After what felt like ages had passed, Harry at last roused to consciousness, eyes fluttering open. He wracked his mind, piecing through his most recent memories to try and determine precisely how he’d wound up face-down in a pile of dead leaves, twigs digging into him and the loamy scent of a late-summer forest clogging up his nose.

Had he breathed recently? When had he last drawn breath? It had felt like the Apparition had gone on forever, that much he recalled, and he wasn’t honestly certain his lungs hadn’t been crushed like a pork-chop beneath Aunt Petunia’s meat tenderiser. He inhaled, just to see if he could, and was relieved to note that everything seemed to still be in working order.

With oxygen once again coursing through his veins, he rolled over with a groan—and then promptly shut his eyes fast as he was met with the glare of bright, dappled light streaming down from overhead. He took a moment to collect himself, waiting for his eyes to adjust, then chanced another look—and found that the blinding light above him was actually sunlight. It was midday, and the sun was peeking through the leafy canopy overhead, which rustled in quiet greeting as a stray breeze wafted through. Not the Ministry, then, and decidedly not Grimmauld Place, either.

Something twitched in his peripheral vision, and he craned his neck, fingers curling tight around what was either his wand or a bog-standard stick—he’d find out soon—just in case he was about to find himself nose-to-nose with a squirrel or some other feral woodland creature ready to scratch his eyes out.

But it was just Ron’s foot.

He turned his head the other way, and there was Hermione, the last vestiges of Mafalda Hopkirk sloughing away, with—no, he hadn’t dreamt it, they really had sprung him from the bowels of the Ministry—Malfoy sprawled just beyond her.

With a gargantuan effort, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, not quite trusting anything more adventurous until his head had stopped spinning, and tried to gather his bearings. The last thing he remembered was the Ministry, with Yaxley and a befuddled Travers chasing them, the ruined remains of the front door of Ministry Munchies, Mrs. Cattermole and the Dementors and Umbridge and—

And the locket. Slytherin’s locket—they still had it, didn’t they? He prayed Hermione’s beaded bag hadn’t gone flying into the aether through which wizards travelled when they Apparated. Wouldn’t that be just their luck, the locket spinning off somewhere over Gloucester while they landed…

Where were they? Harry frowned, running a hand through his hair and sending leaves fluttering to the ground. He’d thought, for half a heartbeat, that maybe they’d managed to Apparate into the Forbidden Forest, it being the only woodsy sort of place he was remotely familiar with, but Hermione would never have taken them to so dangerous a location as Hogwarts for one, not with all that was going on, and for another, this place was…too cheery. The trees were too young and too sparse, and it somehow smelled wrong, too modern. He hadn’t thought a forest could smell ‘Muggle’, but this one did. Maybe it was the lack of unicorn droppings and centaur shit.

Ron gave a groan, garbled and pained, and drew his legs up into a foetal position as he whimpered pitifully.

“All right there, mate?” Harry asked, then turned to Hermione as she clambered to her feet, snatching up her wand again and brushing leaves from her robes. Malfoy too was stirring, grimacing and rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Any idea where we are?” Harry asked Hermione.

She picked a leaf from her hair, which was a rather fetching combination of grey and brown now as Mafalda’s features melted away. “We should be—” Her words caught in her throat, eyes bugging, and she practically leapt over Harry with a cry. “Ron!

Harry’s head whipped back around, and he actually looked at Ron this time, looked at how he was doubled over, how his entire left side was drenched in gore, Reg Cattermole’s navy robes black with blood. Ron’s face, pale on the usual, had taken on an unnatural sickly grey pallor now, and even his freckles, revealing themselves steadily as the Polyjuice faded away, looked muted.

Harry scrambled to his feet, feeling his gorge rise as he did so, and nearly sank back onto his knees with light-headedness. “What—what’s wrong with him?”

“Never seen someone Splinched, Potter?” said Malfoy, blinking owlishly in the light, and his words sounded like they ought to have been delivered with a lot more acid instead of the delicate rasp of someone trying to avoid sicking up.

“No…” Harry answered, though he supposed the question had been rhetorical. It was all he could do, just standing there gawping as Hermione threw herself into—whatever you did to fix someone who’d been Splinched. He’d always imagined Splinching might be funny, like winding up with an ear where your nose should be or losing your big toe over the Thames and some Ministry sorts having to fish it out for you so the Healers could re-attach it. This, though…

He flinched as Hermione ran her wand along the inside of Ron’s blood-soaked arm, tearing the fabric apart, and Harry had to bring his hand to his mouth as he now saw there was a great chunk of Ron’s arm missing. Just gone, like something had taken a clean bite out of it.

“Harry—” Hermione snapped her fingers, for his attention. “Get the dittany from my bag—there should be a bottle, an amber one.”

“Right—no, I’ll…” He sped over to where she had landed, snatching up the tiny beaded bag and yanking on the cinch to open it. He thrust a hand inside, feeling around for anything that felt bottle-shaped—but all that presented itself to him were books and fabric and rubber shoe-soles.

Quickly!” she cried, glancing up from her task to impress her words upon him with a harried look.

“Oh for—” Malfoy huffed, evidently having found one of the sticks lying about and firmly shoved it up his arse. “You’re a pathetic excuse for a wizard, you realise?” He snatched Harry’s wand from his back pocket and pointed it into the depths of the magical bag. “Accio dittany!

Out zipped a small brown bottle, landing cleanly in Malfoy’s hand. He checked the label, then tossed the bottle flippantly to Hermione. “Magic’s wasted on you,” Malfoy said, shoving Harry’s wand back at him, hilt-first.

Harry didn’t quite know what had just happened, though he was sure he ought to be offended. He would have to make time for that later, though, because Ron had collapsed, still, against the leaf litter, and his heart leapt into his throat.

“It’s fine—he’s just fainted,” Hermione said when she caught Harry staring; while all traces of Mafalda had left her face by now, her roots still showed a bit of grey, and her complexion was a sickly hue that suggested she too might faint at any moment. She had the dittany in her hands and was trying to get a grip on the cork, unsuccessfully. “God, my hands are shaking—” she said with a self-deprecating chuckle, and Harry gently took the bottle from her.

Quietly, he wrenched the stopper free, passing it back. Hermione closed her eyes and took a single, deep breath to steady herself, then tipped the bottle carefully over Ron’s wound, sprinkling three drops before stoppering it again. A vile-smelling smoke that burned the eyes curled in the sunlight streaming through the trees. When it finally cleared, Harry could see that the bleeding had actually stopped, and the wound no longer looked fresh. The divot in Ron’s arm missing flesh had now been covered in a latticework of new, delicate skin, and it looked several days healed.

“Wow…” was all he could say, and Malfoy snorted, because of course he had remarks ready for any occasion.

“As many times as you’ve been laid up in the Hospital Wing, and you’re still gawping? Such an easy sell…”

Harry turned on him; with Ron no longer knocking on Death’s door, Harry was ready to have it out. But Malfoy had given him a several-step berth and was staring down at Ron with an unreadable look on his face, rubbing his chest absently.

“I think that ought to hold for now,” Hermione said, rubbing at her eyes. “It’s not much—but it’s all I really feel safe attempting, especially out here in the open.”

“Is there anything I could help with?” Harry asked; he would have volunteered Malfoy as well, were Malfoy not Malfoy. Knowing him, he’d probably do more harm than good if pressed to try and help Ron. He’d nearly killed Ron the once already; Harry wasn’t going to let him try a second time. “I mean, I don’t know any healing magic, really, but I could play a decent nurse, I think.”

Hermione shook her head. “No, I…I mean, there are spells that could really put him to rights—but I’m not practised with them, and I wouldn’t want to use Ron as a guinea pig.” Oh. No, he supposed he could understand that. She pushed her hair back from her face, licking her lips nervously. “I could wind up putting him in an even more dire state than he already is.”

Harry shook his head. “But…how did he get hurt? I mean—” Before Malfoy could deliver a cutting reminder that He got Splinched you pea-brained dolt, he amended, “How did we end up here, and with him Splinched?” Wherever ‘here’ was. “Weren’t we heading back to—to Grimmauld Place?” His voice caught on Grimmauld Place, hesitating to confirm in front of Malfoy what so many Death Eaters clearly already suspected, but well, they weren’t there now, so what did it matter if Malfoy somehow managed to carry back tales to his master?

Hermione’s fingers clenched in the folds of her robes, and she took a deep breath, a soft hitch escaping her throat. “I…I meant to take us back there, but…” She shook her head. “I don’t think we can do that now. Not anymore.”

“What? What do you mean we can’t go back? Could you not manage the Apparition with four people? If we need to, we can go in pairs—”

“That’s not it.” Her head hung low, and her shoulders tensed. “When we Disapparated from the Ministry, Travers tackled us, and he managed to grab hold of my robe. I tried to kick him off, but I was too focused on the Apparition, and he was hanging on for dear life.” She looked up, eyes shining with unshed tears. “He came back with us. Back to Grimmauld Place—I brought him there.” She hastened to add, “A-and he must’ve thought that was our destination—I mean, it was—so he loosened his grip and I finally managed to shake him, but we couldn’t stay there, not now I’d brought a Death Eater with us, so I chose a new destination and brought us here instead.”

Harry understood all the words she was saying, but in sequence, they just didn’t make sense. Maybe he’d Splinched something in his head—did that happen? “You…brought Travers to Grimmauld Place? He’s at Grimmauld Place?”

She nodded, her face an ugly crumpled mass of emotion. “When I Apparated us back, of course I took us inside the Fidelius, so when I shook him, we’d already passed inside the wards! With Dumbledore gone, that makes us all Secret Keepers, so…so I’ve as good as given him permission to move himself and any Death Eaters he pleases into the sitting room!”

And oh. Oh, she was right. Any curses or jinxes Moody might have set up would have been keyed to Snape, to allow other Order members to come and go as they pleased. There was a chance Moody had tied the spells to the Dark Mark, but that was all it was: a chance. They couldn’t go back there now, not without risking landing in the middle of dinner with Death Eaters.

It was curious. The thought they couldn’t go back—not just to a safe haven but to Grimmauld Place specifically—weighed on him, his spirits falling. It’d been so appallingly gloomy once upon a time (still was in many respects, admittedly), but of late, it’d been…he dared to say, almost homey. Between the three of them finally living under one roof, spending as much time together as they liked, with hot meals prepared morning, noon, and night by an elf who was in finer spirits now than he’d ever been before…yeah, Harry’d definitely endured worse. Shit, he was going to miss it, he really was.

They hadn’t had much going for them, but they’d had each other, and a roof over their heads, and the imagined safety of four walls between themselves and the war brewing right outside. Now…now they were exposed, well and truly on their own.

Hermione must have seen all these thoughts writ large on Harry’s features, for she wailed, “I’m sorry, Harry! Truly, I am! I didn’t realise he’d grabbed on until it was too late!”

He quickly waved her off, not least of all because he had no idea where they were and whether her crying might attract attention, Muggle or otherwise. “Hey, now. C’mon, don’t be ridiculous, of course it wasn’t your fault. It’s…well, if anything, it was mine…” He darted a guilty glance at Malfoy, who was pretending to be fascinated by the early autumn foliage. If he hadn’t insisted they try and save Malfoy’s sorry arse, if he hadn’t wasted all their time breaking out someone who was locked up for damn good reason and who seemed disinclined to so much as say thanks, Ron wouldn’t be sitting here half-dead, and Kreacher wouldn’t be preparing what would likely have been delicious steak and kidney pies that would now probably wind up down the gullets of Death Eaters.

If Hermione was thinking of offering similar reassurances that this wasn’t Harry’s fault either, such considerations were interrupted by Ron groaning and opening his eyes. Harry rushed to join Hermione at his side, sinking down to one knee and mopping Ron’s sweaty forehead with the sleeve of his robes. Ron still had a troubling grey pallor to him, but if he was awake and talking, that had to be a good sign, right?

“Hey, you,” Hermione whispered, giving one of his fingers a comforting squeeze. Ron curled them in response, albeit weakly. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, just peachy,” he groaned, wincing as his efforts to sit up were stifled by his injured arm protesting. He lay back with a huff, helped by Hermione’s hand on his chest reminding him to stay still. “Where are we? Doesn’t look like Grimmauld Place, unless I Splinched my memories too…”

“…It’s something of a long story,” Hermione said, voice still small, “…But I accidentally Apparated a Death Eater inside the Fidelius, so I left him there and Apparated us onward somewhere else.” She glanced around. “I was aiming for the woods near the site of the Quidditch World Cup a few years back—I’m not entirely sure if we made it or not, but I was hoping for somewhere away from Muggles, one of the last places anyone might be looking for Undesirables.”

Harry took a long look around the glade to which she’d brought them, realising it did seem just a bit familiar, now that he thought about it. It certainly looked like they were alone—though Tottenham Court Road had seemed just as devoid of anyone who might recognise them, too, and how long had it taken for the Death Eaters to find them? Harry’s theory that Malfoy might have been helping them track him didn’t seem to hold much water now, but that just meant they had even less of a clue as to how Voldemort had managed to be nipping right at their heels most every step of their journey so far.

Still—would Malfoy know? He’d claimed he’d been given his mission to kill Dumbledore last year, suggesting he’d been cowering under Voldemort’s thumb for the better part of a year. He might have heard something, so they ought to ask, even if they’d only be encouraged to go fuck themselves.

Malfoy was pacing near a copse of aspens, arms crossed over his chest and looking irritated and harried and not a little bit suspicious.

“…Are we staying here, then?” Ron asked, though his gaze was fixed on Malfoy, and Harry could tell, by the look on Ron’s face, that he was thinking much along the same lines as Harry. The Death Eaters might be pinpointing their location even as they spoke, and Malfoy’s presence was unlikely to help the matter.

But Ron was in no condition to Apparate, still deathly pale and laid flat-out on his back, unable to move. Hermione gave a little shake of her head when Harry looked to her for an opinion, and he sighed. “…I think we should stay put for the night, at least. They got the drop on us last time and we still managed to fend them off. I reckon if they somehow track us down again, we can take them.” Of course, last time they’d been three able-bodied wizards against two, and now they were two able-bodied wizards and a severely injured third and a wandless fourth against who knew how many Death Eaters—or Voldemort himself. The idea of giving Malfoy back his wand was, of course, right out.

Hermione’s strained expression eased, relief washing over, and she sprang to her feet. “Right, I’ll get straight to work.”

“Wh—straight to work at what?” Ron asked, clearly starting to get used to being hovered over worryingly.

“Well, if we’re going to be staying here, I don’t want us sitting around unprotected. I’m going to set up a few enchantments to hide our whereabouts—we can’t be too careful, now that we’re outside a Fidelius.” She raised her wand and used it to clear a wide area of leaves and debris, marking out a crude circle with Harry, Ron, and Malfoy at its centre. She began walking the perimeter, muttering what sounded like protective incantations under her breath, and Harry caught shifting disturbances in the air as her wand passed, like the mirages cast on a hot summer’s day.

Salvio hexia…Protego totalumRepello MuggletumMuffliato…” She glanced back at Harry, brows raised. “Don’t stand there watching me—make yourself useful.” She nodded to her bag. “Get out the tent, Harry—and have Malfoy help you set it up…”

“Tent?” Harry asked, as Malfoy sputtered indignantly, “Me?”

“In the bag! And yes, you.”

Well there was no need to be short. He was just surprised she’d thought to bring along a tent. Hermione really had prepared for every eventuality, it seemed, including them having to abandon their friends and families and rough it for who knew how long.

He shook his head, impressed, and snatched up the beaded bag where Malfoy had dropped it. He peered inside, hoping nothing had been broken in the commotion—when Malfoy rounded on him, unaccountably intense.

“I’m not staying here, Potter.”

Harry leaned backwards, as Malfoy had laid claim to a healthy portion of Harry’s personal space. “Uh, yeah you are—not my first choice, believe me, but you’re not going anywhere, sorry.” Malfoy’s eyes flashed, and Harry tightened his grip on his wand in threat. He didn’t want to have to send Malfoy into a tree (all right, that was kind of a lie), but he was prepared to do so if pushed.

Malfoy didn’t miss the gesture, eyes flicking down to the wand tip now aimed at his midsection, and he took a step back. “I can’t stay here—you can’t make me!” Harry opened his mouth to remind him that yes, they very much could make him, and Malfoy added with a petulant whine, “Don’t make me!”

Harry half expected him to stamp his foot and throw a tantrum, and he couldn’t resist the derisive little snort of disbelief. “We gave you the choice of coming with us or staying at the Ministry in your cosy little cell. You’ll play by our rules now and give us no backtalk.” Which was not entirely true, as Harry didn’t doubt there would be plenty of backtalk, but it was rather thrilling finally being in a position to show Malfoy his place without having to bend to school rules.

“I have to find my parents!” Malfoy brought a hand to his chest, grabbing the oversized robes and shaking them. “The entire point of doing this to myself, going against my explicit orders from a fucking madman and studying some of the most unnecessarily complicated magic we’ve managed to craft, was to save them!” He drew himself up, breathing hard now that he’d worked himself into a tizzy. “And if I have to go through you to get to them, don’t think I won’t.”

Harry squared himself; he didn’t have Runcorn’s bulk anymore, but he still had a bit of his confidence, and he grabbed at it like a life-preserver. Malfoy’s little fits weren’t going to work, not when they had so much bigger fish to fry right at the moment. “Like I said: you’ll play by our rules now. You’re stuck here, deal with it—and enough with the idle threats. You’ve never been intimidating, and you’re even less so now that you’ve got no wand.”

At the mention of his lack of a wand, Malfoy’s eyes went to the one in Harry’s hand—and then he was on Harry, quicksilver fast, sending him to the ground with a sweep of his legs and grappling for his wand.

Harry!” Hermione shrieked, rushing over in a flurry. She grabbed Malfoy’s arm, but he shoved her away with an inhuman growl, sending her stumbling into a tree trunk.

Harry used the distraction to work a knee between himself and Malfoy, bringing it up into the exposed belly before delivering a sharp kick.

Malfoy roared in pain, staggering backwards—and the noise sent a flock of birds that had been roosting in the canopy above fluttering in fright. It sounded disturbingly animal, and a ripple of fear echoed through Harry as he watched, helpless, as Malfoy’s back arched into a sharp, sinuous curve, shoulders bulging to fill out the too-big robe and lips pulling back over his skull like a deathshead. He toppled forwards onto hands and knees, his fingertips curving and splaying into talon-like claws that tore furrows into the soft, loamy soil.

“…Shit,” Harry hissed, panic flooding his brain. This wasn’t happening—it couldn’t be happening. If Malfoy transformed here, there was no telling what might happen. Had he shifted since Harry had put him back to rights back in July? Could he control it right now? Harry didn’t want to think about what might happen if Malfoy lost himself again—he’d just be a wild, rogue dragon terrorising the British countryside. Bragge had mentioned it had taken all of the Hogwarts staff to bring Malfoy down before, so they had no hope of subduing him now it was just the three (two) of them.

Hermione was groping in the leaf litter for her wand, one hand rubbing at a goose egg on her head, and Ron’s face was contorted in pain, as he shifted around and tried to tug his wand free from his back pocket. They were three barely-of-age wizards, alone with but a handful of offensive spells in their collective repertoires, facing down a dragon, and wouldn’t that just make a perfect picture for the history books? Voldemort would be furious, with both the wizards he’d wanted to off himself undone by the addled thrashing of a pinch-faced prig in Animagus transformation.

But then, the transformation seemed to slow, and then to reverse, with Malfoy’s back straightening again and his shoulders deflating like popped balloons. The skin, stretched taut over Malfoy’s skull, loosened and slid back into place, leaving only a trickle of blood at Malfoy’s lips as evidence anything of note had happened.

Malfoy was still resting on all fours, back heaving with deep, heavy breaths, and his perfectly normal-sized hands with perfectly normal-sized nails were crushing dead leaves in his grip. He roared again, another growl of pain and bone-deep frustration, but it was blessedly human in timbre and didn’t rattle the spine with foreboding like the last one had.

Fuck!” Malfoy shouted, head thrown back in defeat. His voice was raspy and broken with a gravelly undertone, like he’d just swallowed a mouthful of red-hot coals.

He didn’t look especially like he was about to rip out their throats, at least not with those stubby nails of his, so Harry took a few tentative steps forward, his arms held out to appear as non-threatening as possible.

“…You can’t do that, Malfoy.”

“Don’t fucking lecture me.” Malfoy had his eyes clenched shut, and he was still breathing heavily, tremors rippling down his body.

“No—I mean, you can’t do that. Throw a punch if you’re angry with me, but you can’t do that.” Malfoy needed to understand how things had to work now, that he couldn’t throw his little tantrums like before, as evidently it triggered…whatever had just happened. He wished, not for the first time, he’d asked Bragge or at least Charlie more about this dragon Animagus business. It sounded a lot more serious than he’d been prepared to deal with. “If you lost control once, you might lose it again, and—”

“Did that look like control to you, four-eyes?” Malfoy snarled, gaze snapping to Harry’s. Maybe it was the light, all the green and gold around them, but his eyes looked more stormy hazel going black than grey, and Harry imagined he heard warning klaxons blaring somewhere.

With Herculean effort, Malfoy pushed himself to his feet, Ron’s oversized trainers scrabbling for purchase on the slick detritus. He still looked frazzled, but he was taking long, measured breaths in a steady rhythm that Harry supposed might help calm him, like he’d seen pregnant women encouraged to do during labour. Once he finally managed to get his legs underneath himself, he tried to straighten up, shoulders thrown back and chin up—but Hermione’s anti-Trip Jinx seemed to have worn off, for his arms began pinwheeling, and he nearly toppled forward like he’d just been hit with a Jelly-legs Jinx.

Harry instinctively rushed forward, crouching to slip a shoulder underneath one arm so Malfoy wouldn’t faceplant, but he found himself violently rebuffed with a growled, “Don’t touch me!”—which was rich, really, because as soon as Harry had drawn close enough, Malfoy’s fingers had curled into the fabric of his robes, holding tight for support.

Malfoy was a cauldron of contradictions, and Harry had known him long enough to realise this wasn’t something that could be entirely attributed to those wild instincts Bragge claimed were now lurking just under Malfoy’s skin, ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to let their guard down around him. Well, Harry had never had a problem remaining on guard when it came to Malfoy, so he doubted he’d find himself caught unawares again, now that he knew Malfoy’s hold on his Animagus form was so tenuous.

Was this a common thing with Animagi, emotional outbursts sending them slipping into their other form? He’d never noticed it with Hermione, though she wasn’t really all that prone to such displays. She did get tetchy around exam times, but Harry had always chalked that up to Hermione being Hermione. He tried to imagine James Potter, pissed off at the outcome of a Quidditch match, stalking the halls of Hogwarts with a pair of antlers sprouting from his temples.

It was an amusing thought; this business with Malfoy was anything but.

He allowed Malfoy a moment to collect himself, certain that bruising his pride—while entertaining—would not help matters. At length, Malfoy’s grip on Harry’s robes eased, and the bowstring tension across his shoulders relaxed, if only a hair. Harry swallowed, trying his luck again: “…I’m sorry, Malfoy. But you can’t leave—we can’t let you.” And before Malfoy could snap or snarl or get worked up into a lather again, Harry hurried to explain himself. “It’s dangerous for us right now, and…well, you’re a flight risk. No pun intended.” Malfoy didn’t seem inclined to laugh anyway, so Harry mostly just felt ridiculous. “You’re stuck with us for now, I’m afraid.”

“So out of one prison and into another, is it?” Malfoy muttered, voice soft and defeated. He sounded exhausted, the strain of fighting both Death Eaters and Harry and Hermione and his own body evidently having drained him.

Harry didn’t quite know how to respond to that, rhetorical though he knew the question to be. There was no denying it, really—Malfoy was effectively their prisoner. But it wasn’t as if they had any choice about it; if this had been, say, Luna they’d just rescued from the Ministry, there’d be no questioning her loyalties, and they might even invite her to help them in their search for Horcruxes should she feel so inclined. With Malfoy, it was growing all too clear that he’d do most anything to try and find his parents, up to and including ripping the throats out of classmates who’d risked their lives just so his sorry arse didn’t have to sit mouldering in a dank dungeon for the rest of his life.

“…Your mum’s fine. I’ve seen her—kind of.”

Malfoy’s brow lowered, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “…You haven’t.” It lacked much conviction, though, begging to be tested.

“I have. Believe me or don’t—but last I saw, she was alive. Granted it was a good month ago, and I’m sure you know as well as I what could happen in that span, given the current environment…” Of course, Malfoy had been locked in the Department of Mysteries for the past two months, so maybe he didn’t know. “But she was all right, as far as I could tell. Physically unharmed, at least.” He decided not to mention that she thought Malfoy was dead, as that would only get him worked up again, desperate to contact his parents and let them know he was alive. For someone who took so much pride in being a Slytherin, Malfoy seemed even less inclined to stop and strategise than Harry when it came to the matter of his folks.

Perhaps concluding that Harry wasn’t nearly devious enough to lie about this—a point on which he assumed correctly, if only because Hermione probably wouldn’t have let him get away with such a cruel trick—Malfoy released a stuttering breath, one hand coming up to his mouth as he closed his eyes in relief. He then wiped his face and ran his fingers through his hair, shoving the lank, straw-stiff mess back from his face. He was in want of a long bath and a shearing spell, as the Unspeakables evidently hadn’t felt the need to provide either to prisoners in stasis.

“And—my father?” Malfoy asked.

“…I’m not sure, sorry. I know that he broke out of Azkaban, along with a bunch of other Death Eaters, but beyond that…” He grimaced, knowing he didn’t sound nearly as sincere in his reassurances as he had with Narcissa. It was difficult to muster much sympathy, especially concerning Lucius Malfoy, but he didn’t want to seem an insensitive bastard. Malfoy’s opinion of him was already low enough.

Malfoy just nodded, though. “Where did you see my mother, then? When did you see her? Who was she with?”

Those were dangerous questions, and Harry wasn’t about to give Malfoy anything else to worry about. “It hardly matters, does it? You’re not leaving, and I’ve just told you your parents are safe—”

“You said my mother is safe.”

“Well that’s all I know, all right? And that’s all you’re getting out of us.” Harry could feel his temper rising, blood bubbling as only Malfoy and his lot could get it heated. He quietly but surely beat back the beast of his own curling inside his chest, just aching to get a piece of Malfoy. He closed his eyes, listening to the rustling leaves and faint birdsong in the distance. “Sorry, but that’s how it’s got to be. If there’s opportunity to help your parents in the course of our…mission…then we’ll try, but—they’ll have to fend for themselves for now.” Struck by the curious urge to encourage Malfoy’s hopes, he added, “Slytherins are wily and self-reliant, I hear. Surely they’ll manage.”

Malfoy gave a derisive little snort. “Tell that to the better portion of the Death Eaters,” he said, and though the bitterness in his voice was thick as syrup, his breathing had at last evened out, and his eyes had cleared, once more a sharp, calculating grey.

Harry doubted the matter was concluded, but Malfoy seemed content to set it aside for the moment; either that, or he was just too tired to keep up arguing. Harry met Hermione’s eyes over Malfoy’s hunched shoulders, giving her a subtle nod, and she rushed back over to Ron to check he hadn’t torn his newly mended flesh whilst wriggling to get at his wand.

With a sigh, Harry marched back over to the beaded bag, snatching it up. He tugged the cinch open and pointed his wand into the depths, Summoning the tent Hermione has asked them to set up. Malfoy gave a soft little huff of disappointment, as if he’d been looking forward to deriding Harry for once again trying to fish the tent out blindly instead of using magic.

Harry wondered if the last person to use the tent simply hadn’t been bothered to pack it away properly, for what came zipping out in response to Harry’s Summoning Charm was little more than a tangled mass of canvas, poles, ropes, and pegs. He frowned at what looked like a rather involved project.

“…Where on earth did you get this?” The material was the same drab mustard colour as the tent he’d shared with the Weasleys during the Quidditch World Cup, and he leaned forward and gave a tentative sniff—the unmistakable stench of cat piss. “Hold up, I thought Ron’s dad borrowed this from that Perkins bloke at the Ministry?”

Having seen to Ron’s comfort for the moment, Hermione was now back to placing security charms around their site, waving her wand in complicated movements that Harry’s eyes couldn’t even follow. “Well, evidently his health’s been in decline, so he let Mr. Weasley keep it after the Cup. Then Ron, er, borrowed it for me.” She paused laying down charms to turn and point her wand at the canvas and poles. “Erecto!” In short order, all of the bits and bobs and fabric had neatly arranged themselves into an A-frame, with several lengths of rope tying themselves off to pegs that burrowed into the ground.

Hermione nodded, satisfied, and returned to her spellwork. “And finally, Cave inimicum!” She dared a glance over her shoulder at Malfoy, frowning. “…Damn.”

“What?” Harry asked.

“That one was to hide you from enemies; I was hoping it might eject him outright.” She shrugged. “Was worth a shot. All right, I suppose that will have to do for now. There’s a few more I’d like to lay down to keep anyone from noticing us even if they’re looking right at us, but I think that can wait until we’ve gotten Ron settled in the tent.”

“You sure we’re all right, then?” Harry glanced around; he didn’t notice anything all that different, though he supposed they were inside whatever wards Hermione might have set.

“Like I said, for now. I prioritised Alarm Charms to let us know if anyone comes within a hundred feet of us. There’s Muggle-repelling Charms as well, though of course that won’t deter Vol—”

“Oh, c’mon!” Ron moaned, grunting in pain as he struggled to sit up. “You have to say his name?” Hermione rushed over, laying a supporting hand at his back and urging him not to strain himself. “Just—after everything today, can we maybe not tempt fate? Feels like every time we say that name, something terrible happens…”

Hermione’s brows knit. “…We used it all the time at Grimmauld Place, though.”

“Yeah, and this isn’t Grimmauld Place, shocked as I am to actually miss it.” Hermione’s face fell, and Ron winced, biting his lip. “…Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that—just, can we call him You-Know-Who, if we’ve gotta use his name?”

Malfoy rolled his eyes, releasing a derisive huff of air through his nose, and Harry didn’t entirely blame him, speaking up, “I doubt we’d be inviting any more trouble on ourselves by speaking about him like he’s a man and not a myth. Dumbledore always said—”

“Dumbledore said lots of stuff, Harry,” Ron said, exhaustion in his voice. “And what good did it do him in the end?” Malfoy, predictably, had no smart remarks or derisive gestures to make on that point. “Can we just not talk about him at all, in that case?”

Harry wanted to argue the point further, certain it would do them no good to start this hunt too scared and paranoid to even say the name of the man they were trying to destroy, but Hermione just pressed her lips together and gave Harry a warning look. With a sigh, he let it go; Ron and he could get into some impressive rows when they wanted to, and Harry didn’t want Ron hurting himself any more than he already was.

Hermione, worried using magic might be too unpredictable (“My hands are still shaking; I might fling him into a tree trying to Levitate him!”), had Harry help her haul Ron into the tent, and after Harry threw him a long look, jerking his head in silent command, Malfoy gathered himself—with a beleaguered sigh—and followed them inside.

Perkins’s tent was much the same on the inside as Harry had recalled from his brief stay during the World Cup: with a sitting room, single bathroom, and modest kitchenette, it was enough to get by, though there was cat hair everywhere. Harry kneed aside one of the faded armchairs in the sitting room and with Hermione’s help carefully lowered Ron onto the lumpy sofa. The effort had drained all three of them, and once he was settled on the cushions, Ron closed his eyes and drifted off. Harry worried he’d fainted again, but Hermione didn’t seem concerned, explaining it was best for him to rest as much as possible over the next forty-eight hours while the dittany did its work. “I’ll see if I can’t manage a Blood-replenishing Potion as well,” she added. “I think I should have the ingredients.”

“You mean to say you carry saltpetre around in your handbag?” Malfoy asked from where he stood lurking in the corner near the entrance. Harry didn’t much mind that he was keeping his distance from them, so long as he didn’t try to make a break for it.

“When occasion calls for it,” Hermione sniffed. “One can never be too prepared.”

Malfoy stalked over to Harry, livid. “Your girlfriend’s mental, Potter; she’s going to get us all blown to smithereens at this rate!”

“She’s not my girlfriend, and she knows perfectly well what she’s doing. If you’re so concerned about being blown up, feel free to keep well back from us.” Harry shooed him back over to the corner.

“Seems you’ve got some taste, then, after all,” Malfoy sneered, and before Harry could act on the sharp spear of anger that lanced through him, Malfoy quietly removed himself to the corner once more, arms crossed and head leaned back to rest against the wall.

Hermione didn’t seem to have heard the nasty comment, though, now bustling about the kitchen with a kettle and mugs she’d pulled from her beaded bag. Harry settled into one of the armchairs, resting his eyes for a moment that must have turned into several moments, for when Hermione poked him awake with her toe, she was carrying two mugs of steaming tea. A third rested on the side-table near the arm of the sofa; there was no fourth—maybe she’d heard Malfoy’s remark after all.

Between the welcome warm drink and a roof once more over their heads, providing at least a semblance of security, Harry felt his frayed nerves easing, and the fear fluttering in his chest grew quiet.

“You reckon the Cattermoles made it out?”

Harry gave a jolt, nearly spilling his tea on his lap, when Ron broke the silence. He was staring up at the canvas ceiling of the tent, blinking slowly.

Hermione stood from her seat in the other armchair and moved Ron’s mug from the side table to the coffee table in front of the sofa so that he could reach it more easily. “Well, we gave them as best a head-start as we could. Would you like another pillow, to make it easier to sit up?” Ron shook his head. “If Mr. and Mrs. Cattermole know what’s good for them, they’ll have rushed home and collected their children and be fleeing the country as we speak.”

If they knew what was good for them, sure; but everything was so chaotic now, and Harry couldn’t rightly blame Mrs. Cattermole for having been naïve enough to think she might get a fair shake in front of Umbridge’s Commission. The coup had been insidious and calculated, and for every Cattermole family that might have been lucky enough to escape, there were probably a dozen that didn’t make it and had been consigned to Azkaban or worse, leaving children terrified they might never see their parents again. What would happen to the youngest Muggleborns, Harry wondered—Hermione had been summoned and probably would have been treated like poor Mrs. Cattermole, but what about the students still at Hogwarts? Was Snape letting Umbridge use an empty classroom to harass the very children he’d been charged with protecting?

“I suppose that’s the best we can hope for…” said Ron, reaching for his tea and taking a tentative sip. Harry was relieved to see a little of his colour was back, though it might have been the light. “Reg seemed like a pretty decent bloke, though I dunno if he was sharp enough to recognise the urgency, what with the way everyone was talking to me when I was Polyjuiced as him.” He grimaced, shaking his head. “I’ll never forgive myself if we got them in trouble just because we needed to borrow Reg’s face for a bit…”

Malfoy laughed—not just a tiffle or a derisive scoff, but a laugh, and they all three turned slowly to glare at him. He waved them off in mock apology for disturbing them. “I’m sorry, truly—it’s just, you’re all absolute nutters, you realise? Wailing and rending your garments over complete strangers, when you’re out here having tea in the middle of nowhere, just waiting patiently for the Dark Lord to pelt your little sanctuary with Unforgivables and feed you piece by piece to that wretched snake of his?”

“If you haven’t got anything nice to say, I’d try saying nothing at all, Malfoy,” Harry said, waving his wand in threat. “Or I can shut you up, if you find the urge to make a stupid comment overwhelming.”

“Maybe you should have left me where I was, then, if you weren’t prepared to send me on my way once we were quit of that place.”

“We certainly didn’t go in there just to save your ungrateful arse,” Ron snapped, then turned to Hermione, lowering his voice. “…So where is it?” He darted a glance over to Malfoy, who was watching them with dark eyes. “You said you got it, right?”

“I did.” Hermione reached into her beaded bag where she’d slipped the locket. Harry thought about advising her to keep it hidden, not to let Malfoy in on what they’d been up to, but he was starting to get the feeling that wouldn’t really be feasible. Malfoy was going to be around for…well, an extended period. If they needed to have sensitive conversations, they could cast Muffliato, but they wouldn’t be able to hide the locket from him very easily if they wanted to be able to study it. Lucius Malfoy hadn’t known he’d been entrusted with a Horcrux, at least, so there was every chance Malfoy wouldn’t recognise this one either.

She drew out the locket and passed it to Ron, who held it up by the chain, letting it swing like a hypnosis pendant.

It was their first chance getting a good look at it; the locket itself was larger than Harry had expected, certainly no delicate charm for a lady’s shadow box. The ornate S carved into the face, Harry could now see, was made up of dozens of tiny inlaid emeralds that glinted in the wan light of the tent. It was lovely, though fairly unremarkable. Like the diary, it seemed impossible this could hold a shard of the soul of quite possibly the most evil wizard to ever walk the earth.

“You don’t think someone’s already done the hard work for us and destroyed it, maybe?” Ron asked, faint hope blatant in his tone. “I mean, not that we aren’t entirely up to the challenge, but are we sure it’s still a—” His eyes flicked over to Malfoy again, who had drawn closer, now openly trying to get a look at the locket. “…A you-know-what?”

“I think it must be,” Hermione said, taking the locket back and turning it over in her hand with a frown. “We know that the only way to destroy them is to really destroy them, so there’d be unmistakable signs of damage, if the thing was even still in one piece.” She passed it along to Harry, and he searched it for signs of tampering but could see none. True enough, all the other items that had been turned into Horcruxes had been ruined by the Horcrux’s destruction. The locket looked pristine.

Harry sighed. “…I feel like if we want to destroy it, we need to get it open. Kreacher seemed to think the same, after all.”

“Destroy what?” Malfoy asked, this time from just behind Harry; he was leaning over the back of the armchair, peering down at the locket. “What is that?”

“None of your business—now go scurry back to your corner, ferret-face,” Ron sniffed.

Malfoy ignored him, sidling around to sit on the arm of the chair. “You mentioned you lot are on some mission—is that thing what had you skulking around the Ministry? Granger just wanted a pretty bauble to distract from her hideous face, then?”

Ron nearly fell off the sofa, so quickly did he try to rise, and it was only Hermione’s hissed admonishments that kept him from struggling to his feet.

Harry shared the sentiment, clutching the locket in his fist. It seemed to have a heartbeat of its own, throbbing in time with Harry’s mounting anger. “Another smart remark out of you, and I’ll slap a Silencio on you so fast your head will spin.”

“Maybe you’d get fewer ‘smart remarks’ out of me if you answered a simple question.”

“Pretty sure we just said it was none of your concern.”

“If you’re sticking your collective noses into something dangerous, it’s going to become my concern whether you like it or not, as you’re clearly intent on keeping me prisoner here!”

Harry rolled his eyes; how had he forgotten how damn dramatic Malfoy could be? Any moment now and he’d be swooning in terror, claiming he could already hear the flapping of Thestrals come to carry his soul to the great beyond or some such rot. “Listen, I get that it’s probably been tough for you to keep up with the news these past few months, what with being incarcerated for murder and all, but we’re kind of in the middle of a war here. Everything’s dangerous now.”

“Then I’d like to be able to defend myself!” Malfoy pointed to Ron. “That one’s not going to be fit for service any time soon. Loan me his wand.”

“The fuck you’ll touch my wand!” Ron protested, clutching his wand protectively to his chest; he looked to Harry, horror on his face, as if he actually expected him to agree.

Harry marshalled what remained of his patience, drawn thin though it was. “You won’t need a wand, because you won’t be leaving this tent. Will he?” He directed his question to Hermione. Malfoy clearly hadn’t given up on his plans to flee as soon as their backs were turned, and they wouldn’t be able to watch him every hour of the day and still get their Horcrux research done. Surely, if she could secure their camp against roving Death Eaters, she could work out a way to keep Malfoy from being able to leave without their say-so.

She nodded, understanding, and Malfoy scoffed. “And if you lot get offed while I’m stuck here tending the homestead?”

“If we get offed, then being wandless will be the least of your worries.”

“Fantastic,” Malfoy spat, stomping back to his corner and sliding down to sit splay-legged on the floor.

He was welcome to pout all he liked, so long as he did it in silence. Harry turned his attention back to the Horcrux, relaxing his grip and letting his fingers mould to the gentle curves of the locket. So mundane, so unassuming—but he knew something dark and demented lurked behind that delicate clasp. A shard of soul as twisted and vicious as its owner. The twin urges to both hold the locket close—to keep it safe and secure—and to fling it into the woods and Apparate away as quickly as possible warred within Harry.

He took a moment to himself, murmuring all the unlocking spells in his arsenal—and after he finished with those two, he concluded he probably wasn’t going to get the locket open tonight. He considered for a moment asking Hermione if she knew any others—for she undoubtedly would—but Harry doubted she’d be any more successful. Kreacher would have attempted every bit of magic he knew to open the damn thing, if it had been an order from his beloved Regulus, so Harry wasn’t too surprised to see the locket refused to respond to standard spells or even physical attempts to prise it open.

Harry toyed with the idea of seeing if Malfoy had any Dark spells up his oversized sleeves that might crack it, but it wasn’t worth it. Even if they could open it right now, they still wouldn’t be able to destroy it, as far as Hermione could figure.

“So,” Hermione said, “What shall we do with it in the interim?”

“What else, but keep it close?” Harry said. “Just until we figure out how to destroy it.” He quickly Mended the snapped chain, then slipped the locket around his neck and under his shirt. He brushed a hand over the fabric and could feel it where the cool metal rested against his chest, next to the Mokeskin pouch Hagrid had given him. He didn’t dare leave it sitting around in plain sight; Malfoy might try to pocket it.

“Are you insane?”

Harry closed his eyes, a twinge in his temple signalling an oncoming headache. If Malfoy hated them so much, why couldn’t he just ignore them? “What now?”

Malfoy was standing by the armchair again, looking rather teed off. “That.” He pointed to Harry’s chest. “That locket you just blithely slipped ‘round your neck. It’s cursed, no?”

Harry craned his neck to glance down his shirt, tugging at the chain. “I dunno—maybe? Not to the touch, at least.” They’d all handled it, and Umbridge had worn it around her neck without any visible side effects for weeks; it clearly didn’t have the same horrible curse that had been cast on Gaunt’s ring.

Not to the—” Malfoy’s mouth opened and closed a few times in scandalised disbelief. “Take that thing off!”

Harry snickered, bemused. “Who’s the one who wants a pretty bauble now? Is it a hoarding thing, then?”

“I’m serious, Potter!” Malfoy’s face was going red now, and Harry half-expected steam to start pouring out of his ears. “Take it—” He lunged at once, making a grab for Harry’s neck, and Harry immediately leapt from the armchair, wand brandished and all humour gone.

He took a step back, warning, “That’s enough, Malfoy.”

Malfoy’s fists were clenched at his sides, but he held his ground. “Take. It. Off.” Harry palmed the locket through his shirt, and he could feel that phantom heartbeat even closer now, bumping in rhythm with his own heart. Malfoy released a pained growl of frustration. “Dammit, you don’t hang that kind of thing around your neck! There’s a reason Dark objects are called Dark objects and not Blessèd ones!”

Harry frowned, glancing to Hermione, who herself was staring at Malfoy with an unreadable expression, her lip tucked between her teeth and bushy brows furrowed in thought. He shook his head, and Malfoy kicked the armchair violently, nearly overturning it. “Fine. Hang yourself with it for all I care.”

His dramatics were getting old already, which didn’t bode well for the indefinite future, and Harry rolled his eyes at the display, but Hermione softly cleared her throat. “He…he might be right, Harry.”

“Of course I’m right, you nincompoops.” Malfoy had his sharp chin jutting out proudly, staring down his nose at Harry. Evidently he was only too happy to accept support from Hermione when it meant he got his way.

Harry looked at Hermione with an expression that said Seriously? but she just winced and gave a half-hearted shrug. With a sigh, he lifted the chain from his neck and slipped the locket into his Mokeskin pouch. There, still safe and secure on Harry’s person, but no longer offending Malfoy’s delicate sensibilities.

This seemed to sit better with both Malfoy and Hermione, so Harry slumped back into his armchair to finish off his tea. It had, of course, gone cold by now.

As the hour was well past noon, stomachs were rumbling all around—including Malfoy’s, which had Harry wondering how the Unspeakables had fed him if he’d been in stasis. Was it possible he hadn’t eaten in two months?

Unfortunately, given she’d assumed they would be returning to Grimmauld Place after their mission at the Ministry, all Hermione had in her bag were a few nonperishables: a bag of dried sultanas, some cheddar, and a bit of bacon for sandwiches (but disappointingly, no bread). “How kind of you to pack hors d’oeuvres, Granger,” Malfoy said, sniffing the cheese suspiciously before abandoning it. At the very least, he didn’t seem like someone on the edge of starvation.

“You’re welcome not to partake at all,” Hermione returned, voice chilled. “Instead of whinging about us sharing what little we’ve got.”

Their tempers grew even shorter as the hours passed. After the meagre lunch, Hermione suggested they take turns standing watch. She was confident the spells would hold, giving them as much protection as they could reasonably expect, exposed as they were, but forewarned was certainly forearmed. Harry and Ron agreed, but when Ron turned a nasty shade of green as he made to sit up, he was promptly benched.

“I’ll be fine, honest!” Ron had protested. “Just get me set up proper. I want to help.”

“You can help by getting better, which means lots of rest.” Hermione nodded to Malfoy. “And if you feel like doing more, then keep an eye on that one to see he doesn’t make any mischief.”

“Think I’d rather get Splinched again…” Ron muttered, easing back down onto the sofa cushions.

While Hermione took her turn standing watch, Harry kept distracted playing Exploding Snap with Ron; there was little else to do, after all, aside from Horcrux research, and Harry wasn’t exactly eager to get a start on that. He knew it was important they track down the other Horcruxes as quickly as possible, but that was an action. It involved doing. Not sitting around with one’s nose buried in a book. He’d never been good at that sort of thing in school, and it had evidently now dogged him into adulthood.

He suspected that some of his lack of drive could be chalked up to his empty stomach, though, and he was starting to feel light-headed when it came time for him to switch spots with Hermione. She’d managed to forage a few wild mushrooms from around their campsite and used what little remained of the bacon and cheese to whip up something that bore a passing resemblance to a bacon-mushroom soup. It was thin as prison gruel and in sore need of seasoning—both points that Malfoy made sure to note—but it managed to quell the hunger pangs at least a bit, and Hermione had clearly done her best with a limited pantry.

After “dinner”, Harry took his turn standing watch, settled between the tent flaps and watching dusk settle across the clearing. Everything had seemed so quiet earlier, but with nightfall, the woods came alive. The flap of bats on the wing, the soft hoot of owls calling to one another, the odd crunch or snap of a twig being trod underfoot by some forest creature. He was certain they were quite alone, trusting fully in Hermione’s charm work, but he kept his wand at the ready, just in case.

The bits of starry sky visible through the treetops whirled overhead as the minutes stretched into one hour, and then two. He imagined he could still feel the Horcrux beating against his chest, even where it sat nestled snugly inside the Mokeskin pouch, but it was probably just his imagination.

Why wasn’t he dancing on air right now? They’d been looking for this damn locket for so long—it had a death toll, even! And they’d not only managed to find it, they’d stolen it from right off the neck of one of the vilest witches Harry had ever had the displeasure of meeting, from deep within the most secure wizarding facility in all of Britain. They’d stolen it—and gotten away with it with minimal blowback. Sure, they could probably never go back to Grimmauld Place, which might well be crawling with Death Eaters by now, and if they ever saw their friends or family again, it wouldn’t be for a long while yet, but they’d achieved something worth celebrating.

So why did Harry just feel…empty?

Maybe because finally getting their hands on this locket, the real one, the Horcrux, had cast into stark relief just how far they had to go. One Horcrux was great, but the difficult part—identifying what object the Horcrux might be hidden within—had already been managed by Dumbledore. All Harry, Hermione, and Ron had had to do was pull off a bit of smash-and-grab. Nagini they could deal with, but the remaining two Horcruxes could be hidden anywhere. Plus it was only through Dumbledore’s efforts they even knew about Hufflepuff’s cup; the identity of the final Horcrux was a mystery.

And this was all presupposing that, somewhere along the way, Voldemort didn’t figure out what they were up to, grab the remaining Horcruxes before they could find them, and secret them away, never to be located.

There’d been a certain energy that Harry only now realised he’d been feeding on, all this while. The urgency of knowing what his goal was and pouring his whole self into reaching it. Now that he’d done so, he felt at a loss as to where to turn next.

Were Hermione and Ron struggling with similar crises of conscience? Or were they putting all their faith in Harry to lead them where he would, confident that he’d figure out where they ought to set their sights next so they might charge off together? God, he hoped not—he’d warred with himself over their coming along in the first place, but now that they were out here, all together, he didn’t think he could bear losing them. If along the way they grew disillusioned with him, or realised he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, they might try and go back. Ron could claim he’d recovered from his illness and return to Hogwarts, and Hermione could move to Australia with her parents after she de-Modified their memories.

Well, at least he’d still have Malfoy.

He sighed, closing his eyes and trying to clear his head. His scar was starting to prickle again, and he knew these dark thoughts hadn’t been helping. He could hear Hermione admonishing him already. “If you can feel a vision coming on, then you ought to try and stop it!” Which he might be more inclined to do, if he thought his efforts to that end would do any good. It was downright demoralising, trying your hardest and failing every damn time.

He tried to direct his thoughts toward other topics, happier ones—like Kreacher, and the delicious meals they’d enjoyed over the past month since the elf had started to warm up to them. Harry could really have gone for another helping of the previous evening’s French onion soup; he appreciated Hermione’s efforts, but he doubted her bacon and mushroom gruel could have compared even under the best of circumstances.

But thoughts of Kreacher and food inevitably led to thoughts of why they weren’t at Grimmauld Place, pleasantly stuffed and tucked in warm in their beds. Had Kreacher served Travers and the other Death Eaters the steak and kidney pies he’d been preparing for the three of them? Had he offered them not just a meal but information as well? Would he keep quiet about what he’d seen, what he’d heard Harry, Hermione, and Ron discussing openly during their brief stay? They’d never even considered watching their words around the elf despite his history of betrayal—would he turn on them, faced once more with ‘proper’ masters and mistresses to whom he might pledge his fealty? ‘Mistress Cissy’ and ‘Mistress Bella’ could easily prevail upon him with their unique charms once more.

Harry wanted to believe that Kreacher’s feelings towards them—even Hermione—had evolved over the past month, but it might have merely been wishful thinking. Who knew where his loyalties might lie now? Or even if he did want to keep their secrets, what if he were tortured? Harry had never explicitly ordered him not to speak to anyone other than the three of them, which looking back was a pretty fantastically stupid oversight.

They couldn’t even summon him to the clearing, as there was no telling if someone from the Ministry—or a Death Eater—might tag along like Travers had done with Hermione. None of them were well-versed enough in house-elf magic to chance it. Though now that he considered it, he supposed Malfoy might know, but there was also every chance Malfoy might lie to them, hoping to get them captured because they hadn’t known any better, so that he might fly off to try and track down his parents.

And now the prickling in his scar had escalated to a searing burn, the kind he knew preceded a particularly violent vision. He’d thought everything would be better now, but it was somehow only worse. They had the locket, but no way to destroy it, and no way to find the two other Horcruxes, and Dumbledore hadn’t left them any clues, only riddles and half-truths that Harry knew he ought to ignore but couldn’t. Drawn, like a moth to a flame. Dragonflame, dragonflame that had struck Dumbledore down…down…

“My patience wears thin, Gregorovitch. You will give it to me—now.”

Harry spoke in that familiar high, cold tone that seared the ears with its raw cruelty, and he held his wand in a lazy, lax grip before himself, fingers long and white. Just beyond the tip of the wand, a man hung suspended upside down, nearly bent in half at the waist, as if a long rope had been tied about his midsection to leave him rotating free. He was part in shadow, part in light, and what Harry could make out of his facial expression from underneath his thick, bushy white beard reflected sheer terror, complexion ruddy from the blood rushing to his head.

“I—I have it not, no more! Gone, gone many years ago. Stolen!” the man rasped in a thick Slavic accent that was cracked with age.

“Come now, Gregorovitch—I’ll have none of your lies. Lord Voldemort knows when he’s being told a fib—and he can smell it on you.”

Gregorovitch’s pupils were blown wide with fear, and Harry leaned forward, closer and closer, with those pupils looming larger, black holes that seemed like they could easily swallow Harry whole…

And then Harry found himself standing within a pool of warm light cast by a lantern hanging overhead. He stood just behind Gregorovitch, who was hunched over his desk, in what looked to be a workshop, with wood-shavings dusting the floor and a leather of tools unfurled before a lathe. A nondescript wand of some dark wood sat clamped in a delicate vice, and Gregorovitch held another wand over it, casting intricate spells whose purpose Harry could only guess at. Every now and then, he would mutter something under his breath and scratch out a series of numbers into a ledger before casting another spell on the clamped wand.

The lamp flickered overhead—and the door to the workshop burst open, a jet of yellow light zinging forth before Gregorovitch could even glance up and sending him flying into the overburdened shelves stacked behind him. The shelves collapsed, burying Gregorovitch nearly to his shoulders in unsanded planks of wood and jars of varnish and wood glue.

The glow from the lantern caught on a shock of curly golden hair, and into the circle of wan light stepped a striking young man with wicked eyes and a delighted grin on his handsome face. Gregorovitch opened his mouth to raise an alarm, but the wizard hit him with some foreign-language spell, raising a single finger to his lips with a bright wink. A Silencio, then?

He dropped into a crouch before Gregorovitch and spoke another spell Harry didn’t recognise—though he presumed it to be a Disarming spell when Gregorovitch’s wand leapt from his fingers, clattering to the floor and rolling under a cabinet.

The intruder then turned back to the wand over which Gregorovitch had been labouring, running a finger along its polished shaft in contemplation. Was he intending to steal it, perhaps?

But then he held up his own wand and gave a testing little flick, much like Harry had been asked to perform for Ollivander when he’d visited the wandmaker’s shop to receive his first wand. The intruder’s wand gave off a flurry of sparks, mottling its master’s face with flashes of red and gold. He smiled, lips stretching into a wide, knowing grin—clearly pleased with the results.

Gregorovitch squirmed beneath the crushing debris, waving his hand in warning, mouth working but no sound coming out. The wizard ignored him, only slipping over to the single window illuminating the workshop and carefully unlatching it. After checking the coast was clear, he climbed up onto the sill and hopped over, disappearing into the night with a crow of triumphant laughter.

Harry was drawn back like a knocked bow, pulled from those wide, tunnel-like pupils and into himself once more. Gregorovitch was ever so much older now, Harry could tell, and he mouthed silent pleas for mercy, as if still trapped by the Silencio the young man had placed on him.

“The thief, Gregorovitch—who was he? Who took it from you?” Harry asked, which struck him as strange—the wizard had not stolen anything, not that he could see. He had set upon Gregorovitch in his workshop only, and while he had caused a great deal of damage and nearly sent the wandmaker through the wall, there had been no thievery.

“I do not know, I never knew, a stranger—no—I beg you—PLEASE!”

Gregorovitch’s screams nearly burst Harry’s eardrums before they were abruptly cut short by a sudden flash of green light—


He jolted awake, panting, and his forehead throbbed so fiercely he was genuinely concerned something was going to pop inside his brain. He grimaced when he realised he’d passed out in the tent’s entrance, sliding down to sprawl over the ground. He’d been meant to be on watch, and here he was, drifting off and letting Voldemort wander about his dreams.

He rubbed at his eyes until Hermione came into some semblance of focus. “Sorry,” he mumbled in apology. “Sorry, must’ve dozed off—weird dream. I’m up now, though.”

She scoffed. “Are we really doing this again? I recognise you don’t want to talk about it, but don’t treat us like we’re stupid! Anyone can look at your face and see you were just dreaming about Vol—”

Not the V word!” Ron groaned from the sofa, peeved, and Hermione rolled her eyes.

“—See you were just dreaming about You-Know-Who!”

This was certainly not helping his lingering headache. “Would you stop acting like I did it on purpose? Geez….” Harry wiped a hand over his face. “It was a dream! Can you control what you dream about?”

“We really should brush up on your Occlumency—”

But Harry already knew how the rest of this conversation would go, as it had several times before, and he wasn’t of a mind to go through it all yet again. He wanted to discuss what he’d just seen. “Or we could talk about how I’ve just seen that he’s tracked down Gregorovitch. Probably killed him by now, from the look of things. He was still after information, though I couldn’t tell on what. He used Legilimency, it looked like, to see into Gregorovitch’s mind—”

“We aren’t doing this again, Harry,” Hermione interrupted, voice tight. “…You should go to bed. Kip on one of the bunks, or Transfigure an armchair into a single. I think I’d better take over, since you can’t seem to stay on task.”

Harry felt red suffuse his cheeks, irritation and shame mingling. “I’m on task. I can stand a watch, I prom—”

“No, you can’t. You’re nodding off—and with disastrous consequences.” She held open the flap, pointing to the sitting area. “Go lie down. Sleep. Dream, since you seem so fond of it.”

The angry set of her mouth said that there would be no further discussion on the matter, and though Harry couldn’t stand her dismissive tone, he didn’t want to have another row, not after the day they’d had. Checking his temper with great effort, Harry ducked back inside, stalking over to his armchair and slumping into it with a huff.

“…So what’s he up to now? You-Know-Who,” Ron asked, keeping his voice quiet enough to avoid being overheard by Hermione sitting at the tent entrance. He had a stack of cards spread out in little piles on his chest, which he now gathered back into a deck. Malfoy had taken over the chair Hermione had occupied, evidently having grown tired of lurking in the corner sitting on hard floorboards, and he had his head thrown back against the cushions, eyes closed and mouth slightly agape as he snored softly.

Harry rubbed at his temples, screwing up his eyes in an effort to remember what details he could. “He found Gregorovitch. Was torturing him for information on—something, I’m not sure what. Sounds like Gregorovitch had something You-Know-Who wanted at one point, but it got stolen.”

“How would you know what the Dark Lord wants?”

Both Harry and Ron’s eyes snapped to Malfoy in the other armchair; either his napping had been a ruse, or Harry had been speaking louder than he’d meant to. “Go back to sleep, Malfoy.”

“Who can sleep on an empty stomach with you two prattling on like a pair of old biddies?” Malfoy’s lips turned down, curious. “What’s this about Gregorovitch? You mean the wandmaker?”

Harry looked to Ron, who gave a subtle shake of his head; they could always discuss this later, without Death Eaters eavesdropping. But Harry didn’t think Voldemort was entirely unaware of their link still persisting, and he wanted to get this out while it was still fresh in his mind. In the hopes that sharing a bit might keep Malfoy from interrupting any further, he indulged him: “Our minds, mine and You-Know-Who’s, they’re…linked, kind of. I can see what he’s doing sometimes, flashes of what he’s seeing, or snatches of conversation. It’s not something I can rightly control, really, and it’s usually only when there’s some kind of heightened emotion attached to it, like when he’s really happy or really angry.”

Malfoy recoiled, shuddering dramatically. “And you just accept that?”

He would probably hate how much he sounded like Hermione right now. Harry shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve got much of a choice, and it might prove useful, getting a peek at whatever he’s up to.” Malfoy didn’t need to know the debacle that had ensued the last time Harry had blindly trusted what he’d seen in these twisted visions he had.

Ron brought the conversation back around to the vision. “So he didn’t want Gregorovitch to make him a new wand, then? What’s he looking for?”

“A new wand?” Malfoy asked. “What happened to his old one?”

“What, they don’t relive the Greatest Hits in ‘Remedial Death Eating’?” Ron sneered.

Harry ignored their sniping, closing his eyes and trying to recall all that he’d seen and heard. But it was like a fading dream, growing weaker and wispier the more Harry reached for it. There had been no talk of a new wand, no—no discussion of wandlore at all. “He wanted…something Gregorovitch had owned at one point, I think. He told Gregorovitch to hand it over, but Gregorovitch claimed it’d been stolen from him long ago. And…then…” It almost felt like he was hurtling into Gregorovitch’s memories again, diving once more into those dark, terrified eyes. “You-Know-Who used Legilimency, and I saw Gregorovitch’s workshop, in a memory. There was a man—a young bloke; he broke into the workshop and roughed up Gregorovitch before he made his escape. Gregorovitch made it sound like it was a burglary, that the man stole whatever it was You-Know-Who wanted, but…” Harry shook his head. “I didn’t see him take anything.”

“What’d he look like? The thief.”

Harry opened his eyes, blinking slowly. “Young. Maybe a little older than us? Blond, messy hair. I feel like I’ve seen him before…but I dunno where.”

He tried to hold the image of the young man in his mind, but as with all the other fine details of the vision, it began to fade, like footprints on a beach washed away by the incoming tide. Gregorovitch had said the theft had happened a long time ago, so the young man would be much older now, no doubt. Why had he looked so familiar…?

“If You-Know-Who thinks he stole something…” Ron frowned in thought. “You don’t reckon it was a…?” He trailed off, brows raised suggestively, and Harry considered for the first time, with a sickening jolt, that Voldemort had figured out what they were up to, and he really was tracking down his Horcruxes to hide them anew.

But Voldemort had seemed far too calm to be dealing with a missing piece of his own soul. Harry shook his head. “No, no I don’t think so. Whatever it was, though, I think Gregorovitch had it in his workshop. I doubt it was anything overtly valuable, like gold or jewels, in that case.” He glanced to Malfoy, who was staring into the middle distance, expression troubled. “Don’t suppose you know what your boss is looking for and want to share, hm?”

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed, the only sign he’d heard Harry, but surprisingly he had no cutting remarks. “…I was hardly in his inner circle before, and I doubt getting captured and interrogated by the Ministry will have endeared me to him any further.”

“Now why would you think that?” Ron asked, unaccountably cheerful. “You took care of Dumbledore, just like he asked you to. I’d think he’d reward good little Death Eaters who do murder as they’re told.”

A muscle near Malfoy’s lips twitched, but he neglected to rise to the bait, turning away and drawing his knees up to his chest to curl into the armchair. Either Ron didn’t get him as riled up as Harry did, or he was as exhausted as they all were after the day they’d had.

Ron huffed in irritation but didn’t try and antagonise him further, and Harry let his head loll back against the cushions, staring up at the tent’s canvas roof.

He’d been so sure Voldemort had been tracking down Gregorovitch to try and find a solution to the issue of the twin cores of their wands—but he’d killed the man without asking a single question about wands or wandlore. He hadn’t wanted a new wand after all—Gregorovitch just happened to have at one time been in possession of an item Voldemort was searching for.

And what was that? He had the Ministry in the palm of his hand; the wizarding world was his to do with as he pleased, and he was virtually indestructible so long as the secret of his Horcruxes lay hidden. He had all of this power already…so what was he scouring the backwoods of Europe looking for? What was this object once owned by Gregorovitch that had been stolen—or not stolen?—by some merry-faced thief so many years ago?

There’d been a wild air about the boy—he’d kind of reminded Harry of Fred and George, especially in the way he’d given a whoop! of triumph as he’d dashed off into the night. Was that all it had been—a passing resemblance to the twins? No, no Harry was certain he’d seen that face somewhere else before… Just as young and cocky and carefree.

First Voldemort had gone to the village to find the woman, looking for Gregorovitch—and then he’d killed her once she’d served her purpose. Then he’d tracked down Gregorovitch himself, and having looted his mind for useful memories, had struck down Gregorovitch as well. Voldemort had seen the same memory Harry had and was probably puzzling over the identity of the thief himself this very moment. Unless he already knew who the thief was and was on his way to pay the young man—or old man, more likely—a visit.

Harry didn’t know what this item was that Voldemort was tracking from owner to owner, but he knew without a doubt that if the wild-eyed thief with the crooked smile and golden hair wasn’t dead already, he would be soon.


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

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