Harry reflected that perhaps hopping a ride on a wild, confused dragon that hadn’t seen the light of day in who knew how long hadn’t been the brightest idea. For one thing, there was no saddle, so one sharp bank or buffeting wind, and Hermione and Ron would go tumbling into oblivion, and for another, there were no reins and thus no way to steer the creature. Then again, half-blind as the dragon was, who was to say it could have been guided at all?

Draco might try to catch them, but while he was doing well enough carrying Harry, he simply was not a large enough breed to be able to support an additional two passengers.

Still, it was hard not to be relieved beyond measure, even as the Gringotts dragon beat its wings furiously for altitude, climbing up and up and up as the rest of the world fell away from them in a blur. They had escaped—and not just with their lives, but with a Horcrux as well! True, they had lost the sword of Gryffindor, but in the heady rush of having survived a situation that had seemed impossible to escape only moments ago, Harry could only think, ‘Well, maybe we’ll track it down again later.’

He clung tight to Draco, who was flapping frantically behind the larger dragon. Between the rough wash of the Ironbelly’s wake and the additional strain of having to support a passenger, Harry didn’t doubt Draco was pushing himself beyond his means, but there was nothing to be done for it just now.

Draco’s scales were smooth and warm, radiating heat from the fire that burned in his belly and cocooning Harry in a bubble that protected him from the cold, biting wind washing over them. His hands ached, fresh burns throbbing with a disjointed rhythm, but he was too exhausted to care. Draco’s bat-like wings beat the air in a whoosh-whoosh-glide pattern that lulled Harry into a doze, and if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was riding a Thestral again, soft, leathery skin and intelligent eyes and all.

Even over the whipping wind, Harry thought he could hear Ron’s colourful oaths, and Hermione’s face was scrunched up in what seemed to be open sobbing, though Harry couldn’t tell if it was from fear or relief. Quite possibly it was both.

He wished he had some way to communicate with Draco. He could probably speak and be heard, but there was of course no way for Draco to respond beyond chirps and snarls and growls. He was usually grateful Draco’s Animagus transformation necessarily shut him up and stifled his sharp comments, but right now it was making matters rather difficult.

Where were they going? Did the Gringotts dragon even know, or was it simply content to be moving away, putting as much distance as possible between itself and its prison? It showed no intent to land, only continuing to climb higher through chilly clouds that turned to mist and condensed into fine droplets against Draco’s hide.

How long could a dragon of the Ironbelly’s size fly before it needed to rest? Likely a fair bit longer than one Draco’s size could—though the Gringotts dragon probably hadn’t flown in years, and it might be starving and would probably need to seek out some form of sustenance sooner or later.

Which sent a chill of realisation rippling down Harry’s spine: they were in the company of a wild, confused, probably ravenous dragon, flying over countryside rife with bite-sized Muggle morsels (not to mention the morsels clinging to the beast’s own back). This could very easily turn into a Statute of Secrecy issue, and while Harry had far more important matters to worry about at the moment, the Ministry getting involved would only make things more difficult.

Even without the Ministry on their case, though, there was little doubt that Voldemort would have his own ways of determining what had gone down in the bowels of Gringotts. How long would it take him to learn that someone had tried to break in?

Would his followers put it off for as long as possible, perhaps trying to retrieve the cup themselves before alerting their master to its disappearance? Once he did learn what had been stolen, would he realise instantly what Harry and the others were up to?

And what of Draco, whose survival had been shadowed—for reasons beyond comprehension—by Snape? The Goblins had probably been distracted by the Gringotts dragon escaping, but a few would surely have noticed the second dragon slipping out alongside its larger cousin. Then, between Griphook and the missing-but-only-presumed-dead Bogrod, Voldemort would learn that underneath the scales and talons had been hiding one of his own Death Eaters turned traitor. Their Obliviation of Travers had been wasted effort.

Would Voldemort do what Narcissa had feared and try to find Draco? Could he track him through the Mark and find Harry in the doing? Or would he simply use Draco’s parents to force him to reveal himself?

Draco was probably wondering these same things, and Harry hoped he wasn’t about to insist on returning to the Manor to rescue his parents—by force, this time. It had been risky the first time and would be suicide now, though he doubted that would deter Draco.

Harry craned his neck to track the land crawling along far below them—the grey cityscape and vines of roadwork marking London had now given over to countryside in patches of green and brown. He had never seen the world from so high a vantage point—not from a broomstick, not even from an aeroplane, and he wished he had the time to truly take it in.

He leaned as far forward as he felt he safely could without toppling, straining to be sure Draco heard him. “We need to land! You-Know-Who’s going to figure out we’re after his Horcruxes now, so it’s only a matter of time before he snatches the one we’re still looking for from its hiding place and secrets it away where we’re sure to never find it.”

They had precious little time to act and could not afford to wait for the Gringotts dragon to decide what it wanted to do. They might already be too late if Voldemort by chance checked up on the as-yet-unidentified Ravenclaw Horcrux first.

Draco’s only response was a huffing grunt, but he put on some speed, wings buffeting the air furiously as he drew alongside the Ironbelly before pulling ahead.

He flew dangerously close to the larger dragon, and Harry realised he was baiting it, trying to get it to follow him down to land. Harry wasn’t entirely sure this was a smart idea at all, especially as Draco had a bite-sized passenger perched on his back—and sure enough, the Ironbelly quickly became irritated with Draco’s idle nips and scrabbling claws. It seemed to pick up his scent despite its poor eyesight and gave chase with a raspy bellow.

It was a harrowing situation, clinging to Draco’s neck as he dipped and swerved to avoid the Ironbelly’s snapping jaws and jets of flame, and Harry yelped out every swear he’d ever heard fall from Uncle Vernon’s lips and a few he’d picked up from Hagrid and Filch over the years as well.

They were far enough out from civilisation now that, as Draco led the Gringotts dragon lower and lower, Harry could make out some sort of forested preserve—perhaps a national park? He caught the sun glinting off a lake in the distance and saw Draco’s plan.

Harry pointed his wand to his throat, whispering, “Sonorus,” and called over to Ron and Hermione, “You’ve gotta dismount! Hop off once it’s over the water!”

Draco broke sharply, and Harry scrambled to hold his seat. The Ironbelly zoomed past him, like a second-rate Seeker missing the Snitch. Draco was by far the more manoeuvrable of the pair, and when Harry glanced back, the Gringotts dragon was already several body-lengths away.

Harry kept his wand at the ready, just in case he needed to do…well, something to distract the dragon from Ron and Hermione. He held his breath, watching as they slithered over the side of the dragon and plopped into the placid water below. The Ironbelly did not seem to notice a thing and appeared content to simply be rid of the annoying little juvenile that had been unwisely picking a fight with it.

Draco gave a roll of his shoulder, dislodging Harry from his seat and sending him tumbling into the cold lake waters below. Harry flailed indignantly, slapping at the water to keep afloat, and sputtered, “What the fuck, Malfoy?!”

But Draco was already at the shore, and he crashed roughly into the sand, throwing up dust and sod as he shakily shifted back to himself.

Oh. Draco must have barely been holding it together, after the long, hard flight, and been worried Harry might be harmed in the inevitable crash that would result from his attempt to land. Harry appreciated the thought, but a bit of warning would’ve been even better.

He swam to shore, fighting against being dragged under by his sodden clothes, and was joined shortly by a spluttering and gasping Ron and Hermione. They found Draco lying on his back on the sand, eyes closed but breathing in great gasping pants; he was only exhausted, not unconscious.

Harry threw a glance over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the Ironbelly on the other side of the lake. It had landed on the distant bank and had its snout buried in the shallow shoreline waters, quenching its thirst. He hoped it kept its distance, as none of them were in any fit state to duel a dragon just now.

He envied Draco, dozing on the beach, but there was no time to waste. He beat back the fog of stress and fatigue threatening to descend upon his mind and began casting the battery of protective spells they’d used in their travels thus far. It would be quite the anticlimax to have escaped certain death—or at least capture—only to be undone because they’d neglected the most basic of security measures.

Deciding he’d done as well as he could for now, he stumbled back over to the others, who—aside from Draco—were busy tending their wounds.

So preoccupied had he been with escaping from Gringotts, Harry had momentarily forgotten the grievous injuries they’d suffered in the vault, but now that they’d had a moment to catch their breath, their many burns and welts were beginning to make themselves known. Ron and Hermione were red all over, their skin scored in places with nasty burns and their clothing dappled with singe marks. Harry was certain the damage would have been even worse if Draco hadn’t helped protect them from the crushing, red-hot treasure, but their injuries were severe all the same.

Hermione Summoned a bottle of essence of dittany from her bag and began dabbing it on her welts and burns before passing it around to Harry and Ron to do the same. She’d begun pulling out bottles of pumpkin juice (fresh from Bill and Fleur’s cold-box back at Shell Cottage) and fresh robes for them all when Draco finally roused and shifted upright, rubbing blearily at his eyes as if waking from a long nap. His skin was pristine, from what Harry could see, the dragon’s thick hide having protected him from any injury in their escape.

Harry uncapped one of the bottles for Draco, pressing it into his hands. “All right, there?”

Draco only nodded mutely, bringing the chilled bottle to his forehead and taking several more long, bracing breaths.

“…Well that was fun,” Ron said, yanking his soaking robes over his head and quickly bundling back up in the fresh change of clothes Hermione had ready. “Let’s never do it again.”

“Agreed,” Hermione sighed. “And hopefully we won’t have to.”

“Let’s not celebrate too early, though,” Harry warned, glumly watching the skin on his hands regrow. He could feel he had boils and blisters in several unmentionable places from his brief dip in the burning treasure, but he lacked the privacy to address them at the moment. Instead, he focused on the most painful of the ones on his exposed skin. “We got the Horcrux, which is great…but now we’re down the sword again.”

Ron shook his head. “That double-crossing little—”

“You say ‘double-crossing’ like you weren’t intending to do the exact same thing to him,” Hermione reminded pointedly.

“But we were doing it for a good reason! And we were gonna give it back to him, like we promised, once we were done with it.”

“Have you still got the cup?” Harry asked Hermione, and she nodded, tugging open her beaded bag and fishing around inside for a moment before at last drawing out a bundle of wound-up fabric. She passed it over to Harry, and carefully, being sure not to touch it, he unwrapped it and stood it in a patch of scrub grass between them. It was unassuming and unremarkable, aside from the handsome enamel badger engraved on the side, its beady golden eyes glinting in the early-afternoon sun. Another impossible mission completed, another Horcrux secured—and hilariously enough, this one had also resulted in the rescue of an angry dragon.

He turned his attention to the far side of the lake, where the Ironbelly was still drinking its fill. How did that work, Harry wondered—wouldn’t the water put out the fire in its belly? Or was the fire stored somewhere separate from the stomach? Perhaps he hadn’t been quite as thorough in his study of Men Who Love Dragons Too Much as Hermione might have liked.

“…I wonder how long they had him chained up down there,” Hermione said, following Harry’s gaze. “I hope he’ll be all right out here on his own. I didn’t notice any Muggle towns nearby when we were flying over, but there’s no telling where he might go from here.”

“Best case scenario, he finds a few villages to go harass and distracts the Ministry for us—we could use a break.” Ron swallowed the last of his juice, then Vanished the bottle. “Either way, I think the dragon can handle itself just fine. I’m more worried about where we go from here.”

“True enough,” Hermione said. “I mean…we weren’t exactly subtle getting in or out—so I’m pretty sure word will get to You-Know Who we broke into one of the vaults. It won’t take him long to piece together what we might have been after.”

“Maybe they’ll be too scared to tell him,” Ron suggested, and Harry couldn’t help it: he laughed—a real, honest sputtering guffaw. It hurt like hell, his entire body aching with the effort. “…What?” Ron asked, one brow raised and a bemused smile on his lips.

Harry pulled off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “I mean. We left a hole in Gringotts the size of…well, a dragon. And fifty Goblins saw us go in and out.” He wrinkled his nose at the rosy blurs that were Ron and Hermione. “But yeah, maybe they won’t tell him.”

And this time, Ron laughed too—and Hermione joined in, struggling to hide her chuckles behind a chiding smile. Draco just rolled his eyes at their display and knocked back the rest of his drink, which was about par for the course.

Voldemort knew—or would know shortly—that his defences were crumbling one by one. But he didn’t know now—Harry’s scar was still intact—and though his body felt like one big, throbbing bruise and he was going a bit loopy and light-headed with hunger, they were alive for now, so what could it hurt to have a little laugh, while they still had the luxury? He slumped back onto the soft, warm sand and laughed with his friends, knowing they would not have cause to do so again for a long while.

“Seriously, though—what are we doing now?” Hermione sighed at last, following Harry’s lead and settling down on the sand, her arms pillowed beneath her head as she basked in the warm glow of the noontime sun. “Should we find Griphook and try to get the sword back from him? Or at least ask to borrow it to destroy the cup?”

Harry shifted upright, looking to the others in turn; their moment’s respite was over—it was time to get back to business. “No—we have to make finding that last Horcrux our top priority. Once You-Know-Who figures out his failsafes aren’t, well, safe, he might start moving them, and then we’ll never get our hands on the remaining two. Nagini will already be difficult enough to deal with, but at least we know she’s a Horcrux. We can’t afford to let the other slip through our fingers.”

“And how exactly do you propose we do that?” Ron asked. “‘S not as if we haven’t spent the better part of the last nine months looking for these things.”

Harry pursed his lips, suspicions finally coalescing into certainty. “…We’ve got to go to Hogwarts. It’s the last place it could possibly be and the only place we haven’t turned upside down searching.” He held a hand up when he saw doubts already forming on their features. “I know it’s dangerous, but we’ve got to take our chances.”

Ron rubbed the back of his neck. “Listen, mate: I know we’re riding high on having just broken into and back out of Gringott’s, but this is pushing our luck…”

Harry looked to Hermione for support, but she bit her lip in worry. “…Harry, are you sure? Even without You-Know-Who realising what we’re up to, Hogwarts is already on high alert for you, and we know there’s more than a few Death Eaters on the staff, not to mention Snape running the whole operation.”

“I’m as sure as I can be. We’ve got no other choice!” He didn’t blame them for not understanding the urgency of the situation—they didn’t have this maddening tick tick tick rattling about inside their skull, counting down the moments until…until something happened. But he still needed them to trust him.

Hermione remained unconvinced. “But—even if we went, and even if we somehow managed to sneak in undetected, what then? We don’t know what the Horcrux is, let alone where to start looking for it. Surely Dumbledore would have found it in the fifty-odd years he was there, what with You-Know-Who churning out Horcruxes left and right!”

“Dumbledore said there were parts of the castle that remained a mystery even to him, though,” Harry reminded her. “That’s as good as him flat-out saying there’s a Horcrux at Hogwarts and he just hadn’t managed to find it yet.”

Draco wiped a hand over his face, then ran his fingers through his hair, ruffling it a bit so it wasn’t slicked back against his skull, as he’d worn it for so many years. “…If it’s there, at Hogwarts, it won’t be hiding in plain sight, else Dumbledore would’ve found it.”

“Thanks for joining the conversation,” Ron drawled, and Draco made a rude gesture, though he seemed too sapped still to escalate matters any further.

“So it’s out of sight. Somewhere no one would look—somewhere even if you did look, you’d probably never find it.”

Hermione frowned. “…What are you getting at?”

Draco clenched his jaw, gaze fixed on the water lapping against the shore. “…There’s a room that…appears sometimes, out of thin air.”

“Yeah,” Ron said. “The Room of Requirement. We’ve only known about it since—what—Fifth Year?”

But Draco shook his head. “No—no, at least, I don’t think so. This room is different, it’s like…it’s for losing things. Keeping them secret. Sometimes forgetting them.”

Harry’s mouth was dry as a desert, and when he spoke, his voice came out a raspy, wondering whisper. “…The Room of Hidden Things.”

Draco frowned at him. “You know about it?”

“Yes—and no. I happened upon it once; it’s where I—” He cut himself off, remembering the string of events that had led to him lobbing the half-blood Prince’s book into the room. Draco would probably not appreciate the reminder, and Harry was not keen to relive it just now. “It doesn’t matter.” He turned to Hermione and Ron, explaining, “It’s kind of like the Room of Requirement, but for anyone who’s ever ‘required’ a place to get rid of things. To lose things you never want to find again. I remember there being all kinds of contraband and other junk when I found it.”

“It’s rather useful as a hiding place, too,” Draco said. “For when you want to lose yourself.” He shifted uncomfortably in place when Harry fixed him with a worried look, concerned at the phrasing. “…I used it quite a bit myself last year, to hide my Animagus preparations.”

“I’ve never heard of this place…” Hermione said, tapping her chin. “But if it’s really what you say it is, then I have to admit it does sound promising. How large a room are we talking about?”

Harry winced, remembering the dozens and dozens of teetering towers of junk, as far as the eye could see. “Well, it’s kind of like a modified version of the Room of Requirement, so…it’s pretty big.” Cataloguing the contents of the entire room could easily take years, but Harry could think of no better hiding place for so precious an object: tossed away as rubbish amidst the forgotten treasures of yesteryear. “But it sounds like as good a place as any to start looking to me.”

Ron sighed. “Well, I haven’t risked my life in a good half-hour. Might as well get to it, yeah?”

Harry gave him a grateful smile, nodding. “All right then—I guess the next task is making it inside without getting caught. What do you think the chances are any of the secret passages into the castle are still working?”

“Do you want to know the odds they’re still working—or the odds they aren’t being guarded?” Hermione asked with a wry grin. “Because I’m more concerned with the latter myself.”

“Well, yeah, okay. I guess we should assume they’re all being watched?”

“I’d err on that side myself, yeah.” She sighed. “We can’t Apparate onto Hogwarts grounds, of course.”

“What about brooms?” Harry suggested. “Dumbledore and I returned to the castle on broomstick after we went Horcrux hunting that final night.”

“Viable—but very visible, even with Disillusionment charms. Maybe if we waited for dark…?” But Harry shook his head; they couldn’t waste the time. “Right, well then, I think we’ll have to Apparate to Hogsmeade and find a way inside from there, in that case.”

“You think it’s safe to Apparate to Hogsmeade?” Ron asked.

“Safe?” Hermione huffed a dry, mirthless laugh. “Not on your life. But if Hogwarts is where we’re going, then we’re desperately short on ‘safe’ routes. We’ll have to go with the one least likely to get us killed on the spot.”

Harry’s stomach churned uncomfortably at her dark—but realistic—read of the situation. “…Guys, you know you don’t have to—”

“Oh put a cork in it, Harry!” Ron groaned. He jerked a thumb at Harry, directing his words to Draco. “You see what we have to deal with? And you’re still hanging around?”

Draco eased to his feet, slapping his thighs to brush off the sand clinging to his wet clothes. “Evidently my dragon finds his death wish fetching; I’m merely along for the ride.” He pointed his wand at his trousers and muttered a drying spell, though his frown said he wasn’t pleased with the outcome. “…Wrinkles. My father would have a heart attack.”

“Maybe this is one thing he won’t hear about?” Harry said, trying for a bit of levity, but Draco did not seem amused.

They quickly cleaned up their rest site, Vanishing the remaining bottles of pumpkin juice and spelling their robes clean again. Harry was pretty sure he still had sand in places spellwork couldn’t reach easily, but he doubted Hermione and Ron would appreciate him stripping down half as much as Draco might.

Hufflepuff’s cup was carefully re-wrapped and safely stowed in Hermione’s beaded bag until they could figure out how to deal with it later. Hopefully they’d soon have two Horcruxes that needed destroying; that was a problem Harry would quite like to have.

Hermione slipped into her Animagus form, with Ron tucking her into his pocket, and then they all crowded under the Invisibility Cloak. It was far too small to cover three nearly grown adults, but it would do the job well enough provided they trod carefully. If they kept to the shadows and behind cover, they could probably escape notice.

Harry was starting to suspect that it wasn’t a good thing their plans relied so heavily on probably and likely and if, but there was nothing to be done for it.

He drew the Cloak tight, wrapping his arms around Ron and Draco’s shoulders, and turned on the spot into the familiar crushing darkness, guiltily giddy at the thought of going home once more.

They popped back into existence in the square at the head of High Street in Hogsmeade—though there was curiously no foot traffic, despite the prime hour of their arrival. They quickly scrambled into an alleyway alongside one of the shops fronting the square—Ceridwen’s Cauldrons, its windows dark and dusty—to get their bearings.

Harry levitated a few large crates, arranging them so that they provided a modicum of privacy. Once suitably assured they could not be seen from the street, they shrugged off the Cloak, and Hermione retook her human form.

“You ever seen a place so dead?” Harry whispered.

“Do we have to use the D word?” Ron groaned.

“Seriously, though: where is everyone? It’s worse than Diagon Alley here…”

“Hogsmeade relies heavily on the staff and students’ patronage,” Hermione said. “It stands to reason that if there are problems at the school, if students aren’t free to travel where they like, when they like, then Hogsmeade might suffer for it.”

“I suppose…” Harry allowed, peeking through a chink in the piled-up crates. “Right, well, here we are, back in Hogsmeade. Where do you reckon we ought to go next?”

“Wherever it is, let’s make it quick,” Draco said, grey eyes flicking about nervously. He gave an exaggerated shudder. “I can practically feel the Dark magic floating around here.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed—then straightened. “Wait—yeah. I can feel it too. It feels like…” He swallowed thickly, glancing to Ron and Hermione, who had plastered themselves against the wall of Ceridwen’s Cauldrons, eyes wide and frightened.

A dark, foreboding chill crept down Harry’s spine, and though it was only midday, it felt as if the sun had just been blotted out as a heavy, choking despair settled over Harry’s shoulders, all but forcing him to his knees.

He knew now why no one was about shopping in Hogsmeade, why the usually bustling High Street was dead empty.

Dementor patrols.

Draco’s already pale face went stark-white, and Harry knew he was cursing himself for not having worked harder on his Patronus. It didn’t matter, though; there was no way they could possibly fight a pack of Dementors right now, in the middle of the day in a wizarding village probably crawling with Death Eaters or their sympathisers.

“We’ve got to Disapparate!” Hermione hissed, her hand whipping out to grab Harry by the wrist. He reached out to loop his own arm through Draco’s and waited for the jerking tug of Hermione’s Apparition to take them far, far away from here—

But nothing came. They stayed put, and thinking that perhaps she just couldn’t focus, couldn’t decide where they ought to go, Harry clenched his eyes shut tight and turned on the spot.

Still, nothing. He could feel the Apparition spell tugging at him, straining to respond to his magic, but nothing was happening. The magic seemed to fall dead as soon as he summoned it.

“One-Way Anti-Apparition Wards,” Draco grit out.

“They knew we were coming?” Ron asked, panic thick in his voice.

“Or laid them, just in case,” Draco said. He turned to Harry. “We’re sitting ducks out here, and that Cloak won’t fool anyone with enough sense to just drop their eyeline a foot or so. ”

The chill of the approaching Dementors was growing sharper, digging into Harry’s flesh with biting teeth and robbing him of his focus. He shook his head to clear it. “Let’s keep moving. We’ll all get under the Cloak and stick to the side streets—maybe the patrols won’t stray far from High Street, so they won’t notice our feet.”

More maybes, but no one questioned the decision. Hermione stayed human this time, her wand out and at the ready. It was too dangerous not to fight when faced with Dementors, so she was more use to them as a witch than curled up in Ron’s pocket as a rabbit.

They awkwardly shuffled out of the alley, trying to move as a single unit. There was much bumping and bustling, and ‘quiet’ was a bit beyond them until they found a jerky rhythm, creeping slowly along the shopfronts. Harry tried to peer inside, but many of the windows were boarded up, or had their shades drawn, and it was impossible to tell if any humans were even about.

Then they appeared: Dementors, ten or more at least, gliding noiselessly around the corner, their ratty black cloaks trailing behind them and skeletal hands curled in rigor mortis at their chests.

Had Harry and the others drawn them, their raw fear and worry as clarion as a dinner bell to these creatures? Or were they only following a rote pattern, gliding up and down the streets on the lookout for unfortunate witches and wizards?

The closer they drew, the more Harry became certain that it was the former: the Dementors must be able to sense them, even under the protection of the Cloak, and Harry could hear them now. Their dragging, rattling breaths grated like sandpaper, no doubt tasting his mounting despair that they had come so far, gotten so close, and—

No. No. He was not going to go quietly, that was for certain. He raised his wand under the Cloak, keeping the lead Dementor steady in his sights. He would not cower here in silence and let these creatures take his or his friends’ souls.

Something grabbed his wrist, holding tight, and he twisted around to see Draco shaking his head sharply, lips pursed into a thin line.

But Draco didn’t understand; he didn’t feel the urge to unleash his Patronus, not the way Harry did. It champed inside him, aching to tear through the Dementors and send them scattering. To protect Harry. To protect them all. And Harry wanted to let it.

Draco’s grip tightened painfully, and Harry could feel Ron and Hermione staring at them in shocked silence as they waited to see who would win this battle of wills.

“Don’t,” Draco mouthed, grey eyes shaking. “Harry.”

But the Dementors were nearly upon them, and even if Harry had wanted to look for any other way out of this mess—and he didn’t—he would have had no choice. Maybe Draco still didn’t trust him, not on everything, not the way Harry needed him to, and that was all right. Harry would prove it. He summoned up the warmest memory of the four of them he could imagine—the empty field at the New Year, a rainbow volley of colour flashing overhead with Draco just the tiniest bit vulnerable, his walls brought down long enough for Harry to peek inside at the desperately flawed human being cowering within. It was a powerful rush, having someone exposing themselves to you like that. His heart thudded in his chest as he whispered, “Expecto patronum!

In a burst of silvery shimmer, the stag erupted from the tip of his wand and charged forward, head dropped low and shaking its great rack of antlers in threat. Its pale glow was visible even in broad daylight, and the Dementors scattered like roaches before a torch—but Harry experienced only a brief moment’s relief before there came a rallying cheer from down one of the side roads off of High Street.

“I saw it! The stag Patronus! It’s Potter all right! This way, quick! Summon the others!”

Oh. Oh fuck. The Dementors had been run off, taking with them their unnatural chill and the aching pall of despair, and Harry’s good sense came flooding back to him in a rush. Morgana’s tits, what had he done? Why had he fired off a Patronus in the middle of Hogsmeade in broad daylight? Why had the others let him? Why had—

“Potter, you utter fuckwit!” Draco growled. He groped for the edges of the Cloak, struggling out from under it. “Get this—fucking rag—off me so I can shift—”

The pounding footsteps of what sounded like at least a half-dozen Death Eaters were growing closer, and Harry’s mind was a chaotic whirl. They were going to fight—god, he hadn’t been prepared for a battle, especially not so soon on the heels of the fiasco at Gringotts. They needed to get to Hogwarts, to find the next Horcrux—not trade spellfire with wizards who’d be much less inclined to practise restraint than they might. Draco was right, he was an utter fuckwit, and—

While Harry had his panic attack, dithering as to whether they ought to flee or fight (as if there were a choice), there came the grinding of metal on wood as the door just to their right was jerked open. “Potter! Get your scrawny arse in here, quick!” a rough voice hissed, and before Harry could think to comply, he found himself roughly shoved inside by several pairs of hands, with Hermione, Ron, and Draco piling in after him.

Harry almost didn’t recognise their saviour—it was enough the rough-faced old man didn’t have a Dark Mark visible on the bit of skin exposed by his rolled-up sleeves.

Once inside, Harry tugged off the Cloak, stuffing it into his pocket as he realised they’d just been unceremoniously ushered into the Hog’s Head.

“What’re you doing, fool?!” the man groaned. “Put that thing back on—and get upstairs!” He pointed to a doorway behind the grubby, sawdust-strewn bar. “And—Merlin and Morgana, keep quiet this time!” Before Harry could thank him—or pause to think why he suddenly seemed so familiar beyond the odd glimpses Harry had caught of the barman over the years—he had shouldered past them, storming back out the door through which they had just entered.

Harry gaped at the abrupt exit, thoughts still whirling, until Draco stabbed him in the side with the tip of his wand. “Are you deaf as well as dumb, Potter? Upstairs, post-haste!”

“Oh—yeah,” Harry mumbled, slipping around behind the bar and scrambling up the rickety wooden steps before Draco decided to slap him with a Body Bind and levitate his paralysed body the rest of the way.

As soon as his head poked up onto the upstairs landing, Harry scanned the room to be sure they hadn’t stumbled into a trap—he’d already fucked up once today, he really didn’t want to go two for two.

The stairs opened onto a sparsely furnished sitting room lit by a single, sputtering candle flickering on the mantle over a darkened fire grate. The candle threw into alternating light and shadow a single armchair, a faded rug, a rickety old dining table that looked like it comfortably sat one, and the only real piece of décor in the entire room: a large painting of a blonde girl perched atop a boulder amidst a sea of waving yellow grass. The scene reminded him a little bit of the boulder sat in the middle of Malfoy’s lonely moor. The girl wore a sweet smile on her lips, nodding serenely to Harry in welcome. He weakly returned the greeting with a wave of his fingers.

Below, they could hear muffled shouting and snarled language being traded back and forth, and after draping the Cloak over their heads once more as advised, Harry beckoned the others to follow him as they crept forward to press their noses against the grimy glass of the room’s single window, peering down onto the street. The barman was facing off against a group of five hooded Death Eaters, gesticulating wildly. Harry marvelled that the other wizards hadn’t cursed him yet—the barman had to have bollocks the size of cantaloupes to mouth off to Voldemort’s men the way he was.

“Yeah, what? You want to have a go?” he squawked, leaning into the personal space of one of the Death Eaters. “Gonna string me up for defending my property? You send those overblown bin bags down my street, and they’re sure as anything gonna get a Patronus up their arses! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: I’m not having these things within a mile of my business!”

Your Patronus, my chapped arse! That was a stag, plain as the nose on my face! And everyone knows Potter’s Patronus is—”

“A stag?!” the barman sputtered, sounding like his head might just pop off and go spinning into the Forbidden Forest. “Have any of you lot ever seen a stag? Does everything with horns and hooves look like a stag to you? For cryin’ out loud—Expecto patronum!

A spray of silver erupted from the tip of his wand, coalescing quickly into something that, from this angle, didn’t look entirely unlike a stag. When Harry squinted, though, he could see it was much more burly, and rather than antlers, it bore a pair of long, curving horns—it was, he thought, a rather fierce-looking goat, and it charged through the Death Eaters, who quickly made way for it, up High Street and out of sight.

“Well, that’s obviously… I mean, that wasn’t what I saw…” the Death Eater mumbled, a clear note of self-doubt in his voice now. He scratched his head through the thick fabric of his hood, his mask slightly off-kilter.

“Maybe if you lot weren’t drinking me dry every eve, you’d be able to tell a proper billy goat from an effin’ deer!” The barman waved his wand in the general direction the Dementors had fled. “Keep that lot well clear of my pub! You’re scarin’ off my regulars!”

What regulars?” one of the other Death Eaters jeered.

“The people who lived here before you lot came swooping in and took over like you own the place!”

“Oi,” said a new Death Eater, freshly arriving. His carriage and tone suggested he was the leader of the group. “We mind our business and you mind yours—that’s how we like it, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll learn to like it as well.”

“I was mindin’ my own business, wasn’t I? Then you lot came over, bangin’ on about a stag Patronus! Open your eyes!”

“Quit yer bitchin’!” another Death Eater growled. “Or I’ll give you somethin’ to bitch about!”

“Ooh, you’ve got me spooked! I’ve had stomach ulcers cause me more grief than you lot!”

“Want we should change that?”

“No, I want you should do as you said you would and mind your own bleedin’ business and don’t give me lip when I handle mine! Keep my street clear and we’ll all get along!”

“…Still say it was a stag I saw,” mumbled the first Death Eater petulantly to his nearest fellow, and this set the barman off again.

“It was a goat, you ninny!” he spat. “You want another demonstration? I’m happy to have it run you down! Might do you a bit of good, cleanse that rotten aura of yours.”

“Pipe down, you old sod. My head’s about to split in two from all your whinging,” said the lead Death Eater. “Right—clearly a mistake was made, innocent enough. Just keep clear of the patrols if you don’t want any trouble.”

“Bit difficult to do that when they trundle past my front door, innit? Get off with you!”

This clearly had not been the Death Eaters’ first tangle with the barman, for rather than rising to his bait, their leader shooed them away, and they strode as a group back down High Street, presumably to find another poor resident of Hogsmeade to harass.

Hermione slid to her knees, leaning her head against the windowsill and releasing a warbly little sigh of relief. Harry spelled the window opaque, then drew the curtains just in case and pulled off the Cloak.

“I think I’ve lost ten years of my life in the past ten minutes…” Draco muttered, running his hands through his hair. “Fuck, you’re going to be the death of me, Potter.”

“Promises, promises,” Ron said, drawing Hermione back to her feet and guiding her over to the only armchair in the room before settling onto a faded ottoman beside her.

They could hear the barman down below, rebolting the heavy door to the bar and mounting the creaking steps. His balding pate poked up onto the landing first, followed by the rest of his aged frame. He did not look happy to see them.

“Never, in all my years, have I seen a group with such a deathwish! Bunch of bloody little idiots!” he spat gruffly, glaring at each of them in turn. “All those years getting an education up at that school, and what’ve you learned? Nothing! Why in the name of all that’s good and magical would you come here with that price on your head?!”

Harry ignored the beginnings of a lecture, instead blurting out the first thing he could think of: “We can’t thank you enough, sir. I’m not sure how you managed it, but you probably saved our lives—”

“‘Probably’, nothing—I sure as blazes did save them. For all the good it’ll do you.” He shouldered past Harry, lighting lamps with prods of his wand. “And I didn’t do it for your thanks, either.”

“Why did you do it, then?” Harry asked, peering thoughtfully at the barman. There was something there—something beyond the long, stringy, wire-grey hair and scraggly beard. Something beyond his dusty spectacles hiding eyes a piercing, brilliant blue— “You’re Aberforth!” he said with sudden clarity. For as much time as they’d spent poring over The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore the past few months, it was a wonder Harry hadn’t realised it sooner.

“Dumbledore’s brother?” Ron asked, gaping.

Aberforth—for it was him, Harry would have staked his life on it; probably had staked his life on it, actually—said nothing, only drawing his wand from his back pocket and pointing it at the darkened fire grate. Shortly, a flame bloomed in its heart and began crackling merrily. This far north, Spring was still a bit chilly, and the run-in with the Dementors had not helped a bit. Harry shuffled nearer to the fire once it had caught, rubbing his hands with a sheepish smile.

Someone’s stomach gurgled, and Harry turned to see Draco resolutely looking away, arms folded tightly over his chest and cheeks tinged with pink.

Aberforth followed his gaze, grunting, “…Suppose now that you’re here, I may as well spare you a spot to eat.” He raised a finger in threat. “Don’t move a muscle, and don’t make a sound, yeah?”

As soon as he’d disappeared back down into the bar, Hermione was off to the races. “Aberforth Dumbledore! I can’t believe it! All this time—and neither of them ever mentioned…!”

Harry did not share her difficulty believing; there were a great many things Dumbledore had never divulged, he’d learned in recent months. That his younger brother ran a seedy pub in Hogsmeade seemed small potatoes compared to some of the other salacious secrets they’d uncovered of late.

Aberforth returned shortly bearing a plate of sausages, chips, and four mugs of Butterbeer, which he placed on a small work table. Harry’s mouth watered; he hadn’t had Butterbeer in what felt like ages. They tucked in, ravenous from the harrowing morning, and for the next ten minutes, Aberforth’s loft was filled with only the sounds of chewing and slurping and sated sighs.

“All right,” said Aberforth once they’d cleaned their plates and begun the arduous task of digesting what had been a relatively sumptuous meal, all things considered. Hermione had offered to switch places with Ron, and he now sat slumped in a half-doze on the wobbly chair while she was perched attentively on the ottoman. “If you’re rested enough to move, I think you’d best be on your way.”

Draco sat straight-backed and alert on a bench against the wall, scanning the room and its occupants like he half expected one of them to unzip and reveal they’d been a Death Eater in disguise all along. Harry was certain he must be exhausted—even more so than Ron, who seemed able to nap anywhere—but Draco would never show it if he could at all help it. Only once they were safely camped inside their tent again, tucked away in their room, would he unwind.

“Our thoughts exactly,” Harry said. “Any advice on how to go about doing that?”

Aberforth leaned back in his chair, scratching his beard. “I reckon your best bet is to get under that Cloak again and set out on foot. They put Caterwaul Charms up at night, but those won’t activate until sunset. Time your leaving right, and you can slip past the Dementors easy. They’ve got Anti-Apparition wards up, I’m sure you’ve noticed, so you’ll have to hoof it until you’re at least as far as the foothills; you should be able to Disapparate to wherever your little hearts please from there. Or else head up towards the mountains—you might run into Hagrid then; last I heard, he was lying low in a cave on the eastern face with that half-brother of his.”

“Wait—mountains? Disapparate?” Harry shook his head. “You misunderstand—we’re heading for Hogwarts. We aren’t leaving.”

Aberforth released a harsh snort. “You’re mad. That’s the last place you need to go.”

“Finally, someone’s talking sense,” Ron sighed, eyes still closed.

“Well, I’m sure it might seem that way,” Harry said, “but we still have to go there.”

“Bullshit you have to—whatever you need, it’s not worth your skins, which is what you’ll be risking taking so much as one step in the direction of that castle.”

Harry made a low noise in the back of his throat. He’d already had this argument once today, he wasn’t keen to have it again.

“…Due respect, sir, you aren’t really in a position to tell us what’s worth risking our skins for. We have to get into Hogwarts—full stop. It’s of the utmost importance to…to the job Dumbledore—I mean, your brother—tasked us with—”

“Oh, I see,” said Aberforth, snatching up the empty mugs and Banishing them back down the stairs. “My brother’s involved—why didn’t you say so sooner? That changes everything.” His tone was at odds with his words, and Harry was quickly getting the sense Aberforth and Dumbledore had not gotten on well. “Here’s my new advice then: don’t stop at the mountains. Get out of the country even, if you can. Forget my brother and his plans and whatever he told you you ‘have to’ do. There’s no honour in ‘have to’, nothing worthwhile in bending to someone else’s will at expense of your own.” He looked Harry straight in the eye, and the firelight hit the glass in his spectacles at just the right angle, making them go opaque. “Nothing can hurt him now—he won’t have to face the consequences of his decisions any longer. You, though—you’re still at his mercy so long as you blindly follow him. It’s gonna get you killed; you certainly won’t be the first it’s happened to.”

“But this isn’t about him, it’s about everyone else! You don’t get what he—”

“Don’t I?” Aberforth’s tone went dangerously quiet—and Harry considered for the first time that this might not be an easy conversation for the barman. It hadn’t even been a year since he’d lost the last of his family. “I knew him longer than your grandparents were alive, Potter. I knew every deep, dark secret there was to him, all the twisted ways he manipulated people over the years, the tippy-top highs and the abysmal lows. Gonna try and tell me you knew him better than I did?”

“I—I didn’t mean…” Harry started, then sighed. He’d hoped the food and drink might jump-start his mind, giving him the energy to push through the pain and exhaustion. It was mostly just making him feel even more sluggish than before. They needed to be on their way and quick, or he was going to be caught in a nap like Ron. “I wasn’t suggesting that at all. I only meant to say that he left me—us—a job. One you couldn’t have known about.”

Aberforth nodded. “Of course he did. Probably made it sound ever so important, too—like the fate of the wizarding world rested on your scrawny little shoulders. It’s all bullshit—he says those sorts of things because people like you will believe him. You’ll think because he’s the Albus Dumbledore, he must know best. He must be good. He must be right.”

“It’s not about what’s good or right,” Harry protested, “It’s about what’s necessary, what I need to—”

“What you need is a good, swift kick in the arse,” Aberforth grumped. Ron snorted softly, and Hermione hissed Ronald in admonition. Draco was holding himself, if possible, even more stiffly than before, gaze shunted off to the side. “Sounds like that’s what it’ll take to get the stars out of your eyes. For fuck’s sake, he’s dead boy! Let it go, before you follow him! He made his own bed, so let him rot in it.”

“That’s hardly a choice I can make—”

“There’s always a choice—and if you aren’t choosing yourself at the end of the day, you’ll probably not live to regret it.” His words sounded achingly familiar—and Harry wondered if Aberforth didn’t have tucked away in an old trunk around here somewhere a tie in colours of green and silver. “Or what, are you in it for the glory too, like he was? Telling yourself it’s for the good of all mankind or some such rot, and damn whoever gets hurt in the process? Bollocks!”

“I—” Harry started gamely, then fell silent. He hadn’t expected an interrogation about his motivations; hell, he hadn’t had peace enough to really consider things. This was…just what he had to do. Something he felt, bone-deep, that he was meant to do, since Aberforth seemed hung up on ‘have to’. “So, what—I’m to run away? Sit back and watch from the sidelines?”

“If you know what’s good for you, yeah! I was in the Order myself at one point—was being the operative word. And look where it got me: old, alone, gettin’ lip from younglings who ought to know better by now than to go racing towards their deaths at full tilt. There’s no war, there’s no more battles—look around you. He won. His influence is everywhere, and if you don’t turn ‘round right now and get as far from here as possible, he’s eventually gonna do what he’s been wanting to for years and kill you—you, and everyone you ever loved or cared for. Because that’s what megalomaniacs do. You’re better off staying away from them.”

“You really think I could abandon everyone? Not even try to help?”

“Got that strong a deathwish, do you?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Draco snorted derisively.

Aberforth frowned at him, then turned back to Harry. “There’s no helping. There’s nothing you or your little band here can do. So rather than waste your efforts on fighting back the rising tide, you ought to just get lost. Literally. Go where he’ll never find you. He hasn’t even looked at the States, not like Grindelwald did, and he’s not likely to for a while yet.” He nodded to Ron and Hermione. “And you two ought to join him—everyone knows you’re in league with him.” He wrinkled his nose at Draco. “Dunno what you’re doing with that one, honestly, but he can’t be in much better shape, so you might as well make a caravan of it.”

Harry dismissed the idea out of hand. “No—I’m not going. I’m not running away. I’ve got a job, and I mean to see it through—”

“If it’s a job you can do, it’s a job anyone can do, so give it to someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s the smart thing, even: he’ll be so focused on you, he won’t see whatever it is coming from someone else.”

Harry opened his mouth to say he knew exactly what he was doing, but that wasn’t entirely true. Instead, he said, “It can’t be someone else. It has to be me. It’s not ego—it’s not for glory. It’s just how it has to be. Dumbledore explained that—”

“Oh right, that’s what I remember best about my brother: how thorough he was about explaining things. How he made sure everyone who worked with him had a clear idea of what they were getting into. How he left nothing to chance.” Aberforth snorted derisively. “Do you think—do you really think—he wanted what was best for you?”

Harry wanted, so badly, to say yes—it was an ingrained response now. But the word stayed banked behind his tongue, and Aberforth seemed to read him like a book, smirking, though he did not seem entirely pleased.

“I’m blood with Albus Dumbledore, Potter. I’ve seen him grow from the man he was a century ago…into the man he was a year ago. He’s changed over the years, I’ll grant you—but you’d be surprised at just how much stayed the same. He’s always been good at presenting himself in a manner the world wanted to see—showing people the perfect son, a promising student, a responsible brother, a venerable headmaster. But the thing he excelled best at, the thing he took to quicker than anything else…was lies. Lies and secrets and subterfuge—that’s the legacy of Albus Dumbledore.” Aberforth’s gaze went, almost reluctantly, to the painting of the girl hanging over the mantle. The crackling fireplace threw long shadows over the portrait, and the girl was still settled primly on the boulder, staring vacantly out into the sitting room. “Sometimes I wonder if even he knew all the cards he was holding.”

Hermione followed Aberforth’s eye, and she nodded to the painting. “Is that…is that your sister Ariana, Mr. Dumbledore?”

Aberforth straightened, frowning at her. “…I see you’ve been reading Rita Skeeter’s claptrap, then” Harry wondered if Draco would rise again to Rita’s defence, but he was still huddled slump-shouldered on the bench and didn’t seem to be tuned in to the conversation.

Hermione flushed darkly, her shame obvious even by the low light of the fire. “I—we weren’t reading it for…for pleasure or anything—”

“Elphias Doge mentioned her to me as well,” Harry said, hoping to draw away Aberforth’s ire. “I chatted with him for a spell at Bill Weasley’s wedding, and her tale came up in passing.”

“I’m hard-pressed to believe stories about my sister came up in passing at a wedding,” Aberforth grunted. “Doge needs to learn to keep his big mouth shut about matters that don’t concern him.”

“He wasn’t speaking ill of her,” Harry hastened to add. “He was very kind, defending her against some very nasty accusations.”

Aberforth sneered. “Defending Albus more likely. The way he worshipped my brother, like the sun rose and set by his leave—it was almost as bad as watching Albus pant after Gellert.” He grimaced. “The whole damn world would’ve let him curse ‘em blind and thanked him for showing ‘em the darkness.”

Harry did not mention his own misgivings about Dumbledore; they still festered within, but it didn’t seem very tactful to bring up his concerns about his former headmaster’s erstwhile aspirations of Muggle domination. Not when they were trying to get Aberforth to help them complete the task Dumbledore had asked of Harry.

No, he had made his peace, of a sort. Whatever Dumbledore’s reasoning, whatever his past, it did nothing to change the clear and present danger of Voldemort, and the need to bring him down, no matter the cost. He would continue forward, walking the path Dumbledore had marked, no matter the danger or risk. He would never receive all the answers he so desperately wanted—not from Dumbledore himself at least—but he was beginning to accept that that didn’t matter. Only the endgame mattered. Only defeating Voldemort mattered.

He had ached for Draco to trust him, so what did it say if he couldn’t trust another himself?

Harry was sure he had let Draco down on more than one occasion, betrayed that trust, and yet Draco carried on at his side. Sure, there was the dragon, and the M word business that was yet to be addressed, but Harry wanted to believe that Draco would still be here, trusting in Harry (or at least wanting to trust), even without the collar of his Animagus form.

So Harry would take a leaf from his book and place his life once more in the hands of Albus Dumbledore—though there would be no blind trust this time. He would walk that path that Dumbledore had prepared with eyes wide open.

“Whatever feelings we did or didn’t have for your brother, they’ve got nothing to do with what we’re here for now, with the job we have to do.”

Aberforth stared at him, and behind his spectacles, Harry could see that he had the same striking blue eyes as his brother. Eyes that gave the same discomfiting impression that they could see right through Harry, read his every thought. Know his doubts, and how to use those niggling feelings to get Harry to do what Aberforth wanted him to.

“I’m sure you saw a side to Professor Dumbledore we never did, sir, but I truly believe he did care for Harry,” Hermione said in soft, feeble protest. She still seemed thrown by the earlier accusation she’d violated Aberforth’s privacy by reading Rita’s book.

Aberforth gave a raspy huff. “Oh, I don’t doubt it—he did have feelings. They didn’t always come from the right parts of him, and they weren’t always manifested with the best of intentions, but he did have a heart.” His demeanour darkened. “Doesn’t change the fact that all the people he supposedly cared about somehow wound up dead or worse for all his ‘love’.”

Hermione pursed her lips, then seemingly unable to keep her thoughts to herself any longer, hurtful though they might be, she asked, “…Are you talking about what happened with your sister?”

Aberforth’s gaze turned frigid, such a strange hateful coldness in those bright blue eyes, and he squared his jaw with a hard grit of his teeth, blustering, “You think you know what happened to my sister? Huh?” Hermione quailed under his outburst, but he barged on. “I don’t blame him for her being broken—that wasn’t his fault; it was the fault of those fucking Muggle twerps who caught her doing magic and harassed her until she got so scared of her own magic it turned inward and destroyed her. Broke her into a thousand little pieces. All they knew was she’d done something fantastic and they wanted to see it again, pushing her and pushing her and pushing her…” He swallowed thickly. “Of course she couldn’t do it, she was all of six years old—didn’t know what she’d done to begin with. But they wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t leave her be…”

There was an unmistakable quaver in his voice now, and Harry felt a collective breath held as they listened, in horror, to Aberforth’s tale. Hermione’s eyes were huge in the firelight; Ron looked like he might sick up the sausages and chips; and Draco…Draco had a look about him that was all too familiar: Fucking Muggles, heathens, barbarians.

It was hard to argue with him, hearing Aberforth speak.

The barman stood up, tall as Dumbledore had ever been and suddenly terrible in his anger and bone-deep, years-denied pain. “She never recovered—never, not after what they did to her. She was terrified of her magic, begged me and Albus to take it away from her. She tamped it down, deep, tried to keep it from showing, fought tooth and nail to never let it loose.”

Draco’s fingers clenched in the fabric of his trousers, white-knuckled and taut, and Harry itched to reach out to him, to ground him with a calming touch. Draco had spent months living in fear of his magic turning on him, lost, thinking he’d never be whole again.

“And of course it’s dangerous doing that sort of thing—like being scared of your own lungs so you try not to breathe. You’ve gotta breathe, and your lungs don’t give a fig how you feel about ‘em. So the magic would build up inside of her and explode in fantastic displays when she couldn’t keep it in check any longer—and you never knew when it was coming. One moment she’d be a sweet, harmless thing, playing with her dolls or piecing together a puzzle with our mum, and then…she’d be this terrifying, strange force of raw arcane energy that literally blew the roof off the house.

“She was inconsolable, couldn’t control her emotions—she’d scare herself into a faint when her magic went running rampant, and our dad…he couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t stand there, knowing what those boys had done to her, knowing they’d never pay for it. He couldn’t report the incident to the Ministry, after all—no, if they found out what had become of Ariana, the state she was in, they’d have locked her away, saying she was a threat to the Statute of Secrecy. She’d be tossed into St. Mungo’s and never see the light of day again. So our dad…” Aberforth swallowed. “…He took care of the matter himself. Tracked down the little bastards responsible and made them pay, but good. Of course they locked him up for it—life in Azkaban for ‘use of serious magical force against Muggles’. He wouldn’t cop to why he’d done it, though—not to the Aurors, not to the DMLE head, not to the Wizengamot. Just went to Azkaban quiet as a mouse. Maybe…” He released a long, stuttering breath. “Maybe things would’ve been better…if he’d told the truth. Maybe—”

But he shook his head, sighing. “Well, we were all-in after that. It was me, Albus, and our mum keeping Ariana’s condition quiet, lest she get carted off for something she couldn’t control. Our mum was a strong woman—she’d never once tried to stop our dad, and after he was gone, she had us packed up overnight and off for a fresh start in a Godric’s Hollow. Everyone who cared we were leaving we told Ariana was ill and we were just looking for some peace and quiet after the scandal with our dad.

“It was our mum who looked after her mostly, as Albus and I were in school and Ariana needed an eye on her at all times, to make sure she didn’t hurt herself or anyone else. If I’d had my druthers, I would’ve quit school then and there to help—I was Ariana’s favourite after all, I think.” He spoke with a wistful fondness and a faraway look that made him suddenly seem decades younger, a grubby schoolboy smitten with his kid sister though his mates might tease him for it. “But Mum insisted I finish Hogwarts, and Albus…well, Albus couldn’t be bothered. He was happy to be off at school and away from his loony sister, and whenever we came home for the holidays, you’d never even know he was there, always holed up in his room studying magical theory or posing in his mirror with his umpteen trophies or dashing off correspondence to all his hoity-toity acquaintances.” Aberforth said this with a sneer, and Harry wondered how much of his story had been unfairly coloured by jealousy.

“But when I had the time, on holidays and such, I’d spend all my waking hours with Ariana.” He was openly staring at the painting now, throat bobbing. “Such a sweet thing, only scared. She never asked for anything that happened to her. My mum was strong but not a patient woman—I think Ariana would’ve had trouble growing up under her roof even without all the mess she had to deal with. But I didn’t mind. I’d sneak her treats when I could, take her on walks around the garden—I was the only one who could talk her down from a fit before things really got nasty. Earned a few bumps and bruises in the doing, but it was worth it.

“But…I couldn’t be there all the time.” Aberforth grimaced, rubbing at his nose. “And I wasn’t there when it mattered most. Ariana was fourteen, and she had an attack—they came less frequently as she got older, but they were fiercer when they hit, and my mother…she wasn’t as young as she’d once been, and the strain of having to care for Ariana all by herself, to protect her from prying eyes and bear the burden of her secret…it took its toll on her. When Ariana’s fit struck, she…” He released another ragged breath, swallowing thickly. “It was an accident, it really was—Ariana was beside herself when Bathilda found them, just absolutely stricken. But all the same, our mother was dead, and her rabid magic was to blame.”

Just like Dumbledore, just like Draco. The parallels were chilling, and Harry shivered unconsciously. The urge to draw Draco close and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that Harry wouldn’t let that happen, was nigh overwhelming. Aberforth hadn’t been there to save Ariana from herself, but Harry would be there, because Draco trusted him to do so. And he would say as such, just as soon as they had a bit of privacy, he resolved.

“Well, that decidedly changed all our plans for the future—not that I’d really had any beyond finishing up school and retiring to the village to help look after Ariana. Albus was another story entirely—his whole world came crumbling down once word arrived of what had happened. No globe-trotting with Doge, no conferences in wizarding Paris, no ambassadorship to Atlantis. I thought he might’ve said ‘fuck it’ and set off anyway, but he surprised me for once in his life, coming home for our mum’s funeral and claiming he was going to settle down and take up the mantle of head of the family. Like it was some great sacrifice, but he would bear that odious honour. Ha!” Aberforth sneered at some memory only he could see.

“I told him straight that I was ready to quit Hogwarts then and there. I’d learned all I needed, and I’d already talked to Bathilda and a few of our neighbours about doing some Charm repairwork for them, as I had good marks in the class and found I enjoyed the work. Plus our mother had left us a decent enough sum that Albus could’ve gone on to do the great deeds he’d always dreamed of, and Ariana and I would’ve been just dandy, never would’ve troubled him once.

“But of course Albus wouldn’t hear of it, acting all high and mighty, saying I had to finish my schooling and not to worry about our family’s situation, that he was the head now and it was his responsibility to care for the rest of us. I know he wasn’t necessarily being stubborn or prideful—he really did think it was what he was meant to do. But that sort of business breeds resentment. Which, of course it would: he’d gone from Head Boy to Head of the Gnomes Mucking Up Our Back Garden in the span of a heartbeat. And certainly he wouldn’t have time to hobnob with the rich and powerful in magical academia anymore, and who was going to slog through his dry treatises on magical theory? Not me, that was for sure. But Albus was stubborn as he was proud and insisted—and he managed all right for a few weeks.” Aberforth’s expression went dark and dangerous, and he stared into the fire with a vengeful air. “‘Til he showed up.”

Harry swallowed, unable to help the way his heart leapt with excitement—he’d wondered for so long, with a kind of morbid curiosity, and here he was, finally about to hear the truth of it. Dumbledore, Grindelwald, what happened between them, how they fell out.

“Gellert Grindelwald, rogue at large—and suddenly Albus’s future was bright again. Here was an equal come to call on him at last, someone with dreams as grand as his own who could rescue his mind from the monotony of life cooped up in Godric’s Hollow. He was smitten from day one, always out with Gellert cooking up some mad scheme or another, and suddenly there was no time for Ariana, not while they were hatching plans for a new wizarding order and searching for those damned fanciful Hallows. After all, they were going to be the glorious young leaders heralding the dawn of a grand new world for all wizardkind, so what was one neglected little girl in the scheme of things?”

“For the greater good…” Harry muttered, half to himself, and Aberforth nodded grimly.

“I left ‘em to it for a few weeks. There’d been a lot of tumult in our lives lately, and maybe if Albus got it out of his system, had his fun with Gellert without my sticking my nose in it, he’d come around to his senses and remember all that rot he’d said about being the Head of House. But it only got worse as the days went by, and then Albus started rattling on about going off on campaign, to recruit followers with Gellert and sell their notions, and I had to put a stop to it.

“It was one thing for Gellert to scarper off, not having any responsibilities or ties himself, but Albus had Ariana to look after, since he wouldn’t let me do it. He couldn’t possibly take her with him, not with the dangers she posed to herself and others. Five minutes on the road with Albus and she’d have fried someone’s brains for certain! If he meant all that claptrap about taking up our mother’s mantle, he needed to own it.

“I was pretty proud of myself, finally standing up to him that way—I think even Albus was a bit impressed—but Gellert, he didn’t like that one bit. He got piss angry and popped off like I’d never seen him before. Think it even shook Albus a bit, which bully for him; about time he got the stars out of his eyes and started thinking with his north head instead of his south one. Gellert started banging on about how I was stupid, how I had no idea what it meant, standing in the way of the greatness they were trying to achieve. That I didn’t understand the good that would come of their efforts—that it was all to help my sister, because we wouldn’t have to hide her away once they’d remade the world as they saw fit and lifted the wizards up into their rightful place over the Muggles.

“And me being me and not gaga for Gellert, I saw through his bullshit. We got into an argument, because of course we did…and then things got physical. I’m not proud of myself for being the one to reach for my wand first—but Gellert was quicker on the draw, and he didn’t have any compunctions about using an Unforgivable, not even on his best friend’s brother. The Cruciatus Curse—I thought I was going to die, I really did. Albus was a mess, trying to stop Gellert—first with his words, and then finally with his wand and it was an all-out duel amongst the three of us, spells being chucked left and right. We’d been arguing in the garden, and Ariana had been inside having tea in the kitchen—but I guess she saw the flashes and heard the bangs, she came out to see what was what and panicked, rushed up to stop us—”

Aberforth fell abruptly silent, face gone pale and drawn. The firelight reflected in his sorrowful blue eyes, shining brightly.

“…She only wanted to help. That’s all. She saw we were hurt and angry, and she just wanted to put a stop to it. She didn’t know what she was doing, and…” He swallowed a lump, closing his eyes. “…I’m not sure which of us did it. Might have been all of us. Might have been me. Might’ve even been her own magic overloading from shock and stress. All I know is one moment she was alive, and screaming, and then the next she was dead.”

The final word dropped with the force of a lead brick, and with a shuddering breath, he fell silent at last. Hermione had stark wet streaks running down her cheeks, and her eyes were wet with tears. Ron now openly gaped, brows knit in horror. Draco looked as broken as Harry had ever seen him, no doubt reliving his own traumatic experiences with his magic flying out of control, hurting others—hurting himself.

Harry could not find the strength to be horrified, though—he’d heard this story in several twisted iterations already. All he could summon was a deep, bitter regret, wishing Aberforth had not had the strength to make himself tell the truth of the tale—or else that he could Obliviate himself and make it to where he’d never heard it.

“…That’s just awful, Mr. Dumbledore…” Hermione was the only one of them with the courage to speak up, even though it was in a very small voice. “I’m so…so sorry.”

Aberforth did not respond, only gave a gruff, grunting shrug and cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his voice sounded clearer and less choked. “Then of course, Gellert made himself scarce. Don’t think he even told Albus goodbye—just vanished. Evidently he’d been on the run, after a fashion, with a dicey record in his home country, so having Ariana’s death blamed on him, or even connected with him, wouldn’t have done him any favours. And Albus…well, he wasn’t going to be forging a new wizarding world order on Gellert’s arm any time soon, but he was finally free to set off and become what he’d always dreamt of being: the greatest wizard of the—”

“He wasn’t free at all,” Harry said, staring down at his hands in his lap.

“What was that? Got something to say, Potter?” There was a hint of offence in Aberforth’s voice, but Harry didn’t care. If Aberforth was going to pour out Ariana’s story and make them drink it, then he was going to get the right of it as far as Albus Dumbledore was concerned.

“You said Dumbledore was free, like he was relieved she’d died because now he could go off and do whatever he wanted—but that wasn’t how it was at all.”

“You trying to say you knew him better—”

“Of course not, you know I’m not.” Harry lifted his eyes to meet Aberforth’s. “…But the night he died, I’d been out with him on a special errand. He drank a potion while we were on that errand, a terrible one made him relieve his very darkest memories, the worst moments of his life. And all the while he was forcing himself to drink that potion, he was crying—screaming—pleading: ‘Don’t hurt them, please… Hurt me instead!’ he said.”

Ron, Hermione, and Draco were staring at Harry now—each undoubtedly with their own brand of shock. He couldn’t blame them; he’d never explained to Ron and Hermione the details of what had transpired in that seaside cave—initially because, well, there’d been a dragon trying to break into Gryffindor Tower, and later because…it had seemed too intimate a thing to share, their venerable headmaster brought so low and rendered so distressingly human. And Draco…had anyone ever told Draco what had happened that night? Really explained it to him? Harry recalled a brief overview on that lonely, misty moor inside Draco’s mind, but his understanding of the events surrounding Dumbledore’s death was little better than Draco’s.

Harry fixed Aberforth with a hard look. “That was his worst memory: being back there, with you and Grindelwald and Ariana. The three of you fighting—and her dying.” He could still hear Dumbledore’s broken, sorrowful pleading, real tears streaming down his face from red-rimmed eyes, and Harry recalled how childishly discomfited he’d been, seeing an authority figure brought so low. “If you’d seen him then, there’s no way you could think he’d moved on from that—that he’d thought himself ‘free’.”

Aberforth watched him for a long while, expression inscrutable, then turned his eyes to the floor. “…Be that as it may, what makes you so sure that even then, he wasn’t in some dark corner of his mind still clinging to that failed notion of a ‘greater good’? That he could create a world where Ariana wouldn’t have wound up that way—that what happened to her was horrible, but his ideals were well-founded? You keep talking about some job he’s got you doing—how do you know he isn’t just setting you up? Using you to do the task he failed at himself?”

I should be so lucky, he would have once said—but now, a shard of ice lodged itself in Harry’s heart. He didn’t want to be here any longer; the more he spoke with Aberforth, the darker his doubts became, and he couldn’t have doubts, not right now.

“He was a good professor—and a half-decent headmaster, I’ll grant. And I’m sure he cared about you after a fashion—but he cared about Ariana too, and look where that got her. If he loved you, really wanted what was best for you, then he wouldn’t have sent you charging into danger—”

“Yes, he would have. He did,” Harry said, chin jutting as the fire to fight back began to rekindle in his heart. Just a tiny, pitiful flame, but there. “And I know that because we don’t always get to keep the people we love close at hand, safe and secure. Sometimes we have to let them go, even into danger, and pray they make it back to us. Sometimes we have to think about more than our own safety and the safety of those we care for. Sometimes we have to think about the safety of everyone.” He swallowed, resolute when he said: “Sometimes yeah, we do have to think about the greater good.”

“Sounds as stupid on your lips as it did on Albus’s,” Aberforth snarled. “You’re seventeen—and this is war; what the hell do you know?”

“It’s always been war—it’s been war since I was born. I’ve been fighting in some fashion or another since I was a baby,” Harry fired back, reminded irritatingly of having had this same argument with Draco—except this was different. He knew the risks, he knew the stakes, and there was no choice. Draco had had a choice—a terrible one, but he’d had one. Harry didn’t. He only had one way forward, and the support of those at his side. “And even if your brother had told me to go to ground, to run away and save myself, I wouldn’t have. It’s my fight as much as anyone else’s, and I’ll either survive or die with my wand in my hand, because the alternative isn’t an option. Some of us don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines waiting for everyone else to be brave.”

Aberforth’s expression went dark with fury. “I’d watch my mouth if I were you, Potter. You trying to say I’m a coward?”

“I’m saying you’ve given up. It’s not the same—but the end result’s not so very different. You were in the Order, you said—and now you’re saying You-Know-Who’s already won!”

“Because he has! There’s paltry little rebellions popping off here and there, but that’s all they are. We’re pretty fucked right about now, so there’s getting by—which is what I’m doing—and there’s just being daft.”

“But there’s no getting by—there’s only rolling over and taking it or fighting with every last breath, which is what we’re gonna do. I’m not gonna stop standing up for everyone who can’t, or won’t, until I beat him—”

“Or until you die,” Aberforth growled.

Harry firmed his jaw. “…You say that like I don’t know damn well that might be how it ends. Maybe even is probably how it ends. I’ve felt it for a while. I’m seventeen, sure. But I’m not stupid. I’ve been surrounded by enough death in my life to recognise it when it’s coming for me.”

He waited for more jeering or arguing from Aberforth, but all he received was a bitter scowl. Hermione was fixing him with a tortured look of pity, leaning into Ron for support. Draco looked like he might jump the bench and clock Harry sideways for so much as suggesting he might die at the end of all this.

“Whatever your feelings on the matter, the fact is we need to get into Hogwarts,” Harry said, keeping his tone even. He didn’t want to argue any longer; they were wasting time they really didn’t have. “If you can help us, great—but if you can’t, or if you won’t, then we’re prepared to try on our own.” He locked eyes with Aberforth. “It’s not about Dumbledore; it’s about me being able to live with myself even if I do survive.”

Aberforth looked around the room, perhaps hoping one of the others might plead with him for an out, a way to save themselves from this suicide mission Harry had them on, but his friends evidently had the same deathwish as Harry. With a sigh, Aberforth eased on creaking knees to his feet, shuffling around the little table, and approached the portrait of Ariana.

“…You heard ‘em,” he said to the girl in the portrait. “I tried to talk ‘em out of it, but well…” He scrubbed at his white beard. “Go on and fetch him.” The girl slipped off the rock and gave a little curtsy before twirling around and wandering away into the backdrop, her form growing smaller and smaller. Harry had never seen a portrait do that before—had never considered they really could interact with their paintings in three dimensions. He’d seen them leave their frames from one side or the other, but Ariana seemed to have found a small cave drawn into a culvert set against the backdrop and was travelling down it, her slight figure quickly swallowed by the darkness.

“Hold up,” Ron started. “Where’d she go?”

Aberforth nodded to the portrait. “Not sure how much reconnaissance you lot managed before you stumbled across the Dementor patrol, but all the old secret passageways have been destroyed, covered over, or are guarded at both ends. Between the Dementors outside the school and the Death Eater or Death Eater-adjacent patrols inside the school, you’re gonna have a devil of a time getting in via the front door. There’s only one other way inside now.” He wrinkled his nose. “Still think it’s suicide to go in, though. If the Carrows or one of their band at large don’t find you, Peeves might turn you in just for a lark, and running afoul of Snape’s almost as bad as facing off against You-Know-Who these days.”

“We’ll manage,” Harry said, though he shared Aberforth’s doubts.

“I’m sure you think you will,” Aberforth sighed, then craned his neck a bit, peering into the portrait. “…But at least you’ll have a bit of help, now.”

Harry turned to follow his eye and noticed that something new had appeared down the long painted tunnel through which Ariana had disappeared: it was a faint white dot, growing bigger as it approached back toward the mouth of the tunnel. After a few moments, he could make out Ariana again—and she wasn’t alone. She had someone else in tow—another portrait? The other person was taller than Ariana, and while they walked with a slight limp, they did not let this slow them down, as if they were very eager to reach the front face of the portrait.

“Bloody hell—is that…?” Ron whispered, not daring to believe his eyes.

“It can’t be!” Hermione gasped, scandalised—as if this display of magic she didn’t understand was a personal affront.

But it was, Harry thought.

His hair was long and lanky, like he hadn’t seen a Snipping Spell in months, and his face was raked with several long, ragged gashes that had scarred over. He carried with him a lantern that threw into stark relief the unseemly state of his clothes, his robes ripped and tattered and his shirt stained with a rusty something that Harry hoped was dirt but was probably dried blood.

Closer and closer Ariana and her charge drew to the front of the portrait, their features growing clearer as they seemed to be ready to step right out of the portrait frame and into Aberforth’s sitting room—until the living, breathing Neville Longbottom, face broken by a wide, excited grin, actually did step out of the portrait, which swung open wide like the portrait of the Fat Lady guarding the entrance to Gryffindor Tower.

Neville hung the lantern he’d brought along on a hook next to the mantle, then quickly leapt down and rushed forward to pull Harry into a crushing hug. “I knew you’d come! I just knew it! And here you are! Oh, Harry!”

Harry was flabbergasted, standing limp in Neville’s arms. “But—but how?!”

But Neville had spotted Ron and Hermione now, and he launched himself into their open arms with a cry of delight, his face buried in Hermione’s bushy hair. “You can’t understand how brilliant it is to see you three!” Neville sniffed, twisting back around to face Harry. “It’s been—”

He cut himself off when he caught sight of Draco, still lurking in the corner. He swallowing thickly, wide-eyed and face drained of colour. “Uh…” he said, glancing around at Harry and the others as if to say You guys see him too, right?

Harry cleared his throat softly, extending a hand to Draco. “Er, Neville, I’m…sure you remember Draco.”

Draco?” Neville said, voice gone a bit high with shock, and Harry nodded firmly.

“Yeah. Draco. He’s, er…been helping us out. For a good few months now.”

“Seriously?” Neville said, brows disappearing into his fringe, which was longer and more unkempt than Harry remembered it being.

“Got a problem with my helping out our Chosen One, Longbottom?” Draco sneered, and Harry could already see this was going to be An Issue. They’d had months to learn how to manage Draco, to see him prove himself several times over, to learn what he was and wasn’t. To Neville, though, this was still Malfoy, the Death Eater who’d murdered Albus Dumbledore and tried to kill Harry, too. And even without all that mess, he was still an insufferable prat who’d bullied Neville relentlessly.

They couldn’t have Draco snapping back at every poke and prod, though. Harry cut Draco a warning look, then explained to Neville, “We’re all after the same ends here. Draco’s more than shown his mettle, so just…at least trust that I trust him, even if you don’t yourself?”

Neville still looked uncertain, but he’d never been one to go looking for trouble and backed down with a nod. “If you say so… But I can’t promise you won’t meet some…resistance…with the others.”

“Others?” Hermione asked.

Neville just gave her a cryptic smile. “You’ll see.” He then threw Harry a bright grin. “Damn but you’re a sight for sore eyes! Sore everything, really. I always knew you’d show up right when we needed you, though, and not a moment sooner!”

Neville beamed, and it’d been some time since Harry had seen someone quite so happy, he realised. Neville looked a mess, with one of his eyes swollen nearly completely shut and yellow and purple blotches marring his face. Between his mussed hair and shredded robes, he’d obviously been living rough, and for quite some time, too.

Ron was the one to address it, with his usual tact: “Neville, mate, no offence, but you look like shit.”

“You should see the other guy,” Neville grinned, then scrubbed at the back of his head. “Well, no, you shouldn’t—he looks fine, if we’re being honest. But it’s nothing, really.” He shrugged, curiously dismissive of what Harry could tell had—at least at one point—been serious injuries. “Seamus got off way worse—though don’t tell him I said that. He gets a big head when he thinks he’s gonna have more scars to boast about at pub rounds in the future. Oh, Seamus! He’s gonna flip his lid when he sees you lot—shall we get going, then? Oh—” He turned to Aberforth. “We’re expecting a couple more arrivals in the next few hours, Ab. Will you send ‘em on through?”

What? This isn’t Kings Cross Station I’m running here! I’ve got patrons to tend to, Longbottom! Peak business starts in a couple of hours, plus the whole village’s already on high alert!’

“Yeah, I know, but they’ve insisted! And don’t worry about your customers; the arrivals’ll be Apparating right into your sitting room here. I promise, you won’t even notice,” Neville reassured him. “Just direct ‘em down the passage, and they’ll be out of your hair in no time. Won’t take two shakes.”

Aberforth only grumbled in response, but this did nothing to temper Neville’s demeanour, and Harry suspected they’d had conversations similar to this before. Aberforth did not strike Harry as half as gruff as he came off—much like he was learning that Dumbledore hadn’t been half as much a do-gooder as Harry had once believed.

Neville rearranged the chairs and held out a hand to Hermione, helping her climb up onto the mantle and crawl into the tunnel. Ron followed, then Neville, with Draco eyeing the tunnel with no small amount of distrust as he prepared to climb through.

Before he joined his friends, Harry addressed Aberforth. “You’ve saved our lives, sir. It’s a debt I won’t soon be able to repay.”

“Well repay it by looking after ‘em with a bit more care, then,” Aberforth grumped. “I might not be as quick on the draw next time.” He flicked a glance over to Draco, who was watching the both of them with a drawn expression. “What’re you waiting for, hm? Go on, get.”

Draco swallowed, wringing his hands. “…Just…I thought—I ought to apologise.” He shunted his gaze off to the side, and Harry didn’t think he’d ever seen Draco so off-kilter. “For—for your brother—”

“The way I hear it, you lot have enough to worry about right now. No sense in taking on more guilt, ‘specially when I’m pretty sure Albus wouldn’t have wanted you dithering on about putting an old man out of his misery.” Aberforth shrugged. “Besides, I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t let it happen.”

“Let it happen?” Harry said, brows knitting.

Aberforth sighed. “Maybe he had his reasons, is all. Or maybe it was just that his conscience had already been saddled with the death of one kid who couldn’t control their magic and he wasn’t about to make it two.”

Harry let Aberforth’s words simmer, wondering if even Dumbledore could be so crafty, so scheming, as to practically engineer his own death at Draco’s hands—

And that was a road, he decided quickly, he did not want to start down.

With another muttered thank you, Harry helped Draco up onto the mantle, and together they crawled through the hole behind Ariana’s portrait, leaving Aberforth alone with his bitter grief.

The passageway was well-kept and looked to have been here for years, with packed-dirt floors and brass lamps bolted into the smooth stone walls. After only a few feet, it became no trouble to stand and continue forward on foot, and they continued forward in silence, the only sounds the scraping and scuffing of their trainers over the path.

They walked side-by-side now, and Harry dared a glance over to Draco. He kept his pace sedate, not wanting to catch up to the others just yet. “…You doing all right?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because…well, because. Maybe you might not be. It’s why I asked.”

“My parents are prisoners to a madman who might kill them at any moment just for a lark, we’re walking to our certain—and likely very painful—doom, and I think I’ve ruined the knees of these trousers, which means I’m going to have holes who knows where in my pants when I Transfigure them back. Do you think I’m ‘doing all right’?”

“Draco,” Harry said quietly, grabbing him by the elbow. He stepped close, studying Draco’s face—but he wouldn’t meet Harry’s eye. “Are you all right?”

“…It never made sense to me. He was so powerful—even the Dark Lord was afraid of him. How could I have managed to kill him, without even trying?”

“He was sick,” Harry reminded him. “Sick and weak, and he was tired. Draco, it doesn’t mean he—”

“Don’t. Don’t lie to me, Potter. Don’t say anything at all, if you feel like you need to bullshit me.”

Harry let his hand slide down Draco’s forearm, to his wrist, then squeezed his fingers. He didn’t know if it would do the dragon much good, but it settled Harry’s own nerves a bit. “I’m not lying to you. And I still don’t think it’s anything nefarious. I really do believe it was just—just shitty luck. But…” He rubbed a thumb over Draco’s knuckles. “…I don’t think he would’ve disliked going out the way he did. Not if he’d known what might happen—that…that this might happen.”

“This?” Draco said, and Harry could feel those dark eyes heavy on him. He didn’t dare meet them, cowardly fearful of what he’d see. He just stared down at Draco’s pale hand in his own.

“This—all of this. You and us, hunting Horcruxes together. We’d never have survived without you, you know that.”

Draco pulled his hand back.

“Harry?” Ron called from further down the passageway. “We need to send a rescue team?”

Harry bit his tongue, disappointment lancing through him, though he couldn’t pinpoint its source. Draco shouldered past him, marching resolutely forward without waiting for Harry to follow.

“We’re coming,” Harry called, rubbing his forehead. If he survived this ordeal, he really was going to die.

Ron, Hermione, and Neville waited for them to catch up, and then they were on the move again. “Where’d this passage even come from? It’s not one of the ones on the Marauder’s Map, is it, Harry?”

Harry shook his head. “Don’t think so—there’s only the seven, and Aberforth said they were all guarded or closed off.”

“Yup,” Neville confirmed. “You’d be caught for sure using one of those passages, either going in or coming out. Snape managed to find all of ‘em over the summer hols. It’d be suicide to try to get in and out of the castle that way.” He whirled around, walking backwards, still with that beaming expression. Like he didn’t dare let them out of his sight, lest they prove a hallucination and vanish into nothingness. “But forget all that—is it true?”

“Is what true?” Harry asked.

Is what true,” Neville mocked good-naturedly. “The bank business, of course! It’s all over the Wireless—they even broadcast a special edition of Potterwatch at lunchtime! Terry Boot got his arse kicked by Amycus Carrow for Charming the gargoyles to play the highlights from the broadcast on repeat.”

He supposed there was no point in denying it, especially since it had evidently already made it into the public sphere. “Yeah, guilty as charged, then.”

Neville laughed gleefully, and Harry smiled; his good humour despite the dark situation was infectious. “And you actually escaped on a dragon?” Harry nodded, and Neville gasped, scandalised. “What’d you do with it?!”

“Released one into the wild,” said Ron, then nodded toward Draco. “Decided we’d keep the other.”

This drew Neville up short, and Hermione nearly collided with him. He reached for the tie at his neck and loosened it with a gulp as he eyed Draco warily. “Then…then he really can…?”

“Really can what, Longbottom?” Draco muttered. “Spit it out, if you must grace us with your eloquence.”

Neville ignored him, directing his comments to Harry. “I think most of us convinced ourselves along the way it was just a cover story or something. We figured the real reason he wasn’t back at school was because he was working for You-Know-Who, and that maybe Snape had somehow engineered the whole thing.”

Harry didn’t suppose they could be blamed for jumping to such a conclusion—and Draco certainly wasn’t helping matters. “…It’s true, Nev. And a good thing, too, as he’s a right menace once he lets loose.” He quirked a grin at Draco, hoping to dispel the strange mood he’d been in. “We’re damn lucky he’s putting his skills to use for our sake. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to face off against him.”

Neville watched Draco curiously, and Harry imagined he probably wanted a bit of proof, if only to see the dragon in person. Draco did not seem ready to oblige, still holding himself stiff and awkward.

“…All right, then. But—you’ve gotta catch me up. Where’ve you been all this time? Potterwatch has mostly been updates on Death Eater movements and You-Know-Who sightings without much hard information on your whereabouts—less Potterwatch and more Potterprojection. All we’ve heard is you might have been on the run, lying low while there was a price on your head, but that always sounded silly to me, given the way you acted at school.” He started walking again. “Personally, I think you’ve been up to something.”

Up to something, indeed—but they could hardly tell Neville the gory details of what they’d gotten involved in, so instead Harry said, “You first, mate—we’ve been dying to know what’s been happening at Hogwarts. It’s been torture ever since we heard Snape had taken over.”

“A takeover’s exactly what it’s been…” Neville said, sighing. “It’s not even really Hogwarts anymore.” He picked absently at the scabbed-over scar running along the side of his face. “You heard about the Carrows, I suppose?”

“Heard about them, yeah—those are the Death Eaters Snape hired as professors, right?”

“Professors!” Neville snorted. “That’s a riot, that is. I doubt they’re even taking a salary; probably took the positions for the fun of it.”

“Fun of it?”

“Yeah—they’re in charge of discipline, see. So you can imagine with a pair like them, they take the job to heart.” He grimaced. “They’re pretty fond of corporal punishment.”

Harry shared an inward wince. “Worse than Umbridge, then?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“They’ve always had a sadistic streak a mile long,” Draco muttered with an exaggerated shudder. “We eventually had to enchant the dishes to serve themselves when Mother and Father had them over for dinner, after they tortured half our house-elves senseless.”

Hermione gaped at him in horror, but Neville just nodded. “Yeah, I could see that. McGonagall ordered all the Hogwarts house-elves to stay away from their rooms. Didn’t take much convincing.”

“Shocking,” Ron said. “Y’know, considering house-elves.”

“Amycus—that’s the brother—he teaches Dark Arts, and—”

“Wait, you mean Defence Against the Dark Arts?” Hermione said.

“Nope, it’s just ‘Dark Arts’ now—and it’s pretty much exactly what you’d imagine. Last week, he had the Third Years practising the Cruciatus Curse on students who’d earned detentions—”

What?!” Harry, Ron, and Hermione chorused, their voices echoing along the passageway. Draco, again, did not seem surprised.

“Oh yeah, I was on the receiving end of Roger Davies’ first attempt. It’s how I got this one—” He pointed to the grotesque scar down the side of his face. It looked several weeks old but did not seem to have been properly attended to. Had Madam Pomfrey been forbidden from tending to patients? “Coincidentally because I refused to use it on him. I don’t hold it against him, really—he didn’t wanna do it either, was just scared, ‘cause his mum’s a Muggleborn. Some students have been pretty gung-ho about it, though.” He cut a look at Draco. “…Crabbe and Goyle get summoned from lessons sometimes to give demonstrations.”

“Probably the first time they’ve had top marks in anything,” Ron spat.

Draco had nothing to say to this, only frowning with knit brows. If he felt compelled to defend his friends—lackeys?—he kept his tongue for the time being.

“What about the other Carrow?” Hermione asked. “There’s a sister, right?”

Neville nodded. “Alecto’s her name—and she’s handling Muggle Studies, which you’ll be curious to learn is compulsory now.”

Muggle Studies?” Ron sputtered. “You’re having us on.”

“Well, it’s not exactly the curriculum you might imagine. The only things we learn about Muggles now are how stupid they are and how they need wizards to guide them, and now that the natural order’s being restored, it’s our responsibility to lead them with a firm hand.”

Harry could not help but recall Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s grand plans to put Muggles back in their place. No matter the pretty packaging, it still turned Harry’s stomach.

“I once asked Alecto how much Muggle blood she and her brother had. I figured it couldn’t be that bad, since their boss was doing pretty well for himself despite being a half-blood.” Neville pointed to another slash across his forehead, just missing his eye. “She didn’t take kindly to the question.”

“Blimey, Neville,” Ron said, shaking his head, half in admiration, half in bald astonishment.

Draco blew sharply through his nose in irritation, throwing his hands in the air. “Are all Gryffindors blessed with deathwishes? Or have I just fallen in with the lucky few?”

“Tempting as it may be to buck the new order, there’s a time and a place for such smart remarks—and it’s certainly not when you’re locked in a room with someone who’d kill you without compunction!” Hermione admonished, but Neville waved her off.

“Nah, she wouldn’t dare make an example out of a Pureblood—even a Gryffindor one. Plus, well…” He shrugged weakly. “I feel like it helps, people standing up to them. Even when it won’t make any difference, it still gives people hope.” He smiled shyly. “I used to notice it when you did it, Harry. Really boosted morale—and we’ve sorely needed it. If it takes a bit of flesh off the bone to do it, well, at least I’m good for something.”

“Yes, fantastic role model you’ve got there, Longbottom,” Draco sneered. “Fine time to fashion your life after someone with a bounty on his head!”

Neville didn’t seem fazed. Harry didn’t know what was worse: the things that Neville had been through, or the matter-of-fact tone in which he related them.

He’d thought he’d been prepared, between the gossip on the Wireless and Professor Black’s comments, for what had become of Hogwarts, but this… Professors torturing students for a lark, the corruption of useful subjects for a dark purpose, and all this being the norm

“It’s the Muggleborn and half-blood kids who’ve got it worst—them, and the ones with friends and relatives on the outside, especially if they’re causing trouble of any sort. The students are sitting ducks, then, liable to get snatched as hostages and never seen or heard from again. Like old Xeno Lovegood: he was stepping out of line with all the Potter support in The Quibbler, so they dragged Luna right off the train on the way back for Christmas.”

Harry’s heart leapt—finally, they could share a bit of good news and bring back hope. “Oh, she’s all right now! We’ve seen her only recently—”

“Yeah! I heard—” He fished in his pocket, pulling out a gold coin that Harry recognised as another of the fake Galleons that Dumbledore’s Army had used to communicate. He’d never imagined how useful Hermione’s little charm would come to be, even now years after she’d first fashioned them. “She managed to get word to me through this. Cho and a couple of the other Ravenclaws managed to recreate Hermione’s Charm—you wouldn’t believe how useful it’s been this year!”

“Oh, I think we can imagine…” Draco muttered, though only Harry caught it.

“It’s been the only secure way of communicating—we used to use them to organise pranks and such to piss off the Carrows. Sometimes Snape, too, though he’s been out of the castle a lot lately.”

“‘Used to’?” said Ron. “You don’t anymore?”

Neville was worrying at the hem of his school shirt, which had once been white but clearly hadn’t been washed in a while. “Not for lack of spirit. But after Luna got snatched, and Ginny never came back after Easter—”

“She’s safe, too,” Harry said. “Lying low with her family—they figured that was safest, what with Ron being wanted.”

Neville smiled, relieved. “I’m glad—though I won’t say her not coming back didn’t strike a blow against our little rebellion. She and Luna and I were kind of the unspoken leaders for a while. Once it was down to just me, I got the brunt of the Carrows’ irritation. Between that and others getting real nasty punishments when they got caught doing the tiniest good deed—I won’t tell you what happened to Michael Corner, but it wasn’t pretty—most people got scared off.”

“Understandable,” Ron said with a grim smile. “I’m amazed it went on as long as it did, in that case.”

“You’d be surprised what people will do when they’ve got their backs up against the wall.”

Harry thought he had a pretty good idea of the lengths to which desperate parties might go if they thought they didn’t have a choice, and this time he didn’t look away when he caught Draco’s eye on him.

“So yeah, with numbers dwindling, we had to lay off some of the flashier stunts—we kept up an underground resistance for a while, tagging walls with graffiti and the sort, up until a few weeks ago.”

“Why? What happened?” Hermione asked.

“They went after Gran. Guess I’d finally pissed them off one too many times.”

“No way!” Ron gasped, half in shock, half because the passage was now climbing rather steeply.

Neville nodded grimly. “But don’t worry—she knows how to handle intruders who show up unannounced thinking they’ll be more than a match for a little old witch living alone.” Neville threw them a wicked grin over his shoulder, sweat trickling down from his temples. “Last I heard, they’re still looking for Dawlish’s nose to reattach down at St. Mungo’s. Gran said she lost it after she sliced it off, but I’m sure she’s stuffed it in a jar to keep as a trophy.”

“What happened to her?” Hermione asked, wide-eyed.

“Oh, she’s on the run now—seemed pleased by it, though, from the postcard she sent me. Said she was proud of me, that I’m every bit my parents’ son and to keep up the good fight, and that she’d always wanted to visit the South Pacific anyway.”

He was beaming so brightly, they didn’t even need the lamps now, and Harry nodded. “That’s great, Neville.” The poor guy had never had the strongest of spines, and his grandmother had been part of the problem. To finally gain her approval must’ve been a hell of a confidence booster, though it sounded as if he’d been acting a right badass even before Augusta Longbottom had Owled him.

“Though Gran getting away meant they didn’t have anyone they could really use to threaten me into staying in line anymore, so they just kind of gave up any pretence. Figured my next stop was either Azkaban or a cold grave, so I disappeared as soon as I got Gran’s postcard.”

“Hold up,” Ron said, actually stopping in his tracks. “But—we’re heading back to Hogwarts now, aren’t we? You sure it’s safe, mate?”

“Safe?” Neville laughed. “Depends on your definition. But you’ll see—look! We’re just about there now.”

As they rounded a corner, they found themselves staring at a short flight of stairs leading up to a door—this one a bit larger than the one above the mantle in Aberforth’s bar. They didn’t need to crouch this time, and Neville took lead, turning the doorknob and leaning into the door to push it open.

“Make way for the soon-to-be-conquering heroes!” Neville called once over the threshold. “Didn’t I tell you they’d be back? Didn’t I?”

Harry was the first to emerge from the passageway behind Neville, and as he poked his head into the room, he was greeted by a chorus of delighted screams and shouts.

“It’s Harry! Harry’s here!”

“Potter?! Bloody hell, he’s actually back!”

“Ron too!”



And suddenly it was time for another round of Harry scrambling to position himself between Draco and the angry students charging for him. Perhaps, going forward, they ought to have a script prepared for moments like this, as it would undoubtedly not be the last time he had to defend Draco’s company to outsiders.

“Easy there, easy—hold up, now!” he said, hands in the air. There had to be at least another dozen students there, and while Harry didn’t recognise them all, they certainly seemed to recognise Draco.

He cast a hopeful glance back at Hermione and Ron, who were gaping baldly at the room, scanning every inch. He needed their support on this, or things could turn sour easily.

“Er, I’m sure you all recognise Draco here… But I ask that any grievances you have with him, please put them aside, or else keep well out of our way while we do what we came here to do. We’ve got much bigger issues to worry about right now than petty schoolyard rivalries—” He winced, knowing he sounded like some of his own professors of years past lecturing him on his antagonistic relationship with Draco. “And Draco’s on our side—”

“The hell he is!” someone in the back piped up, to murmured assent from the crowd. “He killed Dumbledore!”

“He is on our side,” Harry pressed. “He’s saved my life—on multiple occasions, and we wouldn’t be here right now without the invaluable help he’s given us. And Dumbledore…” He swallowed; this was not a can of worms he was eager to unpack. “It’s complicated. More complicated than we can explain right now.”

“He’s still a right arsehole, let’s get that straight,” Ron added, rather unhelpfully. “But he pulls his weight, and he’s fallen hard out of love with You-Know-Who, that we’ve seen with our own eyes.”

“And all four of us are here together,” Hermione said. “So if you’re not going to help us because of Draco, then you’re not going to help us at all, and you may as well run and report us to Snape or the Carrows.”

Harry’s gaze tracked around the room, fixing on all their frightened faces. “We’re all here for the same reasons, ultimately—fighting for the same goal. I plan on having my friends by my side while I do that—all of them.”

Draco made a face, and that was all right with Harry. He could make any faces he liked, but it wouldn’t change facts: they were friends. Maybe not like Ron and Hermione were his friends, and not like Luna or Neville or Ginny, but…there was still something there, something that made Harry’s stomach flip when Draco flashed one of those cheeky grins and made his heart clench when Draco was in pain, aching from a wound Harry couldn’t heal.

Draco was the last person Harry would have ever expected to call a friend, and perhaps that was what made his companionship so precious. It would certainly explain why Harry was all the time worried he’d say or do something so off-putting Draco might decide his sanity wasn’t worth it and flit off to save his parents, abandoning Harry and their quest.

“You’re letting him in here, Longbottom?” another student asked, and Neville gave a start, rubbing his neck nervously.

“Er—well, I suppose if he’s fine by Harry, he’s fine by me. So long as he’s civil, it’s none of our business who Harry consorts with.”

Harry gave Neville a grateful nod.

With Neville’s stance made clear, the group seemed to settle, and Harry took a moment to finally take in the room proper.

He didn’t recognise where they were at all—it was enormous, though, and rather sumptuously appointed. He’d never had one himself, but he imagined it looked like the inside of a fancy tree house or ship’s cabin, every inch of space given a purpose. The walls were lined with bookcases fitted with rolling ladders so the topmost shelves could be easily reached, and in the corner sat a wooden-cased Wireless that he later learned had been Charmed to always pick up Potterwatch. There was a huge pit in one corner filled with pillows and beanbag chairs, where a group of students were presently poring over books and parchment in what appeared to be a study session. From the ceiling hung massive brightly coloured tapestries bearing the crests of Hogwarts houses. Harry saw the gold Gryffindor lion on a field of scarlet, the black badger of Hufflepuff on a field of yellow, and the bronze eagle of Ravenclaw on a field of blue.

“I suppose they felt the silver and green would have clashed,” Draco drawled, scanning the room with a sneering curl of his lip.

“You really think any Slytherins would have wanted to be here?” Harry asked.

“You really think any of your little sycophants asked?” Then for good measure, he added: “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Harry thought back to their days in the DA and felt a pang of guilt. Here was another what might have been moment in the making: how might their fight against Voldemort be affected by the presence or absence of those willing to stand against Tom Riddle’s dark forces—regardless of the House into which they’d been Sorted?

“Yeah, you are here.” Harry squinted, glancing to and fro. “Wherever ‘here’ is—Neville, what is this place?”

“What, gonna tell me you don’t you recognise the Room of Requirement?” Neville waggled his brows.

Harry’s eyes boggled, and he turned in place to take the room in anew. “No. No, I honestly don’t!”

Neville’s brows lifted. “Pretty fancy, no? I was the first one to take up semi-permanent residence—ran across it trying to shake the Carrows one day when I needed a place to hide. ‘Course it wasn’t like this when I first got here—just a hammock and an armchair and a Gryffindor pennant I had the Room create so I wasn’t missing the Common Room so much. It grew itself and added more decorations once more of the DA started stopping by.”

“So that’s who all’s here? Our old club?”

“At first, yeah; that was all I felt safe inviting in. We’ve expanded to friends of friends, though.”

Harry nodded, taking care to keep his voice low. “…No one had any Slytherin friends?”

Neville’s eyes quickly flicked to Draco. “Er…well, I mean—there wasn’t any ban against them, you understand? I would never say—”

“No, I know, I know. Sorry, Nev. Just—” Harry ran a hand through his hair. He could feel Draco glaring at him, probably expecting him to choke. “This place looks great, honest. But it does feel a little…lopsided.”

Neville grimaced. “I told you—we seriously didn’t do anything like say ‘no Slytherins allowed’. It’s only I don’t think many of us have Slytherin friends and—” He directed his words to Draco. “And there are probably lots of Very Nice People in Slytherin—”

“Present company excluded, I’m sure,” Draco drawled, though there was a dangerous lilt in his voice, and Harry cut him a warning look. They didn’t need his antagonism right now.

“Just…just it’s hard to walk up to someone after all this time and suddenly say, ‘Hey, wanna join our rebellion?’”

Harry felt his lips twitch—yeah, he understood that better than Neville knew. He looked to Draco, who had his arms crossed over his chest now and his mouth shaped into an unhappy moue.

“…And if they approached you? If they showed they wanted to help, if you could believe they were genuine about it?”

“Oh, well then yeah, of course!” Neville glanced nervously between Harry and Draco. “…Honestly, it’s been awkward at times. I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t think any of us felt close enough to any Slytherins to invite them in, but their absence is pretty unmistakable. If one of them were to throw their lot in first…I think it’d only help make our bonds stronger.”

“So?” Harry said to Draco. “Satisfied?”

“Hardly,” Draco said with a disdainful sniff. “I’ll not be anyone’s token Slytherin to parade about as a symbol of House Unity.”

His harsh words belied a loosening of the tension across his shoulders, though. “Heavens forfend,” Harry said. He turned back to Neville, shaking his head fondly and quickly switching topics. “So the Carrows can’t get into this place?”

Neville seemed relieved to be off the subject of Slytherin’s notable absence from their burgeoning little coup. “Nope! Though not for lack of trying. Seamus was one of the first ones to join me here, and he helped me refine the parameters of the Room to be sure only the people we wanted in here could find their way inside.” He waved a hand, beckoning someone over. “Seamus! Come harass Harry for a bit!”

Seamus had evidently been chatting up Hermione and Ron, and if Neville hadn’t identified him by name, Harry would have had a hard time placing him. Seamus’s face was almost as banged-up as Neville’s, with messy purple and yellow splotches all over.

“I was just telling Harry about the great job we did with setting the rules of the Room to be sure the Carrows couldn’t get in.”

“Oh yeah! Neville’s our boy, he is! He’s made sure that so long as one of our group stays here to claim it, no one else can get inside without our say-so. He’s picked up on how to close all the loopholes, so now even Carrows supporters can’t get in, not just the Carrows themselves.” Seamus flicked a quick glance to Draco, as if only now realising that if Draco had really been a spy of some sort and not genuinely in league with them, he wouldn’t have been able to enter the room at all. “He really gets the Room.”

Neville ducked his head shyly. “I mean, if so, then only because I’ve been stuck in here the longest.”

“But,” Harry said, jerking a thumb back the way they’d come. “How’d you find the passage out? We spent hours in here back in Fifth Year and I never noticed any kind of door leading to the Hog’s Head.”

“Oh, yeah! That was a happy accident, really. The first time I ducked in here to hide, I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave again—at least not until they’d gotten tired of waiting for me, which wasn’t likely to happen. I decided I’d wait as long as I could possibly stand it—and after about a day or day and a half, well, I started getting really hungry, wishing the Room could Conjure some food. It didn’t work—”

“Gamp’s Law,” Hermione intoned with a solemn nod.

“Er, yeah—but the Room did the next best thing it could, I guess, and created the doorway you saw. I didn’t have a clue where it led—only that it was going someplace that wasn’t here. I figured the Room wouldn’t send me knowingly into danger, so I took a chance, thinking it might take me to the Kitchens—and found my way to Ab’s place!” Neville gestured around the room, and Harry now noticed several small tables placed in different corners piled with tea sandwiches and assorted snacks, as well as a pumpkin juice tap set next to a bookshelf. “All the food’s from the Hog’s Head—without his help, we would’ve been starved out of here weeks ago.”

“So you’re all just—what, living here now?” Harry asked, though he didn’t know why this should shock him, as he and Ron, Hermione, and Draco had essentially been on an extended camping trip for the better part of the last eight months.

“Yup,” said Seamus brightly. “There’s hammocks that we summon up at night to sleep in, like one big Common Room, and whenever more students join us, the Room just gets bigger—more pillows and beanbags and hammocks and—”

“And bathrooms, thank goodness,” said Lavender Brown, sidling up. Evidently the others had decided Draco’s presence was not sufficiently off-putting to keep them from grilling Harry about what they were up to, and the rest of the occupants were now drifting over to join them.

Joining Lavender were several more familiar faces that Harry was relieved to see didn’t look nearly as roughed up as Neville and Seamus. Both Patil twins were here, as were Terry Boot (sporting a black eye that Harry suspected he’d earned from Amycus for charming the gargoyles earlier), Ernie Macmillan, Anthony Goldstein, and Michael Corner. They were flanked by several others in Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff colours he didn’t recognise, but they all had their eyes fixed on Harry with a ravenous sort of hope that made him feel a bit uncomfortable.

“There were bathrooms!” Seamus protested. “Just because we didn’t have fancy Prefect tubs—”

“Harry, mate, where’ve you been?” Ernie interrupted. “We’ve heard a dozen different stories from Potterwatch—you’re as hard a man to pin down as You-Know-Who. I mean, you didn’t seriously break into Gringotts, right?”

“That one Potterwatch got right!” Neville burst out. “And the bit about the dragon’s true, too!” He glanced to Draco. “Both of ‘em.”

Someone gasped sharply. “Then—Malfoy really is a dragon Animagus?” Padma asked, a glint of jealousy in her eye; Ravenclaws.

Harry swallowed; he appreciated Neville trying to increase Draco’s esteem in the others’ eyes, but talk of Draco’s Animagecraft would undoubtedly lead to talk of his role in Dumbledore’s death, and Harry doubted he was in any fit state to—

“I am,” Draco said, speaking up for the first time since they’d entered the Room. Every eye instantly flew to him, hiding a dozen different emotions in constant flux. “I spent all Sixth Year self-studying to become one.”

“So you could kill Dumbledore!” one of the new Ravenclaws chirped.

Ron snapped. “Pipe the fuck down, would you? Give him a chance to explain himself before you pounce on him like a swarm of Doxies!” He gave Draco a firm nod, arms crossed over his chest, and Harry had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. A Weasley defending a Malfoy—somewhere, pigs were surely flying.

Draco waited for silence again, then said, “That wasn’t my intention,” demonstrating astonishing restraint as he kept himself from sounding too defensive. “…But it was the ultimate outcome.”

Harry opened his mouth to offer support by way of explanation—but Draco just gave him a subtle jerk of his head. No, he had to stand on his own here, or they’d always look to Harry for the real reason, never fully trusting Draco. Granted, they might never fully trust Draco even with this, but he deserved a chance to stand on his own merits, seeing as he’d been forced for these many months to rely on Harry.

“It was my poor decisions that killed him, my magic. No one else’s. It doesn’t matter what my reasons were, it doesn’t matter whether I meant to or not, or whether I wanted to or not. He’s dead all the same, and we’re worse off for it.

“So go on hating me if you like, on whatever grounds suit you. I’m not asking for your forgiveness. I honestly don’t give two fucks about being forgiven; I’m not keen on any of you, and you’re justifiably not fond of me. But I’ve learned you don’t have to like people in order to work with them, to do something worthwhile with them. So that’s what I’ve come back to do. And if any of you messes with Potter’s mission just to fuck with me, I’ll rip your throat out.”

Despite the vividly violent implications of his comment, Harry felt his stomach churn with a nauseating kind of giddiness. Somehow, the sight of Draco trying with this group, standing up for himself not in defence but because he wanted their respect—it did funny things to Harry. It was just so…unexpected. He liked it when Draco surprised him, because it was always a trip and a half.

“How did you wind up running around with Harry, though?” Terry Boot asked, the first of the group to say something to Draco that wasn’t either an insult (veiled or otherwise) or accusation.

Harry stepped in here, not wanting his dirty laundry aired for all to see. “It doesn’t matter, guys. Really. You’ve heard Draco say his piece, and you’ve heard from the rest of us that he’s playing on the level. For any further details—well I’m sure there will be multiple book deals once this is all said and done. But until then, let’s concentrate on the here and now, yeah?”

“Speaking of the here and now, what’s the plan, O Chosen One?” asked Seamus eagerly, rubbing his hands together.

Before any of them could parry the question with one of their own, a terrible, scorching pain lanced through Harry, centred in the lightning scar.

It hit him like a sword stroke to the head, and the Room of Requirement swirled around him until suddenly he was not at Hogwarts anymore: instead, he was standing alone at the centre of a circle of hooded wizards wearing deathshead masks, backlit by a roaring fire of eerie green that threw spangling shadows around the room. Before him knelt a small figure, its head barely reaching his shin, and it trembled visibly, whimpering.

“…What did you just say, creature?”

His voice shook, trembling not unlike the figure before him, and he felt thrilling through him a heady, nauseating combination of fury and fear, an undercurrent of desperation boiling his blood. He had misheard, surely—or else the creature was mistaken. It could not be true. It must not. There was, he was certain, simply no way, and in his irritation when no suitable response was forthcoming, he slashed through the air with his wand. A bright red line opened across the Goblin’s bald pate, and it yelped, flinching away and patting at its head protectively.

“I said speak! Say. It. Again!”

“O—of course, my lord, we…” It licked its lips, gaze fixed firmly on the cold flagstones beneath its knees, unable to meet his own. “We…we encountered im-impostors attempting to infiltrate th-the bank. Be—before we were alerted to…to their duplicity…they b-broke into…the Lestrange v-vault…”

“And how, pray tell, did impostors find their way into such an institution as Gringotts, with its vaunted security measures? Is Goblin ingenuity not what it used to be? Are there not means of detecting attempts to enter by subterfuge? Who were these impostors?”

“W-well, yes of course, we have…measures, tried and trusted means of stripping away spells of disguise and—”

“Who. Were. The impostors.”

The Goblin held up an arm, as if this feeble gesture might protect it from his wrath. “It…it was Potter, my Lord. With three accomplices, children like himself.”

His heart—or whatever organ passed for it—thudded loudly in his chest, an insistent throbbing that he heard ringing in his own ears. No, coincidence only—Bellatrix had his trust, and he had her loyalty. The boy surely sought only items of great magical power with which to mount a foolhardy rebellion.

He swallowed the fear that threatened to claw at his throat. “And what did Potter take from the vault? Surely you have catalogued its contents.” When the Goblin appeared reluctant to speak, he enticed it again with another painful stripe across its bulbous skull. “Speak!”

“A trinket only! N—nothing of significance—”


“O—only a cup! A worthless little golden cup, truly—”

A scream ripped through him, pulsing with rage and threatening to tear him apart—no, no, this could not be. How had this happened?! Had he slipped up? Had the boy somehow divined through him, through their connection, the secret of his Horcruxes?

No, a silly idea. Likely someone had betrayed him; that was the only conclusion he could draw. Not Bellatrix—never Bellatrix. But then who—and how?

When he brought his Elder Wand slashing down again, this time the Goblin dropped with thudding force, rolling over and gazing up at the ceiling overhead with beady black, unseeing eyes. He whirled around, his bloodlust not yet sated, and his audience quickly scattered, lest they tempt his blind wrath: Bellatrix and Lucius (oh thank god, Malfoy’s dad’s still kicking…) threw others behind them in their race for the door, but his rage would not be contained.

He struck and struck and struck, careless in his violence, conscious only of eliminating those who had borne witness to this his gravest, greatest secret. Any among them might have been the chink in his armour. He would take no more chances, leave nothing more to these his so-called followers. It had been folly to entrust his precious Horcruxes to these blind fools; he would not make this same mistake again.

Bodies fell in piles around them, but he paid them no need—he had but one focus now: ensure that his Horcruxes, his precious anchors to immortality, remained undisturbed and secreted away where none but he might find them.

The diary had been destroyed years back through Lucius’s incompetence, and now the cup had been stolen—were these the only victims of his lack of foresight? If the boy had somehow discovered the provenance of the cup and its importance to the Dark Lord, could he have conceivably learned of the others? Surely not, not if he’d found the cup only through Bellatrix’s folly. She knew of its importance, but not its purpose. Perhaps this might even be for the best—the boy would think he’d struck Lord Voldemort a mortal blow! He would let his guard down—he would make mistakes.

…But what if he had learned of the Horcrux through other means? Indeed, the boy was impetuous and stupid, a Gryffindor through and through: there was little chance he’d stumbled upon the Horcrux and its location all by himself. If he closed his eyes, he thought he could even hear the sounds of Dumbledore tugging on Potter’s strings from beyond the veil.

But if either of them had learned of the Horcruxes, then their top priority would surely have been to destroy them, not merely steal them—and he would have felt it, the snipping of these his tethers to lichdom. He was the most powerful wizard to have ever lived, had even surpassed Dumbledore, who had been struck down by a mere child’s display of wild magic.

He had slain so many, defeated even more. There was not a soul alive now who didn’t know his name and fear it. So how could he have not felt that his soul incarnate had been attacked, mutilated, maimed beyond recognition?

That he had not sensed the diary’s destruction was of little consequence—that had been before his rebirth, when he had been little more than a ghost, a pale imitation of his former glory. Here now, reformed and remade, better than before even, he could not have mistaken it.

Such powerful magical items would have called out to him had they been threatened, one piece of his soul to another—surely this meant they were safe, intact, whole

But he no longer had the luxury of relying on surely and must be. He had to know, for certain. He had to see his Horcruxes—in their whole state—for himself. This was not a task he could—or even dared—entrust to any others. No, even his second had let him down this night. He would make this journey on his own.

He kicked aside the Goblin’s corpse; already it reeked, though that could have been the creature’s natural stench. How proper witches and wizards tolerated such lowly beasts in their presence was beyond him. Things would change… Purview over the wizarding world would soon be returned to witches and wizards alone.

His mind was awhir with images, memories, recollections that had been seared into his mind, the sites of his greatest triumphs: the placid lake and its hidden terrors, the ramshackle shack rightfully abandoned and forgotten, the towering turrets of Hogwarts Castle…

And it was here, reviewing these his hiding places, carefully selected and each guarded in its own way, that a wave of cool relief began to lap at his fevered consciousness, for how could Potter know of the Gaunt shack, let alone that he had hidden the ring there? His relation to the Gaunts had been well hidden through Obliviation and murder when necessary. The ring, at least, would be safe.

And if not better hidden, then far more difficult to reach was the seaside cave—for even if Potter or Dumbledore had somehow discovered the cave, how could they have ever penetrated its protection? The locket was safe in its stony fortress, surrounded by murky waters filled with the dead.

This left the school, the secrets of which not even Dumbledore had ever fully penetrated. He alone had been clever enough to discover its most well-kept secret, to key in to the magical rules that dictated the appearings and disappearings of the Room…

Nagini would no longer leave his sight, he resolved. She had been a formidable weapon thus far, aided him greatly, but now she was a liability. He would keep her close, wrapped tight about his person, where she would be warm and safe and as well-protected as one of his own limbs.

As for the other Horcruxes…he resolved to return to each of his hiding places and redouble his protections around the artefacts. It would be quicker to dispatch his lieutenants with instructions on what to look for and where…but dangerous, so very dangerous, especially if Potter hadn’t disturbed his other Horcruxes. No, he would do this alone—if for no other reason than to ensure the task was completed adeptly.

Which site to visit first, though? Which of his Horcruxes was in the most danger, the most likely—however unlikely he had deemed it—to be uncovered?

The old Gaunt shack…no one would think to look there—except his middle name was public record. Dumbledore would have known it, and being nearly as old as the pyramids themselves, might have recognised its provenance and sussed out his connection with the Gaunts. From there it would be easy to consider that he might have visited the old, abandoned home—and perhaps secreted away a treasure there. It being the least conventionally secure of the resting places of his Horcruxes, he would visit there first.

The idea of the lake’s location being found out—let alone its defences being breached—was absurd, but Dumbledore had known of the orphanage where he’d spent much of his youth, and the staff there had been nasty gossips. Word of the pranks he’d played on other children in that cave might have reached the old fool’s ears. Perhaps it might be prudent to at least check, to be sure no one had been poking about. Yes—he would place fresh wards to alert him should anyone make their way inside, just to be certain.

Then there was Hogwarts… The diadem, he wanted to believe, was the safest of his remaining unguarded Hocruxes. Apparition onto the grounds was impossible, and Potter’s infiltration via Hogsmeade would not go unnoticed. And even if he did somehow manage to sneak into the castle, there was no conceivable way he could have found the diadem, for it was hidden so well even Voldemort himself could not have found it had he not known exactly where he had hidden it.

…Still, he would warn Snape that the boy might try something: perhaps he might manage to Imperius one of the Death Eaters, or Transfigure himself into a letter and have himself delivered by owl. Snape would not question the warning, and he was reminded again how of all his Death Eaters, there were so few on whom he could reasonably rely. Bellatrix would never betray him, no, but she could be duped. Played for a fool, her temper turned on her to his detriment.

Something niggled, just at the back of his mind, though. A curious thought—too many players on the board.

He turned back to survey his handiwork. The bodies littering the ground were numerous, but a few huddled still in the corners, their eyes wide with fright. He pointed to the nearest one: Dolohov, he thought, though it was difficult to tell with how mutilated his features were now. “Return to Gringotts. Fetch me another Goblin—a witness to the crime. You will have it here waiting for me when I return.”

Perhaps-Dolohov mumbled a warbling reply that was unintelligible but was probably something along the lines of Of course, m’Lord, your will be done, if he knew what was good for him.

For now, he would be off to check on his Horcruxes. He cocked his wand in a summoning flick, crooning a soft invitation in Parseltongue, and Nagini slithered out from where she’d been lurking under a bureau, winding around his ankles like a cat before coiling up to rest about his neck, her weight a welcome relief. She would stay by his side henceforth, never to be parted from him again. So long as she and he were one, he could not be undone.

The Gaunt shack first—then the cave, and then Hogwarts. Perhaps on this visit he would make himself known; it was time, he decided, the students learned of the coming new order, that they might choose how they wished to be received. It was cruel to fault children—children!—for the circumstances of their birth, even the unfortunate Muggleborns, so he would not discount the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs out of hand; he would give them the choice to submit, to embrace his leadership, and find room for them in the shadow of his wings. They would all be united as one, instead of pitted against one another for choices they had never made, as Dumbledore would have had it.

He grunted under his breath and stalked out, tearing the doors from their hinges with a slash of his wand. The sky was overcast, full of gloomy black clouds pregnant with rain. He took in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. Let Potter have the stupid cup—Lord Voldemort would win the day in the end.

Then he turned in place and vanished with a CRACK.


Harry felt himself physically jerked back into his own mind, his own body—and found he was lying on his back. Overhead, the chandeliers lighting the Room of Requirement rotated slowly. Hermione and Ron were looking down at him with worried expressions, and Draco was on his knees at his side, one hand on his shoulder.

From his pallor and the knowing looks of Ron and Hermione, Harry suspected his sudden excursion into Voldemort’s mind had not passed unnoticed. He struggled upright, and Draco’s grip on his shoulder tightened as he hissed, “Easy, you idiot—you’ve just had a fit.”

“Not a fit…” Harry muttered, rubbing at his scar, which still twinged painfully. The soft din of murmured concerns alerted him to the fact that they had a very attentive audience, and he grimaced inwardly. Just when he thought he’d finally put all those rumours he was mad to rest…

Neville waved his hands. “Hey, let’s give Harry some space, yeah? Come on, no gawking, let’s move back.” Most of the group complied with only sidelong glances, though a few of those who could claim close acquaintanceship with Harry continued to hover nearby.

“You all right there, mate?” Ron asked, sinking into a squat. “That one seemed worse than usual…”

“…He knows,” Harry said, taking care to keep his voice down. He didn’t want to frighten the others—at least no more than he already had. “He knows about the Horcruxes—about Gringotts. He’s gone to check on the others, to be sure we haven’t messed with them. And—” He took a bracing breath as a tremor of excitement rippled through him. “The last one—it is here. It’s the diadem, and it’s definitely at Hogwarts.”

“He didn’t say where exactly, did he?” Ron asked, brows lifted in hope.

Harry shook his head. “But he seemed to think it was somewhere no one would ever find it—somewhere even he wouldn’t have found it if he didn’t know it was there. Sounds like the Room of Hidden Things to me, right?” He glanced at Draco, who nodded numbly.

Ron and Draco helped him back to his feet, though he swayed unsteadily when they released him.

“Are you all right, Harry?” Neville said, pressing a cup of something into Hermione’s hand to pass to him. “Do you need to lie down? I’m sure you must be tired—”

But Harry cut him off, shaking his head. “No—no, we have to…” Time was of the essence now; Voldemort was on to them, and it was only a matter of time before he realised they were down to the final hidden Horcrux. “We need to get going.”

“About time,” Seamus said with a firm nod. “How can we help? We’re with you, a hundred and fifty percent.”

“Help…?” repeated Harry. Voldemort’s rage continued to ebb at his mind, threatening to pull him back under if he dropped his guard. His scar still burned fiercely, like someone had a brand pressed to his head.

“Yeah, what’s the plan?”

“Well—I mean, there’s not so much a plan as… A task.”

“A task?”

“Yeah. We came to Hogwarts—me, Ron, Hermione, and Draco—cause there’s something we need to do here.”

“Of course there is!” Seamus said, punching the air. “Just tell us what you need from us.”

“Right, Harry, we’ve been preparing for this all year,” Neville said. “We knew you’d be back, and we wanted to be ready.” He brandished his wand, flicking sparks from the tip.

“Er, well…” He hadn’t quite expected this. Moral support was one thing, but he didn’t know how he felt about drafting his friends into a fight. “This is kind of something we need to do on our own…” he started—then glanced around the Room with a frown as realisation dawned. “Wait—this is the Room of Requirement, right?”

Neville nodded. “Yeah; I explained about it, remember?”

“Yeah, no, just—” He gestured to the walls. “We actually need to be in here. I mean, not here. We need…another version of the Room.”

Hermione gasped. “Oh—of course! We can’t possibly access the Room of Hidden Things while the Room of Requirement is in use!” She looked to Neville. “We need to get everyone out of the Room so we can access another aspect of it—can we do that?”

Neville frowned. “I…I mean yeah, we could leave the Room. It wouldn’t be too much trouble to get the place back to the way we have it now, even if we left, but…”

“But the corridor outside is pretty busy, seeing as it’s still early afternoon,” Seamus said. “The Carrows can’t watch the Room the whole time, but they’ve got their little weasels ready to report anyone they see going in or out. Not everyone here is a permanent resident, you know?”

“There’ll be fewer monitors after curfew, though,” Lavender reminded. “If everyone left right now, we’d surely get caught, but after seven or so? Or at least around dinner time? It should be easier, so long as we time everything right.”

Harry reached into the Mokeskin pouch, drawing out the Marauder’s Map and activating it. “Will this help?” He passed it to Neville, whose brows lifted into his messy fringe.

“Yeah! Wow, this is—yeah, this’ll do wonders. It’s definitely too crowded out there right now…” He traced the corridor where the Room was located, and there were at least half a dozen little dots milling about nearby. “So unless someone wants to go out there and cause a distraction, we’ll have to wait out our vultures.”

Harry shook his head; they might not be able to avoid alerting the Carrows and Snape to their presence in the end, but they could put it off for as long as possible. “Seven, huh…” He sighed, looking to Hermione. “Can we wait that long?”

Hermione frowned. “It’s only just three now… We might have a bit of time?” She dropped her voice, leaning closer to Harry. “He can’t possibly Apparate to all of the locations, can he? I don’t like waiting this long, but short of sending everyone through that passageway to the Hog’s Head, I don’t see we’ve got much choice.”

“Wait—yeah, why aren’t we doing that?” Ron asked. “Sending them through for Aberforth to deal with.”

“You want to send your friends to Hogsmeade, a place that’s crawling with Death Eaters and Dementors right now?” Draco asked. “Why not just do the kind thing and hit them with the Killing Curse yourself?”

Harry nodded. “Yeah. I mean, maybe for evacuation, as a last resort, but we’ve got to keep our heads down, and that includes avoiding smuggling a group of students out of the castle.”

“Right,” Neville sighed. “Sorry, Harry. If we’d known you were coming and you needed the room, we’d have had it emptied before you arrived.”

“No, you’ve done great work, Neville, really.” Harry clapped him on the shoulder. “We’re still in this fight, just working with a short delay.”

Neville slumped in relief. “Brilliant. Right, then I’ll go explain the situation to everyone, and we’ll be out of your hair as soon as the coast is clear.” He waved the Marauder’s Map with a grin, and Harry shooed him away.

“We’d best use our time wisely, in that case,” Hermione said, once Neville and the others were out of earshot. “I’d like to pop over to the library and see if I can find any books with hints on how to destroy Horcruxes.”

“The library?” Ron said. “You mean to say you didn’t already pick it clean?”

“I came by all of my books legitimately, Ronald,” she sniffed. “I brought what I own or what…er, what Professor Dumbledore ‘donated’. I didn’t feel right taking any of the library’s own collection.”

“She didn’t feel right…” Ron muttered, shaking his head. “The fate of the free wizarding world hangs in the balance, but Merlin forbid she leave a book overdue—ow!” He winced, rubbing the back of his head where Hermione had clocked him with her beaded bag.

“For that, you’re coming with me,” she said.

Ron rubbed his nose. “I was gonna come regardless! Obviously.”

“Oh.” Hermione’s cheeks flushed. “Right. Obviously.” She cleared her throat, then said with forced brightness, “Shall we?”

Harry glanced to Draco, who was rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes and didn’t seem to notice there was a conversation going on. “Er, I think Draco’s still pretty drained from the flight. We might need our strength later, so perhaps it’s best he recupes while we have the chance?”

Draco had been through hell today, between having to impersonate his mad aunt and hauling Harry on his back over half the English countryside and enduring harrowing reminders of the deadly outcomes of wild, uncontrolled magical outbursts. He deserved to kip for the next couple of hours.

Hermione hmmed softly, then drew the tent from her beaded bag and passed it to Harry. “He might prefer more familiar quarters, in that case. I doubt he’d be able to relax much in present company.” Harry moved to take the tent, but she held on to it, initiating a little tug of war. She lifted one brow when he frowned at her. “What about you? Going to join us in the library, or…?”

Harry considered for a moment; three heads would certainly be better than two, with Voldemort fast closing in on them and time being a precious commodity now…

But then there was Draco, and Harry’s fingers had been itching ever since the Hog’s Head to give him the reassurance for which he so obviously ached. They needed to all be in fighting form; Hermione and Ron could surely handle a bit of light research without him.

“I’ll—I’ll stay behind. Just in case there’s opportunity to use the Room earlier, you know?” He covered up the nervous catch in his voice by digging out the Horcrux, still wrapped securely. “Here, in case you come across a solution before I see you again. Destroy it the first chance you get. Oh and—” He drew out his Invisibility Cloak and passed it to Ron. “Use this. The Map wouldn’t do you much good anyway with so many people about.”

Ron and Hermione shared a look that Harry didn’t entirely understand—but they parted without further ado as Hermione slipped back into her Animagus form and hopped into the crook of Ron’s arm.

“Be careful, yeah?” Harry said.

“Try not to get into any trouble ‘til we’re back,” Ron returned, tugging the Cloak over his head. “Tempting as it may be for the two of you.”


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

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