Home, sweet home
Hot water is one of the greatest things on the planet, I decided. I lay back in the enormous bath with Blaise lying at the other end. I lifted one of her legs and started rubbing the heel of her foot. It was a ritual of sorts, since her feet were often aching by the time she got home from work. Of course, it would quite often lead to something else.
She purred with pleasure and closed her eyes. "I wasn’t entirely sure it was you up until two seconds ago," she murmured, leaning her head back and enjoying the sensation.
I raised an eyebrow. "You got into a bath with someone you weren’t sure was me?"
She flicked some water into my face. "Shush, you. I still can’t believe you’re here. Ten minutes ago I thought that you were gone forever."
"What happened today?" I asked, wiping the drops from my eyes.
Blaise’s expression turned grim. "Someone got past security and blew up your ward. That part of the wing is a smoking ruin. They bribed the guards I assume. There have been plenty of offers going around. Reporters, photographers, politicians, everyone wanted to have access to you. A lot of them tried to pay for the privilege. There was another attack a few days ago, and one of the guards was arrested for accepting a bribe to allow unauthorised personnel access."
"Yeah, I was told about an assassination attempt. Was anyone else hurt? In either attempt?"
She shook her head. "There were no casualties, if that’s what you mean. There was so much interest in you that you were almost given an entire wing to yourself. A number of patients and staff were hurt, but they were in a hospital at the time, so there were no life-threatening injuries."
"I’m surprised you were allowed to go home."
She winced. "Yeah. There was a call for all hands, but I was in such a state I got sent home. Now, spill! Where the hell have you been?"
I took a breath, organising my thoughts. "Do you remember exactly how long between when I left and when my double was brought into St Mungo’s?"
She shook her head. "Does it matter?"
I shrugged. "It could." To her credit, she spoke little as I gave her an accounting of my time in Europe. I explained briefly about finding Malfoy and his goons, about my attempt to steal the Horcrux, and my capture. Her lips pursed rather cutely as I described my imprisonment under Malfoy’s orders. She tried to smother a smile as I told her of Kellermann’s fate.
But when I got to my ill-fated trip back to England, she almost vibrated with rage.
"An embassy official?"
"Yep. I won’t forget him in a hurry. I’ll have to make a note to visit him at some point. Anyway, the portkey dropped me in a dark room with lots of spells coming heading my way. I didn’t even have time to dodge."
Blaise shook her head, her short black hair whipping damply from side to side. "I’m going to have a talk with Great-grandfather. He might be able to do something."
I raised an eyebrow. Getting Zab involved with my revenge might actually be interesting. He always had a level of inventive nastiness that I could never hope to match. I still hadn’t forgotten him making Blaise and I muck out his stables with charmed shovels. "I haven’t got to the best bit yet."
She splashed some water into my face. "Well, get on with it then."
I wiped my eyes. "Guess where I woke up?"
She gave me a disgusted look. "How the hell am I supposed to know? You’d made enemies of half of Europe in just a couple of weeks. The Vatican?"
I shook my head from side to side, though it wasn’t a bad guess. "I was a guest of our ex-Minister Cornelius Fudge."
"Fudge?" she asked dubiously. "After he was kicked out of office, he lost his pension and Ministerial accommodation. He can’t have kept you at his house if you wanted to escape, it wouldn’t be secure enough."
I shook my head sadly. "Not at his home, at his work," I clarified.
"Huh. What does he do now?"
I took a deep breath. "He’s the warden of Azkaban."
Her eyes bulged. "You’ve been in Azkaban for three months?"
I blinked. I hadn’t realised it had been so long. No wonder she was painfully thin, if she’s been stressed for half a Quidditch season. "Yeah. Take my advice;, don’t ever think of going there on a holiday. Sure, the beaches are empty, but the nightlife sucks. Literally."
Blaise paled. "Then who was at…?"
"St. Mungo’s? Fudge claimed that a kissed criminal had taken my place." I turned my head and showed her how short my hair was at the back. "Polyjuice," I said.
She started spitting, rubbing her lips roughly with the back of her hand. "Yuck," she spluttered.
Huh? "Did you…? You kissed him?"
She glared at me. "I thought he was you!" she exclaimed, indistinctly beneath her ministrations.
I chuckled softly. "You risked your job by kissing a patient?"
"It was only once," she said, defending her position admirably with a final spit. "You were kept in isolation, with only two senior Healers allowed access to you. I only got in because one of them was carrying an armful of potions, and I helped carry them for him. He stuck his head out the door for a second and… why am I justifying this to you? You’re the one on trial here, mister. Now stop stalling and tell me! What happened there?"
"It took me a while, but I finally managed to leave today."
That shook her. "What? He let you go?"
I snorted. "Of course not. He wanted me to tell him where What’s-His-Name’s last Horcrux was. I said I didn’t know, but he didn’t believe me. He wanted to use it to buy his way back into power. There’s no way he would have let me out of there with my mind intact."
"Then how did you get out?"
I smirked at her. "I broke out."
Her eyes bulged. "You what?!" she exclaimed.
"I escaped," I repeated. I’m sure Sirius would be puking his guts out with laughter at her expression. It was all I could do not to show my amusement any more than the grin already on my face.
"How?" she demanded.
I rubbed my chin, which was still covered in three months worth of growth, if you could call the sparse collection of fine hairs on my face a growth. I’d never be able to grow a beard. "Well, telling the long version would mean that the water in the bath would be cold before I finished."
"Is that a problem?"
I shook my head. "No, just that if Ron and Hermione are in a similar state to you over my disappearance, then I don’t want to cause them any more grief than I have to."
She glared at me for a second before standing up. I swallowed as I looked her up and down. Normally doing such a thing would give me a raging erection. But I could count her ribs, and her hips were just as prominent. Despite not getting any action for three months, I didn’t feel aroused at the sight of her. I felt guilty.
"Stop staring at my tits then, and let’s go. We need to visit Granger first." She actually looked sheepish. "I should have thought of that myself. She’s in a right state."
Now that I was cleaner than I had been in months, I also rose and reached for a towel. "Tell me, do you know what happens when someone that has been taking Polyjuice dies?"
Blaise looked at me curiously. "The potion wears off at the end of the hour, of course. Why?"
"Well, if my body isn’t found in the rubble, what will happen?"
Blaise frowned for a few seconds, then shrugged. "I’m not sure. I suppose it would depend on what they managed to pull out. If the body was mangled beyond recognition, then you might be declared dead. If not, and the body is identified, then you would probably be listed as missing, presumed dead. Again, why?"
I grinned at her. "How cool would it be for me to crash my own funeral?"
Describing Hermione as â€˜in a right state’ was like saying that Malfoy was â€˜in a spot of trouble’. Her cheekbones were prominent, her eyes sunk deep in their sockets. The skin on her face was pale and sickly; she didn’t look like she’d had any sun since the day she slapped me.
I had the opportunity to examine her in detail, since she fainted dead away the moment she laid eyes on me. Despite the solemnity of the situation, my companion couldn’t help but snigger. Blaise gently levitated her onto her bed. We’d travelled via the secure floo to her Oxford residence, catching her sobbing to herself in her favourite armchair. I felt even guiltier than I had before. Hermione looked even worse for wear than Blaise.
My raven-haired girlfriend bustled around Hermione efficiently, checking her vitals and so forth. Beyond making sure she was still breathing and had a heartbeat, I was lost. "She’s alright, but she’s lost even more weight than the last time I saw her," she told me.
I rubbed my chin, again encountering the downy hairs. "Pass me Hermione’s wand, will you. I really should shave."
Blaise looked at me oddly, but complied. "How are you going to get your wands back?" she asked.
I shrugged. "I thought I’d crash Malfoy Manor and rip the place down around me while looking for it," I said as I turned and left the room. I took the wand into the bathroom, and carefully removed the months of growth. Much better.
I was debating trimming my hair when the main floo flashed. "’Mione?" called a familiar voice, full of anguish.
I raced out to the main room. Ron stood there, his eyes red and puffy. "Hermioâ€”Harry?" he finished disbelievingly. "B-b-butâ€”"
I grinned at his sudden loss of vocabulary. "Hey, mate."
"B-but y-you’re dead!" Ron stuttered.
I rolled my eyes. "Hello? Boy-Who-Lived, remember?"
Before I could even focus back on my first friend, I was caught up in a bear hug and lifted from the ground. Me vertebrae creaked under the assault. "Ron!" I croaked. "Can’t breathe!"
He ignored me. "Harry!" he shouted, twirling me around. "You’re alive!"
I eventually had to push my way out of his embrace. He stumbled back, a comical look of surprise on his face. "Need. Air," I wheezed, clutching at my abused ribs.
Blaise stood in the doorway to the bedroom, leaning on the doorframe, an amused smirk on her face. "I seem to recall telling you the first time I went to the Burrow that your friends treated you worse than your enemies," she smirked.
I groaned as I stretched, making sure nothing was broken. "Yeah, well, that was before you met my enemies."
Blaise nodded happily. "That’s true. Hello Weasley. Nice of you to drop by. We were just about to head over to your place."
Ron’s demented grin hadn’t shifted. "So, I’m lower on the friendship scale than â€˜Mione, eh?"
I cast a meaningful eye over his frame. He obviously hadn’t been missing meals. Mind you, it would take apocalyptic events to make him miss a meal. "More like you could handle a bit of uncertainty a little longer than Hermione. Have you seen her recently?"
Ron instantly sobered. Obviously his mercurical emotions hadn’t changed. "Yeah, well, she’s got an excuse, doesn’t she?"
Blaise cleared her throat, glaring meaningfully at Ron. "Shut up, Weasley."
"What am I missing?" I asked curiously, watching the byplay with interest.
Ron was about to answer when Blaise whipped her wand out and threatened him. "It’s not your place to tell," she said flatly.
I raised an eyebrow. "And whose place is it?" I asked.
Blaise put her wand away. "Hermione’s," she replied. "Let’s just say that after you left for Europe without seeing her, things got… complicated."
After a few seconds thought, I spoke up. "Medical issue," I guessed. Given what I’d seen of Hermione’s current condition, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she’d had some medical problems. I’d get the details from her later.
Blaise nodded sharply, but said nothing.
I turned back to Ron, who shrugged. "What, you think I’m going to risk being cursed by a Slytherin?" he asked, his default setting of exuberant enjoyment of life returning quickly. "So," he continued, "When did you wake up? Before or after you got attacked?"
I grinned at him. "I’ve never set foot in St. Mungo’s in my life," I replied.
Ron leapt to his feet and punched the air. "Yes!" he hissed.
Blaise did a double take. "What? You knew?"
He snorted. "Of course not. But the moment I saw Harry here, I just knew there had to be a cool story behind it. And, knowing Harry, something very interesting is going to happen."
My mouth opened and shut as I tried to work out how to dispute his statement. There was a story behind it, which I suppose could be defined as cool, so long as you weren’t too concerned with conventional definitions. And something interesting was going to happen, if by interesting you meant world-shaking. Finding no point of fact that would sway a jury, I gave up and just grunted, "Fair enough."
"Harry?!" shrieked Hermione from her room.
Blaise was the first to her side, quickly followed by Ron and Ime. I knelt down beside her bed, reached out and took her hand. "I’m here, Hermione."
She wrenched her hand from my grasp and felt my face. "Oh my God, it is you," she whispered.
I nodded. "Yes."
She threw her arms around my neck and wept into my shoulder. Wracking sobs shook her slight frame, and the four of us just sat there in the odd tableau. Eventually, she sniffed and pulled back. "When did you--?"
"Wake up?" I finished wryly.
With a sigh, I shook my head and gave her a small smile. "I wasn’t at St. Mungo’s. That was an imposter impersonating me with Polyjuice."
Here eyes were shining with tears. "Then where were you?"
I lost my smile. "I’ve been in Azkaban."
Ron stepped back in surprise and tripped on the rug, falling on his backside. Hermione gasped and pulled back, looking stunned. "What?" they both yelled in unison.
"I was kidnapped on my way back from Europe." I glanced over my shoulder at Ron, who just sat on the hard floor open-mouthed. "Fudge is the warden there. But he still has toadies around who are interested in getting back into power. They thought I was their path."
Ron brightened, clambering back to his feet. "You tricked them into letting you go? Wicked!"
I sent him an evil grin. "Nope. As of today, the number of escapees from Azkaban increased by one."
Blaise laughed as Ron was stunned into immobility while not quite vertical. He did look rather comical standing half hunched over. Hermione grabbed my cheeks in her hands and dragged my head around to face her.
"You were in prison? You weren’t in the hospital?"
Sounds like she’s a few seconds behind the flow of conversation. I reached up and took Hermione’s hands off my cheeks. They were cold and bony, and the skin was rough and scaly. It broke my heart. "Yes. I got the last Horcrux, and Fudge wanted it. When I didn’t give it to him, well, he set Dementors onto me."
Hermione gasped, and threw her arms around my neck again. Ron whispered, "Oh shit!"
I gently stood, lifting Hermione off the bed and setting her down on the floor. "Come on, let’s go and get us something to eat. I’m starving. I’ll explain everything."
Ron immediately volunteered for kitchen duty, and had his head deep in Hermione’s larder before any of us could object. The idea that Ron would pick food over one of my adventures brought a smile to my face. The minute his nuclear furnace-like metabolism shut down, he’d balloon to Hagrid’s size in weeks.
Blaise just strode over to him and slapped the back of his head. He stood back up straight, looking down with more than a little trepidation at my feisty girlfriend, the top of whose head was about level with his pectoral muscles. "Dobby!" she called out.
My elf appeared with a shimmer. "Mistress Blaise called Dobby?"
Shaking her head while smirking at Ron, Blaise said, "Could you fix us something to eat?"
Dobby nodded and dove into the kitchen, pulling out half the food in the house. Ron sheepishly came back into the lounge room and sat down in one of Hermione’s armchairs. I sat down opposite him on a sofa, while Hermione latched onto my arm. Blaise raised her eyebrows at that, but sat down in a different armchair.
I cleared my throat. "Well, what do you want to know first?"
Ron waved his hand in the air. "How did you escape?"
I winced. "I wasn’t housed with the other prisoners. The complex is split up into two main areas, the cell block and the… you know what, I should have brought the painting with me. It was a piece of crap, but it gives you an idea."
Blaise tilted her head to one side. "Painting?"
I couldn’t help but grin. "Yeah, I found a painting in Fudge’s office that showed a rough layout of the prison, if you didn’t mind the lack of perspective. It was sort of useful when I was trying to work out an escape route."
The reaction from the two girls was unexpected. "The Prison?" they gasped in unison.
I glanced at Ron, who shrugged with eloquent incomprehension. "Yeah," I said cautiously.
Blaise held up a hand to stop Hermione. "Wait, Granger. Harry, this painting, did it depict the passages, without showing them crossing?’
I smiled. "Yes! It looked like an ant farm."
Blaise started laughing. Hermione gave a whimper and half rose from the sofa. "You’ve got The Prison at home?" she demanded, her voice an octave higher than usual.
I frowned. "What are you talking about?" I demanded. "I escaped from the prison; I didn’t bring it home with me."
Blaise, through her laughter, explained. "Harry, the painting is called The Prison."
Ron and I exchanged glances, and shared a bemused shrug. "So?"
Hermione seemed to be hyperventilating. "You’ve stolen an original Cummersleigh?"
I schooled my face into an expression of incomprehension. "A what?"
Blaise finally managed to get her laughter under control. "Cummersleigh was a famous wizard artist. He was sentenced to Azkaban two hundred years ago for something or other, and after he bought his way out he emerged mad, but brilliant. His paintings are invaluable."
"Priceless," Hermione interjected quickly.
"What was a painting like that doing on the wall of the Ministry’s prison?"
"That was the price he paid to leave. A unique painting of Azkaban. It actually belongs to the prison, not the Ministry."
Ron was obviously calculating. "Hypothetically, how much would you say its worth?"
"Ron!" Hermione exclaimed. "Don’t even think it. You wouldn’t be able to sell such a masterpiece."
Blaise however, answered him. "For The Prison? Assuming there was a buyer who offered, say, ten million galleons, he’d be getting a bargain if he could buy a cup of tea with the change."
A dreamy look crossed my friend’s face. "Oh, that’s just beautiful," he murmured as he stared at imaginary money.
I glanced around my friends, and shook my head. "Incredible. I’ve been kidnapped, imprisoned without charge, escaped the supposedly inescapable prison, and all you can talk about is an uninspiring piece of artwork."
Ron and Blaise sobered, but Hermione shrieked, "Uninspiring? It’s one of the most important paintings in the wizarding world!"
I stared at her pointedly. "An hour or so ago, it was nothing more than an out of date, inaccurate map of a place I was desperately trying to get out of."
She immediately looked abashed. "Oh, my God. I’m sorry, Harry."
Not for the first time, I wondered about her priorities. "It’s okay."
Ron waved at me to continue. "Okay, so you broke out of Azkaban, and on the way you pinched something worth more than all the houses on Grimmauld Place. Any doubts I had that it was you just disappeared. What happened then?"
Without explaining my ability to absorb magical power, I gave a quick account of my escape, simply saying that the wards fractured twice in the past few days, and that I was ready to take advantage during the second outage. Ron gave a sort of â€˜snerk’ sound at Percy’s treatment, though Hermione paled at my casual description of using an Unforgivable. I glossed over being caught between a group of Aurors with twitchy wands and a closed guardhouse, and simply said that I pushed rocks and masonry into a wall until it gave way.
When I described my nautical adventure, Blaise immediately checked me for symptoms of hypothermia, since this time of year the waters of the North Sea are notoriously nippy. She seemed pleased with my self treatment selection of potions. Dobby appeared with a feast worthy of Hogwarts and piled half my body weight in food on a plate.
"So," I said, clapping my hands and rubbing them together, before diving into the tastiest meal in my life. "What’s been happening around here?" I asked around a mouthful.
"Not so fast, Buster," Ron said. He had a plate nearly the size of mine in front of him. "We haven’t heard what happened in Europe. What was that thing you said you were looking for? That Horcrux thing you told Hermione about?"
I swallowed. Hot food is almost as good as hot water. "Yeah. I had to go and find the last Horcrux." My girls were also falling to the meal like ravenous beasts. What a pitiful sight we were. Three near-starving wretches. Fudge has a lot to answer for.
He leaned forward, getting food smeared on the front of his shirt. "Cool. That clears that up. Just one thing. What the hell is a Horcrux?"
I figured it was safe to tell him now. "A piece of dark magic. A wizard can split his soul and put a piece in an object. It makes him pretty much immortal. But he has to murder someone for the ritual." I stabbed my fork down and shovelled some more food into my mouth. Pure Bliss.
Ron’s face contorted with disgust. "Yuck. That was What’s-His-Name’s last one? How many did he have?"
I nodded. "Yep," I replied with a spray of crumbs. "Riddle made six of them. That bloody diary, the locket we picked up in Gringotts, his family’s ring, Ravenclaw’s journal, Hufflepuff’s goblet, and Nagini." I raised a hand and ticked them off on my fingers. "He used the soul fragment in Nagini to come back to life after the Tournament. I stabbed the diary with a basilisk fang. Dumbledore found the ring, and we got the locket. I destroyed Ravenclaw’s journal in Vatican City, and I’ve hidden the goblet until I’m absolutely positive all the others have been destroyed."
Hermione coughed. "Where did Voldemort hide the goblet?" she asked before picking up some bread and dipping it in some weird green paste.
I shrugged. "I don’t know where he put it initially, but Malfoy had it before I nicked it." I glanced down at my plate. I’d taken maybe three mouthfuls, and I was already getting full. Damn it. Maybe the Romans were onto something when they used a vomitarium.
She frowned. "Narcissa had it?"
I chuckled softly. "Nope. Draco."
That got them. Ron spoke up. "But the ferret is dead," he objected.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Didn’t you think I was dead an hour ago?" I asked him.
He conceded the point.
Hermione spoke up again. "Draco… is alive?"
"I smashed half his chest in the last time I saw him, but he portkeyed away before I could finish the job. So yeah, I’m inclined to believe he’s still alive. He claimed before the Hogwarts battle he put Madam Pomfrey under the Imperius, and made her say he was dead." I pushed my barely touched plate away. I needed a break before attempting to eat some more.
Blaise chimed in. "That sounds remarkably cunning. For him, at least."
Ron’s eyes lit up. "Which bit? Imperioing Pomfrey, or running from a pissed off Harry? â€˜Cause you’re being unclear."
Blaise stuck out her tongue at him.
Ron grinned at her. "So, how did you take it from him?"
I smiled, closed my eyes and began relating my Albanian adventure in more detail. They each liked different things. Blaise appreciated my ambitious, or perhaps audacious, attempt to sneak in and steal the Horcrux, and my subsequent escape. Hermione was impressed with my analytical and logical approach to the problem. Ron of course, simply wanted me to repeat the bit where I nearly killed Draco. It only took three times before the girls insisted that we move on, much to Ron’s disappointment.
Blaise frowned. "So, you managed to hide the goblet where Fudge couldn’t find it?"
I nodded with a grin. "He was rather put out with me."
She grinned at me. "I bet. Where did you hide it?"
I waggled my finger at her. "That would ruin the surprise," I said to her darkening expression. I didn’t want them to know just yet. Not until they knew what my plans were for the wizarding world. While I was pretty sure I could get them on board, there was always a chance that one of them in particular would balk at the idea.
Hermione gripped my hand hard. "How bad were the Dementors?" she whispered.
I shrugged. "Not as bad as you’d think. They mostly left me alone."
"Really?" They looked dubious at that claim.
I smirked. "Yep. After I killed four of them, the rest refused to come anywhere near me," I said nonchalantly.
Well, there’s a conversation stopper.
Ron broke the stunned silence with an enormous belly laugh, which quickly turned his mouthful of food into a choking hazard. I was a bit worried for a second before he managed to cough the obstruction out. His body slid down the smooth leather and he ended up on his bum on the floor and his plate in his lap, where he continued laughing out loud. Hermione’s mouth was in the shape of a perfect â€˜O’, while Blaise had a sultry look on her face that I recognised very well. Demonstrations of power always did turn her on.
"Th-th-the Dementors w-were s-scared of you!" Ron said around his amusement. He thumped the floor beside him with his fist. "Man, this is even better than I thought!"
"If you like that, just wait for my plans."
"Plans?" The three of them asked in unison.
I nodded, directly looking at each one in turn. "Yes. Blaise, if they can’t find my body in the rubble, how long until they declare me dead?"
Ron and Hermione looked confused. Blaise answered, "How on earth would I know? I told you already, a couple of days, maybe? You’d need to ward yourself against owl post and the like if you really want to appear dead." I suppose I should take some tips from my old Master, in that respect.
Hermione broke in, speaking for herself and Ron. "Harry? Haven’t you told anyone you’re alive?"
"No," I replied flatly. "Just you three, plus Dobby and Winky. Look, I was kidnapped and imprisoned for months. While I was supposedly catatonic, there were at least two attempts on my life. No, until I figure out what happened and make sure it wont happen again, I’m going to be dead to the world."
The three of them leaned back in their chairs, nodding at my reasoning, though Hermione seemed a bit petulant.
"Besides," I continued, "If I’m going to destroy the current political structure of this country, it would be easier if no one was looking for Harry Potter."
What do you know, there’s another conversation stopper.
Blaise had eagerly agreed to my plan even before I’d finished my opening summary of goals. Ron was firmly on board when he realised that he would have a chance to exact some revenge against Draco Malfoy.
Hermione however, surprised me. I expected her to resist, to demand to know if I was serious, to insist that I couldn’t just wage war on a subset of the population, even if they were bigots.
No, it was the vindicative look on her face when she firmly agreed to take part that caused me to do a double take. She had been prevaricating up until I had explained my plans for the Ministry. Whatever had happened to her recently, someone at the Ministry was involved.
"I had thought you would have been the hardest to convince, Hermione."
She had the grace to briefly look abashed, but stared directly at me. "I have my reasons." She glanced over at Blaise, and bit her bottom lip. "I’m not sure I should tell you just yet. You need to be thinking clearly if we are going to pull this off."
I frowned. Secrets always bugged me. That is, secrets kept from me. Secrets I kept were fine.
"And if I insist that you tell me?"
She instantly turned submissive, lowering her gaze. "Please don’t," she whispered.
It took a bit of willpower not to roll my eyes at her. What ever happened to this woman? I used to love the glint of steel in her eyes, the fire in her heart. Even from the very first day I met her, when she stormed into my compartment on the Hogwarts’ Express, she had given off an almost palpable force field of determination. As an eleven year old, it intimidated me. As an adult, it was a fantastic turn on.
But where had it gone?
And would she ever get it back?
The four of us apparated to Hogsmeade a few hours after sunset. It was dark enough to make it difficult for anyone to notice that I was wearing layered glamours, but still early enough that we should be able to blend in to the evening crowd.
"Dumbledore will have put some protections around the Chamber entrance," I said, heading down one of the streets, away from the castle.
"Um, Harry?" Ron asked, stopping in his tracks and pointing back towards Hogwarts.
Blaise looked confused for a second, but fell into step beside me and snorted. "Right. I doubt it."
Hermione glanced at her curiously. "You don’t think so?"
I already knew the answer before she spoke. "First years getting the Philosopher’s stone. Sirius Black escaping. Crouch and the Goblet of Fire. Any of these ring a bell?"
I chuckled at her answer. "Assuming he can’t learn a trick or two at one-fifty," I pointed out.
Ron butted in. "Hey! Where are we going? Hogwarts is that way," he asked, jogging to catch up with us.
I raised an eyebrow. "Don’t you remember the map?"
"Theâ€”Oh! Right. Honeyduke’s?"
I nodded. "Let’s not give the old fart any more warning than strictly necessary."
The secret entrance to Honeyduke’s looked exactly as I remembered. I wondered exactly how many students had come through this way over the past thousand years. Blaise looked impressed.
"How did you find out about this place?"
Ron gave me puppydog eyes. "Please? Can I tell her?"
I waved my assent and entered the passageway. Hermione slipped her hand into mine as we made our way down the dusty passageway. Meanwhile, Ron regaled Blaise with a rather extroverted story about how a quartet calling themselves the Marauders created a wonderful artefact for pranksters to use for generations to come. Blaise, who I’d already told about my father’s friends, tolerated Ron’s convoluted story to get her answer.
Hermione leaned closer. "Harry, are you sure Professor Dumbledore hasn’t put up more security around the school?"
I shook my head. "Death Eaters could wander around the grounds without being disturbed. Thousands of people pass by the wards every year. Everyone claims Hogwarts is safe, but I think that has more to do with the fact that arguably the most powerful wizard alive lives there."
She nodded, though it was indistinct in the near darkness. After a few minutes, she whispered, "Are we going to be all right?"
The way she emphasised â€˜we’, I knew she wasn’t talking about our current activities. I gave her hand a squeeze. "If you mean, are we going to be friends, then I’d say nothing could ever stop that. If you mean more, well, I really don’t know."
"You’ve said that before."
I sighed. "Yes, and that was when we were going to be apart for two years. Until Snape’s death, we’d been together since you finished Hogwarts. But things changed that day."
She sighed too. "I know. I was wrong to act the way I did."
"Yes, yes you were. Do you know how Blaise reacted when I told her what happened?"
"Believe me; she made sure I knew exactly how she reacted."
I took a deep breath. Time to push back, to see just how submissive she had become. "Okay, now, how are you going to react after I kill Draco?"
She sucked in a sharp breath. "Are you really going to track him down and deliberately kill him? Premeditated murder?"
"No," I replied, frustrated. "I was asking how you were going to react. Chances are that I will end up killing him, but his existence is far too useful to just for me to just murder him in cold blood. He represents everything I’m going to be destroying. If this is going to work, the public will need to believe there is a serious threat."
"You don’t have to kill him. You could have him arrested. With your memories of him torturing you, he’d beâ€”"
"Out of prison as soon as he could claim he was under the Imperius. Money would change hands; people would be bribed or blackmailed."
"Harry, not everyone in the Ministry is corrupt."
I snorted with sad amusement. "Right. Can you name one bureaucrat who isn’t bent?"
"Yessir?" Ron asked from behind us, almost jumping to attention. I’m guessing his coach talks to him like that.
"Nothing, Ron. Hermione was talking about your dad," I said over my shoulder. To Hermione, I said, "Mr. Weasley hooked Privet Drive up to the floo without permission."
She stopped walking, causing a minor traffic jam in the tiny corridor. "Harry! He did that to help you!"
I rolled my eyes. "I know that, Hermione. But he didn’t see anything wrong with it. Despite the fact that it was benign, it was an abuse of power. And that sort of thinking is endemic throughout the population. No one cares, because everyone does it. That is what needs to change," I said without stopping.
She started walking again and sighed. "I agree with you on that," she said emphatically. I got the impression that something had happened to her in the past three months. Perhaps she had been victimised by the Ministry because of her parentage. "I just, I don’t know, I wish you weren’t ready to kill someone when you didn’t need to."
"What can I say? Azkaban changed me. Though I can tell you I’m certainly not going to kill him in his sleep."
This time, she actually chuckled and shook her head. "Of course not. You’re going to do something idiotically heroic, and give him a chance to defend himself. He’ll overestimate himself, and you’ll destroy his self-esteem, his ego, his family name and his political power before you kill him. Am I right?"
"About my intentions, yeah, pretty much. The order, no."
That threw her. "You’re going to kill him first?"
"No. I’m going to destroy his family name first. Then I’ll take out his political power. Only after that will his ego and self-esteem go. I’ll start a propaganda campaign that will make everyone think that Lucius’ mother was Muggleborn, which should destroy the final plank of his self-delusion. Finally, in front of the burning embers of his ancestral home, I’ll reveal to him that I’m still alive."
Hermione’s eyes were wide in the dark.
"At that point, I can pretty much assure you that he will try to kill me. So technically, his death will be in self-defense."
Creeping through the corridors of Hogwarts at night was just as fun as I remember. After five years of exploring the place with the definitive map, I knew my way around blindfolded. The four of us took a circuitous route to Myrtle’s bathroom, only to find that we were not the only ones with the same idea. A rather unwelcome voice alerted us to the fact that the bathroom was occupied.
"Quite ingenious, placing the entrance to his personal refuge in such an unassuming location. I am not surprised that it survived undisturbed for so long. Speaking of which, I have located a serpent shaman in Brazil who is willing to assist the Church in this matter," said the voice of Darius, the Vatican’s spymaster.
Dumbledore’s dulcet tones replied. "Simply obtaining the services of another parselmouth will not ensure success, my friend. I am reliably informed that Harry erected other defenses. He specifically warned against attempted entry without his presence. Your magnificent specimen of basilisk is not the only danger in the Chamber."
"Albus, the boy is dead."
"Harry has surprised me too often for me to take his death as fact until his body is recovered."
The four of us carefully eased backwards around the nearest corner. Myrtle’s bathroom door opened, spilling light out into the corridor.
"In that case, I strongly suggest you reconsider your opposition to the Church stationing a permanent detail here," the Church wizard said.
This time, Dumbledore’s answer held an uncharacteristic tone of menace I’d only heard a couple of times before. "Have a care, old friend. Threats do not become you. I have made my decision, and in this place, my decision is final."
"The items below are far too dangerous to be simply left there!"
The voices quickly got louder as the pair moved at a stately pace towards us. I was about to cast a disillusionment spell on us when Hermione’s face set itself into a mask of determination, and she bolted around the corner towards Dumbledore. Blaise hissed softly, as Ron cut off a strangled shout. Almost immediately, we heard Hermione burst into tears.
"Professor Dumbledore!" she wailed. "H-Harry is dead!"
In the time it took for Dumbledore to calm her down, Blaise, Ron and I managed to back away down the corridor and into an empty classroom. I smiled to myself. Hermione’s mind hadn’t slowed at all.
"There, there, Miss Granger. I share your grief. Come, let us retire to my office. Darius, I suspect you have some questions for Miss Granger here. She and Mr. Potter were very good friends before his accident."
"Quite," Darius replied. The voices got fainter. "Young Miss, you have my sincere commiserations. I had the honour of meeting Mr. Potter a few timesâ€”" The sly bugger’s careful condolences to Hermione faded as the trio departed, presumably to the Headmaster’s office, and his unending pile of lemon-flavoured sweets.
I glanced around at my friends. "Well, that was interesting."
Blaise let out a breath. "I was almost sure Granger was going to let on about you being alive."
I nodded. "The thought crossed my mind as well. She wasn’t too impressed with my plans for Draco, but I think she is doing this to prove something to me. And maybe to herself as well. Come on, let’s go. Hopefully Myrtle is spying on the prefects."
Ron frowned. "The prefects’ what?"
I snickered. "The prefects, Ron. She spies on the male prefects while they are in the bath."
Ron paled. "What? She does that?"
Blaise snickered at him. "What’s the problem, Weasley? Did you do something in there you shouldn’t have? Take matters into your own hands, as it were?"
I snorted with laughter at Ron’s blustering denials.
I stepped through the silencing charms I’d placed around the entrance to the Chamber, protecting my serpentine friend from any randomly passing crowing roosters. I hissed, "Light," causing the entire chamber to begin glowing. A minute later, a massive serpent slid soundlessly from one of the pipes in the far wall.
"Ah, I see you have returned, my friend. I must thank you again for bringing me here. These magnificent passages lead all throughout this fine castle. I have had a most interesting time exploring."
I smiled. The basilisk’s speech was far more archaic than other snakes. "I trust you found a wizard down here? I do hope he wasn’t an inconvenience."
If a snake could sound satisfied, it would sound just like this. "Oh yes. And no, he was not. Are you to thank for my meal then?"
I nodded. "The wizard had me prisoner, and was going through my possessions. I tricked him into triggering the portkey. Was he tasty?" I asked with a wicked smile.
"Quite. It has been such a long time since my last meal of manflesh. Are you here for anything specific from my previous employer’s cache? Or were you just aching for my stimulating conversation?"
Well, what do you know? A basilisk with a sense of humour. He seemed in a much better mood than the second time we met. Wonders will never cease. "I do need to speak with you on a matter, but I seek the remains of the wizard. I need to retrieve some items he had of mine."
The basilisk gestured with his gigantic head. "He appeared behind where you currently stand, and didn’t manage a single step before perishing. He did drop something, though if the items you seek were concealed within his robes, I’m afraid they are… irretrievable."
An icy fear clutched at my heart. I spun around and looked at the muck on the floor. A few seconds searching revealed a shape that made me sigh with relief. I stooped and retrieved a twelve-inch yew wand. Instantly, the wood warmed in my hand, and a flood of power raced up my arm. I nearly swooned at the sensation.
I nodded. "One I claimed from a fallen foe. It is remarkably attuned to my touch, though not as much as my first wand." Inwardly, I was relieved that Riddle’s old wand had survived. I hadn’t considered that Kellermann would be eaten robes and all. I suppose the time turner is now residing for eternity in a big pile of basilisk shit. A pity. A few more seconds of half-hearted searching through the muck revealed a muddy sock. I smiled at the discovery. For the foreseeable future it would be most useful to have a rechargeable portkey to Hogwarts. I suppose Dumbledore would be pleased to eventually get his clothing back, though etiquette dictated that I launder it thoroughly first.
"One of the wizards who sought your death is in the castle," I said, gently wiping the mud from the wand. Excited sparks shot from the tip. I found it amusing to imagine that after three months of sitting in a pile of mud, the wand was rather happy to be used again.
"Does that pose a problem? You said that only a parselmouth could enter this chamber from above."
"True, but there are other speakers of parseltongue in the world. The wizard named Darius was trying to convince the Headmaster to allow one he has located in South America access."
"Is that likely?"
I shook my head. "The Headmaster was resisting the idea. Recent events have led the general public to believe me dead. I think he is holding out hope that I will turn up alive."
The creature let out a series of hissing grunts that I took to be laughter. "The wizard believes you may turn up, and you are here without his knowledge? Is he bereft of sense?"
"All wizards are mad. Didn’t you know?"
The odd grunting continued. "Most likely you are correct. Tell me, do you believe I shall have to battle for my life in this place?"
I paused. "Perhaps. I shall return soon and install some more active defenses, but we have some time before this place will be violated. The Headmaster is a deceptive man, who I suspect is rather pleased that the Church’s dark collection now resides here, in the bowels of his sanctum, despite his protestations to the contrary. If there is any doubt to my demise whatsoever, he has an excuse to hold out against an expedition down here. Darius wanted to install a permanent guard at the Chamber entrance, but that idea was quickly vetoed."
The basilisk turned and began slithering back to wards the rear wall. "I shall contemplate my reaction, should I be disturbed. It has been some time since I indulged my capacity for wrath. Go now, lest your companions become distraught."
I raised an eyebrow. "My companions?"
A forked tongue flickered out at me. "The three whose scent I taste on you."
I smiled. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. "Very well. Take care, and if you need anything, well, you can’t really send me a message. I’ll be back soon to check."
"I thank you."