Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Notes: Yeah, I know, it's been a while. A really long while. I cam back to this story recently and have been really enjoying writing it again, so I hope that some of you might still enjoy reading it. At any rate, many thanks to Ouatic-7, Dragenphly, Angelika, SilverSurfa, Marius and Kirrashi for their reviews of chapter 6.

----

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Chapter 7: Born

By the time Harry got down to breakfast the next morning, most of the students had already finished eating. He plonked himself down on the bench next to Hermione, who was reading The Daily Prophet ('Cambridge Research-Wizard Killed by Exploding Experiment!'). Ron gestured at him with a spoon.

"Didn u go a see Ma'am Pomfey?" he asked through a mouthful of porridge.

"Not yet," Harry said. "I'll go after breakfast."

Hermione gave him a reproving look. "If you'd wanted to do that, you should have come to breakfast earlier. You won't have time to go before your first class."

Harry shrugged. "I'll do it at break, then. It's no big deal."

Ron eyebrows shot up. "Have you looked at your face, mate? It's like Hallowe'en! All I can say is-"

But whatever all he could say was, Harry never found out. Ron stopped abruptly, and Harry looked up to find Malfoy standing at his shoulder. His face was clean and free from marks; he had obviously made the time to go to Madame Pomfrey before breakfast.

"We need to talk about the Magical Transportation assignment," he said, shortly.

Harry glanced at Ron, whose mouth had dropped open. He looked back at Malfoy. The other boy was staring at him impatiently. "Um, OK?" Harry hazarded.

"Right. I'll meet you in the library at breaktime. On second thoughts," Malfoy's eyes travelled over Harry's face, "you might want to get yourself fixed up first. You look like something the cat dragged in."

Harry opened his mouth to retort, but Malfoy was already turning away. "So I'll see you there at lunchtime. Oh and Potter?" The boy cast a glance over his shoulder, his pointed features assuming an air of indifference. "Don't forget to bring your book. Mine had an accident." And with that, he marched out of the Great Hall.

The three friends stared after him. "I think I liked him better when he was sulking," Ron remarked.

Hermione straightened up. "Well, I think it's a big improvement, even if he did burn that book. Well done Harry, I think what you did was very generous."

"Thanks," Harry muttered, not sure exactly what it was that he had done, and not entirely sure he thought the new Malfoy was in improvement, either. Still, at least I won't have to do the homework all by myself.

----

The next few weeks were rather surreal, even by the standards of Harry's life. Malfoy was not quite as invisible as he had been before -- sometimes he would sit in a corner of the Gryffindor common room by himself, or be seen stalking through the corridors on his own -- but they still saw him very little. None of the Gryffindors seemed very keen to bridge the gap between them, Harry least of all: to Ron's relief, and despite Hermione's urging, he didn't invite Malfoy to sit with them at mealtimes or in the evening. Every week, however, they would meet in the library, and later, when theory moved into practice, out in the grounds or in the common room, to do their Magical Transportation homework. At these times, and at others when Harry or Hermione had cause to speak to him, Malfoy wavered between condescending and coolly polite; Ron he ignored completely, which seemed to suit both of them best.

Harry had told Malfoy about his theory that the Slytherins had an Invisibility Cloak. They had yet to find any evidence of it, however, or come up with any ideas about how they had pulled it off without waking either Harry or Malfoy.

Harry didn't really have time to worry about Malfoy or the Slytherins, though. He began to feel like he was drowning under a pile of work and responsibilities. He had never really caught up with the work he had missed at the beginning of term, both due to his abduction and his dark depression, and he seemed to be constantly a lesson behind everyone else. There was a Quidditch match approaching against Slytherin; they had replaced Malfoy (who was refusing to have anything to do with his old housemates) with a skinny second year girl named Jemima Radcliffe, and although Harry was pretty sure he could beat her, Katie Bell, the new captain of the Gryffindor team, was pushing them hard, despite the deterioration of the weather as autumn drew on. It seemed like whenever Harry wasn't working, he was practicing.

And yet the constant activity was never quite enough to allow Harry to forget the doubts and worries that gnawed at the back of his mind. There was still no news on Voldemort, no killings and no disappearances, though Harry checked Hermione's copy of the Daily Prophet every day, almost to the point of obsession. He felt sure there were clues in the paper somewhere, that the events it reported must somehow hold the key to whatever Voldemort was up to, but he could find nothing to support his theory. And behind that uneasy feeling was something worse, something he rarely looked into because it threatened to draw him back into a well of misery: Sirius was still dead. Despite Harry's attempts to pretend to himself and everyone around him that he was healing, he knew in his heart that he was not.

Magical Transportation was turning out to be quite an interesting class, now that they had moved from the theory into the actual creation of Portkeys. Harry knew that he would not be permitted to create Portkeys whenever he wanted, but somehow he gained comfort from the idea that by the end of the year he would be proficient in both them and Apparation, thus giving him a degree of independence he had never experienced before. The preparations for the creation of a Portkey were, however, very complex, and the calculations involved often left Harry swearing vociferously at his open textbook. The first Portkey they were expected to create was supposed to take them to the boys' dormitory, and the book contained detailed instructions for the preparation of the object (a chipped teacup), which ought to have made it a simple matter: all they had to do was add in the correct magical coordinates for the dormitory (the book also contained instructions for how to calculate them), and perform the spell. But as Harry and Malfoy sat in the common room one Friday evening in November, alternately pointing their wands at the cup and saying 'Portus!', they began to suspect that it was, in fact, an impossible task.

"Oh, come here." Hermione reached for the teacup. She and Ron had, of course, already succeeded in enchanting their object (one of Hermione's knitted hats), and had come running down from the boys' dormitory almost a week before, pursued by the shouts of an outraged (and almost entirely naked) Dean Thomas. Malfoy grabbed the cup and put it out of her reach.

"We'll do it ourselves," he said shortly.

Hermione sighed loudly. "Fine, suit yourself. But I wish you wouldn't do it here. I'm trying to write this essay" (she gestured at an extremely long roll of parchment that curled under the table and out of sight) "and it's very distracting."

"Well, it's freezing outside," Harry pointed out. He glanced at Malfoy, who was examining the scroll on which they had written their calculations once more. "Maybe you could just give us some pointers?" he asked, lowering his voice. Malfoy might be determined to go it alone, but Harry was more than happy to accept Hermione's help.

"Well," Hermione said, "it's probably a mistake in the calculations, you know. They're very difficult."

Malfoy looked up and scowled. "Fine," he said, flinging the parchment down on the table, "you're so bloody clever, you do it." And he leaned back in his chair with his arms folded.

Hermione seemed entirely unflustered. She picked up the parchment and began to examine it, frowning as she tried to decipher their handwriting. "Hmm," she muttered, chewing on the corner of her lip. Harry watched her expectantly. "That's supposed to be a five," she was mumbling, "and that should be a wynn..." Harry glanced over at Ron, who rolled his eyes. Malfoy was staring daggers in Hermione's direction.

Suddenly, she looked up. "Ah! I see what you've done!" She rotated the teacup twice anti-clockwise, and then tapped it with her wand. "Portus!"

The teacup glowed blue and wobbled slightly on its saucer. Then it returned to its normal appearance.

Harry and Malfoy exchanged glances, and then both reached for the cup at the same time. As his fingers brushed against the cool china, Harry felt the by-now familiar sensation of being pulled backwards by a hook through his navel. It worked, he thought in surprise, and then he felt himself falling through empty space.

----

Ron looked at Hermione, and then back at the empty chairs where Harry and Malfoy had been sitting. "Typical," he said. "Five feet of calculations and you found the problem in two minutes."

Hermione tried to hide her pleasure. "Well, I suppose they'll be coming down any minute," she said, looking expectantly at the dormitory stairs. They waited. But a minute passed, and still there was no sign of Harry and Malfoy. Hermione glanced at Ron, worried now. "Do you think we should go up and check?"

"I'll go," said Ron. "I think you've spent quite enough time in the boys' dormitory lately."

Hermione waited, trying not to worry as Ron went up the stairs. After all, they had followed the instructions from the book, so they couldn't have gone too wrong, could they? But when Ron came back down, the look on his face told Hermione all she needed to know.

"They're not there," he said.

----

Gerontius Applethwaite was bored. He had been bored for several weeks now, and there was no sign of his boredom coming to an end any time soon. To make matters worse, right now he was bored and hungry, but he couldn't go to the village to get some food, as his partner had already left, and therefore he would be deserting his post. For perhaps the twentieth time (no, given the amount of time he had been stuck doing this job it would have to be more than that, since that implied that it had only happened a few times a night), he found himself questioning his orders, though another part of his brain tried desperately to suppress the rebellion. He didn't know if his master could read his thoughts, but he would rather not find out.

Still, the dangerous thought insisted, what's the likelihood that this is ever going to work? Someone will have spotted the discrepancy by now. Even if it does work, the magic is experimental. You know what it did to Penfawr.

Gerontius frowned, though he was unaware that he was doing it. It's the best plan we have, he pointed out.

We had Malfoy's plan. That was a good one.

Gerontius might have snorted out loud; at any rate, there was a noise in his mind very much like derision. Malfoy was outwitted by a gaggle of children. They know now. There's no way Malfoy's plan can work any more.

Maybe not, but there's no guarantee that they'll ever--

The train of thought that he had proved incapable of derailing by his own efforts crashed and burned as Gerontius was struck from above by something heavy that was falling fast.

----

"Ow."

Harry opened his eyes. At least, he tried to open them, only to realise that they were already open. Frowning, he waved his hand in front of his face, but could see nothing.

"Ow," said the voice, insistently.

I wonder if I've gone blind, thought Harry. Maybe I've gone mad as well.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake, OW!"

This time Harry recognised the angry, arrogant tones of the voice. He felt the uneven ground shifting beneath him, and suddenly it rose up, so that he fell another few inches.

"Look, Potter," said Malfoy (for it was unmistakeably him, though Harry could still see nothing), "you're always going on about being polite and all that stupid rubbish, and you don't have the common decency not to bloody well land on top of me and then just lie there like the braindead idiot that you are," he drew a breath, and there was an audible groan.

Harry waited for a minute, but it seemed that there was nothing more forthcoming. He wondered if Malfoy had fainted.

"Potter?"

"Yes?"

"Did you just groan?"

Harry felt a shiver run up his spine. "I thought that was you."

There was a tense silence. Harry realised he was beginning to get used to the darkness. He blinked a couple of times. From the temperature and the feel of moving air against his cheeks, he guessed they were somewhere outside. In front of him, something darker than the surrounding darkness shifted.

"There's -- something -- on the ground," Malfoy said, sounding decidedly disconcerted.

Harry struggled to his feet. He had a very bad feeling. There was another groan, from somewhere around knee-level, then an unfamiliar voice said "Lumos."

Harry, momentarily blinded by the flare of light, didn't wait around to see who had cast the spell. He seized an arm that he hoped was Malfoy's, and ran.

----

"Well?"

Hermione sighed. "There's nothing wrong," she said, staring down at the parchment in front of her. "There aren't any more mistakes."

Ron stared at her. "There's got to be! Otherwise Harry would have gone to the dormitory!"

Hermione closed her eyes, and opened them again, then shook her head desperately. "It's just not here. The co-ordinates match the ones in the book, all the calculations are correct..."

"Well, maybe the book's wrong, then," Ron said, grabbing the heavy leather-bound volume and glaring at it.

"Don't be ridiculous," Hermione said. "If the book was wrong everyone else who was using it would have been sent to wherever Harry went."

"Not if this one's different to the others." Ron was fishing his own copy, battered and at least ten years old, out of his satchel. He flipped through the pages, then let out a shout of triumph. "Hah!"

"Let me see that," Hermione said, snatching the book out of Ron's hands. She stared at the numbers on the page. "But how...?"

"I don't care how," Ron said, so loudly he startled a group of third years who were sitting nearby. "Where have they gone to?"

Hermione shook her head. "I don't know how to work it out from the co-ordinates alone," she said, feeling a terrible sensation of failure in her stomach.

Ron drew himself up. "Well then," he said, "we'll just have to go there too."

----

"Stop. Potter, stop!"

Harry came to sudden halt in the darkness as the arm he was clutching suddenly began to drag a great deal more. "What are you doing?" he hissed.

"I'm falling over," Malfoy's voice came out of the air below him. "I'd appreciate it if you'd let me get on with it in peace." The arm jerked out of his grip, and he heard the sound of something hitting the ground. "Ow," added Malfoy.

"We've got to keep moving," Harry insisted.

"That is the most ridiculous thing... Look, Potter, I take it you have no idea where we are, or who that was. We can't see a thing, we don't have our wands, and for all you know we could be running in circles or about to fall into a big pit. Is that really a sensible course of action?"

"Better than waiting for whoever that was to catch up," Harry said.

There was an explosive sigh. "You don't know who that was! It could have been anyone! How do you know you just didn't calculate the co-ordinates wrong and then we landed on some poor idiotic bumpkin?"

Harry looked up, but there were no stars, and no light reflected from the sky. "Things like that just don't happen to me," he said, feeling rather grumpy.

"Oh yes, I forgot." There was a rustling noise as Malfoy shifted his position. "Everyone's always trying to kill you, aren't they, seeing as how you're the centre of the universe and all that."

Harry felt stung. "I'm not the centre of the universe," he protested. "And last time they tried to kill you."

"As I recall, it was you that tried to kill me," Malfoy said, and the sheer bitterness of his tone struck Harry with almost physical force. It was beyond anything he had heard from Malfoy in the last month or so, since their confrontation by the lake. He felt his knees tremble, and he sat down sharply.

"I didn't... I wouldn't..." he whispered.

"Give it up, Potter. I was there, remember? I'm not your friend, and I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear, unless you want to hear that you're a deluded arsehole."

Harry closed his eyes, feeling an odd sense of betrayal. "Never mind this now," he muttered. "We've got to get out of here."

"Out of where?" Malfoy's voice rose in pitch, setting Harry's teeth on edge.

"Look, Malfoy, can't you just bloody well do what I say for once and--" he broke off and listened. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

There was the noise of something crashing through undergrowth and a short, barking shout of surprise, and Harry just had time to think that, you idiot, before something hit him hard in the back, and all his muscles suddenly gave up. He toppled forward onto the frozen ground, and lay still.

A moment later, someone grabbed him around the waist and hauled him up, setting him in a sitting position on the grass. Harry saw by the light of his assailant's wand that Malfoy had also been stunned, and was now leaning up against the trunk of a tree. A strange young wizard with a bulbous nose and watery eyes crouched down on his haunches and stared into Harry's face. Harry wanted to look away, even to close his eyes to shut out that unpleasant stare, but he could not.

"So," the wizard said, rubbing his chin. "You're the famous Harry Potter, are you? Thought you'd be..." he looked Harry up and down, "... taller."

Harry's brain scowled, but his face remained immobile. He was able to move his eyes enough to note that they were somewhere in a sparsely wooded area; the trees were huge, hardwood, though there was no way to tell the species as the first branches began well above the sphere of light thrown by the wizard's wand. The frosty grass glittered in the silvery glow, each blade seeming like it had been dipped in crushed glass. Harry, wearing only his indoor robes, began to feel rather cold.

The wizard in front of him looked round sharply: from somewhere nearby came the sound of footsteps crunching through the grass. A second light appeared, and a growling voice came from behind it.

"What're you doing, Applethwaite? Why aren't you at your post?"

The young wizard straightened up. He was very thin, and his robes hung from his narrow shoulders like sacking. "I've got him, Marriott," he said, rocking back on his heels with a triumphant grin on his face as he stared down at Harry. "I've got Potter."

A thick-set wizard emerged into the sphere of Applethwaite's light. He stared at Harry without noticeable emotion, and much as Applethwaite's gaze had made Harry uncomfortable, this man's grey eyes made a cold sweat break out on the back of his neck.

"You sure it's him?" the growling voice asked, and the second wizard -- Marriott -- leaned forward and pushed back Harry's hair to reveal his scar. The skin of Harry's scalp flinched away involuntarily. Marriott straightened. "And who's that?" he jerked his head in the direction of Malfoy, whose immobile face was frozen in an expression of terror.

Applethwaite shrugged. "No idea. Must have both grabbed the Portkey at the same time."

Marriott's expression did not change. "We must let him know."

Applethwaite nodded eagerly. "He'll be pleased."

Marriott shot him a quick glance, and Applethwaite flinched slightly. "It's no more than he was expecting," the heavier wizard said. Then he transferred his gaze to Harry and smiled, and Harry had the terrible sensation of wanting to crawl out of his own skin. "Perhaps he had to wait a little longer than he would have preferred, but the wait is over now."

----

"Right," Hermione said, "I think that's it." She looked up from Harry's sheet of calculations and stole a glance at Ron, but he was staring at the saucer on the table, his face a picture of determination. The saucer had previously held the chipped tea cup that had transported Harry and Malfoy to some unknown destination, and it had just returned to its normal colour after Hermione had performed the spell that changed it into a Portkey. A muscle clenched in Ron's jaw, and he reached out.

"Wait!" said Hermione, and Ron's hand stopped suddenly. "Someone must have changed the book for a reason. What if we're walking into a trap?"

Ron shrugged. "Maybe it's just a different edition."

"But what if it's not?" Hermione insisted.

Ron's expression did not change. "Then we've just got to risk it. Ginny will find Dumbledore or McGonagall and tell them what we've done, but there's no time to wait for her to get back. Harry's in trouble now, and I'm going after him. You can come with me, or not, but don't try and stop me."

Hermione knew that there would be no talking Ron out of his decision, rash as it may be. I hope Ginny finds Professor Dumbledore soon, she thought, and reached for the Portkey.

----

Harry's limbs were beginning to go numb from being stuck in such an awkward position. He swivelled his eyes wildly, trying to see what the two strange wizards were doing, but they were out of his line of sight.

Harry wondered whether he looked as terrified as Malfoy. The other boy's frozen expression was so incongruously comical that Harry suddenly felt the urge to laugh. His muscles wouldn't allow it, of course -- they were still stuck in an attitude of fear -- but somewhere else, somewhere inside his mind, Harry gave up, lay down on the floor and giggled hysterically. Something of what was going on inside must have showed in Harry's face, because suddenly Malfoy rolled his eyes, causing Harry's mental mirth to almost double.

And then something happened that ought to have cut Harry's laughter off at the knees and twisted his stomach into knots of fear. Surprisingly, however, it had a rather different effect – a sort of mental shrug, and a feeling almost of boredom. Somewhere behind him, out of his line of sight, he heard a sibilant voice that was all too familiar. So, he thought, here we go again.

----

"Where are we?"

"Outside."

"Genius. I would have never worked that out."

Hermione rolled her eyes at Ron's sarcasm, though the gesture was somewhat wasted since there was no way he could have seen it in the pitch black. "More to the point," she said, "where are Harry and Draco?" She brushed down her robes where they had been crushed by Ron landing on top of her. Beside her, she heard Ron move, and heard an intake of breath. "Don't!" she said quickly.

"What? Don't what?"

"Don't make a light. At the moment, whoever might be out there has no idea that we're here. That gives us the advantage."

"Funny sort of advantage, being blind as a bat," Ron muttered, but he lowered his arm again.

Hermione thought for a moment. "We should split up," she announced finally. "They could be anywhere out here, and we need to find them before someone else does. You go this way, I'll go that way."

"What way?" Ron asked. "I can't see a thing."

Hermione sighed, and then gave him a push in the right direction. There was a thud and a muffled grunt. "Try not to trip over anything," she added, rather redundantly. Then she turned, and began to make her way as best she could, every nerve tense as she listened hard for anything out of the ordinary.

----

"Turn him to face me," said the voice, and a moment later Harry found himself being gripped roughly under the arms and twisted painfully around. He knew what he would see, of course: the lipless mouth, the sunken red eyes, the pale skin. He knew he ought to have been scared, but instead he felt by turns defiant and resigned. All his visions of this moment had had him struggling, fighting, perhaps dying but at least trying to save himself. And yet, here he was, unable to move even his little finger, and the only gesture of rebellion that he could achieve was to roll his eyes.

"We meet again," said Voldemort, and smiled. The smile was horrible, but Harry found himself thinking enough with the theatrics. Let's just get on with it.

Marriott must have thought the same, because he shifted uneasily from one foot to the other and said, "My Lord, soon they will notice the boy's absence."

"I am well aware of that," Voldemort snarled, and Marriott subsided, looking chastened. "But yes, we have wasted too much time, so much time, the last fifteen years. We will waste no more. Is everything prepared?"

"Yes, Lord," Marriott said. "You have but to say the word."

"Very well," said Voldemort, and smiled again. Then he raised his wand.

----

Hermione felt like she had been stumbling around for hours, though it could really only have been a few minutes. Her eyes strained for light, but the darkness was almost total, and her ears seized greedily on the oddly loud sound of her own feet crunching through the grass to mitigate the sensory deprivation. Until, that was, she thought she heard something else, lower and smoother than the glassy sound of feet on frosty grass, and stopped dead.

There it was again. She turned sharply, trying to orient herself relative to the sound. And then, what she had thought was a faint glow brought about by the desperation of her own eyes shifted slightly and became momentarily brighter. Hermione felt her heartbeat speed up, and she began to walk as fast as she could in the direction of the glow, not trusting herself to run without falling, hoping that whoever was there would be too absorbed in what they were doing to hear the sound of her footsteps, which, as the light grew, seemed to fade to normal volume once more. The low rumbling sound became louder, and was interspersed with a higher-pitched, hissing noise, like a kettle boiling or the wind in the eaves. It wasn't until she was hiding behind a tree and could almost make out the words that she realised what the sound must be, and then her stomach tried to climb up through her throat.

She peered round the trunk of the tree cautiously. She could see two unfamiliar men, and Harry sitting on the grass in an oddly twisted posture, and a tall, gaunt figure swathed in dark robes towering over him and raising his wand, ready to strike.

Time slowed down. Hermione didn't stop to absorb just who she was looking at. An odd sense of calm spread through her every thrumming nerve, and she thought like she had never thought before.

A blocking spell, or a shield.

No, that would only buy Harry a moment's respite before it was broken.

Then a hex.

A hex? Hermione almost laughed. She didn't suffer from false modesty, but she had no illusions about who would come out on top in that particular encounter. Whether it would even prevent the spell was uncertain, but it would certainly reveal her position and render her unable to provide any more help. No, what she needed was something that would send him reeling, for long enough for Harry to make a break for it. And, she suddenly realised, noting Harry's bizarre stillness, long enough for her to release him from a stunning spell.

What spell was there? Hermione noticed that her thoughts were racing faster and faster, while the scene in front of her remained frozen in time. And then she had it, and she smiled.

----

Harry did the only thing he could: he stared straight into Voldemort's red eyes, trying with a simple stare to express all the revulsion and lack of fear that he felt. Then Voldemort said a single word, and light streamed out of the tip of his wand, purple, blue, red, kaleidoscopic light, aimed straight at Harry's head.

But Harry didn't hear what word it was that Voldemort said, because at the moment he said it, two other shouts rang out, and two more beams of light converged with the first right in front of Harry's face. The first beam glowed a violent orange and shot off at an angle, missing Harry's temple by a hair's breadth. Harry hadn't even had time to absorb these events before he heard another shout and felt his congealed limbs dissolve into a puddle of nerveless flesh, and then heard Hermione's voice yelling Run, Harry, run!

And he ran. Leaping up, he forced his rubbery legs to move, not looking back, not looking at anything except the inviting darkness beyond the reach of the silver glow, and, at the last minute, noticing Malfoy crumpled in a heap at the foot of a tree and grabbing his arm, hauling him to his feet with no time for complaints. As he ran, he could feel his mind splitting in two: one half was nothing but pounding feet and gasping breath, manoeuvring him round trees and maintaining his iron grip on Malfoy's arm. The other half, or maybe it was more like a quarter, pointed out that there was no way he was going to outrun Voldemort, that there was nothing he could do, and that he might as well give up. Luckily, the sound of his heart booming in his ears soon drowned it out.

And then the next thing he knew, he was collapsed on the ground in total darkness once more, heaving and panting. And he was alive. At least, he was pretty sure he was. He didn't think he'd be out of breath if he was dead.

"Harry, are you here?" came a soft voice. It was Hermione. Harry made a kind of strangled grunt, which was the best he could manage. A moment later, a very faint light spread over his face, and he realised his eyes were open. He blinked a couple of times.

"What..." he swallowed hard, trying to breathe evenly. "What happened?" He struggled into a sitting position just in time to see Hermione shake her head.

"I'm not sure," she said. "Are you all right?"

Harry pondered the question. He was, as he had already noted, alive. Not only that, his breathing was gradually coming back to normal, although it felt like his heart was never going to slow down. His legs and arms had pins and needles, but the legs at least seemed to have managed to carry him a fair way, so they must be OK.

"Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah, I think I am. How about you, Malfoy?"

Just then there was a crashing sound a short distance away. Hermione tensed up, and Harry instinctively reached for his wand only to remember that it was still in the common room.

"Nox," whispered Hermione, and they were plunged into darkness. They heard the sound of someone coming closer quickly, and then whoever it was stumbled over something and fell to the ground, letting out a swear-word that would have made a sailor blush.

Harry sighed with relief. "Ron," he said. "Am I glad to – hear you."

"Are they following you?" Hermione asked anxiously.

"Nah," came Ron's voice in the darkness. "I dunno what happened, but they all just pissed off somewhere. Would you mind turning the lights on? I think my wand's had it."

"Lumos," said Hermione, and Harry was suddenly greeted with the image of his best friend grinning widely.

"We showed them, right?"

"I spose so," Harry said, feeling confused. "But what did you do?"

"Well," Ron started, but Hermione broke in.

"Draco, are you all right?"

Harry turned quickly. Malfoy was lying on his back on the ground, staring upwards. He didn't move or respond to Hermione's question in any way. Harry struggled to his feet, and took a couple of wobbly steps. "Malfoy? You OK?"

Malfoy still didn't answer, but lay perfectly still. Harry waved a hand in front of his eyes, but there was no response. "Malfoy!" he grabbed hold of the other boy's shoulder and shook it.

Suddenly, Malfoy turned to stare straight at Harry. "Watch it, Potter," he said sharply. "I just had these robes cleaned."

Ron snorted. "Have you seen yourself, mate?" he asked. "I think maybe you need to do them again anyway."

Malfoy sat up and looked down at his robes. Like Harry's they were crumpled, torn, and covered in stains. "Adversity is no reason to drop one's standards," he said shortly, and clambered to his feet. "This way." And he stalked off into the darkness.

Harry exchanged a confused and exasperated look with Hermione, and then the three of them hurried after him. "Malfoy," Harry said, grabbing hold of the sleeve of his robes, "where are you going?"

Malfoy stopped dead. "I am going back to the school," he said, deftly removing Harry's fingers from his sleeve. "The entrance to the grounds is just over there. I recognise these trees."

He was about to turn and march off, but Harry grabbed him again. "Are you sure you feel all right?" he asked.

Malfoy looked straight at him again, and barked out a short laugh. Harry had a sudden, unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"All right? I feel... exalted," Malfoy said, and his eyes glittered in the light from Hermione's wand as he turned.

Harry and Ron fell in behind the other two as they walked in the direction of what Harry, too, was beginning to recognise as the gates of Hogwarts. "Why does that not make me feel better?" muttered Ron.