Disclaimer: I enjoy writing disclaimers, and this one had it coming for ages, as the most faithful of you readers must know full well. None of this you recognise from JKR's works belongs to me, sadly. The original characters, settings, and storyline are mine, and I swear upon crossed heart that I'm not copying off any other fics or anything else. Which means roughly that, if someone recognises anything that may have come up in another fic or book, the similarities are purely coincidental and by no means created on purpose. That said, all I can add is that I'M SORRY EVERYONE I'M A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE AUTHOR WHO LET REAL LIFE INTERFERE WITH MY FIC AND THERE'S NO VALID EXCUSE WHATSOEVER I COULD GIVE YOU ALL AND THIS IS UNFORGIVABLE EXCEPT FOR THE FACT THAT I HAVEN'T REALLY STOPPED WRITING FOR ALL THIS TIME, AND HBP WAS LESS WHAT I EXPECTED AND...and I reckon I should stop shouting at you all.
bows deeply Once again, my most heartfelt of apologies, I hope that this chapter lives up to your expectations, it's been written at least six times over, and they were all utter pure rubbish, but version 7.0 is the one that comes closest to something I like, so I decided to post it up.
DEDICATIONS: This one has also grown over the months. To everyone who poked at some point for updates, everyone actually reading this chapter, to Japonica, for being such a friend even if I never made it to her town in the UK, to Mr. John Apple, hope you got better! MJ, keep up the uni life, Galactic Horizon, many hugs, to Jan AQ who helped me get over writer's block, and last but not least, to Shayde who helped me with a very Sirius issue and who got her brain fried about this story too many times to count, and who is actually reading it now.
WARNINGS: HBP (aka Harry Potter book 6) Spoilers galore. If you haven't read the book, I can't really blame you, you won't notice major spoilers anyhow. If you have, then no worries, you'll recognise a few elements from canon manual vol. 6.
Chapter Sixteen – The State of Things
"He was hit by a Killing Curse!"
"He deflected it," said Dumbledore at once, hands closed around a glass of Firewhiskey.
"Oh, and now you fancy yourself the leading expert on how that curse works?" Andromeda's voice carried, clear and biting, across the sitting room in the Dursley household.
"Harry is a unique case," she went on angrily, "he's the only one who has ever survived it, and you think that is enough to declare it as fact? If you think that's what happened without further proof, you are stupider than I thought."
"We are only—"
"You are speculating, headmaster. You have been doing so for years, and somewhere along the way, your assumptions, which lack the customary proof to back them up, I might add, became cold, hard fact?" Flashing, icy grey eyes met with dull blue, untwinkling for once. Dumbledore looked old and bent, but he did not avert his eyes.
"Andromeda, I—" He did not get to finish.
"Your mistakes have cost too many lives already, Dumbledore. I don't know what your grand design for our future is— whatever it is, it can't be good, in my experience at least— but just open your eyes! This kid is not merely unwell. Something happened to him that has my diagnostics running haywire, and my word— I shall be fully informed, and if I have to force-feed you Veritaserum." She crossed her arms over her chest, mouth a thin line, jaw set, her glare scorching through narrowed eyes.
Remus Lupin found himself recognising the same – thankfully rarely seen – signs that had been a warning, in a happier past, to run as far as possible from Sirius and make for the nearest shelter.
For a fleeting moment, he felt grateful for not being the focus of the Black Anger, but then he swallowed back the pang of nostalgia that told him, in no uncertain terms, that he would not have the need to run far and away from his friend's wrath ever again. He gave himself a shake. They had other things to concentrate on at the moment.
There was no time for the dead when the living were in danger.
Now Andromeda, on the other hand, was entirely too close to him, Remus remembered suddenly. She had always been less explosive, to be sure, but no less dangerous. The heavy tension in the air was proof enough of that.
Dumbledore seemed to be thinking along the same lines, and the older Order members present all raised silent thanks to the heavens when he began to speak.
Five minutes later, Andromeda Tonks still failed to look appeased at all.
"He was hit by a purple curse." She did not bother to hide her scepticism.
"Well, it was purplish..." Dumbledore specified, uncharacteristically timid. Then again, anyone would be humbled by Andromeda's formidable temper.
The Healer hummed, considering this new piece of information that only made the puzzle that was Harry Potter more complex. "Maybe the Multiple Slashing Curse?" Her tone, everyone present noted, was no longer angry, but thoughtful.
"That curse hasn't been seen since..." Mad-Eye threw in, trailing off with a growl.
"So? It is possible, but there is not a single mark on him..." Andromeda mumbled. "If he doesn't wake up soon, we won't be able to know for certain."
All eyes wandered to the unconscious boy on the sofa.
"What we do know is that he took a series of potions in that tent, but we have no idea as to which ones he took, is that correct?" Mad-Eye growled from his assigned corner.
"Nor the doses, order, and number of intakes." Andromeda sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose tiredly. "Lupin, you're supposed to be good at this, help me out here."
Remus' voice caught in his throat for a split second at the sudden address, and he shook his head. "I'm not good at potions," he said apologetically. "Never was."
"But if he's anything like James and..." she closed her eyes briefly. "You know how they were. They'd just take something to get themselves up and going again and carry on. You should have seen how much trouble they gave me. We never knew what we were faced with every time they were carted to St. Mungo's. All symptoms, masked at best, whenever they got their hands on a healing potion or other..."
Remus smiled tightly.
"Let's think for a bit," Andromeda tapped her chin in a businesslike manner. "This is Harry Potter we're talking about. He was hit by a curse that has Rasmus Thanatovich written all over it, so he used a bunch of potions to heal himself, and these in turn were provided by none other than Sirius..."
"Harry has no idea of the use of most healing potions, so he might have gone for a general effect..." Remus ventured, receiving a nod in response.
"Pain numbing potions, then. What else?"
"Maybe a blood-clotting potion, to stem the bleeding?"
"Good thinking. Perhaps I should add Scarring Solution to the list?"
"No-one in their right minds would use that," Remus said at once.
"But he might have."
"Dudley," Remus said suddenly, clapping a hand to his forehead.
"What's a dudley?" Andromeda asked at once, frowning. That potion wasn't on her mental list at all.
"The cousin, he might know." Five pairs of eyes turned to rest on the youngest Dursley, who was trying, quite ineffectually, to vanish into thin air from his position on the largest sofa.
"Meepsqueakgibber," Dudley managed, cowering from the weirdoes approaching him. The black-haired woman eyed him critically for a moment.
"I need a word with you, kid."
"I told you, Lupin. This has the classic Potter signature on it. Look at this list, for crying out loud. Blood-clotting Bevvy, Alertness Ale, SkeleFix, Ache-Away, Gunmore's Gash Gelatin... that's not even in the market anymore. PepperUp Potion, for goodness sakes! And that ball of fat said the mixture he made tasted like grapes! Is he suicidal or what?" Andromeda sounded completely at a loss what to make of it.
"Either that, or really inventive—er, daring." Remus hurried up the stairs, levitating Harry in front of him to his bedroom.
Healer Tonks gave a disbelieving snort.
"Try ignorant." She followed him into the small chamber, where she waited at the doorstep while Remus placed Harry on his bed. "And there's that killing curse to add to the mix, not to mention the flashes or visions or whatever he's been having. Those could be the reason for his collapse."
"Well, if he did not rest..."
"We'll assume he took something to stay awake, the blob said he didn't see him sleep much." She waved her wand a few times, and an armchair appeared out of thin air. "Stress, exhaustion, magical drain." Andromeda said softly. She shook her head, bending over her patient. "He doesn't go for a half-arsed job, does he?"
Lupin shook his head ruefully, sinking into the armchair. His eyes were fixed on Harry's pale, still unconscious form.
"Never once." He buried his face in his hands, muffling his next words. "Whatever are we going to do?"
"Some package Sirius left you, eh?" Andromeda asked, making Harry comfortable in the rickety bed.
Remus looked up, aghast.
"I... I doubt he would have wanted me to..." He said, shaking his head.
"Remus, listen to me. This boy needs you, and he needs you now."
"But I'm hardly qualified to—" Andromeda's laugh made him stop short. It was a rich, contagious sound, yet not out of place despite the darkness of the moment.
"Don't be silly. We all thought Lily and James were completely out of their minds when they chose none other than Sirius to be Harry's protector, and he turned out to be quite a decent choice, if I remember correctly. Despite him being, well... him." She paused for a moment to rummage in her bag. "There is no such thing as being qualified to support anyone, you ought to know better than me." Upon seeing her old friend's expression of disbelief, she muttered something about eleven-year-olds and werewolves living together under her breath.
"I heard that."
"That was the general idea," she replied primly. "No, hear me out. You don't have to play daddy here, from all I've heard, that's the last thing he'd want," she added, gesturing at Harry. "But there's the matter of what he needs, and he needs protection."
Remus, however, had a different view on the matter.
"Everyone else is—" he started, but once more he was interrupted.
"He needs support, care and someone he can trust, not just some paranoid, arse-about-head Death Eater killing squad that doesn't seem able to guard a concussed pixie without bollixing things up."
Remus did his best to ignore how much alike Sirius and Andromeda had been. He had, of course, heard quite similar reasonings before, and he tried the same path he had tried with Sirius back then.
"But Dumbledore—" Not that it had worked then, and it certainly would not yield any results now, to judge by her forceful reply.
"Dumbledore was your excuse fourteen years ago. It was my excuse as well. Will you leave him stranded again?"
"Andie..." Now Remus' tone was pleading.
"They say that every boy needs a mentor to aid him in his life. This man is not it."
"I can't... I'm a were—" he protested, receiving a headshake in response.
"I know full well what you are, and it hasn't had any importance before, not to the people who matter. Why should it stop you now?"
Remus did not reply at once. He looked out the window onto the dark street below, swallowing dryly a few times, the soft ruffling noises of Andromeda transfiguring the bed into something more fitting for her work in his ears.
"I could never replace Sirius, Andie." His voice was a mere whisper, full of emotion that was not lost on his companion.
"I'm not asking you to. Nobody could ever replace Sirius, or James, or Lily. But you'll have to try, in some aspects, before he does a Sirius on you."
"What do you mean?" Remus turned around to face her. "You think he'd...? No, Harry would never—"
"Run away? Probably not. But he, like Sirius, could force you out of his life, you and everyone else he knows."
Remus felt his mouth run dry.
"How do you know that?"
"I was his cousin and I'm a mother as well, you know? Not just the 'healer from hell'." Andromeda smiled wryly. "And, although she might not act the part at times, Nymphadora is no longer a teenager."
"But Molly is always..."
"Don't walk away on him. Not again. That's all I'm saying." She turned to Harry once more, indicating the discussion was over. "Now hand me the potions and let's see if we can get him out of this mess."
The first thing he noticed was the smell.
It was fresh and flowery, a tad too strong, as was usual with Aunt Petunia's cleaning agents. But there was a rather pungent undertone of antiseptic and healing potions in the air that reminded him of the Hogwarts Hospital Wing.
The second thing he noticed, as he slowly moved his head to a side, was the softness of the pillow it was resting on. And how heavy his head felt, in comparison to the relative weightless numbness of the rest of him.
"Finally," a voice said from somewhere to his left. "I thought you'd sleep forever."
Harry turned his head towards the voice and blinked blearily. All he could see in the darkness was the wall of his bedroom, against which the bed stood. He raised a hand to his face to rub his dry eyes and immediately regretted it; every one of his nerve endings seemed to have been polished with sandpaper.
What had happened now?
He made a low, indistinct noise in the back of his throat, something between a groan and the sound a wounded mooncalf would make. The intended meaning was not lost on his visitor, however, who smiled slightly upon making eye contact.
"Hello," he said.
Harry's breath caught in his chest for a moment, and if he had had the energy, he would likely have gaped.
"Andie couldn't heal you without cancelling the effects of all the potions you took and the salves you used," Sirius explained gently. He was perched at the foot of the bed, leaning against the wall, one elbow resting on one knee and his other foot dangling off the edge of the bed, while he played with a pair of red and blue stone spheres and regarded Harry with concern underlining his every feature, even though he was smiling. "She was really scared, let me tell you. The only time I ever saw her looking like that, James had—"
"B... but I feel..." Harry interrupted weakly, with a feeble and very ineffective attempt to raise his head that made him bite back a yelp. Everything was fuzzy and muddled; his eyes were not cooperating, and his head felt like Dudley had sat on it. Or used it for boxing training. And when he moved... Merlin's balls—it was to Harry as if he had been in the middle of an Erumpent stampede. Or a DA target practice. "...fine..." he finished his protest in little more than a feeble whisper.
"Harry, always let Dr. Feelgood do her job. She's as good as they come." Sirius advised gently, eliciting a snort from Harry, immediately followed by a sharp intake of breath and a shaky "Aah."
"What happened?" Harry tried again after a few moments, once the stinging jabs of pain in his chest subsided. "I... I felt fine..."
"Before you passed out, I presume," Sirius replied, pointing at something in the region of Harry's chest.
Upon lifting his right arm and head, Harry saw a leather band had been strapped to his other forearm. It was constantly flashing odd-looking, runelike symbols in different colours; red, hues of orange, blue, yellow. He slumped against his pillow, feeling the odd numbness and detachment washing over him again, and let his eyes drift closed.
"What's...?" he half-mouthed, cutting a grimace at the bitter, foul taste in his mouth, which he correctly recognised as bile.
"Andie's Monitor Band of Doom," Sirius replied at once, leaning forward to examine it. "I can't believe she still has it."
"Whatsits...?" Harry enquired eloquently. Sirius got the message, however.
"It helps keep you alive," he said after a moment. "At least, that's what I remember it does. Flashes a different colour depending on how you're doing, too." He paused again. "Reds and oranges are not good but blues are good, if my memory doesn't fail me."
Harry let this new piece of information wash over him. He was not in the mood to question Sirius' presence, or give in to that subtle nagging in the back of his head that told him there was something he desperately needed to tell his godfather, or to that not-so-subtle churning in his innards that was trying to remind him of another, much more pressing, ever so confusing subject he did not want to know a thing about.
He just wanted to lie there in his warm bed forever, listening to Sirius speaking; having him there was reassuring, calming.
"You were dying, Harry," Sirius murmured softly. "Scared everyone half to death."
Then again, maybe not.
Harry felt he was pretty bashed up, but not as if he were dying. Sirius was clearly exaggerating.
"...Wasn't." He argued back. Tried to, at any rate.
"You were," said Sirius calmly.
"'S not..." A part of him believed he would get his point across much better if his words didn't come out so slurred.
"Were too." The reply was punctuated with a chuckle.
"No..." Harry cracked an eye open and tried to glare at Sirius. Needless to say, all he managed was a rather pitiful, bleary squint.
"Yes, you were," Sirius insisted, pointing at the bright red glow on the armband. "You still are."
"Why...why are we...?" Harry slurred, furrowing his brow.
"...Having this argument?" Sirius finished for him. "I don't know," he added, running a hand through his hair with a sad smile. "Force of habit?" he offered, and Harry had to resist the urge to laugh; it hurt.
A muffled noise came from Harry's right side, and he stiffened at once.
"Did you hear...?" Harry craned his head towards the noise.
Sirius merely nodded, his expression suddenly much more sombre. He gestured at the figure by Harry's bedside, who was sleeping in an armchair in a quite cramped and uncomfortable-looking position. Upon noticing Harry still had trouble making out shapes and was beginning to shift uncomfortably, he clarified.
"...Oh." Harry relaxed at once.
"He looks worse than ever." Sirius' statement hung in the air, and it brought a guilty writhing of Harry's insides with it which the latter did not want to dissect at the moment. He felt the pressing need to apologise for... something. Something important.
"'S my fault..." Harry slurred against his pillow. His skull was throbbing hotly, and, although his response came automatically, Harry had the distinct feeling it was true.
"No." Sirius heaved a great sigh that was much more reminiscent of the Sirius Harry remembered. "No, it's not your fault." Sirius leaned forward to peer at his old friend, but Lupin merely sniffed and slept on.
"Harry, drop it." Sirius' tone was gentle, but held no space for arguments. "Take care of him, all right? He needs you."
"I will." Harry's eyelids drooped, and he let them.
"You ought to get some sleep," Sirius said quietly after a few long moments.
"Stay..." Harry whispered, wincing when he shifted his position a little.
Harry cracked a tiny smile.
"Not funny," he mumbled sleepily.
"Then why are you laughing?"
With these words, Harry drifted off to sleep, his godfather's chuckles in his ears.
When Harry woke again, he thought he saw a large black dog curled up at the foot of his bed, but when he blinked, it was gone.
Had it been a dream? Mere wishful thinking on his part?
He had no answer to these questions; part of him, that insidious bit of consciousness he fought so hard to ignore and which was gaining ground despite his efforts, which always reared its ugly head with the nastiest of truths, well, for once that part did not want to know the answers to these questions either.
Harry found he was perfectly fine with that.
0600hrs, July 24 his watch flashed at him.
He leaned against the vault-like wall of the chamber, closing his stinging eyes for a moment. His watch most helpfully informed him it was time for breakfast and feeding the horses, and that he desperately needed a shower – "You reek," it announced in a flashing script.
Instead of doing any of the things he would have done any other day, Connor McAlpin slid slowly to the floor. His eyelids felt like lead. So did his arms, and for that matter, his legs as well.
That's the problem with feeling safe, he mused, throwing his head back against the wall and resting his arms on his knees, which he held pressed close to his chest. Once you know you're a tad safe, your body catches up with you, and makes you feel everything again, all at once. This is bloody annoying, really, not to mention quite useless, as you'll tire faster if you have to make a break for it again.
He turned his throbbing head stiffly towards the bed, where the other was finally getting some well-deserved rest underneath the – now very much clean and dry – cloaks he had used as blankets, and suppressed a groan.
Chris was fast asleep, his chest rising and falling steadily. Connor, on the other hand, had no such luck. He was stiff and sore, tired enough to sleep for a week without waking, and yet he had not managed to bat an eyelid all night. He smiled grimly at the sight of his brother, yet not without a small measure of satisfaction; he had managed to clean the wounds and stop the bleeding on Chris' chest almost expertly. There would be a scar, to be sure, but the other wasn't dying anymore, was he?
Nope, that is one thing he's not...
He gave a half-shrug. Maybe someone would be able to erase it or something, when—or rather, if—he managed to get them both out of this mess alive. London was over 600 miles south still.
His heart sank. How could he pull that off? How could anyone, especially under these conditions?
Had Chris been unhurt, they might fly to London.
We don't have any brooms, no horses, Gramps burned that hideous flying carpet two years ago... He closed his eyes briefly, heaving a sigh. Using the Floo would have been the obvious choice, but the house had been blown to smithereens. Even if, by force of some miracle, he managed to find a working fireplace, their chances of finding the jar of Floo powder his auntie had kept in the kitchen were below zero. Especially if she was still around, waiting for them to do just that.
Connor shivered and drew his robes close around him, sighing in exasperation as he realised they were still mucky and dripping. He'd forgotten to dry them – for someone who'd been trained all his life to survive a war, he was most certainly messing up royally.
Well, he just had to—what was it the Professor called it?
"Oh right, 'constant vigilance'. Yeah, that." His voice echoed off the walls, receiving no response save for the soft rustling from Chris' bed. "'Always keep a clear head, hot feet and a ready wand in a steady hand.'" He sing-songed it at midvoice, as a mantra he'd used so many times before. He knew the rules full well, had learned them by heart, had practiced the spells until he'd felt he would be able to rattle them off at any time. Not that any of this was of any use at the moment.
Because at the moment he had a foggy brain that refused to work at all costs, cold feet – and cold arms, and cold everything else, and he was shaking so badly he'd already dropped his wand twice.
Connor let out a humourless snort. Theory and practice were clearly rather different from each other.
Once that has been established...
He cast a drying charm on his robes and a warming charm for good measure, and sat cross-legged on the floor to try and figure out what to do next. Sleep was out of the question, no matter how badly he wanted to do just that. He had been tossing and turning around for hours after all. Trouble was, his brain seemed to have gotten stuck on that thought.
Sleep... warm... featherbed...No.
We need to get out of here. What did Gramps tell us about getting out of a fix?
Oh, right... the steps. Okay then, step one... Location: Not a clue. Somewhere below ground level. Way below. Way below ground level. He gave a throaty chuckle. He could just about picture his Gramps' and his Professor's stern, reprimanding stares at his current assessment. Insufficient, they'd call it, then tell him off for fooling around and request he start over.
Since neither are here, however...
Now step two... Destination: London. No, scratch that. Destination: out of here. There, that's better. Now... step three... Method...
"Method, dammit, method." he growled in frustration, banging the back of his head hard against the stone pillar. Not that this particular course of action helped enlighten him at all. How in the seven circles of hell could he get them out of this tunnel alive, never mind to London?
He didn't know where they were, where to go, or how to go on about it. Bloody brilliant plan, that. Connor, you're a sodding genius.
All he knew was that he was cold and tired and sore, that his stomach only had stopped wringing itself into knots because it could not go any tighter, and that he had to include an uncon—here he glanced over to the bed for a second, amended his train of thought— an at best semi-conscious person in any plan he came up with.
He knew he had to come up with something, knew what he wanted nobody could give him. He knew he wanted his Gramps back, stern unbeatable, always ahead of things, always knowing what to do. He also knew his Gramps was gone and would be of no help. And he knew that, unless he gave their escape a whirl, Chris would die too. And he knew he would try, if he didn't feel so small and lost and helpless and guilty and in pain.
"That's an awful lot you know," he muttered, shaking himself to focus on the matter at hand. "No time for that," he told himself sternly, through gritted teeth. "Now," he stood up and turned to address the ceiling, his voice cracked and strained. "Whatever rubbish they taught you aside, what do you know?"
Not much, really.
"Lumos. Best find out where we have to get out of first." Holding his lit wand aloft, he opened the door and stepped out into the dimly-lit passageway he had come down earlier. "Be right back, Chris," he said over his shoulder, before closing the door behind him.
The beam of his wand flickered over rough walls, his footfall almost unheard on the dusty floor. The silence was oppressive, but the least Connor wanted at the moment was some noise to disturb it; he felt as if he were walking in a graveyard, exploring a mausoleum long abandoned where he did not belong. Given half the chance he would have gladly turned back, but retracing his steps offered no solution to his problems. The only exit lay ahead, into the unknown darkness of the tunnel.
He could try and leave the same way he had come in, certainly. And then what? Inverarray had been taken by the Dark Side, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that it was crawling with dangers he wasn't prepared for. Particularly not when Chris was lying, half dead, in that side chamber.
He quickened his pace, scolding himself for the hammering in his chest, the slight trembling of his hand. Who was he fooling? He was terrified of what could possibly be awaiting him at the end of the tunnel, of disturbing the age-long slumber of whatever had been left behind here. Each wary, careful step lifted the layer of dust on the flagstones, sending chills down his spine, filling the air with the tingling of old magic. Yet the air remained clear, the temperature warm enough for him not to huddle in his cloak. If it hadn't been so creepy down here, it would have felt almost welcoming.
The tunnel was smooth, and the walls though rough, held not a crack. There were no side passages or doors, save for the scattered pillars here and there which seemed to have no purpose at all. It was against one of such pillars Connor took a brief rest, head pounding fit to burst. He'd done a lousy job patching himself up, and his every movement was slow and painful. It was Chris who did best at healing... and at everything else he set his mind to. That was how things had always been, and Connor was comfortable with that. The only thing he'd always excelled at had been getting them both into trouble, really.
Just like now.
With a low grunt he raffled himself up, holding briefly onto the pillar and gripping his wand tightly. This time however, he vowed, he'd get them both out of it.
Whatever it took.
He'd been standing at the foot of the steps that brought the tunnel to an end and led to a heavy ebony door for what felt an eternity, tired eyes wandering over every bolt, every inch of wood, trying to discern whether it was cursed or not. On any other day, he'd have hesitated not a moment, but today was as uncommon as could be, and he wasn't entirely daft. He racked his brains for a revealing spell and came up empty. At length, more put out by the fact that nothing was happening at all than by the possible dangers lying at the other side, Connor climbed the stone steps and reached for the latch.
A warm tingling sensation, much like the one he had experienced before, swept over him. The doorway suddenly gave off a golden glow as the ward activated—only to disappear moments later as it swung open with a loud, chilling creak.
Connor let out a surprised, half relieved chuckle, which died abruptly as he reminded himself of his task and peered beyond the doorway into the darkened room ahead.
The musty, mouldy smell of a long abandoned basement reached his nostrils, and he suppressed a cough as the dust swirled up into the air. Suddenly widely alert, he crossed the threshold warily, holding the tip of his lit wand just high enough to see what lay ahead.
The beam of his wand fell on some armchairs and low tables set around a central fireplace, piles of old yellowing newspapers, rags... He was standing in what looked like a sitting room, except for the fact that it was clearly underground: the grey stones of the wall were bare except for a few bookshelves, and there were no windows.
Connor frowned, started picking his way across the room. Someone had lived here, that much was clear to him. Someone who hadn't placed much interest in tidying up after themselves, if the bones of small animals and the large grey feathers scattered here and there on the floor were of any indication. A few pots and dishes had been piled on a table, a heap of rags and torn, dirty robes had been pushed underneath. This someone had definitely been a slob.
That same someone had left the fireplace well stocked, suggesting an intention to return, perhaps, but whoever it was had never come back. It hadn't been a muggle, either; the newspapers were Daily Prophets, all dated 1993 and mostly concerned with the capture of a certain Sirius Black.
'Sirius Black Sighted in Cornwall – Ministry of Magic Confident in Capture' was the most recent headline he could find, complete with the customary picture of the infamous mass-murderer blinking at the reader, which Connor didn't even bother to look at. With a scoff, he tossed the Daily Prophet aside and continued exploring the room, which linked to another chamber through a stone archway. There wasn't much to be seen in the second room, which had the look and old smell of an abandoned stable, except for another set of stairs and a door which, after some struggling, turned out to open to the outdoors.
Momentarily blinded, Connor stood in the doorway for a few moments, relishing the freshness of the air after so long underground and blinking stupidly at the bright sunshine pouring in from outside.
Once his eyes had grown accustomed to the bright morning light, however, he could do nothing except gape. He was standing amidst the ruins of an old manor house that had once overlooked the North Sea and the lands around, and which gave Ruin Hill its name. The door he had just come through was fitted on a solitary archway, one of the three remaining standing ones in the place, and had always been closed in the past. He and Chris had played here quite often before, and called that arch the door that led to nowhere.
"I'll be—" He walked around the stone arch that held the door, and found only the usual sight of overgrown marble floors and caved-in roof. An eyebrow shot up in appreciation. Hiding that basement was a nice bit of magic, really.
He looked around, and caught the familiar sight of Inverarray miles ahead to the South, still shrouded in impenetrable fog. His heart sank. He might have found a way out of the tunnel, but they were, if possible, even farther away from safety. Shuddering in the icy cold wind that came from the North, Connor climbed on a heap of rubble to have a look eastwards.
The Dark Mark hovered in the sky above the remains of the place he had once called home, the skull grinning mockingly at him almost level with his eyes, a sneering mark of victory shrouded in a cloud of black smoke that rose from what once had been the manor. Connor looked down, feeling small and helpless.
Wherever he looked though, there was no comfort in the sight. From Ruin Hill, he could see the DalRiada valley from above, which had once been helpful in spotting Gramps returning home from some outing. The stables had been destroyed, the fields burnt, the outer wall reduced to rubble, the inner buildings blasted apart, the ancient battlements broken. It made his heart ache, but he couldn't look away.
"At least now I know where we are," he muttered at the wind, swallowing back the knot in his throat. There was no comfort in the words, either. What could he do? How to get Chris to London?
All he had in his pocket was a bag half-full of chocolate frogs, a crumpled-up letter and an order he had no idea how to fulfil. He sank onto a rock and stared absently at the smoking ruins of his home, as if that could provide the answers he was looking for.
Suddenly he sat bolt upright—something had caught his eye as the smoke blew to one side. He squinted against the swirling smoke and noticed that the manor hadn't been completely blown apart. A few parts seemed to be still standing, and perhaps... perhaps, with much luck, he would find something that would help them.
Gramps had kept Floo Powder in his office, and maybe there was a fireplace that still was in working conditions there...
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. He had to go back. But he had to get Chris first, they could camp out in that basement room... a few cleaning spells would take care of the dirt, and they could get that fireplace going, too, Chris could use some fresh air anyway.
With that thought and without another glance at the house, he leapt to his feet and disappeared into the basement again, closing the door securely behind him. He never saw the robed figures that left the house and walked across the yard, but hurried back down the tunnel, a plan forming in his mind.
"Welcome back amongst the living."
Harry blinked weakly, squinting at the early morning light pouring in through his window.
"Hi," he said after a while, his eyes slowly focusing on the green-robed woman taking his pulse.
"How are you feeling?" the question was asked in the customary, businesslike manner he supposed all Healers and doctors used.
"Hurts," he mumbled after a few moments' insight. His answer made the Healer smile.
"Anything else apart from that?" she asked kindly.
"Dunno." He racked his brains for a word that would help him along. "Dizzy."
While Andromeda ran her tests, mumbling to herself and occasionally asking Harry to perform certain movements, Harry struggled to wake fully.
"'M sorry for..."
"Threatening me? Cough for me, please."
"For trying to blow your head off," he clarified, coughing as instructed. It hurt.
"No problem. I expected no less from you." This was not what Harry had expected to hear.
"Well, I used to be your parents' Healer. James never grew out of that particular reaction."
"My dad tried to kill you?" He asked in disbelief.
"Repeatedly," came the matter-of-fact answer. "So did Sirius, and many others. Any self-respecting Hit Wizard or Auror would. Oh no, not try to kill me in particular, but anyone within their field of vision upon regaining consciousness. Back then, trust was a rare commodity. But what am I saying? You seem to be much in the same situation." She eyed him curiously for a moment. "Why didn't you blow my head off?"
"I was... I was going to, but throttling you seemed a better idea."
Healer Tonks chuckled and ruffled his hair.
"You're not mad, then?"
"No. Now try and sit up, I need a look at your back."
As he struggled to move, he realised they were alone in the room. There was no sign of Remus. His eyes fell on the bedside table and the loudly ticking alarm clock he had repaired years before. It was seven in the morning, but of which day?
"How long was I out?" He asked, wincing as she fingered his ribcage.
"All night. It's the twenty-fourth today," Healer Tonks informed, and she was about to say something more when a loud crash made them both jump.
"What was that?" Harry asked, looking around for his wand and glasses. A second later they were both in his hand.
"I—" Healer Tonks said, cutting herself off and striding to the door. "Stay here," she instructed sharply. "I'll go check."
"But—" Harry protested, but the door already had shut behind her.
"Stupid blankets," Harry muttered angrily moments later, wincing as he tried, yet again, to stand. "Gah, let me out of here!" This last was directed, surprisingly, at the furniture. He was heartily sick of being stuck in this bed, comfortable as it was.
And stuck he was, quite literally. He couldn't do much more than sit up, let alone try and leave the bed. He assumed Healer Tonks had had something to do with it, and it did nothing to improve his already foul mood.
Confused shouting reached his ears, trailing through his door from downstairs. Much pounding could be heard too, and he assumed it was one of his uncle Vernon's formidable temper tantrums. He had, after all, grown up hearing that shouting, more often than not directed at him, not to recognise it immediately.
Another, much shriller voice joined in – likely aunt Petunia – constantly cut off by several others, which Harry could only guess were Mrs. Weasley, the Twins, and probably that grunting roar was courtesy of one Mad-Eye Moody, but he couldn't really know for certain.
The babble downstairs rose and fell, coming to him in unintelligible, muffled waves. Healer Tonks had likely tampered with his door as well.
That had sounded like a vase, or maybe even one of those hideous clay ornaments aunt Petunia was so fond of.
That had sounded like aunt Petunia.
Harry listened intently, and sure enough, there was much trampling and shouting next, the noises were considerably closer too... and the floor started shaking. He could feel his bed practically hopping in place with every step his uncle took.
Either this was an earthquake, or uncle Vernon was running up the stairs.
Suddenly there was an almighty STOMP, and the door flew open.
Framed in the doorway like a rabid rhinoceros stood uncle Vernon, spittle covering his moustache, his face a bright, shiny purple. He looked angrier than Harry had ever seen him, and a dark blue vein was throbbing in his forehead.
Harry was long over his fear of his uncle, however, and merely gave him a slightly uninterested look.
"YOU!" uncle Vernon roared loud enough to make Harry's window rattle, pointing one of his sausage-like fingers at his nephew. "YOU-HAVE-SPENT-YOUR-LAST-NIGHT-IN-MY-HOUSE-BOY!"
Before Harry could react, Vernon crossed his room in two strides, hauled him bodily out of the bed, and pinned him against the wall.
"I will be rid of you once and for all, you useless little pile of filth!" he snarled into Harry's ear.
"Dumbledore?" Chris echoed weakly. "Gramps hates Dumbledore, why would he—"
"The Professor is with him, you know." Connor replied stubbornly. "Besides, it wasn't hate—they had a... a disagreement of sorts."
Chris scoffed and winced at this understatement, but said nothing. Connor took the chance to bring his point a notch further.
"Dumbledore won't turn us down, now will he? Even if Gramps and he bloody loathed each other?"
"Well, no..." Chris sounded unconvinced.
"He's definitely no Death Eater, mate... he won't turn us out into the streets, and that is about as much as we can hope for right now." Connor finished bandaging his brother's chest in silence while the other stared at the empty grate. "We can take it from there, once you're cured," he added, trying to sound confident. Chris looked up at him.
"I don't really know." He sighed heavily. "If they could get into DalRiada just like that, they most likely already ransacked or at least heard of the Dover house... and we can't do much of anything at the moment. You're hurt."
"So're you, little brother."
Connor snorted. Only Chris could make such a blatantly obvious statement sound so dignified.
"Yeah... There's that," he conceded, helping his brother into his robes.
"So how are we...?"
"I'll go back home, I think... Gramps' office might still be in one piece. I'll look for some Floo Powder. We'll use the fireplace in that room I found."
"What room?" Chris asked, sounding faintly curious. This was a huge improvement to a mere hour earlier, where he had been little less than unconscious and answering to Connor's every word with groans.
"It's a parlour thing smack at the end of the tunnel. Leads to the ruins of Ruin Hill..." At Chris' questioning look, he elaborated. "Turns out the door that leads to nowhere does lead somewhere after all. Here."
Chris cocked an eyebrow and gave Connor a look that told volumes.
"You think it's connected to the network?" he asked after a while.
"Can't hurt to try it once we have the Floo Powder... At any rate, I'll look for a working fireplace back home too, but I'd rather you didn't move more than you absolutely have to." Connor's tone was nonchalant, but he didn't meet his brother's eyes. Instead, he busied himself with adjusting Chris' boots until he could stall no longer.
"Come on, it's sort of a long way," he said in a would-be cheerful tone that fooled neither of them, and half-heaved the other onto his feet where he was left teetering for a few moments before Connor helped him onto a floating stretcher. "I even cleaned up a bit."
The way was indeed long, particularly since Connor kept stumbling over his feet and needed frequent stops to catch his breath. On the stretcher, Chris kept fiddling with his lit wand and talking non-stop. His favourite game now was twenty thousand questions.
"...So, why did he do that then?" he ended his latest line of questioning with an expectant look at his brother, who leaned his chin against his knees and answered in the same way he had for the past half hour.
"Dunno." There was a silence that stretched for the space of a breath, roughly the amount of time Chris needed to figure out what to ask next.
"Why d'you reckon he didn't just... oh I don't know, portkey us all away?"
"I don't know." He had done his best to help his brother; the continued silence with which his every effort had been faced all night had been unnerving to the extreme, but now it had ended, all Connor wished for were five minutes of peace.
Chris went on, undeterred. "He could have, but instead he stayed. You said yourself he knew someone was breaking down the wards, didn't you? He could have kept a portkey ready for when the Death Eaters' wards were broken, and just... dunno, activated it. He could've left with us then, and he'd be all right, wouldn't he?"
"I don't know, mate."
Chris swallowed, fell silent for a few moments. Connor picked himself up from the dusty floor and resumed his march down the tunnel, wiping sweat from his face. Keeping the stretcher in midair was taxing enough without having to rack his brains about why Gramps had done or not done something during the attack.
"Why did he chose to fight, Connor?"
"I... don't know."
"How hard is it to make a portkey anyway? I mean—"
"I don't know!"
"Well, I don't either."
"As things stand, My Lord and Master, we could venture to call the project an overall success," Rasmus said, levitating a goblet to his hand with a flourish and thereby disproving the rumour that the Death Eaters were bereft of any comforts when in the Dark Lord's presence.
There was no cowering on cold stone floors, no unforgivable curses thrown left and right. The robes of everyone present were impeccable, the wine exquisite and the food delicious. Certainly, the cowering and uncomfortable grovelling did happen, just not every day. This meeting was of the utmost importance, for the innermost circle had suffered losses amongst their ranks in the last raid, and the different projects needed to be evaluated. Meetings such as this were reserved for great halls and fine dining, not the dank dark of the dungeon chamber, from where all missions started and were ended.
The Dark Lord nodded once, a canapé in one hand, a tall wine goblet in the other.
"I do believe, My Lord and Master, that whilst the raid on the McAlpin estate was ultimately failed in its original purpose, we have gained a considerable amount of knowledge," here Rasmus paused minutely to glance at his friend, who moved not a jot. "particularly in the regard of what old Angus was hiding." Another pause, longer than the one before.
"In the whole scope, however, we took out one of the most crucial strongholds of the light, we have gathered more cores, and the Clan McAlpin has been dealt a severe blow before they came out into public life again, as they no doubt planned to do."
To Rasmus it was clear what great step forward it had been for them, but he was also certain that not many had thought of the strategic benefit the destruction of Angus McAlpin and his estate would bring for them. If the estate had remained unknown to them, the Light Side would soon operate there and make it one of the main strongholds worldwide. They had disposed of this threat before it was actually brought to use, most effectively disabled the Light Side's northernmost beacon before it was even needed.
"However," Rasmus went on, striding slowly, almost solemnly past the maimed innermost circle, "our side also suffered heavy losses, some of which cause utmost grief to this circle, some of which can be seen as a relief..." Here, his words were greeted with the expected laughter; MacPherson was one of the members of the Death Eater squad nobody would grieve for. "Some of these former members were more useful in death than in life, I can assure you."
"Waste not, want not," The Dark Lord said in a low, self-satisfied hiss.
A second collective chuckle ran across the room, and wineglasses were refilled.
"Yet now our numbers are dwindled, and we all know what this means." Rasmus raised his glass as if in toast. "New faces shall come to the Innermost Circle."
The Dark Lord assented once more, all eyes on him.
"We shall indeed need new faces in the Circle, Rasmus. Five in all, unless my memory fails me." All present nodded, for only a braindead toad – or Rasmus Thanatovich himself – would dare contradict their master.
"May I suggest Severus Snape as first new member, as he has proven himself in battle recently." It wasn't a question, and the Innermost Circle assented as one. Since he had saved the Dark Lord from severe injury if not death during the last raid, Snape had been considered as a new member of the Circle, and now it was only a matter of making it official.
Rasmus smiled coldly. "He shall be informed shortly, My Lord."
The black and silver letter would reach Snape and another four within the next half hour, and the expected responses in the affirmative would arrive before dinner was served. Five places were set at the table for the newcomers, and the final test would be run, plans would be made and set into action, bringing them one step closer to victory and absolute control of the wizarding world.
The shadows were lengthening when the door that led to nowhere opened again. From it emerged a marginally more rested Connor. He'd left Chris dozing in front of the fireplace, after a meal consisting of chocolate frogs and water that had left them both hungrier than before.
Mentally adding food to his growing list, he closed and sealed the door behind him and took off across the remains of Ruin Hill manor, disappearing in the thicket not long afterwards. As he made his way across the familiar woods, he drew his cloak close around him. He'd have to get them both clothes that weren't torn, as well—it was freezing cold.
Sunset was near when he reached the edge of the quiet forest and beheld his old home once again. Smoke still rose from the house, and mist was forming amongst the smouldering remains, shimmering ghostly silver in the twilight. A smell of burning and decay filled his nostrils, and he swallowed. He had often been out late at night, and never had the place looked so ominous or forbidding as it did now.
The air itself sent chills down his spine, as if in warning. He hesitated for a moment before leaving the shelter of the thicket, listening hard. It was deadly quiet around, every corner all but screaming at him to leave—but there was nothing to it, he had to go and see what was salvageable.
Even despite the lack of signs of life, he stole through the outer wall, advancing warily and as silently as a shadow, his wand unlit and at the ready. He lingered for a moment by the gate, eyes wandering over the courtyard... he froze.
For an instant, he had caught a glimpse of movement—a figure moving around the ruined kitchen. When he looked again, he saw nothing. Maybe... a trick of the light? He stood flat against the wall, staring into the growing darkness, trying to make out any movement for what felt hours.
Could it be the Death Eaters were still there? Had someone survived the attack?
With a last, steadying breath, he crept towards the house, eyes and ears peeled for any sign of warning. He slipped in through the shattered window of the sitting room, where he was met by fumes and heaps of rubble. He picked his way slowly and warily across furniture, clothes, books—all burnt, torn, scattered by the wind.
The familiar halls and corridors were no more, tapestries that had hung on the walls now were torn to pieces, old passages laid bare, the ceilings caved in. So was the main staircase. He had been right, however: the upper level was still partly whole. He tried to reach a stone stair that went through the back of the kitchen, but the way was blocked. Darkness was growing, and with it the feeling of being watched.
Gritting his teeth and throwing caution to the winds, Connor returned to the remains of the grand staircase and started climbing. He just wanted to find the Floo Powder and get out of there as soon as possible. The stairs creaked loudly under his weight, but he paid them no heed; the upper part had been blasted apart, but if he jumped and held onto the railing on the upper level, he just might reach his Gramps' office. Now if only the staircase held his weight for a little longer...
Trying not to lose his balance, Connor reached the last step and took a leap as high as he could, his hand closing around the wooden railings even as the staircase crumpled and fell apart under his flailing legs with a loud crash. All it took was a heave—and he was crouching at the middle of the hallway that linked most of the main rooms in the upper level, even as a cloud of dust rose behind him.
Without a glance backwards at the gaping hole where the stairs had once been, he hurried to his left, past the library and into the office. It looked much like he remembered, except the window had been blasted to bits; but all he cared for at the moment was the heavy oak desk.
It took a few strides to reach it, a few practiced taps of his wand to open the various drawers to rummage through their contents, which under any other circumstances would have held his interest far longer than they did now. Instead, he stuffed coins, small boxes, whatever looked remotely useful into his robes pockets, feeling like a common thief and yet unable to find the one thing that could mean safety for him and Chris.
"Come onnn, where are you?" he muttered, fingers flying frantically over quills and ink bottles, blotting paper, parchment, discarding items by touch alone.
It was almost completely dark when he opened the last drawer, heart hammering in his ears, sweat trickling down his neck and splattering onto the polished wood.
A shuffling sound, like something heavy being dragged along the floor, made him look up abruptly.
Someone was standing in the doorway.
Connor's breath caught in his chest. The figure took one step forward. Drag...thump.
"Gramps?" he breathed in disbelief, his left hand unwittingly tightening its grip on his wand. Hope rose, for a split second.
The next, it plummeted down and shattered.
Gramps was—he'd seen him fall lifelessly to the ground. He had been there. And yet, he was walking—no, dragging himself— towards him.
He couldn't be, he wasn't... and yet, Connor hesitated, frozen, as the figure came closer, blocking the only way out, dragging its right leg towards him.
Drag... thump. Drag... thump.
Grey eyes met pale green, and Connor knew. Gramps was dead, Voldemort had killed him, that wasn't his grandfather. That thing wasn't any more than an empty shell, approaching only to crush him, it wouldn't stop until he was as dead as it was— and there were more coming already, pushing their way through the door.
His right hand brushed against leather.
Drag... thump. Drag... thump.
The thing was only a mere couple of feet away, the desk was the only thing between them now. It raised its arms...
His eyes never leaving the hollow ones of the only father figure he had ever known, Connor's fist closed around the leather pouch, raising his wand with his left and backing off sharply, felt the window ledge digging into his back.
"I'm sorry, Gramps." He closed his eyes briefly, took a deep breath, opened them again.
TBC I SWEAR!
A/N: Well, looks like things are rolling again. I apologise deeply for the delay in this one chapter, and I shall refrain from giving any sort of excuse. Suffice it to say that I did try, I've never stopped writing, but what with the highly disappointing HBP release I did not feel up to updating for the longest time. There were many ways I could go with chapter 16, I finished it twice, and I was totally unhappy with it.
The storyline here onwards will include many elements of HBP, as you will no doubt have noticed since the first zombie came up in this chapter. The major HBP-compatibility however, will be in the appearance of characters, spells and items we have learned of, as well as a bit on horcruxes, but this remains an AU that takes place post-OotP, there will be little to no shipping (sorry to disappoint those pumpkin piers amongst you or whoever happens to ship R/Hr, H/G and whatnot/whatnot, the most you'll get may be a filler paragraph or a mention the ship exists), and I was honestly amazed how little I needed to adapt for my fic to still make sense and be the canon-compliant AU I have tried to make it so far.
Thanks for your patience, loyalty and death threats, and stick around for Chapter 17, which bears the working title "Useless". Nifty, huh? Cheerful in the very least.
Cookie points to whoever recognises the following:
The name McFusty, which is taken from JK's works and ought to give you a good hint as to what is to come.
Angus McAlpin's mistake.
The nature of the link between Harry, Connor and Moldywarts. Er, Marv... er... Voldieshorts.