Draco groaned and stirred. His head…pounded…
"He's coming to," came a whisper from above him.
"Get ready," another warned. "The ferret's going to bolt the second he gets the chance."
His eyes snapped open.
Weasley and Granger were standing right above him.
"Salazar Sly-mmmfff!" A hand clapped over his mouth and knocked him back down. His back hit something marshmallow-soft. A mattress. He was on a bed – but how..? What..? And whose dirty hand was that on-? "Potter!"
The cool gaze in front of him sharpened and Draco felt himself tense. For a moment he thought he was wrong, that this wasn't the Golden Boy at all, but not even someone who'd make Crabbe and Goyle look like intellectuals would have carved a lightning bolt onto their foreheads. So, it was Potter. But a version of him that caused Draco's self-preservation instincts to fidget.
Slowly, Potter removed the offending limb and left it in his lap. "Malfoy," Potter stated. "Don't try to escape. You have five wands trained on you. Make this painless for yourself and just listen."
Draco didn't move.
Potter took his silence as a cue to resume. "What I'm going to tell you will sound strange, but it is the truth." He leaned forward ever so slightly and seemed to brace himself. But before he could say anything, Draco interrupted.
"Where are we?"
"I will get to that. But first, I have to explain the basics."
Draco narrowed his eyes. He swept up the rest of the room: Granger, Weasley, and – "You." It was that boy who'd been with Potter. The one who could speak Parseltongue.
He stood in the corner, watching with a degree of nonchalance that teetered on boredom. When Draco didn't break eye-contact for a while, he arched an eyebrow.
Ice scuttled down Draco's spine. Stiffly, he looked back at Potter. His fingers curled around the sheets under his palms. His mind whirled. Where in Merlin's name was he? Who was that other boy? Where was his father – and what was Potter going to do with him now?
"I'm going to answer your question. You see," Potter's mouth tightened, "we are all in an alternate universe."
"Even if you do manage to get out of here," Potter soldiered on, "you'll never be able to go home without our help. It's in your best interest to-"
"Do you take me for some sort of moron?"
Weasley glared. "That's rich, Malfoy. We have the courtesy to tell you what's going on and you throw it back in our faces. Thanks a lot."
"There are no such things as alternate universes!"
"As we discussed earlier," the unnerving boy in the back said to Weasley, now approaching with something akin to irritation, "it is irrelevant if he believes us or not."
"Yeah?" Weasley challenged.
Draco immediately noted the fact that the boy and Weasley didn't like each other – a wise decision on the mystery man's part – in case it would help him in the future.
Instead of rising to the challenge, the boy ignored it. "We're taken your wand," he informed Draco. "You are under our, shall we say, 'protection'? If you cause problems, we will transfigure you back into the Chocolate Frog Card you were a few seconds ago-"
Draco choked. "You…you transfigured me into a Chocolate Frog Card?"
"-and if you don't, you will have the privilege of remaining human."
He couldn't be serious, could he?
Swiftly, Draco looked at Potter, his cheat sheet.
He was unreadable.
"Do we understand each other?"
It was time to play smart. So with little choice, Draco nodded.
"Excellent." Then he turned to Harry. "Now, Harry, did you say you made breakfast?"
"I did." Harry smiled and stood. The oppressive mood instantly died. "Everyone can join us. I made omelets."
Incredulity threw itself onto Draco's face. What the-? He was half convinced that all the fugitive activities had addled their brains. Which could only make it better for him, but still. Hope flaring in his chest, he mentally checked his pockets for his wand. Painfully, he realized they hadn't lied; he didn't feel its familiar weight at all. And to add insult to injury, all four of them had their wands gripped blatantly in their hands for him to see.
He was completely at their mercy. For now.
"Come on, Malfoy." Potter looked back at him over his shoulder. "You may as well take advantage of our generosity. We've got you right where we want you. There wouldn't be a point in poisoning you."
Draco sneered. But then Weasley's wand hand twitched and he decided to school his features into something less likely to result in bodily harm.
"Get in front, Malfoy."
"Oh, leave him alone," Granger sighed. "Even if he is at our backs, he can't do anything."
Draco flushed. Granger didn't have to rub it in, for Merlin's sake!
The Parselmouth began leading the way out the door and Draco forced himself to bite his tongue. As tempting as it usually was to spar with Weasley, sparring with him while he was on a power trip and Draco was defenseless just didn't seem like it would end in anyway other than giving his rational side 'I told you so' rights.
They walked, and Draco snuck glances around him. Not a single magical portrait or otherwise. The place was obviously muggle, but it was wealthy. Apparently muggles weren't completely debased after all.
Soon, they reached what must have been a kitchen, where Looney Lovegood and Dean Thomas were cooking vegetables. Potter and his friends began chatting. As they did, the Parselmouth slid into a stool surrounding the island.
Draco glided onto one after him and mined all the information he could out of their conversations. He learned that Ollivander was sickly and bedridden. Thomas had served him breakfast in bed. Griphook, whoever he was, had refused to eat in the same room as 'wand-carriers' and had somehow fetched his own food. A sickened Weasley revealed that he thought he'd seen Griphook out in the lawn earlier. And as Malfoy wondered why Potter could cook so well, their voices suddenly became lower, heralding the appearance of an Important Matter.
"It is likely that the Order is still in Black Manor," The Parselmouth said. "Dumbledore had placed it under Fidelus ever since Hadrian made it obvious that he didn't have the courtesy to stay dead." His lip curled a fraction. "My birthday is in a matter of days, so we have to head there immediately."
Weasley blinked. "Er…happy birthday?"
The Parselmouth shot him an amused look, but an instant later, he frowned and noticeably avoided looking at him. His expression darkened.
"I still don't think we should be discussing this in front of him." Weasley jabbed a finger at Draco.
"Even if he somehow got in contact with Voldemort," Potter pointed out, "it doesn't matter what he knows about the Order in this world. Besides, it could help us."
"I'm sitting right here."
Silence descended. Draco privately frowned to himself. Potter actually believed what he was saying. He honestly thought they were in some kind of alternate world. Could he..? No. That was ridiculous. And he'd be damned before he endured the humiliation of believing such rubbish when Potter was the one dishing it out. These people were keeping him prisoner. Nothing they said could be fully trusted.
And honestly, 'alternative universe'?
Granger spoke. "How many Order members do you think are still free?"
"I can't presume to know. I'm sure a duel would have broken out at the conference once Hadrian revealed himself. As I recall, Dumbledore was near the corner; he might have been able to get out in time. Or he could have tried to hold Hadrian off and been captured."
"Or killed," Ron muttered.
"Yes," the Parselmouth had to allow. "Or killed."
Potter drummed his fingers against the counter. "Who will be the new head of the Order if Dumbledore isn't there?"
"In normal circumstances, it would be Abraxus, Lucius' father."
"But since his condition is…" Tom trailed off and Harry nodded in understanding.
Condition? What condition?
"It will probably be Mr. Dolohov."
No! Idiot, remember: Potter is insane. There are no alternate universes!
"Andy's father. In either case, we'll have to inform them of the situation and they won't like it. And if it is Dolohov…then we really will have to watch our backs."
"They won't take it well."
"No. They won't. However, just because they don't like the situation, doesn't mean they won't do what needs to be done."
"Hmm." Harry took a sip from his cup, considering.
Breakfast dwindled to a close. The Parselmouth Conjured a piece of paper, Summoned a pen from another room, and began writing on it in sweeping, elegant cursive. He passed it around the table and just before it reached Draco, Weasley snatched it. Draco jumped.
Weasley, glaring at him, pointed his wand at the paper. It burst into flames. "So he doesn't get any ideas."
Draco restrained a delicate snort. Did Weasley really think he was daft? He was a Slytherin; he wouldn't do something so obviously subversive. In fact, as Draco had been listening, he'd had time to reconsider his approach to this whole mess. His instinctive reaction had been to mock and resist them. To display his resentment and make himself a difficulty. But now he opted for a new tactic: feigned surrender.
He might not believe what Potter was saying, but Potter did. What Draco needed to do was to lull the group into a false sense of security. He wouldn't be a nuisance; he'd be an angel. He'd outwardly believe whatever they said and do whatever they did. And then, when he had his opportunity, he would escape. Laughing.
"Tom," Potter said, and Draco finally learned the Parselmouth's name. "Look." He motioned to the nearest window.
"What is it?"
Grimly, Granger said, "Death Eaters."
Winter frosted the room. Outside, figures in crimson robes and golden masks lingered at the border of what Draco recognized as blood wards. They didn't have the icy, predatory quality that Draco had become accustomed to. Instead, they radiated a feral, bloodthirsty air.
Tom smiled coldly. "Hadrian must have ordered a reception party for our return."
"Those," Draco pitched his voice to a nervous whisper, "are Death Eaters?"
The Golden Trio glanced at him in surprise. "Yes," Potter eventually answered. "Those are Death Eaters."
Draco paused and let a significant silence fill. "I see," he then said. And then, so he wouldn't seem like he was switching personalities: "Or people you think are Death Eaters." Inwardly, he rolled his eyes. There was no way those clowns were the Dark Lord's servants.
"Is the Floo network connected here?" Thomas asked.
"It used to be," Tom replied.
"What do you mean?"
"The Death Eaters likely took it down."
More silence. It was all very dramatic. Draco glanced around him before breaking it. "Let's say, that I believe you – and I'm not saying I do," he added quickly in a show of denial. "Then…then how many are surrounding us?"
"You believe us?" Weasley asked skeptically.
"I said if I believe you, not that I do."
He began to open his mouth but Granger shook her head and he closed it. "Fine. Git brings up a point, though. Do they have a usual number?"
"Twenty seven for a squad. Three for a fireteam. Since Tom and I are good fighters, though, I'm betting on the twenty seven."
Draco restrained a comment about inflated heads.
"Well then," Loony said, "we should check the Floo just in case. And if that won't work, then we shouldn't keep our guests waiting."
Potter flashed her a smile and Tom left, vanishing somewhere into the mansion to test out the fireplace. He came back minutes later, reporting with resignation that they had been severed.
They then began to discuss their escape plans. Draco caught the gist of it, which involved a slew of invisible snakes set to attack the Death Eaters while an equally invisible Granger identified and took out whichever Death Eater was maintaining the anti-apparation wards. He didn't pay too much attention because as they puzzled out solutions, he was considering his own.
Potter and friends planned to reach Black Manor. Draco highly doubted it was the same Black Manor that belonged to his maternal aunt and uncle, but since Potter did believe he was in an 'alternate universe', he supposed it was possible he was suicidal enough to try. But either way, it didn't matter.
The Parselmouth had ruled out apparition, explaining that in the event that someone was captured, there would be one-way anti-apparation wards tacked onto and the existing Fidelus - you could apparate out, but not in. If enemies wanted to reach the Manor, they would have to know where it was, walk on foot to the gate, and then overcome all the defenses on it. That meant that apparating nearby was an option, but Death Eaters could be crawling the surrounding area. In the end, the easiest way to bypass them was to use the Floo, and the nearest public Floo was in Diagon Alley. Only people keyed into the wards could use it to get into Black Manor.
All of this left plenty of opportunities along this road trip for Draco to alert the public to his imprisoned state.
Suddenly, a hand seized his arm.
Draco jumped and whirled around, narrowing his eyes at Tom. "May I help you with something?"
He hesitated for a moment, his eyes running over Draco's face. "I apologize in advance for this."
"Pardon? What are you-?"
The world was a blur. When his muddled thoughts finally became understandable, Draco vaguely became aware that his surroundings were familiar. Dim light…the clink of glass…
"What's wrong with him?" came a voice from nearby.
"Oh, him." Loony? "Wrackspurt's got him. He's coming to again."
Someone gave him a shake. That face – Draco's attention snapped back. "You!" His red hair was now brown and his nose was longer than usual, but all of that definitely belonged to Weasley.
"Keep it down, Malfoy," he hissed. "Try not to make a scene."
"What did you do to me?"
"Riddle Confounded you. Couldn't have you apparating away once the anti-apparation wards were down, see."
Knowing 'Riddle' must have been the Parselmouth, Draco clenched his jaw. He hadn't even thought of that.
"Come on," Potter said as he turned back. "Let's go." He started towards the Floo and immediately Draco recognized where they were. The war had made it even more tense and gloomy than he'd remembered, and the sullen patrons didn't dare make eye-contact as they drank and sighed over their newspapers. The Leaky Cauldron.
No. No! He had to leave – Draco had to tell someone what was happening. Who knew how long it would take him to find another way out?
His eyes darted around, landing on patron after patron. If he could only –
"Hey, wait," the same voice from before jumped in.
Potter froze. The group tensed.
"Sorry, ladies and gents, but I can't let you use the Floo until I see some ID."
"ID?" Potter repeated.
Weasley cursed under his breath.
"You know the rules." He tapped a thick finger on a poster behind him. 'Please Abide by the Regulations' it read, followed by a list. At the bottom shone a Ministry seal with a finely cut signature beside it. "No one wants to get in trouble, now."
Granger was the first to recover. "Oh, we're so sorry, sir. We hadn't even planned to use the Floo, so we didn't bring our IDs."
The barkeeper – since when had they replaced Tom? - frowned. "All seven of you?"
Luna smiled appealingly. "It was stupid of us, but please, can you let us through, just this once?"
He hesitated only a moment before shaking his head. "I wish I could, but I can't risk it. Not with everything that's going on. Sorry." With that, he started to turn away, and Potter and his friends exchanged looks, silently trying to communicate what they should do.
"Wait, sir," Dean decided to try. "We…just want to get back to Hogwarts."
The barkeeper stopped. And was it Draco's imagination, or did the voices in the pub quiet?
No, it definitely wasn't his imagination.
"No one is allowed in there without special permission." His eyes narrowed. "Who exactly did you say you all were?"
Potter's head whipped in the direction of the Floo and back. "We, er…"
Draco seized his opportunity.
"Argh!" Weasley doubled over as Draco stabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. He made a mad grab for Draco, but he darted out of the way and shoved him right into Potter. Both of them crashed to the floor in a tangle of limbs and surprised exclamations.
"What are you doing?" the barkeeper roared.
But Draco had no intention of doing that. He hurled himself at the Floo powder, seized it, and threw it in the fireplace. "Hogwarts, Headmaster's Office!"
The Parselmouth shouted a spell, but it was too late. The flames enveloped Draco and the Leaky Cauldron vanished in a whirlwind of green.
Brief images of other fireplaces, all too quick to see, flashed in his eyes. Then the flames dwindled. Draco dashed out and reached for his wand, only to remember that Potter had taken it. "Merlin!" He needed to stop them from coming through. But what? What could – there!
The headmaster's chair was behind the desk. Draco grabbed and shoved it as far into the fireplace as he could manage. His heart thundered and blood roared in his ears. "Try to come through that," he tried to crow.
A few seconds passed. Then it became apparent that Potter & Pals weren't coming after him. Draco allowed himself to breathe again and take in his surroundings. Portraits protested loudly, some of them marching out of their frames to fetch someone to get him in trouble.
Draco didn't care. Headmaster Snape wouldn't hurt him and the Carrows certainly wouldn't, either.
A laugh tainted with hysteria tumbled out of his mouth. Thank Merlin. Potter and the Parselmouth, with their talk of alternate universes. What rubbish. "Idiots, all of them," he said. But he couldn't exactly hold it against them. So, what should he do with information of their plans?
He didn't like Potter, Granger, Weasley, or any of the Gryffindors, but he pitied them. Sympathized, even. They were fighting to protect their loved ones from a madman just as he was. But when the Dark Lord inevitably caught up with them, Draco wasn't going to be standing there by Potter's side, begging to get hit by a Killing Curse. And now that he'd been separated, who knew what the Dark Lord would think? He might torture him as punishment for 'incompetence'. And so his father would be tortured as well, simply for the crime of bringing such a useless servant into this world. But…but there was nowhere else to go.
Draco let out a shuddering breath and straightened. He needed to give the Dark Lord something to beg forgiveness. He hated how the Malfoys had been reduced to this, but he just needed to hold on a bit longer. The war would be over soon, one way or another, and all that mattered was that the Malfoys were on the winning side. The Dark Lord's side.
Telling himself to wash away those morbid thoughts, Draco pushed open the double doors leading out of the office. For a moment he just stood there, savoring the fact that he was back at Hogwarts. Safe. Not for long, but at this second, he could enjoy this. For once, in months, he wasn't under the thumb of the Dark Lord, other Death Eaters, or even a former classmate.
The feeling was short lived. With a sigh, Draco strode over to the staircase. He was about to place his foot on the first step when the stairs churned and footsteps thundered up it.
A mop of chaotic hair announced the arrival of a grizzled man seconds before he spotted Draco. "There he is!"
Bewildered, Draco didn't even have time to react before the unknown man seized the front of his robes and dug a wand into his neck. "What are you doing?" Draco exclaimed. "Get off me!"
He received a derisive sneer in response. "Let's see…" Two other wizards arrived behind him, wands out and trained on Draco. "Blonde hair, snooty attitude, dreadfully inbred…you must be a Malfoy."
"Strange. Last time I heard, you had your hair long. It's some tradition of your kind, isn't it?"
Draco finally recovered. He'd dealt with people like this for months since the Department of Mysteries fiasco. They were sharks, and he would not give them a wound to smell. "Who do you think you are?" He raised his chin higher. "Do you know who my father is? Do you know who I am?"
The three of them burst into chuckles. "How is good old Abraxus these days? Last I heard, he was feeling a bit under the weather."
Abraxus? What on earth were these people blabbering about?
But Draco refused to let his confusion show on his face. "Release me. Now."
"Oh, I don't think we will. I don't know how a little snot like you managed to get in and out of Hogwarts, but I'm sure that the Rook will be very interested to hear just how you did it."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Draco wrinkled his nose at him. "Now unhand me before the Carrows teach a mudblood like you a much needed lesson."
Three sharp inhalations came from his captors.
For a moment, the world stood still.
And then their faces flushed in fury. "Crucio!"
A scream ripped itself free from Draco's throat. His limbs flailed against the ground. Agony ignited every nerve of his body. The part of his mind still capable of coherent thought pleaded for it to stop –
All of a sudden, he was aware of his ragged breaths, his trembling, and the cold feel of the floor.
A meaty hand wrenched him to his feet. "Do you want to insult your betters again, inbreed?" the grisly man hissed, putrid breath hitting Draco's face. "Go on – say it. Give me an excuse."
Draco struggled to keep as far away from him as possible. He earned a backhand to the cheek for his efforts.
The hand rose again and Draco couldn't help but cringe.
"Four," the tallest of the trio interrupted. "The Rook ordered us not to hurt the students unless we had to."
"What makes you think we don't have to? Don't you think we should teach this runt a lesson, Six?"
"The Rook would want to do it himself. I've heard he and the Malfoys have a history."
'Four' considered for a second before giving a reluctant jerk of his head. "Take his wand." Draco had no choice but to stay still when a hand dove into his pockets and then checked his wrists.
"There's nothing here."
Another sneer. "The inbred swine came to Hogwarts without even a wand? Ha! Can you imagine how many times his ancestors must have married their siblings?"
"Don't insult-!"Another smack to the head cut him off. "Ahh!"
"Shut up. I'm sure the Rook will be overjoyed to hear that the Lucius Malfoy that traitor stole from Headquarters finally did something to justify a little 'discipline'." He laughed and Draco paled.
They had mistaken him for his father? "Wait – I'm not – not Lucius Malfoy!"
They just continued laughing.
Draco frantically tried to see his options. Now that his brain was catching up, he realized he couldn't tell them who he was. They'd use him against his parents. And who were these people? His father had been disgraced, but not enough for the Dark Lord to declare open season on him!
No, he had to think. He had to get out of this. Snape – Snape would vouch for him! "I demand to see Headmaster Snape."
"Headmaster Snape? The inbreeding must be even worse than I thought. There is no 'Headmaster Snape'. The Rook is headmaster. Now shut up and get moving."
Draco's last thread of hope died. There was nothing he could do except put on the Malfoy mask and endure whatever was coming with as much dignity as he could muster. As they marched him down the stairwell and through the hall, he straightened, pulled his shoulders back, and held his head high.
Students drifted through the halls, some wary, some proud, and others fearful. It seemed that anything, living or animated, was watching him. The back of Draco's neck prickled and aside from the obvious impending doom, he wasn't sure why.
"Is that Lucius?" a girl whispered.
"What did he do?"
"I thought he was in Muggle Studies?"
I'm not my father! He wanted to snap. Merlin, why was everyone here acting so stupid?
A frown flitted across his brow as he spotted a pack of students that had to be in or close to his year. Oddly enough, he didn't recognize them at all. They must be muggleborns, he reasoned, and then realized that they couldn't be. All the muggleborns were banned from Hogwarts when the year began.
He brushed it off, concentrating on keeping his calm and in control façade up. Then time passed, and he realized why that uneasy feeling kept on increasing.
He didn't recognize anyone.
"Harry," Tom whispered just behind Harry's shoulder. "He's slipping."
Tensing, Harry looked back at the barkeeper. The vacant look in his eyes only looked worse with his unhinged jaw. Magic, strong and sure, surged through Harry's wand hand and locked onto the man. Close your mouth, Harry mentally commanded, and the barkeeper shut it.
The whole room had gone silent the instant Malfoy had made a break for it, and all eyes were on them.
Let us leave.
The glaze over the barkeeper's eyes faded and he scowled at the fireplace. "That little…now look what he did!" He snatched up the broom in the corner and stalked over to the mantel. "Bloody kids. No respect for their elders…you!" He hurled a finger at them. "Get out! I don't need your kind screwing up this place any further, thank you very much."
"Obliviate," Harry heard Hermione whisper, and noticed the tip of her wand peeking out from beneath her robe sleeves.
"Our sincerest apologies, sir," Tom replied, the regret and chagrin smeared across his face so well-crafted that Harry felt a spark of admiration amidst the churning in his gut.
He just looked at them in confusion. "Huh?"
Quietly, the group slunk out of the door, with Harry instructing the barkeeper to continue cleaning. Had he overpowered the spell? Was that why he'd stripped his victim completely of independent thought? Surely no one could direct two lives at the same time at such a minute level for months, like the Death Eaters in his word had managed.
His stomach flipped. Why was that what he cared about? Shouldn't his main concern be that he'd just used an Unforgivable?
The cold London air assailed them as they stepped outside. Hermione looked at Harry, her lips pressed in a thin line and her face almost unreadable. "I've taken care of it," she said in a low voice. "You can…let go."
With relief, Harry ended the spell, a chill that had nothing with the weather scuttling down his spine. "Thanks."
All three of them exchanged glances. No one spoke for a moment. Then Tom said, "I can apparate each of you near Black Manor. We can-"
"Wait," Ron cut him off.
"What about Malfoy?"
Ron looked around. "What? Come on, I hate the ferret, but…he just threw himself in there. In a castle filled with Death Eaters! He doesn't even have a wand. He-"
"We know," Tom interrupted.
Dean swore and dragged a hand through his short cropped hair. "We can't do anything about it, Ron. He's gone. We've to let this go."
"Gone?" Ron echoed. Anger flashed. "You can't just dismiss the git as 'gone'. He's a human being! Harry," he turned to his friend, "you don't agree with…with..?" He trailed off.
For a moment, Harry couldn't meet his eye. Was this what Dumbledore felt when people looked to him for direction? He suddenly saw the old headmaster in a completely different light. As such as he cared for the headmaster, he'd seen him as a manipulator, but now, when Harry had to be the one weighing lives, he felt some of his resentment fading.
He looked back. "I'm sorry, Ron. He's…dead."
"You don't know that."
"Ron," Hermione gently took his arm, "you said it yourself: he just walked into a Death Eater stronghold. Even if he is still alive, how are we supposed to rescue him? If this fireplace requires an ID, so will all the rest. And our chances of fighting everyone in Hogwarts and surviving are the same as entering an Inner Circle meeting and coming out alive."
"There are other people we need to think about," Tom added.
Ron shot him a glare. "Didn't expect you to say anything less, Riddle."
"Figures the future dark lord would-"
"Enough." Harry grabbed Ron's shoulder and he fell silent. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Tom, apparate us. Even if we don't make it into the manor, it's safer than the magical world. If we do get in, we can talk this over in a safe place."
Dean hesitated. "Don't worry, Ron. I'm a pretty good artist. Maybe I can forge an ID for us to get in?"
Ron didn't answer.
Taking his attention off Ron, Tom transfigured their robes into muggle clothes and then grabbed Harry's arm. The uncomfortable feeling of apparition ripped through them and suddenly, both were standing in a park under the shade of an oak tree. Framing it was a long road devoid of cars, and Harry blinked as the seemingly endless landscape across the road shimmered, colors and shapes that hadn't existed before painting themselves into live. A towering neoclassical manor glowed in front of them, jet-black titles plating its roof and soaring Corinthian columns decorating the entrance's portico. Wrought iron gates and thick, tall walls snaked around the entire landscape. "Wow."
"We need to apparate the others," Tom said, still a hint annoyed from what Ron had said. Once they were done, Tom ushered them back under the oak tree. "Wait here. Harry can cast a patronus for us." He paused. "Send it to Dolohov, and tell him 'the Hat almost put you in Hufflepuff'."
Ron snorted in disbelief and Harry glanced back in surprise.
Hermione explained, "We had a run-in with a Dolohov."
"It isn't important."
Nodding relucantly, Harry turned in the direction of the manor and pointed his wand at it. "Expecto Patronum." Immediately, a silvery glowing stag cascaded out of the tip and galloped toward the gates. Like last time, unfortunately, it couldn't make it past the wards, and Harry deflated slightly.
"Don't worry," Tom said. "The gates notify the house-elves of visitors. As long as no Death Eaters are nearby to attack us as we wait, we'll be alright."
Grateful for their muggle clothes and disguised faces, Harry cast muffliato and the group tried to act like typical muggle teens to divert onlookers who would inevitably see the patronus as it raced down the road.
"So," Dean fished for a topic. "Harry."
"How's the campeador thing going?"
Oh. Yeah, he figured he'd need to give his friends a demonstration of his abilities sooner or later. "Pretty well. I spent some time-" in Hadrian's headquarters "-learning some mixed martial arts. You know."
"Yeah? Did you hit any weights?"
"Er, well it would be kind of hard to, since they wouldn't help all that much…"
Hermione questioned, "You can't just…" She lowered her voice. "Turn it off?"
Harry considered. "I guess I should be able to turn it off since it's an internal magic. I can definitely up my strength, fortify my bones, and…well, I don't know what exactly my magic does to my skin, since it doesn't break on high impact. I should be able to do the opposite."
Dean appraised him. "No wonder you don't look more muscular. I figured someone would have told you how to make yourself into an athlete."
"He's an athlete," Ron protested. "He's a star quidditch player!"
"Quidditch? Seriously? That might get your endurance and some of your thigh muscles, but quidditch just doesn't work you out like a gym does."
Luna turned her dreamy gaze on him. "Do you go to the gym, Dean?"
"Yes. Every summer. I play football with my muggle friends; you have to be strong if you want to be any good." He added, "Harry, if we have any time I'll give you the Sparknotes on strength training. But you should probably know that 80% of it comes from what you put in your mouth. After Hogwarts food, it's not going to be pretty."
Tom smirked. "Say goodbye to those treacle tarts, Harry."
Harry elbowed him – Tom laughed – and smiled at Dean. "Thanks. If this campeador stuff augments what I already have, you'll make me that much stronger."
A crunch. Harry's smile faded and he feigned a stretch to give himself an excuse to turn his head back.
There were two men and a woman walking down the street, all in muggle clothes, but they were staring at them.
"What is it?" Dean asked through a fake grin for onlookers, as if someone had just said something funny.
"Three people. I don't know if they're Death Eaters or not."
Luna waved to the trio.
"Wha-?" Horrified, Hermione snatched her hand. "What are you doing?"
They did. The possible Death Eaters exchanged glances so quickly that they might not have noticed if they weren't looking for it. Then they forced smiles and waved back.
Luna turned back to Hermione and the Death Eaters continued walking. "See?" she asked. "They think we're some neighbor's kids."
"Intelligent," Tom commented.
It was only a few minutes before Harry heard another faint 'pop' of apparition. His gaze strayed in the noise's direction, but he couldn't see anything…except for depressions in the grass where large footsteps were crushing the grass. He nudged Tom.
Tom's eyes narrowed. A Death Eater, or..?
"Mr. Riddle," a chipped, deep voice sounded from the air.
Luna was the only one aside from Harry and Tom who didn't jump.
Careful not to turn his head back, Tom greeted, "Mr. Dolohov. Thank you for coming."
"Who are these people?"
There was a sharp edge to his voice that caused Tom to tense. "Friends. We're all disguised. Please, take us into the manor. We'll explain everything then." He nodded in the direction of the Death Eaters, who had stopped at the corner of the park. "We think they're Hadrian's."
They heard Dolohov's footsteps fading away as he walked over to the problem.
"Get ready," Tom instructed. "As soon as Dolohov makes a scene, we need to run to the gate and get in."
"What about Dolohov?"
"Hopefully we'll all be inside quickly and then he can run into the gate before the entire squad comes by."
They waited for the first Death Eater to drop. The instant he did, they all dashed across the street.
A magical signal flare exploded in the air.
"Merlin!" Ron cursed.
Tom seized the front of the gates. "Open up!" he shouted, cancelling the transfiguration spells on his face. "We need-"
The gate lurched open.
Harry hesitated, his attention darting towards Dolohov. Tom gave him a push and he stumbled through the gate. He heard Dolohov's boots pounding on the pavement, then –
Gritting his teeth, Tom rushed back to the gate again, Harry diving into a kneel beside him and shielding them both as Tom cast. "Accio Dolohov!"
The mound of robes containing a now visible Dolohov raced into view, blood smearing the side of his leg. Hermione shot a shield out to protect him from a curse and Tom flung spell after spell at the Death Eaters. They couldn't open the gates, because if the Death Eaters set foot on Black property, the Fidelius would be exposed. But they were getting nowhere, even with Dean and Hermione cocooning Dolohov in protections.
Dread fell on Tom as he realized they might have to leave him behind. Dolohov, who was probably leader of the Order of the Phoenix.
"Luna!" Harry called. "Shield us!"
Tom didn't have time to respond before Harry Conjured a rock and hurled it at the nearest Death Eater so fast that his eyes hadn't even properly registered it before a sickening crack pierced the air and a scream tore after it.
Shocked, Tom faltered in his casting. The Death Eater's broken arm was practically severed.
In the distraction, Harry Conjured another rock, and another. Spells were slow enough to dodge or shield against; his throws were not.
It was grizzly and revolting. A plume of nausea slithered through Tom's gut. But he couldn't deny that Stunning the Death Eaters was easy afterwards.
In the aftermath, Dolohov slowly crawled to one leg, hissing as he tried to put pressure on the other. Rage and loathing contorted his face.
Tom was about the open the door, when suddenly, Dolohov aimed his wand a fallen Death Eater. "Avada Kedavra!" Emerald green stabbed into the lifeless body. It jerked. "Avada Kedavra!"
"W-wait!" Ron croaked.
A sneer twisting his mouth, Dolohov limped to the gates. They opened, and he nodded curtly to each of them. "Good work."
Harry had a livid, torn expression on his face, while Tom was oddly rigid. Ron and Hermione had gone white. Dean still couldn't understand what had just happened. And Luna refused to look in Dolohov's direction.
"That's it?" Ron blurted, anger rising up his neck and flooding his cheeks. "You're just going to leave them out there?"
Dolohov paused. "You're right, boy." He turned. "Incendio Maximus!"
A torrent of fire exploded on the side walk, devouring the bodies with greedy, vicious, crimson flames. The firestorm shrieked and snarled, whipping over the street and burning so hot that even from where they stood, their skin blistered with heat.
"Oh, Merlin," Hermione moaned.
"What are you doing?" Ron cried almost hysterically. "You lunatic – stop it! Stop it!"
The flames vanished. Only three piles of ash remained.
Dolohov put away his wand and glared at Ron. "My duty. Now let's get back in."
"You madman! Why the Hell should we go anywhere with you?"
Pointedly, Tom cleared his throat, giving him a beseeching look.
Ron snapped, "I don't think so, Riddle. You saw what he did – he's crazy!"
"I don't need to listen to the quibbling of a stupid little boy," Dolohov said, limping away from them. "People like you would rather we let them go on their merry way to slaughter our side left, right, and center."
Ron opened his mouth to respond but had no words. Eventually, he stammered, "Well that's…what you did is just…it's…wrong."
Dolohov laughed mockingly, turning his head briefly over his shoulder so Ron could see just how much of an insect he thought he was. "This is war, you fool. Or did you think this was all a game?"
His jaw clenched, Harry put an arm on Ron's shoulder. Somehow, though his whole being protested, he gave a sharp jerk of his head.
Ron tore his arm away.
"Ron, please," Harry struggled to say. "It's done. I'm sorry, but…let's just…not make it worse."
"I know." His eyes bore into Dolohov's back. "I know. But we're pushing it already. Just…let it go." He didn't look at Ron; it was bad enough that from the corner of his eye, he was giving him a look that suggested he didn't even recognize who was standing next to him.
The walk up the hill to the entrance of Black Manor was deathly silent.
Dolohov spelled open the door, glaring at the terrified house-elf that waited for his arrival. "Get the rest of the Order!" he barked. "Tell them the Chosen One has been found."
The elf squeaked and rapidly bowed. She disappeared with a 'pop' and Dolohov, who'd forgotten her already, pointed his wand at his leg and growled out healing spells. The blood dribbling down his calve clotted, but he didn't add any weight to it. Instead, his hazel eyes travelled over Tom's 'entourage', drinking in their appearances one by one.
They had to try not to fidget.
"So," he said slowly, his eyes narrowing on Harry. "I think it's time your friends took off their disguises, Mr. Riddle."
Everyone but Dolohov stiffened. "Ah, Mr. Dolohov," Tom began, "may I ask if the Headmaster happened to..?"
"He wasn't captured."
Tom let out a small sigh of relief.
"But he isn't here at the moment. Are you going to take off the spells or not?"
Couldn't they just say 'not'? Harry wondered hopelessly. He had no idea what to use as an excuse, and from the glances everyone was exchanging, neither did they. Dolohov's eyes narrowed.
"Mr. Dolohov, we need to explain before we remove the spells," Tom chose his words carefully. Order members were beginning to arrive, and he saw Mrs. Black entering the foyer.
"Tom!" she exclaimed. "Thank goodness; we didn't know what had happened to you…and who are these people? Hogwarts students?"
Tom seized the distraction. "Mrs. Black, I hope you didn't worry too much. These are my friends. They helped keep me safe from Hadrian's soldiers – and they are exhausted from our time on the run. If you have any spare rooms..?" He gestured for the Gryffindors to follow him as he took a step towards the door, trying to stifle the anxiety threatening to break across his face.
Catching on, Harry quickly followed. Maybe they could brush the spell stripping off -
"Not so fast, Mr. Riddle."
Tom turned a disarming smile on Dolohov. "Please, sir. We've been through quite an ordeal."
"A few more seconds won't damage them."
Mrs. Black frowned. "What is this about?"
Dolohov pointed at Harry. "These children have disguised their faces with transfiguration, and now, so strangely, seem to hesitate to remove them. Why is that, I wonder?"
Tom winced. "It would be in everyone's best interest if we spoke to Headmaster Dumbledore first."
"What have you done, Riddle?"
"We're worked together for several years, Mr. Dolohov. Surely by now you know I have the Order's best interests at heart?"
"And yet you ask us to invite complete strangers into our safe house and refuse to divulge their identities. Who are these children, Riddle? What is it about their identities that you can't bear for us to see? Or is it, perhaps, that you know we wouldn't approve?"
Struggling to keep his irritation at the patronization from showing, Tom said evenly, "I have my reasons."
"Not good enough!" Dolohov snapped. "My son is imprisoned in Hogwarts – so is your darling Bellatrix and your friend, Lucius. Only you escaped, Riddle. You, our Chosen One. Everyone in the Order has sacrificed tooth and nail for you, and yet you refuse to let anyone but Dumbledore see your machinations. I don't think so."
"Sir, I apologize if I ever gave that impression," Tom tried not to hiss, "but perhaps we can discuss this later? My friends-"
But Dolohov didn't care what Tom was about to say. Before he could finish, Dolohov whirled around and hurled a spell at Harry and Ron. They were standing three feet away, a distance too small for a normal person to even twitch. But Harry wasn't a normal person. In an instant, he moved as a blur, dodging the spell and yanking Ron down all in one motion.
Dolohov's mouth dropped open. Mrs. Black gasped. And everyone else froze.
Dolohov's face twisted. "Campeador! Order, seize them – take them to the cellars!"
"No!" Tom shouted. "Dolohov, listen to me – they are our allies. The Headmaster-"
"Take Riddle, too," he hissed. "Verify that he isn't Imperiused. You Death Eaters," he directed at the Gryffindors, "have made a serious error today."
"We aren't Death Eaters!" Harry shot back. "If you would just listen, we could explain everything."
"Remove your disguises."
"I said remove. Your. Disguises."
For a moment, no one breathed. And then Harry realized there was no point in hiding it any longer. Slowly, he lifted his wand – the Order tensed – and removed the spells. His disguise fell away, and several people swore. "Lock us up if you have to," he said coolly. "Dumbledore will set you straight if we don't."
Dolohov gave a cold smile. "I will." He jerked his head and the seven order members that had gathered near the doors surrounded them, their wands out.
Shooting a short, forced smile at Tom, Harry nodded to the rest of his friends and let the Order march them down, down, into the cellars.
A/N: It's been so long but now I'm back! I'm not going to give excuses; the truth is that after so many people PMed or reviewed long after that last chapter, I realized I had to finish this story. I started it when I was just beginning high school, and was terribly (lol, just read my past A/N's! ^^) insecure about my writing. I gained so much confidence because of your feedback. Your support has been truly humbling. I want to give a special thank you and apology to those of you who've been waiting for so long (Brain Fluff, I'm definitely looking at you)! But don't worry - I've got the rest of the story plotted out, so I promise, you won't have to wait another crazy amount of time to see this to the end :) As a thank you, I ought to complete this.
Thanks for reading! I'll try to get the next chapter up as soon as possible :)