"Are you sure she doesn't need anything else?" Harry peered dolefully at Su, who lay in bed dressed in a hospital gown. Her breathing had evened out, but her skin was still ashen, and she hadn't woken up since he brought her to St. Mungo's. "Like a potion or a spell?"

The healer in lime robes sighed. "As I said, Miss Li just needs rest. The poison had already spread by the time we administered a bezoar, so it will take her some time to recover." He patted Harry's back. "Don't be alarmed if she sleeps throughout today and tomorrow. It's the best thing for her right now."

Taking a deep breath, Harry wrenched his gaze from Su's pale countenance. "Alright, I'll take your word for it. But if something happens to her..." He eyed the name emblazoned under a stylized leaf on the healer's chest and adopted a stern expression. "I'll hold you personally responsible, healer McQuoid Ward."

The healer tittered. "The name's Fulton, as a matter of fact, Nigel Fulton. Our poisoning ward is dedicated to one Quintia McQuoid, a renowned potioneer who invented—oh, but you wouldn't be interested, you don't strike me as the scholarly type... Gryffindor, right?"

"Ravenclaw, actually," Harry muttered—but the healer was no longer listening, having turned at the sound of an opening door.

A middle-aged Asian couple rushed into the ward. The woman scanned the empty beds along sage-green walls until she saw the one occupied by Su; gasping, she hastened to her side. The man followed at a more sedate pace. His cold black eyes pierced Harry's before homing in on the healer.

"How is our daughter?" he asked in a measured tone.

"Ah, would you happen to be Miss Li's parents?" Fulton wilted under the man's stare. "Yes, naturally... She was attacked with darts coated in paralytic and soporific poisons that our potioneers are still mulling over. While they're as of yet unable to brew an antidote, standard treatment has stabilized her condition, and I'm confident she's going to make a full recovery."

Su's father grunted and strode past the healer as though having lost all interest. Fulton dithered before glancing down at his leaf emblem that had begun to glow. Relief flashed across his unassuming features.

"Excuse me, I must tend to another patient. Stay as long as you like, but do not attempt to wake her—that would be detrimental to the healing process."

With that Fulton bid a hasty retreat, leaving Harry and the Li family alone in the airy ward. The mother perched on the bed and clutched her daughter's hand. Side by side, the two could be mistaken for sisters; she looked strikingly younger than her balding husband, who hovered silent and surly beside the bed.

Harry smoothed down the rumpled robes he had been wearing for the past two days and rubbed his stubbly chin. "Um..." His train of thought almost derailed when Mr. Li's dark eyes focused on him. "I wish we'd met under better circumstances, but... I'm Harry Potter."

"I know." Mr. Li shook Harry's hand perfunctorily and went back to watching his daughter.

For lack of anything else to do, Harry did likewise, drumming his fingers on his thigh as he watched Su's chest slowly rise and fall. Her mother caught his eye and smiled before addressing her husband in a foreign language.

The man glanced at Harry. "Dawei."

He blinked. "Pardon?"

"My name," the man ground out.

"Oh—very nice to meet you, sir." Harry thrust out his hand again, but Dawei turned away, and he sheepishly withdrew it.

Su's mother coughed softly. Dawei's scowl deepened, but he gestured toward her. "My wife, Xiuying."

"A pleasure." Harry clasped her warm hand and inclined his head.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Potter." Her silky voice was reminiscent of Su's, but she spoke with an accent. "Our daughter talks a lot about you."

He grinned weakly. "All good, I hope."

Xiuying appeared to consider his words. "She said you once nearly destroyed Britain. I'm not from a wizarding background, so I don't know how much of her stories to believe sometimes."

His grin wavered. Had Xiuying been a witch, he would've thought she was ribbing him, but her eyes only held guileless curiosity. "It wasn't that bad."

Dawei scoffed, "It was."

"It was, and I deeply regret it," Harry amended.

Xiuying laughed lightly, and he looked at her in surprise before chuckling himself. The silence that fell afterward was almost companionable. Even Su, asleep as she was, seemed to smile faintly.

"Mr. Potter," Xiuying began.

"Harry, please."

"Harry—how did this happen?" She stroked Su's knuckles with her thumb. "While I do not entirely understand the nature of her work, I've accepted that there would be... an element of danger. Was she assaulted while on duty?"

He sucked in air through his teeth. "Not exactly, no. My godfather and I found her collapsed inside our home—she must've been waiting for us to talk about... a legal issue we're facing. That's where she must've been attacked, although who did it and why, I haven't a clue." He averted his eyes from Xiuying's misty gaze only to get speared by Dawei's. "But I intend to get to the bottom of it and give hell to those responsible."

Dawei's eyes bore into his for what felt like minutes, but Harry didn't dare look away until the man gave a slight nod and broke eye contact first. Harry realized he had unconsciously shuffled a few steps back and praised the sharpness of his instincts. It was common knowledge that all Chinese knew kung fu, and Su's father certainly looked angry enough to kick his arse.

Harry cleared his throat. "Well, no time to start like the present." He bent down to kiss Su, but flinched under Dawei's glare and abruptly opted for the safer option of squeezing her hand. "Wouldn't do for me to intrude, and my godfather must be—"

The remainder of the sentence was drowned out by the door banging open. Five brown-robed wizards and witches trooped into the ward; in the hallway behind, Harry glimpsed healer Fulton, who shrank back under his gaze.

Dawei produced an ornamental wand and nudged his wife behind him. Sighing, Harry raised his hands and sidled away from the Lis to draw the Hitwizards' attention to himself.

"Harry Potter, you're under arrest," proclaimed a ratty bloke at the forefront—Theodore Blott or some such. Keeping Harry at wandpoint, he circled behind his back and whispered, "So we meet again. Go ahead, resist. Make my day."

"We've met?" Harry asked blankly.

Dawei's wand swung around to point at Harry too. Xiuying covered her mouth as she peeked anxiously over her husband's shoulder.

"Just a misunderstanding," Harry said weakly as Blott shoved him toward the door. "Nice meeting you, Mr. and Mrs. Li." He gave them a parting wave, then yelped as a wand dug into his back.

So much for making a good first impression.

"I'm terribly sorry about knocking you out," Harry said, watching an enchanted quill record his words. "Little Ceddy, he's become family to us over the years. Hearing that he was to be butchered like a pig... we just couldn't take it. Had to chase him, reckless as it was." He shifted on his arse; the chair was so uncomfortable it had to be deliberate.

"Aha!" Peabody wiped the perspiration from his balding pate with a handkerchief. "Are you getting this, Mr. Malfoy? Mr. Malfoy?"

Draco, who appeared to be relegated to the duty of staring at the Self-Writing Quill, twitched and lifted his chin from his hand. "Every word, Mr. Peabody."

"Excellent." Peabody turned to Harry. "You understand, I presume, that dragon breeding is highly illegal and carries a hefty fine?"

Harry ducked his head contritely. "I do."

"And the tale you spun, that of a mad Animagus?"

He spread his hands, causing the manacles on his wrists to jangle. "You saw right through it, sir." Glancing at Malfoy, he smothered a grin. "Not that it was a very good excuse, with all due respect. You'd have to be a total numpty to fall for it."

Peabody tittered. "Quite so, quite so. Hear that, Mr. Malfoy? To think you tried to convince me to take that cock-and-bull story seriously!"

"But..." Draco sent Harry a betrayed look and gritted his teeth. "My bad, vice-chief."

"Now then," Peabody said, "there's just the matter of where you acquired a dragon egg before we can close the case. Cooperate with us, Mr. Potter, and you can earn some leniency in your sentence."

"Er..." He searched for something convincing to say but came up empty. "I don't remember."

"You don't remember." Peabody tutted, reminding him of Umbridge. Did the Ministry train their employees in that? "That's not good, not good at all—for you and Mr. Black, first and foremost. Need I remind you that assaulting a Ministry official is a potential criminal charge?" He regarded Harry sternly through his monocle. "I'll ask again, who sold you the egg? Please think well before answering this time."

With another jangle, Harry slouched against the backrest and contemplated a crack in the ceiling. As much as he hated making it tougher for Sirius, he just might have to leave it up to him to wiggle out of this one.

He sighed. "I wasn't the one who bought it."

Peabody began to speak, but the door into the stuffy room opened to let in an Auror carrying a thick folder. The vice-chief frowned and pivoted on his chair. "Now see here, we're in the middle of questioning a suspect!"

"The matter of the stray dragon can wait," the Auror said. "We must interview Mr. Potter regarding another case as soon as possible."

While Peabody eyed the Auror with chagrin, Harry felt grateful for the timely rescue. Noticing that no one was paying the Self-Writing Quill any attention, he grinned and spoke a few choice words under his breath.

Peabody rose to his feet, matching the Auror in height if not width. "What could possibly be more important than getting to the bottom of illegal dragon trafficking?"

"Murder," the Auror said, startling Harry out of his recital of a dirty limerick.

"Murder?" Peabody gave Harry a wary glance. "Why, I never... Well. I daresay you'll have your work cut out on this one, Dawlish." Adjusting his monocle, he headed out the door. "Come along, Mr. Malfoy."

Dawlish's gaze lingered on Draco as the two filed past. "Malfoy, you're with International Cooperation, correct? Stick around, you might learn a thing or two."

"Murder isn't really my area of expertise, Auror Dawlish," Draco said stiffly.

"I have it on good authority that illegal items were smuggled in from abroad—and I don't mean dragon eggs." Seeing Peabody hover outside the threshold, Dawlish shut the door in his face. "We might need your people to coordinate with the overseas authorities for this case."

Draco muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'bloody Potter' and dragged his feet back to the desk. "Very well, I'm all yours."

Dawlish pulled back Peabody's chair and sank onto it with a grunt. He considered Harry, then plucked the parchment from under the Self-Writing Quill and skimmed through. His expression soured as he read the last few lines.

"Do you consider yourself above the law, Potter?" Dawlish raised a hand to stall his response. "That's a dangerous attitude to take. Sooner or later, you're going to cross a line, and neither your fame nor your services to our country—which, god knows, are great and many—are going to help you." He fixed him with an icy stare. "Some might say you've already crossed it."

It was a testament to how shaken Harry was that he didn't even roll his eyes. "Spare me the lecture. Who died?" He sat up straighter. "Are Su and Sirius alright?"

"Level Nine sent someone to watch over Miss Li while she recuperates. Rest assured, she's in good hands." Dawlish shoved the parchment back under the quill and opened his folder. "As for Black, he's resting in a nice cozy cell. If you care about his well-being, I recommend answering my questions truthfully."

Exhaling, he reclined and fiddled with the chain. "Ask away."

Dawlish glanced at his folder. "You and Sirius Black visited Caldwell's Curious Curios in Knockturn Alley five days ago, did you not?"

"I—I suppose, yes." Whatever he expected, it wasn't this.

"Hmm." Dawlish leafed through his documents. "We have an eyewitness who saw you, by the way, but it's good to see you cooperating. What was your business there?"

"Er..." The shopkeeper must have squealed on them, so lying would only make things worse. He mentally apologized to his godfather. "Sirius bought ingredients for a brew of his. I don't really understand it myself—barely scraped a passing grade in Potions, you can check."

Dawlish gestured irritably. "Yes, yes, the mysterious potion Black refuses to expound on because he fears the formula being stolen. We'll come back to the legality of its ingredients later. What else did you purchase?"

He furrowed his brows. "Nothing much. I did buy a statuette that caught my eye, but I doubt that's what you're after—"

"A statuette?" Dawlish leaned in. "What did it look like?"

He looked at the Auror dubiously. "Well, how should I put this... It was a naga woman—"

"A nah-guh?" Dawlish glanced at the steadily scribbling quill. "Describe it in detail."

"It was made of this slightly translucent green rock—jade, I reckon—and had a snake's lower half..." He shifted on his chair. "Honestly, why does that matter? It's just a little something I got for my collection."

Dawlish squared his jaw. "It matters, Potter, because Cyrus Caldwell was found dead in his shop—done in by an exotic poison, from the looks of it."

"Oh," Harry said.

"I hope for your sake that your surprise is unfeigned. Given the clientele that frequented Mr. Caldwell's establishment, such"—Dawlish pulled a face—"upstanding members of society as yourself and Mr. Black would normally be at the bottom of the list of suspects, yet the Auror Office just caught wind that an Unspeakable was attacked inside your residence—attacked using the very same poison that killed Caldwell."

"Did you say killed?" His pulse quickened. "The healer who treated Su at St. Mungo's, he assured me—"

Dawlish waved him off. "Caldwell had a weak heart, and the gentleman who found him collapsed on the floor was more interested in the money drawer than calling for help. You should be more concerned about yourself, Potter. Let's go back to this statuette."

He spread his hands as far as the manacles allowed. "The thing's lying in my room somewhere. If it's so important, let me go, and I'll be more than happy to bring it to you."

"Would you, now?" Dawlish sized Harry up and stood abruptly. "The Hitwizards are combing through your house as we speak, but I don't see why we couldn't drop by and expedite things a little. Keep in mind, you're still under arrest, Potter."

Receiving a resigned nod from Harry, the Auror unceremoniously yanked him to his feet and unlocked the manacles. Massaging his wrists, Harry allowed himself to be ushered to the door, where Dawlish paused as if having forgotten something. "You're coming with us, Malfoy."

Malfoy straightened up from where he had been hunching behind the desk in an obvious attempt to make himself less noticeable. "Begging your pardon, but I have a mountain of paperwork awaiting my attention."

Dawlish raised his eyebrows. "Do you want that promotion or would you rather remain a paper-pusher? Assisting an Auror investigation would look great on your resume."

Draco sighed, and shooting Harry a baleful look, rose from the desk. "Thank you very much for the opportunity."

Dawlish led them to the Auror Office's Apparition platform, clamped his brawny hand on Harry's upper arm, and allowed him to pop them in before number twelve, Grimmauld Place. Harry shifted foot to foot under the cold wind, half expecting Malfoy not to show up, but he arrived a few seconds later and glanced around the neighboring houses with distaste.

Dawlish tilted his head back to peer at the tarp-covered roof. "That's some damage."

"Breeding dragons in your basement will do that," Harry said. "Not one of our brightest ideas, but we accept full responsibility, of course." He couldn't resist smirking at Malfoy's glare.

"I'll wait outside if it's all the same to you," Malfoy said. "The place looks like it could come down any minute."

"Hey, if you give me my wand, I could fix it up in a jiffy," Harry said, not expecting an affirmative. "I won't resist, promise on my honor."

Dawlish furrowed his brows and glanced around the empty street. "The Hitwizards raised some Muggle-Repelling Charms... Why not." He rummaged in his robes and withdrew a twelve-inch wand of red pine. "You'll only cast the Mending Charm, nothing else—do you hear?"

He snapped off a salute. "Loud and clear."

Eyeing him surlily, Dawlish proffered the wand handle-first. Harry accepted it and pretended not to notice the Auror's own wand not quite pointing at him. He considered the Grimmauld Place's damaged facade, and habitually mouthing the incantation, gestured with a flourish.

A loud grinding drowned out the noises of the city as the cracks in the brickwork closed up and the windows of the lower floors reconstructed themselves from shards like those self-assembling puzzles wizards enjoyed for some inexplicable reason. Dawlish whistled, but Harry pursed his lips at the still-broken windows of the attic; he would have to get closer to fix those.

Traipsing up the front stairs, he opened the now-righted door. "After you, gentlemen."

"I don't think so," Dawlish said. "Take us to where you last saw the statuette—and no funny business."

He placed a hand on his chest indignantly. "I promised, didn't I?"

Dawlish grumbled and waved him on. Harry sauntered inside and toward the staircase, swinging his wand left and right to fix the place up as he went. A bit of an incident occurred when two Hitwizards ran out the drawing-room on the second floor and nearly hexed him, but Dawlish sorted them out. Draco trailed behind silently with his wand held at his side.

Ascending to the third floor, Harry repaired the hole in the ceiling before proceeding to his room. The sight of muddy footprints before the ajar door made him hurry toward it and yank it open. He halted in his tracks. Despite tidying up before departing with Sirius, his figurines were strewn across the floor.

"Fucking hell!" He whirled around, only to freeze when Dawlish pointed his wand at his chest.

"No sudden moves—"

"I'll show you a sudden move," he snapped. "Those wankers downstairs messed with my stuff!"

"The Hitwizards?" Dawlish blinked. "Those slowcoaches haven't gotten to this floor yet."

Harry's eyes widened, and ignoring Dawlish's barked warning, he rushed into his room and crouched before the scattered figurines. On closer inspection, none were broken, and most of his collection was still stuffed in the cardboard box beside the bed.

He swept his gaze around until it landed on an ajar drawer of his desk. Under Dawlish's watchful gaze, he tiptoed toward it and yanked it open. A pile of his enchanting notes burst out, no more messy than usual. He pulled out the other drawers. Writing utensils, parchment, spare change, Firo's snacks... Ripping open a packet of chili peanuts, he poured its contents into his mouth, then pocketed a couple more since it didn't look like he would be able to sit down for a proper meal any time soon. He scanned the room again as he munched. Odd. Nothing appeared to be missing.

"Well?" Dawlish asked from the doorway. "What is it?"

"Someone had definitely been here, but..." Harry trailed off as his gaze lingered on a conspicuously empty corner. His blood ran cold. "No. No, no..." He flung open his closet, then knelt to peek under the bed. "It's gone!"

Dawlish stepped inside. "The statue?"

He gestured at the box as he paced around. "The statue's over there somewhere. Who cares! Someone stole my wai—my body pillow!"

"Your body pillow," Dawlish said blankly.

"Oh, that," Draco murmured.

Dawlish turned to where Malfoy was hovering at the threshold and raised his eyebrows. "You're familiar with the item in question?"

"A Muggle novelty." Draco shrugged and added pompously, "Someone in my position has to keep up with the times."

The byplay barely registered on Harry's mind. He dug his fingers into his hair. Why would someone kidnap his waifu? As priceless as she was, from an outside perspective her only value was sentimental.

"Report the theft after we return to the Ministry," Dawlish said, ambling up to the bed. "Let's get back to the matter at hand. Where's the statue you bought from Caldwell?" He plucked a figurine of a wolf-eared woman out of the box and gave it a perplexed look.

"Keep your grubby fingers off my lovelies," Harry hissed, causing Dawlish to flinch and drop it. "It's under here somewhere, just let me..." He pulled the figures out one by one until the bottom of the box came into view. "Huh."

"Well, which one of these is it?" Dawlish demanded.

He threw up his arms. "It's not here!"

"I see." Curiously, Dawlish sounded satisfied. "Then it was likely the purpose of the break-in, and Miss Li was simply unfortunate enough to get into the perpetrators' way. They must've learned your whereabouts from late Mr. Caldwell. Given the sorry state of your house, they were able to waltz in and take what they came for."

"That makes no sense," he muttered, plunking on the bed. The statue hadn't been cheap, but if the burglars were after money, they should've targeted the Blacks' antique silverware. First his waifu, and now this...

He clenched his fists. This was personal.

"I'll have you provide a memory of the statuette for the Auror Office's Pensieve," Dawlish said, oblivious to his inner turmoil. "Do you know if it happens to be enchanted?"

"Yeah," he said, staring into space. "Not sure how, though. Never seemed to do much of anything."

Draco piped up. "And you kept an unknown magical quantity in your bedroom?"

"I..." His first impulse was to justify himself, but in retrospect, it had been imprudent. Frowning, he rubbed his forehead. "I was fine, wasn't I? Sirius assured me it wasn't cursed too."

Draco just shook his head, while Dawlish smiled grimly. "The picture is becoming more clear. It must be an artifact of significant value that Mr. Caldwell obtained through less-than-legal means, drawing the ire of its original owners." He cast a stony look at Harry. "You're lucky you didn't meet the same fate—and I don't believe for one moment that you purchased it by coincidence. What are you hiding, Potter?"

He matched the Auror glare for glare. "Nothing. I bought it because it was pretty."

"Pretty?" Dawlish scoffed.

"Someone of your occupation wouldn't have much appreciation for beauty, I suppose," he said, crossing his arms, "but to a discerning eye like mine, it was a work of art. Exquisitely detailed, more lifelike than any I've ever seen..." He froze; he had seen another figurine just like it. Patting down his robes, he reached into his inner pocket.

"Keep your hands where I can see them," Dawlish ordered.

Heedless, he pulled out the communication mirror and flinched as the tip of Dawlish's wand glowed crimson. "Merlin's tits, I'm not going to assault you with a bloody hand mirror."

Malfoy sneered. "While I approve of the sentiment, Potter, I doubt that thing alone will be enough to make yourself presentable."

"Maybe if your pals at the Ministry let me clean up before dragging me off..." Scowling, he lifted the mirror and said a little self-consciously, "Shadowlord. Shadowlord! Oi, Brandon, you there? You fat shit, answer me!"

Dawlish lowered his wand a fraction. "What exactly are you doing?"

Harry glanced at him over the top of the stubbornly reflective mirror. "Dawlish, listen, I remembered where I'd seen another figurine like the one stolen. Its owner might be in danger."

"A powerful Dark wizard, no doubt, to hold such a title," Dawlish said. "Tell me everything you know while I round up a squad."

He laughed hysterically. "The bloke's a Muggle. You don't understand—he never leaves his basement, so if he isn't answering..." Dawlish didn't appear convinced, so Harry tossed his wand to him. "See, now I'm unarmed! The poor sod can't defend himself, and you're a big tough Auror, so do your job!"

Dawlish fixed him with a searching look as he pocketed the wand. Harry's earnest expression must've been convincing since he slowly nodded. "We wouldn't want to miss another attack. Take us there."

"Us?" Malfoy did not sound thrilled.

Dawlish glanced his way. "Just keep an eye on Potter while I check up on this Shadow Lord. Worry not, Malfoy, I'll be sure to mention your assistance in my report."

"I'd rather return to my own duties, Auror," Draco said stiffly. "If you still insist I come, I recommend we call for reinforcements—no less than four of your best."

"That so?" Dawlish raised his eyebrows. "Surely a wizard of your caliber can subdue one unarmed suspect if need be?"

"I can, but given the suspect in question is Potter..." Draco's shoulders slumped. "It's impossible to explain to someone who hasn't seen the sort of madness he gets up to firsthand."

Harry waved impatiently. "We have no time for this!"

Dawlish nodded and proffered his forearm. "Let's go."

Pocketing the mirror, Harry grabbed Dawlish and Malfoy and Side-Alonged them onto the pavement before the Witherspoon residence. The resounding crack of Apparition was still ringing in his ears when four strangers burst out the front door of the house. Malfoy groaned and rubbed his head before stiffening up.

The strangers skidded to a halt in the front garden and stared. They were a striking and motley bunch. Two burly men with long wooden tubes behind their backs flanked a slighter woman, their scaly mantles exposing their black skin to the just-above-freezing temperature. Behind them stood a pasty man in robes embellished garishly with pentagrams and snakes.

Dawlish raised his wand. "My name is Auror Dawlish. Identify yourselves!"

The mantled men exchanged a glance and hoisted their strange tubes off their shoulders. Dawlish and Malfoy appeared more concerned about the robed wizard who held a wand, but Harry's gaze lingered on the loincloths between the men's parted mantles.

"Return my wand," he whispered, sidling behind Dawlish for protection.

The door of the house banged open to release a red-faced Brandon wielding a gleaming katana. Blood stained the sleeve of his sweatsuit where thistle-tailed darts pierced his pudgy arm. Lifting the katana, he waddled toward the woman. "Give it back!"

The mantled men lifted their tubes to their mouths, the pasty wizard stepped protectively before the woman, while Dawlish trained his wand on Brandon.

Harry whacked him on the shoulder. "He's the good guy!"

Dawlish swung his wand toward the strangers, but the robed wizard struck first, and a burst of blue tore up the pavement in a deafening explosion. Harry was spared the worst of it courtesy of Dawlish's heavy frame, although he didn't feel particularly thankful when the aforementioned frame knocked into him and laid him out painfully onto the tarmac.

He rose to all fours and shook the collapsed Dawlish's shoulder. "Where's my wand?"

When the Auror only groaned, Harry clicked his tongue and rifled through his pockets. Just as his fingertips brushed warm wood, Dawlish's eyes flew open and his hand clamped around Harry's wrist.

He growled in frustration. "Give it back already, you"—his eyes widened as he saw the woman toss a palmful of pebbles—"watch out!"

To his credit, Dawlish erected a passable Protego, and the projectiles bounced off without doing any harm—yet when the woman brandished a beaded amulet, what Harry had thought were pebbles sprouted into vines that wrapped the shield and cracked the tarmac to burrow into the soil beneath. Her lips moved as she shook the amulet in their direction again.

"Argh! Get them off, get them off!" Dawlish cowered, shielding his face from dangers unseen, and his shield crumbled.

Harry cried out and toppled over as the vines rushed in to bind his legs. He tugged at them fruitlessly as he cast a look at the chaos in the front garden.

Malfoy had the enemy wizard on the back foot until he hissed desperately to his comrades. A plait-haired man pressed his long tube to his lips and spat out a thin projectile that twanged off Malfoy's hasty shield.

The second blowpiper, his face tattooed to resemble a snake's, launched dart after dart at Brandon. Despite looking like a bloodied porcupine, Brandon lumbered doggedly toward the woman, his gaze fixed on the drawstring bag in her hands.

Another dart sank into his shoulder. Brandon slapped at it as one would at a mosquito, swayed, and fell face-first into the muddy ground, the sword slipping from his fingers. Harry gritted his teeth and tugged at the vines now wrapping him up to his waist.

The snake-like face of the blowpiper contorted in glee, and he hissed to the woman, who turned to respond in kind. The vines stilled, and Dawlish groaned and ran a palm over his face as his eyes regained focus. Harry's relief was short-lived, however, because the enemies gathered around a length of golden chain while keeping Malfoy in check with an occasional blowdart or hex.

Harry swiveled to Malfoy. "Get me out of these!"

Malfoy conjured wind that blew the darts hurtling at him aside and ran up to transfigure the vines into yarn that sagged to the ground. Dawlish braced a hand on Harry's shoulder to rise, still looking disoriented. In the garden, standing over the unconscious Brandon, the attackers took hold of the chain while the woman hissed an incantation.

Without a second thought, Harry seized Draco's arm and Apparated the dozen or so yards separating them from the enemy. Staggering forward, he hugged Snake-Face's torso an instant before an inexorable force catapulted them skyward. Dawlish's hand slid off his shoulder, and he glimpsed the Auror—minus the aforementioned hand—screaming on the tarmac before a howling whirlwind swallowed everything.

Tossed in every direction, Harry held on for dear life. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Malfoy clenching the woman's mantle, his hair tousled and his face twisted in fear. The small island of stability around the Portkey that protected the four travelers from the raging storm did not extend to hitchhikers.

The woman tossed her head angrily, exposing a ropy scar across her throat, and wriggled her shoulders. Malfoy's fingers slid off her flapping mantle, and only a serendipitous gust of wind sent him hurtling sideways rather than into the surrounding hurricane. With a cry that pierced the howling of the wind, he crashed into Harry and hooked an arm around his neck.

Harry's eyes bulged out, and he gurgled through the constriction around his windpipe.

"Don't you dare let go!" Malfoy screamed. "If I die, I'll become a ghost and dedicate my unlife to ruining your reputation!"


His arms trembled with the effort to hold on as his vision blackened around the edges. To make matters worse, the bloke he had bummed a ride on glared over his shoulder—his snake-like face was missing half a nose—and rammed his elbow into Harry's cheek.

"Hold on!" Draco's voice reached him from somewhere far away. "Or I'll haunt everyone dear to you and their descendants forever!"

The blows kept coming, harder and harder, until he could no longer hear Malfoy's yells through the ringing in his skull. His grip slackened, and he plummeted into the howling abyss. The arm crushing his windpipe loosened, and he tried to suck in air, but the wind in his face took away his breath. The hurricane spun and tossed him until spewing him out like a chewed-up toy.

The surroundings abruptly brightened, blue and purple and blue again, enormous and hurtling at him... Someone was screaming... He would've liked to do the same, but just couldn't muster the energy...

His eyelids fluttered shut.