turning to Draco. "As your mother would have my head if I let you starve to death, I thought I could remedy the situation." He gestured towards the basket, his face a study in dispassion. "Why were you asking about me?"
"My utter cow of a girlfriend had the bright idea to send me an owl, Professor," said Draco.
Wormtail sniggered, and both Draco and Snape turned to glare at him. Wormtail ducked his head down a little, lifted the tray in his hands a bit further, and shuffled out of the room, looking sheepish.
"Now, now, Draco. Don't talk that way about Miss Parkinson. I'm sure she is simply worried."
"Yeah, but they could track me through her owls, couldn't they? I mean—"
"Yes, that is a very good point," murmured Snape. "Write the letter, and I will make sure it is delivered tonight."
Draco nodded and walked to the table. Whatever was in the basket smelled delicious, and Draco felt his mouth water. "Where are these from, sir? Hamfast's?"
Snape smiled lazily. "No, these are compliments of the esteemed house of Prince," he said. "My family," he added after a moment.
Draco only nodded. Snape was descended from the Princes? But they were rich! The Prince family was even older and more well-to-do than the Malfoy family—though not nearly as old as the Black family, of course—Draco had had no idea Snape was a descendant. He knew of the Snapes, of course. They had a Muggle town named after them in Suffolk but Aloysius Snape had lost his fortune in a risky foreign venture eighty years ago, which Draco had always assumed was the reason for Snape's poverty...
Draco smiled inwardly—the mild excitement he felt at recalling all these details warmed him. Wizarding genealogy had always been something he enjoyed. He was so curious now, about the story behind Snape's lot. The man was clearly on good enough terms with his mother's side of the family, judging by the basket. He shook his head and dug around for some spare parchment. There would be time to think about this later.
He couldn't find any parchment, so he smoothed out Pansy's letter again and wrote on the back of it.
Do not write to me again unless your wish is to see me imprisoned or killed. I'll be in touch when it's safe.
Draco thought of Blaise, picturing him bent over a desk in the upstairs office of his mother's mansion, his own brand of concern across his handsome brow as he wrote to Pansy. Draco ran the tail end of his quill absent-mindedly down his neck and wrote,
Give Zabini my regards.
He folded the parchment into his signature triangle shape, addressed it and handed it to Snape. Snape pocketed the parchment and swept out of the house without another word. Draco lay down on the lumpy sofa and closed his eyes. The smell of pastry made him feel safe, like he was six again, back at home and playing with his toy broomstick beneath the kitchen windows.
His mother was safe, and his father would be, too, as soon as Draco completed his task. After what he'd had to do last year, this would be a piece of cake.
Harry hadn't been wrong when he'd determined that this summer with the Dursleys would be his best one. His aunt and uncle were so terrified of having not one but three magic users in the house—two of them considered adults in the wizarding world—that they had taken to going out in the evenings when Uncle Vernon would return from work. During the day, Aunt Petunia spent most of her time at various neighbours'. Dudley barely showed his face at home, often sleeping over at this or that friend's.
Harry did not leave the house, not even to go out in the garden. He knew that the walls of the house were the best protection he could ever get, and he was determined to heed Dumbledore's warnings—all of them—from now on.
On the fourth evening of their stay, Hermione practically dragged Ron to the Burrow to talk to his mother; when they came back, Ron seemed much more relaxed. Hermione told Harry later that they had argued for a while, but then all was well again. Harry was glad; he hated the idea of anyone in the Weasley family rowing because of him. He thought of Ginny often, wondering how she was doing, but he was too proud to ask Ron about her. Ron knew that Harry had broken up with her, so it would just make Harry look stupid.
Hermione seemed to have made it a personal goal to read every book on the Dark Arts that had ever been published; owls were delivering more books every week. Harry's room looked like a cross between a really small library and a bomb shelter. The latter was because Hermione was also busy stocking up on supplies for when they went to Godric's Hollow. Every time she brought a new batch of tinned baked beans, condensed milk or packet soups, she would examine each item, shrink it to the smallest size she could, and add to the rapidly growing stack by the window, near Hedwig's cage, organised and colour-coded according to expiry date.
Harry had no idea what he would have done without Hermione, because his plan had simply been to take his most important things—his wand, some clothes, his Invisibility Cloak and Sneakoscope; Hedwig was going to live at the Burrow—but he understood that if they were going to set off in search of Horcruxes, they would need to be thoroughly prepared. During meals, Hermione would ply Ron and Harry with information on proper anti-Muggle security. They were going to use magic as often as they could during their quest, after all.
The date of Bill and Fleur's wedding was fast approaching—Harry would have preferred not to have to leave the house, but he supposed that even Dumbledore wouldn't have minded if he left Privet Drive to go to an event that would be attended by the entire Order of the Phoenix. The wedding was originally supposed to take place in France, but Mrs Weasley had insisted that it be held at the Burrow instead; she wanted her son to get married at home, not in some strange country. She had proved rather unshakeable on the matter. Ever since Fenrir Greyback had bitten Bill, Molly had become even more protective of her son.
On the day of the wedding, Hermione fussed over Ron and Harry in a way that would have put Mrs Weasley to shame had she been there to witness it. Fred and George bought Ron new burgundy robes—the ones they'd bought last year were too small already. Hermione had picked up new dress robes for Harry on the previous week; they didn't look any different from Harry's old ones, though. At noon, just when Hermione had managed to get Harry's hair to lie flat, Tonks showed up with a Portkey that the four of them took to the Burrow.
The wedding was to take place in the garden, which was decorated with large white and purple blossoms for the occasion; Harry felt a bit like walking through a perfume shop as he made his way towards one of the deck chairs near the front. Various Weasleys occupied the first three rows on the left—Harry didn't think he'd ever seen so much red hair in one place. Relatives from all over Britain were at the Burrow that day, and even a few from Canada, or so Ron had told him. On the right sat Fleur's family—there were much fewer of them, and Harry thought they looked somewhat intimidated.
Bill, who still had a slight limp, looked very handsome in the traditional plum-coloured wedding robes; Fleur wore a matching set of robes and a dazzling smile—she always looked beautiful, but even Harry thought she looked better than ever. Ron spent the entire ceremony looking down at his shoes rather than at Fleur, which Hermione seemed to appreciate.
Fleur and Bill were married by a representative from the Ministry's Marriage Office. He was a short, stocky little man with an impressive moustache and a shiny bald patch. He spoke so quietly that Harry doubted anyone but Bill and Fleur could hear him. At Bill's insistence and to Mrs Weasley's horror, he made an Unbreakable Vow to Fleur—Harry watched the circles of fire around their clasped hands and remembered that Snape had made that same vow to Draco Malfoy's mother. He willed the thought away for now; this was not the time for wondering about Snape. When Fleur made the same Vow to Bill, there wasn't a dry eye amongst the women present. Well, almost all women. Hagrid was sobbing into Madame Maxime's shoulder; Madame Maxime just looked terribly amused.
After the ceremony, the celebrations began—Mrs Weasley had outdone herself, cooking not only traditional British dishes but also various French specialities and delicacies; Harry was a bit lost amidst all the food. Eventually he didn't even bother checking what he was eating—it was all quite good, and he hadn't come for the food, anyway. He watched Ginny out of the corner of his eye, and even noticed her looking at him a few times, but he had promised himself to be strong—if they were seen apart at the wedding of her brother, their break-up would be obvious, which was what Harry wanted.
Ron and Hermione were nowhere to be found. Harry assumed they'd run off for some private time. He didn't mind. They'd just been going out a short while and they couldn't exactly have any privacy in Harry's bedroom. The festive atmosphere of the wedding disturbed him a little—he found it difficult to be truly joyous. At times, glimpsing things like Mrs Weasley and her husband dancing, Tonks punching Lupin in the shoulder as she laughed at a joke he'd made, Hagrid attempting to serenade Madame Maxime to general applause and laughter, made Harry feel resentment on Dumbledore's behalf—he'd only been dead a few weeks and already everyone seemed to have forgotten him.
Butterbeer in hand, Harry wandered over to Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was standing alone near the fence, watching the celebrations with a look of distaste that seemed to mirror how Harry was feeling.
"Hello, Harry," said Kingsley in his deep, rumbling voice.
"'Lo, Kingsley," returned Harry, glancing at the crowd and then back again. "Wild party."
"I see you approve as much as I do," said Kingsley, a hint of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "Feels a bit like feasting during the Plague, doesn't it?"
Harry took a sip of his drink, frowning. "Like what?"
"Celebrating at a time that's inappropriate," said Kingsley. "It's a saying I've picked up somewhere during my work in the Muggle world. Never mind. How are you holding up?"
"As well as I could be, I suppose," said Harry. "The Prophet's been silent on the war—do you know what's been going on? I don't leave the house—"
"Good," said Kingsley quickly. "Sorry, go on."
"No, I just want to know what's going on. What's really going on."
Kingsley sighed and pulled a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. He lit one, inhaled deeply, then blew out the smoke with a look of contentment. "In the past week, it's been quiet, too quiet. I don't like it. Before that, there was a rash of disappearances—don't know if Hermione's told you, but Horace Slughorn is missing again."
"Somehow I think he arranged for that himself," said Harry, smirking.
Kingsley laughed—a deep belly laugh—and took another pull on his cigarette. "Yeah, I don't disagree with you. Lots of shop owners have been dragged off—I'm thinking Voldemort is trying to undermine the economy so we won't have the resources to deal with him when he makes that first strike."
"Strike? He's got a few dozen Death Eaters, maybe less," scoffed Harry.
Kingsley sighed and squinted into the distance, blowing out a thin stream of smoke. "Rumour has it that Voldemort's amassed an army of Dark creatures—giants, werewolves, vampires, hags—to name a few. Dementors, too, of course."
Harry shuddered involuntarily. "What do you think he's going to do?"
"He might start harassing the Muggles again—though that's pretty much guaranteed either way—and, of course, he's after you."
"Yeah. He can't touch me until I'm seventeen. After that, me 'n Ron 'n Hermione are leaving."
"Don't tell me where you're going. Tell your friends not to tell anyone, either. If anyone you tell is captured, you could be found. If you need assistance, of any kind, you know how to send messages by Patronus. By the way, we've made you Unreachable."
Harry was going to ask what that meant, and explain that he actually didn't know how to send messages by Patronus, but there was a crack of Apparition, then another, and a whole series of them that sounded like machine gun fire, all around the garden.
Then a voice Harry knew, mocking and venomous: "A blood traitor's wedding is no cause for celebration!"
A table flew into the air, disappearing behind the fence, and Harry saw that a dozen or so masked Death Eaters stood in a semicircle at the very end of the garden; he had no doubt that there was a similar semicircle in front of the house.
"Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. We're second cousins, twice removed, and you don't even send me an invitation?" Bellatrix threw her head back and laughed; Harry couldn't see her face but he knew what it must have looked like. "Bless you for inviting the entire Order of the Phoenix, though, now we can kill two birds with one stone!" She laughed again. The rest of the guests appeared frozen, but Harry noticed that Madame Maxime stood alone; Hagrid was nowhere to be seen.
Harry glanced at Kingsley, but he was gone, his half-smoked cigarette smouldering in the grass. In his place was Lupin, who forced Harry's head down and began to pull him away. "Come on," he said. "You need to get out of here."
"No," protested Harry, keeping his voice as low as he could. "I can't leave! I have to fight!"
"You have to fight Voldemort, not his lackeys. Come on." Lupin sounded like he meant business. "Have you got your Cloak, by any chance?"
Harry shook his head—he hadn't thought he'd need the Cloak. He should have known better. "I'm not leaving without Ron and Hermione," he said. "You can't make me."
They were at the side of the house now, in a narrow passageway between the fence and the wall, and Lupin whirled him around, his normally kind eyes flashing with fury. "You would rather your parents, Dumbledore and S-Sirius died in vain?"
In the garden, Bellatrix was still laughing.
In your place, I would suffer orders from no one.
Harry met Lupin's gaze squarely. "No. But they will have died in vain just as much if I turn out to be the type of person to leave my best friends in danger and run away. I don't care about the stupid prophecy now, Professor. I care about my friends, and I will not leave without them."
Lupin pulled back, looking at Harry as though he had just seen him for the first time.
"Harry! Pssst!" came a whisper from his left.
He turned and saw Hermione, crouched low, peeking around the edge of the house. Ron's head appeared under Hermione's. "Harry, come on! Hagrid says we have to leave, says you wouldn't go without us. I think you should stop being a prat, but come on!"
"Looks like Hagrid knows you far better than I do," murmured Lupin, releasing him. "Go on, Harry. Go with Hagrid."
Without hesitation, Harry ran to his friends. Behind him, he heard shouted hexes and curses—the fighting had begun, and he was running away. Lupin was right; he did have to fight Voldemort. He just wouldn't do it without his friends.
Hagrid, Ron and Hermione were waiting in a small enclosure—from the outside, it looked like a corner, but the wall had a dent in it. There used to be a shed there, which had got taken out.
"C'mon," said Hagrid, stepping aside to reveal a gleaming black machine—Sirius's flying motorbike!
"It was meant ter be a gift, fer yer journey, but it looks like yeh're gonna have ter use it righ' away. Get on, then, all three of yeh. I'll take yeh away from the fightin'."
They piled onto the motorbike—which expanded in length to allow enough room for everyone—and Hagrid started the engine. It wasn't nearly as loud as the Muggle motorbikes Harry was used to; it was almost quiet compared to the racket in the garden.
They rose into the air, slowly at first until they cleared the Burrow's roof, and then faster and faster—up towards the clouds.
"I say, look at that motorbike! Potter is getting away! Shoot him down! Amycus! Draco! Shoot that bike down!"
Harry couldn't tell who was screaming, but he guessed it was Bellatrix. Snape hadn't been there; Harry was sure. Too afraid to face his former fellow Order members, no doubt. Bloody coward. Even Malfoy was there. Harry wondered if Malfoy would kill this time around. Probably. Malfoy would do anything Voldemort told him, especially after having failed once. Harry's heart clenched as he thought of Ginny. He could only hope that she would escape unscathed, that was most important. But what would she think of Harry's flight?
A hot jet of red light whizzed past Harry's ear and he ducked down. A moment later, they were above the clouds. It was freezing, but Hermione had her wand out. She waved it and a pocket of warm summer air formed around them. Harry no longer had difficulty gulping the air rushing towards him. He could breathe normally, which made the rest of the journey bearable.
Hagrid brought the bike down behind a small wood and they made the rest of the way to Little Whinging using the motorway. Once they reached the Dursleys' house, Ron and Hermione ran inside after a quick good-bye to Hagrid, who peeled away from the front of the house as though a host of Dementors were on his tail. Harry stared after him for a few moments, wishing despite everything to be going back to the Burrow. He followed Ron and Hermione inside, noticing that the curtains in the neighbours' kitchen window billowed down like someone had just been looking out. Probably Aunt Petunia.
They sat in silence on the floor in Harry's room for a long time. Eventually, Harry spoke. "I had to leave," he said. "If I'm killed, he'll win."
"We know," said Ron. "That's why I didn't stay, even though they attacked my family's home." His freckled face coloured slightly and he frowned. "I was going to stay, but Hagrid reminded me of who you were, and why you had to leave, and that you wouldn't leave if I didn't."
"I wasn't going to leave without you. Lupin tried to throw the deaths of my parents, Sirius and Dumbledore in my face, the bastard—"
"You two are absolutely insufferable," said Hermione. "You think you could have helped? You would have been in the way, like all those other guests. The entire Order was there, don't you think that counts for something?"
Harry didn't want to agree with Hermione, but she was right. He just hoped Ginny would see it the same way, and wouldn't think him a coward.
Potter had got away, and Draco was dead.
Well, he wasn't dead yet, but it had been his task to bring Potter before the Dark Lord. He'd gone in with so many Death Eaters to clear the way for him, and he'd failed. They'd cut the broom shed off when they Apparated, and the first spell they cast as soon as they were there was a powerful Anti-Disapparition jinx—but nobody had expected Potter to have a flying motorbike!
Draco was so dead. Unless...
He watched the fighting, noticing how many red-haired, freckled people there were. It had been a Weasley wedding up until that moment, and if Draco played his cards right...Yes, that was it. Wasting no time, he turned to face the fence near which he'd Apparated. He ripped off his mask and charmed some freckles onto his cheeks and nose, then changed his hair colour to match the Weasleys'. He tore off his hood so that he was wearing nothing but standard black robes—now he just needed to find a dead body to transfigure and a place where he could wait out the fighting. He saw a suitable dead body—a Weasley of some sort lying face-up on the grass near one of the overturned tables.
Draco ran along the fence, crouching, and transfigured the body into his own—there. Draco Malfoy lay dead. No one would bother trying to find out if that was the real Draco Malfoy or not—a dead Death Eater was a good Death Eater, and Draco had even remembered to put his Dark Mark on the body, for added emphasis.
Goodbye, Draco Malfoy. Hello, J. Random Weasley.
Now, to find a suitable hiding spot. Draco turned and immediately collided with someone, sending them both flying to the ground. Then he saw a jet of horrible green light sail overhead. He really needed to find a place where there were no stray Killing Curses, damn it. He began to struggle up, the person underneath him also trying to push him off, but he heard Amycus's voice and froze. Amycus wouldn't recognise him, would he? Please, please let him not recognise Draco.
"Why, yer a regular Weasley hero, ain'tcha, boy? An' I was goin' to take her pretty corpse with me, have some fun. For that, you'll be deader'n my friend Draco over there in jussa second..."
Draco processed two different things at once, mind reeling. Amycus had seen the dead Draco. That was good. Amycus was also now ticked off at the living Draco. That was bad. Very bad.
As soon as Amycus raised his wand, whispering a spell, and Draco saw the beginnings of something dark and unpleasant rush out of the wand tip, he raised his own wand with "Impedimenta!" and Amycus stumbled back.
Almost immediately, Aunt Bellatrix's voice yelled, "RETREAT!" and cracks of Disapparition filled the air. As Draco stumbled up, shaking out his—embarrassingly red—hair and brushing off his robes, he was instantly tackled back to the ground by a large, round madwoman, who was sobbing, dripping blood and tears all over him.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she whimpered. There was a huge diagonal gash across her face that was gushing blood; Draco almost was sick when he saw the shining, red flesh inside the wound. He recognised her despite his horror—it was Molly Weasley. Why was she crying, and what was she thanking him for?
He looked to his side and got his answer. Ginny Weasley—the person he'd inadvertently saved from Amycus's Killing Curse—was sitting there, rubbing her forehead. He'd just saved Potter's girlfriend's life—whether he'd known it at the time or not was irrelevant—and Potter owed him one.
Mrs Weasley was dragged off him by a pair of other Weasleys—the twins, Draco saw. He wanted to rub his forehead, like Ginny—all that red hair was making him terribly confused. Draco got up, feeling suddenly light-headed. He blinked a few times and the feeling passed.
"Who are you?" asked Ginny, peering up at him suspiciously.
"I don't care who you are, dear, thank you for saving my daughter. God, I couldn't stand it, I wouldn't be able to stand it!" sobbed Mrs Weasley. "Thank you," she choked.
"You're most welcome, but I—er—I need to be going now," said Draco in his most polite voice. He took a step forward and felt the world tilt again. What was wrong with him?
"Wait a second, I know that voice," said Ginny. "Finite Incantatem!" she said, before Draco had a chance to draw his wand to prevent it.
They all blinked at each other for a few moments; Draco was having difficulty blinking because his eyelids felt so heavy all of a sudden—oh, fuck, he knew what was happening, he knew, he was dead anyway—
Mrs Weasley grabbed his hands in hers and squeezed them so strongly Draco thought they would fall off. "I don't care what made you do it, I don't care what you've done before, but you've saved my daughter's life and—"
Draco felt pain explode in his mind and felt his knees buckle. "Don't— tell— anyone," he croaked. His next-to-last thought was Necrovixi because that was, indeed, what had just killed him. Amycus had hit him with a delayed-action curse that first paralysed, and then subjected the body to rapid decomposition, while the person was still alive. Lovely.
And then Draco passed out, surprised a little because that wasn't one of the curse's effects. The point of the curse was to make a person suffer through the process of decomposition, make them feel their insides turn to liquid...
It's so much easier to see when everything is black.
The first thing Draco saw when he awoke was a Chudley Cannons poster. There had to be a law against being subjected to Chudley Cannons posters upon awakening. How in the world he was alive after being hit with Necrovixi, Draco didn't know. Amycus had probably been trying to show off and ended up miscasting the curse. That had to be it.
Unfortunately, being alive did Draco no favours, as he discovered the moment he attempted to sit up. He was paralysed from the waist down.
There were voices outside, and Draco strained his ears to listen.
"...Arthur arranged it, they both passed, thank goodness. They're leaving that place today, with Hermione..."
Even when Draco was on his deathbed, everyone was talking about Potter. Typical.
By the sounds of it, it was Mrs Weasley talking. "Kingsley had a right job of sorting the motorbike incident with the Muggles. They have something called a ray-dur at the airport and they detected the bike—"
Draco had had enough. "Somebody?" he called, his voice pathetically squeaky. "Hello?"
The door opened a crack, and Ginny Weasley's head popped in. "He's awake," she called into the corridor.
Molly Weasley bustled in, pressing her hands to her chest when she saw Draco. "Oh, thank goodness. Are you hungry, dear? Do you want anything to drink?"
Draco blinked. She no longer had a horrible gash across her face but there was a large white scar that made her look rather horrifying. He closed his eyes, thinking. Was he hungry?
Mrs Weasley continued gushing. If she didn't have red hair, freckles and the last name Weasley, Draco might have thought she was his mother. "Are you cold, dear? Do you want another blanket? How are you feeling?"
That was a lot of questions at once. Draco decided to settle on the most all-encompassing answer. "Yes," he said.
Mrs Weasley disappeared, but Ginny stayed behind. She sat down on the bed across from Draco's and narrowed her eyes at him. "All right, Malfoy. What's your deal?"
"What do you mean?" asked Draco. He wanted to sit up so he could talk to her without having to crane his neck horribly. Apparently, there was only so much you could ask for in the Weasley household.
"I want to know what you're playing at. You can't expect me to believe that you've switched sides, so don't even try that."
Draco regarded her for a long moment. She wasn't stupid, obviously, but she was a girl. In Draco's experience, girls were far easier to fool than boys, unless one counted Granger. Though she wasn't really a girl, but rather a walking encyclopaedia.
"What if it was the truth?" said Draco, keeping his tone even. "Wouldn't you switch sides if your side repeatedly threatened your family with permanent extinction?"
Ginny's eyes remained narrowed, but something in her expression softened.
"It gets tiresome after a while. 'Draco, do this, or I'll kill your mother!' 'Draco, do this or I'll kill your father!' 'And when you're done with it all, you will lick my boots, or I'll kill you!' You know?"
She didn't reply, but Draco thought he saw a small nod. Inspired, he continued. "And besides, the plans the Dark Lord has? Ridiculous. I'm rather fond of the wizarding world as it is," he said, realising that he wasn't even lying—in fact, the only lie was that he'd actually switched sides. He was going to run away, that didn't really count as switching sides. "I mean, there are Ministry policies I disagree with, but I've realised it's slightly unrealistic to expect the government to always make one happy."
"Only slightly," said Ginny, almost smirking now.
Yes! She'd bought it—or at least would, with enough persistence. All he had to do was keep up the act until he was healed, and then he'd hightail it to Madrid—which was switching sides, in a way. Sides of the Channel.
"Who knows I'm here?" he asked, rubbing his forehead. He may have escaped from the Dark Lord, but that wouldn't last very long if too many people knew where—and with whom—he was.
Ginny's eyes narrowed. "Just our family, Harry and Hermione," she said. "Mum made us all swear to keep quiet because of something you said before you passed out. Kingsley found a dead body that looked exactly like you. Who did you kill, Malfoy?"
"No one," said Draco, grateful that he didn't have to lie. "I transfigured a corpse. I don't know who it was, but it was a Weasley." He bowed his head, thinking that he'd need to create just the right impression with these people. "I'm sorry," he said, looking back up at Ginny.
She drew herself up, squaring her shoulders. "You do realise that you can't run away, don't you?"
Draco met her gaze, forcing himself to stay calm. "Who said anything about running away?"
Mrs Weasley rushed back inside with a tray full of food, and Ginny left the room without a backwards glance.
"Draco Malfoy is dead, my lord," said Amycus, who was sporting a red welt on his right cheek that was already turning purple.
Snape stared at him, forcing his face to remain expressionless.
Draco Malfoy could not be dead. If he were dead, Snape would be dead, too. He'd allowed himself to be sloppy last year, when he'd made the Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa. The terms of the Vow specified that Snape was to protect Draco whilst he carried out the Dark Lord's wishes. The problem with that was that as long as Draco bore the Mark and as long as the Dark Lord survived, Snape was bound to protect the boy. Draco's death would mean Snape's death. The Dark Mark bound one to forever serve the Dark Lord—the Mark's bearer was, essentially, a slave to the Dark Lord who was not supposed to have a mind of his own and do as he wished. Thus, as long as Draco Malfoy lived, he was technically still carrying out the Dark Lord's wishes, and Snape was obligated to protect him under pain of death.
Wherever Draco Malfoy was, he lived.
Snape took the thought of Draco's fate and hid it far, hid it safe where the Dark Lord could not reach it. Not a moment later, the Dark Lord was rummaging through Snape's mind, searching.
When confronted with the choice between loyalty and survival, no sensible man should choose loyalty.
"I knew he would fail me again; he's lucky he managed to get himself killed. However, my rendezvous with Harry Potter has been merely postponed, not cancelled," said the Dark Lord. "As for Draco Malfoy, good riddance to bad rubbish."
Snape made a note to let Narcissa know that her son was alive, in case she somehow caught wind of this. The thoughtless boy probably wouldn't think to write to her.
James and Lily were dead. Sirius was dead. Dumbledore was dead.
Now, Draco Malfoy was dead, too.
Peter's hands shook as he tried to eat the onion soup he'd made; it kept spilling out of his spoon. He gave up after a moment, dropping the spoon back into the bowl with a soft clink. It sank out of sight within a second. It didn't matter; Peter had lost his appetite again. If things continued as they had been going, he'd never eat.
The shadows of the house at Spinner's End seemed to draw together, making the place seem even darker. It wasn't that Peter was particularly upset about Draco's death. He simply knew that this was his chance, his only chance. There was no one watching him now, except Snape, but Snape was frequently away. In fact, he was away right now. Fear clawed at his belly, making his stomach churn. He could finally make up for his crimes, but he was afraid.
Peter stared down at his silver hand, flexing it so he could watch the candlelight reflecting off its flawless surface. He often asked himself how others could be so brave, how they could do what was necessary without hesitation. Even those he'd thought weak were stronger than he was. Even quiet, bookish Remus Lupin, who would stand near Fenrir Greyback at Voldemort's meetings. Fenrir Greyback, the same werewolf who had bitten Remus as a child, for no other reason than that he could. Peter remembered all too well Remus's recurring nightmares, even as a teenager at Hogwarts. How Remus, who feared his own lycanthropy more than anything else in the world, could work with the monster who had transformed him baffled Peter to no end.
Peter hadn't turned Remus in. It was painfully obvious that Remus was spying on the Death Eaters, that he was only working with the werewolves to feed information to the Order of the Phoenix. The closer Voldemort came to reaching his goal, the less security he employed. The werewolves were not allowed the luxury of a hood and mask, neither was Peter. Voldemort wanted everyone to know who they were, to humiliate them all. Peter knew Remus well enough to know that he was doing what he felt was necessary. But they were on the same side now, and Peter wasn't going to betray any more of his old friends. Remus didn't even have to know that Peter was on his side; for now, it was enough that Peter knew.
Remus had seen him, too. Peter remembered how he'd started, how his normally calm and unreadable expression had contorted with surprise and anger. He'd watched Peter with wide eyes even after composing himself, obviously waiting for the axe to drop. But the blow had never come. Peter had kept his old friend's secret. After all, Remus had been his best friend once—the only one of the Marauders who had never mocked Peter or made him feel like an idiot.
Peter wondered what Remus thought now that months had passed and Peter had never told. Did Remus live in fear, as Peter had during the first war? Maybe Remus thought Peter had something up his sleeve, or maybe he didn't care. Peter knew it didn't really matter, not now, but he couldn't help thinking about it.
A section of a map hanging out of one of Snape's books caught Peter's eye. He walked over and tugged it out, by some miracle not tearing it. It was a map of England. There was Euxton, where his mother still lived. Peter swallowed, forcing his mind off her. He saw Ottery St Catchpole, remembering the twelve years he'd spent living with the Weasleys. They'd been good years, too. Percy and Ron no doubt hated him as much as everyone else did now, so Peter tore his gaze off the village.
Then he saw Godric's Hollow, almost as if it glowed.
Peter knew where he had to go now. It had all begun there sixteen years ago and it would have to end there, too. He slipped the map back into the book as best he could, and then transformed into Scabbers. Truth be told, it felt more natural than his human form now. It filled him with the simple, base desires of a rat—so unlike those of a man. His emotions weren't as complicated, and things weren't quite as frightening.
He slipped through a small hole in the kitchen wall, out into the foul-smelling alley behind the house, wondering how long it would take for Snape to notice he was gone.
Once a traitor, always a traitor.
When Harry and his friends arrived in the village of Godric's Hollow, it was bathed in sunlight. Harry had expected the place to be dark and dreary, considering that all he'd ever connected to the name had been tales of death, darkness and sorrow. Seeing the friendly little shops and old stone houses gave him a start.
The village itself was tiny—six streets, a post office, a Spar, a few miscellaneous shops, a pub and a parish church. Most of the businesses were concentrated around the village green on the High Street. The local Muggles were all either in farming or fishing, Hermione had said. Harry wondered what his parents had told the locals about what they had done for a living.
The three friends had just finished breakfast at the pub—The Bowman Arms—when Harry remembered that he wanted to visit his parents' graves. He wasn't sure if they would be buried somewhere near their ruined house; the Potters had lived in a cottage on the edge of the village, but there hadn't been a cemetery nearby, at least not on his map.
They walked up to the bar and signalled to the plump barmaid who'd served them. Hermione dug in her shoulder bag for money—she'd gone into Gringotts on the previous day with Harry's vault key, so they were all set with Muggle money. Hermione handed the cash to the barmaid with a smile.
"I was wondering if you could tell us anything about the Potter house," she said just as the barmaid began to turn away.
The woman turned back with an inquisitive look on her round face. "The Potter house? That's a sad story. They were such a nice young family. Sixteen years ago, it was—a big explosion; they said it was a gas leak. The damnedest thing is—ever since the funeral, no one's been able to get near the house. It's on the hill by the woods yonder," she said, waving her hand at the pub's doors.
"Where were they buried?" blurted Harry, his heart in his throat.
The barmaid glanced at him with a frown. "Well, in the graveyard behind the church, of course, where else? They never did find the little one—such an adorable boy he was, little Harry Potter. Folk say that his wee blanket was buried in his stead."
There was a dull ache in Harry's chest as he nodded. The barmaid regarded him for a moment, and he was afraid that she'd say something about him looking like his father, but she merely shrugged. "You lot better not be thinking about going near the Potter house. Dangerous, that place. Haunted, they say. You wouldn't be able to get up on the hill, anyway."
"Well, we're actually more interested in the woods to the west of the house," Hermione cut in quickly. "We're birdwatchers, you see."
"Oh! All right, then," said the barmaid. "You lot are a bit late, aren't you? The other groups have all gone already."
"Yeah," said Hermione. "We were held back, but we're here now!"
The barmaid gave her a kindly smile and left. She seemed to have lost interest as soon as she realised they weren't really interested in the Potters.
After they walked out of The Bowman Arms, Harry said he wanted to visit his parents' graves before they went to look at the house. The three of them made their way up the High Street to the parish church. The sun was out in earnest now, beating down on their backs, and Harry's rucksack felt far heavier than it had earlier in the morning, when they'd Apparated in the woods further east. He and Ron had just received their Apparition licences yesterday; one day after Harry had turned seventeen.
The graveyard entrance was next to the church proper, but they had to pass through a narrow little alley to get to the actual graves. Ron and Hermione said they would wait for him. Harry took off his rucksack and placed it beside the wooden fence next to them. The graveyard was tiny and very old. It didn't look like there was much room for any more graves. Some of the gravestones were tinged green with centuries-old moss; the writing upon them was fanciful, illegible.
Harry walked around until he saw two identical grey stones near the very back of the graveyard. He just knew, somehow, that these were his parents'—there was a smaller grey stone next to the other two. Engraved on the stone was the name "Harry James Potter". Harry forgot how to breathe for an instant. It was eerie and surreal, looking at his own grave. If he could see inside the casket, would he recognise the blanket the barmaid had mentioned?
He knelt on the grass between his mother and father's graves and stared at the cold slabs of stone. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting when he came here.
"Well, here I am," whispered Harry to the grass. "Hi, Mum. Hi, Dad. I'm going to go and see our house now, and then I'm going to start looking for Voldemort's Horcruxes. He made six, you know, before he tried to kill me. Now I have to destroy them all and then fight him myself."
Above him, a bird concealed by the branches of a tall oak tree began to twitter. Harry sighed, turning to his mother's gravestone.
"I had a girlfriend at school—Ginny Weasley, my best friend's sister. You'd have liked her, Mum."
He remembered what Ron had told him a few days ago, wide-eyed and disbelieving. Malfoy had saved Ginny's life during the Death Eater attack on the wedding. Malfoy, who had come with the Death Eaters and—apparently—switched sides. He was supposedly out cold in Ron's bedroom, between life and death. Harry's chest tightened. He owed Malfoy now.
He owed everyone, really, which was ridiculous but there it was. It had been a bad idea to come here. He couldn't run from his fate. No matter what—or who—he thought about, no matter how far his thoughts strayed, everything would always come back to this. Harry stood up. Dumbledore's portrait had been right. He couldn't afford to mourn any longer. He turned around, walked up to where his friends were waiting, and hoisted his rucksack up without looking at them. "Let's go," he said.
They walked back across the village green, headed west to where a low hill rose from the ground just before a small wood. On the hill stood the remains of what must have been a quaint cottage once. That had been his parents' house—his house. The three friends trudged uphill along the dusty path that led to the ruined house; they found that they didn't have any problems getting near it. Harry guessed that it was protected by some means of anti-Muggle security.
The cottage did look like it had exploded. The roof was gone, and the single surviving wall was overgrown with thick vines that resembled dark green, patterned wallpaper from afar. There was nothing inside the house, just the bare outlines of where doorframes used to be, clumps of grass growing haphazardly around them. The wooden floors had mostly rotted away. Harry was grateful that the intact wall faced the village; at least no one would see them walking around inside. This was even more of a disappointment than his parents' graves—there was just nothing—nothing Harry could remember, nothing he could pick up and look at. The house was dead. His parents were dead. Even Harry was dead, buried in the tiny church graveyard along with his mum and dad.
"Harry, look!" exclaimed Hermione.
He turned to her and saw that she was pointing at his feet. He looked down and saw a faint outline of light, growing brighter and brighter beneath him.
"It looks like a concealed trapdoor," said Ron, walking closer. "What happens if you step off it?"
Harry did and the outline disappeared, but he found that he could see the trapdoor now. "What the—" he began, but Hermione interrupted him.
"It must have been hidden by blood magic. Some forms of it weren't considered Dark back when your parents were alive. It's your house, your blood, so it's reacting to you!"
Harry stared at the dark wooden trapdoor, frowning. "Should we go down there?"
"I don't see why not," said Ron. "Can't be any worse than what's up here, can it?"
There was a heavy brass ring in the middle of the trapdoor. Harry lifted it and pulled. With a great creak and a snapping sound, the door came up. Harry lit his wand and shone it down into the cellar. He could see vague, grey outlines of dark shapes below and a wooden staircase leading down. It looked unstable and rotten.
"Reparo," he muttered after extinguishing his wand-light. The staircase now shone as though new. He re-lit his wand, dropped his rucksack on the floor, and climbed down into the darkness. He looked around for a light-switch on the walls, but there wasn't one.
Harry took a step forward and tripped over something; he threw out his arm for balance and his fingers closed around a string, which he seized in an attempt to right himself. As he pulled the string, there was a click and the room was bathed in dim white light from a single light bulb near the ceiling. The electricity down here must have been running off a generator of some kind, he guessed—sure enough, there it was in the corner, a thick layer of dust covering it. Harry had no doubt that it was magically enhanced—any mundane generator would have run out of fuel years ago.
Harry looked down at his feet to see what he had tripped over—it was a tree root. There were several similar bumps in the dirt floor; the nearby forest seemed to be claiming the cellar for its own. Harry adjusted his glasses and looked around, squinting. It was a work-room of some kind, with narrow tables lining the walls—they were piled high with notebooks and old parchment. The whole place smelled like the Hogwarts library, with just a hint of earth and moss. The air was dry but breathable, and there were no sounds except for the low hum of the generator in the corner. A massive table covered by a large sheet of canvas occupied most of the floor space. Harry heard a noise behind him and jumped, turning to look at the source. Ron and Hermione had come down the stairs, their faces anxious as they stared around at the room.
"It looks like some kind of an abandoned laboratory out of a film," remarked Hermione, swiping her finger atop the generator and then examining it critically, as though the dust could be a clue of some sort.
"Looks like no one's been down here since— you know," she said, colouring slightly. "What's under there?" she asked, gesturing at the largest table, clearly anxious to change the subject.
"Dunno," said Harry. "Should we look?"
Hermione nodded. Ron walked around to the other edge of the table; he and Harry picked up the canvas and lifted it, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
"Oh, for crying out loud," said Hermione, and pointed her wand in front of herself. All the dust in the room began swirling in eddies towards it, as though it was a really small Hoover. A moment later, the air was considerably more breathable, but Harry hardly noticed. He was staring at the table, dumbstruck.
It was a large model of wizarding Britain—a map with raised surfaces where there were mountains or cliffs and pools of water where there were lakes. Rivers and streams ran through forests, rolling green hills and fields. Treetops swung in miniature woods, roads and train tracks cut through cities and towns. There was Hogwarts up north, with Hogsmeade right next to it, and Diagon Alley in London. Harry leant in for a closer look and immediately the section with Diagon Alley rose upwards from the map, as though on a small platform. It expanded in front of Harry's eyes, showing shops and the streets of surrounding Muggle London.
But all that was nothing compared to the thousands of tiny dots that moved all around on the map. They were all labelled with names, just like on the Marauder's Map. Harry watched two dots labelled "Fred Weasley" and "George Weasley" glide across the street in Diagon Alley and walk inside an unlabelled building. As Harry looked on, the building shimmered and shifted, as though shaking something off, and a moment later, it was labelled "Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes". Harry's jaw dropped. He was witnessing life in Diagon Alley while standing in the cellar of his parents' old house.
"Oh my God," breathed Hermione. Harry looked up, but she wasn't even looking at the map. Her nose was buried in a black leather-bound notebook she'd grabbed from one of the tables that lined the walls.
"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Ron, leaning down to look over Harry's shoulder. "Is that—?"
Hermione sounded like she was on the verge of hysteria. "Harry, your parents...your parents, they built this! It works exactly like your map of Hogwarts except this is the vastly improved version!" she babbled as she waved the notebook. "This is your mother's logbook. She was the one who designed the way it would look, I just—I can't believe this!"
She burst into tears. Ron and Harry looked at each other in alarm.
"Uh, Hermione?" offered Ron. "D'you want some water or—"
Hermione looked up, but she wasn't crying. She was laughing. "This is absolutely genius! Don't you realise? Don't you see?"
Harry straightened. As he did, the Diagon Alley section of the map moved back down to the main level and compacted to look like a smaller model of itself. "I think I do," he said. "My parents built this?"
Hermione held up the notebook. "This is the main log book. Your parents were Aurors, Harry, but they weren't just any Aurors. They worked closely with the Department of Mysteries on research and development of magical devices that would aid the Department of Magical Law Enforcement in its work." She opened the book and started reading, looking as if it were her first time in the Hogwarts library.
"And they did their work here," said Ron. "Bloody brilliant. They'd hidden this here, in a backwater little Muggle village, right under everyone's noses."
"It's not just a map, either," said Hermione, her eyes not leaving the notebook page she was looking at. "Oh. My. God."
Harry could only stare as she rushed past them and pulled open a drawer that rested underneath the table. Something was rattling inside. Hermione pulled out three bitty wooden dolls. One looked exactly like Harry, one looked somewhat like Ginny, except with different facial features, and the third one was a baby boy in jeans and a blue jumper.
"This map is a portal," said Hermione, sounding breathless. "These dolls are conduits."
"Who?" asked Ron, staring at her with round eyes.
"Conduits. They're not by themselves magical, but a spell Harry's father developed makes them transport the person they correspond to—anywhere on this map."
"Why would anyone want to go inside a map?" asked Harry.
Hermione shook her head impatiently. "The map is the second part of the conduit. Don't you see? You place a doll anywhere on the map, say the spell, and you end up in that place, except not on the map, but in reality!"
Ron and Harry exchanged looks.
"So it's like Apparating, only...through a doll?" asked Ron, looking dubious.
"It's better than Apparating! You can even go into places that are warded against Apparition, because no one knows this portal exists. So no one would have developed any way of protecting from it."
"Sounds like something my father would think up, yeah," said Harry, grinning.
"And best of all, if you use the portal, you can't be tracked by normal means, like Apparition can!"
"Wait, Apparition can be tracked?" asked Harry.
"Of course it can, mate," replied Ron. "Any magic can be detected, and if you know what traces Apparition leaves, you can track it, even figure out where a person is Apparating."
Hermione beamed at Ron, who blushed and looked down at his scuffed trainers.
"So—these are the dolls?" asked Harry, gazing at the miniature figures in Hermione's hand."
"Yeah. They'd only made three—one for each of you," said Hermione, glancing at a page in the notebook. "The dolls are magically bound to the person they're supposed to represent, you can't just use any old doll." She handed the dolls to Harry and began flipping through the log book, scanning the pages rapidly. "This doesn't describe the process, but all of the research is here in this cellar, so there should be a notebook with instructions somewhere..." she trailed off, turning around and eyeing the impressive piles of notebooks and parchment on the wall-side tables.
Harry looked down at the tiny dolls in his hand. So the one that looked like him was actually his father, it had to be. The Ginny-looking one had to be his mum. Harry shuddered a little—Ginny and his mother did look a lot alike, didn't they? He looked away from the doll, not wanting to start thinking of Ginny. He gazed at the little boy doll—that had to be him. Why had his parents made one for him? His heart leapt; they had probably had a plan of escaping using the map and the cellar. Too bad it hadn't worked.
"Dolls," said Ron, looking sceptical as he examined a scaled-down version of the Burrow, which had risen up much like Diagon Alley had done for Harry. "Bloody hell, I can see my Mum! She's in the kitchen, I think. And there's Malfoy," he added with distaste.
Harry didn't want to look at Malfoy. He was still examining his own doll. A thought occurred to him. "But if I have a doll," he said slowly, "does that mean I could use this portal right now?"
Hermione looked up, her mouth falling open. "You could," she said. "Oh, Harry, that's wonderful!"
"I dunno," said Harry, frowning at the baby doll in his hand. "What if I try using it and end up a baby, somehow? I'd never be able to get back, not to mention this whole quest is going to get set back about sixteen years."
"On the upside," said Ron, "You-Know-Who would never find you."
Hermione glared at Ron, who held up his hands in a defensive gesture. "I could just Apparate to the same place you're going when you use the portal, in case you do end up a baby," he said to Harry.
"Does this thing actually work?" Harry asked Hermione.
She turned to him, nodding. "Yeah. They were almost completely done, except for some minor details in the layout. It was just—there was a war and they were in hiding. They couldn't bring other people here, as you know."
"No one knew they were working on this?" asked Ron, squinting at the notebook in Hermione's hands. "Not even anyone at the Ministry?"
She shook her head. "No one. They wanted it to be a huge surprise—this would have made the Aurors' work so much easier..."
Harry realised that his mother's writing was in the notebook Hermione was holding. He walked closer to her, peering down at the neat rows with colour-coded headings.
Final tests complete; whole family.
Picnic in Wiltshire at 13:00
Back to GH at 13:59
Needed to see Kingsley; at HQ by 14:00 (bonus: no need to pass Eric, took the portal right to the office! Scolded by Kingsley for leaving GH when Vold. looking for us. If he only knew.)
Below it, in an untidy scrawl, there were the words:
You realise we'll have to be the ones to develop the spells to protect buildings against this portal, right?
PS. Where are you?
Below that, in his mother's writing:
That's what backdoors are for! They don't have to know that we can go anywhere we like!
PS. Went shopping with Harry. Where are you?
There were tears in Harry's eyes—he wished he could have remembered picnicking in Wiltshire, being here in this cellar when his parents were alive, going shopping on the village green...
"Are you all right?" asked Hermione, touching his shoulder.
Harry nodded, looking down. "Yeah, fine. I'd like to try it now. What's the spell?"
"Conductolocum," said Hermione automatically.
Harry placed the Lily and James dolls carefully back in their drawer and walked to the north of the map. He leant down, focussing on Hogsmeade, and it rose on a platform just like the others, expanding until he could see the village layout. He noticed that he couldn't see the building layouts, just the buildings themselves. His parents must not have had time to map out the Hogsmeade buildings as they had the Ministry and St. Mungo's. Maybe they'd only had time to work on the southern half of the map. Putting a doll inside an uncharted building most likely meant you could end up anywhere, he reasoned as he placed the tiny Harry doll just behind the Three Broomsticks.
"Harry, wait, there's a note here..." said Hermione, frowning. "You can't wear an Invisibility Cloak whilst using the portal. Your dad lost one that way. Any magical items you're carrying cannot be operational at the time of travel, except for the wand used to cast the spell."
"So if I need to bring my Cloak, I have to carry it?"
"Yeah, and you can't carry more than half your body weight, either. That's on purpose, I think—I'm not sure, but I'm guessing it's to prevent bringing more than one person through the same conduit."
"What if it's a small child who weighs very little? What would happen?" asked Ron.
Hermione drew her eyebrows together, looking thoughtful. "No idea. There's so much to read about this, I can't wait!"
Ron rolled his eyes at Harry, who hid his smile behind his hand. He walked back to the trapdoor, pulled his rucksack down and rummaged through it for his Invisibility Cloak. He folded it and slung it over his shoulder, and then pointed his wand at himself.
"Well, here goes nothing," he said. "Conductolocum!"
There was a great whooshing sound in his ears and a rush in his belly, like he was on a roller-coaster. The world around him blurred and dimmed, similar to the sensation of falling through a Pensieve memory. He felt weightless for just an instant, and then the whoosh in his ears quietened down. Harry found himself standing behind the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade.
He looked down at himself—he was still seventeen-year-old Harry, not a baby. Relieved, he looked up and saw a familiar figure ambling down Main Street further into the village—Mundungus Fletcher. He looked unsteady on his feet and it sounded like he was singing a song.
There was a crack and Mundungus ducked into a corner.
"Brilliant!" said Ron, but Harry turned to him with his finger on his lips.
"You just scared the lights out of old Mundungus," whispered Harry.
Ron rolled his eyes. "He could do with a bit of scaring, the thieving little— hey, mate! You aren't a baby!"
Harry grinned at him. "Back we go?"
Ron nodded, and Harry pointed his wand at himself again, saying "Conductolocum!" under his breath. He didn't mind this particular method of travel; as he listened to the whoosh in his ears, he wondered if his father'd had the same reservations about Apparition and Portkeys as Harry. Before finding the map portal, he had resented having to leave Sirius's flying motorbike behind, but this was far more convenient than any flying device, even a broomstick.
Back in the cellar, Hermione's eyes were round and wide. Ron was nowhere to be seen. "It worked!" she said.
"Where's Ron?" asked Harry.
"Oh, he couldn't Disapparate from here. Very old wards," said Hermione.
Ron clambered down the steps a moment later. "Blimey," he said. "I want to be able to use the portal, too!"
"Working on it," said Hermione, her eyes back on the notebook she was holding.
Harry gazed at the map. "So what else can this thing do?"
"Oh, if you're thinking about specific people, the map will show you where they are. They'll turn red," said Hermione without looking up from the notebook. "I told you, this is brilliant work. It's going to take me weeks to figure it all out!"
Harry thought of Voldemort and squinted at the map, hoping to see a glimpse of red. Nothing. He thought of Snape, but still nothing.
"Weird," he said. "It won't show Snape or Voldemort."
"Maybe they're not in the country?" suggested Ron.
"That, or underground. If you try to find us on there, it won't show us," said Hermione. "This is only a surface and air map."
Harry leant down above the Burrow, watching it expand. There was a little red dot labelled "Ginny Weasley". Right beside it was a regular black dot labelled "Draco Malfoy".
"You should be resting! Mum says you'll never recover if you keep spending all your time reading Ron's comic books." Ginny Weasley's hands were on her hips and it was scary how much like her mother she looked.
Draco sniffed. "What am I supposed to do, look for the meaning of life on the ceiling? I can't look at these Cannons posters, they offend me."
"You're such a prat!"
"Takes one to know one," muttered Draco.
The door opened, and that tall young woman—Fleur?—swept inside. Her lower face was covered entirely by some sort of silk whatsit, like the women of the East wore everywhere. She dumped a lunch tray in Draco's lap without a word and left the room. Draco stared after her, blinking.
He turned to Ginny. "What's with her? She never talks, and she's always covering her face. And since when are there blond Weasleys?"
Ginny wrinkled her nose. "She's not a Weasley. Well, she is now, but not really. She's my brother Bill's wife, and her face is covered because she got hit with some sort of curse that permanently disfigured her during the fight."
"Poor thing," said Draco, keeping his tone neutral. "On her own wedding day."
Ginny scoffed. "She shouldn't have been so proud of being so pretty in the first place. She just got what she deserved. If everyone were part-Veela, everyone would be that pretty. She was never special."
Draco raised his eyebrow. "She's part animal?"
Ginny giggled, but promptly covered her mouth. She was looking at Draco with slightly different eyes now, and Draco hid his smile as he reached for his spoon.
Potter would be in for a nice little surprise when he came back to his girlfriend, Draco would make sure of that.
"Not that I care about the fact that she's not a pure-blood," said Ginny with a calculating expression on her face.
Draco put down his spoon. "No? Then why did you laugh?"
"Oh, come on, Malfoy," said Ginny. "You can't possibly seriously believe in all that pure-blood supremacy crap your father's taught you. Voldemort is a half-blood, for crying out loud."
Draco was glad he wasn't eating at the moment, because he would have swallowed his spoon otherwise. "What?"
"He's a half-blood! Even Harry's blood is purer than his! Voldemort's father was a Muggle!"
The place was much louder than Remus Lupin preferred, but that was an occupational hazard. One couldn't expect a werewolves' den to be peaceful.
Remus sat in his usual spot in the corner, away from everyone else. He was known as "the quiet one". He had no problems with that, and after he'd hexed one of Greyback's henchmen through a wall, no one else did, either. As with any barbarous group, violence earned one respect. Power plays earned even more respect. Though inclined to display neither, Remus was quite capable of both.
Werewolves in various stages of inebriation littered the derelict old house. Remus managed to duck down to evade a bottle tossed in his direction; it smashed into the wall, stinking up the place even more with the bitter scent of alcohol. He was used to it by now, though he still wrinkled his nose. Most of these ruffians had the shoddiest taste in spirits. Some days, Remus was willing to give his wand arm for a quick shot of Molly Weasley's brandy, just enough to warm him up.
Pale moonlight streamed through the boarded-up windows, and Remus was particularly glad it wasn't the full moon yet. He didn't have the energy for another rampage at the moment. He still hadn't got the taste of blood out of his mouth from the last one. Sighing, Remus poured himself a shot of Firewhisky. Someone bumped into him and he slopped a little onto the rickety wooden table. He looked up and glared just as the table started to smoke.
The drunken werewolf behind him seemed to have enough wits to remember what had happened the last time someone had given Remus a hard time. He quickly apologised, disappearing into the gloomy shadows that stank of unwashed male bodies and disease. Remus shook his head and downed the Firewhisky. It wasn't Molly's brandy but it numbed his nerves, which was more than what he could say for the constant stink.
A few of the werewolves near Remus began muttering to each other about something that was happening, their words garbled and slurring. Remus's stomach dropped, and he gripped his wand inside his cloak, tensing. He'd spent the past couple of months in fear of someone turning around and shouting the Killing Curse at him. Snape knew about what he was doing here: spying on the werewolves, trying—unsuccessfully, for the most part—to turn as many as he could away from Greyback's control. Despite this knowledge, Snape had yet to expose him—or at least someone had yet to act on the information.
It made Remus more than a little nervous. He had no idea why Snape hadn't sold him out, but he suspected whatever it was, it couldn't be good. It was too late to back out now, though. He was committed to seeing this through and providing the Order of the Phoenix with as much information as he possibly could.
Fenrir Greyback came out of the back room, grey cloak billowing behind him. He seemed more wild and vicious than ever. Looking at Greyback never failed to send a shiver down Remus's spine, not that he ever let it show. He'd never forget Greyback's jaws closing on his leg when Remus had been only eight. He couldn't—especially not when the moon was full and his blood flowed fast.
"Listen, you scum!" shouted Greyback, his voice hoarse, no doubt from drink as well. Silence or something like it fell over the room, and all turned to face the alpha. No one was stupid enough to challenge Fenrir Greyback. After all, he'd turned nearly two thirds of them into what they were today. "The Dark Lord has given us a mission."
There were a few whispers, but a swipe of Greyback's hand into the air quietened them at once. "That useless rat, Wormtail, has vanished." Remus's pulse began to pound in his ears, but he forced himself to keep listening. "Its our job to scent him out. The Dark Lord wants him in one piece, but he doesn't care if he's alive or dead. His mother lives in Euxton, but be careful if you stake her out—she's a witch. Other'n that, we've got no leads. I want your worthless arses spread out across the country, looking for him. Be ready to come if I call you."
Greyback snapped his fingers, and one of the werewolves dumped a box full of clothes on the floor. "These're his clothes. Get his scent, keep something with you, and bring him to me as soon as you find him. One piece, boys, remember that."
He turned on his heel, crooked a finger at one of the girls, and disappeared into the back room. With shoulders slumped and scarred face scowling, the girl followed. She couldn't have been any older than fourteen. Greyback liked them young.
Remus watched as the other werewolves started to circle around the box, yapping at each other and laughing like jackals. Remus poured himself another shot of Firewhisky, wondering why Peter had run off. He picked up the glass, eyeing the amber liquid with distaste. He hated bitter spirits, truth be told, but anyone who didn't drink stood out from the pack.
Remus swallowed the Firewhisky in one gulp and closed his eyes. He hardly noticed the sting in the back of his throat anymore.
Before Remus could stop them, images appeared in quick succession in his mind's eye: Peter helping Remus with his Potions exam—it was one of the few things Peter had been good at, whereas Remus hadn't been. Peter had always had a mind for the subtleties of Potions.
Peter watching James and Sirius fly with an adoring expression.
Peter crumpling when Sirius told him he probably couldn't fly a broom because not even wizards could make a pig fly without transfiguring wings onto its back.
Peter practising a charm, causing half the desks in the classroom to explode in everyone's faces.
Peter staring slack-jawed at a pretty girl and walking straight into a wall.
Peter helping Remus up after one of the harder nights at the Shrieking Shack.
Peter chewing on his quill as he stared helplessly at his History of Magic homework.
Peter stuffing his chubby face full of bacon sandwiches with onions hanging out the sides.
Peter on his knees at the Shrieking Shack as he tried to justify betraying his friends just to save his own sorry skin.
Remus was startled out of his thoughts by a loud cracking sound, like Apparition. He looked up in alarm. A pair of werewolves had apparently got into a fight. One held a broken chair in his hand, the wood splintered along the seat. The other werewolf staggered and slipped to the floor. Remus idly wondered if he was dead. When had this sort of thing stopped bothering him?
Remus tried to swallow, only to find his mouth quite dry. It was perplexing that Peter had abandoned the Dark Lord's protection; he'd find no quarter anywhere else. It was just as strange that Peter hadn't given Remus away. They had seen each other on more than one occasion, and Remus knew that Peter had recognised him. Remus had spent a couple of months after that meeting expecting to be killed at any moment, but the moment never came. Peter had kept Remus's secret for some reason. Just like he'd run away for some reason.
Maybe even a good reason.
As concerned as Remus was about Snape's continued silence, he hoped Peter had a good reason for keeping quiet. It was foolish, and Remus tried to squash his hope. Peter was a traitor and every bit the rat that was his Animagus form. He'd betrayed James and Lily to their deaths and framed Sirius for crimes he hadn't committed. The funny little boy who'd been Remus's friend, who'd made him laugh, who'd taught him what it was like to be human was as dead as James, Lily and Sirius were. The cold rage that had filled Remus in the Shrieking Shack three years ago had fled him as swiftly as it had come, but the sense of loss remained. He'd learned his lesson long ago, hadn't he?
Remus set aside the Firewhisky bottle and stood, but he didn't go towards the box full of Peter's things. Shirts, trousers, and other things were being passed around the pack, but Remus took nothing for himself.
He didn't need an article of clothing to recognise his former best friend.
Draco ran his finger down the page of the book, attempting to balance an inkpot on a sheet drawn taut across his lap. He scribbled a note onto the top piece of parchment in a stack on his right. He'd been at this for two days with breaks only for food and sleep. Ginny had brought him the Encyclopaedia of Wizarding Genealogy—her father had checked it out of one of the Ministry libraries. It wasn't From Gryffindor to Montgomery, but it would have to do. It didn't have complete information on the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw lines of descent, but Draco wasn't interested in them.
He turned the page and stared at it, disbelieving. The Gaunt line had branched off the Slytherin tree just one generation after Salazar. Ginny had given him a name—Merope Gaunt—and he'd been going backwards to ascertain that Merope had indeed been descended from Salazar Slytherin. There was no doubt, now. Draco stuck his quill into the inkpot and set it on the bedside table, shoving the encyclopaedia aside.
The door creaked and Draco looked up to see Ginny poking her head in. He tried not to appear too annoyed.
"You're still at it?" she asked, eyes widening.
"These things take time," muttered Draco, frowning as he looked back down at his notes. "I'm almost done, though."
Ginny, who was carrying a notebook of some sort, padded across the wooden floor and sat down on the edge of the other side of Draco's bed, leaning over to look at his notes as well. "What does 'd.v.p.' stand for?" she asked, pointing at a scribble beside Ezekiel Gaunt's name.
"Decessit vita patris. Died during father's lifetime," replied Draco. "He was Merope's paternal uncle. These Gaunts were a violent lot, from what I'm reading."
"Why are you even bothering with the Gaunts?" asked Ginny. She climbed further up on the bed and tucked her legs under herself, placing her own notebook in her lap. "I told you, they were pure-bloods. It's Merope's husband that was a Muggle."
"That's not what the book says," said Draco, feeling smug. He picked up the encyclopaedia and flipped the pages until he reached his bookmark. "Here it says she married a Tom Riddle, but there's no indication that he was a Muggle. Muggles are always marked with an 'M' and there are no marks here."
Ginny squinted at the page. "It says she married him, but there are no children that I can see. The book must be wrong, because she gave birth to You-Know-Who."
"Well, these genealogy records are often as much as fifty years behind," said Draco, waving his hand in dismissal. "He'll show up in the next edition, I'm sure. But he wasn't a Muggle. Potter lied to you."
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Yeah, because Harry goes around lying to people all the time. Please, Malfoy."
"I thought we agreed that you would call me Draco."
She looked over at him. "Draco. Whatever. The point is, how difficult would it have been for You-Know-Who to—I dunno, doctor some records to make it look like his father wasn't a Muggle?"
"But that's unheard of!" protested Draco, frowning. "There are no recorded cases of birth record tampering—"
Ginny waved a hand at him. "Look, can you find any Riddles in that book of yours?"
Draco picked the encyclopaedia up and flipped to the index. He scanned the listing until he reached "R"—the detailed listing was on page sixty. Draco turned the pages quickly and found the listing. "Right here," he said. "Page nine hundred and fifty to nine hundred and eighty. Pretty long listing, if you ask me."
He glanced at Ginny, whose brow was creased in a puzzled frown. "Go on," she said after a pause. "Let's see these Riddles, then."
Shrugging, Draco turned to page nine hundred and fifty, which would hold the most recent records. He glanced at the top entry and blinked.
"This doesn't make any sense," he said. "It says here that the line ended in the sixteenth century..."
"...So unless the Tom Riddle who married Merope Gaunt was a really well-preserved wizard, you have no choice but to admit that someone did manage to tamper with the Gaunts' records." Ginny's earlier frown was gone; she looked—relieved?
Draco shook his head. "There's got to be an explanation for it."
"Really, Draco," said Ginny, her tone sarcastic. "The only explanation is that the Tom Riddle who married Merope was from a recent Muggle-born line or that he was a Muggle. Otherwise there'd be a record of him."
"He can't have been Muggle-born," mumbled Draco, blinking at the words on the page in front of him, as though they would change if he blinked fast enough. He'd been absolutely certain that Ginny had been wrong, but he wasn't stupid. "This publisher isn't up-to-date with the old families because of all the in-breeding, but they pick up Muggle-born lines in a fairly timely manner."
Wordlessly, Ginny handed Draco the notebook she'd brought. Draco took it from her, eyebrow raised, and opened it. The pages were filled with old newspaper clippings—but these clippings hadn't come from the Daily Prophet. They were from Muggle newspapers. Draco scanned through the series of articles detailing the mysterious deaths in Little Hangleton and the subsequent murder investigation. The articles were peppered with the name "Riddle" and the headlines were mostly horrid puns on the name.
"Little Hangleton," whispered Draco to himself. "That's where the last of the Gaunts had lived." So it was true.
Beside him, Ginny shifted. "Got there at last, have you?"
Draco glanced sideways at her. She was leaning back against the headboard, a pensive expression on her face. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he leant over and kissed her. He'd been looking for a chance to do that for days, and he wasn't one to discard opportunities. Ginny made a startled noise and pulled away, her brown eyes wide.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, snatching the notebook away from him. "How dare you, I—"
"I'm sorry," said Draco quickly. "You're very pretty."
Ginny opened her mouth and then shut it again. Without another word, she scrambled off the bed and fled. Draco watched her go, smirking as he relaxed against his pillow.
She would be back.
They pitched a tent in a clearing they'd found in the woods just west of the house. It was too risky to stay inside; Harry knew that at some point, Voldemort would be coming here, too, to look for Harry or perhaps to look for something to use against Harry. The house itself wasn't even visible from their campsite, but it was only a short walk away. It warmed Harry to be near the place where he'd been born; he wasn't sure why.
They had carried all the notebooks about the portal map into the tent; it was a magical tent with lots of room once you got inside—not as spacious as the one Arthur Weasley had borrowed for the Quidditch World Cup, but it was big enough for the three of them.
While Hermione set up the inside of the tent, Harry and Ron were gathering firewood—they could have used summoning charms, but they'd made an agreement to use as little magic as possible whilst staying in one place. Residual magical energy could build up and betray their location if someone knew how to look.
"What do you reckon Malfoy wants?" asked Harry. He already had an armload of wood and was ready to head back to the clearing.
"What he wants?" asked Ron, turning to him. "I think he's just staying at my house until he can walk again, and then he'll be on his merry way."
"It's weird, though, isn't it?"
"Well, he saved Ginny's life, didn't he? It's the least my mum can do, really, to make sure he's healed up."
It was like a knife in Harry's heart—Malfoy saved Ginny's life—but he only nodded, walking back towards the campsite.
Malfoy had risked his own life to save Ginny's—and that was exactly what worried Harry. What was Malfoy after? He remembered the Slytherins talking about Ginny in their compartment at the beginning of last year. Ginny was a popular girl; Pansy Parkinson had even said that haughty, handsome Zabini fancied Ginny. Was that it, then? Had Malfoy been secretly in love with Ginny all this time? She was a pure-blood witch...
Harry told himself not to think about that—there could be a million explanations for why Malfoy and Ginny had been next to each other the other night. Ginny could have simply fallen asleep in her chair, for example; heaven knew Malfoy was boring enough.
Was he? Harry realised he didn't really know anything about Malfoy outside of their run-ins at Hogwarts. He'd used to think he could predict every one of Malfoy's moves, but Malfoy kept surprising him lately—first with the fact that he hadn't tried to get Harry thrown in Azkaban for casting the Sectumsempra curse on him, then with his refusal to kill Dumbledore, and now with saving Ginny's life...
Harry dumped the firewood next to the tent and grinned at Hermione, who was staring at him intently.
"Harry, remember what you told us about the previous owner of Helga Hufflepuff's cup? Hepzibah Smith?"
"Yeah, Voldemort killed her and made a house-elf confess to the murder. What about her?"
"Do you think Zacharias Smith might be a relative?"
Harry considered her words for a moment. "Could be, I dunno. It's a very common name. Why?"
"Well..." said Hermione, looking faintly guilty. "I've found this spell that binds heir to heirloom; it was used back in the Dark Ages to prove claims to parentage...It was somewhat barbaric; they would hide a family heirloom somewhere, and the purported heir would be made to find it using this spell..."
Harry sat down cross-legged across from her. "Go on."
"Well, the spell could lead us to the cup. If we can find a living heir of Hufflepuff, we might be able to find Helga's cup. The only problem is that it's blood magic and not exactly legal anymore."
"When has that ever stopped us?"
"Well, it's actually classified with the Dark Arts," said Hermione, her face miserable. "But it can't be used to hurt anyone, just to create a link between a person and a lost object that belongs to their family..." she trailed off, looking somewhat like a child in Honeydukes being told that she wasn't allowed to have anything.
Harry was shaking his head, but then he remembered Snape's Potions textbook. That had been Dark magic, strictly speaking, hadn't it? Muffliato was illegal because it wasn't Ministry-approved, but it wasn't Dark magic. Sectumsempra clearly had been, but Harry had felt awful about that; he still did.
That was Snape, and this is Hermione. Do you really think she can't be trusted to use the Dark Arts responsibly?
"What would we need to use this spell?" asked Harry after a moment.
"A bit of Smith's blood, willingly given," replied Hermione, her expression guarded.
"Don't ask for much, do you?" said Ron, who had in the meantime walked up to the tent.
That clinched it for Harry—Ron was aware that blood magic was Dark, and yet he wasn't protesting. If he couldn't trust his best friends' judgement, he couldn't trust anyone.
"Well, we don't know if he's the heir, do we?" he asked, looking at Hermione.
Hermione shook her head. "No. But there's a book called From Gryffindor to Montgomery: Hogwarts Founders And Their Descendants by Aloysius Heffernan; the confirmation would be in there, if anywhere."
"I'm guessing you don't have this book," said Ron.
"No. The only known copy is at the Hogwarts library," said Hermione with a sigh. "I asked my parents to send a post-order to Flourish and Blotts, but they replied with a form letter saying the book was out of print and where the last known copy was."
"I could try looking it up," said Harry. "I can get to Hogwarts undetected. If I use my Invisibility Cloak, I could even sneak past Pince."
"I doubt Pince would be there," said Ron with a sceptical look. "I don't think she likes the books as much as she likes shouting at the students."
"I can try," said Harry. "I've got my Cloak and the map portal."
Twenty minutes later, he was standing outside the gates of Hogwarts. The silence was eerie; Harry had never felt quite so lonely here as he did now; even in the dead of night during the regular school year, Hogwarts used to have a certain spirit—as though it were alive and had a mind of its own. Now, it felt like any other place, as if all the magic had gone away, never to return. Harry had felt it happening, too, on that last day when he'd talked to Dumbledore's portrait. Hogwarts was dead.
Harry stalked through the front gates, only half surprised to see that he could walk freely, that no magical wards stopped him. He didn't feel any surprise at all when he pulled open the huge oak doors—they weren't even locked. Inside, it was quite dark, except for the light that filtered through the high windows in the Entrance Hall, and windows along those hallways that had them. The doors to the Great Hall stood open, but the house tables were still and silent, the magical ceiling a black, gaping hole.
The castle had not only died; it had been abandoned in death, like being refused a proper burial.
Harry knew he wouldn't encounter anyone in these halls, except perhaps for the house-elves, who weren't allowed to leave even if they wanted to. But Hogwarts was a school; it was nothing without the students, just an empty, broken shell of a castle that had once been magical. None of the portraits moved or spoke anymore; Harry wondered what had become of the portraits in the Headmistress's office. Most of them had already gone when Harry had been speaking to Dumbledore.
Snape had done this. Snape and Voldemort, destroying the very school that had taught them both everything. Harry hated them, maybe even equally—no, hate was too weak a word for the enraged, baleful gloom that always hovered now at the edges of Harry's consciousness. They would pay.
He reached the fourth floor—about halfway up the staircase, it occurred to him that he could have Apparated, but it felt more comfortable to walk—and made his way towards the library. That the doors stood wide open barely even registered; he'd expected it. He looked down at the piece of parchment Hermione had given him, giving the shelf and index number of the book she needed, along with instructions on how to locate the information. He headed past the shelves of dust-covered books, inhaling the slightly sweet scent of old parchment. He couldn't see very well anymore, the high arched windows above shone very little light in between the shelves, so he lit his wand, shining it at the labels on each row.
Harry found the book without any hassle; without bothering to walk back into the reading area, he sat down on the floor, placing the book in his lap, and followed Hermione's instructions on figuring out the complicated little lines on the huge family tree contained in a fold-out section in the middle. It was easy to locate Zacharias Smith on the Hufflepuff quarter of the tree; Harry had had a lot of practice looking at the Marauder's Map, after all, where the print was even smaller. So Zacharias Smith was descended from Helga Hufflepuff—it was probably the only reason he had been sorted into Hufflepuff in the first place; Smith had always behaved just like a Slytherin.
Now, all Harry had to do was ask Zacharias Smith to willingly give up some of his blood.
Piece of cake, really. Except not.
Harry re-shelved the book and headed out. The eerie silence of the school was stifling; he would have given anything even for Peeves to show up and throw something at his head. He'd take anything for this place to feel like home again, and not like a huge empty space in his chest, right beside the ones made by Sirius and Dumbledore. Thinking of Dumbledore and being in the library at the same time reminded Harry that he had absolutely no idea how to destroy Horcruxes. There had been the diary, which he'd stabbed with the fang of a Basilisk, but he couldn't exactly stab a golden cup or locket with one of those—even if he did manage to find and kill another Basilisk.
He remembered Dumbledore's blackened hand and shuddered. No, there had to be another way...maybe Dumbledore could tell him. It was true that he wasn't himself in that portrait, but maybe he could give Harry a hint? As Harry cleared the doors of the library, he headed towards the seventh floor instead of the Entrance Hall. In front of the stone gargoyle that protected the Headmistress's office, Harry stopped. McGonagall wasn't here to save the day; he had no idea how to get in.
"Sherbet lemon?" he tried, for old times' sake. To his immense surprise, the gargoyle sprang aside, admitting him. Harry waited for the spiral staircase to take him up, listening to its creaks and groans. Why had McGonagall changed the password? Had she meant for Harry to come back into the school?
There were voices in the Headmistress's office—familiar voices. Harry's heart leapt as he leant his ear against the door.
"...told you he would be back. Aberforth has done a fine job, don't you think, Phineas? Even Confunded the gargoyle into changing the password!"
"I still think it's mad. The wards could be tricked, given a powerful enough wizard—and you have to admit that the Riddle boy is powerful."
"I do not doubt it for a second, but it would destroy Hogwarts now, to let in anyone disloyal to Harry Potter as long as Voldemort lives."
"That's especially mad. What if he dies and they want to use the school for the new generation? There's just no hope—"
"My dear Phineas, there is always hope. And Hogwarts is Harry's home."
Harry knocked on the door, feeling ridiculous for asking permission to enter from a couple of portraits.
"Come in already, don't just stand there listening," muttered Phineas Nigellus's voice.
Harry pushed the door open and walked in. The office was empty; only the—mostly blank—portraits and the sword of Gryffindor remained. Harry gazed at it, wondering why McGonagall hadn't taken it with her. Maybe she couldn't remove it?
"Hello, Harry," said Dumbledore's kindly voice.
Harry turned to the portrait. "Hello, Professor," he said.
"Did you find everything you needed?" asked Dumbledore. He was leaning back in his armchair, his hands folded in his lap.
"Er, yeah. Well, no. I still don't know how to destroy Horcruxes, I was hoping you could—"
"Horcruxes?" asked Dumbledore, blinking. "They're terrible, Dark objects, I wouldn't know anything about them."
The way he'd said that niggled at Harry, like a memory trying to escape the confines of his mind.
"You might want to try someone living," said Phineas Nigellus's sneering voice.
Harry had it then—of course! Slughorn. He knew about Horcruxes; he could tell Harry how to destroy one.
"Thanks," he said, to both portraits, and hurried out.
When he got back to his parents' house, Ron and Hermione were waiting. Hermione was bent over a pair of rough-hewn wooden dolls; she was poking them each in turn with her wand while consulting a notebook balanced in her lap. Harry guessed she was still trying to reproduce his mother's work. He hoped she would succeed; it would be brilliant if Ron and Hermione could use the portal, too.
Harry told Ron and Hermione about Smith being a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff's, and about Slughorn. Wasting no time, he located Smith on the map and placed his doll near there. A moment later, he was standing underneath a tall oak tree not far from the large house belonging to the Smith family—it was much bigger than his parents' cottage, and about three times the size of the Dursleys'.
Donning his Invisibility Cloak, Harry crept towards the house. One of the first floor windows was lit, bathing the gathering dusk in a warm orange glow. Harry peered in through the window and saw six people seated at a large round table, Zacharias Smith among them. He looked as displeased with the world as ever. This wasn't going to be easy. How could Harry get Smith outside?
As though on cue, Smith rose from the table, said something to the woman Harry assumed to be his mother, and stalked out. The dining room door was on Harry's left, and he darted to the next window, then to the next one, until he realised that he was facing the front door and Smith was likely about to walk out of it. Harry stepped aside, watched Smith close the door behind him, and swept along the side of the house, following Smith as he walked down a gravel path that led to a small covered pavilion in the middle of the sprawling garden.
Smith reached the vine-covered pavilion, casting a quick glance around, and stopped, leaning against one of the ornate columns. Harry hovered nearby—he wanted to waste no time and simply walk up to Smith, but it appeared as though the blond boy was waiting for something—or someone—and Harry didn't want to be seen if he could help it. He saw a movement at the other end of the pavilion and crept closer, curious.
The new arrival was none other than Blaise Zabini, and Harry's stomach gave an unpleasant lurch. Zabini was a Slytherin, definitely with sympathies for Voldemort—what if both of these were Death Eaters like Malfoy? He strained his ears to listen, but to no avail.
Zabini and Smith had moved further in and Harry couldn't even see them anymore. He tiptoed towards the entrance to the pavilion. Whether these two were Death Eaters or not became irrelevant when Harry saw them snogging; Zabini had Smith pressed against the far wall, his hands at Smith's sides, pulling up his robes...
It was a little like watching a car crash in that Harry found he couldn't look away. He couldn't see what was going on very well; that part of the pavilion was covered in shadow, but it didn't take a genius to figure out what they were doing. He watched Zabini throw his head back as his lower body jerked forward a few times. A muttered spell that must have come from Smith illuminated the scene for an instant, giving Harry a glimpse of Zabini taking a step back. And then Zabini got on his knees in front of Smith, and Harry felt a familiar twisting in his lower belly.
Horrified, he looked away—this was the last reaction he was supposed to have. His only experience with boys and erect cocks did not extend past having walked in on one of Dudley's wanking sessions once, and that had been one of the most disgusting things Harry had seen in his entire life. He was quickly realising that that might have been due to the fact that Dudley was loathsome while clothed, so being naked did him no favours, either.
Watching Blaise Zabini suck off Zacharias Smith was causing Harry's blood pressure to rise and his heartbeat to pound in his ears; his own cock was pressing uncomfortably up against his jeans. Harry looked away, shutting his eyes tightly, thinking of Ginny, but that didn't help matters much. When he looked back up, Smith and Zabini were sitting side by side on one of the benches. They were silent for a long time, and then began a quiet conversation that Harry couldn't hear from where he was standing.
Harry decided that he didn't have to walk into the pavilion to hear them; he could just walk around outside and listen at one of the windows adjacent to the bench. He did just that, ducking down under a decorative streetlamp that hung near the pavilion. When he reached the other side, he slid down to the grass beside one of the arched windows and pressed his back to the ridged wall.
"...died, didn't he?" Smith was saying.
"I don't believe it. He's too smart," said Zabini.
"You're just hoping he didn't," snapped Smith, his tone—jealous? What—or who—were they talking about?
"Really, Zacharias. Wouldn't you hope the same thing?"
"I didn't have the luxury of hoping after Cedric's dead body was paraded around the school...besides, that was a crush, we never—"
"You didn't? I was sure you did."
There was muffled laughter and they stopped talking for a while. Harry rose and peered in—they were kissing. He felt the twitching in his belly again, but turned away, staring resolutely at the woods on the horizon. What was the deal with these two? Harry had never seen them together; Smith wasn't even in the Slug Club. It was typical, of course, for Smith to be snogging a Slytherin—Harry suspected Smith wanted to be in Slytherin. Given his attitude, he very well could have been. This reminded Harry of what he was there for, and he told his mind to stop wandering so he could listen.
Except there was nothing else to listen to; while Harry had busied himself looking away and pretending that Smith and Zabini weren't snogging, Smith had left the pavilion and was strolling back up to the house. Harry peered inside and saw that Zabini had gone, too. He tore across the grass, reaching Smith just before the front doors.
"I need to talk to you," he said without preamble.
Smith jumped, turning around, eyes wild. "Who's here? Blaise, is that you?"
Harry remembered his Invisibility Cloak and pulled it off. "Over here," he said to Smith.
Smith's eyebrows shot up as soon as he saw Harry. "Potter? What in the world? How—what do you want?"
"Look, I won't waste your time. You know I'm supposed to kill Voldemort, right?"
Smith gave a low hiss. "Don't say that name."
"He's not going to jump out of the bushes to smack anyone for it, believe me."
"Fine, whatever, Potter—I just want to know why you're here."
"I'm looking for something, an artefact that will help me fight. Problem is, I don't know where it is. You could help me find it. Will you?"
"An artefact that'll help you fight? You sound like a bad fantasy novel."
"I certainly wish I were. You haven't answered my question. Will you help me find this artefact?"
"How? How could I possibly help you?"
"The artefact once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff. You're descended from her. A bit of your blood can help me find it, and you'd be doing your part for the war effort."
"Are you insane? Fucking around with blood magic? That's illegal."
"Take a look at your morning Daily Prophet, Smith. It's Voldemort I'm going up against, not Danger Mouse."
"Never mind. Look, I'm not happy about having to use this sort of magic. If I thought the ends justified the means, I'd have put you under the Imperius Curse and got what I wanted that way. I'm just out of options and you're the only one who can help me."
He gazed at Smith, who furrowed his brow, obviously thinking hard about something. After a few moments, Smith looked up. "And you'll leave me alone after that?"
"You have my word."
Smith sighed and Harry noticed his eyes darting towards the pavilion. His heartbeat sped up as he remembered his earlier thoughts on Smith being in league with the Death Eaters. Even if he wasn't in league with them—what if Smith told Zabini about this? What if Zabini passed it on to Voldemort somehow? Harry couldn't risk it. Voldemort didn't know that Harry was aware of his Horcruxes and he shouldn't be allowed to guess it. Stealth and luck were Harry's only strengths, and in this case, luck wouldn't be enough.
After Smith filled a small vial with blood siphoned from the crook of his arm using his wand, Harry stowed it in his pocket and pulled out his wand as he watched Smith turn and walk away.
"Obliviate," whispered Harry softly.
Smith stopped, his head jerking up like a puppet's. He turned around, a dazed look on his face, but Harry was already safely hidden under his Cloak.
To think that he'd tried to protest against Hermione's teaching them memory charms while they had been at the Dursleys'.
The spell Hermione had found wasn't anything as gruesome as the pictures that had hung in Snape's Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom last year. It turned out to be a fairly simple spell involving the crystal vial filled with Smith's blood and an old map of wizarding Britain. Hermione tapped the vial and then the map, spoke an incantation and the vial lifted up, flipped itself over and spilled a single drop of Smith's blood onto the map.
Harry stared at it. "That's where the cup is? How do we know that's the heirloom the spell found? Surely there were many things left behind by Helga Hufflepuff?"
"I don't think so," said Hermione. "I used the age of the object in the spell. Frankly, if that's not the cup, I will be very surprised. If that's not it, we can try again. You've got enough blood to collect a museum full of Hufflepuff heirlooms," she said.
"Serves Smith right," muttered Ron, glowering. He clearly hadn't forgotten about Smith's Quidditch commentary last year.
Harry picked up the blood-splattered map and stood over the portal, comparing the two in order to position his doll properly.
"Here goes nothing," he said to Ron and Hermione, who were watching him intently, and spoke the portal spell.
After his stomach stopped fluttering and the whooshing sound in his ears was gone, Harry found himself on a dark, quiet street in London. Something about the place was distinctly familiar, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was.
He looked up and saw iron gates leading to a grim, square building surrounded by high railings. He realised what was so familiar—this was the orphanage where Tom Riddle had been brought up. Harry had only seen it in a Pensieve memory before, and it didn't look exactly like it had back when Tom Riddle had been a boy, but it was instantly recognisable. The gates were shut and locked by a thick iron chain with a heavy padlock. A "Keep Out" sign hung on one side of the gate.
So Voldemort had concealed one of his Horcruxes at his old orphanage. Harry was sure he knew where exactly he'd hidden it, too. He checked the street for passers-by and Apparated to the other side of the gate, half expecting to be blocked by some magic, but the padlocked chain seemed to be the only real obstacle. Checking that his Invisibility Cloak was still covering him, Harry ran across the courtyard to the front entrance.
He would have expected Death Eaters or at least werewolves to be guarding the place, but there was no one. The courtyard was empty save for a few old newspapers that the wind was playing with in the far end. The whole place looked like it hadn't been inhabited for years; there was a stale, musty odour about it. The only light came from the street beyond the railings, the building itself looked dead and abandoned.
Running up the front steps, Harry muttered, "Alohomora" and swept through a black-and-white tiled hallway, up the now-familiar stone stairs. There was no noise save for a distant knocking sound of wood against wood, like a window shutter had been left open and was flapping in the wind. On the second landing, he turned off and stopped, uncertain, outside the first door in a long corridor. It just couldn't be as easy as walking in there and grabbing Hufflepuff's cup.
Harry was sure that it would be on the top shelf of the old wardrobe inside—he remembered Dumbledore's words about Voldemort hiding his Horcruxes in places that were somehow significant to him. As much as Tom Riddle probably hated this orphanage, this was where he'd first discovered his magic. That had to have counted for a lot with the man Tom Riddle had become. And the wardrobe inside was the cradle of Voldemort's trophy collection.
Gripping his wand tightly, Harry pushed open the door. It was still the same small, bare room with an iron bedstead and the old wardrobe that—Harry was sure now—held the Horcrux. A boy sat on the thin grey blanket that covered the bed. He was holding a tattered, muddy pink teddy bear and facing the door with a horrible smile on his pale face. Harry froze in his tracks.
It was an Inferius. Its pyjamas were splattered with blood, and something green oozed endlessly out of its mouth as it kept grinning at the door. Harry's back broke out in goose pimples and his heart retreated somewhere to his knees. Inferi couldn't see through Invisibility Cloaks, could they? Harry became acutely aware that he really knew nothing about Inferi and how they worked. Belatedly, it dawned on him that the Inferius didn't need to see through his Cloak to know he was there. Doors didn't open of their own accord, not in dead places like this.
The Inferius lifted a stiff arm, crooked finger pointing straight at Harry. It opened its mouth with a sick smacking sound and issued a high-pitched, shrill screech that echoed in the hollow walls and bounded down the corridor outside. Harry heard doors opening above and beneath and all around him, and the patter of small feet. The Inferius in the room must have called to these others. The orphanage was dead, but it was hardly abandoned.
He wasted no time. "Incendio!" he shouted, pointing his wand at the bed and causing it to burst into flames. The Inferius scrambled off, pressing itself in between the bed and the wall like a cockroach. It pushed the bed away with trembling hands and Harry could only watch it, frozen. The Inferius rounded the bed and advanced on Harry, managing to take hold of his Cloak and rip it off him. With a colossal effort, Harry shook himself out of his horrified paralysis and lunged for the creature, snatching the Cloak back. He stuffed it haphazardly into his jacket pocket, praying that it wouldn't fall out. He shot another burst of fire at the Inferius, darted towards the wardrobe and wrenched the door open. Thankfully, there was nothing inside except for a tiny golden cup on the top shelf, which Harry promptly grabbed.
The minute he touched the Horcrux, there was a loud snapping sound and he felt tight, cold bonds squeezing his ribcage and his legs. He cursed; he should have known that it couldn't have been so easy. Looking down, he saw that he was bound to the wardrobe by thin, white ropes. There was a low hissing noise and the room began to fill with an unwholesome, violently green gas that seeped in through cracks in the floor. Harry watched with horror as the cracks grew wider, rapidly crisscrossing the dirty tiles.
The pitter-patter of feet was closer now, and Harry could see dead faces looming in the darkness behind the doorframe. The Inferius in his room had moved away from the burning bed and was headed towards Harry, eyes expressionless, fleshless arms stretched out in front of it. The green gas was rising higher and Harry detected a faintly vile scent in the air, reminiscent of belladonna. It was causing his vision to swim and his head to spin—poison. Harry held his breath, his eyes bulging with the effort. The Inferi were approaching him slowly, as though knowing that he could do nothing but wait.
He still had his wand, though. Praying desperately not to drop the cup or lose his Cloak, which he felt hanging partway out of his pocket, he pointed his wand at himself, screwing his eyes shut and putting all his will behind the non-verbal spell. He felt the ropes fall away and clutched his wand and the cup even tighter as he zoomed back through the portal, hoping that the fire he'd started would spread and that awful place would burn down.
Once back in Godric's Hollow, Harry dropped the cup of Hufflepuff into Hermione's lap and stumbled up from the cellar. The moment he reached the front entrance, he was sick all over the grass.
All he could see were children in orphanage-issue pyjamas, their blank, frosted eyes staring in front of them, lifeless.
It seemed that Voldemort had had his revenge on the place of his birth.
Draco couldn't feel his feet yet, but the effects of the curse were almost gone. So were the last vestiges of Ginny Weasley's distrust, it seemed. There was nothing like kissing a girl to make her forget any misgivings she might have regarding your character; Draco had learned that fairly early on in life. Girls were romantic sorts, except maybe Millicent Bulstrode. But she was gay, so that didn't count.
Ginny was sitting on the other bed—since Draco had kissed her the other day, she was keeping her distance, but Draco knew it was temporary. She was circling him like a cat would a mouse, except in this case the mouse had sharper teeth and the cat didn't realise that just yet.
"Is it because of Potter?" he asked, effecting a somewhat jealous tone.
Ginny flushed, her eyes flashing once, and looked away. "I suppose. I don't even know anymore."
"Has he been in contact with you at all?" Draco propped his head up on his hand, turning to her.
Ginny shook her head. "No. He—um. He broke up with me before he left. Said he couldn't afford for Voldemort to know."
Draco rolled his eyes. "Please. That's just an excuse. The Dark Lord would know anyway—he's a Legilimens, you know."
Ginny's eyes were wide. "Do you really think he was just making excuses? I don't believe that."
"If you were my girlfriend, I wouldn't have broken up with you. I would have taken you with me." It wasn't even a total lie. After all, Draco hadn't broken up with Pansy, had he?
Ginny's bottom lip began to tremble. "Harry's not like that. He's always been honest with me. And you weren't there when he did it. He didn't want to break it off, but he was afraid that I might get hurt if Voldemort found out that he cared about me."
Draco sighed and crossed his arms. "So does that mean he doesn't care about your brother and his girlfriend, then?"
Ginny frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, he didn't break off his friendship with them, did he? He's just keeping them near, isn't he? Why didn't he do the same with you? You told me Hogwarts isn't going to re-open. What stopped him from taking you along?"
"Mum would never let me go—"
Draco uncrossed his arms and cocked his head to one side. "Did she let your brother go easily, then?"
"No," said Ginny, shaking her head. "She had a right tantrum in front of everyone..."
"See? And your mother let your brother go anyway. Listen, you can think whatever you want. I'm just telling you that had it been me, I wouldn't have treated you like that. And I don't even know you that well."
Ginny looked up at him, her eyes gleaming with tears. "But why else would he break up with me, if not to protect me? Maybe he didn't want to take me along because he wanted to protect me. It's not safe, what he's doing."
Shrugging, Draco sat up a little straighter. "It's not safe for his friends, either, but they're with him and you're not."
"I wish I could talk to him," said Ginny. Tears were spilling from her eyes, but she didn't seem to notice. "There has to be an explanation..."
"Did he try to talk to you at your brother's wedding?"
"No," she said, bowing her head. "He's completely ignored me since we broke up." Her voice caught, and she turned away.
"Please don't cry," said Draco, forcing himself to sound sympathetic. "Look, it could all be some huge misunderstanding."
"What kind of misunderstanding?" asked Ginny, snapping her head up to look at him. There was something fierce in her eyes; this must be what they meant by hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. "What's there to misunderstand? I was good enough for him at Hogwarts, but I'm guessing that had a lot to do with the fact that so many other boys wanted to go out with me."
"Well, Potter's always been known for refusing to have anything but the best," said Draco in a low voice, giving her a significant look. He was somewhat impressed by the fact that she was talking about her popularity so matter-of-factly, without false modesty. It was...different.
Ginny held his gaze. "Why are boys all the same?"
Draco raised an eyebrow. "Been with a lot of boys, then?"
She blushed and looked away.
Three nights after the incident at the orphanage, Harry still couldn't look at Hufflepuff's cup without bile rising in his throat. Even in the underground lake, the Inferi had seemed so—impersonal, so evil. At the orphanage, he had seen children who'd been murdered and forced to do Voldemort's bidding. How could anyone follow such a monster? How could anyone with a conscience of any sort condone such reckless, inhuman hate? Despite the fact that the memory still made him queasy, Harry was even more determined to destroy Voldemort now—so that he couldn't hurt any more children.
Harry stared at the little dot labelled "Horace Slughorn". It wasn't moving—he must have been asleep—but it was there, inside Inverlochy Castle in Fort William. Harry frowned. What would Slughorn be doing in a castle? Harry had fully expected him to go back into hiding, but—a castle?
When he materialised behind a neatly trimmed hedge not far from the entrance, he saw that the castle wasn't an actual castle, but a posh Muggle hotel, as a sign posted near the hedge indicated. Harry was grateful for his Invisibility Cloak; at least the Muggles wouldn't be able to see him. He sneaked through the arched entrance and found himself in a spacious room with portraits in golden frames, a large fireplace and a pair of cosy sofas. He had no idea where to go inside the castle in order to find Slughorn. It stood to reason that he was checked in under a Muggle name, so the guest list wouldn't be of much help.
Harry jumped aside as a harried-looking woman in a pince-nez swept past him. He was going to have to knock on the door of every room and see if Slughorn opened. He trudged up to the top floor—luckily, there only seemed to be about twenty extremely large rooms in the hotel. This castle was nothing compared to Hogwarts, so Harry wasn't fussed. None of the top floor rooms seemed to be occupied, so he descended to the next floor down.
Slughorn was behind the first door on the left. He wasn't looking any worse for the wear—clearly, living as a Muggle didn't stop one from enjoying life, if one knew how to enjoy it. When Harry pulled off his Invisibility Cloak, seeing Slughorn's brows furrow in confusion, the man jumped, his eyes growing wide with fear.
"How on earth did you— I can't believe—Even as a Muggle! Come in, come in," he babbled, waving Harry inside.
The bedroom was larger than the Gryffindor common room. There was a twin bed near the far wall, and there were sofas and armchairs arranged around a low coffee table by one of the large windows. The walls were covered in floral-patterned faded red wallpaper, and the entire room smelled of pineapples.
"I must know how you found me, Harry," said Slughorn, stopping in the middle of the room and turning around. He was trembling.
"Er, that's not really important, sir. I can tell you that no one else will be able to find you that way. I'm sorry to bother you, but I need information on how to destroy a Horcrux, and you're the only one who can help me."
Harry had expected Slughorn to start protesting, but he merely sighed.
"Very well. It's a powerful spell—a Dark spell,"—Slughorn raised his hand to keep Harry from objecting—"but it's the only one I know."
Harry shut his eyes briefly, considering his options. He had none, he knew, so he nodded, his mouth suddenly dry. What would he do next? Put someone under the Imperius Curse to achieve his ends? He kicked himself mentally for thinking that way. He was going to use this to destroy objects, not hurt people.
"I will write it down for you," said Slughorn, his voice scratchy.
He shuffled to the mahogany desk near the window, pulling some parchment towards himself and rummaging for a quill. He missed the fat, ornate inkpot twice before managing to dip his quill in it. Finally, Slughorn bent low over a half-size piece of parchment and began to write.
There was a dull roar in Harry's ears. The walls shook violently and bits of plaster rained down from the ceiling. As Slughorn's quill scratched each letter into the parchment, the parchment itself blackened and curled up more and more at the edges, as though being consumed by an invisible fire. Harry swallowed, feeling like he would never be able to close his eyes again. He'd never seen magic so powerful; he hadn't even imagined anything like this. Hand still trembling, Slughorn handed the parchment to Harry. It read:
Hun Ahau! Tin thooshik, kimil.
That didn't look even remotely like Latin. Harry started to read the incantation out loud, just to see what it would sound like, but Slughorn shushed him with stark terror on his face.
"Don't be stupid," he whispered, his voice shaking. "This is not to be spoken out loud, ever, do you understand? You would die before you spoke the last syllable. This incantation invokes ancient magic of a vengeful deity; speaking it aloud turns it on the caster. Even nonverbally, do not attempt this spell by yourself, my boy. You are young and your magic is too raw yet. Casting this spell would kill you. There are three of you, I'm guessing? You, Miss Granger and...Rupert? Roland?"
"Yes, yes. All three of you need to cast this spell upon a Horcrux if you wish to disable it. If you can find more people you can trust—the more the better. It is difficult to get this spell wrong. It will work if you cast it. But this is Dark magic at its most potent, and it will exact a terrible price if you let it."
Slughorn was wheezing by the time he'd finished speaking, his round cheeks drained of colour. Harry nodded mutely, brows knitting—he would always know that the Dark Arts were bad news, but he'd never seen anyone speak of them with such abject terror.
"Thanks, Professor," he said, meaning it.
"You're most welcome. I wish you luck, Harry. All the luck in the world. Is there anything else you think you might need from me? Any questions? If so, ask them now, because if you found me so easily, others might, too. After fifty years, I will have to leave my homeland again, and that's a journey I'd never wanted to make. Anyhow. Questions, Harry?"
"I don't think so, sir. It was just we couldn't find any way to destroy a Horcrux—"
"Disable," said Slughorn automatically. "You can never destroy what you did not create."
Harry nodded impatiently. "Thank you, Professor. Good luck to you."
Walking again after being bedridden for weeks felt quite weird.
Draco had never spent so much time in a sickbed. When he'd been six, he'd taken a tumble off his broomstick after flying too far from Malfoy Manor and being startled by a Muggle helicopter. He'd broken several bones but recovered in three days. Right now, though, he felt like he was walking through a thick fog every time he took a step. His legs had felt alien, unfamiliar at first and he'd almost fallen a few times, but after a day of walking around, he was feeling a lot more confident.
He'd had dinner for the first time with the rest of the Weasleys—most of whom he'd barely seen during the weeks that he'd been paralysed. Ginny, Fleur and Mrs Weasley had been his only visitors. Fleur had brought him food, Mrs Weasley had assisted him with trips to the loo, and Ginny had been his only source of company.
It had been curious, having dinner with the Weasleys. First of all, they had dinner extremely late; it must have been nearing eleven o'clock. Second of all, contrary to Draco's long-time assumptions, they didn't eat like pigs. Table manners in the Weasley household were almost as impeccable as in any of the best wizarding families in England. And Draco had been to quite a few dinners with said families. Remembering his current situation, Draco had felt weird unease settle in his chest—nothing would ever be the same again. His old life was over. He had become a blood traitor, if in name only. Besides, he was dead to the rest of the world.
After dinner, the twins went back to Diagon Alley; Bill and Fleur disappeared upstairs. Mrs Weasley began packing a basket of food, talking to her husband in a low voice. Draco tried not to be too obvious about trying to listen in, but he couldn't make out anything they were saying. Ginny was staring at her plate, her food almost untouched. Draco turned to her.
"You should eat," he said.
Ginny glanced at him. "Well, that sounds familiar," she said with a small smile.
"Ginny, dear," said Mrs Weasley, seemingly oblivious of their conversation. "Your dad and I are going to a meeting at Headquarters. We won't be back until very late. If anything happens, make straight for the fireplace, like we've discussed, and mind that you take Draco along."
Mr and Mrs Weasley Disapparated, and Draco stared at the spot where they'd stood. "Headquarters?" he asked, looking at Ginny. "Your parents are in the Order of the Phoenix? Or is it a Ministry thing?"
"The Order," said Ginny, her mouth twisting. "My whole family is in it. Except me."
"Why not you?" asked Draco.
"I'm not old enough," she said, shrugging.
"Oh!" said Draco. "Maybe that's why Potter didn't take you with him."
She narrowed her eyes. "Just because I'm not old enough doesn't mean I can't fight. Why are you making excuses for him, anyway?"
Draco held his hands up in a defensive gesture. Ginny's words about fighting made him remember her Bat Bogey Hex from fifth year, and she looked like she wouldn't mind using it on the next most convenient target. "I'm not making excuses for him. I just can see you're upset. I'm only trying to help," he said.
"Well, you're not helping," she said crossly. "I'm going upstairs."
She stalked out without touching her food. Draco followed her, shaking his head. The only observable difference between Slytherin girls and Gryffindor girls was that the Gryffindor girls were openly aggressive, whereas the Slytherin girls drew the line at laxative potions in one's morning pumpkin juice.
"Hey, what did I do?" asked Draco, trailing after Ginny. He took care to tinge his voice with the sort of plaintive bewilderment that always worked on Pansy.
"You know, I can't figure you out, Draco," said Ginny, turning around. "You're completely different from what you're like at school."
Draco folded his arms across his chest and leant against the wall. "Well, let's start with the fact that we've never so much as had a conversation at school," he said. "I'm a Slytherin and you're a Gryffindor, and at Hogwarts that means things that simply don't exist out here in the real world." The last part was inspired by his father; Draco had heard him use the argument with a fresh-faced Ministry official once.
Ginny's forehead creased in a frown. "So you're saying that you put on a show at Hogwarts?"
"To an extent, I suppose you could say that. But then, doesn't everyone? At Quidditch games, everyone is all about house pride, but are you really proud of every single member of your house?"
She looked sceptical. "What does this have to do with Quidditch?"
"It's not about Quidditch. It's about perceptions. At Hogwarts, everything we do is judged based on our house in addition to what we do as individuals. I mean, I'm sure that Slytherins are considered horrible by default, aren't they? In Gryffindor, I mean."
"Well, if you put it like that..." said Ginny, her voice uncertain. She shook her head impatiently, as if to get rid of a troublesome thought. "I just don't understand why you're being civil to me, talking to me about these things, saying you want to help..."
Yes. "Isn't it obvious?" Draco asked, looking down at his feet, mostly to suppress a triumphant smirk that was threatening to ruin everything.
"What, that you think I'm pretty? You've said as much, but aren't you going out with Parkinson?"
"No," said Draco. "She broke up with me." Inwardly, he shrugged. Being ditched, if only theoretically, by Pansy made him look pathetic, but if he couldn't take Ginny Weasley with kindness, he'd make her pity him and get what he wanted that way.
"Why'd she break up with you?" asked Ginny. Her voice was considerably softer now, and Draco heard the floorboards creak. He looked up and saw that she had taken a step closer to him, but appeared uncertain.
Draco shrugged, allowing the corners of his mouth to turn down a little. "I was...busy last year. She didn't like that, so she broke up with me."
Ginny gave a tiny, nervous laugh. "I guess we're in the same boat, only in reverse."
"Yeah," said Draco, holding her gaze as he stepped forward and closed the distance between them.
Harry went back through the portal, the parchment in his pocket heavy as a block of lead. He checked the map for Ginny—it was becoming a habit—and saw that she and Malfoy were next to each other again. It was close to midnight; what could they be talking about? Consumed by curiosity, Harry pulled his Invisibility Cloak tighter around himself and moved his doll to stand over the Burrow, hoping to end up inside a room rather than a chimney. Then he remembered that he wasn't allowed to use his Invisibility Cloak while travelling through the portal.
Sighing, he moved the doll over to the Weasleys' garden. With luck, he wouldn't be seen before he had time to get his cloak on. The irony of appearing where those Death Eaters had appeared at Bill and Fleur's wedding wasn't completely lost on him. For the first time in his life, he was going to go into the Burrow uninvited. He spoke the portal spell.
The Weasleys' garden was deserted, just as Harry had expected. He pulled his Invisibility Cloak over his head and walked up to the door. He wondered if the Death Eater attack at the wedding meant that the house would be protected by magic, but to his surprise, it wasn't. The door opened after a whispered "Alohomora" and Harry walked inside. The map had shown that Malfoy and Ginny were in Ron's bedroom; Harry knew the way very well.
He crept up the stairs and then over to Ron's bedroom. The door was open a notch, and Harry swept through it, turning around to promptly swing it back to its original position so they would think it was a draught if they happened to be looking at the door. He then turned around, and immediately wished he hadn't.
Ginny was on her back, flowered skirt covering her belly, her lacy white knickers hanging off one pale leg. Malfoy was on top of her, his pyjama bottoms pushed halfway down his legs, one of his hands gripping her thigh, his other hand caressing her bare breast. They were kissing as they fucked, breathing heavily, and Harry could hear the slick sounds of Malfoy's cock pistoning in and out of Ginny, and he felt as though a door slammed shut somewhere in the back of his mind.
His first thought had been, "Malfoy must be raping her, I must save her," but Ginny didn't look or sound like she wanted anyone to save her. She seemed to be enjoying herself far more than when she and Harry had done this—only twice. Harry had been the one on top of her then and she'd giggled a lot, making him feel self-conscious and awkward. This, though, this...didn't look awkward at all.
Inside Harry's chest there was a great emptiness, a black hole that had swallowed up everything he and Ginny had ever shared. Ginny made a startled-sounding noise and began to move faster, bucking her hips upwards, the pace of her breathing quickening even more. Her eyes flew open and for a second, Harry was sure she could see him standing there, watching them fuck, but of course even an orgasm couldn't make someone see people who were invisible.
Malfoy gave a low grunt as Ginny rutted up against him, threw his head back, eyes shut, blond fringe flipping back almost artfully. He was biting his lip as he matched Ginny's speed. Harry realised he was rubbing himself frantically under the Cloak as he watched Draco Malfoy get off. What the fuck was wrong with him?
He got out of there before they had a chance to quiet down and hear him; once back in Godric's Hollow, he stumbled up from the cellar and made his way towards the campsite. Halfway there, he collapsed against a thick tree trunk, pushed down his jeans and tossed off, spraying come over a clump of bilberries. He felt dirty for having done it, but he had been impossibly turned on. Had he showed up at the tent with an obvious hard-on, Ron and Hermione might have thought odd things about him and Slughorn.
Ron didn't know about Ginny and Malfoy, he couldn't know—had Ron known about this, Malfoy would have been dead by now. He contemplated the idea of telling Ron what he just saw—Ron would murder Malfoy. But that wasn't fair to Ginny, thought Harry as he caught his breath. After all, Harry had broken up with her. She was not, in fact, his girlfriend. He had no right to be angry with her or with Malfoy. Malfoy had saved her life...
I saved her life, too.
But how long ago was that? The Chamber of Secrets seemed ages ago, and Ginny had been eleven...This time, Malfoy had been there for Ginny when Harry couldn't be; how could Harry blame her for choosing Malfoy? He couldn't, could he? It was possible that Malfoy had only gone for Ginny to get to Harry, but Ginny was obviously keen on Malfoy, which was all that mattered. Harry wanted to hate them both, but he couldn't.
He had never contemplated what he would do after he killed Voldemort, but now he knew.
He would win Ginny back.
Azkaban had fallen in an hour.
There was no resisting the Dark Lord's army; those who had tried were all dead.
Snape watched the Dark Lord cast the Killing Curse on Lucius Malfoy with a certain amount of residual satisfaction. It had been Lucius who had brought Snape into the fold all those years ago, but Lucius had always been dismissive of Snape as a mere potion-maker with no real talent in the Dark Arts. Snape allowed himself the pleasure of the last laugh as he watched Lucius's body thrown off the ramparts of a tall tower—just like Dumbledore—the fall to the jagged rocks below the cliff on which Azkaban stood was long indeed.
After Lucius was dead, Snape descended to the gates to supervise the clean up of the rest of the filth. The Dark Lord had ordered it, and so it had to be done.
He stopped beside a large rock that had been hurled by one of the giants; he noticed blood splattered on the side and something scaly peeking out from beneath it. He walked around the rock and saw Nagini's lifeless eyes staring up at him. What a terribly unfortunate accident. This information needed to be public. It would only be important to one person, of course, but it needed to be out there. Snape conjured up a camera and took a photograph of Nagini beneath the rock. He would send the camera along with a touching account of the battle. Rita Skeeter and the rest of the Daily Prophet staff would be pleased, unlike the Dark Lord.
An hour later, Snape stood atop one of the towers, gazing at the light-play of a distant thunderstorm. He would need to arrange for a message to be sent to Draco. He'd need to do it through his connection with the mainland, as he suspected that Dolohov would certainly be watching his every move. Bellatrix had been killed a short while ago. With her out of the way, the others would be clamouring for Snape's position like a pack of rabid jackals.
Snape forced his thoughts back to Draco. If the boy had not left the country before today, it was vital that he did so as soon as possible. The Dark Lord would be enraged to learn of Draco's continued survival, especially now that Lucius was dead. It was imperative that the Dark Lord did not learn that the boy still lived, because if he found that out, he would find out about Snape's betrayal.
For a moment, Snape entertained the possibility that Draco might want revenge for the death of his father and do something reckless, but he discarded the thought. Draco Malfoy was far too interested in his own skin—he may have risked his neck to save his parents, but he would not risk anything to avenge them. To be safe, however, Snape would keep his mainland contact close at hand. He had not got this far to fail because of faulty judgement.
Snape glanced down at the fires below and saw that they were going out like candles. A silent, icy cold was creeping up his spine and he looked back up into the sky. The thunderstorm he'd been admiring was no longer visible; instead there was a black-and-grey mass of what looked like clouds as far as the eye could see.
Only these were not just clouds. Dementors drifted slowly back to the fortress of Azkaban, answering the call of their true master.
Beneath the storm clouds, the Dark Mark grinned down upon it all like a god of wrath.
Fate was a cruel, heartless bitch.
Draco stared stupidly at the Daily Prophet in front of him, not wanting to believe a word of the article. After all, Rita Skeeter had written it. She was known for distorting the truth creatively to make it entertaining. He reread the article for the fourth time, hoping once again that he'd read it wrong.
DAILY PROPHET EXCLUSIVE! AZKABAN FALLS!
By Rita Skeeter, staff reporter
There is a time for lengthy introductions but it seems like the wizarding world is running out of time, so we will not mince words, dear readers. Late yesterday afternoon, the fortress of Azkaban—that formerly served as the wizard prison—was taken over by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his followers. The Daily Prophet brings you an exclusive eyewitness account from a highly confidential source, reprinted verbatim to preserve facts:
"They came with giants, werewolves, vampires and hags. There must have been about a score of Death Eaters there—wearing masks and setting fire to everything that would burn. The giants threw large stones, the werewolves, hags and vampires feasted on the Ministry guards and Aurors. The Dark Lord's army vastly outnumbered the Ministry people, and the fortress fell within an hour of their initial approach. Those prisoners not aligned with the Dark Lord had tried to mount a desperate defence against the onslaught, but they were crushed in short order. The Dark Lord freed those who were loyal to him; those who did not oppose him are now serving him as slaves. Only two Death Eaters died last night. Lucius Malfoy [formerly of Wiltshire, who had been serving a life sentence for his past crimes —ed.] was killed by the Dark Lord and then thrown off the edge of a tower, into the sea. Bellatrix Lestrange [née Black, former Azkaban convict who had been on the run —ed.] was killed by an Auror when the fighting first broke out. There were no other human casualties amongst the Dark Lord's men. After the fighting was over, the Dementors came back. Azkaban is impenetrable again, only it no longer serves the wizarding world."
This is a dark day in our history. Until today, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's operations have all been either covert or unsuccessful, and the strength of his supporters has never been fully revealed. The war has begun in earnest, dear readers. As you can see from the eyewitness account above, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has amassed a vast army of Dark creatures. We at the Prophet advise our readers to stay indoors at all times and allow no visitors.
We have been unable to reach any Ministry spokespeople for comment. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement is in chaos and all other enquiries at the Ministry have gone unanswered. The Daily Prophet will continue to attempt to contact He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's representatives for a list of the dead so that families may be notified.
Judging by the writing style, the source of the account was some common prisoner. How a prisoner could have got a hold of parchment and a quill, let alone of an owl, Draco didn't know—he didn't particularly care, either. He was just trying to keep his mind off what the article said. He knew it was true, he felt it, like a deep void had opened up inside his chest and all the memories of his father were tumbling into the darkness, never to return.
There was a single photograph attached to the article; that of Nagini, the Dark Lord's awful snake, crushed under a large rock. The only movement in the photograph was peripheral; someone in dark robes running past the dead serpent. The newspaper fell out of Draco's nerveless fingers.
Across from him, Ginny wore a concerned look on her face—it was deep, real concern; nothing like the airs Pansy would no doubt have put on, were she in Ginny's place. Draco wondered if Pansy would try to write to him again, parchment smelling of roses, drops of water sprinkled artfully over the ink to substitute tears. He felt horrible guilt tugging at his mind as he looked at Ginny's pinched face—he didn't even care about this girl, he'd only been using her so he could throw it all in Potter's face when they met again.
"Draco, dear, would you like some tea? I have chamomile, it can help with nerves," said Molly Weasley.
She was standing by the stove, dabbing at her eyes with the end of a flowered apron. Draco's chest tightened and he felt his eyes stinging. These people—people he'd despised with all his heart, people he would have watched die gleefully just two months ago—were showing love and concern of a kind he'd never seen from anyone except his own mother. His insides turned to ice as he thought of her—he needed to get to her, to comfort her. She would have heard the news by now as well; the Prophet delivered far and wide.
"Thank you," he said to Mrs Weasley, his voice wooden. "I'd like that."
She began to bustle around with the teapot, making more noise than usual.
Draco glanced at Ginny. Her father hadn't come home last night; news of the attack must have reached the Ministry before it had reached the Daily Prophet. He'd spoken to Mrs Weasley via Floo earlier, just to let her know he was fine but wouldn't be coming home for a few days. Draco hadn't even felt his usual rage at seeing Arthur Weasley's face in the fireplace that morning. The man's crimes against Draco's family were absolutely insignificant compared to this. Draco stared in front of himself, barely aware that Mrs Weasley had placed a mug of tea in front of him.
"What are you going to do?" asked Ginny after a long, long silence.
Draco looked around and saw that they were alone; Mrs Weasley must have gone off to cry elsewhere. He'd noticed that she didn't like crying in front of her children, just like his own mother. Draco had been well for four full days now; the effects of the curse had completely worn off. His plan had been to flee to Madrid as soon as the occasion presented itself, but now?
Now, impotent rage consumed him and thinking of escape made him sneer.
Lucius Malfoy was dead. He'd died an ignominious death at the hands of a psychotic half-blood megalomaniac. Draco's own ongoing reconsideration of the question of blood purity did not matter; Lucius Malfoy had not deserved to die by the hand of someone he would have considered beneath himself.
Draco Malfoy would not abide any injustice done to his family, least of all this.
He was going to get revenge.
He looked up at Ginny, clenching his jaw. "I'm going to fight," he said, and Ginny suddenly smiled in a horrible way, like she was trying not to cry.
"I had a feeling you were going to say that," she muttered. "I have the best luck in the world with boys who save my life and then go off to fight evil. I'm assuming you're not taking me with you, either."
"You know I would," Draco lied, "but there's no point for me to fight on my own when there are people already fighting on my side."
Ginny nodded, sighing. "You're going to go and join Harry and my brother."
Draco looked up at her, surprised. The thought hadn't occurred to him but of course, she was right. It was Potter the Dark Lord was after and it was Potter who would face him the soonest. Draco felt a jolt of unease at the thought of facing the Dark Lord, but his hatred burned brighter than his fear. The Dark Lord was a half-blood; he'd lured Draco's family into his little group using false pretences.
Draco knew he could not tip his hand and reveal himself as still alive to the Phoenix people or the Ministry; the thought had crossed his mind but he thought that the fewer people knew that he was alive, the safer it would be for him. Potter and his friends were the obvious choice.
"Yeah. At least that's the plan," he said to Ginny. "Do you have any means of contacting them?"
"No," said Ginny as she got up and started to clear the table. "I don't even know where they are," she said, a bitter edge to her voice. If Draco had been the least bit romantically interested in her, he'd have felt jealous that she was so unhappy to be out of contact with Potter, despite what had been happening between her and Draco.
Draco spent most of the day in his bedroom, trying to figure out a way of contacting Potter. He didn't dare risk sending an owl, lest it should be tracked, though he suspected that the Phoenix lot had thought of that and made him Unreachable. Otherwise all the Dark Lord would have to do was send an owl to Potter and track its flight. He'd already enlisted Ginny's help in case her brother decided to take a break from his adventures with Potter and visit his family, though that was a total shot in the dark. There was nothing he could do and it was driving him insane.
Ginny's brother showed up at dinner.
Perhaps fate was not as cruel and heartless as Draco had thought. She was still a bitch, though. Draco refused to budge on that point.
Weasley kept casting vile glances in Draco's direction as he bolted down his dinner; this was not going to be an easy conversation. Draco and Ginny exchanged glances when he rose from the table, clearly preparing to leave.
"Ron, I need to talk to you," said Ginny. "And Draco does, too."
"What is this about?" asked Mrs Weasley, her gaze suspicious.
"Don't worry, Mum, I'm not going to beg Ron to take me with him," Ginny half growled. "We just need to talk to him."
"Fine," said her brother, frowning.
He walked out of the kitchen and stopped just outside the door. Draco and Ginny followed. The three of them walked out into the garden, where Weasley leant against the wall and glared at them both.
Draco guessed that he wouldn't get far trying to exchange pleasantries with Weasley, so he cut to the chase. "I want to join you and Potter," he said.
Weasley gaped at him.
"Just hear me out, Weasley," said Draco. "You must have read the paper, you know what the Dark Lord has done to my father. Would you want to sit at home like a good little boy if your father were killed by some maniac?"
Weasley's eyes grew even wider; something Draco hadn't thought possible. "Malfoy," he said slowly. "You're out of your bloody mind."
"No, I'm not," said Draco. "I want revenge for my father's death. You're going up against the Dark Lord, who's not going to use Stunners and Impediment Jinxes against you, he's going to use the Dark Arts, and you have no idea how to fight them, do you?"
Weasley's eyes narrowed. "And you do?"
"Of course I do," replied Draco. "In order to master Dark magic, you have to know how to fight against it."
"Why are you trying to join us, though? You could just give yourself up to the Ministry—"
"No, I couldn't," interrupted Draco. "The Ministry and the Death Eaters think I'm dead. I died here during the wedding attack, remember?"
Weasley shrugged. "So? Just contact the Aurors and tell them you're not dead. They'll find a use for you."
"If anyone finds out I'm alive, that's as good as the Dark Lord finding out," spat Draco. "And then my mother will be in danger."
"I'm supposed to care about that—why exactly?" said Weasley, rolling his eyes.
Draco made an enormous effort not to take out his wand and hex the smug little fucker.
"Ron!" exclaimed Ginny. "That's so unfair."
"Unfair? He's asking me to take him to Harry—and Hermione! In case you missed the bloody memo, dear sister, Malfoy here hates Muggle-borns!"
"Please, Weasley, don't be absurd. Do you think I'd really join your side if my feelings regarding wizard blood hadn't changed?"
"That's exactly my problem, Malfoy. I don't think your views have changed a bit, and I think you're only asking to join us so you can harm us."
Draco gaped at him. "Why the fuck would I want to harm you?"
"Because that's all you've ever done in your worthless life, you snivelling little—"
Draco lunged at him, but Ginny leaped in between them, pushing him back. "No, don't!" She turned to her brother. "He's telling the truth."
"Ginny, don't believe him! He's just fed you a bunch of stories, he's like that, he's a Slytherin, he—"
"HE SAVED MY LIFE, YOU BLOODY PRAT!" bellowed Ginny. "WHILE YOU AND HARRY AND HERMIONE WERE RUNNING OFF TO SAVE YOURSELVES, HE WAS HERE AND HE SAVED. MY. LIFE!"
Draco felt a little scared. If she ever found out that the life-saving incident had been nothing but an accident, he was done for.
Ginny advanced on her brother, poking him in the chest repeatedly with her finger. "Don't you dare treat me like I'm some gullible little girl!"
Weasley's face was pale now; he looked aghast. "Ginny, you know that if I could have, I would have stayed here to fight. But Harry had to leave, and he would not have gone without me and Hermione—"
"Yeah, Harry's more important than I am, I understand that, Ron," said Ginny bitterly.
"That's not what I meant, I—"
"SHUT UP! You're going to go and ask Harry if Draco can join you lot. If Harry says no, that's that. You'll come back here and tell us that and we'll leave you alone."
Except I won't, Draco thought, intending on tracking Weasley and following him wherever he went. If he found them, they wouldn't be able to afford to make him leave.
Ginny and her brother stared daggers at each other for a few moments. Finally, Weasley looked away, sighing. "I'll be back," he said. "Let me just talk to Mum, she told me not to leave without saying goodbye."
Draco looked at Ginny, who was breathing heavily, glaring after her brother. He pulled her closer and kissed her, ignoring the guilty feeling that seemed to be permanently settled in the pit of his stomach now. His only consolation was that she clearly still cared about Potter, and Draco had been only a substitute. That made them even, didn't it?
After Weasley was gone, Draco attempted to track his Apparition, but found that he couldn't. The damnedest thing was, there was no sign of recent Apparition anywhere within a mile. It made absolutely no sense, but it looked as though Potter and his friends had found some way to hide their tracks.
Except it was impossible to hide all tracks of Apparition, everyone knew that.
There was a soft popping sound and Ron materialised in the exact spot where he'd been standing before he had disappeared a half hour ago. Hermione and Harry breathed twin sighs of relief. Ron was holding a potion bottle in his hands. He was grinning but Harry could see something else in his eyes.
"Brilliant," said Ron, handing the bottle to Hermione. "By the way, Mum says we should use this to clean our teeth," he added, looking sheepish.
Hermione slipped the bottle into her book bag. She was beaming. "It really works!" she said, obviously trying not to sound too pleased with herself. Ron had gone to the Burrow using the portal doll Hermione had made.
"There's something else, though," said Ron, scratching the back of his head. "Malfoy wants to help us."
"What?" said Hermione, her face growing alarmed. Harry just stared at him. Of all the things he'd expected Malfoy to pull, this was the very last one.
"Yeah," said Ron. "He cornered me at the Burrow—he and Ginny, of all people. Says he wants to help you take down You-Know-Who, because he killed his dad." He looked thoroughly unconvinced.
Harry's mind worked feverishly. He'd read the article that morning—Hermione still received the Daily Prophet regularly; it was a risk worth taking as they needed to keep up on what was going on. He'd felt a grim satisfaction upon reading about Lucius's death, but what had excited him the most had been the photograph of Nagini, crushed under a rock, dead. Another Horcrux gone was good news, as far as Harry was concerned.
He hadn't even considered Malfoy's reaction to his father's death at the time that he'd read the article. Voldemort taking over Azkaban meant that he would be that much further away from Harry, which was a good thing. It would become a bad thing when Harry needed to go and fight Voldemort one on one, but Harry figured he would worry about that when he was ready. But Malfoy...So Malfoy wanted revenge, did he?
This was his chance to get Malfoy away from Ginny. He had to take it. The problem was—could Malfoy really be trusted? Sure, he'd saved Ginny's life and faked his own death to escape the Death Eaters, but this was Malfoy. Then again, there were three of them and only one of Malfoy. Having him near would mean getting him away from Ginny and keeping an eye on him. It wasn't just Harry's decision, though, despite the fact that both Ron and Hermione were looking at him expectantly.
"Malfoy does know a lot about the Dark Arts that we don't," said Harry very slowly.
"Yeah, that's what he told me, too," replied Ron. "But—"
"Harry's right," said Hermione. "Malfoy has had access to a lot of books I don't even know about, I'd wager." She looked a bit put out saying this, as though she was reluctant to believe it herself.
The three of them looked at each other. Harry glanced down at the portal.
"Do we trust him?" he asked, without looking up.
"No," all three of them said in unison.
Harry grinned. "Yeah, he can come and join us. Ten Sickles says he'll be begging to go back to the Burrow as soon as the going gets tough." Only I won't let him, he added in his head.
"Shall I make a Portkey that'll take him here, then?" asked Hermione, her face eager. She'd learned how to make Portkeys a week ago and kept wanting to make more.
"Yeah," said Harry. "Not a word to him about this place. We can make something up about why we're always going this way, if it comes up."
Hermione fished out a one-pound coin from the bottom of her bag. "Portus," she said clearly, pointing her wand at the coin. "It'll activate in fifteen minutes," she said to Ron as she handed the Portkey to him. "Don't forget to tell him to wear normal clothes. We can't afford the villagers noticing that one of us is prancing around in robes."
Ron nodded, checked that his doll was still at the Burrow on the map, waved his wand once and disappeared. Harry and Hermione made their way back to the campsite. Dusk was approaching; the birdsong in the trees above them was dying down already. At the tent, Hermione made another sleeping bag and expanded the tent a little on the inside. Harry watched her, fascinated—she seemed so at home with magic, so proficient, like an adult. How dare people like Malfoy's family deny people like Hermione what was rightfully theirs?
He didn't have time to finish the thought, because Malfoy appeared near the tent, looking bewildered as he examined the coin Portkey in his hand. He was wearing black combats and a loose-fitting dark green t-shirt with a black jacket made out of the same material as the combats. Harry was a little startled; he'd never seen Malfoy in regular clothes before. It figured that the git would manage to look presentable even when dressed as a Muggle. Harry examined his own grass-stained jeans and white t-shirt and cursed inwardly. He had to stop comparing himself to Malfoy. Ginny had only gone for him because Harry had broken up with her. He had to believe that.
"Malfoy," Harry said, studying his pointed face.
"Potter," said Malfoy, his face perfectly blank, his tone far more courteous than Harry was used to.
Ron crashed through the trees on the village side; he carried an enormous basket in his arms.
"Sorry 'm late," he huffed. "Mum thinks we're starving here."
"Are you?" asked Malfoy, looking alarmed.
Harry smirked. "Yeah, we're on strict rations. One piece of bread and one lump of cheese per person per day. Builds your character."
Malfoy folded his arms across his chest and returned the smirk. "But apparently not your muscle tone," he drawled, staring at Harry's midsection.
Harry felt his face grow hot in embarrassment; his shoulders tensed. Whatever had stood between him and Malfoy before was different now—now, Ginny stood between them; there was something amorphously intimate in looking at someone who had...He looked away, and the tension broke.
"Malfoy," said Hermione, getting up from the ground.
"Granger," returned Malfoy, his gaze wary.
It was strange, seeing Malfoy stand by the tent. It had been one thing to talk about Malfoy joining them in the abstract, but now that he had arrived, Harry wished he hadn't agreed to it. Having Malfoy here was like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole—or, in this case, a triangular one. He didn't fit. His fair hair, his aristocratic features and his immaculate clothes—they were all out of place here, out of place and unwanted.
"So what have you been doing?" asked Malfoy, jolting Harry out of his thoughts. His voice didn't fit, either.
Harry exchanged glances with Ron and Hermione. They hadn't thought to discuss whether or not to tell Malfoy about the Horcruxes. However, that was their mission and if Malfoy was to help them, he had to know at least some of what they'd been doing. With luck, Malfoy would get himself killed sooner rather than later.
Harry took a deep breath. "I've got to kill Voldemort, as you already know." Malfoy flinched at the sound of Voldemort's name, but Harry ignored him. "Back during the first war, Voldemort created Horcruxes for himself—"
"What?" Malfoy's grey eyes were wide, though Harry wasn't sure if it was fear or excitement.
Harry glared at him. "Do you want to hear this or not?" When Malfoy made no response, Harry continued. "He made six Horcruxes. Dumbledore thought that my death was meant to be used to make the seventh. That backfired, obviously, so there are only six. One of the Horcruxes I destroyed in second year. It was the diary your dad gave Ginny."
Malfoy made a small sound in his throat, like a sob. "Diary?" he asked, his face blank. "What diary?"
"You mean your dad never told you?" Hermione cut in. "We were sure you knew."
Malfoy stared at her in obvious disbelief. "My dad gave Ginny a Horcrux of the Dark Lord's? You're making no sense."
His eyes were cold, but the fact that he'd called Ginny by her given name was not lost on Harry. He glanced over at Ron, who didn't seem to have noticed. In fact, Ron appeared to be far too busy with the basket of food he'd brought. Upon reflection, that was probably a good thing. Harry didn't particularly fancy the thought of being responsible for Malfoy's death, which would undoubtedly follow if Ron found out about Ginny.
"He didn't know it was a Horcrux," said Harry. "We think he thought it was just a way to open the Chamber of Secrets
"So that's why the Dark Lord was so angry..." mumbled Malfoy.
Harry waved a hand at him impatiently. "Another Horcrux was a ring that belonged to Voldemort's family. Dumbledore destroyed that. That's two. There is also a cup that once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff; we've got that here."
Malfoy spluttered. "You've got a Horcrux? Here? Now?"
"Honestly, Malfoy," said Hermione with a look of disdain on her face. She held the small cup out in her palm. "Here it is, it doesn't bite."
Harry resisted the urge to walk over there and hug her and kept talking instead. "That's three. We're still searching for a locket that once belonged to Salazar Slytherin, and something of Ravenclaw's or Gryffindor's."
Malfoy lowered himself to the ground, slowly. "And the sixth one?" he asked, looking up at Harry.
"Nagini," said Harry without hesitation. He knew it, somehow. He didn't know how, but he did.
"The Dark Lord's pet snake? But she died during the Azkaban takeover, the Prophet—"
"Exactly," interrupted Harry. "So we've just got to find the locket and one other artefact. Then I can kill Voldemort."
"Assuming he doesn't kill you first," said Malfoy, frowning. "You're mad, all of you."
"No, Malfoy," said Harry, shaking his head. "We just haven't got any other options."
Malfoy said nothing, lapsing into a brooding silence.
"Well, now that you're here," said Hermione, "you might as well make yourself useful and help us disable this Horcrux."
Malfoy looked up at her with terror in his eyes. "You can't be serious. I'd be killed."
"That's why we're going to do it together," said Harry. "Slughorn told me what the spell was, and he told me not to try it alone. So we'll do it together, all four of us."
Malfoy nodded slowly. Hermione handed him the singed parchment with the strange spell.
"This is the incantation. It's nonverbal," said Harry. "In fact, Slughorn says it'll kill you if you say it out loud."
"Ridiculous," muttered Ron.
"No," said Malfoy, shaking his head. "Dark magic is impossible without the caster paying a price. I recognise this language, and the name of the god which the spell invokes."
"God?" asked Hermione, her eyes lighting up. "But magic isn't—"
"Regular magic has nothing to do with anything otherworldly, no. But the Dark Arts are older than everyday magic," said Malfoy, interrupting her. "Older and far more complicated. In fact, even if there are four of us, one or more might still suffer physical damage, maybe permanent damage."
Harry had no interest in hearing Malfoy yammer about the Dark Arts. He stepped in front of Hermione, blocking her view of Malfoy, and took Hufflepuff's cup from her.
"Let's just do this," he said, nodding towards the far end of the clearing. "Over there."
The four of them walked and stood in a circle around the cup, which Harry set carefully down on the grass. They all pointed their wands at the cup.
"Has everyone got the spell memorised?" asked Hermione, her face anxious.
Harry nodded, so did Ron and Malfoy. Somehow Harry wasn't surprised that Malfoy had been able to memorise the spell in such a short time. He probably spoke this language, if it was something needed for the Dark Arts.
"Now," whispered Hermione.
Harry closed his eyes, picturing the words to the spell in his mind.
Hun Ahau! Tin thooshik, kimil.
His entire body felt like it was floating for a second, and Harry was sure he'd died. Pain exploded in every nerve ending, causing him to twitch uncontrollably, but he did not release his wand from his grip. Opening his eyes, he first saw a bright violet jet of light streaming out of his wand and towards Hufflepuff's cup. Then he saw three identical jets of light coming from Ron, Hermione and Malfoy's directions—all four jets were colliding above the cup, sending a thicker, brighter shaft of light down into it.
The clearing seemed to darken around them, as though night had fallen already; all Harry could see was the violet light reflecting on the faces of his two friends and Malfoy. He couldn't feel anything anymore: no pain, no muscles twitching, nothing. The air was thick with ozone and the smell of carrion. Terrible screams filled Harry's ears, loud and frantic and desperate. There was an explosion of light somewhere high above them, but Harry couldn't lift his head to see.
Helga Hufflepuff's cup lifted off the ground for a moment, glowed a bright, blinding green, and then fell down. Harry felt his senses returning gradually; the forest's usual sounds rolled gently back into the silence left behind by the screaming. He could smell grass, earth and rosin again. The breath he'd been holding issued out of his protesting lungs with a whoosh of air.
His hand trembling, Harry lowered his wand. He didn't have the energy to open his eyes. All he could see was the final green glow of the Horcrux; he was afraid that if he opened his eyes, he'd still see nothing but green. For a panicked moment, he thought he had gone blind. He forced his eyes open and the first thing he saw was Malfoy's face; it was wet with tears. Harry looked at Hermione and saw that she, too, had been crying, and her hair had been left a terrible mess by whatever had just happened.
"Okay, you were right and I was wrong," said Ron's shaky voice on Harry's left. "That definitely could have killed someone."
"We're lucky it didn't kill one of us," said Hermione, her voice grave. "Lucky Malfoy was here, really, or we wouldn't have survived it."
"Yeah, I believe it," said Harry, remembering Dumbledore's blackened hand. Dumbledore must have done this by himself, he guessed.
Malfoy tucked his wand into his trousers, wiping at his face with his other hand. He looked up at Harry, eyebrow raised. He hadn't seemed to notice Hermione's earlier words, or perhaps he was choosing to ignore them. Malfoy looked troubled, but he was smirking when he looked up at Harry.
"You look terrible," he said, his tone conversational.
Harry laughed—he couldn't help it. It was just such a completely random thing to say under the circumstances, but it certainly helped lighten the mood.
"All hail Malfoy, king of non sequiturs," quipped Hermione.
She looked amused, and this was the very first time in Harry's life that he was amused by something Malfoy had said.
"How do we know if the Horcrux is destroyed?" asked Ron, who did not seem to be amused by Malfoy in the slightest. Harry suspected that had more to do with Hermione's small smile than anything else.
"Disabled, not destroyed," corrected Hermione. "Specialis Revelio!" she said, pointing her wand at the cup, which lay still, the grass around it wilted and yellow.
Hermione's wand gave an odd sputter of lime-green sparks. Hermione frowned and tried the spell again. Nothing happened.
"Aguamenti?" said Hermione, her voice uncertain. A stream of water issued from the tip of her wand, pouring all over the golden cup. Hermione heaved a sign of relief. "Thought my wand was damaged," she said, "but it was just confused. There isn't an ounce of magic left in that cup."
"Pity," said Malfoy. "It was always rumoured to have powerful magical abilities. But when you disable a Horcrux, you also cripple the object it's encased in. If it's a magical object, the magic is sucked out of it. If it's a regular item, it breaks."
Harry remembered the crack in the stone of Marvolo Gaunt's ring. It must not have been magical to break after the Horcrux inside it was disabled.
At that moment, his tiredness caught up with him. His body ached all over and he wanted nothing more than to climb under a warm blanket and sleep. The others seemed to feel the same way; they looked weary. Hermione picked up Hufflepuff's cup by one of its tiny handles, holding her little finger out as she lifted it off the ground.
"I guess we should return it to the Smith family," she said. "It belongs to them, after all."
Harry thought of Zacharias Smith's angry face, of the way he'd jerked when Harry's memory charm had hit him. "I suppose," he said. "But somehow I don't think they'll be thrilled to find out that it's been stripped of all its magic."
"They don't have to know that," said Ron. "We don't even have to give it to them ourselves. We could send it by owl post, as an early Christmas gift for old Zacharias."
Malfoy snorted. "Yeah, Smith would appreciate it, I'm sure. He's into girly trinkets," he said with a sardonic smile.
"Jealous, Malfoy?" asked Harry, before he could stop himself. He wasn't sure what had prompted it, but for some reason the image of Smith and Zabini snogging in the Smiths' pavilion came to his mind, Smith's straw-blond hair replaced by Malfoy's white-blond.
To his surprise, Malfoy flushed pink to the roots of his hair and stalked away towards the tent. Harry stared after him, wondering if he'd hit a nerve. He tried to remember the conversation he'd overheard between Zabini and Smith—something about Cedric Diggory...He shook the thoughts off. He didn't have time to wonder about it. Malfoy could get bent if he was going to take every little thing personally.
They went to bed ten minutes later; Harry was asleep within seconds of his head hitting the bedroll. His dreams were dark, but he couldn't get any of the images to hold still for too long. There was Ginny, lying flat on her back in a puddle of mud, her arms splayed, a shaft of white light shooting out of her mouth and illuminating the starless sky above. There was Malfoy, walking away along a dusty path as a blood-red sun rose in the distance. There were Ron and Hermione, bent over a casket, emerald-green tears falling from their empty eye sockets. Harry struggled to look over their shoulders, to see into the casket and saw Voldemort grinning up at him, his red eyes glowing with malice. His scar flashed with pain and Harry sat up, panting.
In a habitual gesture, he felt for his glasses by the side of his bedroll and slipped them on. The tent was dark; he could hear the familiar sounds of Ron's snores and Hermione's quiet breathing. Outside, two crickets seemed to be having a conversation—one would chirp for a few seconds, then the other would answer it, and so it went until Harry noticed that Malfoy wasn't in the tent.
His stomach churned with suspicion; they should have agreed to keep watch somehow. He was sure Malfoy had left, left to tell Voldemort where to find Harry—that must have been why Harry had dreamt about Voldemort. He was coming. Panic gripped Harry and he struggled out of the sleeping bag, rushing out of the tent without bothering to wake the others.
He stopped as he saw Malfoy standing in the middle of the clearing, his head tilted slightly upwards. He looked like a ghost in the darkness of the forest, the only light coming from the tip of his wand, which was pointed at the ground.
"Malfoy, what the hell are you doing out here? It's the middle of the night."
Draco didn't look back. He knew that voice well enough.
He stared at the Draco constellation that he could just make out above his head.
"My father named me after that constellation," said Draco, not so much to Potter as to the night itself. Potter said nothing. "The dawn light obscures it, but it's always there, eternal and unchanging," continued Draco, reciting his father's words. "If you should lose yourself, find it in the night sky, Draco." He'd been three, and it was the first clear memory in his mind.
Before today, the constellation had always looked exactly like a dragon to him. Now, it looked like a bird taking flight. Draco was lost. He would not find himself again until his father's death was avenged.
He had yet to shed any tears for his father. He would not allow himself to grieve until he saw his father's murderer destroyed. Besides, his mother was probably crying enough for them both. Draco thought of her in Madrid, helpless and lonely, with no one but her crazy uncle for company, and his gut twisted in impotent rage. His mother was alone in a foreign country. His father was likely fodder for the loathsome Hanivers that lurked in the waters around Azkaban. Draco himself was forced to work with people he despised.
He turned and looked at Potter, who was looking down at the ground, his expression guarded.
"Isn't it funny how we have nothing to say to each other now that we're on the same side, Potter?" Draco gave a little bitter laugh and climbed back into the tent without waiting for a response.
Harry woke up well into the late morning. Hermione was sitting cross-legged at the other end of the tent, a thick book in her lap. She nodded inattentively to Harry's "Good morning", her eyes never leaving the book in front of her. Harry pulled a clean-looking towel from a pile of clothes and crawled out of the tent. He shuffled to the camp basin, looking around for Ron—and Malfoy, he remembered. Malfoy was here, too.
Had Harry made a mistake allowing Malfoy to come here? He felt lighter knowing that Malfoy wouldn't be touching Ginny anymore, but was that a good enough reason? He remembered Hermione's words about the Horcrux-disabling spell last night. They had been lucky that Malfoy had been there. But what if Malfoy betrayed them all?
He wouldn't betray you any more than he'd betray himself. You're all he has right now.
Harry saw Ron and Malfoy emerging from the trees on the west side of the clearing, carrying armloads of thick branches for the fire. Odd; Malfoy had never struck him as the type to do manual labour willingly. Then he saw the wand Ron was pointing at Malfoy's back.
Harry chuckled and turned back to the basin. The tooth-cleaning potion Ron had brought tasted foul and burned the inside of his mouth, but after he spit it out, Harry ran his tongue along his teeth and found them smooth and clean. He lifted his hand to his mouth and breathed; his breath smelled of cloves, but at least it wasn't nasty.
Harry splashed his face with some water from the basin and made a note to tell Ron that they needed to get more from the pump on the village green; maybe they could make Malfoy carry it all down. The village was full of Muggles, after all—they couldn't use magic there. The villagers thought them to be young birdwatchers from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, whatever that was. Hermione had made laminated cards for the three of them. She might need to make another one for Malfoy, just in case.
Hermione burst out of the tent as if on cue. "Regulus Arcturus Black!" she shouted, waving a notebook. "R. A. B.! It fits! I'd misplaced the notes I took on the Black family tree while staying at Grimmauld Place, but I just found him in Astrology And Common Sense, it's about wizards named after stars. Regulus Arcturus Black!"
Harry's heart began to thump, but he frowned. "Sirius's brother?"
Malfoy looked up from his pile of firewood. "My cousin?"
Harry blanched, his frown deepening. He always forgot that Malfoy was related to Sirius. It was weird to think of him that way.
Regulus Black? The Death Eater who had tried to back out when he'd realised what he'd got himself into, and got killed? Was that the mysterious enemy of Voldemort? The one who had stolen Slytherin's locket? Harry hardly believed it possible—all the Death Eaters he'd known were irredeemably evil.
He glanced at Malfoy's blond hair, almost white in the bright sun. Not all the Death Eaters. Here was a Death Eater who had saved Ginny's life, who had renounced his Dark Lord...If Malfoy could change his ways—even if Harry didn't trust him—then it was certainly possible that Sirius's brother could, too? Deep inside, Harry wanted R.A.B. to have been Regulus. After all, it would mean that Sirius's brother—his brother—had been on the right side in the war. It felt like justice.
As he thought of Sirius, his heart aching, an image of a heavy gold locket flashed in front of Harry's eyes—a heavy gold locket decorated with an ornate serpentine "S". A heavy locket that no one could open. Of course no one could open it! It had a piece of Voldemort's soul trapped inside—it was a Horcrux!
"Sirius, we can't get this thing to open!"
"Just toss it on the pile with the rest of the rubbish, Harry. There's probably something nasty inside anyway, knowing my dear mother."
Harry glanced at the locket, running his finger over the engraved letter "S" across the top. What did it stand for? Slytherin, maybe? But Sirius had been in Gryffindor...
Behind him, Ron screamed, and Harry tossed the locket back into the cabinet, whirling around to see his best friend struggling with a set of purple robes.
"It's been in Grimmauld Place all this time," said Harry, raising his eyes to meet Hermione's. She was nodding, clearly aware of what had just gone through his mind.
Ron sprang to his feet, sending the firewood clattering to the grass. "Let's go, then!"
Harry sighed. "We can't. When I was in Dumbledore's office before we left Hogwarts, Phineas Nigellus told me that the Death Eaters have taken Grimmauld Place. I forgot to tell you."
Ron's face fell.
"So Voldemort has it, in a manner of speaking," murmured Hermione, clutching her notebook to her chest.
"I can get it," said Malfoy, walking closer. "I could go as a Death Eater; if I use a mask, no one will recognise me. I have the Mark, no one will ask to see my face if I show them that."
"You would do that?" asked Hermione, gaping at him. "You would risk—"
Malfoy's eyes were cold. "They murdered my father. There isn't anything I wouldn't do if it involves them."
Harry studied Malfoy's face. He'd always pegged Malfoy as a coward to the bone, someone who would run if given the choice between running and fighting. Had Harry been wrong? Or—the thought filled Harry with sick dread—was Malfoy trying to get back to Voldemort with information on where to find Harry? There was only one way to find out. He would use his Invisibility Cloak and the map portal to follow Malfoy, without letting him know.
"Well, it's all the way in London. Let me make you a Portkey," said Hermione after chewing on her bottom lip. You'll be able to use it—"
"I'll Apparate, Granger. It's in London, not New Zealand."
"How're you going to Apparate when you don't have your licence?" demanded Ron.
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "I've got a bleeding Dark Mark on my arm, Weasley. Do you really think I'm worried about getting picked up for Apparating without a licence?"
No one had an answer for that. Malfoy turned to Harry. "Where exactly am I going and what am I looking for?"
"Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. It's a heavy gold locket with an "S" across the top. It's in a glass cabinet in the drawing room, you might need to rummage around for a bit, but it should be there."
Malfoy Disapparated without another word. Harry signalled to Ron and Hermione that he would be following, grabbed his Invisibility Cloak and tore through the trees towards his parents' house. Malfoy couldn't Apparate straight to the front door of Sirius's house; he still needed time to find a mask, or something to transfigure into one, and to change...Harry would make it...
In the cellar, he quickly located Grimmauld Place on the map, checking who was inside number twelve—he saw Dolohov and someone named Yaxley. Even if Malfoy joined them, Harry would be able to manage. He needed that locket. He moved his doll to a spot further down the street and then checked the map for Malfoy. Malfoy's dot was inching away from Malfoy Manor in Wiltshire—Harry guessed he must have gone there to change into robes and get a Death Eater's mask. Whether he needed it temporarily or permanently remained to be seen.
Harry activated the portal; after a rush in his belly and the whooshing sound in his ears, he was standing between two Muggle buildings a short distance from Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. He wrapped his Cloak around himself and approached the house. There was a dull, numb ache in his heart—this was the place where he'd last seen Sirius, happy and alive, singing Christmas carols about Hippogriffs.
Harry told himself that he couldn't afford to lose focus. Making sure that his Cloak was covering him fully, he crouched beside the stairs leading to the front door and waited. Moments later, there was a crack behind him and a masked Death Eater strode past—Malfoy. Harry didn't know how he knew, but he was sure. He straightened and followed Malfoy up the steps to the door.
Malfoy knocked sharply on the door, and it opened almost instantly. Harry watched Malfoy lift his robe's left sleeve and bare his white arm. He peeked over Malfoy's shoulder, just to see if it was real—
His scar flashed with a warning jolt of pain, and Harry sprang back after a mere glimpse of the ugly black skull tattooed on Malfoy's forearm. It seemed wrong on Malfoy; all that fair skin...
Malfoy was heading inside, and Harry had to hurry up if he was going to get inside as well. So far, Malfoy hadn't said a word about him; that was only slightly comforting. Harry swept through the open door, wondering if the masked figure standing there was Dolohov or Yaxley. There was no time, though, and he hurried through the corridor towards the stairs, which Malfoy was already climbing.
Malfoy seemed surprisingly at home and Harry wondered if he'd been here before. Or maybe all the rich pure-bloods built their houses to look the same, just so they wouldn't get lost in all those rooms when they visited each other. Malfoy paid no attention to the elf-heads lining the wall as he ascended the stairs. Mrs Black's portrait was uncovered. She looked cross but calm. Harry guessed she was content now that Voldemort's followers were living here. He hurried past her, ducking down involuntarily despite his Cloak.
When he reached the drawing room, Malfoy was rummaging in one of the glass cabinets. Harry could hardly believe his eyes. Malfoy had said he would help, true, but Harry hadn't even realised that he'd fully expected Malfoy to confess that he wasn't dead, and tell the Death Eaters where to find Harry. The fact that Malfoy was doing exactly what he said he would was surprising. Malfoy spent about twenty minutes digging through the glass cabinets, but Harry could see that he'd had no luck.
He shut the door to the room, quietly, and moved closer to see if he could spot the locket.
Malfoy seemed to have sensed the movement—he spun around to look at the door. He'd lifted his mask at some point, probably in order to see better. His grey eyes were wide with fear. And then his hand brushed against Harry's leg.
Harry didn't think he'd ever seen anyone move as fast as Malfoy when he whipped his wand out, pointing it straight in front of him, eyes still searching the room.
"It's me," said Harry quietly. "I followed you."
Malfoy expelled a long breath, his eyes closing for a moment. "Your stalking tendencies from last year have turned into a nasty habit, I see," he muttered.
"I just don't trust you, Malfoy," Harry whispered back.
Malfoy's smile was nasty. "That's all right, you need practice in not trusting, as you seem to trust all the wrong people."
Furious, red-hot anger seared Harry's stomach and he threw Malfoy against a nearby wall, placing his hands around the base of his throat. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he growled.
He was sure Malfoy was talking about Ginny, but he wanted to make him admit it. Wanted him to say it to Harry's face. Wanted them both to—
"What I mean is it's not me you should be manhandling," wheezed Malfoy, the horrible, cruel smile not leaving his lips despite Harry's hands pressing harder against his thin neck. "Now let me go. Someone will hear us."
Remembering himself, Harry let go and stepped back, trying to catch his breath. Malfoy's closeness was dizzying; it made Harry furious that Malfoy could control him that way, but the git just made him so angry. He all but knew that Malfoy had gone after Ginny on purpose, just to spite Harry. He'd make the bastard admit it.
"The locket isn't here," said Malfoy, lowering his mask to hide his face, which was flushed pink.
Harry pushed past Malfoy and began to root around frenetically in the cabinet, trying to make as little noise as possible. He knew that Malfoy was right; he had to be. He just didn't want to believe it.
Harry stepped back from the cabinet and shut the glass doors tightly. "Let's get out of here," he said.
The other Death Eater wasn't at the door after they got down the stairs again—security wasn't very tight here, was it? Probably because Voldemort had already got everything he needed from here.
"The locket's gone," said Harry, collapsing to the ground at Hermione's feet.
Hermione's eyes were wide with fear. "Has Voldemort got it?"
"I don't know," said Harry, biting his bottom lip. "If he's got it, we might as well give up. I won't be able to kill him, and I can't see how—"
"Wait, what about Mundungus Fletcher?" interrupted Ron. "He's been stealing things from the house for months, hasn't he? If he's stolen and sold it—he wouldn't have realised what it was..."
Hope welled in Harry's chest—he'd seen Mundungus in Hogsmeade when he'd tested out the map portal; that hadn't been too long ago. Voldemort had no way of knowing that the locket had been in Sirius's house. He wouldn't have known about Dung's thieving, either. The likes of Mundungus Fletcher were too insignificant, too beneath Voldemort's notice—Harry knew that much about his enemy. Voldemort looked and aimed high—he wouldn't bother with a petty thief.
He stood, brushing stray bits of grass from his jeans. Ron was getting to his feet as well.
"Where are you going?" asked Malfoy, who'd been uncharacteristically silent since he and Harry had come back from Sirius's house.
"Have you not heard us talking?" asked Ron with a look of distaste.
"I wasn't listening," said Malfoy, gazing up at Harry.
Harry felt hot anger pierce his heart; he was sure that after their conversation in Sirius's house, Malfoy had been thinking about Ginny. He wanted to seize Malfoy by the throat again and throw him into a tree, just to hear something break. How dare Malfoy toy with Harry's feelings that way? He looked away, seething. They needed to find Mundungus. He would have time later to make sure Malfoy paid for everything in full.
"Right," he said, turning to Ron. "I'll take my Cloak. I don't think it would be a good idea for me to march into Hogsmeade in broad daylight."
"Hermione, are you coming with us?" asked Ron.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I was planning on doing some research into Rowena Ravenclaw's history."
Ron cast a dubious glance in Malfoy's direction, but said nothing else.
Ron and Harry walked back to Godric's Hollow, saying very little. When they reached the map portal in the cellar, Harry checked it for Mundungus, but he was nowhere to be found. Maybe he was underground, like Voldemort and Snape had been, back when Harry had first found the map?
Something was wrong—very wrong—and answers were needed. There was only one place where Harry could find them: Hogsmeade.
Draco watched Potter and Weasley disappear through the trees to the east. Why hadn't they Disapparated from the campsite? What was beyond those trees? He tried not to think about what had happened at Grimmauld Place—Potter's face just inches away, Potter's warm hands at the base of his throat, Potter's breath in his ear...God damn it, he was thinking about it. What was wrong with him?
Draco tried to focus on Granger's bushy head, watching her as she crouched low over a thick book—did that girl ever take a break? She was flipping the pages with a feverish look on her face. Draco wondered how Weasley could stand it, having a girlfriend who seemed to only come alive whilst scanning some dusty tome. Pansy would never treat Draco like that. Draco appreciated that, even if she was a boring fuck. Unlike Blaise—though Draco suspected that Blaise would pale in comparison to Potter, who—
An owl hooted overhead and a tight roll of parchment tumbled into Draco's lap. He froze for an instant, and then picked up the letter. He glanced at Granger, who hadn't seemed to notice anything; her lips were moving as she ran her finger down a page. Draco turned away to keep her from seeing the letter if she happened to look up and unfolded the parchment. The handwriting was familiar—he'd seen it many times, commending his insights into potion-making.
I sincerely hope this letter finds you in Madrid, safe with your mother. If not, I don't think I need to tell you that you need to hide, and hide very well. You are believed to be dead. You would do well not to disappoint in that regard. Do not answer this. I shan't write again. I simply needed to ensure I had done everything to inform you of the gravity of your situation. Give your mother my regards.
Draco reread the parchment twice more, committing it to memory, and tossed it into the fire, watching as the blue and orange flames blackened it into fine dust. His thoughts were whirling in confusion. The Dark Lord thought him dead, which was plainly obvious from Snape's phrasing, but how did Snape know Draco was alive?
Give your mother my regards.
The Unbreakable Vow. Snape had sworn to protect Draco as he attempted to fulfil the Dark Lord's wishes. But Draco wasn't trying to fulfil the Dark Lord's wishes anymore. His Dark Mark gave a painful twinge and Draco winced. Was that the answer? Of course it was. Taking the Mark meant swearing to serve the Dark Lord and the only way to break that promise was to die. As long as the Dark Lord was alive, Draco was in his service, whether he consciously wanted to be or not. Snape had unwittingly sworn to protect Draco until his own death, or the Dark Lord's. The thought brought little warmth to Draco's heart. What could Snape do? He didn't even know where Draco was, didn't even want to know.
What bothered Draco the most was Snape's disloyalty to the Dark Lord in favour of the Vow he'd made. Any of the others—Aunt Bellatrix, Amycus, Alecto, Dolohov—would have given Draco up if they knew he was alive. Well, perhaps not Aunt Bellatrix on account of her being dead, but...Draco ran his hand through his hair, thinking. What was Snape's game? Was he really working for the Dark Lord, or was he actually a triple agent? Had Dumbledore's death been planned?
Did Draco even matter in any of this?
No, of course not. Draco was, for all intents and purposes, dead. He'd played with fate as he courted glory and he had lost. All he had left was the good will of other people—Snape, the Weasleys, Granger.
To say that the Three Broomsticks lacked cheer would have been a severe understatement. Though nothing had changed inside and there were enough people there to make it feel like a pub and not a graveyard, it seemed darker somehow, emptier—as though some unknown, nameless danger had settled in the shadowed corners that had once looked so cosy.
Harry stayed close to Ron, trying not to trip over his Invisibility Cloak. They negotiated their way to the bar between tables and chairs; Harry was grateful for the low din of voices—they obscured the sound of their footfalls. Madam Rosmerta was wiping the bar, the expression on her face tight. Ron trudged up to her, plastering a huge smile on his face. It looked fake—at least to Harry—but Rosmerta didn't know Ron that well.
"Hello, Madam Rosmerta," said Ron, colouring a little. Harry resisted the urge to snort.
Rosmerta looked up, beaming. "Why, it's Ron Weasley! How nice to see you!" she said. Ron looked incredibly pleased by this turn of events.
"Nice to see you, too," he said, colouring even deeper.
"Have a seat, love. Would you like a Butterbeer?"
Harry took an empty seat beside Ron, hoping that no one would decide to join Ron at the bar. The chair creaked a little, and Ron shot Harry a funny sidelong look, but no one else seemed to notice. Rosmerta returned after a few moments, a generous mug of Butterbeer in hand. She plunked it down in front of Ron. He dug into his pocket, but she waved him off. "On the house," she said, smiling.
Ron flushed scarlet. "Are you sure it's—?"
"Of course it is," said Rosmerta, perhaps a little too quickly. Shrugging a little, Ron put his money back and lifted the mug to his lips. Harry watched him drink, his own mouth suddenly parched.
"How are you doing?" asked Ron after a moment. Rosmerta hadn't moved from her spot.
"As well as can be expected. How's your family? How about Harry and Hermione? Have you heard from them?"
Obviously, Rosmerta wasn't aware of what Harry and his friends were doing. Harry's heart clenched as he remembered Rosmerta's role in the events leading up to Dumbledore's death. Had she given Ron a free drink because she felt guilty for having had a hand in his near-death experience?
Ron cleared his throat. "Fine, everyone's fine," he mumbled.
Rosmerta nodded, absently swiping at the bar with the rag. "I'm very glad," she said, her voice low and serious. There were dark circles under her eyes, Harry noticed—circles that never used to be there before—and her cheeks weren't nearly as rosy as he remembered.
"Madam Rosmerta, I was wondering," said Ron, stammering a bit, "Have you seen Mundungus Fletcher around lately?"
"Dung? No, why?"
Ron cast Harry a quick glance. "He...uh, well. It's for my father. Uh, Dad needs to question him. Ask him some things."
Harry rubbed his cheeks with his palms, trying not to laugh. Ron couldn't have been a worse liar if he was under Veritaserum.
Rosmerta tilted her head to one side, her curls bouncing prettily. "I don't know what's happened to Dung. I haven't seen him in ages. You know, you could try the Hog's Head—that's more his kind of place. I've never liked him trying to conduct business in here."
Ron finished off his Butterbeer and set the empty mug down on the bar. "Thank you," he said. "Are you sure you don't want me to—"
Rosmerta waved the dishrag at him. "I said it was on the house. It's good to see a young face in here, considering what's happened to the school." She looked like she was about to say something else, but didn't. She closed her mouth and began to wipe the already clean bar, looking flustered.
Harry guessed that she must have been feeling really guilty; not only about Ron's near-poisoning, but also about everything else Malfoy had made her do. He cursed himself silently. Why had he been so spineless, why had he let his selfish interest in Ginny interfere with his decision on Malfoy joining them? This woman was a good, decent person who was now suffering because Malfoy had used her in the worst way imaginable.
"Well, I guess I'll try the Hog's Head, then," said Ron, edging off the chair awkwardly.
Rosmerta nodded, a sad, haunted look in her eyes. Harry really wanted to throw off his Cloak and tell her that it wasn't her fault, but he knew he couldn't. If he were sighted here, it would surely spell even more grief for the poor woman. He followed Ron out of the inn, barely managing to avoid getting hit with the door as it slammed shut behind his best friend
"This place is starting to give me the creeps," said Ron from the side of his mouth and began to walk up the High Street. Harry hurried after him, staying close to building walls to avoid his shadow being seen on the road beside Ron's.
Hogsmeade was looking even more deserted than the last time Harry had spent time here. Whereas the Three Broomsticks, while different, retained at least some of its usual vibrancy, the village itself looked dreadful. Most of the shops were closed, and a gloom hung in the air that bore down on Harry, making him long for the days these streets would teem with Hogwarts students scurrying in and out of shops, chattering loudly, laughing. Would the village ever see such cheer again? It wasn't an easy question. Nor was it easy for Harry to realise that it really was up to him, whether the world would ever go back to normal again. It wasn't fair.
"Here we are," muttered Ron after they turned a corner and saw the sign of the Hog's Head, creaking in the wind. Harry forced his thoughts down; he'd never get anything done if he kept brooding.
If Harry had thought the Three Broomsticks had changed, the Hog's Head made it look like a real Christmas celebration by comparison. It was as dark and dirty as ever, but extremely quiet—the kind of menacing, creeping silence that took hold and brought to mind images from childhood nightmares. There was just one customer sitting near the back wall; he was smoking something foul-smelling and reading a yellowed newspaper. Harry suspected he wasn't human, but didn't have a chance to study him. Ron was marching up to the bar, and Harry had to trot to keep up.
The spindly barman gazed at them, his expression indifferent. Harry would have expected him to be overjoyed to see more customers walk in. Then again, he obviously was making no attempt to clean the place up; a whole vat of Mrs Skower's All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover wouldn't be enough to get rid of the pervasive smell of goats that now mingled with the faint scent of urine. All signs suggested that the proprietor didn't really care about the presence or absence of customers.
"Er, hi," said Ron, offering the barman a smile that was even more fake than the one he'd arranged for Rosmerta's benefit earlier.
Harry fought the urge to poke him in the ribs and tell him to stop acting like a prat. The barman stared at Ron as though expecting him to start tap-dancing on one of the decrepit tables.
"Could I ask you a question?" asked Ron, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking down.
"You just did," grunted the barman.
"I mean, another one."
The barman continued to stare at him.
Ron licked his lips. "I was wondering if you'd seen Mundungus Fletcher lately?"
The barman scowled. "No. That's the bloody problem." He reached into one of his many pockets and threw a slip of parchment onto the slimy counter. "Owes me money, the bastard. If you see him, tell him I'll hex him if he doesn't pay me soon."
"Thanks, I'll be sure to pass it along," stammered Ron.
The barman muttered something unintelligible and walked into the back room, slamming the door behind him so that the floor shook and stray bits of straw rained down from the rafters. Ron picked up the piece of parchment, frowning. "It's an IOU," he whispered.
Harry tugged on his sleeve, and they both trudged back outside. They moved through the half-deserted streets of Hogsmeade, heading back out of the village.
"What are we going to do now, Harry?"
"I don't know," muttered Harry. He was so tired of dead ends, of waiting. He was meant to fight, not to scurry around back alleys like a rat.
"Well, we can't exactly waltz into Azkaban and ask You-Know-Who all polite-like for a bit of his blood so we can find his family locket, can we?"
"We'll figure something out," said Harry, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice. It wasn't Ron's fault that they were nowhere once again. "Let's just get back to the others, this place is making me nervous."
They turned onto the narrow stretch of grass that ran between the village limit and the train station and Harry tugged off his Invisibility Cloak after a quick glance around to make sure they were alone. They nodded at each other and went back through the portal, to Godric's Hollow.
Hermione and Malfoy were sitting outside the tent, having an animated conversation; Harry could see the tops of their heads through the trees as he neared the campsite. He motioned for Ron to stop and mimed listening by putting his hand to his ear and then pointing towards Hermione and Malfoy. Ron nodded and leant against a tree, his jaw tightening.
"I've been looking through this book all day for information on possible Ravenclaw artefacts! I'm telling you, Malfoy, Rowena Ravenclaw was not only a fantastic Potion-maker, she was also an inventor!" Hermione held up a hefty book, as though to emphasise her point.
"Be that as it may," said Malfoy in an airy voice, "It's Slytherin tradition that's steeped in Potions, not Ravenclaw."
"But Rowena was still the best at Potions. The house she founded puts a strong emphasis on intelligence, after all. She had to be cleverer than Slytherin."
"By that logic, she'd be cleverer than Gryffindor, too," said Malfoy; Harry could practically hear him smirking, eyes lighting up in that disgustingly gleeful way that he had.
Hermione sniffed loudly. "Godric Gryffindor excelled at swordsmanship, Defence Against the Dark Arts, and he was clever enough."
"Well, so was Salazar Slytherin. Except for the swordsmanship and Defence parts. He was good at other things."
"You mean like hiding a giant snake at the bottom of a castle?"
"For example, yeah. Must have taken a lot of cunning to keep that hidden for a thousand years, don't you think? Meanwhile, Rowena Ravenclaw couldn't even figure out where the Chambers of Secrets was, could she?"
"Fine, but she was still better at Potions. And besides, it was us who figured out where the Chamber was, and we're Gryffindors," said Hermione, sounding triumphant.
"Come now, Granger, you don't expect me to believe—"
Beside Harry, Ron shifted from foot to foot, causing a twig to snap. Harry rolled his eyes and walked forward out into the clearing.
"Believe it, Malfoy," he said. "It was actually Hermione here who figured it out. How do you like that?"
Malfoy stared up at Harry, his eyes going dull. Harry could see that he'd been having fun talking to Hermione, as bizarre as that was. On some level, it bothered Harry that Malfoy hated him so obviously, reacting to his presence with such plain disgust. It also gave him savage satisfaction to deprive Malfoy of something he had clearly been enjoying. He didn't understand why he would ever feel conflicted on the subject of Malfoy, though. He looked away, focussing on Hermione.
"Did you find anything out?" she asked, her face anxious.
"Nothing," said Harry, shaking his head. "Nobody knows where Mundungus Fletcher is. It's like he dropped off the face of the planet."
"Well...he could still have that locket. Is he in the country?"
Harry shook his head again. "Couldn't see him. Either underground or I dunno."
"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Malfoy, sounding cranky.
Hermione clapped a hand over her mouth. Ron started to rub his face, glancing at Harry. Harry only sighed, noting that Malfoy was giving Hermione a very odd look.
"Well, let's have supper. I'll cook," said Hermione, clearly trying to sound bright.
"You're cooking? We're doomed," muttered Malfoy. She glared at him. He raised an amused eyebrow, but said no more.
Hermione's cooking involved some fancy trick she'd learned from Mrs Weasley, resulting in shepherd's pie that was quite good. The four of them ate in silence, and Harry suspected they all had their own reasons for keeping quiet. Ron was too busy with his food to speak, just as usual. Hermione looked thoughtful, occasionally flipping the pages of a book that she'd put on the ground by her drawn-up knees. Malfoy would pick at his food for a while, then stare somewhere past Harry for a few moments, then return to his food.
As for Harry, he was just incredibly frustrated. The exasperation he'd started feeling at Hogsmeade hadn't abated; it was growing stronger with every passing moment. He could almost feel his time running out, like a rope was fraying at the edges and Harry was hanging over a precipice, holding onto that rope. They'd only got rid of one Horcrux so far—at least only one that they could be certain of. The summer was getting on—what would they do when it got too cold to sleep outside? Where was Mundungus? When would Voldemort come for Harry? Would Harry manage to find all the Horcruxes before then, or would all their work go to waste?
Harry became aware of a stifling, harsh silence around him; he looked up from his plate and saw that night was getting closer, and everyone else had gone inside the tent. His half-finished food was cold, but Harry was ravenously hungry so he bolted it down regardless. He had a vague recollection of Hermione and Ron saying good night at some point, but he'd been too lost in thought to really pay attention to them.
Nothing was working out, and he had to do something. People were dying out there. They needed him to help them, and he couldn't figure out how. All this waiting was eating him alive. After cleaning his plate, Harry stayed outside, pacing a little, wishing an answer would fall out of the sky. Naturally, no answers dropped into view, but he did trip over one of Hermione's notebooks. Since he had nothing else to do, he picked it up, found a comfortable spot outside the tent, and started flipping through it, using his wand as a source of light.
A poem caught his eye a few pages in. The heading said Quotes Attributed to Rowena Ravenclaw. It reminded him of something, but he wasn't sure what.
When I was a babe, I looked without sight,
When I was a child, I looked to those above me,
When I was a woman, I looked with eyes so bright,
When I was a mother, I looked to those beneath me,
When I was a crone, I looked to the night.
Harry read it over and over, trying to remember why it seemed so familiar to him. He leant against the side of the tent, trying to imagine Rowena Ravenclaw as she penned that little poem. Why would she write something like that? Had she really thought all those ages were so different?
It was warm here, maybe because he knew his friends were just an arm's length away. A gentle air current drifted past, bringing with it the smell of fresh foliage and something distinctly summery. Harry closed his eyes, letting the notebook slide onto his lap. He felt much calmer than before. That poem had an edge to it, like it was written in frustration, and somehow it calmed him to know even one of the great founders had been frustrated by time.
Harry didn't realise he'd fallen asleep until he was being shaken awake. He blinked at the person before him until Malfoy's sharp face came into view.
"There could be werewolves in these woods," snapped Malfoy. "Are you insane?" As if to prove his point, a distant howl pierced the darkness.
Harry pulled away from him. "What do you care?"
Malfoy made a great show of dusting off Harry's jacket. "You're the Chosen One, aren't you? You're supposed to save all our hides from total annihilation. I wouldn't want you to meet your end as a doggie treat."
"Oh, fuck off."
To his surprise, Malfoy said nothing to that. Instead, he gazed at Harry with a dreamlike expression uncannily similar to Luna Lovegood's. They sat in silence for a while, and Harry stared at Malfoy's shoulders. They had a nice curve to them: not too broad, not too slender. His stomach twisted as he thought of Ginny.
"Why are you really here, Malfoy?" he asked, as much to distract himself from his thoughts as anything else.
Malfoy eyed him, looking vaguely annoyed. "I thought I explained that already."
"Yeah, I know what you said. It's what you haven't said that keeps bothering me."
"Have you never wanted revenge, Potter?"
A conversation from much happier times sprang unbidden to Harry's mind.
"Of course, if it was me, I'd have done something before now. I wouldn't be staying in school like a good boy, I'd be out there looking for him."
"What are you talking about, Malfoy?" said Ron roughly.
"Don't you know, Potter?" breathed Malfoy, his pale eyes narrowed.
Malfoy let out a low, sneering laugh.
"Maybe you'd better not risk your neck," he said. "Want to leave it to the Dementors, do you? But if it was me, I'd want revenge. I'd hunt him down myself."
Perhaps Malfoy hadn't been merely bragging then; after all, he was here now, wasn't he? Looking for revenge...
Harry tilted his head to one side and looked into Malfoy's pale eyes. "Revenge, Malfoy? Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have wanted revenge. I still do."
Harry stared at him. Wasn't it obvious? "Snape."
Just saying the name made him taste bile in the back of his throat. Harry was quite sure he'd never felt such intense hatred for anyone, not even Malfoy.
Malfoy's eyebrows shot up. "Snape? What has Snape ever done to you?"
The air was oddly still around the two of them but for the occasional chirping of some nocturnal bird or insect in the distance. Here, tonight, the past and present seemed to coalesce and mingle, coiling into an unnatural, foreign shape that defied all logic, erasing past wrongs and creating a new, nameless truth. Harry couldn't have told a lie right now if his life depended on it. He held Malfoy's gaze, still steady and clear, and Harry wondered absently when he'd begun to look for meaning in the eyes of Draco Malfoy.
"He's the reason my parents are dead," Harry said finally. He looked away, fighting not to throw up all over himself. He had no idea why he was reacting so strongly to this conversation.
After several moments of a heavy, dark silence, Malfoy spoke. "Interesting. I believe I can assure you he's not necessarily against you."
That was the wrong thing to say. Anger swelled up inside Harry like a balloon. Snape had murdered Dumbledore, destroyed Hogwarts, but above all, he'd given Voldemort information that led to the death of Harry's parents. It didn't matter if he wasn't against Harry—Harry was against him. Harry seized Malfoy by the upper arms, gripping him tightly.
"Don't fucking talk to me about Snape and his loyalties. He's the reason my parents are dead."
"Look, Potter, I could easily say you're the reason my father is dead, but where the fuck would that get us?" Malfoy was speaking in an odd monotone, and even more strangely, wasn't trying to pull away. His eyes had gone dull again, like they had before supper—Harry had thought that had been contempt, but he knew in his gut that that wasn't it—what was it?
Harry let him go and looked away as the balloon of anger inside of him popped, leaving him empty, the ache in his heart as dull as Malfoy's eyes. "That's different. You don't know what Snape did."
Malfoy was sitting beside him now, his back to the tent. Harry could smell him—sweat and grass and wind, oddly comforting and enticing at the same time, like Harry was nine and Malfoy was a toy he couldn't have.
"Enlighten me," said Malfoy, his tone light, his voice almost serpentine.
"I'd rather not talk about it, especially not to you."
Harry turned to look at him and found himself almost nose to nose with Malfoy, whose eyes lacked their usual hostility and malice. Nor were they dull. On the contrary, they almost glowed with a sort of dangerous fire. Was this what Ginny found so fucking attractive—these bright, fey eyes? Why was Malfoy looking at him like that?
Malfoy shifted forward, just a fraction, and inexplicable, raw panic gripped Harry. He turned away and hurried into the tent. He hadn't just thought that Malfoy was about to kiss him. He simply hadn't.
He'd just been mere seconds away from attempting to kiss Harry Potter. This was most distressing. It wasn't that Potter was a boy, not really—it was more that Potter wasn't Blaise, he was—well, Potter. There had to be some sort of divine rule that forbade any Malfoy from coming within kissing distance of any Potter, there just had to be. Draco did not believe in God, but there had to have been some kind of miracle that had made Potter leave. It was divine intervention, clearly. Draco Malfoy was not supposed to kiss Harry Potter, nor was he supposed to think about doing so.
Except that was exactly what he was thinking about. Draco waited for the benevolent hand of God to reach down and pluck these thoughts from his head, but God appeared to have exhausted his interventional capabilities for the evening. Draco sighed and leant against the tent. Potter was like a particularly sharp question mark embedded in his side. Draco used to think that Potter was predictable and quite stupid, but that clearly wasn't the case. This did nothing for Draco's crumbling worldview.
What could Snape have done to Potter's parents? It was the Dark Lord who had killed them, everybody knew that. It had been one of the Potters' old friends who'd betrayed their location to the Dark Lord—Draco wasn't sure exactly who it had been; he knew now it hadn't been Sirius Black. Could it have been Wormtail? Draco wouldn't have put it past him. What about Snape, though? Potter and Snape had never got on well, but Potter had never expressed a desire to murder Snape whilst in Potions class—what had changed? What had Potter found out?
What did Potter hope to do once all the Horcruxes had been found? Why wasn't Dumbledore's old Phoenix gang here, protecting them? What was beyond the trees to the east? Draco peered around the side of the tent, squinting into the absolute darkness that swallowed up the trees. He couldn't see any lights—was there a village? Were there, perhaps, Phoenix people in the village; maybe Potter and his friends reported to them? He wanted to go and investigate, but there were werewolves in the woods. Draco knew he would not stand a chance if one decided to attack him from behind.
Sighing, he climbed into the tent and wrapped himself up in a blanket, shutting his eyes tightly. His body was protesting against sleep—it was as though he was running off a caffeine high, compelled to keep going, but Draco kept his eyes closed and forced his breathing to be even. When he finally did drift off to sleep, his last thought was about buying Weasley something to keep him from snoring.
When Draco opened his eyes, the birds outside were making a great racket. He sat up, wincing as a stab of pain shot up from his lower back; sleeping outdoors was not all it was cracked up to be. He heard voices outside, over the birds' twittering, and realised that the tent was empty. Draco crept closer to the entrance and put his ear to the rough canvas, listening.
"...a tracking spell of some sort." Potter.
Draco noticed a tiny hole in the canvas and widened it a bit, using his wand, then pressed his face close so he could see.
Potter, Granger and Weasley were sitting on the grass, their heads bent close together. Draco felt an irrational, but intense, stab of envy—the way they looked at each other, their body language, it was all so intimate in ways Draco couldn't fathom; there was nothing sexual about it, they just appeared comfortable. Draco had never known friendship to be comfortable. A friendship was a matter of mutual interest or it was not worth forming at all.
Not for these three, clearly.
"I know a tracking spell, but we would need something of his—something he's touched," Granger said, snapping Draco out of his thoughts. Were they still trying to find that Fletcher fellow?
Potter snorted. "If I'd known, I would have kept some of the silverware."
Weasley got a look on his face like he just got some bright idea—Draco could practically see the candle lighting above his head. "Wait," said Weasley, and reached into his pocket, leaning back a bit so he could squeeze his fingers in. "What about this?" He held out a piece of parchment.
Granger peered down at it. "Where did you get this?"
"The barman at the Hog's Head. He threw it, and I picked it up; I even forgot I had it."
"He'll probably be unhappy when he finds out it's gone," muttered Potter.
Granger waved an impatient hand at them. "We can always give it back! We'd need to get to Hogsmeade, though. I've a hunch we'll be much closer that way."
"Wait, Harry, didn't you say he wasn't in the country?" asked Weasley slowly.
The dejected look on Potter's face was pure comedy gold. "Well," Potter said, slowly as though trying every word on for size, "he could be underground. But if he is, won't it show us where he'd gone?"
"It should," said Granger, "but I don't know if we can—"
"He could be dead," Potter cut in.
"That would be handy," said Weasley, nodding.
The expression on Granger's face was one of sheer horror. "Ron!"
Potter held up his hands. "Look, we haven't got time. We've got magic, haven't we? We can manage even if he's gone to Portugal or whatever, it's not that far to Apparate across the Channel."
"Let's go, then," said Weasley, starting to rise.
"What about him?" asked Potter, jerking his head towards the tent.
Draco's heart leapt a little. Somehow, his bizarre, forbidden-by-God crush on Potter made him feel validated by the fact that Potter remembered his existence.
"Should we take him with us?" Granger was saying.
Draco moved to pull the tent flap back and glared at them. "Isn't anyone going to ask me if I want to go or not?"
"Didn't anyone teach you it's bad manners to eavesdrop on other people's conversations?" asked Weasley, giving Draco a smug look. Draco wanted to strangle him.
"Don't you want to go with us, Malfoy? Would you rather stay here with the werewolves?" asked Potter with a smirk.
"Where are we going?" asked Draco, climbing out of the tent.
"To find Mundungus Fletcher. He might have a Horcrux and not realise it."
"Who's he?" asked Draco. He'd never actually bothered to find out who Fletcher was. If he was a vampire or something equally nasty, Draco would take his chances with the werewolves, thanks.
"A Knockturn Alley type, right up your alley, Malfoy," said Weasley.
Draco sneered at him.
"Oh, honestly!" snapped Granger, looking from Draco to Weasley and back. "Are you going to come with us or not?"
"Yeah, fine," Draco mumbled.
"Meet us behind the Hog's Head," said Potter, all business. "There's a clearing there, near the forest."
"What do you mean, meet you there? Aren't we going to Apparate together?" asked Draco, raising an eyebrow.
The three of them exchanged looks.
"We have to go and see someone first," said Granger.
She was a terrible liar. They were going beyond the trees to the east, Draco knew. He nodded, but he had no intention of Disapparating like a good boy.
"I'll see you soon," he said, and watched them walk off.
Checking that his wand was in place—one could never trust these ridiculous Muggle clothes—he followed the others, padding as quietly as he could. He'd had lots of practice learning how to walk quietly; he'd spent much of his formative years creeping around Malfoy Manor and scaring house-elves, after all.
Draco kept careful watch on the path beneath his feet—he couldn't let a snapping twig give him away. He would look up occasionally to make sure there was enough distance between him and the others, ducking behind trees and waiting for several breaths when he would get too close. The trees began to recede, and he saw that Potter, Weasley and Granger were now walking along a path leading up a low, green hill that seemed to rise out of a sea of nettles stretching from the edge of the forest.
There was a house on the hill; the building was partially destroyed but it had an eerily proud air around it; Draco frowned. There was magic in that house—powerful, potent magic. He watched the others duck through the doorless entrance, and decided it would be too risky to follow them all the way. He Apparated, intentionally ending up a bit further from the place Potter had told him about.
He saw the others standing in the clearing, looking around as he walked out of the Forbidden Forest.
"Misjudged the distance," said Draco to Granger, who nodded in a sympathetic way.
None of the others seemed to so much as suspect that Draco had followed them. It looked like all those days he'd spent scaring house-elves hadn't been in vain.
Harry couldn't help but wonder if Malfoy had followed them. Hermione had said the crack they'd heard had probably come from a snapping twig, but it hadn't sounded quite right. He had no way to prove it, and Malfoy's face was smooth and blank.
They reached the road, and Ron held out the IOU note for Hermione. Harry shoved his hands in his pockets, watching as Hermione pointed her wand at the slip of parchment. A silvery line of light shot out of her wand, did a few complicated loops and twists in the air, and then rushed towards the forest Malfoy had just come out of.
Harry exchanged looks with his friends and shrugged. They followed the silver line into the Forbidden Forest. It was very quiet in this part: no familiar rustling of leaves in the air, no animal or bird noises. The trees were tall, and their branches and leaves weaved together to form a thick canopy. Sunlight was sparse, just darts of it shining through the thickets here and there. It was quite gloomy and the air was too cold for this time of year.
"This never means good things," muttered Ron, pulling his jacket a little tighter about himself. Hermione patted him on the shoulder.
Malfoy looked a little paler than usual, but he said nothing. Harry wasn't particularly bothered. He'd dealt with much worse than an uncanny silence inside the Forbidden Forest. He did, however, maintain a tight grip on his wand. The Forest grew darker and colder the deeper they went, until they had to light their wands to see where they were going. There was still no sound, and even Harry was starting to get worried. What would scare the denizens of the Forbidden Forest off?
It seemed like his question was about to be answered. A path appeared in front of them as they walked, and the silver line pointed straight to it. They followed Hermione down the path until they reached a disintegrating wooden sign that read The Witch's Knot. There was something splattered in dark red paint—at least Harry hoped it was paint—near the bottom of the sign.
Beware the Night Hag.
"The Night Hag?" asked Malfoy, who'd been looking over Harry's shoulder. "The Witch's Knot? I can't be here. I just can't."
"What's a Night Hag?" asked Harry. Ron's cheeks were pale and his nose seemed longer than normal for his wide, fearful eyes.
Hermione answered. "The most vicious hag in all of Britain. I read about her in Wicked Witches of the World. I knew she lived in the Forbidden Forest, but they'd never detailed exactly where. Mostly because I think the author was eaten before she could finish the manuscript." She indicated the silver line, which trembled above the path. "But there's nothing for it if we want to find Mundungus."
"What the hell would he be doing in a place like this, anyway?" asked Ron.
Hermione shrugged. "I don't know. But I think it's fairly safe to say he's dead."
"Maybe we won't run into the Night Hag," said Harry, trying to sound hopeful. "If Dung's dead, we might just find him near the path, or something."
Ron eyed him. "Things never work out like that for us. Ever."
"You people can't seriously be thinking about going in there!" said Malfoy, sounding mildly hysterical. "The Night Hag eats people. Alive. For breakfast. And lunch. And she's got a whole circle of hags working for her."
Harry glared at him. "I don't care if she eats them for tea. Mundungus is in there. He has something I need. We're going to find him. We've all dealt with worse than some hag. If you're scared, then stay here." He brushed past Malfoy, stalking down the winding forest path. In truth, he was terrified and he didn't want to go into that forest any more than Malfoy did, but he had no choice.
Harry glanced behind him, surprised to see Malfoy, trailing behind Ron and Hermione with a sullen expression on his face. When Harry turned back to face forward, the filthy hag leering in his face put quite a damper on the smugness he was beginning to feel.
"Watch out!" cried Hermione, just as Harry fell backwards.
If asked, Harry would never be able to fully articulate exactly what happened next. He'd dropped his wand in surprise and had to scrabble in the dirt amongst fallen leaves and twigs for it. Hags closed in around them from all sides, lunging at them with sharp teeth and nails. Harry kicked one off himself, ducking from another just as he found his wand. He looked up, seeing flashes of red light from the others' wands. The effect was rather similar to a slow-pulsing strobe light at a party; except the women he was dancing with wanted to rip him to shreds.
There was so much shouting and screaming of spells and angry curses that Harry couldn't hear his own incantations. He didn't even have time to pause and think about the purposes of his curses and hexes as they ripped out of his wand, half of them non-verbal. He heard Hermione scream in terror, and spun around to see Malfoy tugging her back, his wand pointed at a hag who had a bit of Hermione's shirt in her mouth. A red rush of light burst from the tip of Malfoy's wand, and the hag flew back and lay still. Another hag rushed at Harry, screeching and spitting brown fluid; Harry only caught a glimpse of her ugly, bulbous face before he hexed her, causing her to fly into a nearby tree.
There was another scream, but this one was male. Heart in his throat, Harry turned to see Malfoy going down, a hag's teeth sinking into the flesh of his pale arm.
"Sectumsempra!" bellowed Harry, barely realising what he was doing. Malfoy's hag let out a rattling screech and fell back, dark blood spurting up from her face and chest. Harry stared into Malfoy's wide, fearful eyes for a split second, and then Malfoy got to his feet and turned just in time to Stun another hag.
A tangle of wild black hair decorated with bits of bone flew across Harry's vision, bringing with it the foul smell of rotting meat.
The Night Hag was on him.
"Impedimenta!" roared Harry. The Night Hag stumbled back a bit, but recovered quickly. She snarled and rushed at him, her yellowed teeth and cracked talons flashing in the dark.
The Night Hag was still moving. "What's the matter, dearie?" she croaked, her voice almost kindly. "Don't you want an old woman to have a bite to eat?" Her black eyes gleamed red in the ambient light of their wands, her face was a grotesque mockery of a human one, and then it hit him—these weren't human beings.
The Night Hag sprang at Harry, clawed hands reaching for his throat.
In for penny, in for a pound.
"Sectumsempra! " screamed Harry, disturbed at how easily the curse rolled off his tongue.
The Night Hag's withered old body was flung back into a tree with such force that the trunk split with a great wrenching sound, trapping her inside. There was no blood this time, but Harry saw the trunk tremble, and then the split sides began moving, like a great jaw closing. There was a sickening crack and the Night Hag's thin grey arm flopped out of the rapidly shutting tree trunk; it twitched for a few moments and then hung there, limp and unmoving.
With screeches of terror, the remaining hags fled, disappearing into the forest. Harry watched them go in satisfaction for a brief moment, and then turned back to his friends, relieved to find them all in one piece. Malfoy was leaning against a rock holding his arm out for Hermione.
"Episkey," she said, pointing her wand at the purpling bite mark that was visible beneath his ripped sleeve. The horrid colour faded and Malfoy bent his arm experimentally, wincing a little.
Harry was distracted by Ron, who had in the meantime walked up to him and patted him on the shoulder. He had dirt and grime streaked across his freckled face, but otherwise looked unharmed.
"That was,"—Ron paused—"normal for us, I suppose."
Harry gave a bitter laugh, trying to shove away his concern for Malfoy as he walked over to the tree that had crushed the Night Hag. Ron walked alongside him, sending rather evil looks in Malfoy and Hermione's direction. Harry wanted to tell him that it wasn't Hermione he should worry about around Malfoy, just Ginny, but had a feeling that would do nothing to console Ron.
To Harry's surprise, he heard harsh, ragged breaths issuing from the Night Hag's caved-in chest as he got closer. Her arm stirred and a dark eye opened, gleaming at him. Blood-matted, tangled clumps of grimy hair covered most of her face. She gave a great wheeze that caused a trickle of blood to stream out of the corner of her crooked mouth.
"Why, it's Harry Potter," she croaked, smiling. Her sharp teeth shone orange with blood in Harry's wand-light. "Quite a compliment to be killed by you."
"We are looking for a man named Mundungus Fletcher. He has something we need," said Harry, grimacing at the foul smell that had issued from her mouth.
"Oh, I ate him days ago, dearie," said the Night Hag in a dreamy voice and promptly began to cough, causing a few droplets of blood to speckle across Harry's cheek. Harry shuddered and reached up to wipe his face. "But since you're Harry Potter...I'll tell you a little secret," continued the Night Hag after her coughing fit subsided.
Her voice grew weaker, and despite his better judgment, Harry leant a little closer to hear what she was saying. "He had...a pretty little...necklace. Here...it's in a locked...cupboard...house...just...north..."
The Night Hag gurgled and her previously limp arm shot out towards Harry. He backed away before her filthy talons could rake across his throat. She twitched twice and then fell still, the ragged sound of her breathing dissolving into the eerie silence of the forest. Harry looked down at her hand, and saw a dirt-covered silver key tied to her wrist by a bit of rough rope. Harry ripped it from her wrist and shoved it into his pocket.
"Point me," he muttered, thinking of the Night Hag's last words about the house. His wand spun in his hand, pointing up north. He glanced at Ron.
Ron nodded and glanced back at Hermione and Malfoy. "Let's go. The locket is in the Night Hag's house."
"Her house? We're going to find her house? On purpose?" asked Malfoy, his eyes wide. He winced and pressed his right hand to his left shoulder, and Harry noticed that the dark material of his shirt was glistening with blood. He wanted to ask if Malfoy was still injured, but he stopped himself. Malfoy might think Harry cared.
"What if that's where the other hags ran off to?" asked Hermione.
Harry shrugged and started walking north. "Then we'll fight them again."
The house turned out not to be too far away. In less than five minutes, the four of them reached a small dell, where a rickety old shack stood near the edge of the wood. It smelled rotten, the wooden walls stained with things Harry didn't want to know about. The shack was crooked, leaning towards the forest as though a giant had tried to push it over. Given Grawp's earlier, wilder days in the Forbidden Forest, it was actually a possibility.
Lifting his lit wand higher, Harry moved forward. There seemed to be no activity around the shack and no noise came from the inside. As he approached the entrance, the smell became so foul that he had to pull his t-shirt over his nose before he pushed open the door, which creaked horribly. Nothing stirred inside the shack, and it was pitch-dark. After a glance back at the others, who also had their shirts pulled up over their noses, Harry walked in.
To his relief, nothing jumped out at him from the waiting darkness. Wind gusted through the cracks of the house but made no noise at all, as though the shack's interior was under a strong Imperturbable Charm. Harry raised his wand higher and tried to orientate himself. He appeared to be standing in what passed for a sitting room, if the bloodstained sofa was any indication. There were rips in its covering that looked like they'd been made by claws. The floor was littered with bones, some not entirely picked clean. An open doorway across the room revealed the kitchen. Harry walked towards it, wincing every time something crunched under his feet.
If possible, the kitchen was even more ghastly. A thick layer of dark grime covered the counter-tops, and a mangled arm lay next to the rusting stove. Harry's stomach performed a somersault worthy of Olympic gold.
"If I pass out, I'm well within my rights," quipped Malfoy from the back.
Harry jumped, turning around. He hadn't expected any of them to follow him, especially not Malfoy.
Beside Malfoy, Ron nodded in agreement. "I'm never eating again."
"Oh, the two of you are such girls," said Hermione, sounding annoyed, though she didn't move any closer, either.
Harry turned back around and went inside the kitchen. Holding up his wand and wishing he didn't have to breathe, he looked around for a locked cupboard. He found it soon enough. It was a large cupboard just above the stove. The sick, sweet smell of decay was strongest there. Harry fished the key out of his pocket and slipped it into the keyhole. He had to release his t-shirt from his nose to do it, and he was dangerously close to fainting by the time he managed to get the cupboard open.
He closed the cupboard immediately to avoid vomiting at the sight of Mundungus Fletcher's half-eaten corpse. Someone had helpfully arranged what was once Dung into a sitting position and there was a cluster of maggots hanging down from the empty socket of his left eye. Harry lifted his t-shirt back to his nose and lowered his head, shutting his eyes tightly as he gripped the stove, willing his stomach to stop heaving.
"Harry? Are you all right?" asked Hermione's concerned voice from the doorway.
Harry glanced back at her, imagining he must have looked pretty green even in the scant wand-light. "Fine, just— the smell," he choked, fighting his gag reflex.
Hermione made a movement and Harry felt fresh, clean air streaming into his nostrils. Of course—the Bubble-Head Charm. Why hadn't he thought of it? Saying a silent prayer of thanks—once again—for having Hermione on his side, Harry straightened up and opened the cupboard again. The sight did nothing for his appetite, but it wasn't as awful as it had been coupled with the smell. Harry idly wondered what would happen if he threw up inside the air bubble; would he drown in his vomit? He could see the Daily Prophet headlines now: Chosen One Vomits Self to Death, World Doomed.
He forced himself to look around the cupboard, but other than Mundungus's bloated, decomposing corpse, there was nothing. Harry did discover that the arm on the counter had, indeed, once belonged to Mundungus. There was no sight of the locket anywhere, however, and Harry cursed himself for believing the Night Hag. She'd probably sent them here in hopes they'd all pass out from the horrible smell, and her little gang of hags could have refreshments at the funeral festivities.
Harry started to turn around, but something caught his eye: something metallic glinted from inside Mundungus's chest. There was a ragged tear that looked like someone had punched a hole through his sternum to rip out his heart. A similar hole gaped in his distended belly, and a long, grey intestine hung out from the side, like a slimy earthworm. The hags must have gnawed on Mundungus's bits without bothering to detach them, leaving behind what appeared to be chewed-up sausage. Harry really wished he hadn't looked. A fresh wave of nausea passed over him, but he forced it away through necessity, leaning in a little closer to see what had glinted at him.
More grateful than ever for the Bubble-Head Charm, Harry angled his wand closer to the hole in Mundungus's chest. Sure enough, there was the locket, embedded in a ruptured lung.
"Accio locket," Harry muttered, and it flew into his hand, taking a stringy, slimy bit of Mundungus's innards with it. "Scourgify."
Harry shoved the now-clean locket into his pocket and walked out of the kitchen, pushing past the curious Ron, Hermione, and Malfoy. He left the house, turned to the side, dissolved the bubble around his head and promptly threw up into a thatch of stinging nettles, holding on to the shack wall with one hand.
"OH, MY GOD."
The others must have seen Mundungus. Harry wasn't sure who had said that, but he heard the sound of retching and Ron and Hermione running out, both looking green. Malfoy came out a moment later, wiping his mouth. He looked exactly like Harry felt. Harry straightened up and tucked his wand back into his jeans.
"Can we go home now?" asked Malfoy.
"A wonderful idea," said Hermione, sounding out of breath. "Go on, we'll be right after you."
Malfoy gave her a bemused look, but nodded and Disapparated with a loud crack. Hermione patted Harry on the back, while Ron just stood there, shuddering.
"That was disgusting," he said, voice shaking.
"I don't even want to talk about it, okay?" said Harry. "Let's just get out of here."
They went back to Godric's Hollow, earning another bewildered look from Malfoy when they walked out of the woods. Harry wondered if they should just tell him about the portal. Malfoy had fought the hags alongside them, after all, and he'd saved Hermione...Harry shuddered as he remembered using Snape's Sectumsempra curse to save Malfoy. Did Malfoy appreciate the irony as much as he did? Not that he was inclined to talk to Malfoy about it or anything.
He stopped beside Malfoy, whose shirt was no longer bloody. His hair was wet and slicked back from his face, making him look younger than he was.
"Thanks, Malfoy," said Harry. "For Hermione," he added after Malfoy's eyebrow quirked.
"Don't mention it," said Malfoy, his voice soft. "Turnabout is fair play, is it not?"
Harry sensed that Malfoy was saying only half of what he meant, but he wasn't in the mood to try and figure it out. He merely nodded and trudged towards the basin, anxious to wash the smell of death from his hands.
Draco gripped his wand as tightly as he could, willing his hand not to shake. His dreams had been filled with terror and darkness since the last time they'd done this. He didn't want to do it, didn't want to see the violet light again, but there was nothing for it, as Potter was fond of saying.
"Now," whispered Potter's voice beside him.
Draco forced his eyes to stay open as he recited the incantation in his mind—he couldn't believe he was actually doing this. They were calling upon the sleeping, ancient Sun God to reach through time, calling to the dead, dark past of the world. He was mad for having agreed to help them do this, but he couldn't back out now.
The bright light burst forth from the tip of his wand, darker sparks dancing above the thick jet. Draco's entire body went rigid, unfeeling—long enough for him to panic that the Necrovixi-induced paralysis had returned—and then the pain came, radiating up and out from his solar plexus. He fought to keep his eyes open against the excruciating sensation of a million poisoned pins stabbing into his skin. Closing his eyes would only make it worse.
He could see nothing but the ominous light streaming towards the locket, suffusing it with light, causing it to glow at the edges—violet at first and then slowly fading through all the colours of the rainbow, dissolving into acid green. There was a strong smell of ozone as the spell ripped through time, and then decay as it reached its destination. There were fiery explosions in the darkened sky above, but Draco only saw residual flashes at the edge of his vision. All his strength went to keeping a tight grip on his wand and forcing his eyes to remain open.
When the screaming in his ears began, Draco thought he wouldn't be able to take any of it much longer. This time, he thought he could make out individual voices in the deafening roar of the dead. The spell was taking some hidden, secret part of him—and the others—through the Beyond, searching for the person who had died to make this Horcrux. Eventually, the shrieks diminished to a dull roar, in sync with Draco's heartbeat.
The green aura around the locket pulsed and glowed as a living, breathing thing. The violet light stopped flowing. There was a high-pitched humming noise—whether in Draco's mind or in reality, he wasn't sure—and the glow around the locket exploded into a million points of sharp light. Not a moment too soon, because Draco lost control of his wand and it dropped to the grass at his feet. He sank to his knees and hid his face in his hands, not caring what the others would say. None of them were meant to be doing this, it wasn't right.
After Draco began to smell the forest again and to feel the blood course through his veins, he opened his eyes and peered at the dead grass through his wet fingers. When had he begun to cry?
"Malfoy?" Granger's voice, laced with barely suppressed concern.
Draco drew his forearm across his eyes and picked up his wand. He staggered to his feet with as much grace as he could muster.
"Yeah," he said, eyeing Granger. Like the last time, it looked like she'd been hit with a Rapid-Lightning Curse—her hair was a tangled mess that stuck up in all directions. In other words, it appeared much worse than usual. Draco suspected that his own hair didn't look much better, though.
Weasley lay on the ground, staring wide-eyed at the sky. His chest was rising and falling erratically, like he was having trouble controlling his breathing. Potter appeared to have remained standing throughout. He was pale and unmoving, staring stupidly at the disabled Horcrux. A lock of black hair had fallen into his eyes. Draco fought the urge to walk over and tuck it back.
"Will it get worse?" asked Weasley after a long pause. "Because I don't think I can take much worse." He propped himself up on his elbows and looked at Granger.
Granger looked up at Draco, the same question reflected in her face. Draco clenched his jaw. There was no way to tell, no way to control the way this spell went. The next one might be a walk in the park, or it might destroy one of them from the inside.
"There's no way to tell," he said. "There just isn't."
Granger's face fell; she looked like she was about to say something, but Draco walked away. He wanted to climb into the tent, bury his head under something dark and warm, and never feel or think again. He did climb into the tent, but instead of falling prone onto his sleeping bag, he sat in the far corner, knees drawn up, staring ahead of himself. Was any of this worth the risks he took? Was any of it worth the danger?
The tent flap moved aside and Potter climbed in, followed by Weasley.
"Hermione's bathing," said Potter. "Don't go out there until she lets us know she's done."
Draco nodded dully, looking away without really wanting to. On top of everything he wanted to watch Potter's every move, memorise every expression, be able to touch him without Potter recoiling in horror...This was doing nothing for Draco's focus. He looked over at Potter and Weasley, who were talking about something, heads close together. How could Weasley stand to be so close to Potter without cupping his face in his hands and taking his bottom lip between his teeth and—
Draco bowed his head. He was going insane.
Fifteen minutes later, Granger clambered inside, fresh-faced and almost smiling. Her hair was back to normal, which was to say it looked like several cats had performed an interpretive dance in it. She moved to the middle of the tent and took in the interior with a frown.
"All right, all of you, out," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "This place is worse than a pigsty." She sniffed the air, turning in the direction of Weasley and Potter. "And at least one of you could definitely use a bath." Draco knew she couldn't be talking about him; he'd just bathed before the rest of them had come back from the strange magical house on the hill.
Weasley coloured to the roots of his hair while Potter looked away with a sheepish expression. "Race you to the basin," he said, shoving Weasley out of the way and scampering out of the tent. Weasley tore after him with a startled "HEY!"
Draco felt a stab of jealousy as he watched the tent flap fall back down. He told himself to stop being ridiculous. Why would he ever want to be involved in this sort of childish horseplay?
Because it would let you get close enough to touch.
"Malfoy, when I said 'all of you', I meant you, too," said Granger.
Draco looked up at her, irritated. There was just no way he was going out there and watching Potter bathe. He wanted to, badly, but he knew it would only make him feel more miserable in the end.
He turned to Granger. "How about I help you, instead?"
She looked shocked for a moment—Draco didn't blame her. If anyone had suggested to him a month ago that he'd be helping Granger clean up after Potter and Weasley, he'd have died laughing.
Together, they got rid of all the trailed-in dirt, reorganised the stacked foodstuffs in one corner and blew air through the bedding. They spoke very little. Granger didn't let him near a canvas-coloured pile of notebooks in her corner of the tent. Draco wondered if these were volumes of Granger's diary. She looked like the type to keep detailed accounts of every day and then lug the records around with her for fear that someone might read them.
Like anyone would want to read them, anyway. Girls' lives were so boring. Draco had stolen Pansy's diary once, he should know. While they were cleaning, Draco tried his best to ignore the sound of Potter and Weasley's voices outside, occasionally punctuated by splashes of water. If he could only see, just for one instant! He would put his eye to the hole he'd found earlier and peek out for a single second. Just to see...
Potter poked his head into the tent, damp hair sticking to his face. "You done here?"
"Yeah," said Granger. "I'll start dinner."
They left, taking no notice of Draco, as if he were an empty space. Later, long after the others went to sleep, Draco sat inside the tent, listening to werewolves howling in the distance. Granger and Draco had secured the campsite with anti-Muggle charms and a few extra spells of Draco's own, but he didn't dare venture out when the werewolves sounded so close.
It was a shame, as he would have dearly loved some room to stretch and work out the kinks in his back and shoulders. He had an odd pain in his side from when they'd blasted the locket Horcrux. With a bit of rest and perhaps a few healing charms, he would be all right, but he felt coldness slice through him at the thought of the kind of Dark magic they were dealing with. The other three seemed utterly unaware of just how dangerous a game they were all playing.
Draco wished he could be like them, that he could wipe all knowledge of Dark magic from his mind—in the past few weeks, he had been rapidly discovering that ignorance was bliss. He closed his eyes as he thought of all the fighting and blood and that awful corpse. Bile rose in his throat at the very thought, and he desperately cast about for another, less revolting, thought. Weasley had mentioned that the fight with the hags had been "normal" for them—Draco wondered if Weasley had been in shock or if that was the truth.
This was nothing compared to casting the Imperius curse on people or trying to fix a broken magical item, though it was considerably more enjoyable to have people on his side who would protect him without hesitation. Draco's eyes flew open and he shuddered as he remembered Potter's face, distorted with fear and—something else—as he'd cast that vile curse, the one that had almost killed Draco earlier that year, on the hag attacking Draco.
Draco glanced down at Potter's sleeping form near the tent wall—his face was pressed into his bare arm, his mouth was open, he was snoring, and he had an utterly ridiculous look on his face. Ridiculous but strangely endearing, thought Draco, kicking himself mentally for the thought before he even finished thinking it. Without his glasses, Potter looked younger, more innocent, but Draco knew all too well how deceptive that was. Potter fought like a madman, protected his friends with a maniacal ferocity, and his determination to reach his goals was frightening even to a Slytherin.
There had been a rumour back around third year that the Sorting Hat had wanted to put Potter in Slytherin, but he'd refused. Some sixth-year had overheard the Sorting Hat muttering to itself in Dumbledore's office. Draco had dismissed the rumour at the time as laughable, but now he wasn't so sure. He had a fleeting thought of how different things could have been—would have been—had Potter been sorted into Slytherin.
A guilty knot twisted near Draco's solar plexus as he realised he was substituting Blaise with Potter in his thoughts. Only Potter wouldn't let Draco do whatever he liked, whenever he liked. Blaise was all about giving, because he was arrogant enough to assume that he would receive in spades once he gave. Not Potter. Potter would take and take and take. There was an intensity to him, an all-consuming fire that Draco was drawn towards—had always been drawn towards; he just hadn't until that moment fully understood that that was what he wanted from Potter.
Draco reached out and ran a fingertip lightly along Potter's arm. It was like electricity; the jolt travelled all from Draco's finger up into his arm, down his side and straight to his cock, which gave an interested twinge inside his trousers. Draco jerked his hand back, terrified. It was dangerous for him to be this close to Potter now, too dangerous. He wanted him badly enough to hurt, but he was certain that Potter had eyes only for Ginny Weasley—or any other girl, really.
Harry awoke with a start, aware of an odd tingle in his left upper arm. He'd been feeling weird twinges like this a lot lately; he suspected they had something to do with the spell that deactivated the Horcruxes. He made a note to ask Hermione about it. He rubbed his eyes and an image flashed in his mind.
Malfoy was sitting cross-legged in the middle of a white, empty room -- he was naked and his eyes were an eerie silver. Blood trickled down from his temple, down his cheek, scarlet drops splashing into a puddle on the floor. The room whirled in thousands of hypnotic patterns and Malfoy was gone. In his place was Dumbledore, his eyes silvery -white like Malfoy's had been. He wasn't bleeding; he was speaking. Harry leant in closer.
"The sword, Harry. You need the sword again."
Harry lowered his hands from his face. Was that a dream he'd had in the night? He wasn't sure, but he knew which sword Dumbledore was talking about. He looked around—the tent was empty. Harry pulled on a t-shirt and crawled out into the morning sunlight, squinting.
Hermione was handing a steaming mug to Malfoy, who accepted it with a tiny nod.
"Hey," said Harry, his voice scratchy. Ron was walking towards the tent with a towel slung over his bare shoulders, wiping his face with one end of it.
"I need to get Godric Gryffindor's sword," said Harry.
Ron flopped down onto the ground beside Hermione and gave Harry a curious look.
"What for?" asked Hermione, as though echoing Ron's unspoken question.
Harry climbed out, pulled the towel off Ron's shoulders and rose to his feet. "I'm not sure. I had a dream, and Dumbledore told me that I need it."
"Are you sure the dream didn't come from You-Know— Voldemort?" asked Ron, accepting his own mug of tea from Hermione.
Malfoy flinched, and Harry thought he noticed a look of glee lurking at the corners of Ron's eyes. He wouldn't be surprised if Ron was saying Voldemort's name on purpose just to make Malfoy nervous. Harry considered Ron's words, thinking of the white room and Malfoy bleeding—
He shook his head. "It didn't feel like that. My scar doesn't hurt or anything."
"Well, if you need it, we'll have to get it," said Hermione, lifting her own mug to her lips. She blew on the tea and added, "Go and get washed, you don't get breakfast until you do."
Harry grinned at her and sprinted off towards the basin, feeling lighter already. He washed his face quickly, rinsed his teeth out with Mrs Weasley's potion, and then headed back to the tent.
"You're just going to go into Hogwarts and steal a priceless artefact?" Malfoy was saying to Hermione. "Yeah, that'll happen."
"Shut up, Malfoy," said Harry in a conversational tone as he sat down beside Ron. "The castle's abandoned, and I know I can get that sword."
Malfoy put both hands up in the air in a defensive gesture. "Whatever you say," he said in a bored voice.
Stupid git. How could Harry have thought last night that he'd changed in any way? He was just as insufferable as ever. Maybe he was half vampire or something. That would explain why he was only bearable when it was dark. Harry reached for the bowl of porridge Hermione was holding out for him, determined not to think about Malfoy.
After breakfast, they set off towards the Potter house—only halfway there did Harry realise that Malfoy was walking with them, looking thoroughly mystified. They'd forgotten to tell him to Apparate separately. Ron was looking at Malfoy as well, clearly thinking the same thoughts Harry was. They both looked at Hermione, who was wearing a quizzical look.
Harry gave a one-sided shrug and kept walking. They would show Malfoy the map portal. Malfoy was bound to find out one way or another and if they didn't tell him, he'd try to spy on them anyway; Malfoy was like that.
"'S fine," Harry said in Ron's direction. "Not like he can use it or anything."
"What the hell are you on about?" asked Malfoy, sounding put out.
"You'll see," said Hermione.
It was a nice summer day, hot by local standards, and they were all sweating by the time they reached the path that led up to the house on the hill. After Harry stood over the trapdoor to make it appear, he let his three companions pass and watched as Malfoy followed Ron and Hermione down into the cellar, looking around curiously. Harry shut the trapdoor above his head and hopped down, causing the floor to creak.
Malfoy was standing next to the portal, looking at it with a puzzled expression on his face.
"It's a portal," said Harry. "My parents built it. Gets you from point A to point B faster than Apparition and with a quarter of the magic."
"We're using it to move around the country, but you'll have to Apparate as you don't have a conduit," said Hermione.
Malfoy chewed on his bottom lip. "When I learn Greek, I'll let you know and you can repeat what you just said," he said to her. There was a wicked glint in his eyes for a second, but then it was gone as Malfoy shifted sideways.
Harry had to admit he was a little disappointed by Malfoy's failure to appreciate the portal as a clever bit of magic. This didn't make sense to him at all—since when did he care what Malfoy thought? Ridiculous. He picked up his doll and placed it on the map, next to the front entrance of Hogwarts.
"The front doors? But Harry, the magic—" Hermione began.
"—stopped working as soon as Dumbledore died," muttered Harry. "They never bothered to put it back in place."
He didn't want to tell them about the conversation he'd overheard between the portraits of Dumbledore and Phineas Nigellus last time he had been at Hogwarts. If Malfoy could get past the wards, Harry would know that he wasn't disloyal to Harry.
Malfoy made a noise like a grunt. Harry looked over at him and saw that his face was pale. He realised that this was the first time he'd spoken of Dumbledore's death in Malfoy's presence. Did the prat actually feel guilty for what he'd caused? Harry couldn't muster up any hatred—Malfoy had been a puppet, much like that doll Harry used to move around the map. He'd saved Hermione's life yesterday, which in Harry's mind made up for a lot of things—not everything by a long shot, but enough.
"Let's go," he said, and pointed his wand at himself, zooming through the portal.
The Hogwarts grounds were as still as ever. The hedges near the gates were growing out of control as no one was there to sprinkle Self-Trimming Hedge Powder on them. There was a crack and Malfoy appeared not far from him, looking bewildered.
"You weren't lying," he said, tucking his wand into his belt.
Harry rolled his eyes; there were two tiny popping noises and then Ron and Hermione were standing there. Harry felt a weird twinge in his chest and remembered the tingling sensation he'd felt in his arm upon waking.
"Hermione," he said. "Could you check the library for any information on the physical effects of that spell we're using to nix the Horcruxes?"
Hermione's eyes lit up. "I bet I know exactly where to look, too," she said, sounding excited at the prospect.
"I bet you don't," drawled Malfoy. "I'll go with you."
"No, you won't," said Ron. "I'll go with Hermione. You stay with Harry."
Malfoy shrugged. He seemed relaxed and tense at the same time—his movements were languid but the way he held himself suggested that he was taut as a bowstring. What was the matter with him?
"All right, we split up," said Harry. "We'll join you at the library as soon as we've got the sword."
Harry and Malfoy walked through the empty corridors of Hogwarts, their footsteps echoing as they went. The fact that Malfoy was still walking beside him and not thrown back by the invisible wards was not lost on Harry.
"Good thinking, Potter," said Malfoy as they got onto a staircase that would get them to the seventh floor. "What made you realise the possibility of physical damage?"
Harry had no interest in telling Malfoy about his dreams, especially considering that they involved Malfoy naked. Bleeding, but naked. "You mean you knew and didn't tell us?"
Malfoy turned to him, glaring. "I told you on the first day, you self-important little—"
"So you did," said Harry with a sigh. He'd have to work on this "listening to Malfoy" thing. Apparently, the prat had his uses.
The staircase jerked beneath them as it stopped moving; the two boys alighted and made their way to the Headmaster's office.
Dumbledore wasn't in his portrait and neither was Phineas Nigellus—which Harry found a shame, because he could just imagine the conniption fit Nigellus would have had upon seeing a descendant of the Blacks helping Harry. Then again, Phineas had told Harry about Grimmauld Place, hadn't he?
He walked up to the glass case that held the sword of Gryffindor and waved his wand at it, Vanishing the glass. To his surprise, the glass did vanish, and he was able to take the sword out of the case with no problems. Something was bound to go horribly wrong very soon. There was just no way that things could go so smoothly for Harry.
As he grasped the sword's ruby-encrusted hilt, Harry felt a calm reassurance growing in his chest, combating his doubts about his luck. He held up the sword and looked at it, then glanced at Malfoy. Malfoy was looking around the office with great interest, appearing to be ignoring Harry on purpose. Was the git so offended that Harry hadn't listened to him? Harry rolled his eyes.
"Let's go," he said.
As they came back out of the office, they heard a high-pitched, cackling voice carrying down the hallway.
"Peevsie was bored today, but Peevsie heard them, oh yes! Naughty, naughty children lurking where they should not lurk!" it sang.
Harry froze. There was no telling what Peeves could do without fear of punishment by an authority figure. They needed to hide, quickly. He grabbed Malfoy's shirt and pulled him into a tiny alcove, motioning for him to be quiet. It wasn't exactly comfortable there, with Malfoy nearly on top of him. He felt Malfoy's warm breath on his cheek; it was causing his glasses to fog up slightly at the bottom. The closeness was almost intimate—there was something familiar in the way Malfoy's body tensed. After all, they'd been with the same girl...Harry realised he was staring into Malfoy's eyes and looked away hastily.
With luck, Peeves would be gone soon.
This just wasn't fair on so many fundamental levels.
Draco tried to concentrate on breathing through his nose, but Potter's proximity was driving all rational thoughts from his mind, causing him to tremble, desperate to touch—he'd never felt anything this intense with anyone, not even Blaise. No girl had ever made him lose control like this. Draco wanted to wonder if this made him gay, but his mind was refusing to wonder about anything.
Potter was inches away, his chest heaving; he was leaning against the wall with his hips jutting slightly forward; Draco's left leg was between Potter's thighs, close enough to feel the body heat. Draco was leaning against the wall using his left forearm, and if he moved just a tiny bit forward, he'd be—
—kissing Potter, shoving his tongue into his mouth whilst moving his right hand to cup one of Potter's buttocks, rubbing himself against Potter's crotch, his cock instantly hard. Potter made a surprised noise and tried to push Draco away, but Draco caught Potter's bottom lip between his teeth and pulled gently, causing Potter to breathe in with a hiss.
There was a great clanking sound on his left and Draco tore his mouth from Potter's to look down. The sword of Gryffindor had fallen to the floor and there was a great cackle somewhere out in the corridor. The two boys stood frozen whilst Peeves zipped around outside, making loud whooping noises and muttering to himself. When he left, Draco became aware of something hard digging into his thigh, far too thick to be Potter's wand.
A slow smile began to build in Draco's mind.
"What the hell just happened, Malfoy?" asked Potter, his voice weak.
Draco leant closer to him, nearly drunk with elation. "I don't know," he whispered. "You tell me."
This time Potter kissed back, flicking his tongue against Draco's and pushing his hips slowly upwards, grinding into Draco's thigh with little sounds of pleasure that left Draco reeling. He reached down and deftly unfastened Potter's belt, undid his zip and pushed down his jeans; Potter wiggled his hips a bit—to help—and then Draco was holding Harry Potter's hard cock in his hand.
How he managed to keep his legs from giving out, he wasn't sure, but the soft skin and warmth in his hand felt glorious; Draco didn't even think as he began to stroke. Potter gave a low moan into Draco's mouth, and Draco very nearly came in his pants. He pulled away from the kiss and took Potter's earlobe between his teeth, flicking his tongue against the soft skin there. Potter moaned again, louder this time, and Draco felt hands grip his lower back tightly. For a few long seconds, Potter's breathing seemed to be controlled purely by the rough urging of Draco's hand on his cock.
Sighing, Draco pressed himself closer, until his knuckles were brushing up against his clothes as he tossed Potter off. He brought his thumb up to tease Potter's slit, spreading the pre-come in sloppy, quick circles. Draco bit his lip. He wanted to taste Potter, to feel him in his mouth, make him break into little pieces, come undone in his hands.
"I'm going to get on my knees and suck your cock now," hissed Draco, and licked Potter's ear. "I bet you'll like that, won't you?"
Potter whimpered, thrusting up into Draco's hand, his head falling back as he surrendered control. "Do it," he breathed. Draco smiled against Potter's neck and pulled back. Potter hissed at the loss of contact when Draco released his cock.
"Harry? Malfoy?" Granger. To think that Draco was beginning to warm to the girl.
"Fuck," said Draco and Potter together, exchanging glances. Draco let go of him and stepped back, smirking as Potter fumbled to pull up his pants and jeans, zipping them up clumsily.
"Your sword," muttered Draco, nodding towards the shining blade on the floor.
Potter bent down to pick it up and it was all Draco could do to stop himself from taking just one step closer and pressing himself against Potter's arse, gripping his sides...good God, he really was gay, wasn't he?
Potter straightened up, sword in hand. There was a faint flush across his cheeks and his eyes were dark as he met Draco's gaze. Draco bit his lip, willing his heartbeat to slow, his cock to bother him some other time. It was really too fucking bad Potter had his priorities straight.
"Off to save the world you go," Draco murmured, jerking his head towards the corridor.
Weasley was calling Potter's name now, sounding frantic. Potter gripped the sword tighter and walked out, calling Weasley's name in return. Draco followed him. The others were just shy of reaching the alcove. Granger had her wand out, pointed at the ceiling; Draco looked up and saw that she had Peeves in a clear bubble, where he appeared to be shouting up a storm, looking murderous, except no sound escaped the walls of his unexpected prison.
"Thanks, Hermione. We were hiding from Peeves," Potter said.
Who would have thought the boy could bend the truth so well?
It was best not think about what had just happened with Malfoy. He wasn't going to think about Malfoy's hands, his wet, warm mouth, his tongue. No, he would definitely not think about Malfoy's tongue. Harry fought the urge to close his eyes and moan as he recalled the brilliant feel of Malfoy's fingers curled around his cock. That hadn't been anything like Ginny's uncertain, fumbling caresses—Malfoy had known exactly what to do to Harry, known exactly how to...
Harry stifled a whimper and clutched Gryffindor's sword harder, so that the hilt dug into his palm painfully. He couldn't afford to go to pieces because he was hard as fuck with no immediate way of release. Harry's hands trembled a little as he walked down the marble staircase that led to the Entrance Hall. He focussed on Ron and Hermione's backs, but he couldn't ignore Malfoy, who was walking entirely too near. Harry could smell him, or maybe he still tasted him, or heard Malfoy's whispers.
I bet you'll like that, won't you?
Harry forced his mind off Malfoy. This was neither the time nor the place to be experiencing epiphanies, especially not epiphanies of this kind. He had to think of the Horcruxes; they were all that mattered. They were close now; he'd already destroyed so many, and only one remained. One he needed to find, where was it? Where could it—?
The sword of Gryffindor grew so hot in Harry's hand that he nearly dropped it. With bewildered fascination, Harry held the sword up, watching as it glowed a faint orangey-red, like someone's blood. Now that he had noticed it glowing, it was cooling down in his hand. Harry scratched the back of his head with his free hand, staring at the radiant blade in front of him.
Hermione gasped. "Harry, I've read about this, just last week! The sword! It knows what you're looking for and it's going to show you the way to it!"
Harry lowered the sword and turned to her, frowning. "What?"
"You must've been thinking about the Horcruxes, right? While holding the sword?"
"Yeah," said Harry, blinking at her in confusion.
"Well, it must've sensed desperation! It's a highly magical object that belonged to—"
"Hermione, you're not making any sense," said Ron, frowning deeply. "Can you spare us the lecture this time?"
She waved an impatient hand at him. "'The sword may aid those on a noble quest, when all seems lost,'" she recited. "You must have been thinking about the Horcruxes, and we've only got the last one to find, haven't we? Now hold it up, it will point the way. Trust me on this! We'll be right behind you."
Harry still had no clear idea what Hermione was on about; it was all a bit too much at the moment. He glanced at Malfoy and Ron. Malfoy had a rather disbelieving look on his face, but he nodded. Ron nodded without hesitation.
Harry lifted the sword up. It pulsed for an instant, the rubies on its hilt gleaming, and tilted in his hand. Light shot out of the very tip of the blade, pulsing faintly in the gloom. It was pointing in the opposite direction of where they'd been going—the last Horcrux was at Hogwarts! Heart racing and blood rushing, Harry ran back up the stairs, following the blade. He paid no attention to where he was going, not until he found himself in front of a girls' bathroom. Moaning Myrtle's bathroom.
Harry pushed the door open, trying not to remember the last time he'd been in there. The light from the sword bent and pointed downwards almost immediately.
"Bloody hell, Harry! It's in the Chamber of Secrets," whispered Ron.
"You're not supposed to be here!" cried a shrill voice from above, and then Moaning Myrtle came into view. She was glaring at Harry, but keeping a good distance from Gryffindor's sword. "The school is closed, and—Draco?"
Malfoy folded his arms across his chest. "Hello, Myrtle."
"Draco, are you hurt? Why are you here?" she asked, zooming around his head, her voice even more high-pitched than usual.
"I'm fine. We're here, ah, looking for something."
"What are you looking for? Can I help?"
"You can help by getting lost yourself," said Harry, who'd felt an absurd stab of jealousy at Myrtle's hovering over Malfoy.
Myrtle glared at him. Harry ignored her, bending down over the sink and telling the Chamber of Secrets to open up. He hadn't spoken Parseltongue for a long time, but he found that it wasn't difficult—it was as if the sword was not only showing him the way. It had also improved his reflexes, his wits and natural abilities, like a shot of Felix Felicis.
"Why are you doing that?" she screeched. "Draco, run, he's going to murder you again!"
"Myrtle, relax, the monster's dead," said Hermione, clearly trying to sound reasonable. "It can't come out and hurt anyone. We're looking for something in there."
"We're going down there?" asked Malfoy, glancing down into the pipe in distaste.
"Are you under the Imperius Curse, Draco?" Myrtle demanded.
"Oh for the love of..." said Ron, rolling his eyes. He climbed into the pipe and slid down and out of sight.
Malfoy smiled. "I'm fine, Myrtle. I'm helping Potter because we both want the same thing."
"Nothing like an innate sense of heroism," muttered Hermione.
Harry was so very grateful for his friends' presence, because all that ran through his head at Malfoy's words was, "I bet you'll like that, won't you?"
Hermione slid down the pipe, giving the occasional moan of disgust on the way down. Harry remembered that she'd never done this before. Hermione had been Petrified in the hospital wing when Harry and Ron had last been here.
"Your turn," said Harry, looking at Malfoy, who moved towards the pipe.
"I don't know," murmured Malfoy, sounding a little breathless. "Now that we're alone..." He paused by Harry, but didn't touch him, which only added to Harry's mounting frustration. He felt like he might explode if Malfoy didn't touch him right fucking now.
"We're not," Harry whispered. He would not let Malfoy think he was scared, he would not back away, he would not—
"And if we were...?" Malfoy whispered back, leaning slightly forward. Harry felt dizzy.
"What are you talking about?" asked Myrtle, popping up between them. Harry sprang back from the cold, prickly sensation as one of her arms went through his chest. The tension was broken, and Harry made a note to thank Myrtle later. He would probably forget, but it was the thought that counted.
"Go on, Malfoy," he said, his voice rough. "Down you go."
"Cheers, Myrtle," said Malfoy. "Nice pun, Potter," he added under his breath.
Malfoy muttered something about "revolting" and "this better be worth it" under his breath, before sliding down the pipe. Harry stared after him and pushed away a disturbingly vivid image where he slid down after Malfoy and ended up on top of him.
"You'd better not hurt him again, Harry Potter! I've got my eye on you!" Myrtle said. She was floating near the ceiling, peering down into the pipe anxiously.
Harry remembered blood gushing out of Malfoy's chest, his pale blond head lolling against a dirty floor in another bathroom. He shook his head.
"I won't hurt him," he said—half to himself, half to Myrtle—"I won't."
Ignoring Myrtle's muttering, Harry climbed into the pipe and slid down. A blur of filth and darkness, and he was tumbling out onto a pile of bones. Light from three wands closed in, and Ron helped him up.
"I am covered in grime," grumbled Malfoy, pointing his wand at himself and muttering a cleaning charm.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's not like you won't get dirty again. Do shut up now. Honestly."
But she pointed her own wand at her clothes and Harry saw Malfoy grinning—a genuine smile, not even remotely similar to that self-satisfied smirk of his. The sword of Gryffindor sent a surge of heat into his hand—it travelled all the way up Harry's arm to his shoulder, ending somewhere near his teeth. Harry held up the sword again, forgetting about Malfoy.
The light from the sword pierced the darkness, pointing past the pile of rubble that was still here after five years. Without a word, Harry followed it through the Chamber of Secrets. The walls remained every bit as slimy as before, still covered in carvings of snakes. The whole place stank of death and moss and faintly, blood.
With a pang, Harry remembered the last time he was here. He could still see Ginny's small body, lying still on the floor in the Basilisk's chamber. He remembered thinking she was dead, thinking he'd failed her. He remembered Riddle standing over her, idly playing with Harry's wand, a half-smile on his handsome face. He remembered Malfoy's lips—the sensation was so sudden and out of context that he stopped.
Harry shook his head in an attempt to clear it. Ginny. Malfoy. Were Harry and Ginny even now? Frustrated with himself for being distracted, Harry snapped at Malfoy to hurry up. Malfoy looked up, his eyes narrowing slightly, and made no attempt to walk faster. Harry gripped the sword tighter and clenched his jaw.
The sword did not lead them to the Basilisk's chamber as Harry had expected it to. Instead, it led to a section of wall on the left of Slytherin's statue. Harry was confused. What else could be here? It was just a wall, with no special markings or anything.
The sword only glowed, the pulsating light insistent.
"What are you waiting for, Harry? Say something in Parseltongue," said Hermione.
Harry sighed. It just couldn't be as easy as that.
"Open up," he said, concentrating on a small grass snake in his mind's eye.
Salazar Slytherin's statue's eyes moved, and a hidden door slid open in front of him, revealing a long, dark tunnel with a ceiling covered in dusty cobwebs. He couldn't see very far past the beginning of the tunnel; there was no telling how long it was or where it led.
Salazar's statue spoke. "Only one may pass," it said in a booming voice, the echoes of which ricocheted off the chamber walls and ceiling, finally fading with something that sounded like a distant scream.
"That's not fair," said Hermione, frowning.
Harry looked at Hermione, Ron, and Malfoy, studying their faces. There was no doubt about who would go in, obviously. He gave Ron a weak smile, took a deep breath, and ducked into the tunnel. He was only half-surprised when the door slid shut behind him.
"I hate it when they do that," he muttered.
There was a deep rumbling sound and a faint green light illuminated the walls around him, and then the entire tunnel was lit up section by section. The rumbling noise died down and Harry was standing in the middle of a fairly well-lit tunnel instead of a pitch-dark one, which was at least a marginal improvement.
Hefting the glowing sword, Harry sighed. He had no choice but to go forward now. As if to confirm his words, the spear of light issuing from the tip of the sword flashed briefly, as though urging him to go on. Harry set off down the tunnel, not knowing where he was going or what he was going to do once he got there. Wasn't it always like that for him, though? It was, and the thought warmed him—with a little bit of luck, he'd be all right. The cobwebs along the ceiling grew thicker as he went further in, but the occasional swipe of his sword was enough to clear them. It was quiet, and the only sound was that of his footsteps on the damp stone floor.
The passageway seemed to go on forever, but Gryffindor's sword gleamed scarlet now, bright enough to drown out the sickly green light of the tunnel. Harry relaxed a little as he glimpsed a source of light up ahead that wasn't red or green.
The tunnel widened into a large, circular stone room. Ambient blue light filled it, making Harry feel as though he was underwater. There was no visible light source, but as he moved further inside, he could see five life-size stone statues of a woman at various ages, from a baby to an old crone. He felt slightly embarrassed, since none of the grey statues were clothed and they all were quite anatomically correct. He noticed they all had viscid seams running along their arms.
Harry stopped in the middle of the cavern and gazed around—there was no visible way out of here, except back through the tunnel. The sword of Gryffindor was no longer glowing. He'd reached his destination, but damned if he knew where to look for the missing Horcrux.
As he moved his gaze from statue to statue, wondering if the Horcrux was hidden inside one of them, Harry realised that the scene looked familiar, recalling the poem he had inadvertently memorised.
When I was a babe, I looked without sight,
When I was a child, I looked to those above me,
When I was a woman, I looked with eyes so bright,
When I was a mother, I looked to those beneath me,
When I was a crone, I looked to the night.
Harry rubbed the back of his neck, glancing at the statues around him again. They were arranged in a perfect pentagon around the middle of the room. Harry glanced at the floor there, but there was nothing special about it: no indentations or raised surfaces—nothing. To Harry's left was the statue of a baby girl, lying on her back, her mouth open in a silent wail. Her eyes were open, and Harry frowned. That didn't fit.
When I was a babe, I looked without sight.
Harry ran his fingers along the seam that ran from the baby statue's elbow to its wrist. He felt the statue arm move beneath his fingers and he pushed, just to see how far it would go. He saw that as he moved the left arm upwards, the right eye was slowly sliding shut. Harry repeated the manoeuvre with the right arm, and as soon as both eyes were closed, there was a low rumbling beneath him, and then the sound of stone hitting stone.
Something was happening, so Harry must have done something right. He looked to the next statue, that of a small girl with her head tilted upwards but her eyes closed.
When I was a child, I looked to those above me.
Feeling more confident now, he moved the statue's arms up until both eyes were open and looking to the arched ceiling. He was rewarded by another rumbling sound beneath the floor.
Harry moved to the statue of the young woman, her stone-crafted hair falling in cascades down her back.
When I was a woman, I looked with eyes so bright.
No matter how much he moved the statue's arms, the eyes grew no brighter. Wishing he had Hermione there, Harry puzzled over how to make the eyes bright. Was there some sort of spell, some way to—?
Harry clapped his hand to his face, feeling stupid for not having thought of it sooner. He raised his wand, pointing it at the statue's eyes.
"Lumos," he said, satisfied as the eyes began to glow a bright blue. Another rumble beneath the floor buoyed Harry—he was definitely getting somewhere.
When I was a mother, I looked to those beneath me.
The next statue was of an older woman with a tight bundle in one of her arms, her blank eyes staring ahead of her; moving her other arm to curl around the bundle as well caused her eyes to tilt downwards. The floor rumbled again, shaking a little now, and there was a definite metallic echo after the shaking stopped.
When I was a crone, I looked to the night.
It was just the final statue now—that of a wizened old woman with spidery cracks running all across the stone that formed her. Her eyes were open and her hands were crossed in front of her. Harry moved the arms until her eyes fell shut.
The floor shook stronger than ever and a huge door slid open behind the crone statue.
Harry grinned and began to walk towards the door, wand and sword at the ready.
As he passed the crone's statue, one of her arms shot out and Harry sprang back in alarm. The crone's hand opened, revealing two large rubies not unlike the ones that decorated the sword of Gryffindor. Harry put his wand in his pocket and reached out to touch the gems—they were cold and hard like the stone hand itself. Frowning, Harry pocketed them and took his wand back out. The crone's arm lowered and his way was free.
The next room looked almost exactly like the previous one, but there was only one statue here, standing in the centre of the room. It was a woman's body, carved to look as though she was writhing in pain, her mouth open. The stone was grey and mottled; it looked like both of her eyes had been clawed out.
Harry remembered the rubies he'd just picked up—surely that would be too easy.
He tucked his wand into his waistband and fished the little stones out of his pocket, stuffing one into an empty eye socket. It held there for just a second, and then the statue's stone face shifted, the scratch marks beneath that eye sealing up. The ruby disappeared and in its place was a normal eye—or, rather, what passed for normal with stone statues. Harry placed the other ruby into the second eye socket and waited as the same transformation happened on that side.
Nothing else seemed to be happening for a few seconds, but then the door Harry had used to get here slid shut with an ominous thud, and water started to pour into the room from huge spouts on the ceiling.
Harry dully reflected there was no such thing as too easy if it involved him and anything but Quidditch. He took his wand back in hand and stared around, looking for some way of escape, but there was none.
The water was coming in faster than ever, lapping at his trainers and rushing up his legs. It was cold, painfully cold. Fear coursed through Harry's veins. He considered screaming for help, but he was too far away from the Chamber of Secrets for that to be of any use. How was he going to get himself out of this?
The water was already at his hips, and Harry shivered. He was freezing. Gryffindor's sword began to pulse in his hand, spreading welcome warmth through him. Harry stared at it. The sword...
He stared at the statue, its body carved forever in agony.
The water was lapping at his chin.
Harry thought of another cave, of blood, of water teeming with Inferi. He thought of Dumbledore, gasping in pain as he'd made his sacrifice, drinking the poison Harry was feeding him. Harry's eyes stung, as he felt his feet detach from the floor, his body pushed upwards by the water. He swam towards the statue as best he could with both his hands occupied, ignoring the cold, ignoring the ever-rising water. He focussed on what had to be done. It was blood, always blood. Dark magic was never without cost.
Hardly registering what he was doing, Harry wrapped his legs around the statue's waist as the water rushed upwards. He closed his eyes and held his breath, feeling the water swirl around his head. He swung the sword down on his wand-arm under the water, a flash of scarlet light distorted by the water. Harry could barely see anything, but the throb in his left arm told him he had succeeded. His chest burning for air, Harry swung his bleeding arm over the statue's face, red obscuring his vision even more.
Several painful moments passed, and Harry was sure he was going to die, that he had failed. Then he felt the water swirling in the opposite direction. He let go of the statue, swimming for the surface. By some miracle, he had retained his grip on both the sword and his wand.
When he reached the surface, Harry gasped for air, never more grateful to have it. He quickly healed his wand arm and removed the water from his glasses. There was a loud sucking sound, like a drain emptying, and Harry realised he wasn't coming any closer to floor at all, because the floor was no longer there.
"Fuck," he said, summing up the situation admirably as he fell through a human-sized drain into a dank cave.
It wasn't until Harry hit something soft and sticky that he wondered why the hell he hadn't used the Bubble-Head Charm when the room above had been filling with water. Perhaps he could have avoided being sucked through a drain. Malfoy would have a field day laughing at him when Harry told this particular story; Ron would probably snigger, too.
Harry forced his mind back to the present and looked around just as the sword in his hand began to glow again, illuminating a hollowed-out cave. The sword was burning so bright that Harry couldn't look directly at it. It took him only a brief second to realise he was stuck to a gigantic cobweb.
"Fuck, " he repeated, with feeling.
He heard a skittering sound, and saw something gleam at the other side of the web. Harry started to thrash. He didn't need to be a genius to figure out what could possibly be moving towards him across a giant cobweb.
Then the Acromantula was next to him, and all Harry could see were massive pincers and dozens of beady eyes gleaming down at him. Harry struggled against the web, finally able to wriggle free of it enough to avoid a razor-sharp leg stabbing at him. There was a sound of pincers clacking. It was pulse-pounding and fast, coming in flashes as Harry struggled against his bonds.
By the time Harry managed to work most of his body free, he was fully appreciating Ron's fear of spiders. It was dark, and every time he moved, he got stuck to something else. Any moment now, one of those pincers would close around one of his arms or legs, and it would be all over. Harry breathed heavily through his nose, focussing on wrestling his sword free from the web.
One of the spider's legs sliced the side of his sword arm, and Harry yelled in surprise and pain. Blood gushed everywhere, but Harry found he could move his arm again—the spider must have sliced through its own web, inadvertently helping its prey. Another leg missed him by mere inches just as he jerked his arm free, stabbing up desperately in the direction of the spider's head. His muscles were screaming from his earlier frantic attempts to free himself, but Harry forced himself to keep moving. As long as he could keep moving, he would live.
The sword passed through the spider with surprising ease. Harry was still swiping at it blindly when it exploded into fine black dust, covering him head to foot. He coughed and choked, retching a little as some got in his nose and mouth. He'd thought that Voldemort must have set one Aragog's children to guard the Horcrux, but it struck him now that the spider he'd just fought hadn't been exactly natural, judging from the way it had died.
The web dissolved under Harry, and he dropped to the hard floor—it wasn't a high drop, but he landed on his tailbone and for a few moments, his world was nothing but pain. He heard something metallic clatter to the floor beside him. It couldn't be the sword of Gryffindor, because Harry was still holding that, feeling like his hand and the hilt had fused together.
Harry picked himself off the floor and healed his sword arm with a quick spell. He held up the sword, which was still ablaze, and saw a silver dagger lying in the centre of the room. He bent down, wincing at the harsh pain in his tailbone, and picked it up. Gryffindor's sword flashed bright as the sun for a second and then the light went out. Harry had the last Horcrux. He put the sword on the floor, took out his wand and lit it so he could see.
The dagger was just like the ones used in Potions class, but with a bronzed eagle on the hilt and the letter "R" just below it. There was no doubt about whom the dagger must have belonged to, and no doubt that this was, indeed, a Horcrux. Harry recalled Hermione and Malfoy's argument over Rowena Ravenclaw's Potions proficiency. This was likely the first silver dagger ever used in Potions. Harry felt a little smug on Hermione's behalf and made a note to tell her that she had been right, as soon as he got out of there.
This reminded Harry that he still had no idea how to get out of there, Horcrux or no Horcrux.
He tucked the dagger carefully into his belt, and wondered—not for the first time—if Voldemort could tell when someone moved one of his Horcruxes. Harry tried speaking the incantation to get to Godric's Hollow through the portal, but it didn't work, as even after repeating the spell four times, he was still standing in the miserable cave. There was no visible way out of the cave.
Then it hit him—if Voldemort had made the entrance to admit only those who spoke Parseltongue, maybe the exit would be similarly enchanted?
He thought of a little grass snake and said, "Open up." Immediately, a trapdoor slid open on the ceiling at other side of the cave, letting in a shaft of bright light. A rope ladder swung down a moment later, and Harry rushed towards it, hardly believing his luck. He didn't know where the exit led, but hell, he could use the portal once he was free of the cave's enchantment.
He climbed the ladder, struggling to keep hold on the sword, which seemed to weigh a lot more now, or perhaps Harry was just tired. He refused to let himself dwell on the thought; the last thing he needed was to realise how exhausted he was and fall off the ladder before reaching the top. Once he was near the opening, Harry hefted the sword up, placing it on the ground above, did the same with Rowena's dagger, and pushed himself up and out, flopping onto the ground like a beached whale.
Harry barely had a chance to pull his legs up from the trapdoor before it slid shut, leaving no mark on the grass that covered the clearing. He lay there for a while, just breathing in the scents of grass and flowers and fresh earth. Everything around him was bathed in sunlight and he couldn't believe that he'd just nearly drowned and fought a giant spider in the span of a half hour at the most. When his muscles had relaxed a little and his breathing returned to normal, Harry sat up, looking around.
He was at the edge of the Forbidden Forest; he could see Hagrid's burned-out hut and Hogwarts. "Wow," he said. What he really wanted to say was "I can't believe that a Horcrux has been hidden this close to the school all this time," but he found that he rather lacked words at the moment. The proximity to the school gave him renewed strength; he picked up the sword and the dagger and sprinted to the castle, through the darkened hallways, back down into the Chamber of Secrets.
Malfoy, Ron and Hermione were sitting at the foot of Slytherin's giant statue, looking gloomy. When Harry walked into the chamber, Hermione looked up, a huge smile spreading across her face.
Harry held up the silver dagger, unable to stop himself from grinning back as he walked up to them.
"Bloody hell!" cried Ron, grinning as well.
Hermione jumped up and hugged Harry fiercely. A glower replaced Ron's grin and Harry moved quickly away from Hermione on the off chance that Ron might hit him.
"Wait, is that a Potions dagger?" asked Malfoy, walking closer. "With a Ravenclaw emblem?"
"Erm, yeah," said Harry. Hermione's smile instantly turned smug.
"I still can't believe Ravenclaw was better at Potions than Slytherin. It's unthinkable." Malfoy crossed his arms over his chest, frowning.
Ron rolled his eyes. "Somebody needs to get his priorities straight," he muttered.
Hermione and Malfoy bickered all the way back to the campsite. Once there, the four of them disabled the Horcrux as they had done with the others. Hermione kept the dagger, saying that she could put it to better use than Voldemort. Harry noticed that this time around, casting the disabling spell was far less harrowing than the previous two; he was able to recover almost immediately. He supposed it was because this was the last Horcrux...
The last Horcrux. Which meant that now he had to face Voldemort. Harry sat down by the tent, staring in front of himself. Hermione was nattering on about Potions and dinner at the same time, while Ron just nodded along, his eyes glazed over. Malfoy sat nearby, staring at Harry, but Harry didn't want to think about Malfoy at the moment. It was all a bit too much.
His whole body screamed out for some rest. He was too exhausted to even think about the absolutely bizarre Harry - Malfoy - Ginny triangle. Maybe Harry and Malfoy could share Ginny, Harry thought, insane laughter bubbling up inside him. Malfoy would get her on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while Harry could have her on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sundays, Harry and Malfoy could—
I thought you were too exhausted to think about that.
Harry laid the sword of Gryffindor down and wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve. When he glanced down, he noticed something reflecting in the blade. He stared curiously at the tiny glint before he slowly looked over to see where it was coming from. There was a rat sitting by the tent flap.
A rat with a silver paw.
Harry dived at the same time the rat squealed. He could hear the others yelling, asking what was wrong, but all he paid attention to was catching that rat, as he should have done so many years ago. His hands closed around the warm, wriggling body, and he probably squeezed more than was necessary, but he didn't care.
Ron was the first to recover from the shock; Harry imagined that of all of them, he would recognise Wormtail. Ron pointed his wand at the rat, saying nothing. A beam of blue-white light shot out, slamming into Wormtail, who began to twist madly in Harry's hands. Harry released him, watching as his flailing body floated up into the air. There was a blinding flash of light, and by the time Harry blinked once, there was no more rat.
On the ground by Harry's feet was a grown man in dirty, ruined robes, smelling of bacon rinds and rubbish. It was Peter Pettigrew in all his pathetic glory, his bald patch gleaming in the dying sunlight, his expression frantic. Harry tried to summon the old rage he used to have when he thought of Wormtail, but it wouldn't come. These days, Harry was finding it hard to hate anyone whose name wasn't Voldemort or Severus Snape.
"You!" cried Malfoy, looking shocked as he stared at Wormtail.
Harry gave him a look. "You two know each other."
They were both Death Eaters, after all.
"Except one of these Death Eaters wants to suck your cock and you want to let him," said a high-pitched voice in Harry's mind.
"Please," pleaded Wormtail, dropping to his knees, watery blue gaze fixed on Harry, "please don't kill me! I'm on your side! I swear it on my father's grave! I have something to tell you!"
"It had better be good," growled Ron, his wand still trained on Wormtail.
Wormtail whimpered, stroking his silver hand. "It is," he promised.
Greyback had gathered most of the pack to him by now. Remus was nervous and not just because Greyback had tracked Peter so close to where Harry, Ron, and Hermione were. There was something happening, something Remus couldn't put his finger on.
Remus knew that the spells he'd been using to hide Harry and his friends' scents from Greyback wouldn't protect any of them from the werewolves if Greyback saw them.
Godric's Hollow looked just like Remus remembered it. It was a quiet village, full of memories for him. He couldn't help but miss James, Lily, and Sirius even more as the werewolf pack moved into one of the boarded-up houses at the other end of the village.
He even missed Peter—or at least the Peter he used to know, the boy who'd been his best friend in what seemed three lifetimes ago. Despite the threat of Voldemort, those days spent with his four friends had been some of the best in Remus's life. But he had no time to dwell on the past right now. Strong body odour nearly overwhelmed Remus as the pack closed in, listening to Greyback. He'd caught a whiff of something, his eyes glinting in the waning sunlight.
"Caught the little rat," said Greyback with a nasty smile.
Remus's blood ran cold. Greyback had found Peter with Harry.
Greyback turned and started moving through the forest. "This way, boys. We're going to have ourselves some fun, I think."
As if it were a single entity, the pack started to move forward, suddenly quiet. Prey had been scented now, and there would be blood. Remus saw their eyes agleam with anticipation. He pulled his wand out, just as the werewolves burst through the line of trees in the clearing. He could see Harry and the others now, at some sort of campsite. Ron Weasley had his wand out, pointing at something Remus couldn't see.
"What in the—?" began Hermione, whirling around to face them.
On the ground in front of Harry, there lay Peter. His eyes grew wide at the sight of Remus, and he began to gibber. Remus didn't know if he wanted to hate or pity him more.
Ron turned around and immediately went so pale that it looked like his freckles had turned black.
Draco Malfoy—what was he doing there?—gaped at the newcomers, his hand moving steadily towards his right pocket.
"Run!" cried Remus, pointing his wand at the nearest werewolf, before they could even process his betrayal.
The sounds of shouted spells and enraged howls filled the air. Loud bangs and bright flashes of light dazzled Remus's eyes, but that was the least of his concerns. It felt as though a score of men were all vying for the chance to rip Remus's throat out. He fired hexes off indiscriminately, gaze roving, trying to find Harry, trying to find Peter. He didn't think of anything else, even when he felt teeth sinking into the soft flesh of his upper arm. He shook it all off; he had to.
Werewolves were knocked to the ground, left and right, overcome by Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Draco's spells. Remus did everything he could to help them, magic rushing out of his wand with hardly a spare thought to what he was casting. He tried to find Peter, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Remus heard a familiar roar to his left and spun on his heel. His arm ached now, but he ignored it, seeing the man who had ruined his life before it had hardly begun. Greyback was on top of Harry, his grey cloak billowing over them both as he straddled the boy, a familiar leer on his face.
"Got me a sweet young Boy Who Lived. Just like a little lamb," crooned Greyback, pinning Harry to the ground.
A gleaming sword lay in the grass, just out of Harry's reach.
"Pity I can't kill you myself," said Greyback in that horrible singsong voice. "I'd enjoy it after the fight you're putting up. But we can play a little, yes we can."
Harry struggled under Greyback, face contorted as the werewolf leant down over him. Remus ran towards them, raising his wand, sending a Stunner at Greyback, but one of his former pack mates kicked at his shin, and the spell whizzed past Greyback's head, not even singeing a hair. Remus shoved his wand in the werewolf's face, fear for Harry clawing at his insides.
"Stupefy," he hissed.
Remus's werewolf gave a strangled howl and disappeared from his line of sight; Remus turned back to Harry. Greyback was still on top of him, still struggling to bite him. Harry arched beneath him, screaming in rage. Remus could taste blood in his mouth, startled to realise it was his own. When had he been injured?
Before Remus could even cough out another spell, there was a flash of silver in the corner of his eye. He froze, watching Peter lunge out at Greyback, reaching for his chest with his silver hand. Greyback fell back in surprise just as Peter's hand tore through his chest.
Remus gaped, unable to fully comprehend what he was seeing as Peter's hand ripped Greyback's still beating heart out, a spray of blood coating his arm and robes. Werewolves started howling all around them, and the few that could still move started to run away. Silver was deadly to a werewolf, and the little bald man had a silver hand. No one had deigned to inform the pack of that. Remus didn't watch them go. Instead, he sank to his knees, too numb to understand what was happening.
Harry came to his feet, wiping blood off his glasses as he stared at Peter. His jaw worked, but he didn't speak. Peter held out his silver hand, eyes wild. He crushed the heart, watching wide-eyed as blood ran down his arm, and then dropped it onto the ground. Greyback twitched once and then lay still.
Peter still held out his bloodied hand, his face flecked with dirt and blood. Harry flinched and backed away, just as Hermione, Ron, and Draco approached, all looking battered but unharmed. Remus tried to force himself to his feet, tried not to be tired of all this. Tried not to think that this was all Peter's fault in the first place.
"It's a Horcrux," whispered Peter, his voice hoarse. "It—it's temporary, I think. He wanted that sword..."
"What are you talking about?" asked Harry.
Remus managed to stand up and started walking. "Peter!" he called.
"A Horcrux!" cried Peter, his gaze darting around. He started wringing his hands. "It's a Horcrux!"
"Peter!" Remus stumbled onto his knees, his vision blurring.
Peter was wringing his hands even faster. There was fresh blood dripping down his arm now. "You h-have to kill him! You have to, Harry. I'll help you," he babbled.
Remus realised Peter wasn't wringing his hands at all.
"Bloody hell!" cried Ron, backing away as Peter tore his silver hand off with a high-pitched scream. Harry paled, but made no other move as Peter tossed the hand at his feet.
Peter cradled his bloody stump of an arm, shaking with sobs. "A Horcrux...he summoned it from Nagini...that night in the graveyard...it's a...temporary...Horcrux..." he whimpered. "He hid it with me...until he could find Gryffindor's sword...thought I wouldn't figure it out...thought no one would..."
Harry snapped to life just as Remus reached Peter. He nodded to the others and they all pointed their wands at the silver hand on the ground, blasting it with thick jets of violet light.
Remus didn't care about what they were doing. Let the children play with their Horcruxes. All he saw was the man he'd once called his best friend bleeding and crying. Pity he thought he'd never feel again welled up in his chest, mixed with an old hurt and forgotten anger. Remus hauled Peter to his feet, holding him steady. He didn't know why Peter was on their side, why he was helping them, but Remus wanted to understand. It was weakness, but he wanted his old friend back. He doubted it could ever happen, but he was going to at least find out why Peter had done this. He had to take him somewhere, far away from here. Maybe Tonks could help, wherever she was. He hadn't heard from her in weeks. Remus shoved his concern aside. He had to concentrate on here and now.
"Be careful, Harry," said Remus, dragging Peter away with him. "Greyback could have somehow signalled Voldemort. Watch your back."
"Where are you going?" asked Harry. He was wiping blood off his face, but all he succeeded in doing was smearing it all over his cheeks. He looked lost, and Remus remembered how young he really was, how inexperienced. Guilt stabbed at him, but leaving Peter here would do no one any good, especially if he tried to run again. Peter's testimony and survival could explain so many things to the Ministry. There was more than simple hope for redemption at work here; Peter could clear the names of all those who'd been wrongly accused and shed light on many of the mysteries surrounding what Voldemort had done while Harry was at Hogwarts.
"I'll...be back. Let me get Peter out of here. I'll be right back."
Remus Disapparated, taking Peter with him. Tonks's small London flat was empty, but Remus didn't have the time to worry about where she was as he shoved Peter onto her sofa. He healed Peter's arm as best he could. Peter only rambled, as if Remus weren't even there, apparently not understanding what was happening. He was clearly in shock from ripping off his hand—his own hand, for Harry!
Remus put him to sleep, then Apparated back to the campsite.
Harry and the others were gone.
Lupin disappeared with a crack, taking Wormtail with him.
"Bloody hell," said Ron, to no one in particular. He looked every bit as numb and shocked as Harry felt—so did Hermione and Malfoy. Harry suspected this had something to do with the blasting of Wormtail's hand. The experience had been worse than anything he'd experienced before—Harry thought he'd passed out several times during the spell, miraculously managing not to fall down. Sharp pain laced through his lower back and he winced.
He bent down and picked up the sword of Gryffindor, looking around. Ron, Hermione and Malfoy had bound the remaining werewolves, who all looked frightened, whimpering something about silver hands and prophecies. Harry would have found it absurdly funny to see hardened, grown men whimpering, but after the scene he'd just witnessed, the danger he'd just escaped, he found that he wasn't able to so much as crack a smile. He didn't know what exactly he was supposed to do with all of them.
Then the ground was yanked out from under his feet. He felt like he was falling into a Pensieve memory, only this time he saw that his two best friends and Malfoy were falling with him. Hermione's mouth was open like that of the broken statue deep beneath Hogwarts, but Harry couldn't hear anything but loud whooshing that rushed past his ears.
They landed and at first, Harry didn't understand whether he was dead or alive. He'd lost all sense of time and space. An icy trickle travelled up his spine at the distant sound of screaming in the back of his head. It was hard to breathe, and Harry almost forgot what it was like to be happy. He opened his eyes and found himself in a huge, dark chamber. He could feel them, the Dementors, just beyond the walls—hundreds and hundreds of them.
The screaming in his head grew louder, and Harry had to fight not to pass out as his scar began to throb dully.
"No, not Harry!"
"Go to hell, Voldemort!"
Harry clutched the sword of Gryffindor to his chest. It glowed softly in his hands, and Harry found he could breathe again. The screaming stopped, and he felt warmth deep inside, warmth he knew no Dementor could take from him. He sprang to his feet, clutching the hilt so tightly his arm ached. The Dementors faded away from his consciousness, like shadows before sunlight.
Voldemort stood in front of him, livid face almost glowing, like he was a demon drawing out of the shadows. His smile was as cruel and hard as his red, gleaming eyes. Harry's scar flashed with pain, but he tightened his jaw and did his best to ignore it.
"You have proven to be far more clever than I suspected, Harry," he hissed. "But you won't escape me this time, nor will your little friends. There's no one and nothing left to protect you."
Harry looked around, and saw that Ron, Hermione, and Malfoy were all there, fear on their faces. Harry couldn't decide whether he was terrified for them or comforted by their presence. They all stared at Harry expectantly. What were they waiting for?
Voldemort turned his snakelike face towards Malfoy, his smile widening. "You're quite the resourceful one, young Malfoy. I'm impressed. Being a traitor suits you."
Mind whirling with doubt and confusion, Harry stared at Malfoy. What had Voldemort meant? Was this Malfoy's doing? Had he betrayed them all and led them to Voldemort? Why now? Why wait? He could have done it any time; they'd let him sleep in their tent...He'd got past the ward at Hogwarts...Harry looked at Malfoy, waiting for him to say something, anything. Malfoy only stared back silently, his pale eyes sad.
Just when Harry thought his heart could take no more, he caught a glimpse of fiery red hair. He turned, his hands trembling. Ginny stood near Voldemort, half covered in shadow. She was still as a statue; he couldn't tell if she was breathing.
"Ginny!" he cried.
She did not—perhaps could not—respond. She just stood there, still and expressionless as Malfoy.
Voldemort strode to stand in front of Harry; Harry almost howled as another flash of pain stabbed at his scar. "Didn't think I knew about your little girlfriend, did you? Come now, Harry. You should have given me more credit than that."
Fury erupted deep inside Harry, making his heart pound in his ears. This wasn't right. Harry hadn't done anything to deserve this, any of this. All he'd ever done was survive a stupid spell when he was a baby. And in revenge, Voldemort kept playing with his feelings, hurting all the people he cared about. He couldn't—wouldn't—take it anymore.
The sword of Gryffindor sang in his blood, magnifying his rage, his desperation. He shouted something in a language he didn't recognise, and he sensed that he was not acting alone anymore. It was as though he was encased in invisible rock through whatever magic brought about by the sword's song. Harry threw the sword towards Voldemort, putting all of his strength into it.
Voldemort's eyes widened, but Harry couldn't see him anymore after a moment. He saw his parents, Cedric, Sirius and Dumbledore, hovering in the air around Voldemort, Harry and the sword. There were other pale, ghostly shapes there and Harry suspected that they were hallucinations called forth by the agonising pain in his scar. The faces of the dead faded from his sight, and he watched as the sword pierced right through Voldemort's heart. Harry smiled, relief and calm washing over him as Voldemort collapsed with a small gasp of surprise.
Harry felt numb, but there were tingles of joy travelling up his spine, like eager grass stalks in the spring. The warmth he'd felt in his hands from the sword of Gryffindor was fading, but it didn't matter anymore, not when it was over. Harry glanced at Ginny's slender figure—her hair had covered her face at some point and she was shaking. Harry took a step forward, his first instinct to scoop her up in his arms and comfort her. He didn't care about the Malfoy business—no, he did, but that could wait—all that mattered was—
Ginny lifted her head, her dark eyes boring into Harry's, and began to laugh.
Draco had never been more confused in his life. One moment it had seemed like Potter had succeeded in doing the impossible—defeating the Dark Lord, with a sword, no less, how perfectly typical—and then Ginny...Ginny was acting strangely. That laugh...
"Ginny! Ginny, what's wrong?" cried Weasley. Granger had him by the arm. At least she had sense enough to be wary.
Ginny stopped laughing abruptly. "Don't come any closer, blood traitor, or you'll regret what I'll do," she spat. She didn't sound like herself at all. What had the Dark Lord done to her?
Shock mixed with fear on Weasley's face. The expression was mirrored on Granger's. Potter, however, looked like he was dead from the neck up; his face was like a statue's, frozen.
Someone stood in the shadows not far from Draco, and Draco wondered if the person Potter had killed hadn't been the Dark Lord at all; perhaps that was the Dark Lord standing in a corner, laughing at them as they destroyed a decoy...
Them? They? Draco's mind reeled with the realisation that he really was on Potter's side.
"First things first," said Ginny, turning to Draco. "I must admit I had not counted on seeing you again, little Malfoy. Had I not thought you dead all this time, I'd have said you would have run off to hide under your mother's robes. What made you do it? Your useless father's ignominious death?"
Draco felt like an ice-cold spider web was spreading through his brain, enveloping all his thoughts. It was much like an intruder walking through a house, picking up various objects, examining and discarding them in turn. He couldn't even use Occlumency as his wand was not in his hand. A tendril of the spider web reached deep into Draco's mind and he saw the Daily Prophet article about the takeover of Azkaban loom in front of his eyes—
"Ah, yes, Lucius's death had made you want to play the hero. How touching. No matter. You betrayed me, and for that you'll be the first to die."
In a rush of jumbled thoughts, Draco understood—the Dark Lord must have possessed Ginny just before he'd fallen, he must've—
"Avada Kedavra," said Ginny—the Dark Lord—and Draco shut his eyes so tight.
He knew he'd never get out of the way in time, but at least he could meet his end with his back straight and his head held high; he would not die like a rat. He'd die as a Malfoy, just like he'd always known he would.
The end never came.
Instead, he heard a muffled yell and felt something large and warm collide with him, sending him down onto the cold floor. He was trapped, unable to breathe properly, but he opened his eyes. He'd never seen Snape from quite this close, but the gaunt, sallow features were unmistakeable, as was the smell of a man who rarely bothered with bathing—the stale odour of hair grease mingled with that of sweat. There was no heartbeat. Snape was dead. He'd taken the Killing Curse meant for Draco.
Draco couldn't breathe. He tried to struggle out from beneath Snape's corpse but it was useless. He did manage to crane his neck enough to see what was going on.
"I should have known," said the Dark Lord, a sardonic smile playing across his lips. "Pathetic, Severus, truly pathetic. You let your unrequited, ridiculous love for that woman blind you and make an Unbreakable Vow to save her embarrassment of a son. So be it. You shan't be of much more use to me."
Under any other circumstance, Draco might have found it funny that she—he—was talking to a corpse as though he could hear her. Him. Draco tried to struggle again, as carefully and quietly as possible—perhaps the Dark Lord would think him dead anyway, perhaps he'd leave him alone...Something cold welled up inside his belly. He was deluding himself. It wouldn't be long now. His end had only been delayed by Snape's sacrifice.
"Ginny!" yelled Potter. "What are you doing?"
The Dark Lord-Ginny spun to face him, laughing. It was a harsh laugh, terrible but wise—it didn't belong to a young girl.
"Ginny? Ginny? She's been mine for years, Harry. You were simply too stupid to figure it out when you learned of my Horcruxes."
The scene wavered in front of Draco's eyes. It was difficult to breathe; the smell coming from Snape overwhelmed him and all he could think of was what would happen when the Dark Lord turned around to finish what he'd started. Draco's fear paralysed him, and he mentally wished Potter luck, just before the world before him dissolved into blissful darkness.
Harry had barely had time to twitch a muscle or even cry out as Malfoy had fallen to the floor. All he remembered was a jolt of hatred as he saw Snape's gaunt figure moving, then disbelief as Snape's body contorted as the Killing Curse's green flash hit him. Snape was dead, and Harry wouldn't have his revenge, but at least Malfoy was safe...There was no time to think about that now, not with Ginny looking at him, tapping her wand meaningfully against her palm, her grin mocking.
That is not Ginny. That can't be Ginny, it can't! That isn't even Ginny's wand.
The shadows seemed to draw together, and the Dementors outside began to murmur—or perhaps it was Harry's imagination. He couldn't trust that anymore, not after having witnessed Ginny commit murder without so much as a fleeting frown crossing her lovely face.
"You still don't understand, do you?" asked Ginny.
It was her voice, but it wasn't. Those were her eyes staring Harry down, but they weren't. That wasn't Ginny. Harry knew who it was, but he hoped he was wrong. He needed to be wrong. Voldemort must have possessed Ginny; that was it! Harry just needed to find a way to drive him out, like Dumbledore had done at the Ministry of Magic over a year ago...
Ron's raspy voice called from Harry's left. "Ginny!"
She ignored him, smiling at Harry. "You seem to think destroying a Horcrux is as simple as driving a large fang through it, much like you drove that sword through my old shell. Crude, yes, but it might even have been effective, had my diary still been a Horcrux when you destroyed it. Basilisks possess powerful latent magic, after all. What you didn't know was that on the unlikely eventuality of my failure, I had transferred the Horcrux to the girl before you even arrived at the Chamber of Secrets. It was her magic, her blood that had sustained my younger incarnation, not the magic hidden by the diary."
"You're lying!" screamed Hermione. "Lying! She must be just possessed!"
"You stupid little Mudblood, why would I lie? My people tell me you're good at research, haven't you done any? Oh, wait. There are no books on Horcruxes in the Hogwarts library, so of course you wouldn't know." Ginny was speaking in a sickeningly sweet voice, almost like Bellatrix when she'd baby-talked to Harry. "A living creature can be used as a Horcrux, but it's risky, you see. The creature can move and think for itself, independent of the Horcrux planted within it. Death, of course, is inconvenient, but I thought it worth the risk—either I would have killed you, as Tom Riddle—or you would have destroyed me." Ginny sneered, the expression at the same time unfamiliar and horribly fitting. "One way or another, a part of me would have lived on. When you proved too resourceful for your own good, I simply stopped using her magic to make you think you'd won. Little Malfoy here thinks I was upset with his father for getting a Horcrux destroyed, but children can never see past their noses. Had that Horcrux really been destroyed, Lucius would not have received a chance to prove himself once again. But this story isn't about Lucius. It's about gullible, pathetic little Ginny Weasley."
Harry was shaking his head. Tears stung his eyes and a dull ache was spreading through his jaw and neck. Ginny waved her wand theatrically in the air, and the sword of Gryffindor ripped out of Voldemort's broken body with a slurping sound. It floated through the air towards Ginny's outstretched hand. Not a drop of blood marred the blade.
"Just before this precious treasure hit me, I was able to use the Horcrux inside the girl to permanently possess her. She'd been a willing victim before, after all."
"N-no," croaked Harry, finding it difficult to see straight. "I don't believe you."
This couldn't be true. He didn't want it to be true. But he knew he was lying. He did believe Voldemort. The pain in Harry's scar had not stopped when the sword had hit; it was still there, white-hot and angry. Voldemort lived.
"The sword," said Voldemort, hefting it up as though to emphasise his words, "can't read minds, you know. Oh yes, I know how helpful Godric's sword proved to you; that I had foreseen. What you didn't know was that it also helped me find you." He turned to Harry with a cruel smile, eyes bright. "This blade is a double-edged one, you see. Its magic is powerful, ancient. If one knows how, it can be detected, even across great distances. When you used it to locate Ravenclaw's dagger, I knew. It took a bit of time to find you—and by then, my werewolves were upon you—but find you I did. After that, it was a simple matter of creating portals—one between me and my last Horcrux, and another between your hidey-hole and my fortress."
Harry remembered the sensation he'd experienced after they were taken from the campsite—it had been almost identical to going through his parents' map portal. He clenched his teeth, his vision blurring.
Voldemort was staring at the sword of Gryffindor, an unpleasant smile playing across his lips. "The trouble is, the sword can only assume that what you know is right, but what you knew was wrong. You thought that Ravenclaw's dagger was the last Horcrux, but you were wrong, weren't you?" Voldemort lowered the sword, his eyes suddenly colder. "Wormtail betrayed me—and he will pay—the hand you destroyed was, indeed, a Horcrux. When I returned to the world of the living, I already knew Nagini wouldn't live much longer, which was why I had transferred her Horcrux to Wormtail. That should have been your first clue that the sword had lied to you. And the real last Horcrux was hiding inside this pretty little girl. And no one knew, not even little Ginny herself. I must say I find this body far more agreeable. Tell me, Harry, how does it feel to know that you fucked...me?"
Voldemort began to laugh, and Harry realised he was crying, but that wasn't what was affecting his vision. He couldn't see straight from the hate welling up inside him. Voldemort had taken everything from him. He'd taken his parents, his godfather, his mentor, his most private memories, his victory.
Now, he'd taken Harry's choice, too.
Except it wasn't even a choice, not really. He either had to kill or he would be killed.
Behind Voldemort, Malfoy stirred; Harry could see his legs bend at the knees and then flop back down onto the ground. Voldemort turned towards Malfoy, smiling nastily. Harry's stomach churned. Did Voldemort know about Malfoy, too?
He pulled out his wand, not even hearing what Voldemort was saying as he taunted Malfoy. Harry couldn't feel anything anymore, not even the waves of pain radiating from his scar. It was as though there was a black hole inside his chest, sucking away all his emotions, his pain, everything. He had to do what he had to do, just like when he'd been in the cave with Dumbledore, feeding him the poison.
No sacrifice, no death would be in vain. Voldemort was going to die, no matter what Harry had to do to accomplish that.
Harry felt movement beside him and saw that Ron and Hermione now stood at either side of him, their wands drawn. Voldemort hadn't even bothered to disarm them; probably thinking they were no threat. Big mistake.
Ron's face was pale, his eyes shocked, but Harry could see the same grim determination in his features that he saw on Hermione's face, that he felt in his heart.
"Killing Curse," he choked out, barely above a whisper. "Nothing for it."
Hermione only nodded. Ron's eyes darted towards Voldemort, filling with tears, but he didn't argue. There was no point. Ginny was already gone. Harry could see this terrible truth reflected in Ron's eyes as it must have shone in his.
Hatred swallowed everything that was good inside Harry at the very thought of seeing Ron having to cast a deadly curse at what was once his sister.
"AVADA KEDAVRA! " screamed Harry, willing every drop of that hatred into his wand.
He heard Hermione and Ron echo the curse at the same time.
Ron's curse was feeble, the green light dying out before it even reached Voldemort, but Hermione's was a strong, clear jet of green.
Harry's curse erupted from the tip of his wand in a fury of emerald light, and he thought he saw it take the form of a green stag, like his Patronus. He fell to his knees, keeping his wand raised, watching death speed towards Voldemort. Time seemed to slow down. In his head, Harry saw his worst memories take shape, and he could sense the Dementors outside the walls stirring, something like excitement in their dead voices.
He heard his father shouting at Voldemort. He heard his mother screaming for Harry to be spared. He saw Ginny lying in the Chamber of Secrets next to Tom Riddle, still and silent. He saw Peter Pettigrew on his knees in the Shrieking Shack, begging for his life. He saw Cedric Diggory collapsing to the ground, a look of surprise frozen on his handsome face. He saw Sirius tumbling back past the stone archway, setting the tattered black veil eternally aflutter. He saw Dumbledore crouched low, begging for death. He saw Dumbledore flying off the ramparts of the Astronomy Tower, looking almost serene. He saw the Inferi who had once been orphaned children, their white eyes filled with inexplicable sorrow.
Then he saw his and Hermione's curses reaching Voldemort.
The green light caught him in the chest mid-turn; he had to have heard them shout the curse. There was a disbelieving smile on his lips, and at that moment Harry could see clearly into his enemy's mind. It felt like his scar was whispering to him—Voldemort hadn't thought any of them capable of producing a decent Killing Curse. He hadn't reckoned with the force of Harry's hatred.
Ginny's expression changed from malicious glee to sorrow; her red hair flew back as though a strong wind had hit her. She'd never seemed more beautiful to Harry than at that moment.
There was little noise as Ginny fell to the ground, pale and lifeless. Harry stared at her as his hatred faded, replaced with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. His scar had stopped whispering and he knew it would never hurt again. Harry sank to his knees, dropping his wand to the stone floor with a clatter that sounded final, somehow, and terrible.
He'd just committed murder.
The green light faded, taking with it Draco's sheer terror.
The Dark Lord was dead.
Weasley and Granger were clutching each other in the corner; Weasley was sobbing like a child, moaning, "Ginny, Ginny, Ginny!" Granger was holding him tightly, stroking his hair, tears streaming down her face.
Draco's chest felt tight; he had never imagined he could ever feel real sympathy towards anyone named Weasley, but that boy had just sent a Killing Curse at his own sister. It hadn't been his sister anymore, of course, but visual evidence was often stronger than reality. Draco, too, had thought he saw the three of them kill Ginny Weasley, not the Dark Lord.
He glanced at Potter, who was sitting on the floor, knees drawn, his face in his hands.
This was no grand, heroic victory achieved by steel and daring. This was hardly a victory at all. Too many people had died for this.
With the fear gone, Draco could feel strength in his body again. He pushed Snape's body off him and came to his feet. He wasn't sure how to feel about what Snape had done—he'd known that Snape had made an Unbreakable Vow, but what the Dark Lord had said about Snape's unrequited love for "that woman" gave Draco pause. He needed time.
It didn't seem right that Potter was sitting there all alone while Granger comforted Weasley, who was still sobbing, harsh and ragged. Limping, Draco walked towards Potter.
"Potter," said Draco, stopping beside him.
Potter didn't speak at first, but he lifted his head and stared in the direction of Ginny's body. He wasn't crying.
"I'm a murderer," Potter finally said in a flat voice. "I've killed a person. I'm worse than you."
That stung, and Draco flinched, but under the circumstances he couldn't very well blame Potter for being incoherent. "You killed a monster, not a person. He wouldn't have stopped, he'd just have kept killing people and possessing them. He—"
Potter shook his head, waving him off weakly. "Those are just words. To think I had enough hate—"
"He's gone now, isn't he? You'll never hate that much again, will you—Harry?" The name tasted odd on Draco's tongue, but it felt a little like coming home.
He held out his arm, his hand's palm facing upwards, and waited.
Potter looked up, considering him for a long moment. Then he gripped his arm and got up. He didn't let go, and Draco didn't want him to. It was the first clear thought he'd had since the green light had gone out. He didn't need any time to think about that one.
"Is this your doing, Malfoy?" whispered Potter, leaning closer to peer into Draco's face. His green eyes flashed dangerously behind his glasses. "Did you have anything to do with Ginny being captured?"
"How dare you," growled Draco. "How dare you, Potter, you—"
Potter kissed him. Draco's heart gave a great leap and he opened his mouth beneath Potter's. His eyes fell shut as Potter's tongue found his, and he tangled his fingers through Potter's wild mop of black hair. He could almost forget what had just happened as he concentrated on that mouth, that thin, wiry body pressing urgently against him, those hands—
Draco heard a gasp. He and Potter broke apart and turned around to find Granger and Weasley gaping at them with twin looks of utter horror.
Draco's second clear thought was that it would be best to leave the explaining to Harry.
"You sure know how to pick them, Harry," called Ron, his voice hysterical. "First a human hosepipe, then a D-D-Dark Lord in disguise,"—his voice caught, but he continued—"and now Malfoy."
Hermione's laughter rang out in the stale air, and Harry thought he felt the Dementors outside flinch.
Someone was laughing in Azkaban, and the war was over.
Harry walked into the drawing room at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, to see Draco standing near the family tapestry by the far wall, leaning on one arm against the wall as he studied the intricate needlework. His eyes were narrowed slightly as he moved his lips soundlessly. He didn't seem to have noticed Harry.
Harry still hadn't fully recovered from the shock of what had happened in Azkaban last week; everything was a sort of blur. The Ministry was in chaos as the overworked Aurors rounded up the Death Eaters who'd managed to flee the prison fortress. Harry was still Unreachable—he'd in the meantime learned what that meant—and he was mostly hiding from reporters in Sirius's house. Rumour had it that Dolores Umbridge was organising a task force to investigate Harry's actions during the summer and he had no doubt that eventually he'd be facing an inquiry. The only clarity was in Harry's memories. He remembered Draco fighting the hags in the Forbidden Forest, Draco, Ron and Hermione fighting werewolves near Godric's Hollow, blasting parts of a dead soul with jets of violet light. He remembered—
"Tell me, Potter," said Draco, who in the meantime must have noticed Harry. "How long have you lived in this house?
Harry shrugged. "Dunno, couple of months? That was last year, anyway. Why?"
"It astounds me that you've never noticed we're related."
Harry's mouth went dry. "Er— what?"
"Come and see," said Draco, crooking his finger as he continued to stare at the tapestry.
Harry walked up to Draco, acutely aware of how uncomfortable it made him to stand so close. He and Draco hadn't talked about what had happened at Hogwarts and in Azkaban, nor had Draco tried to kiss him again. That Harry wanted Draco to kiss him again did absolutely nothing for his inner peace. He tried his best to ignore that thought, instead focussing on what Draco was pointing at.
"See that? Charlus Potter, married to Dorea Black."
Harry blinked. How had he never noticed that before? The lettering was certainly tiny, but he'd noticed Draco's name—how could he have missed his own surname? He searched for other familiar names and noticed "Bulstrode", "Longbottom", "Crouch", "Flint"...
"Charlus Potter was your grandfather's brother, in case you're wondering. Your father's uncle, that is. His wife Dorea was my mother's aunt."
Harry stared at the tapestry, dumbfounded. Charlus Potter. The name wasn't blasted off, either. Did that mean he had never betrayed his bloodline? The Potters were supposed to have been pure-bloods. Could this mean that some of Harry's ancestors had sided with Slytherin types who wanted all Muggle-born witches and wizards thrown out of wizarding society? That didn't matter, though—it couldn't. People like Sirius, Regulus Black, Andromeda Tonks and Draco Malfoy proved that your blood did not make you who you were.
"I just don't understand how I didn't notice any of this before," said Harry finally. "I know it's got your name on, I'd seen that, but—"
"I'm touched," muttered Draco, his eyes darkening as he glanced at that section of the tapestry. He must be thinking about his father, thought Harry. He wished he could tell Draco he was sorry, but he'd have been lying. He was no more sorry for Lucius's death than he was sorry for Snape's death, or Voldemort's.
"I'm just surprised you weren't taken in by one of your relatives. The Potters have a tree almost as impressive as this one, though if I'm not mistaken, you are the last son born into a Potter family for an age," said Draco. He was looking at Harry now, grey eyes inscrutable.
"I was under blood protection. I had to live with my mother's relatives," said Harry.
"Have your father's relatives not even tried to contact you?"
"No," said Harry, shaking his head. He remembered the people Hagrid had mentioned when he'd put together the photo album in his first year. "Neither have their friends."
"Gryffindor family values," muttered Draco.
Harry gave him a sceptical look. Like he was going to worry about distant relatives who didn't even know him. Ron and Hermione were all the family he'd ever need.
"I've not missed any of them. What I want to know is, what does this make us?" he said.
Mischief danced in Draco's eyes. "Nothing really. We're not related by blood, just by name."
"Well, that's a relief," said Harry, and promptly shut his mouth, eyes widening. What was he saying?
Draco smiled, almost hesitantly. "Do tell," he murmured, his breath catching.
As if through a fog, Harry watched Draco step closer to him. He reached up to stroke the side of Harry's face—no, to take off his glasses. Harry's heart began to flutter wildly in his chest as Draco's lips pressed against his. He closed his eyes and slipped his arms around Draco's waist, pulling him closer, desperate to minimise the distance between them. Draco swept his tongue against Harry's lips and Harry opened his mouth, seeking Draco's tongue with his own.
Draco's breathing was shallow and quick, and Harry became aware of something hard pressing against his thigh—oh. For an instant, it felt like they were back in that Hogwarts hallway, only this time there was no Peeves to hide from, no sword to mind, and no one in the house to interrupt them. Just like last time, this was nothing like kissing any girl had ever been—it was raw, needy and frantic. It made Harry's entire body tense as all his blood flooded to his cock. It made him want to rip Draco's clothes off and fuck him without pausing to consider the logistics of fucking another boy.
Draco was rubbing up against Harry's leg as they kissed, making small, breathy noises that drove Harry mad with lust. Despite the late summer breeze blowing in through the open window, he was finding it hard to breathe. Draco was reaching for the zip on his jeans, just like last time, and this time Harry did the same, fumbling with the buttons on Draco's trousers and getting in Draco's way. After a few confused, muddled moments in which his own jeans were pushed down and Draco's trousers fell around his ankles, Harry wrapped his fingers around Draco's cock. Draco hissed and tightened his grip, causing Harry to moan and thrust upwards. Just having Draco touch him like that was slowly turning his brain to jelly, but doing the same to Draco was unbelievable.
Draco's cock was thicker but shorter than Harry's own; it took Harry several strokes to become used to the difference. Draco was moaning now, trying to thrust up into Harry's hand as he continued to stroke Harry furiously. Harry felt dizzy; Draco's flesh was so warm, with dozens of tiny, hard ridges just beneath the soft skin. His wrist was hurting due to the awkward angle, but he didn't want to let go of Draco.
Draco moaned and Harry felt his cock pulsing; a moment later warm, slippery fluid spilled onto his knuckles in several bursts. He had done that, he'd made Draco come, crying out and burying his face in the space between Harry's neck and shoulder. A tight knot of pleasure exploded in Harry's lower abdomen and his knees almost buckled as he came, thrusting madly into Draco's fist. The sensation was so intense that his eyes rolled back in his head and he bit down on his lip to keep from crying out. He collapsed against the tapestry, pulling Draco with him.
They stayed like that for a long time, sweaty and exhausted. The earlier breeze had picked up strength and was sweeping fresh air through the room. Harry inhaled deeply, closing his eyes and realising for the very first time since Azkaban that he was free. Free to do what he wanted, without fear.
"Draco?" he ventured, his voice sleepy.
Draco looked up at him. "Yeah?"
"Want to do that again?"
If someone had told Harry a month ago that he would be sorry to see Draco Malfoy leave the country, he would have had a good laugh. Now, though, laughter was about the furthest thing from Harry's mind. He and Draco had grown closer in a matter of weeks than in the six years they'd known each other.
Draco was staring at the Portkey—an ugly ornamental statuette shaped like a cocker spaniel—on the table. Harry had come to Malfoy Manor to see him off, but now he was wishing he hadn't. He didn't want Draco to leave. He didn't know what it was, whatever had happened—was happening—between them. He didn't know what that made them, what that made him, but he didn't care. In Draco, he'd found something he'd been missing, and he wanted to know what it was.
"Will you write?" asked Harry.
"I said I would," replied Draco. He looked up at a grandfather clock in the corner of the spacious sitting room, his face anxious.
"Hogwarts is reopening," said Harry, feeling miserable. "Do you think you'll—?"
Draco shook his head. "Mother said we're going to stay abroad for a while. She doesn't want to come back to this house yet."
"Why can't you stay?" exploded Harry. "You could—"
"My place is beside my mother," said Draco, a defiant look on his face. He wasn't looking at Harry. "She needs me," he added, softer this time.
Harry nodded, biting his lip. If his mother were still alive, he'd probably do the same.
The grandfather clock struck once, and Draco squared his shoulders. There was less than a minute left, not nearly enough time to say anything of much import.
"Go on," said Harry, his voice scratchy. "You'll miss the Portkey."
Draco was next to him then, all warm lips and the scent of soap and the soft stubble along his jaw. "I'll be back," he whispered. "I promise."
Harry nodded and stared as Draco lifted his trunk with one hand, grabbing the Portkey with another. A moment later, Draco was gone with a loud popping noise, and Harry was alone.
"Harry?" came Hermione's hesitant voice from the doorway. Harry turned to her and smiled. Ron was looming over her shoulder, and Harry felt like a huge weight had lifted off his chest.
Of course he wasn't alone.
On a low hill not far from Hogwarts, there stood a tall, thin man. He wore a habitually unpleasant smile as he watched dusk claim the castle's windows, gleaming in the distance. Another year was beginning, but Severus Snape would not be teaching this year, or any other year.
It had been so easy, to put Tonks under the Imperius Curse and use her as a puppet—her Metamorphmagus abilities made Polyjuice unnecessary. Her special abilities would also ensure that no one ever learned of the switch. If a Metamorphmagus died while transformed, the magic would linger for twice the duration of that transformation. Tonks had been in Snape's form for nearly two months; she'd be long buried when the magic finally dissolved. With any luck, she'd have rotted beyond recognition by then. Draco Malfoy would go to his grave convinced that it had been Severus Snape who had given up his life for him, when really it had been his own cousin, Nymphadora Tonks.
By the time those fools realised that Tonks was truly and well missing, Snape would be far away, thought dead by all but one—the only one who mattered, in the end. Bound by no vows, Unbreakable or otherwise, he'd come into his own.
"I have bided my time, and fortune has listened," murmured Snape.
He cast one last glance at Hogwarts, turned around, and walked away into the gathering shadows.