Waking with a start, Harry raised his head and adjusted his glasses. Snow was falling around them so thickly it was difficult to ascertain the altitude. Despite the lack of wind, his limbs were stiff from the cold.
"Where are we?" he mumbled, straightening up.
"Ah, the sleeping beauty is awake." Sirius sounded tired. "Welcome to Romania."
"We're here?" Peering down through the drifting white flakes, he glimpsed some vague shapes of trees. The ground was close, and the broomstick was barely cruising along.
Parchment rustled. "Unless your map decided to crap out on us, we're smack in the middle of the Dragon Sanctuary."
"Looks like we made good time."
Sirius snorted. "You'd think that, having slept through everything. I had to battle headwinds over the Adriatic Sea, and that lost us at least half an hour."
"Sorry." He yawned. "Didn't plan on sleeping."
Sirius waved over his shoulder. "It's fine, but you're flying us back."
"Gotta find Cedric first." He licked his gummy lips as he considered the snowfall. "Which might be a tad difficult in this weather."
"We'll have to risk making some light, even if it's to find shelter." Sirius took one hand off the broom and raised his wand like a torch. "Ready? Lumos Maxima."
Harry ducked his head and narrowed his eyes until they adjusted to the glaring light. The coniferous forest below groaned under a thick layer of snow. A narrow stream weaved through the trees, widening into a frozen pond farther ahead. Through the glimmering snowflakes, he made out some man-made structures beyond the woods. He tapped Sirius on the shoulder and pointed.
Without a word, Sirius angled the broom. The forest began thinning out, and his radiant wand light illuminated a handful of steep-roofed cottages arranged in a circle. Their narrow windows, set deep into the thick stone walls, were all dark.
"This must be where the dragonologists live," Sirius said, lowering the light. "The question is, do we make ourselves known or try to stay out of sight? I know someone here who might help."
Sirius nodded. "Charlie Weasley—I've met him a couple times. If nothing's changed, he should be working here."
"Man, the Weasleys really are everywhere, aren't they?" Harry pursed his lips. While he feared a repeat of the fiasco with the Spaniards, he didn't fancy searching the entire reservation without assistance either.
Warm light blazed in the windows of a cottage ahead before the door banged open to release a short, dark-haired man with an unbuttoned fur coat thrown over his pyjamas. He pointed his wand in their direction and yelled something.
Sirius swore and extinguished his wand, plunging them into darkness. A much dimmer light came from the wand of the stranger below. Shielding it with his palm, the man peered upward and called out again; his tone didn't feel hostile but was certainly distressed.
Glancing back at Harry, Sirius whispered, "What do you reckon?"
Harry shrugged. As far as first impressions went, this was far from the worst.
"Let's see what the fellow has to say, then," Sirius said, directing the broom down. "I'm too tired to go on flying anyway."
Harry's feet sank into fresh snow as they touched down amid the cottages. The stranger's eyes widened, and he marched toward them, cradling his lit wand.
Sirius groaned as he extricated his legs from the stirrups. Harry planted his hands on his knees and tried to rise, only to lose his balance and keel over backward.
"What the fuck!" he exclaimed, flailing in the snow. No matter how hard he struggled, his arse remained stuck fast to the luggage baskets of the Zibens.
Sirius guffawed. "I forgot I put a Sticking Charm on you so you wouldn't fall off. Finite."
He pushed up and spat out snow. "Gee, thanks. A warning would've been nice."
"Liniște, liniște!" the stranger hissed. "Nu știți că lumina și zgomotul noaptea provoacă dragoni?" He snuffed out his wand, leaving only the ajar doorway of his cottage to spill dim light onto the snow.
Sirius turned to him, grinning. "Evening, there. Any chance you speak English?"
The man spread his hands helplessly. "English, no. Cine ești tu? De ce esti aici?"
"In that case, I apologize for interrupting your beauty sleep, since you clearly need it," Sirius continued. "Is Charlie Weasley around?" He enunciated, "Charles. Weasley."
The stranger's expression cleared a little, and he pocketed his wand. "Charlie se va întoarce mâine." He frowned. "Tomorrow."
Harry shuffled closer, brushing snow off his bottom. "This is kind of urgent... Can't you wake him up?"
The stranger ran his eyes over him without any sign of recognition, which more than anything made him feel like he was abroad. "Charlie." He pointed at a dark mountain looming in the distance. "Tomorrow."
Harry's eyebrows rose. "A hike? In this weather?"
"You don't know Charlie," Sirius said. "The bloke could survive in Antarctica with nothing but his wand."
The stranger shushed them and ushered them to a cottage next to his own. Nudging open the door, he gestured them inside. It was a spartan one-room affair with a couple of beds, a wood stove, and a small door leading to what might've been the bathroom.
"Sleep," the stranger said, illustrating the word with a wide yawn. Before either of them could reply, he stepped outside and shut the door. Harry heard no click of a lock, which he took as a good sign.
Left in what had to be impenetrable darkness to his optically inferior self, Sirius conjured a light and looked around. Upon spying a linenless bed, he traipsed straight to it, tossed his snowy cloak over the headboard, and collapsed face-first without bothering to undress.
"Shouldn't we be trying to find Cedric as soon as possible?" Harry asked.
Sirius's voice came out muffled by the pillow. "That bloke had the right idea. I'm knackered, and we won't see anything at night either."
"Well... if you're sure."
Harry lit the stove with the Fire-Making Spell, checked the small door (which did lead to a bathroom), and ransacked the kitchenette cabinets for anything edible. He brightened up upon discovering a tin of biscuits and a tea caddy.
"Want any?" he asked, holding up the tin.
A snore was his only response. Shaking his head, he boiled some water, poured it over the tea leaves, and munched on the slightly stale biscuits while he waited for it to steep. He polished off half the tin before dunking the remaining biscuits into the tea between contented sips.
Out in the cold, he had felt wide awake, but between the crackling fire and the food warming his stomach, he began nodding off. He drained his cup, draped his damp robes and hat atop a worn chair, and rummaged for the mirror. Clutching it in hand, he laid down on the bare mattress of the spare bed.
"Shadowlord," he said.
The mirror brightened, and loud music with high-pitched vocals blared for several seconds before Brandon's pudgy face came into sight. "Harry! Um, I was just taking a break—there's been nothing new for a while—"
He yawned. "It's alright, we're done for today. You can go to bed now."
Brandon blinked. "I don't normally sleep for a few more hours yet."
"But you called it a sacrifice—" He groaned. "Never mind. Just be ready if we call you tomorrow morning."
Brandon's mouth opened in protest, but Harry flipped the mirror and laid it down. He reclined on the bed and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the mattress.
An incessant knocking jolted Harry awake. He was still shaking off the vestiges of an uneasy dream when the door creaked open letting in a gust of freezing wind and dazzling sunlight. Groaning, he draped his arm over his eyes.
There was a low chuckle, and an insufferably chipper voice said, "I'd wish you good morning, but it's closer to noon. Not that I'm opposed to you having a lie-in, but Vasile said you sounded urgent last night."
Harry sprang to a seated position; out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sirius stir as well. A brawny man with short-cropped ginger hair stood inside the threshold, an easy smile on his face and a steaming pot in his calloused hands. Closing the door with his foot, he tramped toward the table and set his burden down.
Harry swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood. The newcomer was half a head shorter than him, but more than made up for it in width.
"You must be Charlie Weasley." Suppressing a yawn, he stuck out his hand. "Harry Potter, nice to meetcha."
Charlie shook the proffered hand. "Right in one." His blue eyes flicked to Harry's chest, and the genial smile froze on his face, his grip tightening painfully. "And I know who you are, of course."
"Er... okay." Harry wrenched his hand from Charlie's vice grip and flexed his fingers with a wince. Glancing down, he saw his Horntail pendant gleaming proudly atop his chest and sheepishly stuffed it under his shirt.
Sirius came up and greeted the man warmly. "Charlie, long time no see! How's Romania treating you?"
"Same old, same old. Nothing like fresh air and untouched nature—precious little of that left in Britain."
"And furious multi-ton beasts made of claws and fire, no doubt." Sirius nudged his chin at a glistening burn across Charlie's freckled cheek.
Chuckling, Charlie reached up but stopped short of touching the burn. "That too. This is why you didn't find me yesterday—I was out in the mountains observing a young Longhorn. A trafficker kept her in a cage since she hatched, and the poor girl has to learn to fend for herself out in the wild."
"Well, I'm glad you're here now, because we could really use your help." Sirius swiveled his head and sniffed. "Maybe we could discuss it over tea like civilized men? I'm starving."
Charlie gestured at the table. "I brought some breakfast... or should I say, lunch? Tuck in."
Sirius's eyes lit up and he pulled himself a chair. Harry ducked into the bathroom to wash up. When he came back, the kettle was whistling on the stove and a plateful of yellow porridge awaited him at the table.
He poked it skeptically with a chipped spoon, but after taking an experimental bite, his stomach demanded more, and he scarfed it down hardly noticing the taste. Sirius not only polished off his plate but even scraped the remains from the pot. While they ate, Charlie busied himself preparing tea.
"Ta, Charlie, you're a lifesaver," Sirius said, accepting a cup.
"It's simple fare, but it keeps you going," Charlie said. "So, what brings you gents to our neck of woods?"
Sirius hesitated for a moment. "It's a long story, but we're looking for a dragon."
"Well, you came to the right place. It's not the best season for dragon watching, but I'm sure we can arrange a tour." Charlie shot Harry a glance. "Looking is all you get to do, mind. We're not in the business of selling live animals, and sales of materials to foreign faces are strictly regulated."
Sirius raised his palms. "No, it's not anything like that. We're looking for a very specific dragon."
"A stray, if you will," Harry added.
Charlie's brow knitted. "We do get those from time to time. A Muggleborn on our team swears it's something called ferrymones that attract them. What does this stray look like? Its breed, approximate age?"
Sirius exchanged a glance with Harry. "Er... It's large. One and a half storey high when it stands on its haunches, give or take. Gold, a bit greenish color."
"Chartreuse," Harry said eruditely.
Sirius frowned. "Bit early to be drinking, no?"
"You just described every adult Meadowstalker on the reserve. As luck would have it, though, I have a fair idea of what you're on about." Charlie fixed them with a steely stare. "Did you breed him? I can't imagine where you managed to hide him until maturity. At least he seems healthy... almost too healthy, truth be told."
Harry leaned over the table. "What do you mean?"
Charlie held eye contact with him for a few seconds before speaking. "One lively fellow matching your description flew in last night. We're not sure when, exactly, but he's been busy since the crack of dawn. First, he challenged the alpha male reigning over a nearby valley and wrestled him into submission—"
Harry whooped. "Go Cedric!"
"Cedric? So you did raise him." Charlie sighed and rubbed his temples. "I'll postpone the lecture about the folly of unsanctioned dragon breeding until I hear the full story. Anyway, after establishing himself as the new alpha, your runaway proceeded to mount every fertile female he encountered in the vicinity—"
Harry and Sirius burst out laughing.
Charlie tried to get a word in before throwing up his arms in exasperation. "Who would've thought: like all animals, dragons procreate! What are you, schoolboys?"
Harry only laughed harder, while Sirius wiped a tear and choked out, "You'll understand. Can we see him?"
Charlie considered him. "If we are to do this, you stay at my side, quietly, and do exactly as I say. He's dozing off now, so it should be safe to approach, but you just never know with dragons."
Sirius nodded somberly, and Charlie turned to the still-snickering Harry.
"I'll be quiet," he promised, trying to school his expression.
"You do that." Charlie drained the remains of his tea and smacked his lips. "Let's get going, then. It's a bit of a walk, and we want to get there before he wakes up for another round."
Harry pressed a fist to his mouth to smother another bout of laughter and rose from the table. After dressing in his outerwear, he waited by the door with Charlie in uncomfortable silence while Sirius took a trip to the bathroom and donned his fur-trimmed cloak. At last, they trooped out into the crisp and clear air. Everything in sight was covered under pristine white snow.
Charlie took them across the tiny settlement, exchanging a few words with a colleague who peered curiously at the visitors. The snow between the cottages was packed, but farther out, their feet began sinking several inches with every step. Fresh paths were trodden into the forest and to the pond, but none toward the mountain that Charlie appeared to be heading to.
Harry coughed. "Um, we have a perfectly nice broom. It would be a bit of a tight fit, but..."
Charlie laughed. "Fancy playing chase with dragons? Flying objects larger than a bird tend to trigger their territorial instincts."
He sent him a pointed look. "Disillusionment Charms?"
"Many species see right through those. Most can sense heat and air currents, and the Antipodean Opaleyes are said to be able to detect magic itself. We don't have any of those, of course—winters here get too cold."
Harry glanced glumly at the cottages and fell back so they were walking in a single file. Despite breaking the trail, Charlie set a brisk pace, so when Sirius started regaling him with the tale of the stray Animagus, Harry was perfectly happy to save his breath. Charlie appeared more receptive to his godfather than him, anyway.
"You're yanking my wand, right?" Charlie said, pausing to stare at Sirius.
Well, maybe not that receptive.
Sirius spread his hands. "Would I fly a thousand and a half miles and come up with a lie this elaborate just to mess with you?"
"Yes," Harry and Charlie said in unison, then glanced awkwardly at each other.
Sirius grinned. "Touché. This time, though, it's the unvarnished truth. Trust me, I was shocked to see Diggory become a magical creature, but we'll have time to ponder the mystery later. Gotta save the bloke first, from himself if not the executioners."
Charlie hmmed. "And this potion of yours, it really helps you discover your form in one go? I heard rumors of most Uagadou graduates being Animagi, but I never took those seriously..."
Sirius jabbed a thumb at his chest. "Living proof right here, mate." A second later, a large shaggy dog stood in his place. He barked loudly and bounded off across the field kicking up snow.
Charlie trailed him with his gaze and set off again. For a while, there was only the sound of their crunching footsteps and Sirius's bass woofs.
Charlie broke the silence. "Everyone in the Order knew he was an Animagus, but this is the first I hear of a potion. Is it true, Potter?"
"Yep." He gestured at the dog, who was now rolling in a snowdrift with his tongue lolling out. "Does he look smart or patient enough for the traditional route?"
Charlie chuckled. "Fair point. Ever take it yourself?"
"Er... yeah, but..." He scowled. "I didn't have a form. It's worked on everyone else who took it, though."
"Huh. Must've been quite a disappointment." Charlie glanced over his shoulder. "Reckon Sirius would let me have a go? It always seemed like too much of a hassle, but..." He looked skyward wistfully, then shook his head. "Doesn't mean I really believe you two, mind."
"I'm sure he will. And we're not asking you to hand over one of your dragons or anything. Just let us cast the reversal spell on him, that's all."
"Well... It shouldn't hurt an animal." Charlie sighed. "Fine, I'll humor you, if only to see what happens for myself. You won't cast anything else on him, though, you hear me?"
Harry rolled his eyes, but when Charlie glanced at him again, he quickly nodded. "Sure."
"I'll hold you to that."
Eyeing Charlie's broad back, Harry fingered the slight lump of the dragonscale pendant under his robes. Had Charlie been the one to care for the Horntail? He wanted to clear the air but wasn't sure it was wise to bring that up.
The mountain drew closer, its crags swathed in glittering snow. While Harry's nose and cheeks were freezing, the exercise made him sweat under his robes, so he was glad when Charlie skirted the slope rather than climbing it. Beyond the mountain nestled a valley with sparse groves of leafless trees scattered throughout.
Charlie led them down the valley's ridged slope. Sirius loped tirelessly alongside them, apparently intent on staying a dog for the remainder of the trip. Suddenly, he raced off toward a deep furrow in the ground, barely sprinkled with snow, pressed his nose to it, and whined.
His curiosity roused, Harry took a few sidesteps into untouched snow and peered at the cliffs surrounding the valley. Among the dazzling white there was a glint of gold in the shadow of an overhanging crag.
"Still zonked out," Charlie said, shading his eyes. "We're in luck. Let's hurry."
Spying Cedric—hopefully, the real one—gave Harry a second wind, and he matched Charlie's vigorous strides without complaint. Sirius trotted at their heels with his ears pressed back and his big wet nose sniffing the air. At times, they had to step over imprints of massive claws, and there were copses of scorched trees deeper into the valley, the snow around them melted into mud.
Cedric slowed the closer he came to the shadowy alcove until he halted altogether. "Wait here till I call you. If he so much as blinks, Apparate back to camp immediately."
Harry nodded and rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath. Next to him, the shaggy black dog changed into a marginally less shaggy human. They watched in tense silence as Charlie sneaked toward Cedric's impromptu lair. The sun didn't shine directly into the alcove, but it was bright enough to make out the yellow-scaled dragon slumbering inside.
Charlie tiptoed the last few steps to the edge and peered inside before turning around and waving.
They gingerly made their way over. Wincing at the crunching of snow under his boots, Harry crept up to the alcove's mouth and was struck, once again, by how large the dragon was: even lying sideways with its tail coiled around itself, it towered over him.
"So unfair," he murmured, eyeing its vicious claws and impervious scales. The chartreuse stood out among the grey rock, but in summer, it would be indistinguishable from the greening meadows. "Let's turn him back already so I can make fun of him."
Sirius retrieved his wand. "Don't hold back—we won't get more than two or three tries." He looked at Charlie. "Help us out."
Charlie raised his eyebrows. "I never learned the spell."
Sirius waved him closer. "No time like the present. Don't worry, it's so simple a firstie could do it."
Harry half-listened to Sirius's undertone lecture as he observed the beast. It was breathing evenly, but from the occasional puff of smoke that left its nostrils, he surmised its sleep wasn't very deep.
"That'll do," Sirius said not five minutes later. "Aim for its belly, or..." He eyed the dragon, whose coiled position did not expose any vulnerable spots.
"Try the underside of his throat," Charlie said, pointing. "The scales tend to be thinner there. Not an easy target to hit on a rampaging dragon, but him being asleep makes this easier."
Harry contemplated the small patch of the dragon's neck where greenish skin was exposed between underdeveloped scales. "Not sure I can hit that from here."
Sirius exchanged a long look with Charlie, who sighed resignedly and said, "Get closer if you must, but be careful."
Stepping into the alcove, Harry yelped as he slipped on the icy rock and skidded down several feet before regaining his balance. Scree rattled down the slope to bounce off the dragon's hindquarters. Behind, Sirius mumbled an expletive while Charlie shushed him frantically.
The dragon rumbled but didn't wake. Harry sent the others a sheepish grin and inched closer to get a better line of fire, which unfortunately brought him within range of the front claws. He wiped his sweaty palms on his robes and took aim. Just in case, he visualized the cottage they had spent the night in so he could Apparate at a moment's notice.
Sirius clambered down to join him. "Charlie will distract him long enough for us to get away if things go pear-shaped," he whispered. "Ready? Fingers crossed this works... Hit him on three."
The dragon sniffled, and a convulsion rippled up its neck to erupt in a thunderous sneeze. Soot filled the air, and scales scraped against scales as the beast uncoiled.
"Three!" Harry cried, flinging a reversal spell at the neck but instead clipping an unfurling wing.
A second jet of light splashed against the scaly back, and a third hit the underbelly. The dragon's slit pupils widened as though in surprise, and for one heart-stopping moment, Harry thought they had misidentified it again—
Then it disappeared.
It took him a moment to notice the figure curled up on the ground, since compared to the beast, it was positively minuscule. Cedric was trembling and his skin under his tattered clothes was pale and clammy.
"Where..." Cedric squinted groggily at Harry and Sirius. "Oh god, no. Please, please tell me this was all a hallucination from that blasted brew."
A rattle of pebbles heralded Charlie's descent. "First of all, bloody hell! Second, you have to get me some of that potion." He raked his fingers through his short hair as he regarded Cedric. "Diggory, was it? How did it feel, soaring through the sky on your own power, wrestling dragons like their equal? Did you breathe fire? What was it like, seeing through their eyes?" Crouching down next to him, he appeared to hold his breath.
Cedric scooted back warily. "I only remember flashes of it... The hunger, the rage, the... So overwhelming I could never hope to control it." He buried his face in his palms. "It was no hallucination, was it?"
Harry resisted the urge to grin. "Mate, I might be the world's youngest Dragonslayer, but you earned an even more distinguished title: the world's one and only Dragonfu—"
"Don't rub it in," Sirius said, elbowing his ribs. "It's enough of a shock as it is." He looked like he was trying hard not to laugh himself.
Not looking up, Cedric shivered and sobbed. "Cho's going to kill me."
"I'm sure she'll understand," Harry said sympathetically. "Shagging a dragon is so out there it can't possibly count as cheating."
Cedric wailed, "And then the Ministry's going to take what's left and chuck me into Azkaban!"
Sobering up, Harry glanced at Sirius. "Shit, I forgot they took being an unregistered Animagus so seriously. Should we just admit to illegal dragon breeding?" He didn't look forward to emptying his vault for the fines, but he wasn't about to sell out Cedric.
"If that's what it takes, so be it. I'm not letting a good man rot in Azkaban." Sirius crossed his arms. "Nor am I going back there myself, even if I have to fight my way through every last Hitwizard."
"Su will get her boss to smooth things over." Hopefully. He gestured at Cedric. "Charlie, will you keep this under your hat?"
Everyone turned to him, including Cedric, who had ceased sniveling to listen.
Charlie grinned faintly. "Merlin's beard, you lot look like you're one step away from Obliviating me. It'll take some explaining as to where a newly arrived dragon had gone, but of course I'll keep quiet."
Cedric stood unsteadily and shook their hands with both of his, sniffling. "Thank you, thank you!"
"It's the least I could do," Charlie said. "The previous alpha was getting on in age and not siring many hatchlings, but thanks to you, there's going to be a great brood of Meadowstalkers this autumn."
From the way Cedric blanched, it was evident he wasn't thrilled by the idea. "Hatchlings? You mean... back when I was..."
Charlie shrugged. "I'm not an expert on the whole Animagus angle, but I don't see why not."
"Dear god." Cedric swallowed convulsively, then retreated deeper into the alcove and dry-heaved.
Harry shook his head ruefully. "Some people just don't appreciate what they have."
"Too true," Charlie agreed. He dropped his voice. "Say, why does the bloke have a dick on his cheek?"
Harry snickered. "'Cause it's funny?"
Charlie groaned. "It was funny. Back when I was fourteen."
Sirius gave Harry a victorious look. "Told you it was cliché."
"I always thought I hated this place," Sirius said as they touched down before number twelve, Grimmauld Place, "but seeing it wrecked like this is actually a little depressing."
Harry dismounted from the broom and stomped his feet to get some feeling back into them. "I'll fix it up in a jiffy—the major stuff, at least. The mess down in the basement might take a while to sort out." He looked at Sirius slyly. "It would go a lot faster if we had a house-elf or two."
Sirius wagged his finger. "You know how I feel about that. Kreacher was enough to put me off the idea for life."
"Well, if you'd rather comb through rubbish yourself..." Harry started for the front door before noticing it was slightly ajar. All was dark and silent behind the fractured windows, but that meant little. He glanced around the empty street and fished out his wand. "Homenum Revelio."
A dim blue glow seeped through the door, outlining a small bent figure somewhere on the ground floor. He tensed.
"An ambush, do you reckon?" Sirius said quietly.
"I don't know..." He watched the outline until it faded not having moved an inch. "There's only one person. A lookout, maybe?"
They stared at the door until Sirius squared his shoulders resolutely. "Dawdling out here is pointless. Let's get in there and give them a proper greeting, whoever they are."
Harry laid the broom aside. "Sounds good to me."
They strolled up the front stairs, nodded to each other, and barged in through the crooked door. Harry scanned the dim foyer, ready to spit curses, but there was no one in sight. He was about to repeat the Human-Revealing Charm when he glimpsed a grey figure on the dusty floor, slim shoulders propped against the wall and face obscured by a cowl.
Running up to the fallen witch, he sagged to his knees. His fingers trembled as he gripped the hem of the cowl, wishing it wouldn't be her he saw underneath, yet his hopes were dashed as he slid it back over sleek black hair revealing Su's pale countenance. Her eyes were closed and her lips bloodless.
"Su! Su, are you alright?" He ran his gaze over her and hissed when he saw thin thistle-fletched darts sticking out of her shoulder and thigh, the fabric around them soaked in blood. When he pinched one to pull it out, she gasped and opened her eyes.
He cradled her head. "What happened? Who did this to you?"
Her lips moved soundlessly.
There were footsteps behind him, and Sirius said, "We ought to take her to St. Mungo's."
"Quiet!" He lowered his ear to her mouth.
There was a feeble intake of breath. "Beware... the loincloth."