It took a moment for the gravity of the situation to sink in, and the guests didn’t immediately react to the Patronus’s warning, confused murmurs rippling over the crowd to build into a dull drone of indecision.
But then the sharp CRACK of someone Apparating—or Disapparating—cleaved the silence, and this seemed to snap the crowd into panicked activity; guests were stampeding away from the tent, fanning out in all directions as they realised with dawning horror that the Patronus had not been a Wheezes prank or anything so harmless. Brooms were pulled from pocket dimensions, portable Portkeys were crudely fashioned with haste, and the air grew thick with the ozone-like burn of frantic magic as guests began Disapparating on the spot, their champagne flutes and steins of Butterbeer crashing to the floor in their wake.
Hermione snapped a hand out, grabbing Harry by the wrist and jerking him to his feet as she threw herself into the crowd. “We’ve got to get Ron! He was getting us drinks by the—”
A terrified cry went up behind them, and Harry glanced over his shoulder; figures clad in dark, formless robes were Apparating directly into the tent, shoving their way through the maddened crowd with brandished wands. “Oh—fuck.”
He had to do something—they could find Ron after—and he fished around in his robe for his wand. Death Eaters, here—which meant in all likelihood Voldemort would be here too. Shit. Shit, they ought to have left. Had Harry’s presence at the wedding really been worth risking the lives of the Weasleys and all their guests? He’d given in to emotion once again and been led astray. When was he going to learn he needed to listen to his heart less and his head more? Not soon enough, probably.
He jerked his hand free from Hermione’s grip, palming his wand, and turned on his heel to face the marching line of pale deathshead masks—
“PROTEGO!” came a chorus from all around the marquee, the incantation echoing with a host of raised voices, and a wall of shimmering magic shoved back the oncoming horde.
“Harry!” Hermione shrieked, looping her arm through his again and jerking him away from the shield—just beyond, he could see the Death Eaters pacing like caged tigers, searching for chinks in the lattice of spellwork. Even with so many wands behind its casting, the shield wouldn’t hold for long, especially not once Voldemort arrived. Hermione followed his gaze, leaning close and hissing in his ear, “We can’t fight them! We have to get Ron and get out—”
KABLAM! The ten-tiered wedding cake exploded in a hail of icing and sponge as a jet of golden spellfire slammed into it—the shield was already buckling, and the crowd went absolutely mad with wide-eyed terror as it abruptly became every witch and wizard for themselves. Harry’s shoulder wrenched with a painful yank as he was buffeted about, and he nearly lost a shoe when it was trod upon in the confused mayhem. Hermione gave a sharp yelp, and he could feel her arm slipping loose from where it was looped through his. They were going to be trampled at this rate, and Harry jabbed his wand at the wizard working his way between them to be sure they weren’t separated—
A great cry went up from the other side of the marquee, followed by screeches of RUN! and THEY’VE GOT US SURROUNDED!, and Harry’s stomach lurched as he saw the glittering shield shatter, the marquee filling with jets of light in all colours of the rainbow. The crowd abruptly thinned as everyone pelted from the tent at breakneck speed, those who could Disapparating and those who could not fleeing for their lives.
“Harry! Hermione!” someone called, and Hermione twisted about, her mouth opening in a silent cry of relief. Her free arm went out, jerking Ron close by the neck and nearly conking his head against Harry’s as she brought them all together in a tight embrace. He thought at first she was just relieved they’d managed to reunite in the chaos—until he felt the familiar twist of magic about his midsection as she turned on the spot.
His vision tunnelled as darkness crushed in around him, and the hiss of spellfire and screams of terrorised guests vanished with a faint pop. For a brief moment, he was conscious only of Hermione’s and Ron’s bodies pressed close to his own, arms tight around his neck and waist as they spun away from the chaos.
Harry’s shins gave a sharp jolt as his feet slammed into solid ground—concrete, he saw, once his head stopped spinning. There were people all around, and he panicked for a moment, thinking they hadn’t managed to get away at all, that some of the enchantments had yet held and they’d been bounced back to the wedding site, but then he noticed that none of the passersby were wearing robes—or had even noticed them pop out of thin air.
“Muggles?” Harry asked, careful to keep all of himself tucked safely within the little alcove Hermione had Apparated them into—a shoelace or knobbly knee poking out would quickly give them away.
“Yes,” Hermione said, carefully extricating herself from the tangled knot of arms and elbows the three of them had worked themselves into in their abrupt departure. God, they’d left everyone back there—left them with Death Eaters. Maybe left them even with Voldemort—who did not react kindly to Harry slipping away under his nose.
“Where are we?” Ron asked, squinting at the harried rush of Muggles scrambling about their evening business. “London?”
“Tottenham Court Road,” Hermione said, smoothing down her robes and taking several bracing breaths.
“‘S that in London?”
“Muggle London, yes.” She abruptly shoved them away to shoulder past them, out of their cosy little alcove into the wave of humanity, her heels clacking loudly against the concrete. “Follow me; the Muggles won’t notice us, not if I’ve charmed us properly, but we need to find cover.”
“Haven’t we got cover right here?” Ron asked, and Harry silently agreed. He’d honestly never wanted less to just walk right out into the open, with nothing but a witch-in-training’s Charmwork standing between himself and a fresh hail of spellfire raining down upon them, but he knew better than to disobey a direct order from Hermione when she was on a mission, and without a word crosswise, he scrambled out behind her, having to do a strange half-jog to keep up, as she was going at rather a quick clip.
“Where are we going?” Harry chanced after they’d gone a few blocks. It was late enough now that most of the shopfronts they passed were dark and empty, but even when they turned off the main street onto a smaller side thoroughfare, there were still groups of what smelled like drunken pub-goers thronging the streets, their peals of laughter and shouts reminding Harry sickeningly of the terrified guests they’d left back at the Burrow. Muggle London felt a whole world away from where they’d just come from, and Harry supposed that, in a way, it was.
“Looking sharp, boys,” a woman clad in entirely too much (or maybe entirely too little) leather leered at them as they passed by the steps atop which she and her girlfriends were having a smoke. She whistled in brazen invitation, and Harry glanced down at himself; he and Ron were still wearing their dress robes, he realised, and were soon going to attract the attention of far more than the odd drunken lout.
“Fuck, I should’ve brought my Cloak,” Harry muttered, shoulders hunched. Why hadn’t he tucked it into his robes? The thing was as precious as his wand, and he felt naked without it.
Ron tugged at the loose material of his dress robes. “I’d take a change of clothes, at least. It’s no Invisibility Cloak, but at least we’d be less obviously wizards.”
“Shush, you two—I’ve got your Cloak, Harry, and a change of clothes. If I can just find a place for you to—” She abruptly drew to a halt, Harry nearly barrelling into her, and jerked her head down an alleyway. “This’ll have to do. In here. And strip.”
It spoke to the gravity of the situation that Ron reined in the urge to make a remark, instead hastily tugging at the fastenings to his robe from behind the shelter of a skip bin. Harry did the same, grateful to finally be getting out of his too-tight dress robes—the Muggle boy whose appearance he’d adopted hadn’t quite left his system yet.
“I gotta say, this is not how I imagined my evening going…” Ron said, looking rather out of place in nothing but his vest and pants, which he was trying to cover up with his dress robes.
Harry was starting to wish he hadn’t chosen today of all days to wear the rattiest pair of boxers he owned; why hadn’t he used his newfound ability to cast as he pleased to Reparo more than just his old socks? For that matter, why did he still own clothes with holes in them? “As I understand it, lots of people hit up weddings in the hopes they’ll wind up in their underpants by the end of the day.”
“Usually not with another bloke and a girl, though, surely?”
“Only the more adventurous ones, probably.”
“Here we are, gentlemen.” Hermione produced her small beaded handbag, the one she’d had nearly her whole arm down during the ceremony. She unlaced the cinch and began rummaging inside again before eventually pointing her wand with a huff into the mouth and muttering, “Accio essentials!” Out popped several sets of clothing—jeans, bulky pullovers, trainers, and even Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, which caught even the faint light filtering into the alleyway as he let the fabric run through his fingers. “Here, get changed now, quickly—there should be enough for everyone.”
Ron boggled. “How the bloody hell—”
“Clothes, Ron! Or we’ll get arrested by the Muggle police for public indecency before any Death Eaters have a chance at us!” She huffed. “And it’s an Undetectable Extension Charm, as you’re so curious. Tricky, and probably not as neat as Hagrid’s Knockturn Alley contact managed with Harry’s Mokeskin pouch, but I think I’ve done it okay.” She peered into the dark bag with a frown. “It’s next to impossible to find anything in here without Summoning it or else turning the whole bag inside out, though.”
“What else have you got in there?” Harry asked, wriggling out of what he’d assumed were his own jeans but turned out to probably be Hermione’s—he’d probably never have kids now; how did girls stand it so tight down there?
“What don’t I have? I told you I’ve been packing for days, getting everything ready so we could make a quick escape if…well, you know. Just in case. And thank goodness I did. I think I’ve got everything we’ll need—clothes, some provisions, gear, and I packed your rucksack this morning, Harry, and—” She gave the bag a little shake, and up echoed the sounds of many heavy items tumbling loosely. “Oh drats, that’ll be our library…”
Ron dropped to one knee, re-tying the laces to his trainers. “You really have thought of everything, haven’t you? We’d be scorch marks on the dance floor right now without you, I wager.”
She bit her lip. “I just…had a feeling. I mean, I knew the wedding would be a tempting target, so many guests to vet and with so many complicated spells.” She set the bag down and reached for the jeans Harry had discarded, tugging them up underneath the hem of her dress. After toeing on her trainers without bothering to unlace them, she Transfigured the dress into a more sensible top that wouldn’t draw as many stares.
“You think someone slipped in who shouldn’t have?” Ron asked, expression dark.
“I can’t be sure—and you heard Kingsley. The Ministry’s fallen, so it’s just as possible the protections were removed at the source rather than undone in secret by a mole on the inside. Besides—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re together, we’re safe, and we’ve got everything we need right in here.” She allowed herself a small breath of relief, catching Ron’s eye, and they held the contact for a good twenty seconds while Harry finished zipping his jeans.
“So, what now?” Harry said, breaking what he found to be an uncomfortable silence, and Hermione straightened, clearing her throat. Harry thought she might be blushing, though it was difficult to tell in the darkness of the alleyway.
“Now you get under the Cloak—no one’s looking for us.”
“Of course they’re looking for us,” Ron snorted. “We’re like three peas in a pod—where one goes, the others can’t be far behind generally. I feel like most anyone who’s out to get Harry will know that by now.”
“Well, yes I suppose that’s true, but Harry’s the more immediately recognisable of us, so as I said, on goes the Cloak! And sharply, we shouldn’t dawdle.”
Harry did as instructed, hearing the tone of her voice shift from casually harried to genuinely frightened. He felt a bit guilty, sitting safe under the Invisibility Cloak while Hermione and Ron stood there exposed, but he knew they could no longer all three of them fit under, and if anything, Harry at least had the element of surprise on his side now should anyone of consequence come upon them.
Still, he didn’t like that they were here, that they’d escaped, and left everyone else behind. That Hermione seemed bent on them staying escaped.
“Do you think… Do you think everyone at the wedding, that maybe we should—” he started, but Hermione cut him off with a sharp shake of her head as she shoved their dress robes into her bag.
“I know what you’re thinking, and trust me, I feel the same way—but we can’t go back there, not yet. You’re who they’re looking for, after all; if anything, they’re safer now by your not being there.” She winced as soon as she’d said the words, hearing how they came out. “I…I’m sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean to imply—”
Harry shook his head, too worked up to care. “But we’re out in the open now, unprotected. There’s got to be some Charms still up on the Burrow itself, and if we go back, we can at least—”
“I wanna go back as bad as you, mate,” Ron said, voice soft as he ran one hand along his wand, grip tight about the hilt. “More than you even, I’m willing to bet. But we don’t know for sure if any of the protections have held, so going back’s a risk. Plus, I mean—” He shrugged. “Remus and Tonks were there, plus Bill of course, and a handful of other Order members. They don’t need us underfoot—they could handle things surely. And hey, there’s no guarantee the Death Eaters even stuck around once they saw we’d scarpered.”
They all three knew that wasn’t likely the case; the Death Eaters would have left, certainly, but not before they’d razed everything to the ground—the tent, the gardens, maybe even the house itself. Voldemort would have been furious, and he’d have taken out his failed attempt to seize Harry on anyone within striking distance.
Hermione poked her head out of the alleyway, glancing to and fro. “…I think we should get moving now we’re all done here. It’s not safe to stay in any one place for long.”
The urge to stay tucked away in their safe little cubbyhole was not as strong this time, and Harry was the first out. They moved, slower now, from the alley back onto the main road, taking care to stick together lest anyone slam into Harry unknowingly.
“Not that I’m not grateful to you for getting us outta there quick, but why’d you bring us here of all places?” Ron asked Hermione, glancing around, and Harry wondered the same. The area wasn’t terribly busy this time of night, but nor was it deserted. There were plenty of witnesses around to tell tale of the three weirdos who’d been roaming about in billowing robes and fancy dresses.
“I’m not sure, to be honest—I’ve visited a few times with my parents on shopping excursions, but not so very often. I suppose I felt like we’d be safer someplace reasonably Muggle than anywhere in the wizarding world right about now and just instinctively aimed for the most Muggle place I could think of in the moment.”
“Well one thing’s for sure, no one around here’s probably looking for a skinny bloke with a scuffed-up forehead and wonky glasses,” Ron said, still scanning the passersby and taking care to place himself between Hermione and the shopfronts where wandering pubcrawlers liked to shout catcalls from. “But we can’t freely use magic out here, either, without violating the Statute of Secrecy. Seems an uneven trade-off.”
Hermione pursed her lips. “…They make exceptions for matters of life and death, at least.” Harry hoped it didn’t come to that. “But if either of you have a better idea of where we ought to go, I’m open to suggestions.”
“What about Grimmauld Place?” Ron asked, and Harry nearly tripped over his own feet, a bit surprised he hadn’t thought of that himself. It was his, now that Sirius had willed it to him. He hadn’t wanted anything to do with it, would probably have happily gone about his life never setting foot in there again, but desperate times and all that.
“We can’t; all the Order members know its location, including Snape. He could have let every Death Eater in You-Know-Who’s ranks have the run of the place by now.”
Ron shook his head. “Not from what I hear—Moody never did trust Snape, and once they stopped having Order meetings there, he closed it up tight and slapped a dozen different wards on it to keep Snape from sticking his big nose anywhere near the property.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Hermione was sceptical.
“Bill was talking it over with Dad a couple of months back—after, well…you know, the business with Dumbledore. He’s got the most curse-breaking experience in the Order, and Moody wanted to make sure the wards were as impenetrable as possible.”
Hermione brightened. “That’s…well, Bill’s great at his job! If he’s given whatever anti-Snape measures the house has been fitted with his stamp of approval, that may be a viable option.” She gave Ron a funny look. “That’s a very good idea, Ron.”
Ron quirked a brow. “I do have them, now and then.”
Harry wondered if he ought to bring up his suspicions about Malfoy’s involvement in the Death Eaters knowing about Harry leaving Privet Drive. If he was right, and it had been Malfoy’s…draw, or whatever, to Harry that’d led them to realise Harry was being moved early, there was a chance he could find them again at Grimmauld Place. But then, the old Black house had been fitted with similar protections to the Burrow, and Voldemort hadn’t found Harry there until the Ministry had fallen. Maybe they’d be all right; they just had to be careful.
A group of drunken louts had claimed a stoop across the way and were belting out—loudly and off-key—the Muggle national anthem. Hermione cut them a look of annoyance, lips pinched. “Maybe this wasn’t the best area to try and lose ourselves in—we should find someplace to sit and regroup.” She scanned the windows as they passed, eyes lighting up with relief. “Here! This should do!”
She reached for the handle of an all-night café, the bell over the door tinkling merrily as they stepped inside. It was low-lit and empty for the moment—perhaps for good reason. Harry suspected the place had seen better days, the stench of grease permeating the air and laying thick over everything it touched. Hermione pointed toward a booth in the back, away from the streetside windows, where they might have some privacy. “After you,” she said, ostensibly to Ron but tugging gently on Harry’s Cloak, and he slipped in first, followed by Ron, with Hermione sitting opposite the both of them. She held her beaded bag tight on her lap, and Harry suspected her wand was close at hand.
They crowded together, heads bowed, and kept as low a profile as possible. The lone waitress manning the till gave them a few moments to collect themselves before sidling over, a notepad in one hand, and Hermione quickly sent her away with a request for just some coffee, thanks.
“How long are we going to stay here?” Harry asked in a whisper once the waitress had stepped away. “You said yourself it wasn’t safe to stay in one place for too long.” Were they really striking out on their own now, or were they just going to lie low until it was time for them to rejoin the Weasleys? He bounced one knee nervously under the table, and he could feel the Polyjuice finally fizzling away, his trousers fitting more loosely and his eyesight going fuzzy again. Under the Cloak, he slipped on the extra pair of glasses Hermione had brought along for him, feeling a bit more like himself and safer for it.
“Just long enough to figure out our next move—I don’t like sitting around any more than either of you do, but—” Hermione fell silent, lips pinched between her teeth, when the waitress returned with two mugs, filling them with a thick sludge that looked like it might have been coffee two mornings ago but was now classifiable as toxic waste. Once the waitress was gone again, she continued, “But at least here we’re out of sight, and maybe we can organise our thoughts better.”
“I thought we’d settled on Grimmauld Place,” Ron said, frowning down at his mug. Harry didn’t feel at all sad not to have one of his own to nurse.
Hermione winced. “Do you…do you really think it’s a good idea, us staying there?”
“You just said it was!”
“Well, yes, I know—and it is—but…” She reached for the sugar bowl. “It might be more dangerous, staying in such a populated area for too long. Especially London, so near to where we know there are Death Eaters concentrated.”
“Wait, so you think we should head to an unpopulated area, then? Like, go on the run?”
“Isn’t that what we’ve been preparing for?”
“Well it’s what I’ve been preparing for.” She patted the beaded bag. “I’ve got a tent for us and everything.”
Ron blanched, though it was difficult to tell if his dyspeptic expression was because of the topic of conversation or the horrible black sludge coffee. “But—I dunno, shouldn’t we stick around so we can find out what’s going on?”
“We know what’s going on—Kingsley’s Patronus just told us and a hundred or more others: the Ministry’s fallen, the Minister—our Minister—is dead, and Voldemort’s in charge now.”
Ron shuddered. “You have to use his name? In public, too? What if someone heard you?”
“All the more reason not to stick around London.”
The tinkling of the bell over the door as another customer entered drew their attention—a pair of men in dark suits shuffled inside, taking stock of the interior before claiming a table along the window fronting the café. The waitress made her way over to them promptly, her pad in her hand, but the burlier of the pair waved her off with a threatening glance and shake of his head.
Hermione leaned forward, dropping her voice down to just barely a whisper. “I say we don’t take any chances. We find the nearest alley and Disapparate, just go straight for the countryside and don’t look back until we’ve put at least three counties between ourselves and the nearest wizarding settlement.”
“But what about—”
“We can contact your family once everything’s settled down and we’re certain we’re as safe as can be. I told you I’ve got camping gear packed in the bag—we should be able to handle ourselves roughing it, at least for a few weeks.”
Ron grimaced at a few weeks, swirling his coffee in its mug. “I suppose… We might make things more difficult for them, going back straight away anyway—though that’s assuming they haven’t already been arrested. Poor Bill and Fleur—on their wedding day, too.” He shook his head, bringing the mug to his lips, and took a sip—before grimacing and wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Merlin, what did you order us?” He grabbed a wad of napkins and wiped frantically at his tongue. “Like congealed dishwater—Muggles actually drink this stuff?”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen some of the junk you put away at mealtimes; don’t act as if you’ve just had your palate ruined.” She inclined her head toward the door. “Let’s get going—we’ll head back to that alleyway we changed in and Disapparate from there. I think I’ve thought of a site where we can camp out for a bit.”
Ron pushed his mug away with one finger, as if he worried the coffee might retaliate for the slight, and wriggled out of the booth. “Right. Oh—” His eyes went wide. “Wait, have you got Muggle money to pay for this? I don’t think I’ve got so much as a Knut on me…”
“Lucky for you I’m overprepared. I took out all my building society savings before I came to the Burrow.” She unlaced the cinch to her beaded bag, peering inside. “It isn’t much, really, but if we budget smartly, we should be able to manage well enough for a while at least.”
Just then, the two workmen slipped out of their booth, their imposing frames practically filling the room, and Harry’s hackles rose. “Oi—”
Before he could get a warning out, though, the men reached into their coats and pulled out wands, casting in time with their draw. Harry shoved Ron onto his side, and Hermione instinctively ducked in response, slipping under the table as twin jets of yellow slammed into the wall, right where Ron’s head had been only a heartbeat ago. Shards of broken tile and plaster rained down around them, and Harry popped back up just long enough to whip out his wand, take aim, and cast a panicked, “Stupefy!” at the nearer of the two wizards.
The man took the spell square in the face, quite literally not seeing it coming. The force of the blow sent him flying backwards into a stack of chairs, where he slumped to the floor in an unconscious heap.
“Rowle!” the other wizard yelped, and in a panic, he sent a spell flying wild into the empty café. It whizzed wide of Harry’s head, hitting the back wall where it slammed into the dish rack, shattering crockery and glassware and sending shards flying in all directions. Harry ducked under a table for cover, and the waitress screamed, making a break for the front door.
Ron had finally gathered his wits—and his wand—and he sent a Stunning spell of his own flying at the remaining Death Eater from the cover of the alcove. The man saw this one coming, though, and dove for cover, causing the spell to instead strike the fleeing waitress, who collapsed just steps from the door.
“Ah, fuck,” Ron hissed under his breath, but it was enough to guide the remaining Death Eater’s aim, and he barked Expulso in Ron’s general direction, sending Ron flying into the table under which Harry was crouching. Ron groaned in pain, and Harry gaped, wide-eyed, at the blackened remains of the booth where Hermione had still been hiding.
Shit. Shit shit. How had things gone this bad this quickly? Ron would need mending, and Hermione…he couldn’t even make her form out amidst the scorched rubble, and—
“Petrificus Totalus!” Hermione shouted, hale and whole as she Apparated right behind the wizard. This close, there was no chance of missing her target, and the Death Eater straightened with a grunt, arms going down to his sides as he toppled forward, clipping his chin hard on the broken tile flooring.
Breathing heavily, Harry struggled to his feet, drawing back the hood but keeping the Cloak cinched tight about his shoulders. The Death Eater Hermione had paralysed stared up at the ceiling, unblinking, but Harry knew he was still in there, remarking them.
“All right, Harry?” Ron asked, piecing his way over.
“Yeah. Nicely done with the Apparition, Hermione.” She just nodded, clearly still shaken. Harry looked to the Death Eater he’d Stunned. “Think those were the only two?”
“I don’t want to find out,” Hermione said.
Ron toed the paralysed Death Eater with his trainer. “Recognise him? I heard him call the other one ‘Rowle’.”
“I think it’s Dolohov,” Hermione said. “I’ve seen posters of him at the Owl Postal Shop in Hogsmeade.” She began making a slow circuit of the dining room, taking in the destruction with wide eyes. “How did they find us?” she wondered, pausing to peer out the front windows, as if expecting reinforcements to arrive at any moment.
Ron shrugged. “Does it matter? If these two found us, more could be on the way. We need to get out of here.”
“But—what about them?” She pointed to the Death Eaters. “We can’t…they’ve seen us. They know we’re out here, on the run—”
“You want us to kill them?!” Ron’s voice went a bit high, and his face was white.
“No! No—just, no! We…” She gulped. “We just need to Obliviate them.”
Ron looked profoundly relieved. “All right, but—er, I’m not actually brushed up on my Memory Charms…” He glanced at Harry. “You?”
“You think I’d want to mess around with those things, after seeing what a misfire did to Lockhart?”
They both turned to Hermione, the only one between them with any degree of experience in Modifying memories. If it was good enough for her parents, Harry figured, it was more than good enough for a pair of Death Eaters. She heaved a beleaguered sigh. “And to think you wanted to leave me behind…” She stepped over to Dolohov, dropping into a squat and placing the tip of her wand between his dark, bushy brows. He was shivering, clearly trying to his best to break through the Body-Bind, but Hermione’s spell held fast. She took a deep breath and then slowly released it in a long draw, whispering, “Obliviate…”
At once, Dolohov’s eyes went glassy and unfocused, and his shivering ceased.
“Well there you go!” Ron breathed, lips twitching into a smile. “Brilliantly done, Hermione.”
“You’re starting to sound like a teacher about to offer me House Points,” she said with a wry smile. “Not that I don’t appreciate the compliments.”
Harry doubted that was the tone Ron had been aiming for; perhaps this would encourage him to lean a little less on advice from Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches. He surveyed the café with a frown—it looked like a bomb had gone off. “…Cripes, this place is a wreck.”
“Yes—we should make sure we clean up before we leave,” Hermione said. “Ron, help me Levitate these two back into their chairs.”
“Wh—Levitate them? Clean up?” He did as instructed, though, waving his wand vaguely in Rowle’s general direction. His unpolished wand movements caused Rowle to smack his head a few times against upturned tables and busted chairs, which Harry supposed had been the point of the exercise. “What for?”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve Obliviated them well enough, but if they come to in the middle of this disaster, it’s going to be quite obvious to them they’ve had their memories tampered with.” She rearranged Dolohov so he was holding an empty mug to his lips. “This way we’ll cover our tracks a bit better.”
“Oh—yeah, good thinking.” Leaving Hermione to deal with Rowle, Ron and Harry quickly set to work restoring the café to its previous condition, dilapidated but at least in one piece. By the time they’d put on a fresh pot of coffee to brew—a small service for whatever poor customers chanced to drop by—Hermione had dealt with the poor waitress.
“I still wonder how on earth they managed to find us—and so quickly!” Hermione said, Levitating the waitress onto a stool near the register so she’d think she just dozed off at the till between customers. “We’re nowhere near the Burrow, and even if we’re not that far from Diagon Alley, it still doesn’t make sense.”
Ron’s eyes went wide. “You don’t…you don’t think Harry’s still got the Trace on him?”
“Of course not,” Hermione said, though her voice carried an uncharacteristic note of doubt. “I mean, it breaks automatically once a witch or wizard comes of age—you’d have received a summons for all the magic you’ve been working since—” She shook her head, boggling. “Since yesterday—god, has it only been twenty-four hours? This day feels like it’s lasted a week.”
“They could’ve put it back on him, maybe? Just to track him.”
“But it’s illegal—”
“Yeah, cause the Death Eaters are all about playing by the rules. What if they reinstated it after they took over the Ministry?”
“It’s illegal and it has to be done directly—you can’t just wave your wand from anywhere in the world and place it on someone. You have to weave their unique magical signature into the spell, and that requires touch. No one who could cast it has been anywhere near Harry since it broke this morning, so—”
“Um,” Harry began, raising a hand for their attention, and they turned to stare at him. “I…I think I might know. I mean, it’s just a hunch, but…”
“But what?” Ron prodded.
“I’ve been thinking—ever since we left the Dursleys that night, when the Death Eaters seemed to know I was leaving early. And then, after we heard about Snape joining back up with them, it made a lot of sense.”
Hermione was frowning. “What did?”
“I…I think it’s Malfoy.” Ron and Hermione shared a look that Harry had seen far too many times last year for his pleasure, so he hurried to explain himself. “Just—Bragge, the bloke from the Ministry, he said that Malfoy had sought me out after he first transformed. Like, physically gone searching for me when he was a dragon, and even though he wouldn’t have had any way of knowing where in Gryffindor Tower I was, he still managed to tear right into our dorm room. Snape was there at the Ministry when I went to help Malfoy get back to his senses, and he left the room with Malfoy once I’d managed it. What if he’s broken Malfoy out of wherever he was being held and now the Death Eaters are using him as—I dunno, a homing beacon?”
“A foaming what?” Ron asked.
Hermione didn’t look convinced. “But—that sounds awfully far-fetched. I mean, how do you explain them knowing we were moving you early?”
Harry didn’t know, but he dug in his heels. “More far-fetched than the Ministry slapping the Trace back on me somehow?” Hermione bit her lip. “Listen—believe me, or don’t, the point is that it’s a possibility, you’ve got to admit that. We need to hide somewhere, and we need to do it fast, and at this point I see two options: Disapparate to the countryside like you suggested and maybe get tracked down again in short order by Malfoy, or take our chances with Grimmauld Place. At least no one should be able to get us in there, even if they sic Malfoy on us.”
Ron rubbed at the back of his neck. “But then we’d be trapped there.”
“We can either be trapped or constantly on the run. At least we’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep knowing no one can get in, even if Malfoy leads them right to the front door,” Harry reasoned.
“Maybe leads them,” Hermione reminded, chewing on a nail. She sighed. “All right—Grimmauld Place. But we’re going to case it carefully before we set up shop. I don’t want to find the Death Eaters have discovered a loop-hole in the Fidelius…”
After checking to be sure their two victims and unfortunate bystander were in proper positions with their memories suitably modified, Harry, Ron, and Hermione grabbed on to each other, and as a unit they twisted into the tight darkness of Apparition, disappearing with a POP just as the spells lifted and leaving behind no trace they’d stepped into the café to begin with.
When they popped back into existence mere moments later, they were standing just on the pavement fronting the wild, iron-fenced front garden of Number 12. Grimmauld Place had never been particularly inviting before, but it somehow had become all the more intimidating now that the three of them were on the run. Harry could only hope he hadn’t missed something, that coming here hadn’t been a colossal mistake. Maybe Snape was a more skilled wizard than Bill, despite his professional curse-breaking skills, and they were walking right into a trap. He supposed now, standing at the front gate, was a poor time to be having these doubts, and he could feel Hermione and Ron’s eyes on him, heavy and waiting.
He looked up at Number 12, facing it properly for the first time since Sirius’s death. No street lights illuminated its front walk, no lamps burned cheerily from sconces on either side of its door. It was dark and dead, for all it seemed from the outside, and Harry felt a stirring of guilt, like they shouldn’t disturb it.
“Harry…” Hermione whispered, a note of urgency in her voice. “We shouldn’t dawdle.”
“Right, sorry.” He shook his head, shouldering his way through the creaky front gate and jogging along the short cobblestone path that cut through the overgrown lawn, taking the stone steps to the front door two at a time. He tapped the serpent-shaped silver knocker once with his wand and then traced a rune under it as Sirius had shown him. It was supposed to let the house know its master was in residence, but Harry had never tried it himself.
From within the very walls, it sounded like, there came a muffled stream of clicks and clacks followed by some rattling and clattering, as if some number of anti-intruder measures had just been disengaged. The silver knob gave a sharp twist, and the door slowly creaked open.
Peering inside from the threshold, the entryway looked dark and empty, a fine layer of dust coating the floor. At the very least, they could make out no footprints, so it seemed no one else had been through recently. “…Shall we take our chances?” Harry asked, looking to the others.
Ron shrugged. “Probably risking our lives either way—at least we can do it somewhere with a roof over our heads this way.” Harry nodded, and stepped through. He’d gotten only two paces inside before the lamps bracketing the entrance flickered to life, and he caught something move out of the corner of his eye. He whipped around, wand brandished—but it was only a hallway mirror, which harumphed at him in offence, saying, “Well there’s a fine ‘hello’!”
Harry allowed himself to relax a tick, inclining his head to encourage Ron and Hermione to join him in the entryway. Once they’d all three entered, the door behind them slowly drifted shut, locking once more with a soft click.
It was just as eerie and imposing now as it had been the first time he’d stepped inside: cobwebbed and musty-smelling and dark and dank, steeped in the foul magics its residents had once so proudly practised, that Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. Any progress Harry and the others had made in their efforts to clean up the place when the Order had used it had clearly been for nought, and he imagined he could feel Walburga Black’s judgemental gaze piercing them from behind the thick, dark curtains that concealed her portrait.
“…Well, so far so good, yeah?”
“So far…” Ron said, scanning the moulding overhead and fixtures lining the walls, as if he expected Death Eaters to drop down and pounce upon them. Death Eaters, or else spiders. Probably the latter, given this was Ron.
“Wait,” Hermione said, stopping them before they stepped from the entryway with an arm thrown out to keep them from moving any further inside. “We should probably check we’re alone before we just waltz inside.”
“Already did all my waltzing for the day back at the wedding,” Ron muttered, adopting a defensive posture.
Hermione raised her wand, and in a soft whisper that still seemed to carry, she said, “Homenum revelio.” A blue-white light burst from the tip of her wand, spreading like ripples in a pond down the hall and filling the rooms beyond. But though they waited, expectant, nothing more happened.
“Er, that was anticlimactic,” Ron muttered.
Hermione’s shoulders unclenched, and she nodded. “I’ll take anticlimactic any day of the week. That spell would have told us if there were anyone else lurking about in the immediate vicinity. I suppose now we can at least relax in the knowledge we’re the only ones here.” Something small skittered across the floorboards in front of them, and she flinched. “Well, the only humans, at least.”
“I guess the curses and jinxes worked to keep Snape and his lot out, then,” Ron said, pleased with himself.
“That, or they’ve been disarmed and the Death Eaters only stuck around long enough to set up new traps for us or any Order members that might stop by,” Harry reminded, and Ron blanched.
“Why’d you have to go and say that? I’m not gonna be able to sleep tonight, now.”
“Let’s be on our guard, shall we, boys?” Hermione took point, mounting the creaky stairs to the first floor. Harry felt a bit of a cad, letting her go first, but not enough he made to shoulder past her. They eventually found their way to the drawing room, and the lamps here too lit themselves as soon as they entered. It was chilly and smelled of old dust, and Harry’s eyes itched behind his glasses. Hermione rubbed her arms for warmth, glancing around warily as if she thought someone might leap from a cupboard or tumble out of the fire grate at any moment. Ron brushed past Harry, making for the far window, and he used his wand to draw back the curtain just enough to peer out into the darkness.
“See anyone?” Harry asked.
“Can’t see much of anything, to be honest—but it doesn’t look like we’ve been followed, at least?” He turned back to Harry and Hermione. “How long does it take for them to send a summons if you’ve been Traced?”
“They were pretty prompt about it the last time,” Harry said, grimacing at the memory.
“Maybe we managed it, then? Surely they’d be stalking up the front walk as we speak if they knew Harry was in here.”
“They’re wizards, Ron. If they don’t want to be seen, it’s quite easy for them to manage.” Hermione was understandably testy after the day they’d had, and she was slapping her cheeks lightly to stay awake.
“Yeah, I guess. But even if they were out there, or if they found us later—like with Malfoy, how Harry suggested—they can’t get in.” Ron looked around, nodding at the room. “Seems safe enough for the night.”
“For the night,” Hermione allowed. “I don’t think we should wander around any more until we’ve gotten some sleep, though. And even then, we shouldn’t be alone. We still don’t know if there are any traps around.”
It wouldn’t even have to be traps Death Eaters had lain recently; they’d never quite finished going through all of the contents of Number 12 the first time around, so who knew what was still rattling around here, waiting to give them a nasty shock?
Harry’s stomach gurgled loudly, and he smiled sheepishly when Ron raised a brow at him. “…Well we kind of got attacked before we could order anything from the shop.”
Ron rubbed his belly sympathetically. “I wouldn’t say no to something myself, if only to get rid of the taste of that coffee—it bloody lingers. It’s not supposed to do that, is it?”
“No, it’s not” Hermione said, shaking her head around a fond smile. “I wonder if there’s anything in the—Harry? Are you all right?”
Harry was doubled over in pain, and no, he was not all right at all. He fought back a pitiful whimper, his hand going to his forehead to press hard on his scar. A jet of bright, hot pain snapped down the middle of it, sending images flashing through his mind and foreign emotions coursing through his veins. A large, looming shadow, backlit by firelight—and bile-sour fury gnawing at his insides. The sensations wracked his body, sending him spasming to his knees with a cry.
“Harry!” Hermione shouted, scrambling forward, and Ron sank to his knees beside him, hands on Harry’s shoulders to keep him from toppling forward and smacking his head on a sidetable.
“Harry? Harry, mate, what is it? Is it another vision?” He gave Harry a little shake, insistent. “Is it—is it You-Know-Who?” He swallowed thickly. “Is he at the Burrow?”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t—I don’t know, I can’t see anything, just darkness, shadows. And anger, fuck, he’s furious—”
“Well of course he is!” Ron spat. “But what’s he furious at? Is there anyone with him? Can you see my dad, or—or can you see—”
“Ron, stop badgering him!” Hermione cried.
Their bickering caused Harry’s already throbbing scar to pulse painfully. “I—I can’t tell, I can’t tell who…” He wondered if there might come a point where his head just exploded—it might be preferable to the pain just now.
“Harry.” Hermione’s voice was trembling, but she was trying to put on a brave face, and she licked her lips. “Harry, why is this still happening? You’ve got to fight it! Try to remember your Occlumency lessons—”
“What, the ones Snape taught me?” He really didn’t need to be lectured while it felt like his skull was trying to split open along his scar.
“He might have been a horrible teacher, but the theory was sound! That was why Dumbledore encouraged you to stick with it!” She struggled to her feet, running a hand through her hair, most of which had come loose from her plaits. “I mean, you know how dangerous it could be if you let him—”
“I got it, all right?” Harry snapped, vision flashing with blots of colour, and he clenched his eyes shut. He hardly needed reminding of what his mismanagement of this connection had wrought last time he’d dealt with these sorts of visions with such frequency. It was the whole reason they were here in this dank, musty drawing room in the first place. “I don’t think he’s aware of it, so leave off.”
He struggled back to his feet, then turned his back on them, not wanting the argument to escalate. Emotions were running high, and maybe things would look better in the morning. He pretended to study the old tapestry of the Black family tree on the wall to avoid further conversation—and then he was actually studying it after a moment, tracing the branches down to the little plaque that read Narcissa and then Draco Malfoy in a delicate embroidered script beneath it. He always forgot these Pureblood families were knotted together in a tangled mess.
“Oh!” Ron gasped, leaping back from the window, and Harry whirled around, palming his wand immediately—meeting not an attack but the silvery wisp of a Patronus bounding through the window. Its long, sleek form lit on the back of an easy chair before jumping onto the sofa next to Hermione, then up onto the mantle before alighting on the floor, just in front of Harry. He could see, now it wasn’t quite literally bouncing off the walls, that it was a weasel, and it reared up onto its hind legs, opened its mouth full of needle-like teeth, and spoke in a voice that sounded awfully like Mr. Weasley.
“We’re safe. Hope you are too. Do not reply. We’re being watched.”
Then, in a silvery cloud, the Patronus vanished, and Ron’s knees buckled, sending him to the rug. Hermione rushed over, settling down beside him and rubbing his arms comfortingly. “See now? They’re all right—safe and sound,” she whispered, voice thick with emotion but smiling, “Safer and sounder than us, at least.” Ron gave a choking laugh, wrapping her in a relieved hug.
Ron glanced up at Harry over Hermione’s shoulder, and a flash of something like guilt flickered over his features. “Harry, I—”
Harry waved him off, shaking his head—the pain had abated for a moment but was steadily building again, and he didn’t want to worry them—or be lectured by them. “It’s fine, really. I understand—it’s your family. Of course you were worried.”
“Yeah, but, I was acting like a git…”
“Acting like?” Hermione said, a brow raised, and Harry snorted, shaking his head so they didn’t catch him wincing.
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Gotta use the loo. Be right back.”
“Don’t go wandering off,” Hermione reminded, and Harry gave her a wave, taking his leave at as leisurely a pace as he could stomach and praying they couldn’t tell how badly he wanted to break into a run.
When he was out of sight, he did run, pegging it down the hall—and once he’d shouldered his way into the bathroom, he locked the door behind himself, fingers shaking, and leaned his whole weight against it. His knees buckled, and he slid down onto the floor—and didn’t stop, slumping over onto his side as he brought up both hands to press at his temples. It felt like his head might split if he didn’t hold it in one piece, and he could feel tears pricking at his eyes.
He shut his eyes, tight, praying it might keep the images at bay—but still they came, buffeted along by another’s rage and mounting fury winding its way through his veins like poison and filling his every crevice. A long room stretched out before him, and he was no longer in the first-floor bathroom of Number 12 but somewhere else entirely. There were no lamps, no chandeliers, no light of any sort save that spilling out from the roaring fire blazing in its grate and throwing eerie shadows over something—someone—writhing on the floor before the fireplace. Harry tried to concentrate—and saw it was Rowle, one of the Death Eaters who had attacked them in the shop earlier. His head was thrown back, and his jaw hung open to release a yowling scream as he contorted himself into impossible positions.
A figure stood over Rowle, tall and slight and wand outstretched—casting, Harry could now surmise from Rowle’s tortured screams, Cruciatus, or else something as sinister. The caster was not alone, either; standing in a semicircle around Rowle was a group of figures wearing dark robes and equally dark expressions. They all watched, standing silent sentinel, as their fellow lay panting and seizing on the rug before them.
Harry spoke—but the voice that issued forth was not his own.
“I grow weary of your reticence, Rowle…and Nagini grows hungry. I have been patient, I have been understanding—but Lord Voldemort’s goodwill stretches only so far. I was summoned from abroad with tales of Harry Potter’s imminent capture, that he had been apprehended and waited for my dispensation—only to find that, once again, he had slipped through your grasp.” A hand lifted—Harry’s hand, and Voldemort’s—and gestured for the caster to continue. “Narcissa, dear—Rowle clearly requires a bit more persuasion. Let’s not keep him waiting.”
Mrs. Malfoy looked wretched, expression torn and haunted. The tip of her wand trembled, and her breath seemed to come in juddering gasps. When she didn’t respond quickly enough, Harry felt Voldemort rise to his feet, and he seemed to stretch impossibly tall. “Hesitation? Or pity? I’m not sure what’s more pathetic.”
“My Lord—” Mrs. Malfoy started, but she bit her tongue when Voldemort raised a hand for silence, carefully averting her eyes.
“Help Rowle find his memories,” Voldemort repeated, slowly, almost kindly. “Or meet the same fate as your boy. It is entirely your choice, dear.”
Mrs. Malfoy’s eyes flared wide, trembling in some amalgamation of terror and sorrow and abject revulsion—and Harry felt himself abruptly jerked back, into his own mind, his own body.
His eyes snapped open, and he found himself laid out flat upon the cold marble tile of Number 12’s first-floor bathroom. His vision swirled, and his brain seemed to pulse inside his skull, beating against it, begging to be let out. He took several deep, ragged breaths, blinking in time with each rhythmic inhale-exhale, and at length, the bathroom finally stopped spinning. With a Herculean effort, he eased upright, holding his throbbing head.
The lamps flickered in their sconces as Harry staggered back to his feet, and he winced when he caught sight of himself in the mirror—his face was gaunt and grey, bearing a haunting similarity to that of Malfoy’s mother. He could still feel her fear and despair echoing inside of him and chilling him to the bone.
Or meet the same fate as your boy.
Something roiled in Harry’s stomach, sending a wave of nausea rippling through him—for there was no misinterpreting those words.
Draco Malfoy was dead.