August waxed on, dry and hot and brittle as dead grass, until September was upon them at last. The days seemed to stretch forever, boredom making each feel more interminable than the last, and though they now had a goal upon which to set their sights, none of them were terribly confident in their odds or eager to get on with the job. They could hardly be blamed, though; how exactly did you go about sneaking into the most secure site in magical Britain, undetected, while you and your friends were wanted by a Dark Lord? That certainly hadn’t been covered at Hogwarts.
But daunting though the mission was, they were all of one mind that it had to be done; the locket was the only Horcrux they’d managed to track down so far, and as such it was by default the easiest to lay hands on (for a very loose definition of ‘easy’, admittedly).
“Shoes in the entry cupboard before you trek through the house, Master Harry,” Kreacher croaked by way of greeting just as Harry stepped over the threshold and into Grimmauld Place from his daily watch. “And washing up, if you please—dinner is being served shortly.” Harry dutifully toed off his trainers, placing them next to Hermione’s and Ron’s, and passed Kreacher his Invisibility Cloak. Kreacher brushed some imagined bit of dust from the Cloak, giving it a shake that set the fabric to shimmering, and then promptly hung it on a hook next the troll-leg umbrella stand.
It’d been Harry’s third day on watch this week and just as dull as the dozen that had come before it. They’d all taken turns watching the Ministry’s official street-level entrance from under the safety of the Cloak, monitoring peak times of usage and easy marks that could be farmed for Polyjuice samples. That was really their only way in, they’d determined—wards had been set up inside the Ministry to make Apparition in and out virtually impossible, and the Floo points were highly restricted, with only top officials allowed to even connect their homes to the Ministry’s grates and security wizards monitoring each grate, checking the credentials of anyone arriving or leaving.
After running his hands under the tap and drying them with one of the fluffy white towels that now hung in the ground floor bathroom, Harry headed down into the basement, where he could hear Hermione and Ron discussing something in muted tones.
The kitchen these days had been transformed from the dark, dank state it had been when the trio had first moved in. Filled with a new sense of pride in pleasing his Master and guests, Kreacher had outdone himself with whipping Grimmauld Place back into shape, and every surface of the kitchen now shone, reflecting Kreacher’s earnest efforts. The pots and pans that hung from hooks over the flat-top had been scrubbed and polished to a fine shine, the old wooden tabletop gleamed with a fresh coat of lacquer, and the goblets and flatware had all been mended, not a crack or chip in sight. The cold Floo grate had been swept and Scourgified, and within it now crackled a high, merry fire, over which a cauldron simmered full of something that smelled fantastic.
Even Kreacher had cleaned up nicely, kitted out in a fresh towel of houndstooth with his ear hair washed and trimmed and Regulus’s locket bouncing on his chest as he skittered about the kitchen, tending no less than three different dishes at once.
“I think they might’ve gotten a glimpse of me,” Harry said, plopping down into a chair with a huff.
“Who?” Hermione asked, looking up from the sheaf of scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps over which she and Ron had been poring. They’d built up quite a bank of knowledge between the three of them, though it still didn’t feel like nearly enough.
“Our friends, out in the Square.” Not so very long after they’d arrived at Grimmauld Place, Ron had started making note of visitors who dawdled overlong near Numbers 11 and 13. Their outfits—long cloaks despite the oppressive August heat—suggested that these were not merely Muggles passing by and curious about the odd numbering system. They were at the very least Ministry officials keen to bring charges of truancy against them and at the worst…well, Death Eaters. So long as Harry, Hermione, and Ron kept safely behind the Fidelius charm, their watchers did not seem able to see or attack them, but they’d had their share of close calls with their Apparition skills not being quite up to snuff. “Nearly missed the front step when I Apparated in—the Cloak slipped when I was trying to get my bearings.”
Ron shook his head. “I do that every time. One of these days I’m gonna Splinch a finger or something and it’s gonna go rolling out past the wards and that’ll be that. They’re out in force today, though, aren’t they?”
Harry nodded. “Reckon it’s cause it’s the 1st of September?”
“What, are they hoping to jump us when we march out, school trunks in hand, to hail the Knight Bus to Kings Cross?” Ron glanced at his watch. “…Guess we’re a bit late for it now, though.”
Hermione sighed. “I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it—but I’ll admit I haven’t been too successful. I’ve never missed the Hogwarts Express in six years—feels weird.”
Ron shrugged. “Harry and I missed it the once—it’s not so bad.”
They shared a silent moment’s reflection as it finally sank in that they really weren’t going back. They’d abandoned the imagined safety of a Hogwarts education and were well and truly on their own now.
Ron cleared his throat. “So how’d your watch go, otherwise?”
“Dull as ever—any excitement here?”
Ron’s expression went dark, and he looked to Hermione. “You wanna do the honours? I think I’m gonna want to kick something again if I have to get into it, and Kreacher’ll kill me if I spill his cauldron of French Onion Soup a second time.”
Harry felt a chill of apprehension ripple down his spine. “What’re you talking about? What’s happened?”
Hermione sighed, pulling out the morning’s copy of the Daily Prophet that had been buried underneath a streetmap of London she’d nabbed from the Underground. She slapped it on the table before Harry, who found himself staring at portrait of a familiar figure sneering back at him from beneath a bold headline proclaiming SEVERUS SNAPE NEW HOGWARTS HEADMASTER.
“Oh fuck me…” Harry groaned. He’d spent these months praying Snape had been bluffing, only trying to rile Harry up, as he’d known the prospect of Snape assuming the position previously occupied by Dumbledore would. Surely the Board of Governors wouldn’t allow it, Harry had assumed. Not when they had Professor McGonagall and her years of experience as Deputy Headmistress.
But that had been before the Ministry had fallen, before a puppet government had been installed. With Death Eaters making the laws and running the country, it seemed only logical Voldemort would want to extend his reach to Hogwarts and the vulnerable young minds being sheltered therein.
He swallowed the rising tide of bile burning his throat and scanned the accompanying article, reading aloud:
“With the passing of Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has itself a new Headmaster in Severus Snape, former Head of Slytherin House and long-standing Potions master (with a brief stint as Defence Against the Dark Arts professor). As his first act in his new position, Headmaster Snape has passed his Head of House duties for Slytherin House on to current Potions master Horace Slughorn. Several more new staff members join Headmaster Snape in welcoming students at the start of term September the 1st, including Alecto Carrow in the position of Muggle Studies professor following the abrupt resignation of Professor Charity Burbage, and her brother Amycus succeeding Headmaster Snape as Defence Against the Dark Arts professor.
“While the new Headmaster declined to give a comment to the Prophet on his ascension, the editorial board feels his appointment is well-merited after years of exemplary service in the moulding of young minds within the hallowed halls of Hogwarts and wishes him all the—’”
Harry crumpled the paper angrily, tossing it into the fire. “More like years of exemplary asshattery—I can’t fucking believe—”
Kreacher scurried over with a copper boiling pot in hand, offering it to Harry. “If Master Harry is wanting to kick something, please use this and don’t disturb Kreacher’s bubbling cauldron like some other wizards.”
“Thanks, Kreacher, but I’ll try to rein in the urge.”
“See that you do…” Kreacher warned, slouching back to tend to whatever was bubbling on the stove.
“You should’ve been here when we first saw the article this morning,” Ron snorted, though his expression was decidedly not amused. “Hermione actually swore.”
“All I said was Merlin’s pants,” Hermione muttered, cheeks pinking. “And I wasn’t swearing because of the article—though it would’ve been well-deserved—it was because of the portrait.”
Hermione patted her beaded bag, which sat close at hand at the end of the table. “Phineas Nigellus Black, who’s been, shall we say, relocated.”
“Oh. Oh that’s good thinking indeed.” He’d known that the old Black relative had a matching portrait hanging in Hogwarts but hadn’t thought of the implications until now.
Hermione nodded, looking pleased with herself. “I didn’t want to take the chance Snape might send him to spy on us. I don’t think it’s any great secret we’re in here, given the foot traffic out in the square, but no sense in making their job easier for them if we can. Plus, who knows what information he might carry back to Snape about the You-Know-Whats.”
Harry only half-listened to her explanation, his mind occupied with the image of Snape nestled comfortably in the Headmaster’s Office at Hogwarts, fingers steepled as he sat behind Dumbledore’s great desk, in full possession of all those fantastic contraptions in Dumbledore’s collection, as well as the stone Pensieve, the Sorting Hat, and—though Harry felt it now rightly belonged to Ron—the sword of Gryffindor.
“Well let him just try,” Ron said. “All he’ll see now is the inside of that lovely handbag of yours.”
Harry shook his head. “This is all too much. How can the staff allow this? I mean—they know McGonagall deserves that position; there’s no way they’ll just let Snape waltz into Dumbledore’s office and set up shop. Can’t they lodge a complaint with the Board of Governors? And who are these Carrows characters?”
“Death Eaters,” Ron spat. “The article continues—well, continued, ‘til you chucked it in the fire—on page three with pictures of them. I recognised the sister as one of the lot chasing me and Tonks. She got her hood knocked off when I managed a Stunner, and I reckon it’s the same witch.”
“Fantastic,” Harry said, bitterness thick in his tone. “I’m regretting going back less and less now.”
“Yes, it does seem we dodged something of a bullet.” Hermione shuddered. “I can’t imagine what this year will be like for the students stuck having to attend…”
There wasn’t going to be much learning going on this year, Harry wagered. “All the more reason for the teachers to stage a revolt, then.”
“That’s the rebellious student in you talking, Harry,” Hermione said, a thin, sad smile on her face. He wondered if she was remembering Fifth Year, and how amazing it had felt to be doing something, really doing something, to take back their school and prepare themselves to face those who’d threaten Hogwarts, with nothing but their wits and wands. “Think about it—they’ve got no choice but to go along with these decisions. They’d not only be sacked if they turned against Snape and the Carrows, they’d risk putting the students in even greater danger, since no doubt they’d be replaced by more Death Eaters.”
“And getting sacked is probably the best outcome they could hope for,” Ron muttered. “There’s always Azkaban for dissenters, after all.”
Hermione nodded. “If for no other reason, I’m sure they’ll stay on just to try and protect the students from further harm. I wouldn’t count on seeing any bold insurrection at Hogwarts while there are innocent students still there who might get caught in the crossfire.”
While Harry hated to admit it, the two of them made very good points. He did wonder how he might have reacted had he been at Hogwarts himself, though; he doubted he could have kept his head down and avoided making waves. Would Dumbledore’s Army have made a comeback? Might it still? Were Ginny and Neville and Luna even now passing word along to other former DA members aboard the Hogwarts Express, huddling together in conference and planning how best to ‘welcome’ their new Headmaster?
Was it so terrible he wanted to join them, rather than commit himself to this impossible quest?
He sighed, running a hand through his hair just as Kreacher came bustling to the table with a large tureen in his hands and began ladling out soup into shallow bowls, whistling a merry tune as he did so. “Kreacher hopes Master Harry and his guests are hungry—and that they will forgive dinner being served later than usual, as Kreacher had to restart the stock after Ronald Weasley tripped.” He fixed a pointed glare at Ron, who ducked his head.
“Said I was sorry, didn’t I? And I helped clean it up.”
“Vanishing the evidence really isn’t doing much,” Hermione reminded, accepting the bowl Kreacher pushed her way. “Thank you, Kreacher. It smells amazing, as usual.”
Kreacher offered a grudging grunt in return; he hadn’t quite managed direct conversation with Hermione yet, but she seemed to appreciate that he was at least trying, and Harry was just happy as long as he wasn’t calling Harry’s friends rude names.
“On the bright side, if Snape’s stuck putting out fires at Hogwarts, then he can’t easily be elsewhere causing trouble,” Harry sighed, spooning up his soup and blowing softly over the surface, chasing away tendrils of steam. “Suppose we’ll have to trust Hogwarts to take care of itself.”
“Indeed,” Hermione nodded. “And between the teachers and the former DA members still running around, I expect they’ll manage. Open violence isn’t something Voldemort can chance at this stage, so we can at least rest easier knowing no one’s in immediate danger.” Harry wasn’t sure he shared her confidence, but he let it pass. “So what all happened today on watch? You said nothing interesting—but give us a run-down all the same. It’s important we keep track of even the most minor changes in routine.”
“I stood my watch as usual—but I didn’t catch sight of Umbridge, unless she’s suddenly slimmed down or grown a few head taller. Oh—” He nodded to Ron. “I did spot your dad, though. Nothing much of note going on with him, as far as I could see, but I figure no news is good news.”
“Nothing makes me happier these days than hearing my dad’s as unremarkable as ever.” They’d all three spotted Mr. Weasley at some point over the course of their time spent monitoring the Ministry entrances, but as Mr. Weasley himself had warned them against trying to contact him, they’d all kept their distance. After all, Harry was a wanted man, Ron was supposed to be home sick with spattergroit, and Hermione would probably be hauled off to be interrogated by the Muggleborn Registration Commission. Still, it was reassuring, seeing him out and about going through the motions and living life as usual.
“Guess that seals it,” Hermione sighed. “She must be Flooing in. I know I’ve heard Mr. Weasley mention that most Ministry staff Floo into work—or they did before, at least. Now that they’ve restricted access to those at the tip-top of the Ministry ladder, she’s probably using it as a status symbol, to show off how important she is.”
“Sounds right up her alley,” Harry agreed.
“Did you see our marks again?” Hermione asked. “Were they still regular as clockwork with their arrivals?”
They were far too big now to fit all three of them under the Cloak at once, so they would need to disguise themselves if they wanted to be able to infiltrate the Ministry. A simple Glamour or Transfiguration of the features wouldn’t do they trick; they had to be recognised as belonging in the Ministry if they wanted to make any headway once inside, and that meant Polyjuice.
“Yeah, the witch was there, nibbling on a scone with a thermos of something—probably coffee. And that wizard was walking with another witch today; she was wearing the same colour robes as he was—you know, the navy ones. I thought it was just fashion at first, but you think maybe it’s a uniform?”
“Oh,” Ron said. “He’s probably Magical Maintenance in that case.” Both Harry and Hermione’s heads slowly turned to him, confusion writ on their features. “I mean, probably? Dad mentioned there was a big to-do because they wanted to change the shade from ‘Stormy Slate’ to ‘Naval Indigo’ a couple years back, wound up with the whole unit striking until the budget committee caved and funded a new wardrobe.”
Hermione’s spoon, which had been halfway to her mouth, clattered back into her bowl, and she scrambled for her notes, rifling through them in a panic and sending several pages floating to the floor. “I can’t believe you never told us that! I haven’t made any notes about the robe colour!”
Ron lifted a brow, stirring his soup with a frown. “…Well, I mean. They’re blue. Navy, if you want to get fancy.”
“But we might have brought along the wrong colour, and then we’d have been marked straight away!”
“He wears the same colour robes every day—we at least picked up on the pattern.”
“And you’ve just told us they had a strike because the colour wasn’t precisely to their taste!” She scrubbed her hair, leaving it a frazzled mess. “Oh no, now I’ve got to brush up on my Multicorfors. I don’t think I’ve cast it since Third Year…” She began muttering to herself, clearly worked up.
“I honestly don’t think they’ll notice even if it isn’t the exact shade it’s meant to be—if anyone asks, we can just say his wife’s Scouring Charm is on the fritz.”
“We can what?” Hermione snapped, and Ron flinched. Harry kept his head low and continued to drink his soup in silence. “If we’re going to do this, if we’re really going to try and infiltrate the Ministry of Magic—which is probably the most dangerous place for us to be right about now short of sitting in Voldemort’s lap—then we’ve got to have everything perfect, down to the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant of details! We know there are Death Eaters among the employees, and they’re bound to be on the lookout for intruders. That’s what the whole point of all these reconnaissance trips has been! If you’ve been holding back precious information, then—”
Ron held his hands up. “Oi, I’m not holding back anything, geez! I just didn’t think it was important!”
“Tomorrow,” Harry said, half to himself—and after a beat of silence, realising he’d spoken out loud and hadn’t quite finished the thought, he continued, “We should do it tomorrow.”
Hermione’s jaw hung open, and Ron choked on his next sip of soup, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Wha—tomorrow? As in—the day after today?” She boggled in wide-eyed shock. “I mean—you’re joking, right? We’re nowhere near ready for—”
“We’re ready enough.” Harry settled back in his chair, swallowing. “Or rather, we’re as ready as we’re going to get. We’ve been at this for nearly a month now, spending our days watching, monitoring, making plans, everything except doing, and even if we waited another month, or another three months watching that entrance and staking out marks, I don’t feel like it’d make much difference. While we’re sitting here, drowning in preparations, Voldemort’s out there doing god-knows-what, threatening our friends and families in ways we can’t even imagine—plus, the longer we put this off, the greater the chance we might risk losing the locket altogether. Maybe the Ministry isn’t where we ought to be focusing our energies even—what if she’s already gotten tired of the thing and chucked it into a jewellery box at her home?” Hermione looked stricken at the thought, and he imagined she was presently being visited by visions of all her painstakingly printed notes vanishing in a puff of smoke. “The point is we’ve hit a point where waiting any longer’s gonna do us more harm than good, I think.”
Ron was absently stirring his soup, seeming to have lost his appetite, and Hermione worried her lip, searching Harry’s face. “But—tomorrow? Tomorrow? Not even a few more days to finalise everything, make sure we’re brushed up on all the fine details before diving in?”
“What details? We’ve already gotten all the important information down—we know where we can and can’t Apparate, we know which Floo grates are reserved for commuting and who’s allowed to use them, and we may not have a precise layout of the Ministry, but we know roughly where Umbridge’s office will be since you overheard that one wizard say—”
“‘I’ll be up on Level 1; Dolores wants to see me,’” Hermione recited with a grimace, as if she hated herself for making Harry’s point for him.
“Exactly, see?” said Harry.
“But—we don’t have the coins yet!” Hermione protested. “How will we get in? We know you need them to actually get into the Ministry—”
“Which calls to mind the question of: hey, how do we get into the Ministry?” Ron added.
“We just follow the crowd, simple enough. And as for the coins, we’ll nick them off our marks.” Harry didn’t understand why they were so down on the idea. It was risky, and a bit impulsive, but adrenaline would get them far, and improvisation would do the rest.
Hermione chewed on her thumbnail, looking distressed. “…I know you’re getting impatient, sitting around under the Cloak all day just watching—we are too, trust us. But we can’t leave any of this to chance! This is our only shot—my Polyjuice stocks are limited, and I don’t want to push it. If we could just wait even another week, two if possible…”
Harry sighed. “If we had more time, we could take more time. But you know things aren’t getting better out there. Each day that passes, they could find some new chink in the Ministry’s defences and shore them up, or Umbridge could go on holiday, or a million other things could change.” He could tell from their faces that they weren’t just unsure, they were scared, and Harry couldn’t blame them. But they couldn’t let fear drag them down or keep them from seizing chances when they came along. He was confident that they’d be no better prepared months from now than they were at this point, which meant it was time to put their plan into operation. “We need to act, we need to get that Horcrux back. Before someone catches sight of it, realises what it is, and then moves it beyond our reach.”
Hermione pursed her lips. “…I suppose the risks are starting to outweigh the benefits… And I really do think the notes we’ve gathered over the past few weeks will get us far—not all the way, but far. Hopefully far enough.”
Ron pushed his bowl away with a sigh. “…Are we actually talking about this? Seriously? Doing this tomorrow?” Neither Harry nor Hermione could quite meet his eye, and he shook his head. “You’re mental, the both of you. In a good way, usually, but sometimes…” He blew air loudly from his lips. “Just once, it might be nice to go to the Ministry and not have to risk my life in the doing. I’m sure it’s a nice place usually; it’s just every time I’ve gone, there’s been a non-zero chance I could die.”
Hermione reached over to pat his hand, brows lifted hopefully. “Well, you might at least get to see your dad? Maybe even speak with him?” Ron seemed to consider this, until she continued, “And Percy will be there too, won’t he?”
“Geez, thought you were trying to make this more enticing? I’ve gotta maybe die and I’ve gotta see Percy?” He checked his watch. “Wonder if the Death Eaters are still pacing about outside; I might make it easy on them…”
Hermione rolled her eyes, smiling fondly, and Harry—
A spear of pain shot through Harry’s forehead, snapping along the lines of his scar. He winced, seizing sharply, and kicked out his leg to connect his shin with one of the chairs in an effort to disguise the source of his agony. “Shit…” he hissed under his breath, pitching his voice so Hermione could hear him. “Knocked my shin. That smarts.” Her gaze narrowed on him, and he was certain he hadn’t entirely fooled her.
“Funny bone, eh?” Ron said, nodding sympathetically, then he heaved a deep sigh. “All right. Guess it’s all-in, then?” He was clearly unhappy with the situation but seemed to recognise he wasn’t going to change minds; the option to let Hermione and Harry go it alone was, of course, off the table.
Harry only nodded, not trusting himself to speak lest it come out a pained groan. He shoved his chair back, standing, and Kreacher was at his side in an instant.
“But Master has not finished his first course! Was the soup not to his liking? Kreacher has prepared a savoury beef stew as the main course, or if Master is preferring it, he can skip straight to the treacle tart, as Kreacher knows he is partial to it.”
Harry forced a smile, fighting past the mounting agony. “No—no, it’s fine. I wouldn’t spoil my appetite like that. I’ll only be a moment, just going to make sure I don’t need to Episkey anything, and I’ll be back straight away.” He could feel Hermione watching him suspiciously, so he hurried from the kitchen before he embarrassed himself. He charged up the stairs to the ground floor, nearly slipping on the hallway rug in his haste. Once he’d made it to the bathroom, he whirled around, back pressed up against it, then sank to his knees. Doubling over forward, he nearly cracked his skull on the black tiles, which had been polished to such a shine he could see himself in them—not pretty, not pretty at all.
His stomach heaved, and he worried he was going to sick up Kreacher’s lovely French onion soup, eyes sliding shut as he beat back the wave of nausea…
Wait—this wasn’t Grimmauld Place. This wasn’t even inside.
There were no Death Eaters flanking him this time, no wretched, tortured soul writhing on the floor before him. It was a street—a cobbled walkway in the heart of a cosy little village. It felt…Continental, at least. Alpine, almost. The buildings—homes?—were packed close together in a sort of ramshackle fashion, and here and there windows glowed with a soft golden amber light as twilight crept in. Wherever this was, it was far enough away the sun had already set.
His footsteps made no sound as he glided over the cobblestones, approaching one of the cottages, and he reached out to rap once on the wooden door with a pale, long-fingered hand. The nausea and pain were nowhere to be felt—instead, he was overcome with excitement, the blood in his veins singing. He was close, so close…
The door swung open, and a woman with curly brown hair pulled back under a kerchief greeted him with a broad smile—that quickly fell, her good humour replaced with dawning terror as she beheld whatever Harry was.
“Gregorovitch?” Harry asked, wasting no time. He had a mission—he had questions in need of answers, and this woman would serve her purpose promptly.
But she only shook her head, beginning to close the door on him. “No, no—am sorry.”
And that was unacceptable, so he snapped his wand out—tearing the door off its hinges and blasting the woman onto her backside. She scrambled backwards in a sort of crab-like movement as Harry stepped inside. “Gregorovitch,” he said again, and this time it was not a question.
The woman was weeping now, shaking her head. “Er wohnt hier nicht mehr! He no live here! He no live here! I know him not!”
The woman was lying, Harry knew it. He could smell it on her—underneath the terror, through the tears and desperation. She staggered to her feet, leaning against a door jamb, and raced for a darkened hallway at the back of the cottage. Harry followed her, slow and inexorable, doom incarnate.
“Where is he, if not here? Gregorovitch.”
“Das weiß ich nicht! He gone! I know not, I know not!”
And oh, he was bored of her yowling now, and he raised his wand—it was not his holly and phoenix feather but one of an unfamiliar make. Still, he felt it would do for the small job he asked of it.
She gave a barking whimper when two young children came padding down the hall, clinging to her skirts. She tried to shield them with her body, begging and pleading, and Harry felt a bolt of anger tear through him. Mothers and their love. He opened his mouth, there was a flash of green light—
Hermione was pounding on the door in perfect synchronisation with the ache in Harry’s head, and he opened his eyes. He was still doubled over on the floor, his forehead pressed to the polished tile and the frames of his glasses digging into his cheek.
“Harry! You okay in there? Fall in or something” Ron called through the door. “We heard you yelling from downstairs—Kreacher’s soup that bad?”
Fuck, of course he’d been shouting. He staggered back to his feet, bracing one hand on the sink to help maintain balance, and steeled himself for what was likely to be a thorough verbal thrashing.
When he pulled the door open, Hermione had her hand raised in a fist, as if she’d been in the middle of rapping on the door but was now considering just winding up for a right hook. “Oh. There you are. Are you all right?” Her eyes darted over his shoulder, as if scanning the bathroom behind him to be sure there were no Death Eaters hiding behind the pipes or under the tub. Ron was standing behind her, his wand already in hand. He looked a bit peaky, and he was breathing heavily—they’d clearly rushed up here, ready to do battle with whatever was assaulting Harry.
“Yeah, I’m fine—I told Kreacher, I just came in here to check my leg. I knocked it pretty hard and I couldn’t exactly drop trou at the dinner table.”
Her gaze narrowed on him. “…So all the yelling was for…?”
“Knocked it again—on the bath this time. I’m still not used to the layout, I guess.” He knew she wasn’t going to swallow it, but like hell he was going to just confess and walk headlong into another lecture.
“Want Hermione to have a look at it?” Ron asked, slipping his wand back into his pocket, and his expression was so even, it was impossible to tell if he genuinely believed Harry’s story, or if he’d turned traitor as well and was trying to get Harry to break. “She’s getting pretty good at Healing Charms.”
Harry made to move past them—“Er, no, I think I’m fine, I’ll just have a bruise.”—but Hermione threw her arms out, bracing them against the door jamb and blocking Harry in. “Honestly, Harry! Do you think we’re stupid? Do you think this is the first of these fits we’ve seen you have?” She had her lips pursed, and her cheeks were dark with anger. “We know what we’re looking at! I mean—” She sighed loudly, gesturing to him. “You look like death warmed over!”
Harry glanced into the mirror, rubbing his chin and frowning. He didn’t look that bad, he thought. He sighed, settling onto the closed toilet lid, and ran his hands through his hair. “…I don’t think you’re stupid. But I’m tired of talking about it.”
“Tired of arguing about it, you mean,” Hermione said flatly, and Harry wasn’t going to deny it.
“Well, I’ve only just seen him murder a woman in cold blood—probably her kids too—looking for information. Information she didn’t have, mind, so I expect he mostly killed them for fun. She annoyed him, so he killed her.” He kept his tone flippant, hoping it shocked. “So yeah, I’m not in the mood to talk or argue.”
Hermione’s jaw firmed, showing she wasn’t going to be intimidated. “Well too bad—because whether or not you’re in the mood to discuss this, the fact remains it’s bad. It’s bad you’re having to see the horrible things he’s doing, it’s bad he’s living rent-free inside your head, and it’s bad you’re having to be tortured all the while!” Her tone went a bit strident, and she seemed to consciously gentle herself with a stuttering exhalation. “Harry, I’m not harping on you because I haven’t got anything better to do. I’m worried about you! We both are! You can’t keep letting this happen!”
Letting it happen. As if he had any control over it whatsoever. It was either give in to the visions when they came or let the agony rip his mind apart. And given Hermione’s view on the subject, she might prefer the latter: “At least then he couldn’t use you!” she’d probably say.
“It’s been a month, Hermione. I slipped up—I can’t help it.” It wasn’t quite the truth, but he didn’t want to go ten rounds with her tonight.
“Slipping up’s something we can’t afford anymore, Harry! We’re out here, on our own, with nothing but our wits and wands to defend ourselves. So defend yourself! Stop letting him roll over you with these visions! What were all those Occlumency lessons for then, if not this? Dumbledore knew this couldn’t go on and did his best to help you shut him out.” Oh yeah, he’d really done his level best—like siccing Snape on him for a whole, wasted year. “If Voldemort finds out you’re spying on his thoughts, he’ll use the connection again, and who knows what terrible things he’ll manage with it this time? You’ve got to fight it when it comes!”
And because he was so tired, exhausted in body and mind, the words had left his lips quite before he’d given them permission: “Maybe I’m tired of fighting. At least this way, I know what he’s up to.”
Hermione’s expression went stony. “So that’s it then? You’re giving up? Just going to let him run wild inside your mind? Are you saying you like watching him kill and torture innocent people?”
“No! Of course not! I—” He released a frustrated growl, head hanging. “Of course I’d rather it weren’t happening—but it’s gonna happen regardless of my feelings on the matter, so I’m trying to use it, to make the most of it! I can’t help it, honest I can’t! And you know for all the lessons and advice, I’ve never gotten the hang of Occlumency—”
“Because you never really tried!” She crossed her arms. “Plus you managed to get into Malfoy’s head just fine, and Occlumency’s only the reverse side of Legilimency. If you can manage one, I’m confident you can manage the other.” Harry didn’t have the energy to remind her he’d had Snape’s potion to help in that endeavour and that it was through no skill of Harry’s own that he’d gone diving into Malfoy’s mind. Hermione shook her head, snorting softly in disappointment. “…I don’t understand you, Harry. I can’t see why rather than work on Occlumency—rather than ask me or Ron for help, or do self-study while Ron and I dig through our books for Horcrux research—you’re content to just sit back and let these visions wreak havoc on your psyche. I mean—it’s just not healthy for you, in any sense! And maybe there’s, I dunno, a thrill from having this connection, being right there in his mind, seeing things no one else is privy to—”
The words died on her lips at the look Harry gave her, slowly standing again with his fists clenched at his side. “A thrill?” His voice was quiet, but it echoed strangely on the cold walls of the bathroom. “What, you think I get off on this? Would you like it, having your head split open, the vilest, most evil creature you can imagine rooting around, setting up shop and forcing you to watch every heinous, reprehensible thing he does?”
Hermione recoiled. “God, I’m sorry—that came out all wrong, of course I didn’t mean to imply you liked—”
“Hey, easy there, mate,” Ron said, frowning, and the proprietary hand he set on Hermione’s shoulder somehow only made it worse.
“Let me make it crystal clear: I hate this.” His voice was soft with threat. “My mind isn’t my own—I can’t ever just sit and relax and be happy, because any moment now and I’ll be sat there, forced to watch him do all the twisted shit he gets up to these days, for reasons beyond my comprehension. Don’t try to tell me maybe I like it!” He raised a finger. “I hate it. But it’s happening, and while it is, I’m gonna do just like he did to me and use it to take him down.”
Hermione’s lip quivered, but she still managed to keep a steady voice, though she was quieter when she spoke. “…Dumbledore wouldn’t have—”
“Dumbledore isn’t here. So it’s my choice—not yours, not Ron’s. Mine.” He swallowed thickly, because he hated fighting like this; there were so many bigger problems in need of addressing, and here they were bickering. But he wouldn’t have this argument again, he was too damn tired for it. “I want to know why he’s after Gregorovitch.”
“Who?” Hermione asked.
“A wandmaker—mostly operates outside of Britain.”
Ron’s eyes lit up. “You found out who he is?” Hermione cut him an accusing look, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Harry nodded. “At the wedding. Krum mentioned he’d made his wand—and he seems to swear by him. Thinks he’s an even greater craftsman than Ollivander.”
“A greater craftsman…” Ron scratched his chin. “So whatever he wanted from Ollivander, he didn’t get it. Now he’s just going around running down leads and murdering them when they don’t pan out, looking for Gregorovitch?” He wrinkled his nose. “What’s Gregorovitch gonna be able to tell him that Ollivander couldn’t.”
“Well…I’m thinking he’s hoping Gregorovitch might be able to explain to him what happened between our wands when we clashed while he was chasing me, since Ollivander didn’t seem to know.”
Hermione huffed, though not cruelly. “This again? Weren’t you listening to what Mr. Weasley and the others told you before? It wasn’t anything particularly special about your wand—it was you. Wands just don’t work that way—they aren’t sentient! And if Voldemort really is looking for Gregorovitch hoping to find some mythical wand that could stand up to yours, well—” She crossed her arms. “I’d rather have him off on that wild goose chase than executing whatever plans he has for wizarding Britain.”
“Voldemort’s been around for decades—he knows a fair bit more about magical theory and what does and doesn’t exist than any of us—”
“Does he?” Hermione sniffed. “Tell that to Regulus Black. Tell that to Kreacher.” She stared at him, her expression a bit sad. “…I just don’t see why you can’t allow yourself to accept that you are a bit special, and that you’ve got more power inside you than you might think you do. It doesn’t mean you’re invincible or anyone’s hero—it just means there are some things you’re capable of because you’re you and he’s him.”
“And if it was me, he wouldn’t need to go around kidnapping wandmakers, now would he?”
“Him thinking he needs to kidnap wandmakers doesn’t mean he actually does need to kidnap them,” Hermione said, and he resolutely ignored her.
“Something happened that I don’t understand, and clearly he doesn’t either, but it’s not because I’ve got some super special latent powers I’ve never tapped into before.” He shrugged. “I’m just not that remarkable, sorry.”
They were at an impasse. Harry knew that he hadn’t convinced Hermione of anything and that she was marshalling counterarguments—against both his wand theory and the fact he seemed content letting himself share mindspace with Voldemort.
To Harry’s relief, though, Ron stepped in before they could start up again. “Right, we’ve got an early day tomorrow, and arguing’s not gonna fix anything tonight, yeah? So let’s just…let’s just call it a night and focus on this really stupid, absolutely insane thing we’re gonna do tomorrow. ” He looked to Hermione, brows raised. “Why don’t we head back downstairs, finish off Kreacher’s stew, and discuss the plan over treacle tart? I mean, none of this’ll matter one whit if we get ourselves captured in the doing.”
Hermione made a face that said she didn’t like leaving things as they were, but she turned and exited the bathroom all the same, and Harry heard her light step on the stairs leading back down into the kitchen. He nodded his thanks to Ron, who just shrugged.
“…You sure you know what you’re doing, mate?” Ron asked.
It was hardly a question Harry was prepared to answer. “Do any of us?”
They then returned to the basement kitchen, where Kreacher had already ladled out the next course: bowls of a thick beef stew with a treacle tart warming in the oven. By mutual tacit agreement, they did not discuss anything further that night beyond their mission the following morning.
They worked late into the night, reviewing their plan—such as it was—until they were blue in the face, and then reviewing again, and they only reluctantly trundled off to their separate sleeping arrangements, well aware that they’d likely be even more exhausted for the few hours sleep they might catch now than if they’d just worked through the night.
Harry had taken to sleeping in Sirius’s old bed, which Kreacher had fit with freshly laundered linens once Harry had made his preference clear, and he lay there in the darkness long after he and Hermione and Ron had bid each other good night, muttering the plan to himself as he watched the old photograph of the Marauders by wandlight. When he finally extinguished his wand and closed his eyes, however, he slipped into fitful dreams fraught with visions of the faceless Gregorovitch, the poor woman and her sons, and Voldemort roaming the wilds of Europe seeking, seeking so desperately an answer to a question Harry didn’t know.
He awoke before dawn and did not try to go back to sleep, though he wished he had a Time-Turner, that he might go back and box his own ears for staying up so late the night before.
“Yikes, mate. You look like crap,” was Ron’s unhelpful greeting as he came to wake Harry, finding him already dressed.
“And I don’t expect an improvement any time soon,” said Harry, stifling a great yawn.
Hermione was already downstairs in the kitchen, hunched over her notes and maps in a way that reminded Harry a little fondly—though not without a pang of longing—of exam time at Hogwarts. Kreacher had fresh coffee and a tray full of croissants with jams and marmalade ready for them, and Harry and Ron dug in with relish while Hermione muttered things under her breath, only offering a cursory nod before turning her attention back to her last-minute preparations.
By the time they’d finished their breakfast, their pockets bulged with more Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes stock than Fred and George’s shop shelves, and Kreacher sent them off with a low bow to all three—including Hermione—and promises to have a scrumptious dinner of steak and kidney pie waiting for them upon their return.
Ron sighed, shaking his head fondly. “It may just be the regular meals talking, but that little bugger’s actually kind of growing on me.”
“Oh yes, because you were just skin and bones before you stumbled into his kitchen,” Hermione said, poking Ron gently in the midsection.
They had to be very careful to step just far enough outside Grimmauld Place’s anti-Apparition wards while staying inside the Fidelius Charm’s protection, and they paused at the front step to watch a pair of bleary-eyed wizards obviously coming off an all-nighter try to keep one another from nodding off.
Hermione, being the most skilled of the three at Apparition, Side-Alonged Ron first before returning for Harry. They didn’t want to chance anyone getting Splinched now of all times. After a brief, chest-crushing turn in darkness, Harry found himself standing ankle-deep in rubbish in the corner of a tiny alleyway, where the first phase of their plan was to take place.
Hermione whipped out a pocket watch she’d found in Regulus’s room—and asked, very nicely, for Kreacher’s permission to borrow. “Five to eight—that’s when the rush of Ministry workers will start. Once I’ve stunned my witch—”
“We know,” said Ron, a bit sternly—he’d never been much of a morning person, testy when he hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Harry tended to just slog through early lessons like a mindless automaton by contrast. “Harry, help me bust the lock on the door.” He nodded to the heavily graffitied metal door on the side of the brick building they’d Apparated next to. They’d learned over the course of their scouting that the building had once been a theatre, and this was a side entrance leading backstage.
Harry moved to help yank it open, when Hermione huffed, “Honestly, what’ve you two even got wands for?” She raised her wand and neatly blasted the lock off the door, and Ron frowned down at the crowbar he’d dug out of the refuse pile, wrinkling his nose.
“…She’s never gonna let me show off, is she?” he muttered under his breath to Harry as Hermione closed her eyes and silently mouthed the next steps of the plan to herself.
“I really don’t think now’s the time to try and impress her,” Harry said.
“Mate, you clearly don’t know anything about girls—or Hermione.”
Hermione whirled on them both. “Okay, now—we need to get the Cloak—”
“‘Mione, no offence, but I didn’t stay up ‘til three in the morning going over this plan only to have you parrot it back to us every step of the way.” Ron lifted the Cloak, beckoning her under, and Hermione nodded with a huff, though she was smiling underneath her nerves.
It was only another minute of waiting, the three of them awkwardly crouched amidst the stinking rubbish, when there was a tiny pop, and out of nowhere, a witch—short and slight, with greying hair drawn up into a loose bun—Apparated right in the middle of the alleyway, nearly on top of them. She wrinkled her nose and lifted a boot delicately, as she’d popped into existence on top of a wad of old chewing gum.
While she was preoccupied with her messy boot, Hermione lifted her wand beneath the Cloak, took careful aim, and quietly Stunned the poor witch, the force of the spell sending her toppling backwards into a pile of bin bags.
Ron let the Cloak drop, draping it over his shoulders as he admired her handiwork with an approving nod, then slipped his arms around the witch’s midsection to haul her into the darkened corridor leading to the theatre. Hermione did not cast anything to help this time, instead plucking a single grey hair from the witch’s shawl and depositing it into one of the three phials of Polyjuice Potion she’d brought along.
Harry reached for the witch’s bag and began to rifle through it for her identification and, they hoped, entrance token.
“Says here she’s Mafalda Hopkirk,” he said, reading from a small identification card tucked into a passcase. “Working in the Improper Use of Magic Office.” He frowned, then realised where he’d heard the name before. “She’s the one who always used to send me warning letters for using magic in front of Muggles.” Now he felt just a little less guilty about their knocking her out and chucking her into a darkened theatre.
Ron took the bag from him, pawing through it, and pulled out a single golden token stamped with M.O.M. He frowned. “…Just the one.”
“Yes, we figured that would be the case,” Hermione reminded. “We’ll have to hope the others all have their own tokens as well.”
Hermione took Mafalda’s coin, slipping it into her pocket, and knocked back the Polyjuice Potion, which looked more appetising than the likes of Crabbe and Goyle had seemed but still an unsettlingly vibrant shade of heliotrope.
A moment later, the double of Mafalda Hopkirk stood before them, looking a bit out of place dressed in a teenager’s clothes. Hermione quickly shimmied into a skirt and blazer set that looked like it could have come out of Mafalda’s closet and removed the witch’s spectacles, slipping them onto her nose.
Harry checked his watch, feeling a spike of panic. “Shit, that took longer than we initially planned. Close the door, then back under the Cloak—the bloke from Magical Maintenance is about to arrive.” Mafalda would be out for sometime under the force of Hermione’s Stunner, but if they just left her out in the open, her attack would undoubtedly draw unwanted attention and put the Ministry on alert for intruders.
Hermione smoothed down her robes and flyaway hair while Harry and Ron scurried under the Cloak once more. She would lead the next phase of the plan, and acting had never been her strong suit, but anyone else standing in full view of incoming arrivals would draw suspicion, so Harry and Ron would have to sit there quietly and wait for her to do her job.
It was not a long wait, and right on time another bright pop filled the alleyway as a navy-robed, somewhat ferrety-looking wizard Apparated into view, giving a start when he saw how close he’d landed to Mafalda.
“Oh, dear me. Didn’t see you there, Mafalda. Good morning.”
“Morning! Quite all right, no harm done. Just—taking in the fresh morning air!” To prove her point, she took in a deep breath—then promptly coughed and hacked as she inhaled the fumes of the bin heaps on either side of them, eyes watering. Her acting skills really weren’t their best when she was nervous, and Harry wondered if they wouldn’t have been better off with her riding in one of their pockets in her Animagus form, leaving the infiltration to Harry and Ron. “Er, how are you doing? Having a good day, I hope?”
The wizard slumped, a cloud settling over his features and his brows cinching anxiously. “…Not really, no. It’s only—”
“Oh dear, that’s terrible! I’m sorry to hear you aren’t feeling well.” Hermione scuttled around to the other side of the wizard, blocking the path to the main road so he’d have to knock her over if he wanted to make a break for it. Her eyes kept flicking over the wizard’s shoulder to where Harry and Ron had been when they’d ducked under the Cloak, and Harry’s grip on his wand tightened, ready to keep him in the alley, whatever it took. She dipped into one of Mafalda’s pockets, nipping a Puking Pastille and offering it to the wizard with a simpering smile. “Why not try one of these? I’m sure it’ll make you feel better!”
The wizard drew up short, waving away the offer. “Eh? Oh, no, it’s not that I’m feeling ill; I just—”
“Well then all the more reason to treat yourself!” She snapped out an arm to grab him by the wrist, then pressed one of the wrapped candies into his open palm, curling his fingers around it. “They’re absolutely delicious! Sure to drag you out of any doldrums! You have to try one!”
The poor wizard was looking quite dubious now, and not a little alarmed—which was understandable, given the manic expression on Mafalda’s features. With a weak, placating smile, he nodded and unwrapped the sweet, popping it into his mouth.
Well, if he hadn’t been feeling poorly before, he certainly was now, as he doubled over the moment the pastille touched his tongue and splattered the facing brick wall with a stream of vomit.
“Oh—goodness, that looks violent,” Hermione said, not sounding entirely like she was acting now, and she began to gently stroke his heaving back with one hand while she swiped a few strands of his frazzled, greying hair with the other. “Here, let me hold your bag for you. I don’t think you should go into work in your condition—I’d Apparate straight home if I were you!”
“N—no! I can’t,” he heaved, bringing a fist up to cover his mouth, but little drips and drabs leaked out the sides of his lips all the same. Harry tried to discern just what the wizard had had for breakfast, for it was painting the alley now. “Not today—have to—go in—”
“But you might be contagious!” said Hermione, strident alarm in her voice, and she was glancing toward the entrance to the alleyway with worry now. Harry could see her concern; he hadn’t expected such a violent reaction, and they risked drawing decidedly unwanted attention if they didn’t send the wizard on his way soon. “If not home, then perhaps a visit to the Healer? They’ll get you sorted right away!”
By this point, the wizard had collapsed, heaving, on all fours—though he was still trying to crawl towards the street. “…Blimey but that’s dedication,” Ron whispered from under the Cloak, and Harry wondered what kind of perks you got working in Magical Maintenance, that their employees were this committed to showing up each day.
“Honestly, you’re in terrible shape, dear!” cried Hermione. “I’m sure we can get on without you for today, go on!”
“I…I suppose I could—hrk—take the morning—” He clung to Hermione’s robe, struggling back to his feet, and swayed unsteadily. After tipping his head to her and offering a weak smile, he turned on his heel, the space around him drawing down to a point as he Disapparated, leaving behind nothing but a puff of arcane smoke and the acrid stench of fresh vomit still painting the walls of the alley.
Hermione covered her mouth, wincing, and held out the bag for Ron to take. When he stepped out from under the Cloak to do so, she used her free hand to palm her wand and blindly Vanish the splatters of sick, shaking her head. “In retrospect, we should have just Stunned him.”
“It would’ve made less of a mess,” Harry agreed, emerging from the Cloak. “But Mafalda might just think she’s been mugged when she wakes up. If she found herself there with Mr. Magical Maintenance and whoever my bloke winds up being, there’d be a ruckus raised.”
“Yes, of course, you’re right.” Hermione withdrew another phial of Polyjuice Potion for Ron, who was already donning the navy-blue robes that Hermione had brought along for him to wear. She deposited the hair—belonging to Reginald Cattermole, according to a passcase they found in his bag, similar to Mafalda’s—into the phial and gave it a shake to mix it up. Ron frowned at the sickly green the potion turned and knocked it back in one go—and but a moment later, Hermione’s Mafalda had been joined by Ron’s Reg, who pulled a shiny gold token from the bowels of Reginald’s bag.
“Two down,” Ron said, rolling the token across his knuckles. “Now we just have to get Harry sorted.”
Hermione urged him back under the Cloak. “Okay, we’ll be right back with a few hairs for your draught. Wait just a second, and don’t move from here, no matter what!”
“If you aren’t back by noon, I’m going back to Grimmauld Place for steak and kidney pie, just so we’re clear.”
‘Just a second’ was actually closer to ten minutes, though sitting there hidden under the Cloak, hoping his friends hadn’t been made and were already being hauled off to Azkaban or worse without his even knowing, made it feel interminable. It was nearly eight-thirty, and he resolved to go out and try to find them once the half-hour struck when they came jogging back into the alleyway, looking over their shoulders to be sure they hadn’t been followed.
“It’s a difficult thing, jumping someone in broad daylight without rousing suspicion,” Hermione said, slipping several curly, black hairs into a phial of Polyjuice Potion.
“Bless whatever inspiration struck Fred and George the day they concocted Nosebleed Nougat,” Ron said. “Nasty stuff.”
“Who was the victim?” Harry asked.
Hermione shook her head. “I didn’t recognise him from our reconnaissance, but he was heading in the same direction as all the Ministry folks, and he had a token on him, so you should be able to slip in as him without rousing suspicion.” She passed him the phial, then began rummaging through her bag, drawing out a set of oversized robes Kreacher had laundered for them. “He was a pretty big fellow, though—you’ll want these.”
Tall was quite an understatement, as Harry had shot up over a foot before the transformation was complete, nearly twice Reginald-Ron’s size now.
“You think this is how Hagrid feels?” Harry wondered, admiring his well-muscled arms and powerful build and stroking his bushy black beard with a smile.
“I’d wipe that grin off your face, Harry,” Hermione warned. “This one didn’t look like the type you’d want to mess with. He might be muscle for someone inside.” Harry nodded, stowing his Cloak and glasses inside the new robe and slipping his wand into his pocket for easy access.
“Right, everyone have their tokens ready now?” Harry and Ron held theirs up for show, and Hermione nodded. “Last chance to turn back.”
Harry and Ron looked to each other, sighed, and then each clapped one hand on Hermione’s shoulder and guided her out of the alley. Their ‘last chance’ was already miles behind them.
They merged as a group into the swelling crowd of what were either Ministry employees or very fantastically attired Muggles and headed another fifty yards along the pavement until they reached what looked to be a stairwell leading down into the Muggle Underground. Here, the crowd parted to descend in two separate groups, and Harry saw ahead of them doors standing on opposite sides of the corridor, marked Ladies on the one side and Gentlemen on the other. The Ministry employees were filing quietly and quickly into these doors, and Harry was getting a sinking, stinking suspicion he knew how they would be expected to enter the Ministry proper.
Hermione necessarily had to part with them here, and she gave a nervous smile that she probably thought was reassuring, whispering, “See you in a moment, then,” before letting herself be funnelled into the ladies’ queue and disappearing through the salmon pink door. Ron and Harry continued on with the other wizards into what would have appeared to Muggles to be an ordinary public toilet. Harry let his gaze travel over the grimy tiles covering the wall and flickering fluorescent lights overhead and wondered if any Muggles ever wandered down here by mistake, looking for a loo, or if there were maybe Muggle-repelling charms around.
Around the bend, they came upon a line of six cubicles facing a wall of sinks and urinals. While it might not be in use as a public toilet at the moment, it certainly still smelled like one, and Harry surreptitiously hiked up the hem of his robes to ensure it didn’t drag over the filthy floor.
A wizard in mustard-yellow robes just in front of Harry and Ron leaned over to address his friend in matching robes. “How much longer d’you think they’ll make us commute like this? Gads, it reeks.”
“I reckon ‘til they track down Harry Potter, yeah? I hear there’s a reward on his head now.”
“They honestly think he’s gonna turn up in a gents’ toilet? Trying to break into the Ministry? No one’s that stupid!” There was a faint ding! and the wizard headed on to the farthest cubicle, slipping his token into a slot near the handle, then letting himself inside.
Harry and Ron shared an uneasy glance—and then there was another ding! from one of the middle cubicles. Harry gently jostled Ron ahead, then followed after him a moment later when the cubicle next to Ron’s dinged as well. In went the token, and the door swung open.
The room was filled with the sound of flushing, and Harry had a very bad feeling about how they were meant to actually get into the Ministry. The creak and clack of shoes on ceramic confirmed his suspicions, and wincing, he carefully mounted the bowl, bracing his feet on the lip of the bowl first, before—wincing—stepping into the bowl itself. To his astonishment (and no small degree of relief), his shoes remained dry despite the fact he seemed to be standing ankle-deep in toilet water. A bob dangled on a chain just at shoulder level, and Harry reached up, held his breath, and gave a yank.
Only a moment later, after much the same dark, pressurised squeezing-through-a-tube sensation as accompanied Apparition, Harry came tumbling out of a doorway, skidding across cool, smooth stone tiles before he came to a stop in a great pile of limbs. Groaning, he shifted upright, rubbing his forehead with a wince and saw that it was not a doorway he’d exited but one of the fireplaces in the Ministry of Magic’s grand Atrium. Evidently they’d appropriated some of the Floo grates for this new mode of entry.
Staggering to his feet and brushing down his robes, he caught a few people staring at him, but they quickly looked away and scurried off when they met eyes with him. He took a long look around the Atrium—and frowned at what he saw. It’d only been a couple of months since his last ‘visit’ with Bragge to sort out Malfoy, but in that brief span of time, Voldemort had instituted quite a few changes to the decor.
Where before there had stood in the centre of the Atrium a huge, handsome golden fountain, contrasting nicely with the polished wooden floors and peacock-blue ceiling, now a massive statue, several stories tall and carved from onyx, greeted visitors. Imposing in more than simply its dimensions, the statue depicted a witch and wizard in sleek robes sitting straight-backed atop intricately carved thrones. The wizard thrust forward a staff in one hand, while the witch held in her opposite hand an orb, and they lorded menacingly over the Ministry workers being spat out the Floo grates. At their feet had been erected a stone plaque, engraved in bold boilerplate with the mantra MAGIC IS MIGHT.
“Oof!” Something slammed into Harry’s knees from behind, nearly knocking him back to the floor; another wizard had just flown out of the fireplace behind him and nearly cut him down. Were it not for the fact Harry’s body was now built like a tank, he might have dropped.
“What’re you standing around for you big—oh!” The wizard who’d bumped into Harry took one look at him and paled, stammering, “Oh, goodness, terribly sorry, Runcorn. My apologies, I wasn’t watching where I was going!” And with a startled squeal, he darted off into the milling crowd of Ministry workers filling the Atrium, leaving Harry with the distinct impression that the wizard whose face he was presently wearing—Runcorn, he’d said?—was not one to be messed with. He recalled Hermione’s suggestion he might be some Ministry official’s muscle and decided he’d better straighten up and play the role.
“I see they made some changes to the decor,” someone said under their breath, and Harry whirled around—Mafalda-Hermione and Reginald-Ron had found their way free of the Floos and joined him, the three of them now huddled close. Ron jerked his chin at the statue. “Not exactly the Fountain of Magical Brethren, is it?”
Hermione gave a little shudder, though she managed to keep her features relatively even. It wouldn’t do for any of them to draw attention by reacting to the thing the way they might want to. “And those thrones…revolting.”
Harry ran his eyes over the statue again, now he had a better view, and realised that what he’d initially assumed to be ornate carvings were actually—he shared Hermione’s revulsion—human bodies. Men, women, children—and all Muggles presumably, from their simpering, stupid faces and awkwardly contorted bodies pressed together to serve as seats for the regal-looking witch and wizard. In their rightful place, at last.
“Let’s go,” Hermione whispered, quiet rage in her voice. “It makes me sick standing around here.”
The next phase of their plan involved heading to Umbridge’s office on Level 1 and somehow, between the three of them, creating enough of a distraction they could locate and steal the locket. This was perhaps the most unplanned part of their mission and therefore the riskiest bit.
The witches and wizards being spat out the Floo grates had coalesced into a steady stream of humanity heading towards the golden grates guarding the lifts at the far end of the hall. Harry, Ron, and Hermione quickly and quietly joined them, all the while keeping their eyes peeled for Umbridge, but she would have been difficult to spot in the crowded Atrium unless she’d been standing right next to them.
“It’s gonna take forever to get to the lifts,” Harry said, craning his neck to see over the heads in front of them. The crowd was moving, but too slowly for Harry’s comfort, and while there were twenty lifts in service, this was morning rush hour. “Maybe we should take the stairs?”
Hermione bit her lip. He could tell she didn’t like how slowly things were progressing either—their Polyjuice doses would only last an hour…and that had started nearly fifteen minutes ago. “I want to, but I feel like we’ll stick out—no one else is taking the stairs.”
“Why should they?” Ron huffed. “I’d put off getting to my desk as long as possible if I were stuck working here these days. Poor Dad…”
“Maybe we could—”
They all three jolted, heads turning—and then Harry saw him. One of the Death Eaters who’d been watching over Rowle’s torture—and enjoying it, from what Harry recalled—was now striding towards them. Walking around in broad daylight, as if it didn’t matter. And Harry supposed it didn’t, given there were already Death Eaters at Hogwarts and in the upper echelons of the Ministry’s ranks.
A pall of silence settled over the crowd, and Harry swore he heard a ripple of fear sweep over the lot of them. The workers in Ron’s immediate vicinity quickly scrambled aside, and their gazes swept away—a clear indication something was about to happen with which they wanted nothing to do. Oh—right, ‘Cattermole’.
The Death Eater who’d singled out Ron looked none to happy to see Reg first thing in the morning, and his dour expression clashed with his sweeping ruby-red robes edged in fancy gold embroidery.
“Morning, Yaxley!” someone piped up from the crowd of onlookers, but Yaxley ignored them, whipping out his wand and brandishing it at Ron. Harry’s hand immediately went to his pocket—but Yaxley only poked Ron in the chest, snarling at him.
“‘Bout fucking time you showed up. How is it I asked you Magical Maintenance sods to sort out my office yesterday, and I go in this morning and it’s still raining in there? You lot sit around on your arses all day listening to the Wireless? Hearing the Cannons get their arses kicked for the fiftieth time more fun than doing you fucking jobs?”
Ron was doing a very good impression of Reg Cattermole in all his ferrety, twitchy glory, eyes darting around frantically, but neither Harry nor Hermione could do anything without blowing their cover, and no one else looked up to intervening. He swallowed thickly, and when he spoke, he had a distinct quaver to his voice. “W-well, the Cannons aren’t doing so poorly this season…”
Yaxley’s eyes went comically wide with rage. “So you think this is funny? Having a laugh at the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement having to swim to get to his desk?” He leaned in close, stabbing Ron repeatedly in the chest with his wand. “Now that’s a bold tactic for someone whose wife’s about to be deposed by the head of the Muggleborn Registration Commission. Pretty fuckin’ stupid, but bold, I’ll give you that.”
“I—I didn’t mean—”
“Honestly I’m shocked you even came in to work today—I’d have thought you’d be down on 10, enjoyin’ what precious little time you’ve got left with her.” He quirked a black brow. “Or have you already given up on her? Can’t say I’d blame you—I hear it’s just not the same, ruttin’ with a Mudblood.”
Hermione gasped softly, whirling around and busying herself with her bag when Yaxley’s gaze snapped to her. He raked her with a calculating look, then slowly turned back to face Ron.
“But if I was at all concerned about keepin’ that bint outta Azkaban and there was a Department head whose office was in need of un-fucking, I’d make it my top priority instead of faffing about. We have an accord, Cattermole?”
Ron just nodded, making agreeably squeaking sounds that ruffled Reg’s bristly moustache.
Yaxley whapped him on the temple with his wand. “Then go!” he barked, jerking his head toward the lifts, the queues to which were by now much shorter as everyone had either crammed on to escape Yaxley’s wrath or decided the stairs seemed a safer option this morning.
Ron moved to do as instructed, and Yaxley snatched him by the collar, drawing him close to whisper into his ear with deadly threat. “And if it’s not pristine by the time I get back up there after my morning rounds, well…” He gave a wicked grin. “Maybe your blood status’ll be up for review next.”
One of the lifts gave a bright ding!, and the grilles opened, spilling out several confused Ministry employees who took one look at the scene unfolding between Ron and Yaxley and promptly scattered.
Yaxley shoved Ron away, sending him stumbling to the floor, then shouldered roughly past Hermione’s Mafalda—and offered Harry’s Runcorn a wink and yellow-toothed smile as he strode away that suggested a cordiality Harry was quite sure he did not want to share. He was beginning to get a very bad feeling about the man whose identity he’d taken on.
“…Let’s get out of here,” Hermione said, reaching to help Ron back to his feet. The other Ministry workers were still giving them a wide berth, and they needed to make their escape before they drew any more unnecessary attention. Who knew how this brief but harrowing interaction might have already screwed with their plans (such as they were)?
Ron clung to her, knees shaking so violently beneath his navy robes he had trouble standing, but between Hermione and Harry, they managed to frog march him into one of the now-empty lifts. Curiously, no one else seemed to want to join them.
Once the grilles had clanged shut and the lift began lurching upwards, Ron collapsed against the side of the car, grey with fright. “Blimey, that took years off me! I’m done for—I mean, Reg is done for! And Reg’s wife!” He began clawing at his face. “Oh no, they’re gonna send her to Azkaban! Because of me!”
“Ron—Ron, calm down.” Hermione laid a hand on his shoulder, leaning down so she could peek into Reginald’s face. “They aren’t going to send her to Azkaban, we’ll see to it. Yaxley was only teed off someone’s played a prank in his office, probably.” She licked her lips. “All we have to do is get to his office, sort out whatever’s wrong, and—”
“Get to his office?” Ron wailed. “We’ve got maybe half an hour left on our Polyjuice! We don’t have time to dick around in a Death Eater’s office! No—” He shook his head, slapping his cheeks, and straightened with a huff. “No. I’ve got this. Or, I’ll figure something out. I’ve gotta help Reg—we kind of owe him. But you two should head upstairs and find Umbridge, and then I’ll j—” He fell silent in mid-sentence, bushy brows knitting. “…Crap, how do I sort out Yaxley’s office? He said it was raining?”
For once, there was no forthcoming lecture about the consequences of falling asleep in Charms class or cribbing Seamus’s also-cribbed Transfiguration essay. “Start with the simplest solution—Finite Incantatem. That should do for simple Hexes and Curses—but if it’s a busted Atmospheric Charm, then things might get tricky.” Ron looked queasy at the idea of ‘tricky magic’, and she hastened to add, “You’ll need to look for the rune they’ll have placed on the ceiling to keep the Charm going constantly. It could be dagaz somehow got corrupted to laguz by a crack in the ceiling or dust buildup—”
“Dagger and lager? What?” He began fishing through his pockets for a quill. “Slow down, I need to write this down.”
Hermione patiently waited for him to find something to write with—but then there was a sharp grinding of metal on metal, and the lift jerked to a halt, setting the three of them swaying in place. A soft, cool voice from nowhere announced, “Level 4, Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, incorporating Beast, Being and Spirit Divisions, Goblin Liaison Office and Pest Advisory Bureau.” Ron’s hands went immediately to his sides, and the three of them tried to act as casually as possible as the grilles opened and a pair of wizards and several pale-violet paper aeroplanes boarded. The inter-Departmental notices fluttered around the lamp in the ceiling of the lift like cumbersome moths about a flame.
Harry tried not to think about the last time he’d visited this particular department, but he couldn’t help craning his neck a bit to try and see if he spotted Bragge. Hermione gave him a stern look, and he quickly straightened, reminding himself to focus, not to get distracted—it wasn’t as if Bragge could do him any good now anyway.
“Oh, g’morning, Albert,” one of the wizards greeted Harry, giving him a start. Harry glanced over to Ron and Hermione for support, but they were now engrossed in a frantic exchange of whispers as Ron scribbled instructions shakily onto his forearm. The wizard had a bushy moustache and a devious leer, and given the familiarity he seemed to think he shared with Runcorn, Harry was certain he was a nasty sort. What was it about the Ministry of Magic that seemed to attract the dregs of wizarding society? Why couldn’t the place just be strapped with Bragges and Arthur Weasleys?
“…Morning,” Harry said, certain that Runcorn would be a man of few words and not wanting to engage this man in more conversation than was strictly necessary.
“I heard from my mate over in Goblin Liaison about Dirk Cresswell, by the way. Nicely done! I expect my transfer’ll be approved now! Though if you ever need anything handled for you in the Office of Misinformation, you just let old Bertrand know, and I’ll see it’s sorted.”
Harry gave only a grunting nod and tried not to wonder what had become of poor Dirk.
The lift stopped again, and the grilles opened onto, “Level 2, Department of Magical Law Enforcement, including the Improper Use of Magic Office, Auror Headquarters, and Wizengamot Administration Services,” according to the disembodied conductor’s voice.
No one moved for a moment, before Hermione reached forward and pinched Ron’s arse—and with a squeak, he scurried from the lift with a baleful backwards glance, Bertrand and his companion short on his heels. Harry’s heart went with him—if he were being honest, un-fucking Yaxley’s office sounded a lot more fun (and feasible) than trying to lift a locket from Umbridge’s office.
The golden grilles slid shut again, and as soon as it was safe, the two of them once more alone in the upwards-lurching lift, Hermione turned to Harry and said in a hurried whisper, “Oh—oh, Harry, maybe we should have gone with him! It shouldn’t take long between the three of us, and you know I love Ron, but he’s really pants at solving puzzles like this, especially under a time-crunch, and—”
“Level 1, Minister for Magic and Support Staff.”
“Oh fuck,” Hermione squeaked in Mafalda’s breathy voice, and Harry wondered what had brought that out of her, when he followed her gaze out past the grilles as the lift doors drew open to reveal Dolores-bloody-Umbridge, still as squat and toady as ever and lost in conversation with a tall wizard wearing stately robes of black and gold, the well-groomed beard on his chin ending in a sharp point. ‘Oh fuck’ wasn’t the half of it.
As the lift announced its arrival, Umbridge’s eyes lit up. “Ah, fantastic! Just the witch I wanted to see.” She turned a simpering smile on the wizard. “Fortune smiles, Minister! With Mafalda here now, we can get started on today’s hearings. That is, if she can be spared for a bit of record-keeping?”
“I’m certain the Improper Use of Magic Office can get by without her until we’ve requisitioned a new batch of Self-Scrivelling Quills.”
“Marvellous!” Umbridge was positively glowing as she turned back to Hermione. “We’re going to have our hands full today, so I hope you’ve got your quill ready!”
“O—oh, yes. All ready to go…” Hermione said weakly, and while Umbridge checked her clipboard, running her eyes over its contents, she threw a panicked glance Harry’s way. He didn’t know what she expected him to do, though. They would have to play this by ear. Perhaps Hermione could distract Umbridge long enough for Harry to rummage through her office. Fuck, they hadn’t planned on them being so easily split up, but here they were, flying by the seat of their pants. He fought to keep his expression even, wary of the Minister’s presence.
“Goodness, ten cases on the docket today! And ‘Cattermole’…a relation to one of the Ministry’s own janitorial staff? Gracious…these ne’er-do-wells manage to squeeze their way in most anywhere, don’t they? Well, never fear, we’ll roust them soon enough.” She seemed now to notice Harry, her smile still bright. “And Albert! Always a pleasure to see you up here on Level 1. Did you need something from the Minister? Or are you free as well? We could always use you down in the Courtrooms to keep the You-Know-Whats in line.” In an aside to Hermione, she added, “They’ll break down into tears before they’ve even sat in the chair, thinking to play to the Commission’s sympathies. You’ve got to show a strong front, or else they’ll walk all over you!”
Harry ducked his head. “Apologies, I can’t join you just yet. Good hunting, though—I’m off here.”
Umbridge nodded her head and touched her bow as if tipping a hat, then joined Hermione on the lift along with the other two waiting wizards as Harry stepped off. The last thing Harry saw before the grilles clanged shut and the lift sank out of sight was Hermione’s stricken face, pleading silently. There was nothing Harry could do, though, so he had to trust Hermione could handle herself until Harry managed to find his way back down to her without arousing suspicion. Maybe it would’ve been better for him to have gone ahead and taken Umbridge up on her offer.
“Do we have a problem?”
Harry gave a start, having nearly forgotten about the new Minister for Magic in the wake of his brush with Umbridge. “Er—sorry, sir?”
“Did you need something, Runcorn? Dolores asked—but you never responded.” Pius Thicknesse looked much the same as he had in the Prophet article: long, greasy black hair peppered with streaks of silver at the temples, and beetle-black eyes set deep into their sockets that scanned Harry from stem to stern, narrowing in suspicion. “It’s rare to run into you above Level 4. Can I help you?”
Harry swallowed thickly, reminding himself that Thicknesse was under the Imperius and would promptly report any untoward activities to the Death Eater who’d cast it on him, Harry tried to think on his feet. “Just needed a quick word with—” He groped for the first name that came to him, “Arthur Weasley. Someone said he was up on Level 1.”
“Ah.” Thicknesse nodded, and Harry felt relief flood him. “Have they caught him consorting with an Undesirable?”
Oh, god. Ron was going to kill him. “N-no, no, not as yet, sir.” Harry would never live down the guilt if his flippant lie wound up getting the Weasleys into trouble with the Ministry. “Just hoping to get his help on the Dirk Cresswell matter.” He sent silent apology to Dirk, wherever he was.
“Hm, well, do keep me posted. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Weasley tips his hand.” Thicknesse seemed to think Arthur’s guilt was a foregone conclusion, which triggered alarm bells in Harry’s mind. “The blood traitors will receive their due as soon as we’ve stamped out the Mudblood plague.” He stared off into space for a beat, then shook his head, tipping a nod to Harry. “Good day, Runcorn.”
“Y-yes, sir. Good day, Minister.”
Thicknesse then turned on his heel, leaving Harry by the lifts as he headed back toward the Minister’s staff’s cubicles and his office. Once he’d disappeared around the corner, Harry allowed himself to release the bated breath he’d been holding, chest aching and eyes watering. Fuck. Fuck. There was a lot to unpack there in that brief exchange—but he had no time. The Polyjuice dose would wear off only too soon, and it was now up to Harry and Harry alone to find Umbridge’s office, sneak inside, and get that locket.
A quick glance showed him to be alone in the small stretch of hallway into which the lifts opened, so he drew out the Invisibility Cloak from his robes and draped it over himself. A downward glance revealed, to his consternation, that everything from Runcorn’s shins down was still visible, so he hunched forward into a stoop until he could no longer see the toes of his loafers. Confident now he’d hidden himself as well as possible, he set off along the corridor in the opposite direction to which Thicknesse had headed.
He plodded along for a good ten minutes, scanning the gleaming brass nameplates over each door he came to with no luck, before panic began to curdle in his stomach like old milk. He was alone, a wanted man, wandering the hallways of the Ministry of Magic—albeit invisibly. At any moment, someone could run into him and his whole cover would be blown; Runcorn’s face would not blind officials to the fact he’d been skulking about under an Invisibility Cloak.
They’d spent a month planning this infiltration—yet within ten minutes of entering the building, they’d been separated and nearly made, and now it was an even roll as to whether they made it out of here with their lives, let alone the Horcrux in hand. They’d spent the better part of their reconnaissance trying to suss out how to get into the Ministry; actually navigating the inside was always going to require a fair bit of improvisation, as they had no way to really glean any useful information on the goings-on inside without involving people like Mr. Weasley, which Ron was adamant they not do. The finer details of how they might manage once on Level 1—or what they would do if they found themselves separated—hadn’t come up. Harry and Ron were doers, not thinkers, and Hermione had done her best trying to wrangle them, but she too had gotten bogged down in details. Now she’d been spirited away to participate in court proceedings sat right next to Umbridge slaving away at a task that might take hours, Ron was probably drowning in Yaxley’s office by now while Reg’s wife waited in vain for her husband to stand by her side as she awaited her fate, and Harry was wandering blindly around the Minister’s Support Staff offices as if he hadn’t just watched Umbridge trundle onto the lift, headed for the Courtrooms down on Level 10.
He made himself stop walking, resting against a wall and trying to organise his thoughts. Umbridge was downstairs, interviewing Muggleborns; he could go down and join her, but she seemed to only want to use Harry for his muscle. He doubted he’d be able to get close to her. Hermione might have better luck on that tack, actually.
He was here, Hermione was there, and Ron was screwed. There was no changing any of that right now—they just had to do what they could and then worry about regrouping later.
He’d use the time he had left on his Polyjuice dose to check Umbridge’s office, just in case. Sure, she didn’t strike him as the type to keep her jewellery hidden in a false bottom of a desk drawer, but he ought to at least check. What a mess it would be to find out later she’d placed her valuables in a Charmed safe in her office before going to Court.
Yes—he would search her office first. Then he’d try and round up Ron and head to the Courtrooms to rescue Hermione. He set off along the corridor again, grateful for the plush purple carpet muffling his heavy tread.
He started making note of the names and titles on the doors he passed. He couldn’t recall Umbridge’s current position, only certain that she was involved with the Muggleborn Registration Commission.
He turned a corner, emerging from the corridor into a wide, open bullpen, filled with a dozen witches and wizards hunched over their desks, hard at work preparing what looked to be colourful pamphlets. They were all engrossed in their efforts, wands rhythmically twitching to instruct pages to fold and staple themselves just so before arranging themselves in boxes stacked in a line down the centre of the room. When one box was filled, it topped itself off with a lid, then flew to join a stack of others forming a barricade against the far wall. There was a rhythm to the workers’ movements that suggested they’d been at this for a long while—and would be at it for a long while yet.
Under cover of the Cloak, Harry decided to chance creeping close enough to the nearest of the desks, belonging to a young, bored-looking witch, to sneak a peek at the pamphlet’s gaudy cover—and felt hot rage spear through him when he read the swirling golden script: MUDBLOODS and the Dangers They Pose to a Peaceful Pureblood Society.
There could be little doubt as to who’d commissioned this tripe, and he only just barely managed to hold himself back from Incendio-ing the wall of boxes. Between Umbridge and Rita Skeeter, Harry was going to collapse from a fury-fuelled stroke by the time he was 40, assuming he survived the war.
He allowed himself a beat to collect his thoughts, taking a few deep breaths and trying to put himself back on task. Check the office—grab Ron—rescue Hermione. Those were his priorities, not stupid pseudo-science bullshit. He forced himself away from the pamphlet preparation area, continuing to scan the doors he passed for promising nameplates—
And then he saw it. Not Umbridge’s nameplate (Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, and below it, a newer, slightly shinier plaque reading Head of the Muggleborn Registration Commission)—not at first. But it: an eye. Moody’s eye, now bulbous and cataract-white, enclosed in a brass casing that had been set into the wood of a door just down the hall from the bullpen. The rage he’d barely quashed on seeing Umbridge’s pamphlets roared back with a vengeance, clawing at his throat, acrid and bile-like.
Clearly the Order hadn’t gotten there in time after Moody had been felled. That his body had been desecrated so, hung on that hag’s door like a trophy, was just too much, and Harry’s restraint snapped like a brittle twig.
He reached for the doorknob, ready to tear the door from its hinges—when Moody’s voice rang clear and clarion in his mind.
Harry stared at the eye—but it sat there dead in its casing, frozen in an unsettling torpor and gazing blindly upwards, no longer whirring about remarking dangerous, suspicious elements.
Don’t be stupid, Potter. Plenty of time for foolish rashness later—don’t make it that easy on them from the outset!
He wasn’t being stupid; he was…well, all right, he was being a little stupid. And now he thought about it, Moody probably would’ve caned him across the temple with his wand if he’d caught Harry letting his emotions get the best of him in such a tense situation. He took a deep, bracing breath—then glanced back to the bullpen, where half the desks had a direct line of sight to Umbridge’s door.
There was little chance the workers’ dedication would blind them to the door of an empty office—the office of a senior Ministry official—just opening on its own right before their very eyes. This called for a bit of a distraction—and that was precisely what Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes were for. Carefully, he withdrew from his pocket one of the Decoy Detonators Hermione had insisted they all carry.
He wound it, muffling the sound of its little magical gears under his Cloak, then placed it onto the carpet next to a potted plant along the wall—and off it shot, making a wobbling beeline down the middle of the bullpen, heading straight for the wall of pamphlet-filled boxes at the back. None of the workers seemed to notice it at first—but they certainly didn’t miss the loud BANG! and plume of billowing black smoke it gave off a moment later.
Someone shrieked—several someones, in fact—and everyone was immediately on their feet, racing to put out what they probably thought was a fire. While they busied themselves casting Aguamenti at the boxes (and hopefully ruining the contents), Harry leaned on the doorknob—blessedly unlocked, as Umbridge rested comfortable in the knowledge no one would dare enter her office without her permission—and stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Getting out would be an interesting feat, but he’d cross that bridge when he reached it.
Even without the nameplate on the door, Harry would’ve known in an instant whose office this was, for Umbridge’s taste in décor did not seem to have changed much since her time at Hogwarts. The place was an old biddy’s dream: walls covered floor to ceiling in the same tacky floral wallpaper he thought he’d seen Aunt Petunia reviewing samples of for the sitting room; musty lace draperies bracketing a magical window, through which Harry could glimpse the mid-summer London skyline; and a trophy case filled not with hard-earned plaques and awards of recognition but ornamental plates depicting frolicking kittens batting at ribbons and pouncing on butterflies.
Harry shuddered with revulsion—and something caught his eye. Attached to the door where there might typically be a hook to hang one’s robes or coat was a long, articulated device made of a shiny metal, snaking from the door to the desk. Harry studied it curiously for a moment—before realising it was fixed to the door right behind where Moody’s eye sat on the other side. A telescoping lens, it seemed, that no doubt enabled Umbridge to spy on those out in the bullpen unawares.
He fought down the urge to snatch the eye, knowing it would give his intrusion away, and they still had the element of surprise on their side for now. Moody would absolutely have flayed him alive for such an act, especially when he was courting fate enough just by being here.
He forced himself to focus on his task—he needed to search the office as quickly as possible and then get back to Ron. From there, they’d see if Hermione had had any luck searching Umbridge’s person. She’d been wearing a high-necked robe when they’d exchanged words at the lift, but she could have been hiding the locket underneath.
He raised his wand and murmured, “Accio locket.” Nothing happened, of course, but he hadn’t really expected it to—the Horcruxes seemed to be under particularly vexing enchantments, and who knew what additional security spells and protective Charms Umbridge might have placed on it?
Where to search first, though, in this shrine to rose-gold and lace and frolicking baby animals? The desk took up the better portion of the office, so he would start there, he decided.
He had to practise a delicate touch to be certain Umbridge wouldn’t realise she’d been burgled, and he searched first with his eyes before carefully pulling open drawers, using his wand to peek under stacks of paper or poke at suspicious pincushions.
His efforts were rewarded, though, with only the usual bits and bobs: quills and Spellotape and old potpourri, enchanted binder clips that tried to snap at his fingers and had to be slapped back into their drawer. There was an exciting moment when he found a lace box in the bottom left drawer, but opening it only revealed spare hair-bows and clips in every colour of the rainbow.
Tedious minutiae, but no locket.
A filing cabinet stood behind the desk, and Harry turned his attention to it, knowing that Filch had reserved a cabinet drawer in his Hogwarts office for contraband confiscated from students. The drawers in Umbridge’s office, though, were full of folders, each labelled with a name—most of which Harry did not recognise on first glance. In the bottommost drawer, though, he found something to distract him from his search: Mr. Weasley’s file.
He pulled it out and opened it.
Blood Status: Pureblood, but with unacceptable pro-Muggle leanings.
Known member of the Order of the Phoenix
Family: Wife Molly (née. Prewett, Pureblood), seven children, two youngest at Hogwarts.
NB: Youngest son currently at home, seriously ill, Ministry inspectors have confirmed.
Security Status: TRACKED. All movements are being monitored.
Strong likelihood Undesirable No. 1 will contact (has stayed with Weasley family previously).
“‘Undesirable Number One,’ eh? Now who could that be…?” His eyes flicked to the span of wall just over the filing cabinet, where hung a large poster not of kittens or ribbons or flowers but himself—a very unflattering photograph, now that he thought about it; he looked a bit nauseated—with the words “UNDESIRABLE NO. 1” printed in bold underneath. On closer inspection, he saw someone had scrawled in a fancy script with bright-pink ink, “To be punished.”
“Just you try, you old hag,” Harry growled, and he shoved Mr. Weasley’s file back in place, moving to slam the drawer shut again—when a thought struck him.
But he shook his head, quickly driving it away. No, he couldn’t chance it. Ron might well be drowning in Yaxley’s office by now, and Hermione was trapped in the Courtrooms with Umbridge. If the Muggleborn interviews lasted more than another twenty minutes or so, the Polyjuice would start to wear off, and then…
“…Fuck,” Harry groaned, closing his eyes. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t just check, just to see. It was a thing with him: he needed to know these things, needed to see them for himself. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to Dumbledore’s possible indiscretions, and he couldn’t ignore this.
So he pulled open the middle drawer of the filing cabinet and began picking through the folders again, name by name, until he finally found the one he’d been certain would be here.
Blood Status: Pureblood, staunchly pro-Wizard with impeccable pedigree. Known member of the Death Eaters.
Family: Mother Narcissa (née Black, Pureblood) and father Lucius (Pureblood), only child.
Security Status: SECURE; Dept. of Mysteries, Level 9, Block 277, Holding Cell 3B
Under stasis; DO NOT RENNERVATE. Dragon Animagus, extremely dangerous. Handle with EXTREME caution and dispense with prejudice if necessary.
Harry felt his heart give a feeble leap—before promptly falling back into his stomach with a jolting thud.
Malfoy wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead at all, he was here. Right here, in—Harry checked the file again—the Department of Mysteries…?
So why did Voldemort think he was dead, then? Or had his comment merely been a bluff to make Mrs. Malfoy do what he wanted? Not that he needed to lie to his followers in order to bend them to his will. More to the point, what was Malfoy still doing here, instead of being locked up in Azkaban or otherwise dealt with? The file said he was under stasis—which meant that Bragge had made Harry turn Malfoy back into himself, only to promptly knock the poor sod unconscious again.
Harry frowned, an uncomfortable tightness forming in his chest. He’d somehow thought that, having regained his human form, Malfoy might receive at least some degree of humane treatment as a prisoner. That he’d at least be treated as a prisoner, instead of whatever half-life this was, stuck under stasis, unaware of the danger building just outside his cell door. It had been one thing, keeping the dragon sedated until Harry had been able to force Malfoy back into his normal form, but how could they keep a human prisoner under stasis like that? Even those held in Azkaban weren’t treated this way. Plus, it didn’t sound as if he’d even been tried, let alone sentenced. Surely there were laws against this sort of treatment, when the accused wasn’t even conscious of being held.
Harry found a wand wrapped in a soft, velvet bag at the bottom of Malfoy’s folder. He slipped it into the Mokeskin pouch hanging around his neck, without allowing himself to think too long about why, and returned the file to the drawer, sliding it shut.
They had a mission. He had far too many people relying on him right now to afford to get distracted by Draco Malfoy. Again.
But thoughts of Malfoy’s pathetic state continued to dog him even as he moved on to search the drapes for secret pockets and pulled a bundle of dusty dried flowers from an equally dusty vase, peeking inside just in case, still with no sign of the locket. When had they put him under again? Why had they put him under again? Had he ever even roused after Harry had helped him shift back to human, or had they just slapped the stasis spell on him unawares?
And that brought up another matter, because it meant Voldemort hadn’t used Malfoy to track Harry—not when he’d left Privet Drive, and not when the Death Eaters had jumped them in the café on Tottenham Court Road. How, then, had they been betrayed? The whole matter was making Harry’s head hurt, and he shoved all thoughts of dragons and peacocks and ferret-faced sneering prigs firmly to the side, to be addressed when Harry and his friends weren’t in immediate danger. He was starting to accept he couldn’t ignore the matter altogether, but he could damn well pick and choose when he agonised over these things he had no power to change.
He glanced at Moody’s eye and heard a gravelly voice reminding him once more Constant vigilance! The locket was his priority right now, not Malfoy, and certainly not the Ministry’s morally grey prisoner management practises. How the Death Eaters had tracked them was admittedly worrisome, but they remained protected by the Fidelius so long as they were in residence at Number 12, so that too could wait until later to unpack.
After another couple of minutes of half-hearted, distracted searching, he found himself forced to admit that the locket just wasn’t here and readied to make his escape—when his eye caught on something achingly familiar and long-missed: a pair of twinkling blue eyes peering out from under half-moon frames. It was Dumbledore—or rather, a picture of him, prominently displayed on Umbridge’s bookcase. Why on earth would Umbridge of all people have a picture of Dumbledore in pride of place in her office?
He stepped closer, unaccountably curious, and realised that it wasn’t a picture frame at all but rather an image of Dumbledore on the cover of a glossy hard-back book. From this distance, Harry could now see the book’s title, scrawled across Dumbledore’s tall, pointy hat in a curling font of bright acid-green: The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, with the byline “by Rita Skeeter, best-selling author of Armando Dippet: Master or Moron?” in a smaller, more traditional type across Dumbledore’s chest.
Just when he thought his day couldn’t get worse, now he knew Umbridge was a Rita Skeeter fan. Didn’t that just figure?
So the stupid thing was out now, was it? Or had Umbridge flashed her Ministry credentials in enough faces she got an advance copy? He snatched up the book, running a thumb along the edge of the text block to flip open to a random page—and was pleased to find another photograph. This time, of two teenage boys, arms slung over each other’s shoulders and wearing bright, full-faced grins. He recognised one as Dumbledore from the photo he’d seen in the Prophet, but the other boy was a stranger. He had a shock of golden curls on his head and bright, wild eyes, and every now and then, he’d turn to whisper something into Dumbledore’s ear, a wicked grin on his lips, and Dumbledore would cover his mouth, shoulders shaking as if he’d just been told a fantastically dirty joke. Would this have been Doge in his youth, then? Perhaps while planning their trip ‘round the world before Kendra’s untimely demise had put a stop to it? He scanned the page, searching for a caption—
“—and get someone from Experimental Charms up here to explain how one of their blasted devices found its way to Level 1!”
Had Thicknesse not been in mid-lecture, snarling orders over his shoulder as he entered, he might have caught sight of Harry hastily ducking under his Invisibility Cloak and dropping into a crouch next to a potted palm wilting in the corner. Even still, he seemed to have caught a flash of movement, for on turning back to the room, Thicknesse paused for a moment and flicked his eyes about in suspicion. Perhaps concluding he’d simply seen the kittens frolicking or Undesirable No. 1 Harry wrinkling his nose from his oversized portrait, Thicknesse shook his head and swiped his wand at a quill on the desk, which promptly leapt from its inkpot and began scratching out a note to Umbridge as Thicknesse dictated.
Sensing this would be his only chance to make a clean escape, Harry slowly eased his way out of the office and back into the bullpen, hunched forward and praying he didn’t tread on the hem of the Cloak and take a tumble.
The pamphlet makers were all crowded around the Decoy Detonator—or its remains at least—discussing its suspected provenance and who had set it upon them. “I’ll bet it’s the same person responsible for the busted Atmospheric Charm in Yaxley’s office,” one of them whispered to his companion. “You’ve got to admire their style!”
Harry made a mental note to donate another thousand Galleons to the twins if they made it out of here alive and quickly scurried past, hurrying towards the corridor leading to the lifts.
He mashed the button to summon the lift as soon as he arrived at the end of the corridor and tried to organise his thoughts. While he hadn’t turned the office inside out, he was reasonably confident the locket wasn’t hidden there. But with Umbridge sat in the middle of a crowded courtroom, surrounded by Ministry employees and probably Death Eaters or their sympathisers, Harry couldn’t see how they were going to be able to prise the locket’s whereabouts from her, not without raising a hell of a lot of suspicion. They might have to accept that today’s attempt was a wash and return to Grimmauld Place to regroup and try again another day.
First things first, he’d head back down to Level 2 and rescue Ron, assuming Yaxley hadn’t found him first, and then they’d have to put their heads together to figure out how to get Hermione out of the courtrooms on Level 10, as with precious few minutes left on their Polyjuice doses, waiting for the proceedings to end on their own wasn’t an option.
Blessedly, the first lift car to arrive was empty, and with a quick glance around to be sure no one was looking, Harry hopped on and mashed the button for Level 2, waiting for the grilles to close again before tugging off the Invisibility Cloak. He was in the midst of stowing the Cloak in his robes when the lift shuddered to a stop at 2 and the grilles opened to reveal a waterlogged Reg Cattermole, looking rather more harried and defeated than he’d been when they’d parted ways earlier.
“Morning…” he burbled as he stepped on, a bit out of breath. He didn’t bother pressing a button, so Harry punched 9 for them.
When Ron seemed inclined to avoid Harry’s eye, Harry poked his shoulder. “…Oi, it’s me! Harry!”
Ron gave a little jolt, raking his eyes over Runcorn’s form, then his shoulders sagged in relief. “Blimey but I’m tired of this Polyjuice business. No wonder people are paranoid over it. I forgot wh—” He frowned. “Hold on, where’s Hermione? Wasn’t she with you?”
Harry winced, scratching at his neck. “She got waylaid by Umbridge—not because she got caught!” he hastened to explain, as Ron’s eyes widened in panic. “Apparently the witch she’s impersonating is meant to take minutes or something for the court proceedings Umbridge is involved in. She couldn’t refuse, so she’s down on Level 10 now, and we’ve—”
He buttoned up as the lift stopped again, and the grille slid open to allow, of all people, Arthur Weasley to step inside. Harry held his breath, pretending to admire the lift’s drab wallpaper, but Mr. Weasley was engaged in conversation with a witch who’d boarded with him and did not seem to notice Harry at first. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ron had turned to face the corner of the lift, like a child being punished. They were an absolute mess without Hermione.
“—and I’m sure the Chairman would look kindly upon anyone providing information to aid in that effort, but I can’t—” Mr. Weasley straightened, turning slowly and regarding Harry now, his easy expression darkening immediately. “…Let’s continue this discussion later, Wanda,” he said to the witch, distractedly, and continued to eye Harry with abject loathing. Who was this bloke Harry had Polyjuiced into? Voldemort’s half-brother? Runcorn must have been a right arsehole, he concluded, and wished Hermione had stuffed more than a Nosebleed Nougat down his gullet before sending him off.
The witch gave a wheezing, “Oh, all right,” and reached to press the button for Level 7, with the lift continuing its descent. Ron was dripping rather loudly on the floor, and Mr. Weasley turned to him, giving him a once over. “Er, all right there, Reg?” He pinched a bit of Ron’s robe, squeezing the water from it. “Isn’t your wife in for questioning today? I’d have thought you’d be with her.”
“It’s still pouring in Yaxley’s office,” Ron muttered, head ducked low. Of course there was no chance of Mr. Weasley realising who it really was underneath the potion, but it was the principle of the thing, parading about in public when Mr. Weasley would never have approved. “Been trying to get it sorted for a half-hour, but nothing seems to work. They sent me back down to Magical Maintenance to get Bernie—Bernie…Bismouth?”
“That’s the one.”
Mr. Weasley nodded sympathetically. “There’s been suggestions it’s a prank—no one likes Yaxley, so it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, but the Atmospheric Charms have been on the fritz in a lot of offices, so I think it’s just general wear and tear on the Charm work. Have you tried Meteolojinx recanto to remove the Charm altogether? It’ll have to be recast later instead of just repairing it, so they’ll have to summon a specialist, but better than swimming to your office, eh?”
“Meteolojinx recanto?” Ron repeated, turning the words over in his mouth, before brightening a tick and glancing up. “No, I didn’t think to try that one! I’ll see if that sorts it. Thanks, Da—Arthur. You’ve been a help.” The lift doors opened again, spitting out the witch who’d been chatting with Mr. Weasley, and Ron darted past her, making for the stairwell at the other end of the offices, no doubt to rush back up to Level 2.
Harry made to follow him—two heads might be better than one, and then they could head down to help Hermione—but Mr. Weasley thrust out an arm, blocking him in. Harry slowly turned to look at him, one brow raised, and he must have looked quite intimidating, for Mr. Weasley swallowed thickly, jaw tense. He held his ground, though, gritting out, “Was hoping I might have a word.”
The lift doors closed, and down they went again. Harry crossed his arms over his chest. “Something I can do for you, Arthur?”
“They took Dirk Cresswell away last week. Word is you had a hand in it.”
Harry hadn’t the foggiest what Mr. Weasley was referring to, his mind back with Ron, envying him his quick escape. Time to go for the ‘man of few words’ tack again. “Sorry?”
“Don’t play stupid,” Mr. Weasley spat, seeming to grow bolder with Harry’s reluctance to engage, and Harry worried how this conversation might have gone had this actually been the real Runcorn and Arthur Weasley having this exchange. “You’re the one who told them about the faked family tree, then? And helped track down the wizard who forged the papers?”
Oh, so that was what had happened to poor Dirk. Harry tried to draw himself up, hoping to make Mr. Weasley think twice about trying to speak this way to Runcorn again. It was for his own good. “Yeah? So what if I did?”
“There will come a time,” Mr. Weasley said, almost whispering, his tone quiet and dangerous with unspoken threat, “when you and your ilk will have to answer for the depths to which you’ve sunk just to get a leg up on others less fortunate than yourselves. I hope—I really, truly do—that I’ll be there to see it happen.”
“Level 8, Atrium,” the disembodied lift witch’s voice announced; Harry seized his chance.
“They’re keeping tabs on you, Arthur. Did you know? Got a whole file on you.”
Arthur only bristled. “Is that a threat? Think I’ve faked a dozen and more generations of Weasley before me? I know they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel these days looking for scapegoats, but—”
“Oh for—” Harry was going to botch this, he just was. “It’s a warning! I’m just saying you’d better watch your—”
But then the lift doors opened on the Atrium, and they had an audience. Harry fell silent, exhaling loudly through his nose, and Mr. Weasley shouldered past him without so much as a Thanks for the tip. Harry stood there, shaken, and watched as an inter-Departmental memo followed Mr. Weasley out of the lift. Maybe he could send one of those to Mr. Weasley’s office, warning him anonymously.
As the lift was still headed down, no one bothered boarding, since few had business on Levels 9 or 10, and once the grilles had closed again, Harry pulled out his Invisibility Cloak once more and slipped it on, grateful to be rid of Runcorn after that. Ron would have to handle Yaxley’s office by himself; hopefully the spell Mr. Weasley had suggested would work, and he’d join Harry quickly, as Harry wasn’t sure what might happen otherwise. He didn’t think he could figure out how to get Hermione out of the proceedings without arousing suspicion on his own.
When the doors opened again on Level 9, Harry found himself in what was becoming a familiar passageway, this being his second ‘visit’. It was a far sight from the richly panelled, plushly carpeted corridors above, the only light cast in this dark, dank hallway the wan flickering Bluebell Flames burning low in sconces on the wall. Harry stepped out, jolting as the grates clattered shut behind him, the lift rising back up to the Atrium to receive more passengers.
There was no carpeting to muffle Runcorn’s heavy tread here, and his steps seemed to echo down the lonely hallway. Ahead loomed a black door, marking the entrance to the Department of Mysteries—but Harry resolutely ignored it, instead yanking open the door just to his left, which opened on to a flight of stairs leading down to the court chambers on Level 10.
Nearly at his destination, Harry started to sort through possible courses of action. He still had a few Decoy Detonators in his pocket, but using a second one—and so soon after the first up on Level 1—might unnecessarily arouse suspicion. They weren’t caught yet, so there was no sense in acting out unless forced to.
Umbridge had invited him down here when they’d run into each other earlier—maybe he could just poke his head in and ask for a quick word with Mafalda. It was the simplest plan and easiest to execute (and therefore the one with the lowest chance of Harry screwing it up)—but there was no telling if Runcorn had the kind of authority to barge in on a court proceeding, and Umbridge would probably not appreciate having her fun interrupted by someone who had no business stealing her stenographer or whatever role Hermione was meant to fill. Plus, even if he managed it, they’d probably have at best a few minutes before someone came looking for Hermione if she didn’t return promptly—not nearly long enough for all three of them to escape cleanly.
Preoccupied with his plans—or lack thereof, rather—he was halfway down the steps to Level 10 before he registered that the temperature had dropped several degrees, an unnatural chill settling over him like a slow-rolling bank of fog. Each step was more difficult to take than the last, and he felt his shoulders take on a raw, physical weight that dragged. The darkness seemed to deepen, and creeping in slowly, stealing away the last bits of warmth and light, came a bottomless well of despair and hopelessness so thick, so deep, he could have drowned in it.
Umbridge had brought in fucking Dementors. Or maybe the Ministry had had them here all along—regardless, they were out now, out in force, and turning the corner at the bottom step, Harry saw them: a dozen or more tall, black-robed figures with hoods that threw their faces entirely in shadows. They lurked along the walls, looming with groping spindly fingers as they waited for foolish passersby to draw near enough to snatch.
A long wooden bench occupied the far end of the corridor just outside the door leading into Courtroom C where Umbridge would be holding her interrogations, and huddled atop it sat a half-dozen terrified Muggleborns who’d been brought in for questioning. Most hid their faces, perhaps thinking in doing so they might be able to save their souls from any Dementors that grew too bold, but some clung to loved ones with wide, white eyes, unable to tear their gazes away from the horrors unfolding before them.
A few Dementors prowled the corridor like hungry predators, gliding silently up and down the hallway and stealing away all warmth and hope as they went. Harry gave them a wide berth as he approached, their ragged, raspy breathing covering Harry’s steps. His fingers twitched at his sides—oh, how he ached to whip out his wand and send his Patronus rushing down this hallway. He could feel the magic beating at the back of his ribcage, begging to be unleashed—but he fought the urge, tamping it down with reminders that there were still Ron and Hermione to help. He forced himself to think of them, of how they needed him to keep a level, clear head. The locket could be collected another day—his friends could not.
He shuffled his way through the gauntlet of Dementors, keeping his head down and the Cloak wrapped tight around him. He didn’t dare stop, didn’t give them the chance to latch on, only moved forward resolutely to Courtroom C at the end of the corridor—
—the door to which was abruptly flung open when he was but a few paces away, hitting the wall with a clanging thud that shattered the frozen silence of the hallway.
Babbled pleas filtered into the corridor, with a frantic desperation filling the air and sending the Dementors into a tizzy. “No, no, I’m a half-blood, you must believe me! My father was a wizard, good and proper! Arkie Alderton—he’s a famous broomstick designer! His brooms have been ridden by—unhand me, get your filthy hands off—”
Harry crept closer, keeping clear of the Dementors now starting to swarm the door to the courtroom, as if they could sense a meal coming their way.
“Now now, Mr. Alderton. The Committee has cast its judgement,” came Umbridge’s unmistakable voice, soft and silky but magnified with the force of a Sonorus such that it drowned out Alderton’s ardent protests. “If you can’t compose yourself, we shall have to have you forcibly controlled. And do be aware that the Dementors have been authorised to deliver their Kiss to any who resist unduly.”
Mr. Alderton immediately ceased his blubbering protests, but quiet, defeated sobs continued to echo from the chamber.
“There, see? Civility serves us all.” Her tone was one of patronising levity—but quickly turned cold and brittle. “Now—you may take him away.”
Here, a pair of the Dementors broke off from their fellows, gliding into the courtroom and circling the defenceless Mr. Alderton. With rotting hands that reminded Harry of the Inferi in the cave pool, they reached for the wizard, dark, dirty nails digging in when he struggled, until he fainted into their grasp. They bore him away as if he weighed nothing, down the hall where they were swallowed into the scrum of other Dementors and disappeared from sight.
“Now, Mary Cattermole! Why don’t you join us?” called Umbridge, her voice once again light and inviting as she moved on to the next matter of business, and the woman on the farthest end of the bench slowly rose to her feet, visibly trembling. Her dark hair had been smoothed back into a loose bun, and her robes were not the colourful garb of Ministry workers but plain ones meant for day-to-day household labour. She was utterly unremarkable, as far as Harry could see; why anyone would go after a woman like this, when there were real, actual Dark wizards on the loose, was beyond Harry.
Sensing his moment, he rushed to hang on her heels, slipping in behind her as she shuffled into the courtroom. It gutted him, seeing her having to walk in there alone, when her husband was meant to be by her side. It was their fault Reg Cattermole hadn’t made it into work today—suddenly his reluctance to take the day off made a lot more sense—and Harry wished he could will some comfort into her, or at least let her know she didn’t have to face this farcical interview on her own.
Mrs. Cattermole was led into the centre of the chamber’s deep well, and Harry stepped off to the side, taking a moment to case the room. It was not, he realised, the same courtroom he’d been escorted to when he’d had to face the Wizengamot and answer for his use of magic in front of Muggles—that one had been much larger, though this one was just as imposing, he thought, especially for the poor Muggleborns waiting in the hall for their fate to be decided. The ceiling stretched up impossibly high, leaving one feeling like a bug under glass as the audience above peered down with grave, unfriendly faces.
The insidious chill in the room did not leave even when the door closed behind them, and Harry remarked the Dementors stationed around the central well, lurking just at the outer bounds of the cylindrical beam of light pouring from high above. They peered from beneath dark hoods, watching Mrs. Cattermole hungrily, and Harry silently begged her not to make a scene, as he didn’t want Umbridge making an example of her like she’d nearly done Mr. Alderton.
Harry hung a right just inside the doorway and crept up a steep flight of stairs leading to the stands overlooking the raised platform where Mrs. Cattermole was being led. It was here he found Umbridge, seated behind a balustrade and flanked on either side by Yaxley—thank god, Ron still had time to put his office back to sorts—and a stricken Hermione. Mafalda Hopkirk’s face was nearly as pale and drawn as Mrs. Cattermole’s, and Harry could see that the quill clutched in her fingers was trembling so much, her writing had come out illegible scribbles.
A figure he thought at first might be a ghost stalked along the balustrade, bright silver and glowing faintly—but on closer inspection, he realised it was a cat. Thick-furred and proud, it would occasionally pause to bat at some imagined dust mote floating in the air.
It was a Patronus—Umbridge’s Patronus, no doubt. Harry supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised to find a Patronus here, in the midst of an army of Dementors, but he was. Mostly because he wouldn’t have thought a witch as evil as Umbridge would’ve been capable of casting such a spell—but then again, all it required was a very happy memory to draw upon, and here in this courtroom, casting judgement upon those too weak to defend themselves and ‘purifying’ the wizarding race in the doing? Oh, Umbridge must have been ecstatic.
“Have a seat,” Umbridge said, extending her hand to a chair in the centre of the room. Mrs. Cattermole regarded the chair with some suspicion, but Dementors had moved to block the door to the courtroom, removing any hope of her making a break for it. With little choice but to do as Umbridge said, she gingerly lowered herself into the seat—and immediately chains snaked out from the arms of the chair, locking her in place, to her visible horror. Mrs. Cattermole gave a feeble wriggle, trying to free herself—but to no avail.
Umbridge consulted her clipboard, brows raised.
“Well, shall we get started? You’re Mary Elizabeth Cattermole, yes?”
Mrs. Cattermole was still struggling against the chains, and Umbridge cleared her throat loudly. Mrs. Cattermole flinched, quickly recalling herself, and nodded shakily. “Y-yes’m.”
“Very good. And you’re married to Reginald Cattermole, presently employed in our Magical Maintenance division?” Umbridge cast about the courtroom, lips pinched. “I don’t see him here. Did he not come with you? Spouses are allowed to stand as witnesses, you should have been told as such in your summons.”
Mrs. Cattermole’s composure shattered, and she began to sob, her voice broken with hiccoughs. “I—I don’t know where he is! He was meant to meet me here, he said he would! I-if someone could maybe check with his manager…”
Umbridge sighed, scratching out something on her clipboard, and moved on. “Three children, then? Maisie, Ellie, and Alfred Cattermole?”
Mrs. Cattermole nodded weakly. “Th-they’re so young, they don’t understand… They th-think I might not c-come home!” Her sobs increased in volume and frequency, and Yaxley rolled his eyes.
“Oh, enough,” he snarled. “No one here gives two shits about Mudblood get.”
Terrible as Mrs. Cattermole’s sobs were, he was grateful for them, as they helped muffle his steps and distract the likes of Yaxley and Umbridge as Harry moved closer toward the benches seating the overseers. He could tell when he drew within the radius of the Patronus’s protection, as the chill of the Dementors’ presence instantly evaporated. The Patronus glowed brightly as it bathed itself, feeding on Umbridge’s merry confidence.
He edged as close as he dared, taking a seat just behind Hermione. How to make his presence known was a conundrum in itself; he was sure to frighten her with any sudden gestures or words, given how tense she already was, and false moves would draw Umbridge’s and Yaxley’s attention.
Umbridge raised her voice to continue her line of questioning, and while she was distracted, Harry leaning forward to whisper into Hermione’s ear, “Don’t freak out; I’m right behind you.”
As expected, she gave a violent start, tipping over her inkpot and sending a wave of black cascading over the notes she’d been taking. Blessedly, neither Umbridge nor Yaxley seemed to notice the disturbance, engrossed as they were in Mrs. Cattermole’s mental torture.
“Now, on your arrival at the Ministry this morning, security officials found a wand on your person and confiscated it.” Umbridge checked her notes. “Eight and three-quarter inches, cherry, unicorn hair core.”
“Y-yes,” Mrs. Cattermole sniffled. “That’s my wand.”
“Mm, yes, it’s certainly someone’s wand—the question this Commission would like answered is just whose property it rightly is.” She arched an eyebrow. “Would you mind clarifying which witch or wizard you stole this wand from? Or if you believe it was given freely, we’ll want the name of whoever gave it to you all the same, as it’s an actionable offence to willingly allow Muggles to come into contact with magical paraphernalia—”
“Wha—stole…? Who did I steal it from?” Mrs. Cattermole’s features screwed up in bewilderment, her sobs momentarily stifled by her confusion. “I didn’t…I didn’t steal it from anyone. I bought it—from Mr. Ollivander. When I was eleven years old! I—it chose me, you can ask him yourself!”
Umbridge tittered softly, sharing a patronising look with Yaxley. She then leaned forwards over the balustrade to get a better look at her victim, and Harry fought the urge to give her a good hard shove—something he found remarkably easy to do once distracted by the heavy golden locket that slipped from her collar and swung forward to dangle from her neck.
The muffled squeak Hermione released said she’d spotted it too, and a rush of adrenaline began to flood Harry’s system. No, there would be no coming back another day, no regrouping and trying again. The locket was here, feet from them, and they couldn’t leave here without it.
“Now, dear, I can appreciate the situation you’re in and how overwhelmed you must be feeling—but that’s no reason to go telling all-out fibs, and I’ll remind you that if you’re caught lying to this Commission, we will not look favourably on your case.”
“B—but I haven’t lied—”
“But you just have, you said so yourself: that the wand collected on your arrival at the Ministry had chosen you. You see, that’s simply not possible—wands choose witches and wizards.” Umbridge laced her fingers together, arms folded neatly. “Not Muggles.”
“But I’m not a Muggle!” Mrs. Cattermole’s protests were growing strident now, and Harry silently willed her to keep her composure—hadn’t she seen what’d happened to poor Mr. Alderton when he’d gotten short with Umbridge?
“We’ll be the judges of that. Mafalda, dear, pass me Mrs. Cattermole’s questionnaire, if you would.” She held out a stubby-fingered hand, snapping in Hermione’s direction. Hermione straightened, frantically rifling through a packet of documents on the desk next to her before sliding her a length of parchment with Mrs. Cattermole’s name at the top.
As she handed Umbridge the documents, Hermione licked her lips, brows rising. “G—goodness, that’s a lovely necklace, Dolores. It suits you so well.” She nodded to the pendant dangling from Umbridge’s neck, her tone remarkably light and conversational.
“What?” snapped Umbridge with no small amount of irritation, before glancing down to the locket. She immediately transformed, pride infusing her toady features. “Oh, yes, isn’t it? A recently uncovered family heirloom we found with my late Great Aunt Gwendolyn’s personal effects.” She settled back, patting the locket now resting atop her ample bosom with a proprietorial hand. “This S here stands for ‘Selwyn’—you’ll know the Selwyns, of course. They’re a relation on my father’s side. Truth be told, I can prove a connection to any number of the Sacred Twenty-Eight.” She turned a superior gaze to the cowering Mrs. Cattermole. “Suffice it to say my parents certainly weren’t…” Her lip curled as she tapped a finger next to Mrs. Cattermole’s answer to question four on the questionnaire. “…Greengrocers.” She smiled. “Some of us don’t have to lie about our lineage to travel in circles we weren’t meant to tread.”
Yaxley gave a rasping cough that devolved into wheezing laughter, and Umbridge’s Patronus hissed at Mrs. Cattermole. The Dementors in the corners stirred, growing restless.
Harry felt his blood rushing hot through his veins, chasing away any remaining chill the Dementors might have laid on him—lying about her lineage? That was rich, coming from Umbridge, who knew that locket was no ‘heirloom’—at least not one of her own. She’s stolen it—the very feat she was accusing Mrs. Cattermole of—and for no better reason than to goose her own standing amongst her no-good blood-worshipping peers. She was worse than Yaxley, worse than Malfoy—she pretended and lied and stepped on the backs of witches and wizards with ten times her strength just to get ahead, to be able to stand just one rung higher than those around her. At least Death Eaters owned up to what they were, at least they stood for something—
Harry felt the last of his patience and caution fizzle away, and with fleeting silent apology to Mad-Eye Moody, he raised his wand beneath the Cloak, levelling it at Umbridge’s thick neck and spitting, “Stupefy!”
Umbridge collapsed in a flash of bright red, her head smacking against the edge of her desk before she crumpled to the ground. Her Patronus blipped from existence, bringing an oncoming rush of cold dread. Yaxley didn’t seem to realise what had happened, crouching down to give Umbridge a shake, and too late he seemed to surmise someone had Charmed her, only managing to open his mouth to cry for aid before Harry sent another Stunner right between Yaxley’s eyes. He slumped over Umbridge, out cold.
“Harry!” Hermione gasped, leaping to her feet, but Harry was still riding his adrenaline high, and he ripped off the Invisibility Cloak.
“If you think I was going to sit here and listen to her spout more hogwash—”
Hermione grabbed him by the arm, pointing frantically into the pit below. “No, Mrs. Cattermole!”
Harry’s stomach dropped; with the Patronus no longer around keeping them at bay and Umbridge no longer conscious to order them to their posts, the Dementors ringing the chamber below had begun to glide forward, making their way into the centre where Mrs. Cattermole still sat chained to her chair.
The poor woman struggled in her chair, sobbing openly, and tried to turn her head away when one drew close—but it reached out one spindly, decaying hand from under its ragged cloak, took her by the chin, and brought her face back around…then tipped it back, unhinging its jaw into a gaping maw—
The familiar form of the stag leapt from the tip of Harry’s wand, filling the pit with brilliantly shimmering silver light. It charged the most brazen of the Dementors, shaking its antlered head in warning, and the creatures fell back with a hiss and faded into the dark shadows edging the room once more. The stag then took a lap of the room, radiating a comforting warmth and snorting aggressively at any Dementors that thought to make another try for Mrs. Cattermole.
“I’ll handle this,” Harry said. “You get the Horcrux.” Hermione nodded breathlessly.
He quickly stuffed his Invisibility Cloak back into his robes—they certainly wouldn’t need it now—and rushed back down the stairs, nearly tripping over Runcorn’s overlarge feet in his haste to reach Mrs. Cattermole.
Her expression as she watched him approach, recognising he’d been the one to cast the Patronus that had saved her, was nothing short of gobsmacked. “Mr. Runcorn…? B-but, Reg said you were the one who told the Commission about me in the first place!”
“Wow, that wasn’t very nice of me,” Harry said, pointing his wand at the chains on Mrs. Cattermole’s chair, and she flinched, as if fearing he meant to curse her. “Maybe I was just in a bad mood that day—I mean to make up for it now, though. Diffindo!” But the chains only gave a feeble shudder, and Harry swore under his breath, calling up to Hermione, “Hey, the chains aren’t budging! Got anything better in your arsenal? Diffindo didn’t do it!”
“I’m a little busy at the moment; just give me a second—”
“We don’t have a second! My Patronus can only hold off this many Dementors for so long!” Already a few were getting bold enough that the stag had to nearly gut them with its antlers before they retreated.
“Well it’ll have to try! We can’t just grab the locket and leave.” She freed the locket from around Umbridge’s bulbous neck with a sharp tug, snapping the band. “She’ll notice it’s gone, and who knows what that might lead to.”
“I thought the whole point was to get the locket—”
“It is! Honestly, stop squawking at me and let me work!” She huffed, holding the locket out at arm’s length, and said, “Geminio!” A flash, and suddenly Hermione was holding two lockets—Harry hoped she remembered which one was the original; he was going to go mad if they wound up with a second fake locket. She slipped the new locket back around Umbridge’s neck. “There. If she didn’t recognise the true value in what she had before, she certainly won’t realise it’s a fake she’s wearing now.”
“Any time now, Hermione!”
She slipped the locket into her beaded bag, then came rushing down the steps at Harry’s insistent urging, wand brandished and a look of determination on her features. “All right, if Diffindo’s no good…” Her nose wrinkled in thought, and she pointed her wand at the chains. “Perhaps a nice Relashio!”
The chains shuddered sharply, then relaxed their grip, drawing back into the arms of the chair and releasing Mrs. Cattermole at last. She leapt from the chair, rubbing her arms but face still red and puffy and eyes wild with fright. “I…I don’t understand, why would you…?” She glanced back and forth between the two of them, shaking her head, but there was no time to tell her the truth—or even to make up a palatable lie.
Harry took her by the shoulders, steering her toward the exit. “It doesn’t matter, right? All you need to worry about is gathering your family together and getting as far away from here as possible. Leave the country if you can. Don’t stop to pack anything, just get the children and your husband and go. And don’t come back, not until things have settled down here. Consider the Continent, or try visiting the Americas for a bit, yeah? Some place remote, I’d advise.”
Mrs. Cattermole just nodded, expression quite dubious, and Harry turned back to his Patronus, summoning the stag to his side with a whistle. It shook its head in a final warning to the Dementors along the wall, then pranced back towards Harry, gleaming noontime bright.
“Can you cast yours?” he asked Hermione, and her face blanched. “It’s just, there’s a whole boatload of Dementors outside, and two will keep them in check better than one if we’re to get out of here.”
“Y—yeah, I think, probably…” She raised her wand, hand still unsteady. “Expec—Expecto patronum!” A fizzle of silver dust spat from the tip, dissolving into nothingness, and Hermione’s jaw tensed.
“It’s all right—try again, though. We need as many as we can manage.” He looked to Mrs. Cattermole—she didn’t have her wand on her, but some of the others waiting in the hallway might. While Hermione tried her Patronus charm again, Harry sent his on through the door as he reached for the knob, yanking it open to reveal a bench full of pale, frightened faces staring at them in shock.
“Expecto patronum!” Hermione shouted with a steadier voice, and from her wand leapt a silver otter, gracefully cavorting through the air as it swam over to join the stag in staring down the gauntlet of Dementors guarding the corridor. Several of the Muggleborns yelped in fright as the silver creatures bounded past, clinging to each other in wide-eyed awe.
Harry drew himself up, and in Runcorn’s booming, authoritative voice, announced, “Any remaining Muggleborns and their families are urged to leave the Ministry immediately and go into hiding. Er, you’re valued members of the wizarding community, but tensions are running high at the moment, and it’s in your best interests to just—go elsewhere for a while. Abroad, if you can. Feel free to return when you feel it’s safe to do so.” Most of the Muggleborns just stared at him, confusion on their features, and Harry waved his wand. “Well go on, get going!”
As if a spell had been broken, the Muggleborns scrambled to their feet, gathering up their families and belongings and crowding around Harry, who realised he was now expected to lead them all out down the corridor. He swallowed thickly, then twitched his wand to send his stag ahead to clear the hall in its entirety, with Hermione’s otter hot on its tail. They managed to make their way through the cloud of Dementors without issue, scaling the stone steps up to Level 9 and the waiting lift, but Harry knew their luck would not last long.
A band of nearly two dozen accused Muggleborns emerging into the Atrium and making hastily for the nearest exits would surely draw attention, even though they’d managed to cover their tracks thus far. Someone would come down to see how the interrogations were going and find Yaxley and Umbridge out cold, and then the Ministry would go into lockdown.
It would go into lockdown…but there would be a window, before then. A brief one, albeit, but a window.
Harry’s mind was whirring, weighing risks against rewards and finding the latter heavily wanting, but before he could talk himself out of what he was admittedly probably going to wind up doing anyway, the grates rattled open as the lift arrived, spitting out—
“Oh, Reg!” Mrs. Cattermole tackled a bewildered Ron, burying her face in his chest. “I’ve no idea what’s going on, but Runcorn freed me! He knocked out Umbridge and Yaxley and told me to take you and the kids and run! He said we should leave the country, and Reg—Reg, I believe him! I think we ought to hurry home and fetch the children and then take the first flight to—” She drew back, frowning at his navy-blue robes. “Why are you so wet?”
“Busted Atmospheric charms…” muttered Ron, carefully extricating himself from Mrs. Cattermole’s grip, red-cheeked. He nodded to Harry and Hermione. “Seems you’ve picked up a few strays. I reckon we’ve only got a matter of minutes before someone realises something’s amiss. Someone up on Level 2 mentioned Yaxley’s meant to be in a meeting in ten; I offered to come down and fetch him once I finally managed to get the rain in his office sorted, but if he doesn’t show…”
Hermione gasped—and her Patronus disappeared. “Oh, no! And the Polyjuice is about to wear off! If we’re trapped here—!”
“No ifs—let’s just stay on task. No one knows anything’s wrong yet.” Harry addressed the group milling behind them. “Oi! How many of you’ve still got wands?” About half raised their hands—not as many as Harry had hoped, but better than nothing. “Okay, pair up if you aren’t already—everyone find a buddy with a wand. You’ll need to act fast once the lift spits you out in the Atrium—head straight for the nearest exit. Floo, Apparate if you can reach an unwarded point—whatever you need to do, just go.” He mashed the lift button, and the golden grilles clattered open at once to admit the Muggleborns.
Mrs. Cattermole was most reluctant to leave her husband, even with Ron’s harried explanation that no, he wasn’t actually her husband, and that the real Reg would probably be waiting for her when she got home. He eventually had to physically shove her into the lift, reminding her that Reg had really wanted to be there with her today but had gotten waylaid and she shouldn’t be cross with him.
It was a tight fit, cramming all of them into a single car, and Hermione quietly cast a Levitation charm to send it on its way when the cables above began to groan worryingly. Its mission complete, Harry’s Patronus dissipated into nothingness, and Harry instantly missed the familiar comfort and confidence that came with its presence.
“Right—er, so what now?” Ron asked, glancing between Hermione and Harry. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the lift grilles. “I mean, it’s all well and good we’ve seen them safely on their way, but what about us?” His eyes widened. “Did you manage to get the locket? Please tell me we don’t have to do this all over again—”
“No—no, we got it,” Harry reassured him, and Ron’s shoulders slumped in relief. “But there’s…there’s one more thing we need to do before we can get the hell out of here.” He glanced back at the imposing black door at the end of the hall, beyond which lay the Department of Mysteries. God, this was madness—he’d almost rather face Umbridge again, carving a thousand lines into his own flesh.
He took a step towards the door, and Hermione grabbed his shoulder, frowning. “Harry? Harry, what are you doing?”
He inclined his head, lips pursed into a tight line of displeasure. Something stupid, he didn’t say, though it would have been the truth. “What I ought to.”
Her frown deepened, but she eased her grip, and he marched for the door with the two of them trailing closely. He considered throwing the Cloak on again, but it wouldn’t cover all three of them, and the whole Ministry was about to be looking for them either way. They could move more quickly without the Cloak, and speed was more important than stealth at this point.
The door didn’t open on its own for Harry this time, as it had on his last ‘visit’, but when he pressed down on the handsome silver handle, it gave without a sound, admitting the three of them into a large, circular room. It was completely empty, and every surface—from the walls to the marble flooring to the dozen or so identical-looking doors leading off of the chamber—gleamed a polished jet-black, the only light that cast by candles with blue-burning flames encased in glass-faced lanterns mounted between the doors.
Memories were returning slowly, now, and Harry closed his eyes when the door shut behind Ron, locking them in. Hermione gasped as a great rumbling noise sounded from within the very walls around them, and then the candles began moving sideways as the circular wall rotated around them.
“Harry!” she cried, and Harry felt her stumbling in the darkness, groping for his arm. “Harry—”
“Wait,” he told her. The room continued to whir for another few, breath-stealing seconds before grinding to a halt, the rumbling dying away to no more than distant echoes. Harry slowly opened his eyes again—no afterimages burned into his retinas this time.
“Blimey, I forgot about that,” Ron muttered, shaking his head. “That’s a trip and a half, it is.”
“Harry!” Hermione hissed, and when she grabbed his arm this time, she held on painfully tight, tugging at him stubbornly. “What are we doing?” She glanced to Ron, who looked equally unsettled, though he hid his nerves under Reg Cattermole’s more restrained mask of unease. “Any minute now, this whole place is going to go on lockdown, and there’s no way out of the Department of Mysteries other than the way we came, which—” She waved at the doors around them, “We have no idea which door it is!” She brought both hands up to grab tight to Harry’s robes, tugging with all of Mafalda’s strength. “We’re trapped down here, Harry!”
He took her by the wrists and gently eased her away. “I know. And we’re not the only ones.”
The candlelight caught on her frightened gaze, brow creasing in confusion—before her expression went slack as realisation dawned. “Harry—no.”
He sighed. “We don’t have time to—”
“You’re damn right we don’t have time to do this! We can’t do it!” she snapped, stamping her foot.
“Don’t have time for what?” Ron asked, stepping between them. “Can’t do what?”
Hermione ignored Ron, steamrolling his questions to round on Harry, as if he hadn’t already had this argument a dozen times over with himself. “He made his bed, let him damn well lie in it! I’m not going to let us get trapped—let us get killed—because of Draco-bloody-Malfoy!”
“WHAT?” Ron shrieked, and now the both of them were laying into Harry with loud protests. “Like hell I’m risking my neck for that arsehole! How do we get out of here?” He whirled around, scanning the walls—but all the doors looked the same, and it was impossible to tell by which one they’d entered. “Fuck!”
“This isn’t up for debate, the both of you,” Harry said, stepping toward one of the doors and searching it for any clue as to what might lie beyond it. Block 277, Holding Cell 3B—that was what he was looking for, and he didn’t have time to check all of the doors, especially since the room would probably reset each time an attempt was made.
“Harry—Harry, I get it, I really do. You feel—I don’t know, sorry for him? Responsible for him? Or, like you share a connection?” Harry cut her a warning look—if he had to listen to her rattle off another theory that he got off on having ‘special connections’ with violent scum, he was going to scream. She shook her head. “That doesn’t matter—what matters is that you understand you can’t do this. We can’t be here—we might already be too late to escape!” She jogged over, Mafalda’s sensible heels clacking brightly on the marble flooring, and placed herself between Harry and the door he was inspecting. “I don’t know how you know he’s down here, but if he is here, if this is where the Ministry’s holding him, then it’s not as if he doesn’t deserve it. He’s a Death Eater—you saw his Mark yourself, you said. He plotted to kill Dumbledore, on You-Know-Who’s orders, and even if he only managed it by accident, he still nearly killed two people in the doing—”
“Yeah!” Ron called, “One of ‘em me! Maybe make a note of that next time you drag us into your mad scheme to rescue your lizard boyfriend!”
“Ronald,” Hermione hissed. “You’re not helping.”
“There’s nothing to help,” Harry said, stepping around her to run his hand over the jamb; there wouldn’t be any indication on this side of the wall, not if the room spun randomly every time someone entered. Which meant there had to be another way to figure out which rooms lay beyond which door. Time, Space, Love, Death…he wasn’t interested in the Research Catacombs—he needed the holding cells. The storage corridor.
“Think about who you’re doing this for, Harry,” Hermione pleaded. “This is beyond insane—we’re going to get killed trying to help someone who won’t hesitate to turn on us as soon as he has the chance!”
“Maybe,” Harry allowed. “Maybe even probably.” He swallowed, turning to look at the both of them, because they did need to make this decision with him, he supposed. It was their lives hanging in the balance too. “But I can’t not act, once I know something. You two ought to understand that about me by now. And I can’t leave here without having at least tried to do something. They don’t have him just locked in a cell, awaiting trial. He’s under stasis—not even conscious, and when do you think they’re going to get around to trying an underage unregistered Animagus for something he couldn’t control when the Ministry’s overrun by Death Eaters and there’s war just over the horizon? He could be here for years if we don’t do something. It’s inhumane—plus, we can’t even be sure he’d have actually killed Dumbledore if it’d come down to it.”
Ron didn’t look entirely convinced, but he was staring at the floor now, arms crossed over his chest. Hermione’s throat was bobbing, and she was blinking quickly.
He pressed on. “…I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I turned my back on him now, not when we’re right here. He doesn’t deserve to be freed, you’re right—but he doesn’t deserve to rot here, forgotten, either. Shouldn’t we try and err on the side of—of mercy?”
“Dumbledore tried that already; didn’t work out too well for him,” Ron muttered, throwing a dark look Harry’s way.
Harry threw his hands up. “I’m not saying we should be friends with him—we can always ply him for useful information. Maybe he’s got some intelligence on attacks the Death Eaters are planning!”
“Sure, and anything he knows will be months out of date, so that’s dead useful.” Ron shook his head. “It’s mad, Harry. You know it.”
He did know it, Ron was right. But just like he couldn’t simply ignore the things he had heard and read about Dumbledore, that he had to find out the truth, so too could he not carry on as if nothing were amiss, knowing he might have been able to help Malfoy out and had instead turned his back on him. “…You two should go back. Wait for me at Grimmauld Place—I’ll be right behind you, after I’ve taken care of this,” he said. He drew out his wand, laying it flat in his palm and whispering Point me. It spun wildly before jerking to a stop, indicating north just off to his right. He adjusted his stance so he was facing north, then tried to work out the coordinates; he’d never been all that good with maths, but this was the best idea he had to go on.
“What? Don’t be ridiculous!” Hermione glanced back at Ron, frantic. “We don’t want to go without you!”
“And couldn’t even if we did, since we’re locked in,” Ron muttered.
There was that. Plus, Harry didn’t honestly want them to leave, though he knew it was for the best. “This is something I’ve got to do… It just is. I’m not asking you to like it, just to understand.” Block 277—couldn’t be numbers on a clock. Had to be degrees. Which put the door…somewhere to his nine o’clock? Maybe? God, what if Unspeakables just got their door assignments Owled to them every morning and were expected to remember which one they were meant to go through when they arrived at the Ministry?
“Oh, good. As long as we don’t have to like it,” Ron bit out, then ran his hands through Reg’s thinning hair with a defeated groan. “Dammit—fine, let’s just…” He made a vague shooing gesture. “Let’s spring the wanker. Suppose I should be glad for the chance to thank him personally for that poisoned wine.”
Harry frowned. “I’m serious, you know. You don’t have to come with.” He was pretty sure the entrance was at true north, so he could always send them back. “There’s no sense in all of us risking—”
“There’s no sense in any of us risking anything, Harry,” Hermione said, lips thinned in anger. “But if it’s go along with this stupid rescue mission you’re set on or abandon you, well I think we’ve already shared our thoughts on where you can shove any and all suggestions that we ‘save ourselves’. Plus, you can’t expect us to leave you alone with him—what if he transforms?”
“I doubt that’s going to be a problem; I told you, he’s in stasis.”
“Of course.” Hermione sighed. “And you’re going to carry an unconscious Death Eater out of the Ministry of Magic’s front doors…how, exactly?”
“I don’t know!” Harry snapped, and Hermione flinched. “I don’t know anything, all right? I just—know what needs to be done.” He grabbed the handle of the door at nine o’clock from north, then gave a yank, closing his eyes and bracing for…well, he didn’t know what.
But nothing happened, and when Harry slowly blinked his eyes open again, he found the door had opened onto a long hallway with two gleaming placards bolted to the stonework: Blocks 256-270, pointing to the left, and Blocks 271-285, pointing to the right.
Hermione would hate not being given the chance to solve the puzzle herself. He glanced at them over Runcorn’s burly shoulder. “I’m going to ‘rescue my lizard boyfriend’, now. If you’d like to come.”
“Hope he eats you,” Ron muttered under his breath, shuffling forward, and Hermione raised her eyes to the ceiling, moving her lips in what Harry suspected was a strongly worded—but silent—string of swears before she brandished her wand with a flourish and nodded. Harry was going to have his arse handed to him by the both of them if they made it out of this place in one piece—but part of him took heart in the fact that even this hadn’t been enough to drive them away.
‘All in,’ he thought to himself, setting off down the right side of the hallway at a jog. “His file said he’s in block 277, holding cell 3B.”
“His file?” Ron asked. “You looked him up?”
Harry didn’t answer, stomach flipping when he passed Block 276. He pulled a hard left around the next corner, in a flat-out run by the time he reached holding cell 3B, situated across the hall from 3A.
He tried to swallow, breathing heavily, but there was no saliva, so he just panted open-mouthed and stared. It was a thick, wooden door with only a tiny grate for a window at the top and a slot around the middle for passing food through. This suggested that they sometimes kept people down here who weren’t under stasis, and Harry wasn’t sure what unsettled him more. How was anyone to know if someone was being unlawfully held in these cells? The Department of Mysteries answered to no one, Harry recalled; how had they gotten their hands on Malfoy in the first place—and to what ends? Charlie had said dragon Animagi were rare; were they trying to study him?
“Harry? Is that him?” Hermione was panting too, flyaways wisping around Mafalda’s drained face. “Well?”
Harry nodded, reaching for the handle—he gave it a sharp tug, but it wouldn’t budge.
Hermione sighed, pointing her wand at the lock. “Honestly; what if we had decided to go back to Grimmauld Place and wait for you? Alohomora.”
The bolt gave a soft snick as it disengaged, and the door eased open a crack. “I would have tried that,” Harry protested. “You just didn’t give me the chance.”
“That’s the security they’ve got down here?” Ron marvelled. “A room to make you dizzy and a lock that can be busted by a Hogwarts first-year?”
“If Malfoy’s really under stasis, they might not have felt stronger measures were necessary,” Hermione said.
“Let’s find out, then, shall we?” Harry placed one of Runcorn’s broad hands on the door, shoving it all the way open. “…Malfoy?” he called into the darkness.
There was no response, but he hadn’t really been expecting one, and he stepped inside with his wand at the ready. Once over the threshold, the low flames flickering inside the lamps on the wall flared brighter, casting the cell into sharp relief.
It was nowhere near the size of the chamber they’d kept Malfoy’s dragon in up on Level 4; presumably now that he was human-sized—and unconscious—he’d been housed in far meaner estate. It was no larger than Aunt Petunia’s sitting room and devoid of any furnishings aside from a cracked mirror hanging on the wall over a (thankfully empty) metal toilet pan and a low-set narrow bed shoved against the far wall, atop which lay Draco Malfoy, sound asleep.
“…He looks a little dead,” Ron whispered, and he wasn’t wrong. Malfoy looked really dead, actually, between his sunken cheeks and dark bags under his eyes and the ghostly pallor to his skin that said he hadn’t seen daylight in months. His body looked distressingly gaunt under the thin shift he wore, and a quick glance around the cell told Harry that everything Malfoy had to his name right now, he was wearing. God, he didn’t even have shoes.
Harry drew closer, nose wrinkling at the musty scent that seemed to permeate the cell. What if Malfoy was dead? It was hard to tell if he was even breathing in this light. He stopped at the foot of the bed, staring. Malfoy’s lips had lost their colour, and his hair was lank and dull. Didn’t your lips go blue after death? Or was that just if you’d frozen?
He glanced to Hermione. “Erm, don’t suppose you know how to break a stasis spell?”
She scoffed, then rolled her eyes. “All the way down here, with our covers blown at any moment, and you didn’t even consider how to—” She shook her head in exasperation, pointing her wand at Malfoy’s prone form. “Rennervate!” Harry watched carefully for signs of stirring—but nothing happened. Hermione frowned, puzzled. “…Finite incantatem.”
Still nothing, and Ron threw his hands up. “Well, we tried! Now can we go?”
Harry felt his blood racing, adrenaline and fear and frustration all screaming through his veins in a heady drug. He hadn’t come this far, gotten this close, to be undone by a standard-issue stasis spell. He lunged for Malfoy, grabbing him by the shoulders to give a shake; if he had to, he was prepared to just toss him over Runcorn’s rather broad back and carry him out. He couldn’t have weighed more than seven stone soaking wet in this state, so it wouldn’t be a great challenge.
But as soon as Harry made contact, fingers curling around Malfoy’s knobby shoulders, he leapt awake with a shout and scrambled back on the bed until he came up against the cold stone wall. Harry recoiled as if he’d been struck, hands coming up defensively, but Malfoy looked to be in no position to attack, with his knees drawn up to his chest and wide, suspicious eyes sweeping the room. None of them made a sound, no sudden movements, wary of triggering a transformation, which would be a disaster for any of a half dozen reasons just at this moment.
But then another heartbeat passed, and some of the tension eased as Malfoy narrowed his eyes in confusion. “…Potter?” he rasped.
Harry straightened, arms falling back to his sides, and he glanced down at himself, a bit taken aback. He was certain he had more time on the Polyjuice; was he already starting to show? He looked back to Malfoy, frowning. “I—yeah… How did you know?”
Malfoy’s lip curled as he raked Harry with a judging gaze. “Salazar’s balls, you look hideous. Clearly there remained depths of grotesqueness you’d yet to plumb.” His eyes then flicked over to Ron and Hermione, and the tension crept back into his shoulders. “Who the fuck are they?”
“Ron and Hermione,” Harry said. “I’m—we’re here to break you out. If you want to leave.”
“‘No thanks’ is a perfectly viable option, just so we’re clear,” Ron called. “And make it snappy.”
“Break me…?” Malfoy looked around the cell, eyes running over the stonework and lamps and even the toilet pan and cracked mirror, as if he were taking it in for the first time. He blinked, shaking his head. “What?”
“Oh for crying out—he doesn’t even know his own name!” Ron grabbed the handle of the door, jerking it open. “Just Stun him and toss him over a shoulder if you’re bent on getting him out. We don’t have time for—”
“I know who I am, Weasley!” Malfoy snapped, gingerly unfolding himself and easing onto his feet. He tottered unsteadily, and it struck Harry that he likely hadn’t used his limbs for months now—could he run, if pressed to do so? Could he even stand? This had been a mistake, a huge mistake— “My location escapes me at the moment, though. Where the fuck am I? Is this your doing?” Malfoy directed his questions to Harry, suspicion still hanging like a dark cloud over his brow.
“The Ministry of Magic; you were—”
“The Ministry? How did you get in here? How did you even find me?”
“Does it really matter? We don’t exactly have time to dawdle—are you coming or not?” He watched Malfoy, astounded the git was actually hesitating, as if Harry hadn’t just asked him a rhetorical question. He ground his teeth in irritation. “It’s a simple question, Malfoy; I don’t need ten inches from you on it! You either come with us, or you stay here, trapped in a place that’s now overrun by Death Eaters, who I’m guessing don’t yet realise you’re down here. Once they do suss out where Malfoy the Lesser has been all these months and why, though, I’m willing to bet they’ll capitalise on your scaly little problem and use you to wreak havoc on the populace at large.” Malfoy’s eyes flashed, and Harry could see a storm brewing within. “I don’t know if you even remember what you said in there—”
“I remember,” Malfoy bit out. “I remember.”
“Changed your mind, then? Don’t care if you lose yourself again, maybe even get turned on your own parents?”
Ron growled. “If he has to think that long about it, I say we rescind the offer.”
“I’m obviously coming, you buffoon!” Malfoy said, gnawing on his thumb. “I’m only trying to do what you’ve clearly not done and think of how you’re going to possibly escape a Ministry of Magic you’ve just admitted is no longer your own.”
“Can we maybe think about this while we move, in that case?” Hermione asked, inclining her head.
That suited Harry just fine, and after Hermione Summoned a pair of Ron’s trainers and an extra robe from her beaded bag for Malfoy to wear, they were racing back along the corridor to the circular room. Well, perhaps ‘racing’ was being too generous. Malfoy was, as Harry had feared, slow on his feet, and he somehow managed to stumble over every single crack and piece of broken tile in the Department of Mysteries. Harry was just about to offer to carry him, as he was starting to lag dangerously, when Hermione whirled around and pointed her wand at Malfoy’s legs, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like a Trip Jinx.
“What was that? What did you do to him?” Harry asked, a bit defensive; he knew neither she nor Ron approved of this side-mission, but there was no sense in making things worse when they were all trying to escape.
She gave him an exasperated look. “Trip Jinx counter, Harry, honestly!” She addressed Malfoy here, explaining, “I thought it might make you steadier on your feet, even though you haven’t been Jinxed.”
“Today, people!” Ron called from ahead, already around the corner and back in the hallway connecting the Blocks.
How long had they been down here? Had the Muggleborns made it to safety by now? Were the Floos being sealed off and the wards expanded to block Apparition anywhere within a hundred metres of the Ministry?
Ron reached the door leading back into the entrance room first, waving them through. Once it clicked shut behind them, though, the room whirred to life, walls spinning so fast Harry’s robes whipped up around his knees.
Malfoy gave a sharp jolt of surprise, leaning into Harry as the room spun. “What the fuck is going on?”
“It’s meant to disorient,” Harry explained, taking a step back and smoothing down his robes. “So you can’t tell which door you entered by or which you’re meant to head through in order to reach your destination.” He held out his palm, setting his wand flat in it and whispering the Point Me spell.
Hermione gave a delighted gasp when Harry’s wand stopped spinning, pointing at true north. “The room’s a circle, of course! Block 277—two hundred and seventy-seven degrees!” She followed the tip of Harry’s wand to the door at which it was pointing. “…Is that the exit, then?”
“One way to find out,” Harry said, striding forward and yanking on the door—beyond which lay a long, dark corridor with the gleaming golden grilles of the lift at the end.
“Thank Merlin…!” Ron breathed, racing forward, and Harry and Hermione were tight on his heels, with Malfoy bringing up the rear at a steadier but still sedate pace. Ron mashed the button to summon the lift, and by the time the others had caught up, it had arrived, the gates clattering open to let them board.
“All right,” Hermione said, taking a bracing breath as they piled on. Harry mashed the button for the Atrium, and up they climbed. “If the Floos haven’t been sealed, we should go back the way we came, I think—there were departure grates on the opposite side of the Atrium, as I recall. Malfoy should stick between us; there’s always the chance someone could spot him.” She tapped her chin, lower lip drawn between her teeth. “I wonder if I should turn his hair—”
Too late, though; the lift shuddered to a halt, the golden gates drawing back and the witch’s cool disembodied voice announcing, “Level 8, Atrium.”
Harry knew at once that they were in rather deep. The Atrium was even more chaotic now than it had been when they’d arrived, with people racing from fireplace to fireplace, sealing them off, orders bellowed here and there to Keep an eye out! Check all identification!
Ron cursed softly under his breath, and as a group they all pressed together with Malfoy squeezed between them. Harry still had his Invisibility Cloak tucked into Runcorn’s robes, but he didn’t trust Malfoy not to nick it, for one, and it was more difficult to make a quick escape under it for another.
The Ministry employees lined up to board the lifts to the upper levels were looking around with worried expressions, and every lift that left the Atrium was packed to the gills now as people pushed and shoved to flee the chaos that had descended upon Level 8.
“Reckon we should head back upstairs?” Ron asked under his breath, lips barely moving and words slipping out of the corner of his mouth. “We can at least lose ourselves in the shuffle, maybe? Find a loo and work some magic on your little pet project so it’s not so obvious we’re trying to sneak a Death Eater out of the Ministry of Magic?”
“Give me a wand,” Malfoy hissed, holding out his hand to Harry.
“What?” Harry scoffed. “Hell no; you’re barking if you think—”
“Give. Me. A wand.” Malfoy grit out, grey eyes gone almost white with fear, and pressed up close like this, Harry caught him trembling, though that might have been his legs nearly giving out after months of disuse. “Merlin knows where mine is—just give me one and play along.”
Ron caught Harry’s eye, giving a subtle, sharp shake of his head. Reg Cattermole’s bushy moustache looked like it was about to curl in on itself.
Malfoy watched the exchange and leaned in closer; he was tall, but Runcorn was a giant, and Malfoy barely clipped his chin. “You don’t have a whole lot of options, Potter. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. Or don’t you remember what I said in there?” He had his palm open, waiting.
‘He just wants to save his parents,’ Harry reminded himself—that much he believed. Granted, there were a lot of ways Malfoy could save them and betray Harry and Hermione and Ron, but it was riskier for Malfoy to work with Voldemort than to escape on his own. Plus, he’d made much ado about only relying on himself, leading Harry to believe that if he was going to betray them, it wouldn’t be to Voldemort. Which was small comfort, but still a comfort.
Harry looked to Hermione, whose eyes bugged at the implied suggestion she give up her wand. “Excuse me—?” But Malfoy had already snatched her wand from her, quicker than any Expelliarmus, and then grabbed her wrist to drag her roughly from their little group. She was incensed, raising her free hand to rake him with Mafalda’s bitten-down nails. “Get your hands off me you cretinous little—”
Malfoy jabbed the tip of Hermione’s wand into her throat, stabbing her windpipe viciously. “Quit your screeching. Let’s not make a scene just yet, shall we, Granger?” He nodded to Harry. “Grab Weasley, and for Salazar’s sake, make it look convincing—wipe that doltish look off your face, anyone could peg you for Harry Potter that way!”
Harry felt his cheeks heat and knew he was one more cutting insult away from slapping Malfoy with a Stinging Hex and making a break for it. He’d done more than enough for the wanker already—if Malfoy couldn’t find it in him to not be achingly horrid for five fucking minutes, he could well stay behind and chat up his old cronies.
Hermione was giving him a look though that told him to rein in his temper, that now was not the moment to put Malfoy in his place. Really, they ought to have just left him where he was, but Harry had gone off half-cocked as usual, so here they were. He would have to swallow Malfoy’s insipid remarks and wait until they’d escaped with their lives to unload on the prick.
Malfoy seemed utterly oblivious to just how close he’d come to getting blasted into smithereens, casually flicking his eyes around the Atrium, where the last of the Floos were now being sealed off, each grate staffed by an attendant barking at frustrated Ministry-goers to stand back and wait their turn. “We need to get to an Apparition point—that’ll be the quickest way out, and the most difficult for anyone to track.”
“Fantastic idea,” Harry muttered, pinching the sleeve of Ron’s robes and drawing him closer, wand at the ready. “Except there are no Apparition points. They’ve warded most of the Atrium against Apparition, and the Floos are restricted to the higher-ups aside from those that’ve been requisitioned for commuters—which are now sealed, as you can see.” He sighed, frustration and desperation swirling in his gut. “We’ll have to try and blend into the crowd of commuters. They still don’t know who they’re looking for; if we can just stall—”
“We can’t, Harry,” Hermione whispered. “We’ve been here for nearly forty-five minutes; we’ll be lucky to get another five out of the dose we took!” She glanced fearfully at the prowling Ministry workers stalking the crowds. “All they have to do is wait us out, and they know it.”
Malfoy took a bracing breath. “You said they’ve warded most of the Atrium—but if they’re smart, they’ll have set up an unwarded zone so they can sneak friendlies into and out of the Ministry.” His eyes drifted to a shop nestled in a corner near the Floos reserved for Ministry officials. The signage was covered with a tarp, and its windows were darkened, shades drawn, with a large CLOSED placard hung on the door. “…What’s in there?”
“Used to be Ministry Munchies,” Ron said. “They expanded their property a year or so ago. I guess business slowed, so they closed up shop.”
“Closed up when, exactly?”
Ron frowned in thought. “…Few months back, Dad said. He was teed-off about it, cause they’d just started selling these cheese and bacon pastry wraps he was partial to.” His eyes bugged, and he looked to Harry. “You don’t think…?”
“No, Potter never thinks,” Malfoy muttered, jerking Hermione with him as he set off for the Ministry Munchies shop with a confident stride. “Step lively, everyone.”
With a silent apology, Harry grabbed Ron by the scruff of his robes, dragging him along with Harry’s wand pressed to his temple in feigned threat. They made it halfway across the Atrium, past the shadow of the hideous sculpture dominating the centre walk, before someone noticed them.
“Runcorn? And—blimey, Malfoy?” Malfoy froze as a man Harry didn’t recognise—but who clearly recognised them—wandered over with a slouching gait to place himself directly between the four of them and Ministry Munchies. “I thought you was dead.”
“What?” Malfoy scoffed cruelly, voice dripping with disdain. “Travers, you dolt, I just checked in with Snape this morning. You know full well I’ve been cataloguing the contents of the Department of Mysteries for our master.”
Harry only noticed because he’d had one eye trained at all times on Malfoy since they’d found him in holding cell 3B, but Malfoy was waving Hermione’s wand in a subtle, circular gesture and keeping firm eye contact with Travers. If he hadn’t known better, Harry might have said Malfoy was working some complicated Obliviation right under everyone’s noses. Whatever it was, it seemed to be working, as Travers apparently didn’t notice the sad state of Malfoy’s too-big robes and shoes and the fact that he looked like a freshly resurrected scarecrow.
“Ah, right, right…” Travers’s eye drifted to Hermione, who was struggling valiantly in Malfoy’s iron grip and trying to mash his toes with Mafalda’s sensible heels. “And who’ve we got here?” He smiled slyly at Malfoy. “Bit old for you, son.”
Malfoy’s practised sneer hadn’t changed at all since that meeting on the moor. “Just a couple of snoops Runcorn and I caught sticking their noses where they didn’t belong.” He swept a bored look over Ron’s Reg Cattermole. “I’m certain these aren’t even their real faces.” Hermione kicked his shin, and he whipped her wand around to cane her temple smartly, stabbing her neck with the tip. “I intend to give our master the pleasure of finding out just why they were sniffing around the Hall of Prophecy. Stand aside.”
Travers didn’t move, but he also didn’t try to stop Malfoy as he shouldered past, Harry tight on his heels with Ron scrambling to keep up on Reg’s stubby legs. He had all of five paces to think that they might actually manage this.
Five paces only, though, for either Malfoy wasn’t as good at nonverbal spells as he might have hoped, or his casting had been hampered by using a wand that wasn’t his own, as the Obliviate started to crumble. “But…no, the Malfoy boy’s dead… He’s…” Travers started, features scrunching up as the hastily cast memory modification charm scrambled his thoughts.
Then, from across the Atrium near the lifts, an incensed voice raged, “STOP THEM!” as Yaxley clambered from the lift, tearing towards them with his wand drawn. “GET THEM! INTRUDERS IN THE MINISTRY! TRAVERS!”
“Fuck!” Harry spat, shoving Ron before him as Travers shook his head, blinking at them with a squinty-eyed gaze. “Go—go! Inside, NOW!”
They tore off at break-neck speed, no more sneaking about. “Expulso!” Malfoy shouted, slashing Hermione’s wand before him, and the door to Ministry Munchies splintered into wooden shrapnel, leaving behind a gaping hole in the shopfront.
As soon as he had one foot over the threshold, Harry looped his arm through Ron’s, reaching for Hermione’s hand with his other and bringing his arm up around Malfoy in the process. He felt Hermione turn on the spot, and he clenched his eyes shut tight, praying they’d breached the wards.
Darkness pressed in on all sides, choking and crushing as usual, but something felt…wrong. Off, and oh shit, they’d been Splinched, he knew they had. Kreacher was going to be picking pieces of them off Number 12’s front step. Hermione’s hand seemed to be sliding from his grip, and Malfoy had his fingers biting into the heavy folds of Harry’s collar, practically choking him—or maybe he was choking him, because Harry couldn’t breathe, felt like he was going to suffocate as everything crushed in around him. His vision faded, darkening, until all he remained conscious of were Ron’s arm looped firmly through his and Hermione’s fingers threaded between his own and Malfoy’s vice-like grip clinging tight. All three felt like they were slowly slipping away, a heartbeat from spinning off into nothingness—
And then his vision returned in a flash—and there was Number 12 with its polished silver serpent door-knocker baring its fangs at him. Harry reached out, fingers splayed—but then there was another brilliant flash and a violet after-image he couldn’t blink away.
Hermione’s hand was suddenly crushing his own in her grip, and everything blipped out to black.