To Harry’s immense relief, satisfying Malfoy’s need for reassurance—or his dragon’s need, as he was quick to remind Harry—didn’t turn out to be quite so bad as Malfoy had made it out to be. He’d panicked initially, thinking they might have to hold hands or—god—even start sleeping in the same bed, but this had not turned out to be the case. “It’s bad enough I have to share a room with you,” Malfoy had said with an exaggerated shudder. “I’d just give myself over to painful death-by-burning-alive if it came to that.”
It was mostly just…sitting—quiet and close, just like that first evening. Armed with an understanding of what they were doing and why, Harry found he was staggeringly more comfortable with the situation than he had been before. It was still awkward as anything—especially on the odd evenings when Harry forgot their arrangement and decided to sit in one of the armchairs, making Malfoy grind out through clenched teeth, “Am I to sit in your lap, then?”—but once they were settled, even the strange quirks of Malfoy’s condition didn’t do much to tamp down how admittedly nice it was, sitting curled up on a lumpy sofa that smelled of cats and quietly communing with people he…well, people he didn’t hate at least.
They were on the run, might never see their loved ones again, with the veritable weight of the world on their skinny teenage shoulders, but they were at least together, and even Malfoy’s inclusion had become not just tolerable, but something Harry had grown accustomed to. When he opened his mouth these days, it was usually to offer insight on something he was reading or to answer a question (typically as snidely as he could manage) Hermione or Ron posed.
Maybe it was because they were all focused on the same task. Maybe, if they came out of this alive and returned to their separate existences, this tentative accord would crumble and be as if it had never existed. Harry honestly didn’t really care—was even kind of assuming that was what would happen—but for now…it was nice. And Harry didn’t have a lot of nice things in his life at the moment, so he let himself find his enjoyment where he could and tried not to fret over the finer details.
Strangely enough, it was far less awkward seeing to Malfoy’s ‘needs’ when Ron and Hermione were around than when Harry and Malfoy found themselves alone. Harry wasn’t entirely sure why, but it somehow felt a lot more…intimate…sitting together when they were on their own while Hermione and Ron were off on a food run. They managed, though, and Harry was relieved to note that Malfoy did indeed seem to be in easier spirits with regular sessions of physicality. Harry still had quite a few questions about their ‘predicament’ (as Malfoy had described it) bouncing around inside his mind, but he was quite happy to leave them unanswered—ignorance was, after all, bliss.
He roused one morning from a particularly nice dream with a catlike stretch, back arching up off the bed before he flopped back down. He couldn’t remember the details, but it had left him feeling warm down to the tips of his toes, like he’d been lying in a sunbeam. He inhaled deeply, catching the scent of sizzling bacon, and tried to recall whose turn it was at the hob. If it was Hermione, the bacon would be nice and crispy, but if Ron, it would have barely kissed the skillet. Malfoy preferred porridge for breakfast and rarely prepared a protein, so that was out.
He stumbled into the kitchen to find Ron was on duty, so he would have to put in a special request if he wanted his bacon crispy. Hermione and Malfoy seemed to be knee-deep in an argument, neither acknowledging Harry’s presence when he drew up a chair and poured himself some juice.
“This isn’t a debate, Malfoy—the sword is what we’ll be focusing on next, end of story. It’s the only one of the objects we have half a clue as to its location!”
“And I maintain that’s a fucking stupid reason. Potter said it’s not part of this weapon you’re looking for pieces of—so what’s the point? You’re not going to find it with your nose buried in a book, seeing as Dumbledore’s evidently the one who’s hidden it, so that means you’ll have to go out and look for it. Out, as in out, not under cover of safety. You’re best served saving risky business like that until absolutely necessary.”
“Well it’s become necessary,” Hermione huffed. “We need that sword. The pieces won’t be much use to us without it.”
“Because,” Harry said around a bite of toast. “We can’t actually use the pieces as a weapon until they’ve been destroyed.” There, that sounded believable. At least he hoped it did, because Malfoy was giving him one of those shrewd, suspicious looks, and Harry tried to lose him in another swig of juice.
“Exactly,” Hermione said, picking up the thread. “And the only way to destroy them is with the sword.”
Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “And why is that? What’s so special about these artefacts? Or what’s so special about the sword?”
“We can’t just smash them up or blast them into itty-bitty pieces,” Hermione explained. “They have to be damaged beyond repair—and as we’ve already mentioned, the sword of Gryffindor’s been imbued with Basilisk venom. We know it’ll do the job, as it’s already been used to destroy two of the pieces. We just have to find it.”
Malfoy chewed on his thumb in thought, then lit up. “Wait—what about dragonflame?”
Hermione made a face. “Hm. Fiendfyre maybe, but dragonflame’s not going to kill you outright.” She then added, in a softer voice, “…Not usually, at least.”
“My brother Charlie’ll attest to that,” Ron snorted, using a spatula to move the last of the omelettes he’d been babysitting from the frying pan and onto a plate.
“Basilisk venom has only one known cure, so the sword is our best bet for destroying the Ho—pieces.” She took a breath. “So that’s why I think it’s time we went to Godric’s Hollow.”
“You—what?” Malfoy spat, nearly choking on his juice. He knocked his fist against his chest to clear his airway. “Are you mad? That’s a suicide mission!”
“Wait—we’re finally going?” Harry asked, flush with excitement.
Malfoy turned to him with an irritated frown. “You actually think this is a good idea? Showing your faces in one of the most prominent wizarding settlements in England when you’re wanted fugitives?”
“Well—I mean, you don’t have to put it like that, but yeah!” Harry grinned, practically bouncing in his seat. “I’ve been wanting to go there ever since we set out; I was born there. It’s where…” A bit of the joy fizzled away as dark memories threatened to encroach. “It’s where my mum and dad were murdered. Where You-Know-Who…”
Malfoy grimaced, spearing into the omelette Ron had just placed before him with savagery. “Sentimentality’s going to get you killed. Get us killed.”
“It’s not sentimentality,” Harry maintained, snatching up a piece of bacon; undercooked, damn. “There’s probably all kinds of things we could learn if we went—and now even Hermione thinks it’s a good idea, see?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, necessarily,” Hermione was quick to correct. “But I can’t honestly think of any other place to start. I mean—it strikes me as the most likely location, don’t you agree? It’ll be dangerous, sure, but I’ve been puzzling over it for a few days, and the more I think about it, the more likely it seems it’s there.”
Harry’s face fell at her explanation; she seemed off on a completely different tangent from Harry. “The more likely what’s there…?”
Hermione blinked at him. “Well—the sword, of course.”
“The sword? Gryffindor’s sword?”
“You can’t tax Potter like that this early in the morning, Granger, you ought to know better.” Malfoy reached over and flicked Harry’s temple. “The kitchens haven’t been fired yet.”
Harry slapped his hand away, glaring. “I’m only a bit lost, is all. I missed part of your conversation, evidently.”
“Evidently,” Malfoy muttered.
“Godric’s Hollow is Godric Gryffindor’s birthplace,” Hermione said, and Harry’s eyes boggled.
“Wait—seriously? Gryffindor came from Godric’s Hollow?”
Malfoy’s head hit the table with a sharp bang. “This is your great hope?” he asked Hermione, jerking a thumb in Harry’s direction. “This? This is what you’re pinning everything on?”
Hermione looked exhausted, sighing. “Harry, did you never actually read A History of Magic?”
“Er…” Harry hedged. “I might’ve opened it, you know, maybe flipped through it when I bought it…but that was just the once, so…”
Hermione flounced from the table, running her finger over the spines of several books in a stack next to the armchair she usually claimed before pulling one out. “Well, seeing as the village is named after him, I’d have thought you might have made the connection,” she said, flicking her wand at her empty plate and sending it soaring into the Scouring rack to be addressed later. She placed A History of Magic on the cleared spot and began flipping through the pages, scanning the headings. “There’s actually a bit about the village in here… Ah! Here we are.”
She cleared her throat and began to read.
“‘Following the establishment of the International Statute of Secrecy in 1689, wizards went into hiding for good, at last wholly snipping ties with the Muggle world. Understandably loath to be driven from their ancestral homes, which in some cases had been occupied by magical bloodlines going back a millennium or more, many wizarding families banded together, under the noses of their Muggle neighbours, and founded communities-within-communities where magical folk could protect and support one another through strength in numbers. Readers may recognise a few such locales, which include but are certainly not limited to Tinworth in Cornwall, Upper Flagley in Yorkshire, and Ottery St. Catchpole on the south coast of England. In some cases the resident Muggles were Confounded, while in others there existed a quiet, unspoken truce and mutual agreement among the locals not to poke about in each other’s business. Most celebrated of these half-magical communities is, perhaps, Godric’s Hollow—” She emphasised this for Harry’s sake, as if he might otherwise miss it, “—birthplace of Hogwarts Founder Godric Gryffindor and where many other celebrated figures, such as Bowman Wright, the wizarding smith who forged the first Golden Snitch, once called home.”
Ron wrinkled his nose when she closed the book. “They don’t mention Harry? I’d say his story’s a rather historic event.”
Malfoy rolled his eyes as he took a deep swig of his juice, and Hermione pretended she didn’t see it. “Well, I would agree, but A History of Magic doesn’t cover anything later than the end of the nineteenth century.”
“Wow…” was all Harry could think to say, his head spinning as he struggled to take in all of this new, exciting information.
With everyone else having been served, Ron joined them at the table with an omelette of his own, speaking around mouthfuls. “You seriously never made the connection? Godric Gryffindor—and Godric’s Hollow?”
“You two put rather a lot more faith in Potter’s logical leaps than I ever would,” Malfoy snorted. “Look at him, his mind can hardly process it all, the poor dear.”
“So now that you see the connection,” Hermione continued past Malfoy’s snide remarks, “Don’t you think Dumbledore might have expected you to go looking for the sword there? The wizarding community there certainly isn’t as vibrant as it once was, so he probably could have slipped in quite easily without attracting much attention, especially since he grew up there himself.”
“Yeah, I suppose…” Harry didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t been thinking about the sword at all when he’d suggested they go to Godric’s Hollow, and even now, he was far more interested in visiting his parent’s grave and the house where he’d narrowly escaped joining them in death. “Hey, remember what Muriel said?”
Ron nearly choked on his omelet. “Muriel? My aunt?”
“Yeah, the one I got roped into a conversation with at Bill and Fleur’s wedding. She mentioned Bathilda Bagshot still lives in Godric’s Hollow. You think maybe…?” She might yet have stories to tell about her famous former neighbours, and Harry couldn’t suppress the thrum of excitement.
Hermione clapped her hands. “Oh, you’re right! What if she’s got the sword? She’s a well-respected historian, and Dumbledore would have known her pretty much all his life. Maybe he entrusted it to her, to give to you if you came looking for it?”
Oh—that hadn’t been why he’d brought up Bathilda at all. He’d only hoped she might have some insight into his parents, or be able to share some memory of Harry he’d been too young to recall.
If Dumbledore had indeed entrusted the sword of Gryffindor to her, then it meant he’d left a great deal to chance. He’d never revealed that he’d replaced the sword with a fake, nor had he ever mentioned knowing Bathilda, let alone where they’d lived. No, he decided silently, he didn’t think Bathilda had the sword at all.
But Hermione was his most fervent ally right now, as eager to visit the wizarding village as he was, if for different reasons, so he didn’t want to give her any reason to reconsider. Plus, there was always the chance Bathilda might be able to suggest potential hiding spots.
“Yeah,” he agreed, nodding. “It’s possible, right? I’ll admit it’s not much to go on, but it’s the best lead we’ve had in weeks, so I say we chance it.”
“Then it’s settled,” Hermione said. “But I don’t think we all need to go—in fact, it’s probably best we go in as small a group as possible.”
“Yeah—a pair, I suppose? I reckon I could handle it on my own, but I wouldn’t say no to another wand watching my back.” Harry turned to Ron, lifting his brows. “Up for a quick trip, mate?”
“What?” Hermione sputtered. “Why does Ron get to go? I’m the one who suggested this.”
“You think I’m not fit to go?” Ron asked, hurt splashed across his features.
“Of course not,” Hermione said gently. “I didn’t mean that—but…just, I worry the two of you might get…well, distracted.”
Harry heard loud and clear the unspoken admonishment that Ron would let Harry get away with focusing on visiting his parents and their old home rather than looking for clues about the sword, and he felt a nauseating mixture of offence and guilt roil in his stomach along with the remains of Ron’s omelette. She wasn’t entirely wrong, after all.
“Well I’m not staying here with him—” Ron jerked a thumb at Malfoy. “—While you two are off risking your lives!” He then, to Harry’s shock, added with a weak grimace. “Er…no offence, Malfoy.”
Malfoy cut him a cool glare. “Well you’re in luck, because I’m not staying here either. If you’re all going haring off into danger, I’m not going to be left here alone to watch the homestead, twiddling my thumbs until you return or stuck indefinitely behind wards I can’t remove with no wand to call my own when you three wind up killed or captured.”
“Wh—you’re not coming with us,” Harry said, proud he didn’t flinch when Malfoy turned that sharp glare on him. “You can’t. Not because we don’t trust you—” And that was a lie, but Malfoy didn’t challenge him on it. “—But because what do you think will happen to your parents if it gets out you’re involved with us, however forcibly?”
This seemed to cow Malfoy a bit, but he still looked clearly distressed, and Hermione sighed. “…I suppose we could hide him under the Cloak. He’s rather gangly, so we’ll have to Disillusion his ankles, but it might work? Then we three can just take Polyjuice; we’ve been mostly using Glamours when we go out, so I’ve still got quite a stock.” She then added stiffly, “And I think we can use a Shackling Spell to make it so he can’t leave Harry’s immediate radius.”
Malfoy scowled. “So now instead of a prisoner, I’m a Crup on a leash?”
“You’re perfectly welcome to stay here if that doesn’t suit,” she sniffed, and Malfoy had nothing further to say on the matter, crossing his arms in a snit.
True to form, Hermione spent the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon planning how they would reach Godric’s Hollow, discussing how they might disguise themselves and what measures they might take to ensure they kept as low a profile as possible. Harry gave his input where asked, nodding and agreeing as needed, but he’d already checked out of the conversation. For the first time since they’d discovered that the sword in Gringotts was a fake and that the real one might be their key to destroying the Horcruxes once they gathered them all, Harry felt genuinely excited.
Not just about the sword, but about everything with this trip. He was about to go back, to go home. He was going to return to the place where he’d once had a family, where, but for Voldemort, he might have grown up and spent every school holiday. He could have invited friends to his house—maybe even had brothers or sisters—and it would have been his mother, and not Molly, who would have made him his giant Snitch-shaped seventeenth birthday cake.
He knew it didn’t do well to dwell on these might-have-beens, that it would only hurt worse when he saw the place for himself and realised it was only a harsh reminder of what he did not and would never have, but he couldn’t help himself.
That evening, after the others had gone to bed and he was certain Malfoy’s soft, slow rhythmic breathing meant he was fast asleep, Harry pulled out the photo album Hagrid had given him years back and leafed through it. His parents still smiled and waved at him from within the old pictures, and he wondered if they would approve of him going back, trying to salvage even a tiny piece of the puzzle that was his past. A part of him said no, they wouldn’t; they would want him to practise prudence and keep his head down, perhaps sending Ron and Hermione to scout Godric’s Hollow on their own, as they would attract less attention than he might.
But they weren’t around, and so he wasn’t obliged to listen to them. This was another of those things he couldn’t just accept; he had to see it for himself, and now that he was so close, wild hippogriffs could not have kept him away.
He would have been happy to be off to Godric’s Hollow immediately, but Hermione had insisted they take every precaution possible. She was convinced (probably for good reason) that Voldemort would have the village watched, (rightly) expecting Harry to return to the scene of his parents’ deaths. Their disguises would therefore need to be immaculate, and they needed to ensure that they were camped someplace they were certain never to be found, in case they had to Apparate back at a moment’s notice. It was therefore another week—once they’d nipped hairs from innocent Muggles doing their Christmas shopping and pitched their tent in an old barn being reclaimed by a nearby wood—before Hermione deemed them ready for their mission.
Malfoy hadn’t been keen on being magically cuffed to Harry initially, but he’d quickly forgotten the terms of his joining them once Harry had brought out the Invisibility Cloak for him to try on. As expected, the Cloak didn’t cover past his shins, so Hermione had to cast a Disillusionment Charm to keep his feet from showing.
Malfoy had marvelled at the Cloak, letting the fabric run through his fingers. “This is…amazing, I’ve never seen anything to its equal…”
Harry thrummed with pride. “It was my dad’s; he used to use it to sneak around Hogwarts, so I’ve just carried on the tradition.”
Malfoy gave him a funny look. “…I always used to wonder how you got away with some of the things you did. Assumed it was the professors’ favouritism.”
“Suppose you’ll have to accept that I don’t always get special treatment then, won’t you?”
“No, you only get fantastic, one-of-a-kind magical items passed down to you.”
It was decided they would Apparate to Godric’s Hollow after nightfall, just to be sure no one spotted them. With four of them travelling, there was no hope of them all fitting under the Cloak, so they had little choice but to Apparate as far from the village square as possible and head in on foot.
It was late afternoon when they finally implemented their plan, dropping the Muggles’ hairs into vials of Polyjuice Potion and knocking them back with a grimace. Harry’s Muggle was a balding, middle-aged man, and Hermione was his hunched, mousy wife. Ron had been the proprietor of a pub called the Sable and Pheasant, and his prominent paunch suggested the Muggle partook of his brews often.
With Malfoy safely under the Cloak and the proper spells in place to ensure he didn’t get the urge to wander off, they all four linked arms, standing close for warmth in the bitter December chill, and turned into the suffocating darkness.
When Harry opened his eyes, they were standing—arms still linked—in the middle of a snowy lane under a sky washing over with lavenders and navies as the first stars of the evening peeked through the wispy cloud cover. It wasn’t snowing now, but the blanket of white beneath their shoes said it had been recently. They’d have to make sure they swept away Malfoy’s tracks or else disguised them with their own, as every step he took would be a dead giveaway to his presence.
Harry looked around, taking in a deep breath. Crisp winter air filled his lungs, and his breath came out in smoky puffs when he exhaled. Cosy little cottages stood on either side of the lane they’d Apparated onto, with Christmas decorations twinkling in every window. He tried to remember what day it was—well into December, according to the calendar on the kitchen wall in the tent, but he couldn’t recall any more than that. Was Christmas really that close? He’d completely lost track of time, each day bleeding into the next.
“That’ll be the village square, I’m sure,” Hermione whispered, pointing ahead to a stone arch, beyond which they could see the soft glow of golden streetlights beckoning invitingly. “Stick close; you too, Malfoy—in fact, maybe you should walk in front, that way our tracks can cover yours.” Harry felt Malfoy shift from his side, the fabric of the Cloak brushing against him as Malfoy stepped past.
The air was cold and dry, and his cheeks were already starting to sting, but Harry couldn’t suppress an excited smile. He was here. Any one of these cottages they were walking past might be home to someone who’d once shared afternoon tea with his mum or traded chit-chat at market with his dad. Someone who’d babysat Harry. Hell, one of them might be Bathilda’s home—or Dumbledore’s—and they wouldn’t even know. They hadn’t had much luck sussing out where exactly in Godric’s Hollow Bathilda or any of the other prominent wizarding families lived. Hermione was confident, though, that they could use spellwork to pick out the warded wizarding homes from the Muggle ones, and from there it would merely be a process of elimination.
“I wonder if any of them knew my parents…” Harry said, voicing his curiosities aloud. His eye caught on one of the cottages with a sleigh-and-reindeer display set up on the snow-covered lawn. “It’s only been, what, sixteen years? That’s not too long, in the grand scheme of things.”
“Maybe,” Hermione allowed distractedly, head snapping around to check they weren’t being followed.
“Wasn’t your folks’ place protected by a Fidelius?” Ron asked, and Harry nodded. “So…I mean, shouldn’t the charm still be active? Technically, their Secret Keeper’s still around. Would we even be able to see the place if we were staring right at it?”
Harry hadn’t considered that, and he felt his stomach lurch unpleasantly. He would hate to have come all this way and to not even be able to see it.
The lane began to curve, and shortly they passed under the stone arch and into the heart of the village: an empty square, at the centre of which stood what looked like a war memorial, partly obscured by a frosty, wind-blown Christmas tree that looked like it’d seen more than a few better days. Colourful fairy lights were strung overhead, twinkling in the gloaming. Several shops fronted the square, already shuttered for the night, along with a bustling pub and a little church, whose stained-glass windows glowed like jewels, a spot of warmth in the frigid darkness.
Harry paused before the tree; it looked rather shabby indeed, and several of the ornaments had been blown down from the branches, lying in shattered pieces on the cobblestones. If they’d had more privacy, Harry would have cast a Reparo and replaced them, as it seemed a sad, neglected little thing.
He heard Malfoy rustling next to him and felt his warmth as he drew up alongside Harry. “Not exactly the Christmas you’re used to, I’ll wager,” Harry said softly, though they were quite alone in the square; everyone seemed to be indoors, singing either drinking songs or Christmas carols at this hour.
“Oh, we put on quite a show during the holidays; Mother gets terribly festive, though you wouldn’t expect it.” No, Harry wouldn’t have expected that of Narcissa Malfoy, but he could easily see her hosting hoity-toity to-dos hobnobbing with the upper crust of wizarding society. Malfoy would be on her arm, dressed in form-fitting black robes with his hair slicked back while his father caroused with heads of families as old as their own, brokering deals and toasting their successes. Next to Malfoy, Harry felt very much like the decrepit Christmas tree. “But I confess I’ve always been fond of Hogwarts’ decorations.”
Harry scoffed. “You?”
“You think I’m joking, but I’m not. So gauche and tacky and distressingly plebeian; it’s refreshing, really.”
Harry snorted, not sure if he should believe Malfoy or not. “How do you make even your compliments sound like slights?”
“Practice, Potter. Practice.”
Shaking his head, he stepped past—and then stopped when Hermione released a sharp gasp. “Harry—look!”
She was pointing at the war memorial—or what had been the memorial, for the nondescript obelisk covered in names had now transformed into a statue of three people: a man with untidy hair and glasses, a woman with long hair and a kind, pretty face, and a baby sleeping in the woman’s arms. They all wore a soft dusting of fresh snow that did nothing to disguise their identities.
Dumbstruck, Harry drew closer, gazing up into what he knew to be his parents’ faces. He’d never imagined there would be a statue, had never considered the site might be properly memorialised at all, really. It was an odd feeling, seeing himself immortalised in stone like this, a happy baby without a scar on his forehead.
“Always knew there had to be statues of the great Harry Potter lying around somewhere…” came Malfoy’s disembodied voice, warm shoulder brushing Harry’s. It lacked the usual bite, though; maybe it was too cold for snide remarks. “…Merlin, you look just like him.”
“Mm. But I’ve got my mother’s eyes, so says pretty much everyone I’ve ever met who knew them.”
A car pulled up in front of the pub and spat out several people who looked like this was not their first stop of the evening, and they nearly lost their footing on the slippery hard-pack snow as they struggled to make their way inside. Across the square, the faint, muffled strains of a hymn starting up began to pipe forth from the church.
“Oh—Harry…” Hermione said, reaching out to place a hand on his arm. She pointed toward the church. “They’ll…they’ll be in there, won’t they? Your mum and dad. I can see the gate leading into the graveyard from here, and there’s only the one in the whole village…”
Harry’s stomach flip-flopped, and he felt a thrill run through him—a thrill of something less like excitement, and more like fear. He hadn’t expected to find them so soon, and now that he was here, only a few paces away from the church and its little graveyard thick with headstones, he wondered if he was really ready for this. The past week had seemed to drag on for ages, but now, he realised he hadn’t considered the reality of it at all.
Ron clapped his shoulder, and Hermione gave him an understanding smile. “Do you…do you want some time alone with them? Or—”
Harry shook his head; he was being ridiculous. “No, it’s fine, let’s go.” They marched across the square, and when Harry glanced back over his shoulder, the statue had turned back into the war memorial.
The congregation inside the church was still belting out their hymns, the singing growing louder as they approached the graveyard, and Harry tried to swallow down the lump in his throat that had formed in the wake of vivid memories of Christmastime at Hogwarts. It wasn’t Christmas yet, he didn’t think, and who knew what the castle might look like this year, under such a dark cloud as they all lived right now. But he could still hear Peeves trilling out rude versions of Christmas carols as he rattled about inside suits of armour, and he could see the grand Christmas trees lining the Great Hall that would have put the little one in the square to shame. Memories too dear to him threatened to swamp him—Dumbledore wearing a bonnet he’d won in a cracker and snowball fights on the Quidditch pitch and Mrs. Weasley’s hand-knitted sweaters…
And then he thought of Malfoy, remembering all those same things just as fondly, despite himself. He pictured Malfoy in the bonnet instead of Dumbledore, and the lump at last dissolved as he bit back a chuckle. He took another mental snapshot, even though it wasn’t real.
A kissing gate stood at the entrance to the graveyard, and Harry pushed it open as quietly as possible, leading them through one by one. The snow here was deep and unmarked by footsteps, a sign no one had been by to visit loved ones’ markers in quite a while. Harry hoped the service inside the church would give them privacy, but Hermione cast a wide Disillusionment Charm behind them just in case, and they took care to keep to the shadows beneath the brilliant stained-glass windows that flecked the fallen snow in a kaleidoscope of red and gold and green.
The tombstones peeked out from the snowy blanket in neat rows, and here and there Harry could see the remains of snow-covered bouquets and wreaths and other trinkets that must have meant something to the dearly departed. With one hand clenched tight around the wand in his jacket pocket, he moved along the rows, scanning the names carved into the markers.
“Look,” he whispered, pointing to the third down on the second row. “An Abbott! Reckon it’s a relative of Hannah’s?”
“It’s not a terribly uncommon name,” Hermione reminded, “But given this is a wizarding village, it’s not impossible.”
They waded deeper into the graveyard, wearing tracks into the snow that they would have to take care to Vanish as soon as they’d finished their business. Now and then, Harry caught Malfoy’s Disillusioned feet stopping before a marker, but Malfoy never said anything about it, and Harry never asked.
“Harry!” Hermione hissed from two rows away. “Here!”
Harry’s heart leapt into his throat, choking him with its feverish throbbing, and he nearly slipped and knocked himself out on a headstone in his scramble to get to her. “Is it—?”
“Oh—no, I’m sorry! But look!”
She was pointing at a marker carved from a dark, lichen-spotted granite. Harry squatted down, wiping away the snow and ice blurring the inscription to reveal the words Kendra Dumbledore, along with her dates of birth and death. Below her inscription was a similar one for Ariana Dumbledore, with the quotation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
“…Guess Rita and Muriel got at least some of their facts right…” Ron muttered, his hands shoved into his armpits. “The Dumbledores really did live here.”
Indeed; and some of them had died here, too. If that much had been factual, then what else…? The date of death confirmed that Ariana had died young, around the same time as her mother. How many skeletons did Dumbledore’s closet have? A man that old had to have a deep closet…
Had Dumbledore ever visited them? Had he ever come back here, or had he closed this chapter of his life, locking it away from even Harry, who would have rejoiced to know that someone he so admired and respected might intimately understand the pain of losing family? He saw, in his mind’s eye, a distant might-have-been, the two of them visiting their loved ones’ graves, Dumbledore sharing secret stories of James and Lily while Harry listened to him fondly reminisce of happier times with his mother and sister.
Of course, that was assuming there had ever really been ‘happier times’, for Muriel and Rita’s insinuations that Dumbledore himself might have had a hand in their deaths still rang in his ears. No, if Dumbledore had wanted to share these things with Harry, he would have. But their common history, the fact that their families lay side by side in the same graveyard, appeared to be little more than an unremarkable coincidence, left to fall by the wayside and shrouded in mystery, just like the location of the remaining Horcruxes and the sword of Gryffindor and so many other things Harry felt were important.
Harry was beginning to feel very, very used—like a tool, to be wielded and put to work but kept always at arm’s length. It left him feeling colder than the frigid winter temperatures ever could.
“So he really never mentioned—?” Ron began.
“No,” said Harry curtly. “He didn’t. But it doesn’t matter, let’s keep looking.” He turned away and tried to swallow down his bitter anger, reaching once more for that curious mixture of fear and excitement that flooded his veins at the thought of standing before his parents’ graves at last.
It was another five minutes of squinting to read headstone inscriptions in the pale, blue light before Hermione called them over to another marker. “Hey, come look at this one.” She tapped her wand against the stone, and the snow quickly melted away, exposing the inscription. “Is that…what I think it is?”
Harry and Ron leaned in to get a closer look; the grave was extremely old, and the name so worn down it was impossible to make out—but beneath it, there appeared to be a symbol of some sort carved into the stone. A triangle. “…It could be—but probably not, right? I mean, that could be anything.”
“True,” she allowed, lighting her wand with a soft Lumos that didn’t stretch far, just enough to illuminate the headstone. “I think it says…Ig—Ignotus? Is that a name? Or an epitaph?”
“Sounds Latin,” Ron said.
Harry shrugged. “It’s so old, maybe this guy was Roman.” He eased back up. “I’m going to keep looking for my parents.”
“All right…” Hermione said, distracted, and continued to study the marker with a thoughtful frown on her lips.
He wandered down the rows, occasionally catching sight of another surname that looked familiar. Some of the names were repeated across several markers, multiple generations of the same family lying at rest beneath their very feet. Still deeper into the graveyard he trod, his anticipation and trepidation rising with each step, each new marker.
And then, quite without warning, a wave of darkness fell upon him, and with it the biting chill of the night began to encroach. Harry whipped around, wand at the ready—expecting to see Dementors descending upon them or a Dark Mark glinting in the heavens.
But it was only that the church service had ended, with the lights inside the chapel being turned off as the sanctuary emptied. Harry found he already missed the background noise of the hymns and the cheerful glow of the light through stained glass.
“Three stones to your left and two rows forward, Potter,” came a disembodied voice next to Harry’s ear, and he stiffened, swallowing tightly. “Steady on.”
Encouragement, even from Malfoy, wasn’t going to do much good, but Harry tried to steel himself all the same. He didn’t need to ask; he knew by Malfoy’s tone, careful and cautious, that this would be Harry’s mother and father. Each step he took seemed heavier than the last, and something pressed on his chest, right over his heart. It was, he realised, the same feeling he’d experienced at Dumbledore’s funeral: a grief so raw and so real it seemed to have a physical presence, crushing and overwhelming until he found it a struggle to even breathe.
He wasn’t excited anymore—not in the same way as before, at least. It was just another of those instances where he had to know, had to see it with his own eyes. For sixteen years, he’d had this part of his life deliberately kept from him. He could have been coming to visit his parents’ graves for years, yet no one had ever thought to suggest it. And now that it was finally here, he didn’t know if he could take it. He hoped he didn’t do anything embarrassing, like start crying. That was just what he needed, when Malfoy was standing only a few paces away.
He found the headstone easily with Malfoy’s instructions, but he doubted he would have missed it even without them. It was made of white marble, just like Dumbledore’s tomb, and gleamed in the moonlight not unlike the opalescent scales of Malfoy’s dragon, beckoning Harry closer. Being of newer make than most of the markers in the graveyard, he didn’t need to squint or stand close in order to make out the epitaph.
James Potter, born 27 March 1960, died 31 October 1981
Lily Potter, born 30 January 1960, died 31 October 1981
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
Harry mouthed the words, tasting them, and grimaced. Something sounded…terribly off about such a saying.
“That’s a lovely sentiment,” Hermione said, drawing up alongside him.
He gave her a slanted look. “…Sounds more to me like something Death Eaters might say.” He glared at the headstone in bald accusation. “Why is that here?”
Malfoy scoffed sharply, from somewhere just beyond them.
“Oh Harry…” Hermione placed a hand on his arm, looking to Ron for support as he lumbered down the row toward them. “It doesn’t mean defeating death the way You-Know-Who’s corrupted the notion.” She stared down at the marker, a gentle smile on her lips. “It means…you know…living beyond death. A kind of life after death, the way we all live on in the hearts and minds of others. That’s really the only true way to achieve immortality.”
“And a sight easier than complicated spellwork, I’d wager,” Ron said.
Except you were still dead, when it came down to it. These were pretty words, but they didn’t change the fact that Harry’s mother and father were gone. Memories were something of a comfort, but they paled in comparison to having living, breathing parents. Warm arms to curl around you, soft breath in your hair, strong shoulders to support you. Maybe his parents were watching, somewhere, somehow—but that was all they were doing. Watching. They couldn’t hold him, couldn’t help him, couldn’t even speak to him. They could only be remembered. What good did that really do him, in the end?
He felt anger swelling hot in his chest, crawling up his throat and clawing at the back of his eyes until it seeped out as tears and carved tracks down his frozen cheeks. Fuck—he hadn’t wanted this. He hadn’t wanted to cry, like a child, in front of the others. He’d thought he’d steeled himself against grief, enough to keep it together until he found some privacy in the tent later, but he hadn’t imagined he’d be so angry at them. And yet he was. Angry that they’d died, angry that they’d left him nothing to remember them by, angry that someone had carved these pithy words on their headstone. Had Dumbledore chosen these words, like he’d chosen them for his mother and sister? He wouldn’t have been surprised.
He didn’t want their memories. He wanted them, here alive with him—or if he couldn’t have that, he wished he’d died sixteen years back. Instead, he was standing here, before their graves, in his own personal limbo. Alive because of their sacrifice, surrounded by people who wanted to remind him that, “Oh they aren’t really gone! Not so long as we remember them!”
He shrugged off Hermione’s hand, rubbing his sleeve over his eyes, and stepped through the markers to put a bit of distance between them.
But he held a hand up and shook his head. “Just—gimme a minute, yeah? Just a minute.”
He was having trouble breathing, all that grief and anger crushing him, and he thought he might pass out. He’d already wept in front of them, he certainly didn’t want to have a fit in front of them too. They’d think him a fragile doll in need of coddling and be walking on eggshells around him for weeks hence.
He dropped into a squat before one of the crumbling markers and wrapped his arms around his knees for warmth, taking long, deep breaths. In, and out, and in again, he waited for his heart rate to slow to something manageable.
“You’re a very ugly crier,” Malfoy said beside him. “I’d avoid it if I were you. Your face gets all blotchy, and look, you’re about to pass out.”
He didn’t know how Malfoy could tell, given he had a shot of Polyjuice in his system. “I’m not going to pass out,” Harry muttered, exhausted. The tears had formed a salty crust on his cheeks, and his eyes hurt now. “I just needed a minute to collect myself—a private one, if that wasn’t obvious.”
“You’re welcome to all the privacy you want; simply relieve me of this Shackling Spell and I’ll be happy to give you as wide a berth as you like.”
Oh—Harry had forgotten about the spell. He’d—guiltily, and ridiculously—thought Malfoy was hanging around him because he maybe wanted to. Malfoy got along better with him than with Ron or Hermione, at least, and he’d evidently imagined that meant something.
He eased back to his feet, the knees of his Polyjuiced body creaking ominously with the effort. “I’m fine now. Let’s go.” He turned back to Ron and Hermione, jerking his head in invitation. They’d done what they’d come to the graveyard to do, so there was no sense in tarrying any longer.
Hermione didn’t look pleased to leave on such an unhappy note, and she faced the Potters’ marker, moving her wand in a circle through the air. A wreath of Christmas roses shimmered into existence, floating down to lie at the base of the tombstone. After placing an Evergreen Charm on it, she began to wind her way back through the markers with Ron at her side.
Shortly, they came back to the kissing gate and slid through it one by one. The church was dark and quiet now, all the parishioners having retired after the evening service. Harry was about to ask where they ought to head next—he supposed they would search for Bathilda Bagshot’s home now—when Hermione drew up short, seizing Ron’s arm. “Oh!”
They all stopped, snow and gravel crunching under their boots, and Ron straightened with a frown. “What is it?”
Hermione wasn’t looking at him, though; she was staring at a line of tall hedges just on the other side of the church, eyes wide and white. “There’s someone there. Someone watching us.” She pointed at the hedges. “Did you see?”
Harry followed her eye, but he could see nothing, only the gentle sway of branches in the night breeze. “…Are you sure?”
She bit her lip. “I saw something move, I could have sworn…” She shoved her hand into her coat where she’d stowed her wand, drawing it out again.
“We look like Muggles,” Ron reminded her.
“Muggles who’ve just been visiting the graves of the Dumbledores and Potters! I’m sure there’s someone over there, really!”
Harry didn’t doubt Hermione had seen something, but they were all on edge these days, jumping at shadows. “…It’s a cemetery full of witches and wizards. Reckon there might be a ghost or two, like at Hogwarts? I didn’t feel anything ominous, but—”
Just then, something rustled in the hedges, sending a shower of snow floating to the ground, and they all three whipped out their wands, crowding in together for safety. Ghosts did not interact with the physical world like that, not that he’d ever seen.
“Maybe it’s a cat?” Ron suggested, a quaver in his voice. “Or a bird?”
“Well, if it were a Death Eater, you’d be dead by now,” Malfoy said from somewhere behind them. “Suppose you’ve at least got that going for you.”
He had a point. “I’m not keen to find out either way; let’s get out of here.”
They made their way along the ice-slick pavement back to the square. The pub was fuller and more lively now than it had been earlier, and Harry wondered how many of the church-goers had made their way there after the service. Not a few, given the raucous voices belting out off-key the same carol they’d heard as they’d passed the church. Harry considered slipping inside for warmth and maybe a nip—their Polyjuice bodies were certainly old enough that they wouldn’t have a problem being served—but Hermione directed them across the square with a nod. “Let’s go that way.”
She led them down a dark lane leading out of the village square, opposite the direction by which they had entered. This road, too, was lined with sleepy cottages through whose darkened windows they could just barely make out the odd twinkling Christmas tree. Hermione’s pace was brisk, and she kept glancing over her shoulder, probably for the mysterious figure she thought was following them.
“So how’re we gonna find Bathilda’s house?” Ron asked.
“Well, I think I should be able to detect any standard security wards with—Harry? Harry where are you going?”
Harry ignored her, though, slowing up and then cutting off from the main road. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing—it was just…sitting here.
The hedges and lawn had grown wild over the years, and the structure itself looked like it had been gutted, a mere skeleton of its former glory. Dark ivy crept up the walls and into the exposed brickwork and beams, and a thick layer of snow from several storms over the season had built up on the roof and cracked chimney, the woodwork and furniture having been left to rot in the elements. He couldn’t stop staring at the gaping gash that had been ripped into the second floor, like someone had set off a bomb.
Harry nodded to the exploded bedroom. “That…that’s where it happened, isn’t it?” He was sure that was where the Killing Curse had backfired, earning Harry his scar and setting back Voldemort’s plans by years.
“Where what happened, Harry? I can’t see anything.”
Harry turned back to Hermione and Ron, irritated. “Well—look. You can’t see th—” He cut himself off, releasing a sharp little oh of realisation. “…It’s the Fidelius. You were right, it must still be active.”
“Fidelius?” Hermione frowned. “Wait—oh, this is your home!” Harry nodded. “Of course! You’re still woven into the charm, so you can see it.”
“Just looks like an empty lot to me,” Ron said.
“And it will stay that way, I’m afraid…” She gave Harry a sad look. “You’re not the Secret Keeper; once a Keeper’s been chosen, only they can bring others into the Charm until they die.”
Harry felt his heart sink; some things he wanted to keep private, but not this. He didn’t want to have to be the only one who could see this sad sight. He forced himself to look, all the same, committing it to memory. This would have been his home, this was where he would have grown up. Where he would have had birthdays and Christmases, where he might have had a summer romance with a local Muggle girl or practised flying in a strongly warded back garden.
“…It looks terrible, maybe it’s for the best.” He hated seeing it like this, like no one cared. He wondered briefly why no one had ever rebuilt it, or at least properly preserved it, but then he supposed the Fidelius kept most everyone from seeing it, so what would have been the point?
He placed his hands on the thickly rusted gate that bounded the property—he didn’t want to go inside, he just…wanted to touch it, to hold some part of the house. He would remember the feel of this gate, the cold, flaking metal, for the rest of his life.
“You’re not going to go inside, are you?” Hermione gasped. “It can’t be safe, after all these years. It might—oh!”
Something rustled in the undergrowth, and then from the tangles of vines and weeds rose a sign, like some bizarre, fast-growing flower. It must have been triggered to appear when it sensed witches or wizards, like the statue in the village square, and he blinked down at it as handsome gold letters began to scrawl themselves across the wood.
On this spot, on the night of 31 October 1981, Lily and James Potter lost their lives.
Their son, Harry, remains the only wizard ever to have survived the Killing Curse.
This house, invisible to Muggles and protected behind a Fidelius Charm from all but those made privy, has been left in its ruined state as a monument to the Potters and as a reminder of the violence that tore apart their family.
All around this neat engraving, scribbles had been added by other visitors over the years who had come to pay pilgrimage to the place where Harry had become the Boy Who Lived. Some had signed their names in Everlasting Ink, while others had carved their initials into the wood. Some had even left messages along the lines of “Good luck, Harry, wherever you are,” and “If you read this, Harry, we’re all behind you!” and “Long live Harry Potter.”
“They shouldn’t have defaced the sign,” Hermione hissed, indignant, but Harry couldn’t have been happier to see the graffiti. They hadn’t been able to see the cottage, and still they’d taken the time to visit, pay their respects, and leave messages of hope. For once, Harry didn’t feel the weight of their expectations, only the warm, supportive feelings behind them.
“No, it’s brilliant. I’m glad they did, I…”
He broke off, glancing past her to the dark lane behind them. A muffled figure in a heavy trenchcoat was hobbling slowly towards them, silhouetted by the bright, merry lights in the distant square. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Harry thought the figure might be a woman—elderly, from her arching stoop and stiff, stilted gait that suggested she feared slipping on the snow-and-ice-slick ground.
Hermione turned into Ron’s embrace, but Harry kept one hand tight on the wand in his pocket, waiting to see if she would turn off at one of the cottages. Something inside him, though, said that she would not. He imagined he could feel her staring, right at him, in the darkness. Could feel her watching him and recognising him, even though they had another twenty minutes at least on their Polyjuice doses.
When she’d drawn within but a few yards of them, she stopped, standing stock still there in the middle of the frozen country lane and watching them from beneath the hood of a floral kerchief. Harry could see now that she favoured one foot, and her head lolled to the side at what looked to be an uncomfortable angle, her breath coming in raspy hisses.
There was no chance this woman was a Muggle; why would she have hobbled up to this empty lot on such a bitterly cold night as this if she were not a witch, hoping to pay her respects to the Potter home?
She regarded them in silence, palsy shaking her form so that she almost swayed, and Harry considered that maybe she recognised them—except their Polyjuiced bodies were from very far away, and he could make out, under the hood of her kerchief, milky-white eyes that suggested cataracts. No, she probably could barely see at all, especially in the low light; if she knew them, it was because she knew them, Harry and Ron and Hermione. And he hadn’t a clue who she was—a dangerous disadvantage at the moment.
“…I think we ought to leave,” Hermione whispered, her voice unnaturally calm. “This might have been a mistake.”
Harry could not move, though—he didn’t want to. The woman lifted one trembling arm, then crooked a bony finger in invitation. Hermione gasped, as if she’d just hexed them.
“…She wants us to go with her.”
“So?” Ron’s voice was several octaves higher than normal. “You can’t seriously be considering this, can you? Dotty old lady asking you to follow her down a dark country road? Sure, sounds like a great plan.”
The woman beckoned again, more vigorously this time, as if she were growing impatient with Harry, and while Ron made a good point, Harry felt compelled to follow her. Suspicions about her identity began to swirl inside his mind, growing stronger with each passing second. This woman, he was convinced, knew who they were—and probably knew why they were there, too.
And there was really only one person who lived in this village who might be privy to such information.
Harry swallowed thickly; could she have been waiting for them, these many months? Had Dumbledore asked her to wait, confident that Harry would eventually find his way here and need her guidance? He agreed with Malfoy that, if she’d been a Death Eater, they would have been dead or captured by now. There was no need to lure them away when a simple Body-Bind or Imperius would do the job.
He licked his lips. “…Are you Bathilda?” he asked breaking the chilly silence, and Hermione gave a start.
The muffled figure nodded, beckoning again. Harry took a step forward—when something grabbed at his sleeve. He looked down to see pale white fingers pinching his coat, holding him back. “It’s fine,” Harry whispered through grit teeth, though he knew Malfoy couldn’t say anything in return without giving himself away. “Let go.”
Malfoy refused, and Harry had to jerk his arm away to get him to let go. He understood if Malfoy had reservations, but Harry couldn’t stifle the sense that this was what he was meant to do. Too many clues had led them here for Harry to stop listening to his gut now.
The old woman turned and hobbled off back the way they had come, and Harry followed her, leaving Hermione and Ron and the invisible, spell-bound Malfoy with little choice but to join him.
She led them past several houses before reaching the gate of one that looked in particular disrepair and easing back the latch. They followed her up the gravel-strewn front path, through a garden nearly as wild and overgrown as the one at the Potter house. It looked as if it hadn’t been tended in months, and the darkness did nothing to help it seem less foreboding. The woman creakily mounted the steps, fumbled for a moment with a key at the front door before finally fitting it into the lock, then opened the door and stepped back, hand extended to invite them inside.
“Keep your wands ready,” Hermione warned, quite unnecessarily, as Harry hadn’t taken his hand off his since they’d left the graveyard.
The woman reeked—and her house smelled just as foul. Harry wrinkled his nose as they sidled past her, wishing manners didn’t prevent him from covering his nose and breathing through his mouth. Once they had all filed into the entryway (with Malfoy hopefully on this side of the door), the woman closed the door behind them with arthritic fingers splayed over peeling paint. She then turned and peered at Harry with an intensity that sent a shiver down his spine, and he forced his gaze elsewhere—anywhere but into her milky-white cataract-ridden eyes and grey, liver-spotted skin that seemed thin as old parchment paper.
A roiling stench radiated off of her in waves—old age and decay and animal musk, the rank odour intensifying as she slowly unwound the motheaten black shawl to reveal a few wisps of thin white hair combed over a liver-spotted scalp. Harry wondered how old she actually was; he’d heard wizards were particularly long-lived, so how old did one have to get before it started to show this badly?
“Bathilda?” Harry repeated. “Professor Bagshot?”
She nodded again, quite enthusiastic for someone of her apparent age. Harry thought he felt the Mokeskin pouch twitch against his chest—then recalled he’d stowed Slytherin’s locket inside of it. He brought a hand to his chest, right over the pouch, and could feel it pulsing with a steady, thrumming beat. Did it know where they were? Could it somehow sense that the instrument of its destruction was near?
Harry felt his own heart begin to beat in time with it, a steadily ratcheting pulse, hastened by the thought that they were so near to their goal.
Bathilda shuffled past them, shoving aside Ron and Hermione, and then vanished into a room just off the entry hall.
“Harry, Harry I don’t think we should be here!” Hermione hissed once Bathilda had gone. “Something feels really wrong about this place!”
“What?” Harry gaped. “But—we’re so close! We’re in Bathilda Bagshot’s home!” He shook his head. “We can’t leave without at least asking her a few questions.”
“Well I’m afraid I’m gonna have to politely decline any tea or biscuits she offers,” Ron said, waving a hand before his face to ward off the stench. “Merlin, it smells like someone died in here…”
“And it’s going to be us if Potter doesn’t stop lumbering into dark parlours on invitations from creepy old biddies,” came a disembodied voice to Harry’s left, which meant Malfoy had made it inside after all.
Harry sighed, irritated. “Well, look at the size of her; I’m pretty sure between the four of us, we could take her if we had to. She’s just a lonely old lady, and Ron’s Aunt Muriel even said she wasn’t all there in the head anymore. That’s probably why she’s acting so weird, so just…go with it, right? We’re safer under cover than wandering about out in the square anyway.”
“Come!” Bathilda called sharply from the next room.
Hermione jumped, Ron cursed under his breath, and Malfoy latched on to Harry’s arm with a hissed, “What the fuck was that?”
“It’s fine, I told you,” said Harry with patronising reassurance, and he carefully extricated himself from Malfoy’s grip. He inclined his head toward the sitting room. “Let’s go; we’ll see what she knows, and then we’re out, right? If anything goes wrong, we’ll just Apparate back to the tent immediately.”
“Fantastic, except I’ve got no wand!” Malfoy ground out.
“Then you’d better stick close, hadn’t you? And be quiet.”
Harry followed after Bathilda into what appeared to be a sitting room, where he found her tottering around, lighting candles, though it was still too dark to see much further than a few paces ahead, and Harry couldn’t help but notice the place was extremely dirty. Not just untidy—but filthy. Thick dust curled in little puffs wherever they stepped, and a new stench joined the already rank milieu: something rotting, like meat gone bad. It was no way for a human being to live, and Harry wondered when had been the last time anyone had dropped by to check on poor Bathilda. Had she no children, or other relatives? No friends in the village?
Bathilda seemed to have forgotten she could do magic, too, for Harry saw no sign of her wand, and she was lighting the candles by hand—clumsily, at that, the lacework trailing from her dress in constant danger of catching fire.
“Cripes, she’s gonna set the whole place ablaze…” Ron muttered under his breath, and Harry rushed forward when she strained to reach a candelabra perched precariously atop a stack of books, gently taking the matches from her.
“Let me do that for you,” he offered, and he could feel her beady eyes watching him as he finished lighting the candle stubs standing around the room, most nearly burned down to the quick. He wondered if this was really wise, silently agreeing with Ron; the place was liable to go up like a tinderbox at the slightest wrong move.
The last unlit candle Harry could see in the room sat atop a chest of drawers, in place of pride amidst a collection of photographs standing in tarnished silver frames. When he lit the wick, the dancing flame brought to life the figures in the pictures, though the passage of time seemed to have slowed their movements to a crawl. He muttered “Tergeo,” and the dust vanished from the frames with a soft poof. He could see now that at least half a dozen photographs were missing from the largest and most ornate frames. Had Bathilda moved them—or thrown them out—in her addled state?
But then a photograph near the back of the collection caught his eye, and he snatched it up, heart in his throat.
It was him. The thief from Harry’s dreams, the golden-haired young man with the devil’s grin who’d attacked Gregorovitch in his workshop. He smiled lazily up at Harry from the silver frame, wispy blond hair trailing wildly down to his shoulders. Bathilda must surely know this boy—or the old man he would be now—but where had…
It came to Harry now in a flash, where he’d seen the boy before: in the pages of The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, arm in arm with the teenage Dumbledore. He had a sinking suspicion that he would find the rest of Bathilda’s missing photographs in Rita’s book as well.
Harry held the photo frame up for Bathilda to see. “Mrs—Miss—Professor Bagshot?” he called. She was watching Hermione attempt to light a fire in the soot-stained fireplace. Harry crossed the room in three steps, pointing to the boy in the photo. “Who is this?”
Bathilda looked up at him, expression blank, and gave him a slow, dull blink.
Harry gave the photo a shake, bringing it just under Bathilda’s nose. Maybe her eyesight was so poor she couldn’t make out the image unless she had her nose pressed up against it. “Who’s in this picture, Professor Bagshot? I need to know who this person is.” Bathilda wouldn’t look at the photo, just continued to stare at Harry. “Please. You must know him; who is this? What’s his name? Is he a relative of yours? A grandson, maybe?”
“Mate, calm down…” Ron said, one hand raised.
“Harry, what are you doing?” asked Hermione, her wand clutched tight to her chest, and Harry imagined he was frightening her—but she didn’t realise there was no need to be frightened. He’d just uncovered a clue that might change everything.
He held the picture up for her, though he doubted she could make it out from the other end of Bathilda’s long, stained and lumpy sofa. “The boy in this picture—he’s the thief I told you about! The one I saw in my dream, the one who stole something from Gregorovitch. I saw him before, too, in a photo alongside Dumbledore in Rita Skeeter’s stupid book.” He turned back to Bathilda, excitement mounting. “Who is this?”
Still, there was no response, not even a flash of recognition or understanding. Bathilda simply stared.
Hermione mustered her courage. “Why did you ask us to come with you, Professor Bagshot? Was there something you wanted to tell us?”
Bathilda showed no signs she’d heard Hermione, only shuffled closer to Harry. Her breathing was ragged, and each exhalation seemed to rattle her whole body. She gave a little jerk of her head, back towards the entry hall and the narrow stair leading up to the second storey.
Harry frowned. “You…you want us to leave?”
She wheezed, then raised a crooked finger and pointed first at Harry, then herself, and gestured to the ceiling.
Harry’s eyes flicked up, and he realised what she wanted from him. “…I think she wants to me to go upstairs with her.”
Hermione made a face, but nodded. “All right, then. Up we go.” She stepped around the sofa, shooing Ron along.
But Bathilda shook her head violently, stamping her foot with more vigour than Harry would have credited. She pointed again at Harry, then herself, breathing loudly through her nose.
“Er, I’m pretty sure she wants me to go with her alone.”
“What?” Ron asked sharply, and Hermione turned a narrow-eyed gaze on Bathilda.
“Why? Why can’t we hear whatever it is she’s got to say to you?”
Harry shrugged. “I dunno—maybe Dumbledore told her to give the sword to me, in private?” He wanted to remind Hermione that Bathilda probably wasn’t entirely there and was understandably making unreasonable demands, but they needed answers from her. That much was clearer now than ever, with the appearance of the photograph of the mysterious thief.
Hermione still didn’t look convinced. “…You really think she knows who you are? You mentioned Muriel said…”
Harry just nodded, eager to see what was to come. Bathilda was watching him with those milky eyes that showed a curious intelligence, and Harry suspected she wasn’t quite as ‘batty’ as she let on. “Yeah. I really do.”
Hermione pursed her lips. “Fine, but be quick about it!”
“What?!” Ron hissed. “We’re just going to let—?” But he fell silent at Hermione’s meaningful look.
Harry turned back to Bathilda. “Lead the way, Professor,” he said, and he thought he felt a swish of fabric brush his skin. The Horcrux, tucked inside the Mokeskin pouch around his neck, gave an eager jolt. Bathilda nodded several times, head bobbing like a chicken, and then shuffled around Harry towards the door. He tried to cast a reassuring smile back at Hermione and Ron, but they had their backs to him, huddled in whispered conversation.
He was still holding the photograph of the thief, he realised, and with Bathilda already mounting the creaking stair and Hermione and Ron’s back turned, he slipped it into his coat.
The stairs were a treacherous thing to climb, steep and narrow, and Harry worried Bathilda might topple backwards on top of him, so unsure of her steps was she. Slowly, still wheezing a bit, she made her way to the second storey with Harry tight on her heels, one hand out before him to brace her should she stumble. Once they reached the landing, Bathilda hung a sharp right, leading Harry into a what seemed the master bedroom. It was pitch black and smelled, if possible, even worse than the sitting room had been, perhaps because it was a smaller space, allowing the stench to collect in the low corners. This was helped not at all by Bathilda closing the door, robbing the room of even the faint light that had filtered in from the candles downstairs.
“Lumos,” Harry said, and the tip of his wand ignited with a warm, soft glow. He gave a start, stumbling backwards and nearly tripping over his own feet: in those few seconds of darkness, Bathilda had drawn close, right in front of him, though he hadn’t heard her approach. Harry swallowed, wishing she’d take a step back so that he could breathe; too much of this, and he really was going to be sick. He thought he’d spotted a chamberpot in the corner; maybe he could use that.
Bathilda released a rattling breath. “You are Potter?” she whispered.
Here it was, the moment he’d been waiting for. He licked his lips. “Yes, I am. Harry Potter, ma’am.”
She nodded slowly, lips curling at the edges like scrolls of parchment
Ice-cold fingers grabbed his arm, wrapping tight around his wrist, and Malfoy hissed in his ear, “Potter—Potter, something’s wrong. She’s not right, she’s not even—”
Harry rudely shouldered him aside, then rubbed his arms to pretend he was just chilly. Malfoy could tail Harry if he wanted, but Harry would have his answers. He felt the Horcrux beating fast now, faster than Harry’s own heart could keep up. He wondered what it would feel like, if he had it around his neck instead of stuffed into the pouch, with the cool metal biting into his flesh directly.
It felt like a living thing, and this place smelled like so much death, he couldn’t imagine the sword of Gryffindor wasn’t here, ready to smite it.
“Have you got anything for me?” Harry asked, but Bathilda seemed distracted by the light dancing at the tip of Harry’s wand, her eyes tracking it with a mesmerised languidity. “Professor Bagshot? Were you asked to give me something?”
Bathilda’s eyes rolled back into her head, and Harry panicked that she might be about to have a fit—
And then several things happened at once.
His scar gave a sharp jolt that felt like an arrow loosed into his skull, the Horcrux inside the pouch hanging around his neck twitched with such violence he felt it shift his clothing under the layers, and the dark, stinking room seemed to sway, or else Harry stumbled, his vision shifting in and out of focus. A thrill of joy that he knew instinctively was not his own rippled through him, and a high, cold voice screeched inside his mind, Hold him!
Harry reached out, gripping the bedpost for support. The air felt thick and close, the stench choking off his breath. “Something’s wrong,” Malfoy had said, and Harry agreed, he did, but he was so close, so even if it took his last breath, he would ask until he got the answers he needed.
“Have you got anything for me?” he asked, trying to raise his voice, though he had precious little breath with which to do so.
“Over there…” Bathilda whispered, retreating away from the light of Harry’s wand and extending an ancient, gnarled hand to point at a cluttered dressing table sitting beneath the bedroom window.
He shoved away from the bedpost, stumbling drunkenly, as he was still disorientated by the throbbing in his skull. He blinked rapidly, trying to bring the room back into focus. Bathilda kept to one corner, watching Harry hungrily, and he edged past her and the lumpy, unmade bed, his wand raised to cast as much light around the room as possible. It was silly, he knew, but it somehow felt like the darkness might swallow him if he let his Lumos fizzle out. He kept one eye trained on Bathilda, for he did not like the way she was staring at him now, her glassy eyes glinting when the witchlight caught them, like a cat’s.
Something grabbed at him, and he gave a start before he realised it was just Malfoy again. “Potter, please!” he begged in a fierce whisper.
Harry ignored him, raking a quick glance over what looked—and smelled—like a pile of unwashed laundry heaped atop the dressing table. “What’s in there?” he asked Bathilda.
“There…” she repeated, jabbing her finger at the shapeless mass, and he dared to turn away from her, searching the tangled mess for any sign of the sword—its ruby-studded pommel and guard, the intricate filigree of its grip, the flash of its silver blade. There was nothing, though, just a pile of rags—but that was all the distraction Bathilda had needed.
He caught it, just from the corner of his eye: she moved weirdly, with that same preternatural speed from before. He tried to whip his wand around, a spell on his lips—but the shock of what he saw there paralysed him, freezing him in place: Bathilda’s form blurred—no, melted, jaws opening inhumanly wide as a great snake poured from her mouth, shedding its Bathilda-skin with its maw agape and lunging at Harry.
It struck his raised wand arm, sinking its fangs in deep, and the force of the bite sent Harry’s wand spinning away. The light at the tip cast dizzying shadows along the walls before dying, plunging the room into pitch darkness. A blow from the snake’s tail struck his midriff, knocking the wind out of him, and he stumbled backwards into the dressing table, crushing it to splinters with his weight.
Instinct had him rolling sideways. If he could get under the bed, he might be able to escape out the other side before the snake—before Nagini found him.
From below, Hermione’s worried voice called up, “Harry? Harry—is everything all right?”
Something wrapped around his ankles, dragging him away from the bed, and a heavy mass landed on his chest, crushing the breath from him so he could not call back to Hermione. Smooth, powerful coils slid over and around him, pinning his arms to his sides before squeezing. “N—no…” he gasped, writhing in Nagini’s grip.
“Yessss…” she whispered back, “Yesss, hold you…hold you…”
He tried to twitch his fingers, but he couldn’t feel them. He concentrated anyway, gritting out, “Accio… Accio wand…” Why hadn’t he been practising wandless spells these past months, in case they found themselves deprived of their wands?
Nothing happened, of course, and the snake coiled itself tighter around his torso. The Horcrux was throbbing painfully from within the Mokeskin pouch, a strong, steady beat in stark contrast to the frantic pattering of Harry’s own racing heart. He thought his vision might be going dark, but it was impossible to tell. Everything seemed to be growing more distant, though, all sound and thought fading, fading…
“RELASHIO!” someone cried, and Nagini recoiled sharply with a screeching hiss. Harry drew in deep, laboured breaths that ached as his crushed lungs struggled to fill themselves, and tinges of colour flashed in his vision like fireworks. Slowly, too slowly, his senses returned, but his thoughts remained scattered, and he was only distantly aware of what was going on. Someone…someone was fighting. Hermione and Ron, versus Nagini? They must have come up to investigate.
The red jet of light that struck Nagini was blinding, and Harry recoiled, drawing into a foetal position. He brought a hand up to shield his eyes, using the other to push himself upright, and shook his head to clear his vision. The room was spinning, but it was difficult to tell if it was because of the flashes of light or Harry’s own oxygen-deprived state.
There came a great crash and splintering of wood. “Harry? Harry!” Hermione cried, and Harry blinked, barely making out hers and Ron’s silhouettes outlined in the doorway, wands at the ready. But then who—?
In the light that streamed in from the landing, he saw the snake, a writhing mass of glittering scales. It dove straight for Ron, and Hermione shrieked a spell Harry didn’t catch, sending the snake slamming into the curtained window, which shattered. Harry ducked to avoid the shower of broken glass, and a gust of frozen air roared into the room, whipping up curtains and bedsheets and bits of debris.
The snake was massive, Harry could see now, and it filled the room. It was absolute chaos, as jets of light and a chorus of spells flew across the room, demolishing the structure, and Nagini bobbed and wove and struck when she could. Harry groped about for his wand, rifling through the dust and snow and shards of glass and splintered wood. Nagini’s lashing tail snapped off one of the bedposts, and it toppled to the floor, nearly braining Harry. He would never find his wand in this mess, and Hermione and Ron needed him, they couldn’t hold Nagini at bay forever—
Harry’s scar seared more powerfully than it had in years, like someone had shoved a jagged red-hot poker through his eye and given a sharp twist, and Harry cried out in agony. He knew what this pain meant—what it heralded. His scar hurt particularly fiercely when Voldemort was happy, which meant he was fucking ecstatic right now.
“He’s coming!” Harry cried, his voice raspy with dust. “It’s him, he’s coming!”
His shouting drew the snake’s attention again, and it lunged at him, hissing wildly and jaws snapping. Harry leapt onto the bed, and the snake’s wriggling, writhing body smashed into book shelves and sent porcelain shards flying everywhere. He hopped to the floor on the other side of the bed to herd Hermione and Ron back down the stairs. They had to get out now, because the snake was about to be the least of their worries. They had, perhaps, seconds before Voldemort arrived; his head felt like it was about to split open with the pain from his scar.
They stumbled back out onto the landing, and the snake screamed in rage, sounding far too human for Harry’s comfort. Ron fired a Confringo over his shoulder as they raced down the stairs, and the force of the blast sent them flying. A wave of rebounding heat washed over them, glass shards pelting Harry as the wardrobe mirror near the door exploded. They leapt over the railing into the parlour directly, and Harry held his arms out so they could link up to Apparate—
“Wait, where’s Malfoy?!” Hermione gasped.
Ron made a face. “If that little fucker somehow ran off—”
“Get us out of here now, Granger,” came a voice right by Harry’s ear, cold and hard and trembling with rage. Malfoy’s fingers dug into Harry’s arm, painful even through the layers.
Harry closed his eyes, clenching them shut, and he felt his body being crushed down to a fine point as Hermione spun them away. The air grew tight and close again, and they vanished into nothingness, away from the sounds of Bathilda’s house collapsing around them and an inhuman shriek echoing in his mind…
But then his scar burst open, and he was him, Voldemort, striding across what remained of Bathilda’s destroyed bedroom with long, white hands outstretched. He reached the threshold, just in time to see the bald Muggle vanish along with his tagalongs from Bathilda Bagshot’s parlour, disappearing with a loud CRACK. His rage peaked, and he released a banshee-like scream that rent the night, mingling in his memory with that girl’s and echoing across the dark, sleepy December countryside.
Voldemort was screaming, and so was Harry, and his pain was Harry’s pain, raw and rage-filled and darker than black. How could it have happened here…here again, where he’d been struck that near-mortal blow before? Within sight—a mere stone’s throw—of that house where he had come so terrifyingly close to knowing what it was to die… The pain had been horrific, beyond human comprehension; he’d been ripped from his body…
He wished he didn’t have a body; then it might not hurt so much. He wished he were dead; then he might not feel so unbearably. Death, nonexistence, peace…a cruel joke that he both longed for and loathed.
The night was fairly unremarkable, as nights went. There was a slick sheen of moisture covering the world, the remnants of an afternoon storm that had largely now passed but for stray gusts whipping up great swirling vortexes of dead leaves in the streets.
A pair of Muggle children scampered across his path, one dressed as a great orange pumpkin and the other waddling about in bedsheets with holes snipped out through which to see, both with baskets clutched in their grubby hands. They made for the village square, and everywhere he looked—lampposts, awnings, benches, even shop windows—was covered in stringy cobwebs and paper spiders and rubber bats, a riot of orange and black and all the trappings of a world of spooks and haunts they thrilled themselves with one night a year, comfortable in the fabricated nature of it all. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t anything to truly be frightened of.
Soon enough, they would learn what dark horrors lurked just beneath their noses, all too real and all too terrible.
He glided along, unbothered for once by the rest of the world. He had a purpose tonight, a singular goal, and his focus and conviction inured him against all this inane Muggle nonsense as he walked among these lesser beings.
Not anger, no—feeling anger with Muggles was as pointless as feeling anger with a steer up for slaughter. A waste of time. Anger was for the weaker among them.
Instead, tonight he felt…triumph. Yes, victory—long-awaited and oh so near at hand.
“Nice costume, Mister!”
The pumpkin boy had drawn up short, waving at him with a frenetic sort of energy that suggested he’d ingested far more sweets this evening than were appropriate for a child who could be no more than ten years old. But the boy’s smile weakened—then cracked and fell when he drew near enough to get a peek beneath the hood of the deep cloak. A thrill of fear, realisation something was not right…and then the child turned and fled, back to his companion, who was stamping his feet impatiently.
Beneath his robe, he fingered the hilt of his wand, considering; it would be so easy—just a flick of his wand, a trifle, and the child would serve as a warning to the Muggles of this place that they once feared the cold and the dark for good reason.
But it was quite unnecessary. No, only one child needed to die this evening.
He wandered the darkened streets, the flickering street lamps directing him toward his destination until, at last, he found it. The Fidelius Charm had been broken for him with the help of the snivelling, sycophantic Pettigrew, and the occupants of the house were none the wiser. Even now, they would be going about their evening business, dining with smiles and doting on their precious, precious baby.
Slowly, patiently he plodding along—there was no need to rush, none at all. He had waited for this moment for so very long, he would relish it. At length, he drew level with the dark hedge fronting the property—an empty lot to all eyes but his own—and stared over it…
Through the open curtains, he could see them lounging in their little sitting room, thinking themselves untouchable beneath the charm’s protection. The tall, black-haired man in glasses had enchanted a toy plane to fly through rings of multi-coloured smoke to the delight of his son, bundled up in bright blue pyjamas. The child, already with nearly as wild a head of hair as his father, was grinning ear to ear, reaching vainly for the smoke rings and frowning when his fists passed through.
From around a corner, a woman with long, red hair falling in a curtain over one shoulder stepped into the sitting room. So this was the one, then? The one on whose behalf he’d endured interminable begging and pleading? Unremarkable, even for a Mudblood. She smiled, pausing a moment to stand there and watch the man playing with the baby, a fond smile on her lips, and then said something he could not catch, gesturing to the hall from which she’d just appeared.
The man nodded, bending in half to scoop up his son and letting him fly through the few still-dissipating smoke rings before handing him off to his wife to be bundled off down the hall. He watched them go, shaking his head with a wry grin, then tossed his wand onto a side table and collapsed onto the sofa, contorting himself awkwardly with a stretch and covering a great yawn with one hand.
It was time.
The street was quiet and dark. He leaned onto the gate handle, pushing his way into the garden, and the soft creak it gave in response seemed impossibly loud—but James Potter did not hear. He was utterly oblivious to Death approaching—until the door burst open, the cheap wood splintering in an explosion of magic and dust.
He was already over the threshold before James made it to his feet.
“Lily, take Harry and run! It’s him! Go, I’ll hold him off—”
Hold him off? Without so much as a wand in his hand? Too easy—but he would take an easy kill. He’d quite earned it, after all.
The flash of the Curse bathed everything in a sick green light that could probably have been seen from two streets over without the Charm’s protection, and when the glow faded, James Potter dropped with a sickening thud, crumpling to the ground in a tangled heap of limbs.
Lily Potter was screaming from the upper floor, bleating for her lost love. He’d hoped she might be sensible—he had been told she was bright and clever, though one had to consider the source’s bias, really—but such hopes were fading. He had no personal score with her; she was just another befouled Mudblood whose time would come soon enough. It was only the child, he needed.
He climbed the steps with a slow, lazy confidence. He could hear her scrabbling about in the nursery, trying to barricade herself inside—until what? He’d seen her wand, carelessly left on the kitchen room table. She was defenceless—and she deserved it. So naïve, so stupid, trusting that their safety lay in their friends and allies rather than in the weapons they’d been endowed by the gods with.
He drew his wand in an arc, forcing the door open and blasting back the chair and boxes the Mudblood had somehow thought sufficient to stop him from entering. A waste of a Hogwarts education.
She hadn’t tried to hide, in the end, though he could see a cupboard up against the wall. She just stood there, the boy in her arms, and glared with such fire and fury, he was beginning to see the allure.
She took several steps back, placing her son into the cot just underneath the window, and threw her arms wide—as if this would help in the least! Her display would not have stopped even a Muggle gun.
“You won’t have him! I won’t let you!”
“Stand aside, you silly girl.” He would let her try his patience, as agreed, but only for so long.
“He’s just a baby! Leave him be—take me, kill me instead!”
If she kept insisting, he would have to. “This is your final warning, girl. He’ll either die alone, or he’ll die with you.”
She just shook her head, the utter fool, and snotty tears streamed down her red-cheeked face. His patience finally snapped.
He could have forced her away, let her live to tell the tale of what he’d done, but she was a liability. Dumbledore could rally quite a lot of support around a grieving mother. No, best to do away with them all. Neat and clean. No loose ends.
He swiped his wand, and another flash of green light filled the room. Lily Potter dropped to the floor, collapsing in a mangled heap that he toed into the corner with a grimace.
Curiously, the child had not cried in the commotion. He rolled from his back, on which his mother had placed him, and hauled himself to his feet by clutching the bars of his cot. He peered up into his visitor’s face with a bright interest, perhaps thinking this another game. It was only his father beneath the cloak, weaving more pretty colours into existence, and in but a moment, his mother would pop up to surprise him. A bit of fun before bedtime.
He pointed his wand squarely at the boy’s nose. This one, he would watch, carefully marking the moment when life fled those nasty green eyes. He could not see how his well-laid plans might be undone by a child, even a child that might one day grow into a man, but he would take no chances with prophecies, no matter how absurd the likes of Bellatrix or Rodolphus might think him.
His cloak slipped, and the child began to cry, seeing now that the face that lurked in the shadows was not his father’s, and this was certainly no game. Oh, how he hated crying children, their whining and whinging grating on the ear.
He’d wanted to savour this moment a bit longer, but enough. It was time.
And then he broke.
He was nothing, except he couldn’t be nothing because he hurt, so badly, so he had to be something. Pain shot through with terror arced through his being, and he knew he must flee, had to hide away. He could feel he was ruined and broken, a shadow of himself, a million pieces shattered…he needed to get as far…far away as possible…
“No…” Harry moaned.
Another skeleton of a ruined home, rubble and filth and…the snake, coiling and tensing… A rebounding curse—a curse that found its mark. He had killed the boy, he was certain he had—but the boy was here again, alive and wriggling and oh so near, almost…almost got him…
He was standing in the wreckage of Bathilda’s squalid home, dirt and debris crunching beneath his feet as he was wracked by memories. Not in years had he been this close…this close to victory, only to have it snatched away, and the pain and anger and fury called forth echoes, memories of that night, washing over him and threatening to drown him in bitter, choking recollection. Nagini slithered over broken china and glass, her glittering hide scarred and blood oozing from one ruined eye.
She brushed against his feet, reminding him that all was not lost, and he glanced down—and saw something. Something incredible.
“Harry, it’s all right!” Someone was squeezing his hand. “You’re all right!”
He swiped his wand, sending the gnarled remains of an old side table crashing into the wall, and bent to pick up the smashed photograph frame that had been lying underneath. Smiling at him through the broken glass was Gregorovitch’s thief. The boy he had been so desperately seeking…
“No…” Harry whimpered. “I dropped it… I dropped it, and now he…”
“Harry, mate: it’s OK, wake up! You’ve got to wake up!”
Yes—he was Harry… Harry, not Voldemort.
He opened his eyes.
“Oh, Harry!” Hermione whispered, her voice warbling with emotion. “Do you—do you feel all right?”
He was staring up at the canvas roof, back in their tent. They’d laid him out on the sofa and heaped blankets on top of him. He shivered, freezing, but he could tell he’d been sweating, as the blankets he’d been swathed in were drenched. How long had he been lying here? Hours? Days?
“Peachy,” he lied, not trying very hard to disguise it.
“We got away—I dunno how, but we made it,” Ron said, rather unnecessarily.
“Yes, and you’ve been…” Hermione bit her lip. “Well you’ve been ill.” Harry noticed now there were soft shadows under her brown eyes, and a tin bucket sat on the coffee table, a small sponge beside it. She followed his eye and snatched up the sponge, soaking it and then gently mopping his face. “Quite ill.”
His gaze drifted over to Malfoy, who was leaning against one of Perkins’s chairs. He had his arms crossed over his chest and was staring at the conjured blue flames flickering in the fireplace, resolutely not looking at Harry.
Harry licked his lips, wetting them. “How long have I been out?”
“Hours,” Hermione said. “It’s nearly morning.”
“Hermione Apparated us back here, and you conked right out,” Ron added. “Kind of.”
Hermione and Ron shared an uncomfortable look. “You’ve been shouting and moaning and…things,” she explained, and Harry felt a pit of unease settle in his stomach. God, what had he done? Screamed curses, like Voldemort—or cried like the baby in the cot? Malfoy would never let him live it down.
Neither of them elaborated further. “You had some bumps and bruises, a few serious.” Hermione pointed to his right arm. “The snake bit you, too, but I’ve cleaned the wound and put some dittany on it. I imagine that’s why you were out for so long; that venom might have killed you if we hadn’t treated the bite.”
He glanced down at his forearm and the half-healed puncture marks. They hadn’t bothered him before, but now that he’d seen them, he could feel a faint, aching throb. He closed his eyes and shook his head; if this was the worst of it between them, they’d been lucky indeed. “We shouldn’t have gone to Godric’s Hollow. It’s my fault, all my fault—”
“It’s not your fault!” Hermione said, but he knew she was just trying to keep his spirits up. “I wanted to go too! There was no reason not to think Dumbledore had chosen to hide the sword there for you to find, or that we might at least find some clues in Bathilda.”
“Yeah, well…we were wrong on both counts then, weren’t we?”
“What happened?” Ron asked. “When she took you upstairs—was the snake hiding up there? Was Bathilda working for You-Know-Who, or do you reckon she might’ve been Imperiused?”
“Neither,” Malfoy said, his first words since Harry had roused. He was still staring into the flames, and there was a hard set to his jaw. “She was the snake…or the snake was her. All along.”
Harry grimaced. The stench of Bathilda’s house was still there, filling his nose, under the powerful scents of dittany and soap and sweat. It brought him back to that foetid, dark room and the oppressive atmosphere. He opened his eyes again, trying to focus on the tent roof swaying gently in the breeze to keep from sicking up. “Bathilda must’ve been dead a while. The snake was…it was inside her, wearing her like a suit. You-Know-Who must have put it there in Godric’s Hollow to wait for me, knowing I’d turn up.” He turned his head to look Hermione in the eye. “…You were right.”
Ron made a face of disgust. “It was inside her?”
“She didn’t want to talk in front of you or Granger because it would have come out Parseltongue,” Malfoy said. “That’s probably why she wanted Potter alone, to be sure it was him, and to make sure neither of you interfered.”
Harry sighed. “I never realised… Nothing sounded special when she spoke; just plain English, like it’s always been.” Why hadn’t he tried to get her to speak more? To at least confirm her identity before he skipped off with her alone? “Once we were up in the room, she asked me if I was Harry Potter, and when I said yes, she must’ve sent a message to You-Know-Who. I felt it, in my head, when he found out—he was so excited, and he told the snake to keep me there, and then…”
He could see it happening all over again, the horror of Bathilda’s body crumpling like an empty potato sack as the snake poured from her neck. He didn’t feel compelled to share these finer details, and coughed softly. “She changed into the snake and attacked.” He glanced down at the puncture marks; they didn’t look nearly as angry as they felt. “It wasn’t supposed to kill me, just keep me there until You-Know-Who could come and finish the job. If you and Ron hadn’t managed to Jinx it and make it release me, I don’t what would’ve happened.”
Ron glanced at Hermione, frowning in confusion. “…But—you were already fighting off the snake when we made it upstairs. We left you to it until we heard crashes and bangs, then went up to investigate.”
“What? No—I dropped my wand when the snake attacked me. It went rolling off somewhere, and the snake got me in its coils before I could grab it.” He shook his head, wondering if he was still addled from the oxygen loss and snake bite. “I heard you casting spells that saved me…”
They seemed to all realise at once that something wasn’t quite adding up, and Harry slowly turned to look at Malfoy, still sitting quietly by the fire.
As if he could feel their eyes on him, Malfoy sighed and pushed away from the chair. He reached into his sleeve—and palmed a wand. Harry’s wand.
Malfoy frowned down at it, turning it over a few time in his grip. “…It’s too bendy. Feels like it’ll snap in two with a strong slash.” He tossed it at Harry, who struggled comically to catch it, clutching it to his chest.
An awkward beat passed as Harry processed the moment. Malfoy could have done…well, pretty much anything he might have wanted to. Harry’s wand hadn’t been won in a proper duel, but it would probably still have sufficed for some Stunning spells to knock them out. “…Thanks,” Harry said lamely. “You saved my life.”
“I suppose that makes us even.”
“…Yeah, I suppose.” It felt pithy, and Harry knew he ought to say something more; Malfoy had been against their going to Godric’s Hollow from the start, and Harry had nearly gotten him killed.
But before he could think of anything further to say, though, Malfoy bid them all a curt good evening and retired to their room.
Harry watched him go, several different emotions warring in his chest. Ron frowned when Malfoy slammed the door. “…You reckon he’s on the level? All this—helping out, saving Harry, keeping his nose clean… It could just be a ploy to get us to trust him.”
“I dunno…” Harry sighed. “I had a vision ages back where You-Know-Who seemed to think Malfoy was dead. If he’s trying to gain our trust, I doubt it’s under You-Know-Who’s direct orders. He was furious we got away, I thought my head was going to split open…” His scar gave a sympathetic twinge in memory. “I imagine he still wants to get out there and go save his parents, though.”
“That much I do believe,” Hermione agreed. “But I think he’s smarter than we give him credit for. He knows he can’t do it—not right now, at least. And certainly not alone. He’s a Slytherin; he won’t go charging in when he knows he’ll just get himself and those he cares about killed.”
“Yeah; that’s what Gryffindors do!” Ron said, raising a fist in mock triumph, and Harry chuckled—then winced when the movement pulled a muscle he hadn’t realised was strained.
Malfoy was a conundrum, and Harry’s stomach was twisting in nauseating knots—though whether it was from the venom still in his system or the strange idea of Draco Malfoy actively trying to save Harry’s life at peril to his own, he couldn’t tell.
Malfoy could have revealed himself at any point once they were alone, playing it as if he’d been the one who’d encouraged them to visit the village in the first place and led Harry there. He would have been instantly restored in Voldemort’s eyes, and there was every likelihood his family would have been spared. Voldemort did reward his most loyal servants (for certain definitions of ‘reward’ of course). Granted, he still might have wound up being used to ends he wasn’t comfortable with, but if Harry had been in Malfoy’s shoes, he might have gone with the option that ensured he and his parents would be safe for the time being.
“…I think we should give him a wand.”
Ron was horrified. “We—what?” He clutched his wand to his chest. “We need ours!”
“Yeah, I know; I lifted his from the Ministry when I found it in his file.” He patted the Mokeskin pouch. “Just didn’t seem right to leave it there; he might never have gotten it back, and I know I’d have been devastated in the same position.”
“You’d never have been in his position,” Ron reminded, but Harry didn’t entirely agree. He was, after all, Undesirable Number One at the moment. His wand could as easily find its way into a file in Umbridge’s cabinets as Malfoy’s at this point.
Hermione gave Harry a long look, pursing her lips. “…That could backfire, you know.”
Harry nodded. “Admittedly, I do sleep more soundly knowing he hasn’t got one—but I think we’ve gotten to the point where it’s necessary. It’s only going to get more dangerous from here on out, and we need all the firepower we can get.”
He lifted the Mokeskin pouch from his neck, pulling open the cinch and pointing his wand inside. “Accio Malfoy’s wand.” It zoomed into his hand, velvet bag and all.
“He’s already got plenty of ‘firepower’ as it is,” Ron whined, and Harry rolled his eyes. “Damn; guess I can’t Jinx him under the table anymore…” Hermione glared at him in bald disapproval, and he raised his hands defensively. “Kidding, kidding! Geez…so touchy.”
Harry shook his head in amusement and then carefully eased upright—but Hermione was on him with a hand on his chest, warning, “You shouldn’t strain yourself!”
“I’m just moving to my bed—I’m knackered. I’m not about to go run a marathon, seriously.”
She blushed. “Sorry, suppose I’m a little on-edge. That was a close call…”
“Yeah, but we made it.” He didn’t really want to talk about what had gone wrong—as that was everything—and he was grateful Hermione was holding off on her lecture about Harry’s reckless behaviour in Godric’s Hollow. He’d probably get an earful after they’d all gotten a good night’s (morning’s?) sleep, but he seemed to have been spared for the time being. “G’night—or morning, whatever.”
“Get some sleep,” Ron advised, and Hermione shooed him away with a fond look.
Harry had expected Malfoy to already be in bed by the time he joined him, given they’d all been awake almost a full day at this point, but when he walked in, he found Malfoy sitting on the edge of his mattress, head hung low.
Well, now was as good a time as any. He patted his pocket, checking their wands. “Malf—”
Malfoy was on him in a quick, smooth motion that reminded Harry joltingly of the preternatural way Bathilda had moved. In two steps, he had Harry shoved back against the closed door, the weight of his body holding Harry in place, and he was whispering through angrily grit teeth, “Fuck you, fuck you, you fucking—fuck!”
Harry swallowed to force his heart back down in his chest where it was meant to be, standing stock still with arms limp because he didn’t know what Malfoy might do in such an obviously agitated state. “…Malfoy—”
But Malfoy wasn’t listening, eyes closed and face downturned. He leaned closer, uncomfortably so, and Harry felt a brief flash of panic spear through him given Malfoy was perfectly angled to kiss him—but then Malfoy ducked his head down and pressed his forehead against the hollow of Harry’s collarbone, taking in long, bracing breaths. His skin felt clammy—or maybe Harry was running a fever—but he decided that was better than the searing burn Harry had learned preceded an uncontrolled transformation. Whatever Malfoy was wrestling with right now, he seemed to have his dragon in check.
“I told you not to go,” he growled into the thin fabric of Harry’s shirt. “I told you we were going to get killed, and we almost did.”
Malfoy’s back heaved, shuddering with his laboured breathing, and Harry tentatively raised a hand, wondering if he ought to offer some manner of comfort. He let it hover weakly, then dropped it back to his side. “We had to go. We needed to—”
Malfoy lifted his face, leaning in until their noses were nearly touching, and Harry could see his eyes had those tell-tale flickering embers behind them, a sure sign of terror stoking Malfoy’s fury. “I told you we didn’t need shit. But what good’s my opinion compared to the Golden Trio’s? And what did you learn? Fuck all.” He closed his eyes again, forcing himself to take slower, deeper breaths, and rested his face in the crook of Harry’s neck. Harry squirmed with each inhalation, Malfoy’s breath tickling his sensitive neck.
He tried to work a hand between them to shove Malfoy off, but he was pinned quite effectively against the door. “Er—Malfoy, can you not—”
“No. I can’t not,” Malfoy bit out, his voice thick with frustration—though whether he was frustrated with himself or Harry, it was difficult to tell. He had his pointy nose pressed against Harry’s pulse, and when he spoke, his lips barely brushed Harry’s skin, drawing goosebumps. “Just let me do this… Just—let me…”
Malfoy pressed himself impossibly close, and Harry tried not to struggle. He supposed he should have expected this; if the dragon was making unreasonable demands and overtures during relatively peaceful moments, then it was little surprise it was that much worse after a near-death experience.
He recalled all that fuss about needing ‘reassurance’, to know that Harry wouldn’t up and disappear; evidently death fell under the umbrella of abandonment, so here they were, the long length of Malfoy’s body pressed against Harry, as if he could by simple physical touch convince the wild animal bits that had taken root in his brain that Harry was whole and healthy and here.
It had galled Malfoy fiercely, the small ways in which he had lost control of himself—of his body, his magic, his life. Harry didn’t know that he would have reacted half as elegantly as Malfoy had to the whole situation—which was saying something, as Malfoy wasn’t reacting elegantly at all. No, there was nothing beautiful or refined whatsoever about the way Malfoy was clinging desperately to him, fingers curled tight around Harry’s biceps and face still pressed into the crook of his neck.
It was just pitiful, really, and Harry felt a wave of guilt wash over him. Malfoy already didn’t want to feel this way, and Harry’s impulses only made it worse.
“We made it back. We’re fine, see?”
“Shut up and let me just—”
“I am—I am, I’m not…” Harry sighed. “I’m not pushing you away, okay? Just…do what you need to feel better.”
Malfoy lifted his head, just enough where he was eye level with Harry—and Harry almost wished he’d go back to sniffing his neck, because it was so much more awkward and uncomfortable when they had to look at each other while they did this. “…You’re being awfully generous.” The way he all but sneered the comment conveyed the sarcasm clearly.
“We’ve all had a bad day. I’m not going to make it worse than I already have.”
Malfoy snorted softly. “So you’re not as stupid as you look.”
Harry wanted badly to fire back, but he kept his mouth shut—Malfoy had saved his life, after all; he could let one insult slide.
Malfoy closed his eyes, breathing coming much easier now, and said, “Don’t move…”
“What? Why—” And then he saw why, as Malfoy’s grip on Harry’s arms loosened, and his fingers danced over his biceps and down his forearms, tracing each knob and jut he found. Harry struggled not to squirm when Malfoy counted his ribs with gentle taps, like he was memorising their number and placement and would make sure Harry hadn’t lost any following each subsequent brush with death. When he made it down to Harry’s bony hips, tutting under his breath in a disapproving tone that sounded too similar to Molly Weasley for Harry’s comfort, he stopped—and drew back with a frown.
“…Why are there two wands in your pocket?”
“Because I’m doubly happy to see you, obviously.” Malfoy’s glare could have cut glass, and Harry rolled his eyes. “If you let me go, maybe you’ll find out.”
For once, Malfoy obeyed without any further backtalk, and Harry lifted his shirt enough to pull out Malfoy’s wand, turning it around to hand to him hilt-first.
Malfoy took it with a kind of wide-eyed reverence, and his lips gaped slightly as he ran his eyes over the sleek hawthorn wand. Harry imagined Malfoy had been wearing much the same look—awe, wonder, and just the tiniest bit of disbelief—when he’d first received his wand from Ollivander. “Where did you…” he whispered, but then his expression immediately went stony as cold realisation set in. “…You’ve had my wand with you? This whole time?”
Harry wasn’t going to justify himself, not to Malfoy of all people. “It was in your file, the one I found in Umbridge’s office that told me where you were being held in the Ministry.” Something flashed in Malfoy’s eyes—Harry had never explained exactly how they’d found Malfoy, locked deep within the bowels of the Department of Mysteries. “I didn’t dare give it back to you, not when we didn’t trust you not to turn on us, or run away and get yourself captured or worse.”
Malfoy met his eyes, then asked, “And you trust that now?” daring Harry to stick his foot in his mouth. For once, Harry tried very hard not to rise to the challenge.
“…Some of us more than others.” He sighed. “You were right about Godric’s Hollow—and we nearly died because we didn’t trust you enough. We might not have made it out of there in one piece if you hadn’t had a wand, so we’ve got to take that risk.” Trust was more precious than any other resource at times like this, but they would not gain more of it by hoarding it to themselves. It only multiplied once shared. “I’ve been taking risks pretty much all my life, and it’s usually paid off.”
“Usually,” Malfoy said, twirling his wand in his fingers and relearning his grip. “But one of these days your luck’s going to run out.”
“You’ve told me that before—and you’re right there as well. So I’d rather have more people watching my back than fewer.”
Malfoy’s expression went just a bit smug. “…Well I can’t say I dislike hearing Harry Potter tell me I’m right.”
“I wouldn’t get too used to it.”
“Oh, I think I just might.” Malfoy waved his wand with a whisper, and the soft golden glow of the lamps in their room took on an eerie green tinge. God, he really was going to regret this.
Harry crossed his arms. “We’re going to be seriously relying on you now, you know. Asking you to take risks we wouldn’t otherwise if you weren’t an equal partner in this with us.”
Malfoy’s eyes lit up. “Wait—so then you’re finally going to stop tip-toeing around me and tell me what in Merlin’s name you’re actually up to?”
Harry only realised then how his words had sounded, and he grimaced; he hadn’t meant to imply that—but then, Malfoy had something of a point. If they were going to ask him for his all, they owed it to him to offer the same. The dragon bits of Malfoy surely wouldn’t purposefully put Harry in harm’s way, right? “…Not tonight. Ask me again when my head doesn’t feel like it’s going to split in two?”
Malfoy didn’t seem happy with this arrangement, deflating a bit, but he relented and took several measured steps back to allow Harry to collect himself.
Harry shuffled over to his bed and climbed in, glancing over his shoulder to see Malfoy was still standing in the middle of the room, watching him with an unreadable expression. “Er, you don’t….that is—you’re good now? The whole…” He gestured vaguely to himself. “That was enough…‘reassurance’, then?” It had been quite an evening; he wouldn’t have been surprised if Malfoy needed more, though he hoped any urges had been sated, because he was exhausted. If Malfoy could stomach waiting until morning (or afternoon, or whenever they finally roused), Harry would be happy to spend as much time in the Sanctuary as he needed to balance himself out again.
Malfoy cleared his throat, slipping his wand into his sleeve and gathering up the fresh set of pyjamas piled on a stool near the bed. “…Yes, it was enough.” He then left to perform his evening toilette, and Harry was asleep long before he returned.