In the weeks now since they had begun to plan their infiltration of Gringotts, their raggedy little group had resolved a good many issues lying between their current position and success, but one in particular continued to dog them well into the shift of winter to spring, and it bore down upon them with the relentless persistence of the new rains: They’d nearly run through their entire batch of Polyjuice.

“If I had time, I’d brew more—but as it is, we’ve only got enough for one person to down a dose—and even then we’d be stretching it.” She swirled the thick, viscous liquid in its vial, frowning. “I’d say it might last…an hour and a half? Two tops.”

They had just finished lunch and been granted a rare moment to themselves with Bill off to check in on Remus and Tonks, who were staying at Tonks’s parents’ place—or rather, Tonks’s mother’s place now, given her father’s recent murder. Bill had grown increasingly suspicious about the books going missing from his study and the way they had kept themselves cooped up in the attic with Griphook over the weeks, and it was only in the tent that they could be assured they wouldn’t be overheard, thanks to Hermione’s hefty charm work.

“Two hours? Are we sure that’ll be enough time to get in, find the Horcrux, and get back out?” Ron asked.

“It will,” Harry said, not because he was at all confident, but because it had to be enough. The longer they wasted in preparation, the greater the risk that Voldemort might discover his Horcruxes were being tampered with. This was, of course, assuming that their jaunt to Malfoy Manor hadn’t already given them away. What if they were breaking into Gringotts for nothing? Bellatrix could have easily moved the Horcrux she’d been entrusted with between Griphook’s tenure at the bank and now.

Harry tried to force the thought from his mind; if he dwelled on any of the dozens of ways this whole mission could go pear-shaped, they’d never set foot out the door. They would have to focus on the problems they could deal with and hope the ones they couldn’t deal with never came to pass.

“Does it have to be that horrid woman, though?” Hermione groaned. “I’m not exactly enamoured with the idea of turning into someone so—so evil!”

Harry sympathised, he really did; Bellatrix Lestrange had committed countless horrific acts, not least of all torturing Neville’s parents and killing Sirius—but they had little choice. Adopting her identity afforded them the best chance they had; Goblins were suspicious creatures, and on top of that, there were actual Death Eaters skulking around the bank as well, according to Griphook. Even under a heavy Glamour, Hermione would be spotted for an impostor before she’d even walked through the door. The disguise had to be impeccable, and hopefully everything else would fall in line behind that.

“Trust that if there were any other way, we wouldn’t ask you to stoop to this, but you know it’s the least risky of the plans we’ve entertained so far for infiltrating Gringotts,” Harry reminded. “You only need to get into character. No one will want to mess with Bellatrix if you can just perfect that aura she’s got that warns people off.” He folded up the map of the Gringotts atrium he’d been committing to memory. “Here, just—say something she would, and let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”

Hermione wrinkled her nose, then tried weakly, “Er, ‘All hail the Dark Lord’?” Ron snorted, but Harry shot him a quelling look; they didn’t need Hermione getting discouraged. He nodded for her to try again, and she puffed out her chest and threw her head back. “‘Death to all Mudbloods!’”

Now it was Draco who laughed, a loud, rude guffaw, and Hermione exploded, “I’m trying my best here! If you’ve got some advice to give, I’m all ears—but otherwise shut up!”

Draco sighed dramatically. “Clearly we’ve got quite a bit of work to do.” He strode forward and grabbed Hermione by the shoulders, giving her a little shake. “Don’t stand so stiff for starters. You’ve got to be more lax, not all prim and proper.”

“But Bellatrix is a Pureblood—”

“Aunt Bella is a Black, and she won’t expend effort where it isn’t necessary. Those of Black stock have a loose elegance—”

“Aren’t you of Black stock?” Hermione asked, dubious.

“Yes, now don’t interrupt. You must be like a serpent on the move. Never look anyone in the eye unless you’re going to do them serious harm; otherwise, they should be beneath your notice. Remove any and all filler words from your vocabulary—er, um, uh, well. Any good Pureblood knows what she’s going to say three beats early, or she doesn’t speak at all. Hesitate, and you’ll be marked for certain.”

Harry tried not to be terribly amused with watching Draco try to My Fair Lady Hermione, but it was very difficult. Ron was watching with a mixture of horror and bald curiosity, like Hermione’s dissemblance was a train wreck he couldn’t tear his eyes from.

“Let’s try a few key phrases—perhaps some things Aunt Bella might actually say rather than those pithy, cartoonish quotes you stringed together. And—” He snapped his fingers for her attention when she closed her eyes in irritation. “Be sure to watch my movement and carriage. The way you handle yourself will be just as important as the words on your lips. Remember: lazy elegance!”

“Got ‘lazy’ right at least…” Ron muttered, and Harry snickered.

Draco brandished his wand in a flash, pointing it dead between Harry’s eyes. “Get your hands off me, you filthy Muggle-lover!”

Harry gave a start—it was rather disconcerting, seeing such an enraged sneer on Draco’s face. Especially now he was so used to it not looking like that. Harry swallowed; no, he didn’t like that at all, even in jest.

“Impressive…!” Ron had to admit, offering polite applause at the display, and Draco turned on him next, jabbing the tip of his wand into Ron’s neck, voice soft and threatening.

“Cross me again, and I’ll extract your entrails through your nose and choke you with them.”

Ron gave a feeble little chuckle, rubbing his neck when Draco drew away. “All right, I’ve gotta say, that’s pretty good.”

“Your turn, Granger,” Draco said, arms crossed as he stepped back to give her room to work.

Hermione licked her lips and raised her wand, taking a breath as she aimed it at Harry. “Get your filthy—I mean, unhand me you Mudblood—wait, no—” she despaired, forgetting her lines halfway through, and Draco rolled his eyes.

“You don’t have to get the script perfect, just be convincing! It’s better you don’t memorise it, really.” He waved at Ron. “Do Weasley.”

Hermione flushed brightly, and her wand only feebly flicked in Ron’s general direction. “Don’t cross—I’ll kill you if you dare to speak ill of…of…” She groaned in frustration, stamping her foot. “This is ridiculous!”

“You’re right,” Draco sighed, rubbing his temples. “I’ve seen quite enough of this disaster. For all our sakes, I’ll do it.”

Harry frowned. “…Do what?”

“Play Aunt Bella, of course.”

Ron snorted. “Uh, you’re a bloke?”

Uh, it’s Polyjuice Potion?” Draco returned mockingly. “It doesn’t matter who’s drinking it; the end result will be the same.” He sighed. “This needs to be as convincing as possible, so I think it’s best you leave it to someone who’s actually familiar with the tells these Death Eaters will be looking for—” He fixed Hermione with a meaningful look. “—And who won’t fold under the slightest interrogation.”

Hermione’s flush deepened, but before she could defend herself with a thorough tongue-lashing, Harry stepped in to defuse the situation: “I think he’s right. We need everything to go off without a hitch in order to have even a one percent chance of success. Unless you think you can get Bellatrix’s mannerisms and all down pat in the next few days?” He didn’t want to seem like he had no faith in Hermione, but Draco had been pretty much born to play this role, and Hermione had expressed a reluctance to do it in the first place.

Hermione slumped, running one hand through her bushy head of hair. “Fine. If Draco wants to pretend to be his mad aunt, then have at it.”

It was no great secret from the others in Shell Cottage that Harry and his friends were up to something—which wasn’t so great a concern, as Harry had stopped trying to hide their efforts. They had important business to attend to, and it was difficult enough, tromping up and down the stairs to join Griphook in the attic for planning sessions without worrying about walking on eggshells around Bill and Fleur to boot. He loved them both and was grateful for the sanctuary they were offering, but he could not be bothered to spare their feelings just now when so much was on the line. There would be time enough for apologies and amend-making after Voldemort had been defeated.

Luna, Dean, and Ollivander had been safely transported to Muriel’s, freeing up a fair bit of space in the house, but more room to spread out did little to ease the tension between Bill and Draco, and Bill had tried on several occasions to corner Harry in the hopes of plying him for more information on what they were up to.

He succeeded after dinner one night. He’d been eyeing Harry across the table throughout the meal, thoughtful concern hanging over his brow, and he waylaid Harry as he was heading into the kitchen to Scourgify the dishes for Fleur, as it was his turn on duty.

“I wondered if I could get a word with you, Harry? In private?” Draco had glanced up from the card game he’d been drawn into with Ron, but Harry had just shaken his head subtly and let Bill lead him into the pantry.

Bill gave him a wry smile after shutting the door. “You’re a hard man to get in touch with these days, Harry. Especially considering you’re living under my roof.”

“Technically we’re in your garden,” Harry tried, but Bill just gave him a look. “…Sorry, we’ve kind of been…well, we’ve got a lot of balls in the air at the moment.”

“Yeah, hasn’t escaped my notice.” Bill’s expression turned grave. “…I know you’re planning something with Griphook.”

Harry sighed. “Bill, you know we can’t tell—”

“Can’t tell me about it, yeah, I know. I don’t like it—but I can see that whether or not I like something’s not going to change the fact of you doing it anyway. So I’m not gonna tell you not to do whatever it is you lot are planning on doing. But—at least hear me out.” Harry stood there, silent, waiting for Bill to continue, and he swallowed, palms pressed together beseechingly. “…I’ve worked with Goblins a long time. Ever since I left Hogwarts—did my research for my Seventh-year thesis apprenticing with a Senior cursebreaker, even. I’ve been in and out of Gringotts for nearly two decades. I’ve got Goblin friends—as much as a wizard and Goblin can be friends—and I know their ways. How their culture works, what sorts of mores they operate under.” He licked his lips. “You’ve got your mission, and for whatever reason, only you and the others can be involved in it. It’s a stupid way to go about things, I maintain, especially given the current climate and the fact that I’m sure you can use all the help you can get, but let me at least say this: If you’ve made some kind of deal with Griphook, I’d ask that you be extraordinarily careful with the details of that deal and know what you’re getting into.”

Harry frowned. “…What do you mean?”

“Goblins…are very good at getting what they want in a bargain. All the more so when it involves something they want very badly that the other party is loath to give up.”

Harry thought about the sword of Gryffindor, still stuffed inside Hermione’s bag for now, and of Griphook’s beady eyes that never failed to find it when they went to convene with him. Any human would be furious to find he had been double-crossed, after all this effort; what could Goblins do to retaliate, Harry wondered.

“I should think it’s obvious, but Goblins aren’t humans—they’ve got a different culture, different beliefs, different innate laws and rights than we do. And that’s fine—but you’ve got to understand those differences when you interact with them. Because if you don’t, if you do anything that goes against what a Goblin understands about trade and purchase and gifting, you can very easily make a mortal enemy out of someone you might have otherwise counted as an ally.” Harry only stared, uncomprehending, and Bill sighed. “I’m saying, if at all possible, never set out thinking you can trick a Goblin. Be as open and honest as possible—deal fairly with them, and they’ll generally be straight with you. A Goblin’s trust is not easily won, and sometimes I think they can smell treachery on us.”

“But I haven’t been treacherous—” Harry began—he hadn’t, not yet—but Bill shook his head.

“A Goblin’s always going to suspect it of you, though—and probably have two or three contingency plans just in case. Like I said—I’ve worked alongside Goblins for a good long while. I trust a few—very few. But that one?” Bill pointed a finger overhead. “That one I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw him. He’s always watching Hermione, and I don’t want to try and guess why. So watch your back around him—especially if whatever you’re doing with him will involve payment, and extra-especially if that payment will involve some manner of treasure. They’ve got convoluted ideas of ownership, as I said—and you’re likely to wind up being obliged to give up a lot more than you might’ve agreed to at the outset.”

Harry recalled Griphook’s claim that Gryffindor’s sword rightfully belonged to that ancient Goblin lord. This line of conversation was leaving Harry feeling queasy, and he wondered whether Bill was just being cautious, or if he’d actually guessed what they were up to and was trying to warn them off what Harry admittedly knew was not a very good idea.

Still, the warning did little to change the circumstances, and Griphook would be extremely cross if they tried to alter the terms of the agreement at this stage, especially as he’d shared so much knowledge about Gringotts already. Either way, they were going to seem like they were reneging on the deal.

“I just care about you, Harry—and, you know, my little brother who’s tagging along with you. I want to make sure you’re being as careful as possible, if you won’t let me help out any other way.”

“Yeah, I know,” Harry said numbly, turning back to the sink. “I’ll—we’ll keep our guard up. Thanks for the tip.”

He hoped they weren’t going to break into Gringotts and track down the next Horcrux only to wind up killed because Griphook couldn’t wait a just a little bit longer to get back an old hunk of metal.

In three more days, they’d done about as much strategising and planning as was entirely possible, and the four of them gathered in the sitting room of their tent to go over the final details, with departure set for first light.

Hermione dropped one of the long, coarse black hairs that Harry had retrieved from the Manor into her final phial of Polyjuice Potion and passed it to Draco. Hermione and Ron regarded the potion with distaste, but Draco seemed disaffected, though he did make a face at the colour of the liquid: a muddy red-brown. “I suppose I thought it would be black, all things considered.” He gave it a shake. “I think she’d lose the plot if she knew her Polyjuice Potion looked like mud.”

It was a pleasant thought.

With Draco playing Bellatrix, that left the rest of them either pretending to be her hangers-on or otherwise out of sight. Hermione would slip into her Animagus form to hide in Draco’s pocket, while Ron would be heavily Glamoured and using Bellatrix’s inherent air of intimidation to camouflage him from curious onlookers. Hopefully no one would probe his identity too deeply when there was Bellatrix to tangle with. As they could not hope to complete the mission on their own and because he had demanded to accompany them (perhaps rightly fearing a double-cross), Griphook would be hiding with Harry under the Invisibility Cloak.

They made overtures to Bill and Fleur that they would leave the next morning, in order to avoid any distasteful run-ins with Draco-as-Bellatrix. Bill already trusted Draco little enough as it was, and Harry saw no need to further compound the issue trying to convince him not to curse Bellatrix Lestrange on sight as well.

Harry could honestly say he was ready to leave, too. It had been nice, having this respite, and he’d liked being kept abreast of how his friends ranging far and wide were faring in these uncertain times—though Ron and Bill had never managed to work out the Floo, unfortunately. But he was itching to get back on the hunt again. Voldemort had the Elder Wand now, and Harry felt a renewed urgency coursing through his veins that worsened with each passing day.

Draco had, of course, done his level best to provide ample distraction, helping Harry work off this excess energy that would otherwise surely have left him tetchy and irritated, but their illicit liaisons were fraught with their own dangers and frustrations, so it was hardly the best solution.

They could probably have stood another couple of weeks of planning, but Harry could not tamp down the feeling that time was not on their side. The downward-winding ticking was growing louder and more insistent in Harry’s mind, and he knew that the only way to silence it was to keep moving. Keep active. Keep fighting.

He slept poorly the night before they set out, wishing in retrospect that he’d responded to Draco’s lifted brow of invitation when he’d entered the bedroom—it might have been their last bit of downtime for a while, and at least a bit of fumbling would have exhausted him just enough to nod off and get a few winks.

They all rose at first light and hastily dressed, bolting down plain toast and water before packing everything away. Shell Cottage was dark and quiet, but they were shortly joined in the little cliff-top garden by Griphook, whose legs were finally mended enough he could at least waddle. He would not be outpacing any Death Eaters in an all-out sprint, but hopefully it would not come to that.

Draco hadn’t dressed, as Bellatrix would neither fit nor be suited by his usual attire, and so was looking rather awkward and uncomfortable in just his underwear. He was still pale and pointy, but he’d filled out nicely and was unrecognisable from the pitiful creature he’d been when they’d first stumbled across him in the bowels of the Ministry. It was, however, still quite chilly in the mornings, and he grumbled for Hermione to Hurry the fuck up with that potion as he stood there rubbing his arms to generate heat. Harry thought about offering him his jumper, but there was little point, as Draco would only snippily refuse it. There were, it seemed, still limits to the degree of vulnerability Draco was willing to show.

Hermione pulled the stoppered phial they had prepared from her bag and passed it to Draco, who knocked it back with a grimace. He gave a sharp, hacking cough and looked like he was about to sick up—but he managed to keep it down.

“How is it?” Harry asked.

Draco raised a brow, pointedly looking at Harry. “Not the worst thing I’ve ever swallowed—but it’s up there.” Harry was grateful for the low morning light that hid the shameful flush colouring his cheeks, but it seemed none of the others noticed. Hermione was too distracted searching through her beaded bag for the extra set of robes she’d brought from Grimmauld Place for Draco to wear, and Ron was openly gawking as the potion-induced changes began to ripple over Draco’s body.

He’d been fairly tall, second only to Ron in their group, but the potion drew him back down a few inches, and his white-blond hair turned to soot, looking like someone had just dumped an inkpot on his head, as his hair rippled down his back in long, curly waves. His eyes darkened as well, going from storm-grey to black, and his whole demeanour seemed somehow colder and crueller as he peered out at them from behind Bellatrix Lestrange’s face.

Hermione kept her gaze averted, like she couldn’t bear to look him in the eye, and pressed the bunched up robes into his hands so that Draco could make himself presentable. After smoothing down the robes and tying them off where appropriate, he held his arms out. “Well?” he asked. “Acceptable?”

He had Bellatrix’s low, raspy voice, and Harry found he suddenly didn’t want to hear Draco say his name, afraid it might taint the word. He was trying his level best to remember this was Draco, and not really Bellatrix, but the transformation was remarkable.

Ron just blurted out, “You’ve got tits, mate.”

“Well-spotted, Weasley,” Draco drawled, and it helped a bit, hearing that characteristic cadence leave Bellatrix’s lips. “It’s almost as if I’ve Polyjuiced myself into a woman. Will wonders never cease?”

“I know, I know, just—” He was still staring at Draco’s chest, shaking his head in confusion. “That was weirder than watching Hermione turn into Harry…”

What?” Draco sputtered, looking to Harry with a wide-eyed mixture of curiosity and horror; it was an amusing expression, even on Bellatrix. Maybe especially on her.

Harry only shook his head. “A story for another time.” They had far more important matters to deal with at the moment, and the Polyjuice Potion would not last long enough for idle chatter.

Hermione helped Draco arrange Bellatrix’s wild hair so it wouldn’t get in his way, and they transfigured his boots into something with more heel. After a bit of practice walking in them—which Harry made sure to laugh at on the inside, taking another mental picture—they decided Draco had his role in hand. He looked every bit the crazed Death Eater second-in-command, but the fact he was using his own wand and not Bellatrix’s was a sticking point. If there were any sort of wand inspection to confirm her identity, the guise would fall apart like a house of cards. Given they had little choice otherwise, though, they would have to bank on luck. Draco had warned Harry once that his luck would not last forever, so he simply prayed it at least lasted the next twenty-four hours.

With Draco settled, Hermione moved on to fit Ron with his Glamour.

“Come on now, we’re short on time,” she said, when Ron didn’t seem able to tear his eyes away from Draco (who was helping nothing by giving Ron flirtatious winks and air-kisses).

Harry elbowed Draco in the side with a Must you? expression on his face, which seemed to jostle Ron back to reality, and he turned to face Hermione, shoulders squared. “Remember, unremarkable.”

“Your life’s motto,” Draco jeered, artfully dodging another thrown elbow from Harry, and Hermione rolled her eyes.

“I was thinking heavy on the facial hair this time,” Hermione said. “To disguise the features as much as possible.”

Ron winced. “All right, but can you make my nose a bit smaller, like when we went to that greengrocer’s up north?” He turned to Harry. “A prominent nose is a defining Weasley trait, you know.”

“Uh huh,” was all Harry said.

Hermione sighed and poked him in the nose with the tip of her wand, and on cue, it deflated. She muttered under her breath as she continued to fiddle with various aspects of Ron’s appearance—liver spots and long earlobes, a bushy (but trimmed) salt-and-pepper beard, and an old rugged scar down the side of his neck. Ron was probably in the most danger among them, since a Glamour could be broken far more easily than Polyjuice, which had to be flushed from the system to reveal its secrets. Perhaps his only saving grace was the fact he’d be standing next to Draco’s Bellatrix, for few were going to give him a second glance when Voldemort’s most trusted lieutenant was right there. They’d crafted a false identity for him, just in case, but Harry prayed Ron wouldn’t wind up in a situation where he was forced to use it.

“I think that should about do it…” Hermione said with a sigh, cocking her head as she took a step back to review her work. “What do you two think?”

She’d done a fantastic job, in Harry’s opinion—nowhere in the mass of matted brown hair and pockmarked skin and dark, bloodshot eyes could he catch any resemblance to his best friend. With his robes Transfigured to a moth-eaten state and a wide-brimmed hat whose point had flopped over settled atop his head, Ron looked, as requested, perfectly unremarkable.

“I confess he’s not my type, but I suppose he’ll do,” Harry said.

Draco arched one of Bellatrix’s fine black brows. “Old warty men not your thing, then?”

Harry grinned despite himself. “Oh, I like my men young and my women old.” He added lightly, “Give me Madame Pomfrey on one arm and Dennis Creevy on the other and I’m a happy bloke.”

Ron snorted at the image, his moustache fluttering. “McGonagall and Jimmy Peakes will be heartbroken to learn you’ve replaced them.”

Griphook cleared his throat from where he sat on a little bench overlooking the cliff face. “If we are ready, now? I understand your potion will not last long, so we must make haste if we’re to have any hope of you succeeding in your task.”

“Indeed,” Hermione said, drawing the Invisibility Cloak out of her beaded bag.

Harry dropped into a squat to allow Griphook to clamber up onto his back, and once he was secured with a bedsheet, arms wrapped tight around Harry’s neck, Hermione draped the Cloak over them.

“Make sure to keep your feet covered while you walk, Harry,” she reminded. “A pair of trainers strolling about on their own is sure to draw attention.”

They took one last look at the cottage, still dark and silent in the early morning light. They’d said their goodbyes the night before, but it still felt like they were running off without a word. It was for the best, though; Bill would only have lectures on his tongue once he saw what they meant to do.

Ron stuffed Hermione’s bag into his cloak, and Hermione took a steadying breath, then shifted smoothly into her Animagus form. Draco bent down and gently lifted her into his arms, giving her a scritch behind the ears and warning, “No biting this time, Granger.” He then slipped her into a deep pocket in his robes. Ron watched them with dark eyes, and Harry wondered if they should have suggested that he carry Hermione, but it was too late for that now, so he would simply have to tamp down any irrational fits of jealousy and focus.

They marched to the edge of the Fidelius. Beyond this point, they would be exposed, unprotected, and utterly on their own. Hidden under the safety of the Cloak, Harry reached out and silently curled his fingers around Draco’s. It was strange; they were longer and thinner than Draco’s hands, with no Quidditch callouses or the thin scar from his wounds, and pointed nails that could easily put an eye out. But Draco still gently returned the gesture, and because no one could see, Harry allowed himself to smile.

They stepped through, linked together, and turned in place to Apparate.

Draco had taken point on the Apparition, with instructions that they would enter Diagon Alley by way of the Leaky Cauldron. Harry clenched his eyes shut as he felt himself drawn into the sucking darkness, and Griphook’s arms tightened around his neck as they moved through the nether-space of Apparition—until seconds later, his knees knocked as he hit the pavement with a jolt: they’d arrived at Charing Cross Road, just across from the pub. Even this early in the morning, the street was bustling with Muggles wearing weary expressions that suggested they were either getting ready to start a long day (for those wearing sensible suits) or heading back after a long night (for those in more eccentric attire). They passed the pub as if it were invisible—which, of course, it was to them.

Ron opened the door for Draco, keeping his head ducked and playing the role of fawning sycophant to the hilt. Harry hadn’t been to the Leaky in ages, and he found he hadn’t missed it. Old Tom the barkeep was still about—though with how dead the place was at this hour, he was nearly asleep on his feet, absently wiping down a mug with a dingy rag. The only other customers were a trio of warlocks, their heads inclined in quiet conversation. They glanced up when Draco darkened the doorway, immediately falling silent and drawing their hooded cloaks tight about them. Draco cut them a curt glance, and one Disapparated on the spot with a frightened squeak.

Tom, evidently possessing a stiffer spine than the errant warlock, continued to polish his glass as Draco strode past, inclining his head into a stiff bow and murmuring, “Madam.”

Draco only favoured him with a lip-curling sneer, nose twitching as if the very scent of the bar offended—which it might well have, seeing as the Leaky had never been a very fine establishment. As hoped, Tom and the other customers were so focused on Draco’s rendition of Bellatrix that they paid not a whit of attention to Ron, let alone noticed Harry as he wove through the spaces between tables with Griphook on his back.

Once through the bar and into the alley at the rear, Draco stood before the graffitied wall, drew his wand, and tapped the bricks in the familiar pattern that bid the archway leading into the shopping district appear. As soon as the final brick had been poked, the wall began to shift, the bricks folding and spinning as they peeled back to reveal a hole through which could be seen the higgledy-piggledy buildings and well-trod cobbled street of Diagon Alley.

The first thing they noticed was that the street was eerily quiet—almost pin-droppingly so; Harry didn’t think he’d ever seen Diagon Alley so empty, and it was clearly not simply because of the early hour. The place was absolutely dead, a world away from the last time Harry had visited—which he now reflected had been quite some time back. So many of the once-familiar shops were boarded up, and several of those that were still open seemed to cater primarily to the Dark Arts, judging by the wares displayed in their windows. Here and there were plastered UNDESIRABLE NUMBER ONE posters like the one Umbridge had had displayed in her office, with Harry’s own face glowering down at them.

Draco paused before one of the posters, raking it with Bellatrix’s judging gaze. He sneered. “Ten thousand Galleons? That’s all they’re paying for our beloved Saviour? I’d complain if I were you.”

Several of the stairways fronting empty, abandoned shops were occupied by particularly rough looking individuals in threadbare robes with tin cups clutched tight in their grips. Harry caught them pleading with passers-by for any coin they could spare, or begging to have the Knight Bus hailed for them, so they might go to the Ministry to plead for their wands back, as they were true witches and wizards, honest.

Their cries were cut short, though, when they caught sight of Draco and the imposing figure he cut as Bellatrix—like ghosts, they melted away into the shadows, and Harry was certain that they might have made like the warlock from earlier and Disapparated on the spot had they still had wands on them. Draco studiously ignored them, nose in the air as he marched forward with purpose, until a particularly bold fellow, one eye covered with a blood-stained bandage and several days’ worth of stubble on his chin, lashed out with one grasping hand to yank on Draco’s robes.

“Please! They’ve taken my children! Please, ma’am!” He fell to his knees, nearly pulling Draco down with him. In a voice cracked with sorrow, he sobbed openly, “You know him! You must beg him to return them! I’m their only family! They must be so very frightened without me! Please!”

Draco released a low, cruel cackle. It really was disturbing how good he was at portraying his aunt, and a cold chill rippled down Harry’s spine at the thought of how close they’d come to Draco being on the other side of all of this. Harry had been eager to fight Draco at one point, even, and he could too easily imagine a scenario in which he might have been forced to kill Draco in self-defence. “He made his choices,” Harry would have said, and he would’ve felt a pang of guilt, but it would have passed quickly enough.

Draco would have been dead, and Harry would have moved on without a thought. Underneath the Cloak, Harry’s fingers twitched, itching to touch again, just to physically remind himself that hadn’t come to pass.

“Children, hm? Strung ‘em up as playthings for Nagini, I’d wager—and you’ll soon join your whelps if you don’t remove yourself from my sight at once.”

With a sudden burst of preternatural strength, the man lunged for Draco’s throat—but Draco only backhanded him with his wand, striking the man’s temple with a sharp WHACK. The man tottered to the side, and Draco followed up with a Flippendo that knocked the man on his arse. He tumbled twice over the cold cobblestones before sprawling out spread-eagle on the ground, unconscious.

Draco’s grip about his wand was white-knuckled, but Bellatrix’s expression was cool and calm as ever, disaffected and decidedly unamused. With a bored hmph, he marched off in a swirl of robes, not bothering to check to be sure Ron was keeping up.

Harry could sense eyes on them, and when he glanced around, he saw faces pressed up against windows lining darkened storefronts that quickly scattered when Draco swept the street with a cold, calculating gaze, ready for other desperate unfortunates hoping to catch him unawares. Bellatrix drew a crowd wherever she went, and that was precisely what they did not need.

It had taken all of five minutes after arriving in Diagon Alley for them to make a scene, and Harry wondered if this wasn’t a sign they’d better leave now and regroup to try again tomorrow. But their Polyjuice Potion stores were depleted, and they would have to wait at least a month before they could try again if they cut and ran. Harry gently tugged on Draco’s sleeve, hoping they might duck into an alcove to discuss the situation—but before he could open his mouth, someone hailed them from behind.

“Morning, Madam Lestrange!” someone hailed them, entirely too cheerily.

Harry whipped around at the greeting, nearly throwing Griphook from his perch, and saw a weedy wizard of middling years, his greying beard wild and ragged, confidently striding towards them from the door fronting Belcher’s Bottled Beers. There was something familiar about him, and Harry was certain he’d seen him somewhere but couldn’t place the long, hooked nose or beady black eyes until Griphook hissed in his ear, “Travers—a Death Eater.” The name called up a memory of their being waylaid in the Ministry Atrium while trying to escape with a pale, sickly Draco in tow, and nearly being buried under the contents of Xenophilius Lovegood’s cluttered home.

Draco had drawn himself up to Bellatrix’s fullest height, though she barely reached Travers’s shoulder, and he said, voice thick with contempt. “And what do you want?”

This drew Travers up short, and his expression went funny—offended, but not quite sure if he was entitled to it. He definitely didn’t seem to appreciate the tone, regardless, and Harry hoped Draco knew what he was doing. “…Was just saying ‘hullo’. But pardon me, if you’re too busy to give an associate a ‘by your leave’…”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Stop fawning, man. It’s disgraceful. I’ve business to attend to, Travers, so if you’ve something to say, then spit it out.”

“Well, nothing really to say—like I said, was just greeting you, but…” Travers searched Bellatrix’s face curiously. “I confess I wasn’t expecting to run into you here. I’d heard that you and the rest of the lot lodging at Malfoy Manor had been placed under house arrest after the, er…incident with Greyback.”

Shit. Shit. They’d just assumed Bellatrix’s face would be carte blanche, granting them free passage to wherever they might wish to go. They hadn’t stopped to consider that their own meddling might have changed the map. He desperately hoped Draco could think on his feet. If Bellatrix was meant to be under guard, or at the very least not out in public, then—

“The ‘er, incident’ has been handled, naturally. The Dark Lord has far more important matters to deal with than some mangy mutt who stepped out of line and got what was coming to him. He’d have fed me to Nagini if I’d sat around on my arse in that mausoleum instead of striking out to see his bidding done—and I’d have well deserved it.” He cocked a brow at Travers, smug. “The Dark Lord’s trust, once earned, is not easily lost—perhaps you’ll learn that some day.” He shrugged. “Or perhaps not.”

Travers’s probing suspicion shifted in favour of wild offence, but he seemed to accept this explanation. Draco had sounded like he’d known this Death Eater back at the Ministry and evidently understood where Travers stood in the ranks. From the way Travers was acting, Bellatrix treating him like dirt was par for the course.

Travers glanced back at the man Draco had stunned, still slumped in a heap of limbs in the gutter, unconscious. “I saw he took a swipe at you—are you unharmed?”

Draco eyes nearly rolled out of their skull. “What do you take me for, a snivelling First-year? Shall I show you how I defended myself?” He raised his wand at Travers, who quickly took a step back, hands raised and shaking his head.

“Oh—no, no, of course not. Just, they can be a right pain in the arse, that’s all,” said Travers. He returned to Draco’s side when his wand lowered once more, doubly obsequious in his manner now. “Whinging for money’s bad enough—but some of these Wandless have the nerve to beg me to plead their cases at the Ministry! It’s just pitiful, it is—and I don’t see why they’re allowed to loiter about Diagon Alley, personally. I think I’ll speak to Yaxley in the morning, see if he can’t have the Aurors start doing sweeps and keep the riff-raff out.”

“Indeed,” Draco said, affecting a bored tone. He examined Bellatrix’s long nails and tapped one of her heeled boots in impatience.

Travers’s face fell when he saw he’d lost Draco’s attention, and he groped for a new topic—face lighting up when he at last realised Bellatrix had not shown up alone this morning. “Well well, who’s your friend here? I don’t think I recognise him.” He leaned forward, trying to get a better look at Ron’s face, while Ron pretended to be interested in one of the Undesirable Number One posters.

“No, you wouldn’t, would you? Perhaps if you paid attention in meetings instead of wasting time lighting the house-elves on fire you might have noticed we’re recruiting abroad.” Draco extended a hand to Ron. “Travers, Dragomir Despard.”

“Despard, hm…” Travers scratched at his scraggly beard. “Don’t believe I’m familiar with the name… Not one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight?”

“Good gad, there’s only twenty-eight of them, man. Can’t you memorise a few families without your skull popping?” He sighed dramatically. “Mr. Despard has travelled here from his home in Transylvania, as representative of a faction of witches and wizards whose views very much align with the Dark Lord’s. I’ve been asked to act as his handler, escorting him to sites of several of our more prominent demonstrations, so that he may review our progress thus far and facilitate our expansion in the future.” A foreigner, it had been decided, would be the safest cover, as they all knew Voldemort was abroad at the moment, though the Death Eaters swanning about Diagon Alley would likely have no knowledge of the goings-on across borders.

“Huh… Well, pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Despard.”

“Pleas’yur,” Ron ground out in a thick, vaguely Slavic accent, scratching at his beard before holding out his meaty hand.

Travers considered the gesture for a long moment, nose wrinkling, then reluctantly extended two fingers of his own and daintily shook Ron’s fingers with a grimace. When Ron put his hand away again, Travers not-so-discreetly wiped his hand on his robe. “So, er, I take it Diagon Alley is only your first stop, then? A bit of early-morning shopping on the agenda before taking a peek at our Master’s handiwork out in the wider world?”

“Gringotts,” was all Draco said, turning on his heel and continuing their march towards the bank.

Travers scrambled to keep up with Draco’s short, quick strides. “Ah! Indeed, indeed—was just heading there myself!” he said, and Harry cursed silently; it would be difficult enough to manage the infiltration without a Death Eater looking over their shoulders, and now they could not communicate freely without chancing being overheard. He didn’t envy Hermione, stuck in Draco’s pocket with no way to help and wholly reliant on her companions not screwing up. “Hardly my idea of a fine way to start the morning, though—terrible how we’re forced to make nice with those glorified house-elves whenever we wish to lay hands on our own hard-fought earnings!”

Griphook’s hold on Harry’s neck tightened, as if to strangle him in Travers’s stead, and Harry gamely patted his arm in silent reminder he hadn’t uttered the slight and would very much like to breathe again sometime soon.

As a raggedy group, they made their way down the now quite empty cobbled street, and with Travers at their side, throwing dirty looks at anyone who so much as glanced their way, they met no more of the ‘Wandless’ as they approached the stately marble steps fronting Gringotts at the far end. Here they would face the first of many hurdles lying between them and what they desperately hoped was a Horcrux tucked away somewhere in the Lestrange vault: a pair of wizards, hangdog in the face and yawning at odd intervals with Probity Probes clutched in their hands as they flanked the imposing bronze doors leading into the bank.

Harry recalled Filch having used an item of much the same make to search students entering and exiting Hogwarts the year before—crude but effective tools, they would reveal Ron’s Glamour in an instant, and it would only be downhill from there.

Travers gave Draco’s Bellatrix a winning smile, then made his way confidently to the wizard on the right, while Draco, Harry, and Ron filed toward the one on the left. Being the only one in any position to do anything about their predicament, Harry darted to the front of the group and pointed his wand at their security wizard, murmuring, “Confundo,” low so Travers couldn’t hear. The guard gave a start as the spell hit him, his gaze going funny, and Draco strode past confidently with Ron in tow, joining Travers to head into the inner hall.

Travers extended an arm, saying, “After you,” and Draco made to sweep ahead of him, when a voice called from behind.

“Er, excuse me! Madam, a moment please?”

Harry turned back, throat clenching, just in time to see the wizard shake off the Confundus and raise his probe. Fuck, he’d already cocked up the only job he had.

“You imbecile, do you mean to say you mucked up the simplest job you could have been tasked with?” Draco sounded suitably narked off, with enough strident venom in his tone to set the poor wizard trembling. Travers looked between them, brows raised, and the poor guard held his Probity Probe up in front of his face, as if to ward off any retribution coming his way. “You’ve just done that!” Draco spread his arms in invitation. “Or would you like to have another go? Shall I demonstrate just where you can shove that little rod of yours?”

The other wizard who’d checked Travers muttered nervously to his companion, “…That’s Lestrange, Marius. Leave it.”

Marius ducked his head, clutching the Probe to his chest, and stammered an apology. Draco only tossed his head, muttering An absolute circus… and swept inside, Ron at his side and Travers jogging to keep up. Harry kept quick on their heels, pausing only at the double doors to glance back and make sure they hadn’t been marked: Marius was still scratching his head, and the other wizard seemed to be lecturing him. He breathed a silent sigh of relief; one impediment down, only about fifty more to go.

The inner hall was empty and quiet, and Draco’s heels clacked loudly on the stone floor. The liveried Goblins who usually guarded the outer doors had evidently been moved inside, though neither was armed with a Probity Probe, so Harry suspected they were only here to impress. They stood straight-backed and stiff-necked before a pair of massive silver doors engraved with the now-familiar words of warning concerning the dire consequences awaiting anyone stupid enough to walk into this place with thievery on their mind. Yeh’d be mad ter try an’ rob it, Hagrid had once said when Harry had asked about the poem.

Well, this quest of theirs had certainly driven Harry to the edge, and it felt like they were about to step over. Gringotts had seemed to eleven-year-old Harry so impressive, so impenetrable—and honestly it still did, even to seventeen-year-old him. It felt wrong, breaking in—not because, well, it was wrong, breaking fifty different laws both wizarding and Goblin, probably, but because it was something of a betrayal of the wide-eyed wonder he’d once held for all things magical. You weren’t supposed to break into Gringotts; you weren’t supposed to be able to break into Gringotts. And yet they had to hope they could.

Draco, Ron, and Travers did not seem similarly struck by nostalgia, though, shoving through the doors and into the vast hall of the bank proper, and Harry had to scramble to keep up and avoid being locked out.

While Diagon Alley had practically become a ghost town, life seemed to continue apace within the walls of Gringotts. The Goblins on duty were all sat atop their stools behind a long marble counter, already neck-deep in banking slips and promissory notes as they managed the first customers of the day. Travers seemed to know precisely what business he was about, and Draco let him slip past, making straight for the reception desk sat at the opposite end of the hall, while he pretended to explain the history of the building and its occupants to Ron, likely hoping they might soon be rid of their unwanted tag-along.

The old Goblin manning the reception desk—though they all looked old to Harry, if he were being honest—was carefully studying a gold coin with a jeweller’s glass, features pinched into a tight frown, and with a muttered Bah, Leprechaun, he tossed the coin into a bulging burlap sack, where it clinked against what Harry took to be many others like it. He settled back with a sigh, turning his attention from the coins now to Travers. “Mr. Travers, how may I help you?”

“Just making a withdrawal,” Travers said, passing over a tiny key. The Goblin removed his jeweller’s glass and examined the key before passing it back to him—and then gave a start when he noticed Draco standing behind Travers.

“Oh—my, Madam Lestrange!” The Goblin scrambled to stand atop his high chair, adjusting the tie at his throat. “We—we weren’t expecting you today. How may we be of service?”

Harry had never seen a Goblin act so obsequious; they were always coolly polite. Bellatrix must have been a fearsome client indeed when she dropped by.

“How do you think? I’m here to enter my vault,” said Draco, adding with a thick drawl, “Obviously.”

“Ah, yes, of…of course…” the Goblin said, a bit cagey, then glanced nervously around the hall. Harry followed his eye and could now see that several of the Goblins along the counter who weren’t busy with customers had paused their work to openly stare at ‘Bellatrix’ trying to enter her vault, and even Travers was hanging back now, as if he didn’t want to be implicated in whatever was about to happen.

Anxious nerves curled in Harry’s gut; something wasn’t right.

The Goblin swallowed thickly, then asked, “I presume you have…your key, then?”

Oh fuck. They’d assumed that Bellatrix being Bellatrix, she wouldn’t be bothered with ‘such frivolities’, as Malfoy had put it. His own father had only been asked for his key once, he’d explained, and he’d thrown such a strop about it, building security had been called. “Of course, Father promptly sued them—I’ve never seen him carry a key with him since.”

“Of course I don’t have my key, you imbeciles,” Draco spat. “Open your beady little eyes. Don’t you know who I am?”

“They suspect!” Griphook hissed. “Even with Travers at your side, they have likely been warned to be on guard against impostors.”

Clearly their ruse with Greyback’s insurrection had not been as convincing as they might have hoped, and the Death Eaters were on high alert. Yet he could not think how they might back out safely, surrounded by Goblins—who had their own sort of magic—and several wizards who would probably leap at the chance to rise a few rungs on Voldemort’s ladder by turning over Harry Potter and his merry band of rebels.

“…Perhaps if we could check your wand, then, Madam?” said the Goblin. He held out one long-fingered hand, which Harry could see was trembling. Draco could not refuse without rousing suspicion, but of course his wand was not Bellatrix Lestrange’s.

Draco drew his hawthorn wand from his robes and passed it hilt-first to the Goblin, who frowned down at it. “I’m afraid this does not seem to be the wand registered with our records, Madam Lestrange…”

“Of course it’s not, you imbecile,” Draco sneered. “Does it look like walnut and dragon heartstring to you? I’ve loaned mine to my Master, who’s in sore need of a good wand at the moment.” He spoke very slowly, as if to a small child, tone as demeaning as possible. “This is a new one.”

“A new wand?” said Travers, approaching again. Perhaps his curiosity had overtaken his sense of self-preservation. “But where were you able to procure one? Which wandmaker did you use?”

Of course; Gregorovitch was dead, and Ollivander had recently been sprung from Malfoy Manor, as Travers was evidently well aware.

Griphook was nearly throttling Harry now. “You must use the Imperius Curse on him now! He’ll sound the alarm!”

It was their only choice, for they’d been backed into a corner. Swallowing thickly, Harry lifted his wand and envisioned the casual ease with which Draco had cursed Greyback and the other Snatchers during his interrogation. You’ve got to mean them, Bellatrix jeered in his mind, and Harry pointed his wand at Travers, the desire to protect both himself and his friends firing his blood.

Draco could not do this for him—he would have to summon the stones to do what must be done himself, and for the first (and hopefully last) time, he whispered, “Imperio!”

Harry felt the magic thrill through him—a strange sensation he couldn’t recall ever experiencing with any other spell—and threads of his magical essence seemed to snake out, entwining themselves around Travers’s mind and squeezing, strangling, until Harry felt the connection solidify.

Travers’s expression went slack as Harry forced his will onto him, and he nodded obediently. “Well, it is a handsome one all the same—my compliments to its maker. Mine’s been acting up lately—I think the core’s gone rotten. Tentacula tendrils—what can you do!”

“Perhaps not purchase a wand powered by Tentacula tendrils?” Draco said, sounding very bored—but Harry imagined he saw Bellatrix’s thin shoulders slump a tick in relief. He turned back to the Goblin, tone sharp. “Well? Will that do? If my word is insufficient, I’m happy to have my Master explain the circumstances.” He rolled up the left sleeve to his borrowed robe, exposing the ugly blotch of the Dark Mark. Had Polyjuice covered it up, or was that Draco’s own Mark peering out? If he pressed it now—if the Goblins called his bluff—would it summon Voldemort?

“No, no!” the old Goblin stammered, scrambling down from his perch. “That won’t be necessary, I’m sure…” He toddled around the side of his desk to dip a nodding bow to Draco, now several heads shorter. “Please forgive the delay, Madam Lestrange. Difficult times we’re living in, and we only seek to ensure that our clients understand that their property is kept as secure as is at all possible.”

“Oh just get on with it,” Draco scoffed. Harry didn’t know if this was exactly how Bellatrix might have acted under similar circumstances, but he thought Draco was doing a brilliant job. He knew it was an uncharitable thought, but he shuddered to think how horribly things might have gone if they’d let Hermione handle it as originally planned.

“Of—of course!” the Goblin squeaked, snapping his long, spindly fingers, and another Goblin—younger, Harry supposed, because he had only slightly fewer wrinkles and less liver spotting—appeared at his side as promptly as if he’d Apparated. “Prepare the Clankers,” he intoned, and the younger Goblin straightened with a little salute before disappearing. Harry did not know what ‘Clankers’ were, nor did he think he wanted to find out. Special keys for the oldest clients’ vaults?

Mere moments later, the Goblin returned this time carrying a bulging sack nearly as large as himself. It jangled as he walked it over to the reception desk, giving the impression it was full of metal pieces. Keys after all, then?

The old Goblin checked the bag, and seemingly satisfied, he crooked a finger for Draco to follow. “This way, please, Madam Lestrange; we will delay you no further and make for your vault.”

“How kind of you,” Draco muttered, and Harry didn’t think it was entirely spoken in pretence. They’d wasted nearly twenty minutes just getting this far. It was becoming more and more likely that the Polyjuice Potion would wear off before they’d managed to find the Horcrux—which would decidedly complicate their exit strategy.

“Bogrod! Hold!” Their escort drew up short, turning to see he’d been hailed by another dashing down the long line of desks and nearly colliding with Travers, who was now standing quite still with his mouth hanging open dumbly. Ron was waving a hand in front of his face and snapping his fingers for attention, confused. Harry felt a lurch of guilt; the Imperius Curse seemed to require constant attention, else apparently the victim became utterly befuddled, a blank slate.

“Yes? Out with it. We mustn’t keep important clients waiting.”

“I am aware, but—” The new Goblin issued a curt bow to Draco, pasting on a fawning smile that did not reach his eyes, then turned back to Bogrod. “It’s only, we’ve received special instructions concerning the old family vaults, if you’ll recall.” His expression went pointed. “Protocol must be followed.”

“Oh—yes, quite…” Bogrod said, giving a weak, wary smile to Draco. He seemed relieved to finally have a fellow standing with him, and Harry didn’t think Draco would be able to bully his way into the Lestrange vault this time, as the new Goblin looked rather stuffy, like a Gringotts version of Percy Weasley.

He pointed his wand at Bogrod, praying the Imperius Curse wasn’t limited to a single use at a time, and whispered, “Imperio!” again, filling the Goblin’s mind with urgency and determination to get to the Lestrange vault.

Bogrod straightened at once, then dismissed the other Goblin with a grousing, “Can’t you see we’ve Madam Lestrange with us in person, Ugbert? If you’d like to be the one to tell her she can’t visit her own vault…?” Ugbert grimaced but did not protest further, and Bogrod jangled the bag of Clankers in his hand threateningly. “Back to your station, now!” To Draco, he added obsequiously, “Our sincerest apologies, Madam. Right this way.”

With that, he slung the jangling bag over one shoulder and toddled to the large door situated just behind the reception desk. Draco and Ron made to follow, and Harry glanced back at poor Travers, who was still stood in the middle of the aisle, staring ahead blankly. He was starting to drool, and several of the Goblins were taking notice. Deciding that leaving him there would only draw undue attention—and anyone who’d cast the Imperius Curse before would surely see in an instant that this was a sign of a job poorly done—Harry decided they would have to endure their tagalong for just a bit longer and flicked his wand to command Travers to join them.

Travers immediately snapped to it, jogging to catch up with them before following at a more sedate pace as they trailed behind Bogrod. The door off the hall spit them out into a cool, dark stone tunnel leading to the maze of tracks and vast catacombs of vaults beneath the bank.

Once out of sight and earshot of the door to the hallway, Harry checked to be sure Bogrod and Travers were well in the thrall of his Curse, then yanked off the Cloak. “These two—Draco? Could you check them out? I’m sure I’ve done a hack job of these Curses.”

Griphook hopped down, toddling over to Bogrod and inspecting the sack he’d brought with him. Neither the Goblin nor Travers seemed to notice, both blithely staring off ahead as if nothing were amiss.

Draco checked both of Harry’s victims, frowning as he tweaked Bogrod’s bulbous nose and slapped Travers’s cheek lightly with his wand. “Seems to me we ought to have been working on your Unforgivables instead of my Patronus all these weeks.”

“Hey, it was my first time—”

“You’ve been passable with other ‘firsts’; I thought you might have natural talent.” Draco quirked a brow, and Harry was glad that Hermione was still stuffed in Draco’s pocket and so could not remark on the bright flush to Harry’s cheeks. Ron was, blessedly, oblivious. “Untwist, honestly. You haven’t scrambled their brains; you simply haven’t been specific enough in your instructions. They’re well under your thrall, and that’s what’s important.”

“Right—so, er, now what?” Ron asked, scratching nervously at his beard. “I feel like we’ve hit a few bumps in the road—you think they twigged? Should we cut and run now, maybe try again later?”

Draco frowned at the door through which they’d just come; beyond it, Harry thought he could hear muffled arguments being held in the main hall. “I don’t think that’s very much an option.”

“I say we go for it,” Harry said, suddenly bold in the wake of Draco’s approval of his Imperius Curse. “I mean, we’ve kind of got to. We haven’t got any more Polyjuice Potion.”

“Now or never, then?” Ron sighed, and Griphook clapped.

“Then we press on!” he said, with entirely too much enthusiasm for the danger of their mission. He really wanted the sword, it was evident, and guilt twisted in Harry’s gut like a knife to the stomach. “Now, the cart must be piloted by a Gringotts employee, so Bogrod will handle that—” He gestured vaguely to Travers, slinging the bag of Clankers over his shoulder. “But the wizard can be disposed of. There is no room for him in the cart besides.”

“Disposed—?!” Harry sputtered. “I’m not going to—” He sighed, raising his wand. With another Imperio! he sent Travers off along the cart track in the opposite direction from where they were headed, and he quickly disappeared into the darkness.

“What did you make him do?” Ron asked.

“I told him to hide—that should be enough, right? Just keep him out of our hair for a while.” A horrible thought occurred to him, though, and he turned to Draco. “Wait, how long does Imperius last? Like, he won’t stay hidden down here forever just because I told him to one time, right?” God, had he just effectively killed Travers?

“You have to recast at regular intervals to retain power, unless you’re exceptionally skilled with the spell. I expect he’ll start feeling more like himself in a few hours,” Draco said. “Hopefully we’ll be well quit of this place by then.”

That was both encouraging and not; Harry was relieved to know Travers would not needlessly die lost and alone beneath Gringotts, but he would also be able to tell tale of what he’d witnessed them doing. “…He knows we’ve been here, though. He’ll tell You-Know-Who what we’re up to, he’ll—”

“Not remember a thing,” Draco said, twirling his wand in Bellatrix’s long fingers. He managed the trick nicely, even with her sharp, pointed nails. “As I said before: you lot would be lost without me.”

Harry’s shoulders slumped in relief, but before he could express his thanks for Draco’s quick thinking, Griphook was grumbling at him to Get on with it!

With another Imperio, Harry ordered Bogrod to commandeer them a cart. which was summoned by a shrill whistle, rattling down the tracks from the direction in which Travers had disappeared.

Hurried on by the banging on the door down the passageway behind them, they all climbed into the cart. They had locked the door fast, but sooner or later, whoever was trying to break through would succeed and come looking for them.

Bogrod took the driver’s position, with Griphook alongside him, and Harry, Ron, and Draco crammed together in the back seat. Draco pulled Hermione out of his pocket to be sure she wasn’t squashed, but she remained in her Animagus form, as there was no room for her as a human.

“Weasley, get your hand off my arse.”

“It’s not on your arse! I’ve got my arm stuck—”

“Yes, under my arse.”

Ron twisted around, fixing Harry with a look. “It’s not on his arse.”

Harry gave him a bemused smile. “…All right?”

With a jolt, Bogrod threw the cart into gear, and it quickly began gathering speed as it trundled along the track for a few dozen feet before making a series of sharp twists and turns through the labyrinthine passages, sloping ever downwards. Harry thought that Ron and Draco might still be arguing about the placement of hands and their proximity to people’s arses, but as they sped along, he found he could hear nothing over the bone-jolting rattle of the cart flying over the tracks. He tried to remember if it had been this harrowing a trip—in almost pitch black save for the flash of torches on the walls rushing by—when he was eleven and could not honestly recall. Perhaps it had been, and the shock had simply melded together with the rest of the fantastic things he’d been exposed to that fateful day.

He twisted around, trying to see behind them, but it was too dark to make out anything. Were they being followed already? Had another Goblin—or worse, Death Eaters—hopped their own cart and begun racing after them? They really ought to have gone for a stealthier approach—what had they been thinking, having Draco swanning about in broad daylight as one of the most infamous Death Eaters out there, especially one whose whereabouts could easily be verified in an instant? Would the Goblins notify other Death Eaters of the break-in? Griphook had shown no love for Voldemort or his movement—he hadn’t seemed to care at all, really—but plundering Gringotts was a different matter entirely and would surely not be dismissed lightly, no matter whose vault was being pilfered.

A chill breeze gusted through Harry’s hair, and he shivered. They were deep beneath Gringotts now—deeper than Harry had ever been before—and the temperature was plummeting. He could see his breath misting in the air if he exhaled hard enough—

Wait, that wasn’t his breath. That was real mist, and it was only when they took a hairpin turn at speed that Harry saw it: A massive pounding waterfall sheeting over the track.

He distantly wondered what on earth a waterfall was doing this far underground, and why they’d built the cart track to go right under it, when Griphook cried, “No!”—but too late, they could not have veered away or braked the cart if they’d wanted to. The cart raced forward, zipping straight through the curtain of water and submerging them all instantly. Ice-cold water filled his nose and mouth, and he fought the instinct to inhale in shock. Everything went dark and quiet—and then the cart pitched forward with a bucking jolt, sending them all flying out the other side of the waterfall.

A deafening CRASH heralded the cart smashing against the rock-face wall of the passage, and Harry immediately brought his arms up, braced himself for a similar experience—when he hit a soft cushion with a WHUMP that nearly stole the breath from his lungs. He slumped to the ground not gently, but not in the tangle of broken limbs he had expected thanks to the Cushioning Charm hastily cast by a now-human Hermione.

She was dripping wet and being helped to her feet by Ron, who was once again a gangly freckled redhead, and beside them stood an un-Polyjuiced Draco in sopping wet women’s robes with his white-blond hair plastered to his head. What the devil had just happened—?

“Augh, the Thief’s Downfall,” Griphook grumbled as he struggled to his feet. He had a nasty gash on his forehead and was glaring back at the waterfall pounding over the track. “We should not have been anywhere near it—that the tracks were diverted suggests we’ve been made. They’ve realised that Gringotts has been infiltrated—this is but the first of the defences they’ll be setting off against us.”

Draco struggled out of the wet robes, running his wand over his undershirt and pants to dry them. He caught Harry staring and snapped, “Do you mind?” before quickly Transfiguring his undergarments into a proper shirt and trousers.

Hermione was checking that she still had her beaded bag with its Extension charm unbroken by the jaunt through the enchanted waterfall, and Harry patted his shirt to be sure that he had his Mokeskin pouch as well. Blessedly, everything seemed to be in order—including the Invisibility Cloak.

“What’s going on here?” someone groused, and Harry whirled around to see Bogrod shaking his head in bewilderment; the Thief’s Downfall seemed to have lifted the Imperius Curse.

“Wizards!” Griphook squawked. “Quickly, the Imperius! We still need a Gringotts employee to grant us entry to the vault, seeing as ‘Madam Lestrange’ neglected to bring her key along.”

“Oh, right,” Harry said, pointing his wand at Bogrod. Once more, he pointed his wand at the befuddled Goblin, silently apologising for how scrambled his brains were likely to be after all this, and said, “Imperio!” The now-familiar sense of empowerment and immutable control thrilled through him, and this time when he shivered, it wasn’t entirely from disgust. Bogrod straightened, all confusion fleeing his features and replaced instead by blithe indifference, and Harry silently instructed him to take up the leather bag of metal, as Griphook continued to insist upon its importance.

“You’re getting good at this,” Draco marvelled. “We’ll make a proper Dark Wizard of you yet…”

“Don’t even joke about that,” Harry warned. “This feels—wrong.” It was a lie—but he certainly didn’t want to deal with Hermione’s lecturing concern right now, nor did he want to ask her or Ron to have to do this, and asking Draco to take over felt too cowardly. He would finish this and then never have cause to use this horrible, addicting Curse again.

A shout echoed from further down the passageway, and Hermione gasped, “Someone’s coming! We need to get out of here, now!”

The cart was a pile of kindling, and Harry sincerely hoped they were not too far from the Lestranges’ vault. “Can you get us to the vault?” he asked Griphook, who jerked his head forward along the passageway.

“It is only a bit farther; we can make it on foot, but only if we are quick about it.” With that, he scurried into the darkness. Harry scooped up Bogrod, and Ron cast a Lumos to light their way as they hurried after the Goblin.

“I realise I’m probably not gonna like the answer,” Ron said, throwing panicked looks over his shoulder every few paces, “But have we got any clue how we’re gonna get out of here now?”

“You’re right,” Harry said. “You aren’t gonna like the answer.” He strained his ears, trying to listen for sounds of pursuit, but the rebounding echoes made it impossible to tell how near or far any followers were. He could, though, hear something clanking and moving around up ahead, and an uncomfortable foreboding wrapped cold fingers around his heart. “How much further, Griphook?”

“Nearly there,” Griphook panted. “Now there is only…”

Griphook trailed off, and Harry was about to ask Only what? when they rounded a corner into a massive open cavern and he saw ‘what’—the creature they had been warned of in vagueries and It will be handleds, now in flesh and blood before them, bringing them all screeching to a halt.

A dragon, at least three or four times Draco’s size, was tethered to the ground by long, thick chains, its great bulk barring access to several of the deepest vaults in the place—one of which was, of course, the Lestrange vault.

The beast’s hide was a pale, sickly cream, but it looked nothing like Draco; its scales had whitened from being trapped for what was likely a very long time deep within the bowels of Gringotts, and they did not shine as Draco’s did, reflecting absorbed light with a ghostly glow. Its eyes, nearly crusted shut, were a milky white that suggested it was nearly blind, and its tree-trunk-sized rear legs were bound and shackled in thick iron cuffs bolted to the ground, leaving it just enough slack to shuffle in place. Its massive spike-tipped wings, strapped close to its body with thick bindings, would likely have filled the cavern had there been room enough to spread them.

Harry took a step back, gravel crunching underfoot, and the dragon turned its truck-sized head towards them, releasing a roar that made the stalactites hanging high above tremble. Harry saw the fire building in its throat only seconds before it spat a jet of flame at them, but Draco deflected the blast with a thoughtless Protego. He stared at the dragon in its pitiful state with an expression of dark offence, and Harry didn’t doubt he was recalling his own imprisonment in the Ministry. He touched Draco’s arm, whispering softly, “C’mon…” It wouldn’t do any good to stare, when there was nothing they could do. Harry had already fulfilled a lifetime’s worth of dragon-rescuing duties.

“Mind your distance from the beast,” Griphook said, glaring at the dragon from behind the safety of Draco’s Shield Charm. It continued to gnash its teeth at their group, testing the strength of the shield with great bursts of white-hot fire. “The chains hold—but I should not like to test them.”

“So how are we supposed to get around it?” Ron asked, glancing to Draco. “…You wouldn’t be able to ask your cousin nicely to let us pass, would you?”

Draco made a rude gesture, and Griphook huffed. “For that, we have the Clankers—have Bogrod attend to the beast.”

Harry didn’t quite know what having Bogrod ‘attend’ to the dragon meant, but he twitched his wand in command all the same. The Goblin placed the leather bag he had slung over his back on the ground and loosened the mouth, drawing out a pair of small metal instruments—and ‘clank’ing them together. The sound of rapping metal echoed through the cavern with a sharp ringing noise, not unlike hammers on anvils.

The dragon flinched with a toothy hiss, and Bogrod passed the instruments to Harry before reaching into the bag to retrieve another pair. It shortly became evident they were expected to fill the cavern with a cacophonous racket that would keep the dragon at bay long enough to allow Bogrod to open the vault for them. Draco balked when Harry tried to pass him his Clankers. He sighed, “I know it seems cruel—”

Seems?” Draco spat.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Harry said, shoving the Clankers into Draco’s hands. “Horcrux first; vigilante justice for your distant relatives later.”

Draco’s grey eyes showed no amusement with the quip, but he accepted the Clankers, morosely banging the metal together as he fixed the Goblins with a frigid glare.

“Excellent, yes—keep it up. The creature had been trained to expect pain with the ringing of the Clankers,” Griphook explained. “Once it has retreated, have Bogrod place his hand upon the vault door to will it open.”

Draco’s Shield Charm shortly became unnecessary as the dragon released a pained roar and slunk back from the din, the noise echoing off the rocky walls, grossly magnified. Harry sympathised with the creature, as his own skull felt like it was vibrating with each CLANG CLANG CLANG.

As they passed by, still rattling the Clankers, Harry could see the dragon was trembling, and he could make out old scars raked over its face. They looked too fine to have been the result of battle with another dragon. The creature has been trained to expect pain, Griphook had said. God, what a miserable life this thing must have led. Where such wounds on a wild dragon might have healed quickly, given their fantastic abilities, malnutrition and long imprisonment had probably sapped the poor creature’s reserves.

Draco was staring fixedly at the dragon, and Harry knew he wasn’t imagining the deep, low growl building in Draco’s chest. For a wild moment, he worried Draco might snap and transform uncontrollably, as rage and fear had certainly been a trigger before, but he managed to hold it together until they had nearly completely flanked the dragon.

“Quickly!” Griphook growled. “Have him open the vault!” Harry was beginning to get annoyed with having to constantly direct Bogrod to do this or that. He would have Imperiused Bogrod to obey Griphook if he’d known he’d have to deliver new orders secondhand every five minutes.

He delivered the instructions, though, and Bogrod toddled over to the nearest vault door, bracing his palm against the wooden jamb of what Harry took to be the Lestrange vault. After a moment, the door dissolved before them, like a sandcastle exposed to the ocean spray, and suddenly they were staring at veritable mountains of treasure.

The vault itself was cavernous, standing several storeys high on the inside and half a Quidditch pitch long—and it was filled, floor to ceiling, with all manner of gold and goblets, jewels and gems, whole suits of armour, crowns and tiaras and circlets, hides and hunting trophies, glass cabinets displaying flasks of potions in every colour of the rainbow, and towering bookshelves that Hermione was already eyeing with wide-eyed wonder.

Who on earth needed so much treasure? It was absurd—and so disorganised, too! How did the Lestranges ever manage to find anything when they had occasion to visit? Was it just a matter of Summoning what they needed? Just in case, Harry pointed his wand into the hoard—for that was what it felt like, and there was even a dragon guarding it—and said, “Accio Horcrux!” but of course nothing happened. “Was worth a shot,” he sighed.

“I’d have been worried if it was that easy,” Hermione said, chivvying them inside with admonitions. “Let’s get to it the old-fashioned way, then. Remember—it’s either Hufflepuff’s cup or Ravenclaw’s diadem.”

“Or Ravenclaw’s something else,” Ron corrected, and Harry was reminded of their running argument over Ravenclaw’s artefact. This might be a more substantial undertaking than they’d anticipated, and time was decidedly not on their side.

They hurried inside, and Harry kept his eyes peeled for anything that looked like it might be a Horcrux. He had described Hufflepuff’s cup to the others, but if it was the item of Ravenclaw’s that lay in the vault, they would have to hope they came across something with the familiar crest on it. At least there was little likelihood Bellatrix would have kept something from any House other than Slytherin if it wasn’t a powerful magical object, so they could be assured that anything of Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw make was a Horcrux.

He had just begun to run his eyes over a bookcase overflowing with all manner of shiny, glittery bric-a-brac when there came a muffled clunk from behind, and they were plunged into total darkness. The doorway had reformed, it seemed, and now they were locked inside.

Before Harry’s heart could leap from his throat in panic, Griphook called, “Fret not, Bogrod will be able to release us when the time comes! Continue your searching—and quickly!”

Draco called out Lumos, as did Hermione, and the room lit up bright as day under the combined glare of their spells.

The light from their twin spells glinted from something on top of the shelf, Harry could now see, and he lifted up on his toes and craned his neck: it was the fake sword of Gryffindor, locked inside a glass case. “Don’t worry, no one’s gonna steal your worthless fake,” Harry muttered to the absent Bellatrix. He would’ve gladly given all of the gold in his own vault to see the look on her face when she realised that not only had she lost the Horcrux her master had entrusted to her, but the Horcrux killer she thought she’d secreted away safely wasn’t even real. Harry still didn’t know how it had come into their possession, and he admittedly didn’t care. Griphook would just have to be patient for a bit longer, as they weren’t through with it yet.

He kept the location of the fake sword in the back of his mind, ready for the switch later should it come to that—Griphook might not be fooled for long, but perhaps at a quick glance he’d believe it, and they could flee before he realised—and continued to peer around the vault and its heaps of treasure.

“Oh!” Hermione gasped. “I think I might have—Ah!” Her words were cut off by a sharp shriek of pain, and Harry whipped around. Hermione had stacked a collection of fine travel cases on top of one another so she could reach a set of jewel-encrusted goblets—one of which went flying as she flung it away, shaking her hand with a wincing grimace. The goblet hit the stone floor with a bright CLANG—and then burst apart, not broken but split into a dozen exact copies that clattered to the ground themselves, bouncing and rolling in every direction. Even having watched it happen, it was impossible for Harry to tell which had been the original cup.

Hermione was sucking on her fingers, moaning, “Flagrante Curse! It must be part of the vault’s security measures.”

“And Gemino Curses as well,” Griphook said, keeping well back from the copy-cups. “Take care with where you step and what you touch—lest you wind up roasted alive and crushed under the weight of ever-expanding gold.”

Harry wondered if this was Gringotts standard-issue security, or if Bellatrix had suggested that little addition herself. It certainly sounded sadistic enough to have come from that crazy witch’s head, but Harry was learning that Goblins could be pretty cruel themselves.

“All right, you heard the Goblin: no one touch anything.” Harry called out, eyes on his feet to be sure he didn’t inadvertently nudge one of the rolling goblets, but it was already too late. Ron slipped on a pile of gold coins toppled in the commotion, and he hissed in pain, hopping on one foot as a fountain of coins erupted.

Harry quickly threw up a Shield Charm to keep them from being pelted by flying coins, but he could see the damage had already been done: The toe of Ron’s trainer had melted away, leaving behind a smoking hole through which his wriggling socked toes could be seen.

“Ron!” Hermione cried, casting Aguamenti at his shoe, just in case.

“Right, everyone hold still now,” Harry instructed, meeting their eyes one by one. “We’ve got precious little time, but we can’t chance drowning in treasure.”

“To think there was a time I might have yearned to go out like that,” Draco drawled, scanning the piles of gold and finery with sharp eyes.

“We’re either looking for a small, gold goblet—not much bigger than the ones served tableside at Hogwarts—with a badger engraved on the side, or else something of Ravenclaw’s. Just look for the symbols—that’ll be easiest. The eagle for—”

“We know!” Ron huffed. “We’ve only been over this a hundred times. Hufflepuff, badger, cup. Ravenclaw, eagle…fine, probably the diadem.”

Hermione flushed with a satisfied smile, quickly turning her back on them and busying herself with a stack to her right.

Backs to one another so they didn’t chance brushing up against something they shouldn’t, they shifted as a group, wands turned on the room to direct light into ever nook and cranny as they scoured the stacks of treasure with their eyes. Yet even with these precautions, they still managed to trip over the odd toppled statue or stumble against one of the false copies already produced by the Gemino curses, compounding the problem and earning them fresh burns. Harry was the next to send a jewellery box of precious gemstones cascading to the floor in a white-hot rainbow waterfall that multiplied several dozen-fold even as he struggled to move out of its path.

The treasure was crowding in uncomfortably close now, and the air in the vault grew close and oppressively hot from all the multiplying Flagranted objects, blazing with heat. They were going to either be buried alive or burned to a crisp before they managed to find the Horcrux, and Harry rubbed at his eyes to wipe away the salty sweat seeping into them. He wished he could recall the spell to stop his glasses from fogging up, because the furnace-like heat had him stumbling around half-blind.

He squinted, running his eyes over shields and Goblin-made helmets and suits of armour. He had just dismissed a silver tea service as frivolous finery when an out-of-place flash of burnished gold against the china tea pot caught his eye. He cast a Lumos of his own, raising his wand higher and swallowed, the light bouncing off a stout goblet with a badger embossed on the side.

“I FOUND IT! Hufflepuff’s goblet! It’s here!”

“Where?!” Ron cried, and Harry rounded on him quickly.

“Don’t move! Just—it’s right up there, next to the tea service!” He fixed the light of his wand on the set to draw the others’ eyes.

His heart skipped several beats. After all Voldemort had done to twist “Sweet Hufflepuff”’s artefact to Dark purposes, making its way through the ages, passing from hand to hand as gift or through murder, here it was.

The fourth Horcrux, within their grasp.

Or well, almost within their grasp—which Harry supposed was the problem.

“…Right, well, it looks lovely all the way up there. How exactly are we supposed to get it down from there? Especially without touching it?” Ron asked, voicing Harry’s concerns.

“Can Draco grab it?” Hermione asked, looking to Draco. “Flagrante shouldn’t be a match for dragonhide, I should think.”

Flagrante might not hurt him, but you’ve seen the size of him,” Harry said. “There’s no way he’d be able to avoid setting off the Gemino curses, and then we’d be buried alive, along with the Horcrux.”

Draco swiped the air with his wand, sending up warning sparks. “Did you just say I’ve got a big arse, Potter?”

Harry rolled his eyes—then an idea hit him. “Wait—flying!”

Draco recoiled. “I can’t fly in here!”

Harry waved him away. “Now who’s not thinking like a wizard?” He looked to Hermione. “Levicorpus!”

She frowned. “That still doesn’t help us touch the thing.”

She had a point; how did you grab something without touching it? Or touch it without activating the curses? It clearly responded to human touch—or living touch, rather, as Draco would likely set it off as a dragon, and Griphook would set it off as a Goblin. If only they had dragonhide gloves, or tongs or—

“The sword!” He pounded his fist into his palm. “We can slip the blade through the handles on the cup!” He snapped his fingers at Hermione. “Let’s try, come on!”

She fumbled inside her robes and drew out the beaded bag, rummaging through it for a few seconds before pointing her wand into its depths and saying Accio sword!

Whatever spells had kept it from being Summoned from the pond had been broken, and the sword flew into her grip ruby-studded hilt-first, and she passed it to Harry. He carefully touched the tip to a silver flagon nearby—and breathed a sigh of relief when nothing happened.

They had practised the Levicorpus spell in Dumbledore’s Army, and as she had shown the most success between the three of them who’d taken part in the lesson, it was decided that Hermione would be in charge of levitating Harry up to poke the sword through the cup’s handle. Draco did not seem too enthused about this plan (“Let Weasley play the victim this time! Granger’s got a vested interest in keeping him in one piece!”), but there was no time to argue. The heat was unbearable, searing their skin just standing in place, and he could hear the Gringotts dragon roaring plaintively on the other side of the vault door, the distant sound of clanking growing louder and louder.

They would have to fight their way out of here, one way or another, it was becoming rapidly clear. If that was how it was going to be, then they were at least going to have something to show for it, this Harry vowed.

“Let’s go,” Harry said, bracing himself with the hilt of the sword gripped tightly in both hands. They would probably only have one shot at this, with what sounded like a whole horde of angry Goblins bearing down upon them, likely armed and definitely dangerous.

Hermione turned to face him, her wand raised and an uncharacteristic look of uncertainty painted on her features. She was always so confident in her spellwork, and Harry really didn’t need her doubting herself now of all times. “You can do this,” he urged with as much confidence as he could force into his voice. “You’re the brightest witch of our age; even Draco says so.” He cut Draco a warning look, daring him to contradict Harry.

“Rubbish, he does not,” Hermione huffed, strained amusement in her tone as she tried to fight back a smile.

“At least one of you knows me,” Draco said, frown pinched. “Drop him, and I’ll flambé you, Granger.”

“Today, people!’ Ron called, eyes fixed on the vault door with such intensity, Harry thought he might be trying to see through it.

“Right, yes,” Hermione said, taking a measured breath. “Levicorpus!

Harry’s legs slid out from under him as if he’d slipped on a slick patch of grass, and he abruptly found himself airborne, dangling from one ankle as his robes flew up (or down, rather) to cover his face. He pinwheeled his arms instinctively as he swung like a pendulum, and in his flailing, he slammed into a standing suit of armour, sending white-hot replicas crashing down around him.

“Fuck, look out!” he cried, contorting himself to try and pick his friends out from the chaos.

He caught a flash of white and an unearthly screech—and then his vision was filled with bat-like wings, spread wide and fanning over the floor of the vault.

Draco twined his sinewy body in as tight a circle as he could manage and kept his wings flared, shielding Hermione and Ron from the burning metal raining down on their heads as best he could. With his bulk, he couldn’t possibly avoid bumping against heaps of gold and jewels and bringing stacks of Galleons and other fine currency crashing to the ground, but he seemed equal to the task of protecting the vulnerable Hermione and Ron from the rising tide. He didn’t so much as flinch when the searing-hot metal pressed against his hide, and Harry was reminded once more that dragons were truly fantastic beasts.

But the ruckus on the floor toppled the fragile tower atop which the cup had been perched with its companion tea set, and with a panicked yelp, Harry thrust the sword forward, narrowly managing to thread the blade through one of the cup’s handles before it disappeared into the roiling sea of treasure below.

Bogrod was nowhere to be seen, perhaps having already been pulled under the crushing mass of gold, and Harry cast about for Griphook. A pained, gurgling scream barely audible over the roar of clinking treasure drew his attention, and he twisted around just in time to glimpse a Goblin’s long, knobby, claw-tipped fingers slipping under the rising tide.

Harry writhed in place, still hoisted high by Hermione’s Levicorpus, and he forced his body into a swinging pattern that brought him steadily closer and closer to what he guiltily hoped was Bogrod and not Griphook, as this was looking to be a fantastically convenient way out of their deal with the Goblin.

He thrust his hand into the white-hot mass of treasure, pushing past the pain and feeling about until his hands brushed another’s—and with a sharp yank, he drew out painfully slowly a blistered, yowling Goblin. The creature’s pasty skin was pockmarked with sizzling burns, and the room was shortly filled with the stench of burning flesh, but Harry could still tell that it was Griphook and not Bogrod clutching his hand.

Grunting, Harry twisted and wriggled until he managed to palm his wand, an awkward feat with the sword of Gryffindor now clutched in one cramping hand and Griphook hanging on for dear life to the fingers of another. He angled his wand, pointing at his leg, and yelled, “Liberacorpus!

He plummeted downward, Griphook cushioning his fall atop the swelling mass of blazing treasure, and Harry cried out as the heat seared straight through his clothes. He could feel boils rising up on his skin, and he convulsed, drawing his knees in to make himself as small as possible and instinctively wrapping his arms around his body.

The sword—and cup still threaded on its blade—slipped from his fingers in the mayhem, disappearing into the rising tide of magically multiplied treasure. “No!” Harry cried.

Griphook scrambled out from under Harry, clambering atop him this time and evidently intent on riding him like a human sled and thereby avoiding injury. He scanned the chaos with his beady black eyes, and Harry could hear the noise on the other side of the door growing deafening, drowning out the clinking cacophony of tumbling treasure. It was too late—

Griphook shouted something raspy in Gobbledegook that sounded particularly triumphant and made a mad lunge. The wild, desperate look in his eye told Harry what had always been the truth of the matter: Griphook had never trusted them to hand over the sword, and it was every man—or Goblin—for himself now.

Draco must have seen them, for he released a shrieking roar that brought dust sprinkling down from the stony ceiling of the vault. He snapped his neck out, catching Harry by the trouser leg before he slipped beneath the swell and tossing him under the protection of his wing along with Hermione and Ron.

“Griphook has the sword—and the cup!” he moaned, gingerly rising to his feet.

“Not for long he doesn’t!” Hermione growled, brandishing her wand. “Accio Griphook’s collar!”

Griphook’s gurgling yelp echoed sharply around the vault, and he came tumbling down into the pit Draco had made with his body. The treasure pressed in around them, and Draco grunted with the effort. Very soon, he would no longer be able to shield them, and even now, Galleons and beaded necklaces slipped through, threatening to burst into a hundred different copies if they didn’t watch their step.

“You little thief!” Ron roared. “We told you you could have if after we got out of here!”

Griphook scrambled out of Ron’s reach, the sword clutched to his chest, and the tiny golden cup that had been skewered on the sword’s blade slipped free and went rolling across the floor.

“Fuck—the cup!” Harry dove, driven by instinct, and grabbed the cup with both hands, clutching it tight to his chest even as fresh replicas came pinging free, quickly filling the little sanctuary Draco had created for them from the treasure bearing down around them. He could smell his own flesh being scalded, yet he refused to relinquish his hold—none of this would matter, none of it, if they didn’t come out the other side with the Horcrux.

An ominous groan sounded around them. They would be crushed, there was no getting around it now, and he shouted, “The door, Draco! Get us out of here!”

Draco hesitated only a moment before his calculating Slytherin mind caught up with reality, and he flared his wings, sending the treasure threatening to bury them alive exploding away as he charged for the door.

Not having been built to stand up to a rampaging dragon—even one on the smaller end of the spectrum—the vault door crumpled, and Draco burst out into the corridor, a veritable avalanche of red-hot treasure quite literally hot on his heels. Harry screamed in agony as he, Ron, and Hermione were borne away on a tide of scalding, still-replicating jewels and finery into the darkened outer chamber.

His body felt like one great boiling welt, but still he kept his hold on the Horcrux, even as more and more cups sprang into being, pinging against the walls and floor and ceiling.

“Harry, let go!” Hermione cried, reaching for the cup with hands covered in a length of fabric: the robes Draco had worn to play his aunt. Harry tried to uncurl his fingers, to drop it into Hermione’s waiting hands, but they would no longer obey him, and she eventually had to tear it from him—ripping away a sizzling strip of flesh in the process.

He seized, eyes clenched shut, and was barely conscious of being dragged forcibly away from where the tide of treasure had spit him out. He could hear approaching footsteps—a great many—and clamouring shouts.

“Up on your feet, Potter!” Draco hissed, human again now and shoving an arm under Harry’s shoulder to hoist him up. “No rest for the wicked, and all.”

“Griphook…” Harry grunted. “The sword!”

But Griphook was gone, having scarpered the first chance he’d seen, with the sword safely in his clutches. Through blurred double vision, Harry caught him cleverly folding himself into the oncoming horde of Goblins, as if he’d been part of their ranks all along.

“Thieves!” Griphook cried, brandishing the sword over his head. “Thieves in the vaults! Thieves come to steal!” The Goblins either did not realise Griphook had been the one who’d helped them infiltrate the bank, or else they didn’t care, for Griphook melted into the crowd without issue, just another angry face amongst dozens ready to tear into Harry and his friends.

Harry leaned away from Draco, swaying unsteadily on his feet and palming his wand. There was to be no more subterfuge; the only way out now was through the veritable Goblin army advancing upon them.

“This would be a lot easier with the Killing Curse…” Draco murmured at his side, and Harry gave him a warning look. Draco shrugged. “I’m only saying. If we don’t make it out alive, you’ll know why.”

Stupefy!” Harry shouted in response, aiming square for the Goblins at the head of the oncoming horde. Hermione and Ron joined in, while Draco—evidently one to forge his own path—used another spell Harry didn’t catch that came out a vibrant yellow. The Stunning Spells sent several of the Goblins toppling, but they were quickly replaced by their fellows who continued to close in. Draco’s spell exploded the ground beneath the front-most lines, sending Goblins flying in all directions, and while it was rather a more violent approach than Harry might have liked, they had little choice.

A chorus of shouts echoed down the hall, carrying over the rasping, gravelly voices of the Goblins, and Harry spotted a team of wizard guards threading their way through the crowd, wands raised for battle.

“Enough!” Harry shouted, once they’d cleared a wide enough swathe to allow them to flank the Goblin horde. “Let’s go!”

They would have to return the way they’d come—a long but necessary trek that would take them through an army of enemies bent on their capture, at least until they could reach the unwarded levels from which they could Apparate to safety.

They continued to fling spells at the Goblins to keep their path clear. There was no recovering the sword now; they were only concerned with escaping with their lives. A Horcrux killer was no use to them if they were too dead to use it, after all.

The Gringotts dragon was waiting for them when they re-emerged into the massive cavern, and it let out a furious roar at yet more interlopers encroaching on its territory. The Goblins had cowed it with their Clankers, but Bogrod’s bag had been lost in the shuffle.

Harry was dancing on the edge of despair that they were caught now between a rock and a toothy, fiery hard place, when the hired wizarding guards sent a pair of Confringos sailing over their heads, missing Ron by mere inches and instead hitting the tethered dragon.

It gave a snarling snort of offence, turning its attention to the wizards who had attacked it, and sent a gout of flame their way. The wizards promptly turned tail and fled, doubling back the way they’d come in a mad scramble.

With the dragon distracted, Draco strode forward, pointing his wand at the cuffs chaining the beast in place. “Relashio!” he spat with a wicked grin, either mad or inspired, Harry wasn’t honestly sure.

“What are you doing?!” Hermione shrieked, clinging to Ron when the cuffs broke open with loud bangs. The dragon didn’t seem to notice it had been freed just yet, lashing out at the Goblins who were beginning to press closer and closer, waving their short, stubby daggers at its snout.

Draco fired a Stunning Spell at the advancing Goblins and then sprinted towards the half-blind dragon. “Come on!”

“Malfoy, are you totally off your nutter?!” Ron cried. “As if we didn’t have enough creatures down here trying to kill us already?”

Draco ducked when the dragon’s tail swept out, barely missing taking off his head. “I was thinking we might take our leave, if we’re done with the tour?” He nodded to the dragon, motioning them over, and Harry now saw what he meant for them to do. “Come on, climb up—before it realises it’s free and makes a break prematurely.”

“We can’t ride this thing!” Ron sputtered, even as he helped boost Hermione onto the crook of the dragon’s hind leg. It didn’t seem to notice it was taking on passengers, still preoccupied with the Goblins trying to hem it back away from the vaults it had been charged with guarding.

Once Hermione was up on the dragon’s back, she extended a hand to help Ron climb up behind her.

Harry laid a hand on the beast’s heaving side; its scales were tough as bone and somehow cool to the touch, unlike Draco who always ran hot in his Animagus form. Hardly the most secure way to make an exit—and certainly not subtle—but they’d lost that luxury a while back. Better to make a scene and escape alive than to try lying low and not escape at all.

“Today, Potter!” Draco hissed, zapping a group of Goblins trying to flank the dragon with a volley of Stinging Hexes.

“Right,” Harry said, then braced a hand on the dragon’s leg to lever himself up, reaching for Ron’s outstretched hand—

—when quite inconveniently, the beast seemed to realise its chains had at last been loosed, dancing like a spooked horse and swinging its truck-sized head about with an enraged roar as one of the wizards slung a Confringo at its underbelly, perhaps hoping to find a sensitive spot. But given Harry was pretty sure this was a Ukrainian Ironbelly—Hermione had been most insistent he practically memorise Men Who Love Dragons Too Much—this served only to rile the dragon up further.

With a shrill, rasping screech, it reared on its hind legs, and Harry had to duck and roll to avoid being trampled underfoot or thrown by its flaring wings. The Goblins also gave it a wide berth as it knocked several dozen of their ranks aside like paper soldiers.

“Harry!” Hermione cried fearfully, and he shared the sentiment. He could feel the blood draining from his face; he had to get up on the dragon’s back, because now it was crouching low, with its neck drawn in and angled upward, like it was sighting itself for a jump. If the beast got airborne, Harry would be trapped down here with the Goblins.

He made a grab for the lashing tail—but something snagged his collar, dragging him back and nearly wringing his neck.

“Leave it!” Draco shouted into his ear, straining to be heard over the din of the shouting Goblins and roaring dragon, before adding in softer invitation that Harry swore sounded almost playful, “Still want to ride me?”

What?!” Harry sputtered, but Draco was already dancing away in a blur of white that loomed large as his fingers splayed and grew—until it was the dragon standing before him.

It huffed in irritation that Harry was certain amounted to Hurry the fuck up! and crouched as low as possible, though it was no trouble at all to scramble up onto its back, given Draco was several hands shorter than the Gringotts dragon. For the sake of his ego, though, Harry did not mention this.

He had just enough time to wrap his arms in a deathgrip around Draco’s long, serpentine neck before the Gringotts dragon released a primal screech and then launched itself into the air, Hermione and Ron clinging to its back for dear life.

Harry wondered for a wild moment if it was going to try and burst through the ceiling of the cavern, for where else could it possibly go?

Instead, though, it dug its claws into the rocky face of the wall, craning its neck around to get its bearings, and then dove for the passageway through which they had travelled to reach these lowest-level vaults.

Half of the Goblin horde dove out of the way, squawking in terror, while the other half proceeded to hurl daggers and lances that bounced as harmlessly off the beast’s hide as spellfire had.

Before any of them could realise that there was another smaller, much more vulnerable and easily reachable target in Draco, he coiled his muscles, bunched tight like an arrow, and then launched himself after the other dragon.

It took several concerted beats of his wings for Draco to gain the desired altitude, no doubt thrown off-balance by the additional and unexpected weight of a rider.

The Gringotts dragon was clawing and snapping at the narrow opening to the passageway, as it was far too bulky to squeeze through. It opened its great maw and vomited a gout of flame into the tunnel, turning the passage into a red-hot furnace and likely reducing to cinders any unfortunate Goblins still lurking within. In a panicked rage, it raked its talons across the crumbling, cracked walls, tearing away stone and mortar through sheer force.

Defodio!” Hermione shouted, and the stone face of the cavern gave a groaning snap, crumbling around the dragon and sending up a choking cloud of dust. “Help me cast!” she called from somewhere in the chaos.

Harry shortly realised they were helping the dragon claw its way to freedom. One arm still looped securely around Draco’s neck as he beat the air furiously to stay aloft, he pointed toward the growing passageway opening, praying he didn’t hit the Gringotts dragon and draw its ire, and shouted in chorus with Hermione, “Defodio!

Ron joined him, and between the three of them and the snarling, frantic Ironbelly, they managed to carve away enough of the walls and ceiling to allow the dragon to force its way through the narrow passageway and into the wider tunnels beyond.

The dragon was blindly racing for freedom, desperate to reach the fresher air at the surface, well away from the shrieking, clanking Goblins. Harry hoped its focus remained too fixed on escape to notice it had a tag-along; Draco was already having to follow at a measured distance, wary of straying too near the dragon’s massive spike-tipped tail that was lashing about wildly and could easily fell him—and Harry—fatally.

The cavern was tumbling down around them—boulders the size of cars and jagged fragments of stalactites and clouds of choking dust filled the air, nearly burying them alive at one point before the Gringotts dragon cleared the debris away with another belching burst of flame.

It was difficult to tell over the sounds of destruction, but Harry thought the clamour of the approaching Goblins might be growing more muffled, and the Ironbelly’s fiery breath filling the passageway kept the path clear—

—until at last, through some miracle brought about by their harried spellwork working in concert with the dragon’s wild, frantic scrabbling, they finally managed to blast their way free from the dark stone passageway, clambering out of what was now a yawning pit in the middle of Gringotts’ grand marble hallway. All present—customers and employees, Goblins and wizards alike—sent up shrieks of terror and dispersed immediately, diving for cover or else racing for the nearest open door. But the dragon paid them no heed, only swung its massive head to and fro, scenting the air. It could taste freedom now, Harry was sure, and with Ron and Hermione clinging terrified to its back, it broke out into a loping gallop as it charged for the entrance. The metal doors buckled like tinfoil as the dragon barrelled through, out and into Diagon Alley, drawing fresh screams and gasps from the startled morning shoppers.

The dragon hesitated only a moment before, with a final bone-juddering roar, it opened its wings like great ragged flags and took to the sky, with Harry—practically throttling Draco—giving fevered chase.


Men Who Love Dragons Too Much Copyright © 2018 by fencer_x. All Rights Reserved.

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