Sorry for the monumental wait, everybody. The story is still alive; I just suck at real life apparently. ;)
"So what you need help with, stupid boy?"
"For starters, you could stop calling me that," Harry growled.
"Fine, stupid," the river spirit quipped.
Harry just rubbed his brow, and refocused on the task at hand. "Remember how you wanted me to find out more about the magic that trapped you?"
"Why else I bother associate with you?" the spirit sneered.
"Right," Harry said, reminding himself to breathe evenly. "I think I've found a couple of places where they're manipulating the boundary between this side and the Other side. One's with the Goblins, at Gringotts."
The river spirit hawked and spat, leaving a little glowing blob on the rug.
"Okay," Harry said after a moment. "The other place is Azkaban."
Karakash cocked his noble head. "Azkaban?"
"Yeah, you know, the wizard prison."
Karakash bared his teeth. "Why Karakash supposed to know about wizard prison? You think I give two shit about wizard criminal?"
"I dunno, you knew what Gringotts was," Harry grumbled. "So you don't—"
"I know where is prison," Karakash interrupted loudly. "Just not stupid name."
Harry tossed up his hands. "Okay, so—"
"These place are gateway," Karakash went on, as if Harry hadn't spoken. "Weak place between here and there. Like water, only no guardian. Holes. Place where stupid person rip."
Harry licked his lips apprehensively. "Could you do that, if we went there? Guard the gateway?"
Karakash tilted his head, looking skyward. "At wizard prison, yes. Dementors no match for Karakash. Goblins—Karakash can eat some greasy little bastard, but only some. Can't keep them from crossing."
Harry tried to ignore the cold pit dread growing in his gut. It was looking like the Goblins were the less viable option, and that wasn't what he wanted to hear. "How come dementors can't cross over, but Goblins can?"
"Dementor need soul to cross. Goblin already pay toll."
"Dementors don't have a soul, but Goblins do?" Harry clarified.
Karakash rolled his eyes. "Dementor have to eat soul to stay on this side. To stay on this side, have to have soul and body. No soul, can't stay. No body, can't stay."
Harry knew that this was somehow vital to understanding everything, but he wasn't sure what it meant. "And what about you? Could you stay on this side?"
Karakash smirked. "Water spirit more special. Only need one."
Harry looked at him blankly. "You mean…?"
"You get Karakash body, or you get Karakash tasty soul."
Harry blanched. "No bloody way! I'm not letting you suck out somebody's soul!"
Karakash sighed in disappointment. "Then you get body. You super awesome wizard, probably take two second!"
"What, like a person?" This discussion was making him break out into a cold sweat.
The river spirit shrugged. "Karakash don't give shit. Just need skin and bone."
Harry calmed slightly. "Can they be old skin and bone? Like leather?"
"Live skin. Live bone. You figure out, yes? Then Karakash help."
"How big?" Harry asked, hardly able to reconcile the fact that he was seriously considering creating living tissue out of magic.
Karakash eyed him. "At least human size. Normal human, not you—you freaking scrawny."
Harry scowled at him.
Before he started trying to figure out how to get an empty body for the irritating river spirit, Harry decided he would meet with Tonks tomorrow first, and see what she had to say about Mage sight and wandless magic. Maybe there were avenues there that he hadn't been able to see in his own readings.
He lay awake in the quiet dark, thoughts churning. Hedwig had yet to return from delivering his message to Tonks, and Karakash had gone back to wherever he went on the Other side. The room was still and silent.
It felt like he was the only person in existence. Like this whole castle was empty, and the grounds were empty, and beyond the forest, people and cities had ceased to exist.
His bones felt weary, as if little bits were being worn off every day. His joints hurt. His eye hurt. He felt as if the gravity of the earth had increased three-fold, like it would be impossible to even lift an arm. The silence was so profound that it was a roar of white noise against his eardrums, except for the beat of his own pulse.
He was so very tired. He couldn't remember a time when he'd been able to truly relax.
Now, there were so many things to worry about that he forgot some of them, until they came back to haunt him in the dead of night. Ron's father was missing. The Dursleys were missing. Someone had abducted and tortured him. The Ministry was corrupt, and its leader had a personal vendetta against him.
And Voldemort. Harry had to kill a man who was so formidable that people feared to speak his name. And he had to do it while grappling with magic that was going haywire, and trying to figure out what this Other world was, and why he could see things other people couldn't. And he would have to do it alone. And there would be no rest for him, because he knew there were hordes of things trying to get through just on the other side, reaching through goblets with glistening, creeping limbs.
And… his best chance to make sense of any of it was to go to Azkaban, deep down into the cold and dark, where criminals went and never came back.
"Harry?" whispered a small voice.
Harry went absolutely still, every sense straining.
"Harry?" It was quiet and child-like. Could it be Mud? "Harry, come here."
He sat up slowly, heart hammering.
"Come here," it whispered. It sounded like her, but Harry couldn't make his voice work to say her name. "Harry," it called. "I have something for you."
There was a vase of wildflowers on the little table by the window, and something began pushing them up, a little at a time. They rose up and fell over the lip of the vase, falling quietly to the floor. The air felt heavy.
A chill shot up Harry's spine, and buzzed in his toes. He couldn't work up enough spit in his mouth, and his voice came out a rasp. "Mud?"
"Harry," the voice repeated, in the same quiet whisper. "Come here."
The last flower flopped out of the vase, and a sharp crack sounded. A fragment of ceramic bulged outward.
Fuck. His blood wand flew to his hand almost without thought, and he lowered his feet to the floor. "Mud, is that you?"
There was no response; only a child-like breathing.
Harry crept closer to the vase. Another crackle, and a bit of ceramic fell. Harry grit his teeth, raising the wand. The breathing grew louder, eager, and he leaned over to peer in. It was impenetrably dark, but the water wasn't freezing. Not a dementor. And it didsound like Mud. Was she trying to play a trick on him?
The vase burst apart. Harry recoiled, but not before a skeletal hand shot out and grabbed the front of his shirt.
In the moment that the water was still rushing out across the table, a creature rose up, hauling down on him hard. Half of the top of its head was missing, and something sloshed out of the hollow there. Sharp little teeth, glinting in the scant light, leered close to his face as he lost his balance.
He tried to catch himself, and his hands sank through the thin sheet of water. His feet slipped on wet flowers. The thing's breath was on his face, the scent of a corpse in shallow mud; the teeth grazed his throat, its skin was damp and cold, and he was falling—
He twisted, pulling the blood wand free from the Other side, turning his shoulder in to the thing, and its claws raked a trail through his shirt. Before the proper incantation had even sprung to mind, he cast an Incendio, and a bloom of fire and force lit the room. He lost his footing and was thrown back against the side of the bed.
He heard a high-pitched shriek and a hiss as all of the water evaporated instantly.
Then the room was dark, save for a few embers. The little table was steaming and smoking. Harry pressed a hand to his bleeding chest, and tried to regain his breath as he slumped there against the bed. His breathing became erratic as he struggled with the desire to scream himself hoarse. He bowed over and rubbed the knuckles of his wand hand against his temple, hard.
That moment when he'd slipped, falling forward, and some part of him had thought this was it—he could still taste that panic, like acid.
That thing had spoken in Mud's voice; would the next one be able to look like someone he cared about?
He could get through this.
But the creature had sounded so much like Mud; he'd been so close to falling in—
He just had to be more careful in the future.
Hadn't the Black Lake said it would keep them from coming through?
But it obviously couldn't see everything at once… something had already tried to come through once before.
He scrubbed his fingers through his hair and slowly, he mastered himself. His thoughts cleared enough for him to realize his chest was on fire, and his shirt was soaked in blood. He uncurled from his hunched position. "Sutura."
The wounds sizzled, but stubbornly refused to close up. And this was with his blood wand, with which self-targeted spells should have been much more powerful. He would have to see Pomfrey. He briefly considered waiting till morning, but it would be stupid to risk bleeding out just because he didn't want to wake the school nurse.
With an inarticulate growl, he gained his feet. The little table was still smoking, but at the moment he couldn't be arsed to care whether the whole damn room burned to the ground. He peeled off his sticky shirt and, after a moment of indecision, tossed it at the table, which gave a hiss as the embers were doused.
Then he pointed his wand at himself, muttered another sutura and a scourgify, grabbed an extra shirt, and set off for the infirmary.
Predictably, when he arrived the place was dark, and Madam Pomfrey was nowhere to be found. He let himself in, leaning heavily on the door, and lurched across the room to her office. He knew she kept a supply of medicinal potions on hand—hopefully she wouldn't be too angry with him for self-medicating.
He was feeling lightheaded, which was never good, and accidentally knocked a few things off her desk on his way by.
Shit, he thought, blinking hard. A lumos lit up the office, and he found the cabinet unlocked. The labels on the bottles swam in his vision, but he recognized many of them by their contents. Blood replenisher, he thought, grabbing one. Flesh knitter. He snagged another.
There were no instructions for dosage, and he didn't want to over do it, so he brought them over to his usual bed, laid himself flat, took a sip of each, and passed out.
"What in heaven's name—Potter!"
"M'fine," he protested before he'd quite remembered where he was and why.
"Morgana's left tit," cursed Pomfrey, sounding a tad hysterical. She was a whirlwind of spell casting, and when he finally cracked his eyes open, he decided her concern wasn't entirely unfounded.
"Wow," he muttered, trying to sit up. The sheets stuck to him.
"Stop moving, Potter!" she barked. Her face had gone pasty white, and Harry complied with her order if only to put her at ease.
"Really, I feel fine," he began.
"Lose a gallon of blood often, do you?" she snapped. Her diagnostic spells slowed after another moment, and she finally collected herself. "Explain."
"Well, er, I might have taken a bit more Blood Replenishing potion than was strictly necessary."
"Obviously. Thank you for this delightful tableau so early in the morning, by the way. But I was referring to the injury that caused you to bleed out so dramatically all over my infirmary."
"Oh," Harry said. "I was out, er, going for a walk by the lake last night, and something attacked me."
Pomfrey raised an eyebrow, her skepticism obvious. "Your lacerations do bear traces of poison. Can you describe the creature?"
"It… didn't have any eyes. Just this weird depression on top of its skull, like it was hollowed out. And sharp teeth, like a fish. And claws."
Madam Pomfrey looked baffled. "By the lake you say?"
The nurse massaged her brow. "What you describe is a Kappa—vile creatures who lure people to their death by mimicking someone the person knows and then drowning them. Usually Kappas target children. But they're native to the Orient—I've never heard of a sighting anywhere else."
"A Kappa?" Harry repeated. Another piece of the puzzle?
"Yes," Pomfrey affirmed. "That would account for the poison, and certainly explain why your wounds resisted healing."
"But they're all right now, yeah?"
"Yes," she sighed, as if reluctant to admit it. "But next time, Potter—please floo-call me rather than raiding my potions. You could easily have done yourself much more harm than good."
"No, let me put that another way—no next times."
"Well, I can't—"
"Just do your best, Potter. You're a good lad, but a Healer doesn't like to see her patients this often."
Harry made his escape soon after, and spent about a half hour in the shower trying to scrub the blood off. A simple scourgify might have sufficed, but he knew he wouldn't feel clean without a good scalding. The Kappa's claw marks stood out luridly against his skin—right over his heart, as if the creature had been trying to gouge it out.
By the time he was dressed, Hedwig had returned, swooping in through the open window like a phantom.
"Hello, pretty bird." He retrieved an owl treat and lobbed it to her, where she snatched it out of the air. "Such a talented girl," he praised her, taking the note from her downy talon. "What did Tonks say, then?"
She twittered, watching him unfold the parchment.
We've got drills and conditioning today, but I can definitely do a late lunch! Meet me down at the gates around 2? There's an Indian place in London I've been dying to try. Do you like Indian? Let me know if there's some other place you'd rather go. See you soon!
Harry did his best to ignore the little flip in his stomach and smothered a grin. He'd never tried Indian food, but Tonks' enthusiasm was infectious. He penned a quick affirmative.
"Sorry Hedwig," he murmured, offering her the note. "Just this one more, and then we can play some games when you get back, okay?"
Hedwig nibbled his fingers and took the note in her claw. After regally accepting a pat from Harry, she took wing again.
Harry watched her go, a fleck of white fading into the bright morning, before turning away from the window and cracking his knuckles.
"Time to make a body."
He made straight for the restricted section in the library this time; there were no two ways about it—this was the sort of thing that would not be in any Hogwarts lesson plan. He realized, as he skipped over such familiar titles as Demonic Realms and How to Find Them and Kreaturs Moste Fowel Beyonde Byzantium, that he was perhaps becoming too well acquainted with this part of the library. In fact, he could readily recall several books that he'd already perused which happened to have useful references.
"I'm turning into evil Hermione," he muttered to himself, passing over The Human Ingredient—dry and archaic, he had read it hoping to find out why his blood had been sufficient to power a blood wand, and had wound up learning more than he'd ever wanted to about which human body parts were most useful as potions ingredients.
As it turned out, there were plenty of ways to create a corpse—or at least a fair approximation of one. The average witch or wizard had been quite morbid up until a few centuries ago. Of course there were still outliers in the modern age, but there was a reason most of the more useful texts he found were written in various forms of old English.
Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately?—he didn't want a corpse. Karakash had been fairly explicit; it needed to be a living shell of some kind. When Harry had prodded him for specifics, the river spirit had amended that skin and bones should be sufficient—Harry wouldn't need to figure out the complexities of organs.
So there was that.
He came across a few mentions of ways to keep flesh suspended in such a way that it wouldn't decay, but that wasn't quite the same thing. Harry had a brief vision of gallivanting around Diagon Alley with a zombie in tow, and rubbed his forehead.
Pistol popped by briefly with an omelet for him, murmuring, "Always learning, Master Harry," in an approving sort of way.
"Thanks, Pistol," Harry said, offering a smile. The wizened house elf bowed before disappearing again.
He didn't have much luck until he nearly passed over a ratty old bit of magazine tucked in between some books. It looked like the kind of thing he remembered Aunt Petunia would occasionally mail-order things out of—toys for Dudley, or kitchen accessories. It was quite out of date, and most of the products seemed largely useless: a dog-house with a pocket dimension, self-stirring cauldrons, moving globes of the night sky, couches that would grow extensions depending on how many guests you had, collars that purported to keep your pet in its 'cute' stage, and living garments that would grow with you.
It was this last that caught his eye—it advertised fur pants that generated their own heat and lengthened over time, because they were actually alive. Harry could see why they hadn't really caught on; the idea of pants that had skin and blood vessels and fur was sort of creepy.
And yet… this might be exactly what he needed. He just had to figure out how to get his hands on a pair. Flipping to the back of the magazine, he found contact information—before he noticed the publication date: 1982.
He dropped his face into his hand with a groan.
Wait—maybe the pants had an individual manufacturer. He flipped back to the proper page, looking for a name under the description. Sure enough: Magical Patent – A. Hughes.
Harry sat back, drumming his fingers. Could this person be some relation of Toliman's? Perhaps a more reputable sibling or cousin… What were the chances that A. Hughes had written a book about their findings?
He set off again.
His Point-Me spell didn't direct him toward any dusty tomes, but it did send him to the periodicals section—more specifically, back issues of Transfiguration Today.
"Hermione's probably read every one of these cover to cover," he murmured, pulling out several that glowed softly under his gaze.
Achird Hughes was a man who apparently had some radical ideas about Transfiguration, and articles about him-or papers by him—had graced almost every issue of Transfiguration Today up until about five years ago.
His theories were all interesting, and he'd had many in the field in a tizzy over future applications of his work, but Harry forced himself to focus on Achird's predecessor to the Growing Pants: Non-Traditional Applications for Living Materials.
Achird postulated that everything in the common witch or wizard's home could be made of this stuff. It would never wear out, it would be reactive to its owner, it could adapt and change as necessary—it could even take on personality, imbued with a rudimentary sort of intelligence.
Harry could see that these ideas both intrigued and disturbed a lot of Achird's peers. Many witches and wizards decried it as being tantamount to dark magic. The only objections that Harry could see that they might have were with the creation process: it seemed to rely on a sort of cloning for the base material.
Harry had no such compunctions. This will work, he thought with ferocious determination.
Achird's true genius lay in manipulating the material once it had been created, and so he wasn't concerned about sharing how it was made (which was likely how the creator of the Growing Pants managed). The paper he'd published about it at first seemed to be entirely over Harry's head.
Upon a second read-through, though, it began to make sense to him. It was unorthodox and convoluted, but to his faint surprise, he could understand it. He wouldn't need to enchant the skin to do anything once he created it; Karakash would be able to take care of that part. He just needed it to be the right shape.
What could he make out of it that was approximately a human's mass, but not actually a human? Because there was no way he was going to make the river spirit a vessel he could use that would bring him into direct interaction with people; that just seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Harry could just see it; Karakash walking around in a skin suit like he had some kind of palsy, calling out every human he saw and telling them he'd eat their children.
No—better he masqueraded as an animal.
Still pondering, Harry cleaned up his workspace, taking only the issue of Transfiguration Today that had published Achird's paper. It described what the man called a 'loom' that Harry would have to set up, which would weave the 'pelt.' It was a complicated bit of magic, but doable, given enough time.
"Tempus,' Harry murmured. The little glowing blue numbers resolved themselves to read 1:55 pm.
He didn't have time to go up to his rooms for a coat, but once he'd bounded down Hogwarts' front steps, he silently summoned one. Sure enough he could see, high above, a black shape swoop out from an open window. He caught it as he was jogging down the road toward the gates.
"I saw that," Tonks said a minute later, lounging in the shadow of one of the great winged boars. "So talented."
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "It's true."
"Seriously though, you should probably keep that wandless stuff under wraps."
Harry, who couldn't remember if he'd summoned the coat wandlessly or with his illegal blood wand, didn't have anything to counter with except a sheepish grin.
She rolled her eyes, but couldn't quite disguise her own smile as she grabbed his arm. "C'mon, Mr. Prodigy."
They disappeared with a loud crack.
Harry decided he liked Indian food.
Though his present company might have tinted the experience.
"So then," Tonks was saying, nearly incoherent with laughter, "Warner whipsaround and looks at me, sticks his nose in the air, and kind of struts away without even answering my question." She wiped a tear from her eye. "I think I've ruined my chances with him forever."
"You have to admire his strength," Harry said. His cheeks hurt. "I don't think I could have ignored you for that long."
"Yeah, but I actually likeyou."
Harry felt a warm thrill in his fingers and toes.
"Oh, but I shouldn't be so mean," she went on, composing herself. "It's not his fault that I wasn't aware of our fledgling romance—"
"Or that his name's actually Warren," Harry added, to which Tonks dissolved into helpless laughter again.
"I've—been—calling him—Warner—for five—years!" she squeaked, and Harry had to cover his face he was laughing so hard. She pounded her hand on the table, practically in a fit.
After they'd calmed down again, Harry said, "You'd think it would be easy to remember."
Tonks pointed at him with a piece of naan. "That's true, he does basically work in a warren of paper." She shook her head, chasing a bit of lamb around her plate with the bread. "I really need to find a way to make it up to him. Can't afford to sour him as a contact."
"Bring him flowers," Harry said.
Tonks reached over and smacked him lightly on the cheek. "So sassy!"
"I dunno, doesn't that usually make women happy?"
"You really don't like him!"
Harry shrugged. "Why do you even need him? Just teach everyone the spells."
"Well that's the whole point, isn't it? The fewer people who know them, the more secure the records are."
Harry had to concede. Anyway, he still needed to get a look at Tonks' portkey to the Dragon's Perch, and already an hour had flown by. How could he steer the conversation in that direction?
"Aside from the whole Warren thing, being an Auror seems pretty brilliant," he observed.
"Yeah," she agreed. "I can't really imagine a more satisfying job."
"And you get your own pub," Harry added. "Open all hours, inaccessible to the public…"
She laughed. "There is that, too. But I don'tdrink before five, I don't care what Marty tells you!"
Harry raised his hands. "I don't know if I believed half of what he said."
"Good," she said, giving him a squinty eyed glance.
"Like those teeth he uses for the portkeys," Harry began carefully. "They're not reallydragon teeth, are they? I can't imagine that bloke actually killing one himself."
Tonks shrugged. "I kind of agree, but everybody gets one. Where else would he get that many bloody great teeth?"
"Hagrid says most dragons keep growing new teeth for their whole lives. The only way to tell if Marty pulled them out of a dead one is to see if the root is still on them. Can I see—?"
Tonks, bless her heart, was already pulling her portkey out.
Yes!Harry thought, holding it gently where it hung from Tonks' neck. His enthusiasm dampened slightly when he got a good look at it, bristling as it was with glowing spell parameters. He would have to study this for hours in order to duplicate it.
"It does still have the root," he heard himself say. This wasn't a total loss—very painstakingly, he peeled back the layers of enchantment until he could see: there! The destination. He wouldn't be able to recreate the portkey, but he now knew where the pub was located.
Hastily he repaired what he'd undone as Tonks pulled away.
"Well that settles it," she was saying with a grin. "I guess he is a secret badass."
"Guess so." Harry smiled back.
Lunch with Tonks left him in a sort of happy afterglow for the rest of the afternoon, as he worked to construct his loom. It wasn't a pretty set-up—he imagined Achird himself would have used very professional looking equipment in a laboratory setting, but Harry could only be assured of privacy in his rooms.
At this point the carpets were all rolled out of the way already, since he'd hollowed out a basin in the stone floor in which to summon Karakash the night before. Now he moved all of the furniture against the walls or out into the hallway to clear as much space as possible.
The loom design was deceptively simple. It required a reservoir for the input (dna material and a nutrient potion), a channel along which the first transfigurations occurred (conversion to pelt cells), and the 'shuttle' which would control the shape of the finished product.
Of course, since this thing would be creating living tissue and not a rug, it was a bit more complicated.
Harry was glad he'd learned about portkeys, and before that, spell creation, because otherwise he wouldn't have even known where to begin. By the time he was finished with his preparations, his room looked like a crazy person lived there. A large chalk diagram covered the floor, with runes scratched here and there to remind him where to put things. He'd used the pages of Achird's paper to draw up several blueprints, and brought out a few of his spell-smithing books for reference. He'd taken the glass pane out of his window to transfigure the various delicate tubes that would move the magically volatile liquid, and pressed into them miniscule runes of gold (from several melted down galleons) that would imbue his spell constructs with permanence. These were suspended above a ceramic reservoir full of the dna-nutrient solution, while on the other end the 'shuttle' spell would pull and form the transfigured cells inside a shimmering, vacuous field.
The room smelled faintly of yeast and hot metal; not entirely unpleasant, but definitely strange. Harry himself was tiptoeing through it all in bare feet and rolled up cuffs, and his hair stood on end more than usual.
The trickiest part lay inside that length of glass tubing between the reservoir and the weaving field. In Achird's paper, he talked about using as many as ten different chambers, and theoretically more, to give his 'pelt' the desired attributes. Harry was using only one, and he hoped he'd bound the transfigurative spells properly.
He stood back and surveyed his work for a moment. The pelt would come out like a big furry bolt of cloth—he would have to do some secondary transfiguration afterwards. He'd used his own hair, obviously, and was intensely curious about the result. The paper discussed factors that would play on the speed of production—Harry figured just from the size of his tools, it would likely take several hours to produce the size of pelt that he would need.
The only thing left to do was to start it up.
"Here goes nothing," he sighed, and tapped the glass intake over the ceramic basin. Completely defiant of gravity, a stream shot up and into the tubing, which itself began to glow hotly. Inside the chamber, the liquid swirled and sparked. Harry imagined fancifully that this was what the birth of stars looked like to a god. At the other end of the tube, matter began to coalesce in a mist of dark particles. Inside the weaving field, the shuttle swung into motion, moving back and forth almost too quickly to track.
Harry crossed his arms, and smiled.
Even though Harry knew where to find the Dragon's Perch, the fact of the matter was that he still didn't know how to apparate. Flying wasn't a viable option either, unless he wanted to spend the rest of the day traversing the countryside.
So while the loom did its thing, Harry set out to find a fireplace he could floo from. McGonagall's office was the closest that he knew of for certain, but when he arrived at her door, it was to find it locked.
He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but it made sense for a professor to lock up if they weren't going to return for the summer. None of his unlocking charms were successful, and he stood regarding the door pensively for a long moment.
Then he grunted, reached into his pocket, and pulled out the river spirit horn. He poured water until the floor in front of the door was liberally flooded, running under the doorway and into the office beyond.
With a quick prayer that nothing was waiting on the other side just yet, he steeled himself, took a breath, and hopped in.
Rushing, sucking wind tossed him about and spat him out into the twilight version of Hogwarts. He only gave himself a moment to get his bearings—a quick impression of the vast castle beneath and around him, a breathtaking construct of glittering, glowing architecture—before he stepped through a now insubstantial door into the confines of McGonagall's office. Taking one more breath of the balmy, sulfuric air, he dropped back through the neon blue puddle to the real world.
He tumbled out onto the stone floor with a gasp, and immediately banished the water. He could always pour more, but he didn't want to take any chances with creatures trying to come through after him.
He wasted little time in the office, going straight for a likely jar sitting on the mantle. It did indeed contain floo powder, though McGonagall was getting low. He wondered if he should get her some more, before he realized he didn't know where one actually acquired floo powder. His blood wand thrummed in his hand as he lit a fire in the grate, tossed a pinch in, and said, "Leaky Cauldron."
The fire flared green, and he stepped into the maelstrom. The whirling, flashing sights and sounds were all familiar, but this time, instead of being hot and stifling, it grew increasingly cold. Harry tamped down on a growing feeling of dread, and when the floo finally spit him out, he tried not to scamper away from it too quickly.
When he brushed the soot from his clothes, he was surprised to brush away flecks of frost as well.
He didn't give anyone in the dim establishment time to recognize him, although he did give Tom at the bar a quick wave. Tom just gave him a toothless grin and a nod, allowing Harry to pass out into Muggle London unmolested.
His senses were assaulted the moment he stepped outside. The roar of traffic, the chaos of rushing crowds, the smells of greasy food and dirty engines, and looming buildings combined to dizzying effect. He was entirely too well accustomed to the pristine solitude of Hogwarts.
"Bloody hell!" shouted a cyclist who blurred by, narrowly missing Harry. Apparently he was inside Leaky Cauldron's influence still; everyone seemed startled to see him when they passed too close.
With the Dragon Perch's location in mind, he muttered a quick 'Point-Me' spell, and set off through the busy afternoon crowds.
A half hour later, he was standing on the sidewalk, staring up at the gleaming flank of a very tall building. People gave him odd looks as they passed him, but he mostly ignored them.
It struck him as poetic that he had to figure out how to break into this place just to figure out how to break into another place. It'll be good practice, he told himself. If you can't handle this, you've got no business with Azkaban.
By the time he had stopped deliberating over how he would do it, a small handful of people had stopped on the sidewalk and joined him in looking skyward, as if they thought he had spotted something interesting. "Those window-washers sure have it good," he commented pointlessly, and meandered away.
Once he'd rounded the building and found a relatively isolated recess, he took a quick look around and, satisfied, cast a disillusionment spell on himself. Looking at his own hand, he could hardly see a ripple in the air, and had to marvel at how effective the little black wand was.
He could almost imagine it rumbled in pleasure at his approval.
Quickly, he cast the gecko charm on his elbows and knees, and clambered up the side of the building. Sixty stories to go, he thought dryly.
It was a singularly odd experience climbing past so many levels of office spaces. While the people inside, going through their daily grind, couldn't see him, they could certainly hear the rattling sounds he made on the glass as he crawled along. It somehow never got old seeing them look around wildly, expecting some giant bird or earthquake or rappelling crazy person. A few times Harry licked the glass right in front of them, or breathed on it, leaving an imprint of his mouth and nostrils. That really freaked them out.
By the time he'd reached the sixtieth floor, however, he was trembling with exhaustion. Gecko charm or not, he'd still climbed several hundred feet straight up.
The Dragon's Perch was evident from the outside as a strip of stone and glass that was notably grimier than the rest of the building—although a tingling on his senses reminded him that muggles wouldn't notice it.
"Now the tricky part," he muttered to himself. He was plastered to the outside of a building like a limpet, and there was obviously no door. Time to test the soundness of his theory. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to test while still on the ground.
Detaching one arm from the glass, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the river spirit horn once again. He knew he could slip through a horizontal puddle, but what about a vertical one?
Knowing he would have mere seconds to get through before gravity ruined his doorway, he took a moment to gather himself. Then, less gracefully than he would have liked, he pointed a jet at the window in front of him, pulled his limbs free, and slid sideways into the water.
Several minutes later, he emerged from the loo, hair still slightly damp. Coming out through the toilet hadn't been his first choice, but it was that or the kitchen sink, and he didn't think the dishwasher would react very well to a person coming up out of the wash. The truly harrowing part had been trying to decide whether the toilet he climbed out of would be occupied or not.
"Why, Mr. Potter!" Marty called from the bar. "A pleasant surprise! What brings you up here?"
Harry sidled up and took a stool near the end. "Tonks dropped me off. I told her I wanted another look at the place."
"Ah, she's a good lass," Marty said, winking. He uncapped a butterbeer and set it in front of Harry. "So what would you like to know?"
"Thanks," Harry said, ducking his head slightly while he tried to decide how to angle in at his objective. "Well, I was kind of curious how this all came about."
"What, running a pub for magical law enforcement hidden on the top of a high-rise?"
"Ah, well that's a rather involved story. Sure you want to commit to it?"
Harry crooked an eyebrow. "Well, I thought I did."
"Of course you do," Marty agreed. "Well! In the golden days of my youth, I was part of what is known as Aurors Without Borders—"
"Kind of like Doctors Without Borders?" Harry supplied.
"Doctors—er, yes, the muggle Healers. Yes, a bit like that. Except of course, we were hunting dark wizards, and not setting up clinics and such. At any rate, over the course of my travels, I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with hundreds of rank and file law enforcement types, and it always struck me how someone from Nepal and someone from France could be so different, and yet, because we all pursued the eradication of dark forces, we all got on famously."
"You had a dream."
"You're damn right I had a dream. I said to my buddies, I said: when I'm too old to chase these blackguard cunts up and down the mountains, I'm going to build a pub where we can all sit around and talk about chasing 'em."
Harry accidentally spit out little bit of his butterbeer. "That's quite the mission statement."
Marty nodded. "And I wanted it to be someplace where we wouldn't have to censor ourselves for the sake of muggles or the average magical citizen. Ah, how I managed to get this space is a story in itself."
Harry, sensing an impending odyssey, quickly derailed the barkeep. "So it's not just for Aurors, it's for everybody who works to, er, rid the world of evil."
"Exactly." Marty beamed. "Come to think of it, that means you as well, doesn't it?"
Harry felt his whole face flush. "I'm not like that at all; I'm just a kid who got lucky a few times. I don't work at it every day…"
He trailed off, because Marty had ignored him in favor of reaching under the bar. He tossed something onto the counter in front of Harry. It was one of the dragon-tooth portkeys.
"Welcome to the club, Mr. Potter."
A funny feeling ran through Harry then; he knew he didn't deserve this, but he also knew that he would earn it. He looked up. "Thanks, Marty."
The man clapped him once on the shoulder. "You're welcome. I know you'll continue to do us all proud."
Harry, unsure how to respond, decided to soldier on. "So who else do you get in here besides aurors?"
"Besides dark lord vanquishers?" Marty ribbed him. "Well, there's the normal hit-wizards, of course—there's a few of em over there in the corner booth. You've got your Obliviators and Muggle Liaison officers, and I believe that lady in the dark blue is a Canton diplomat—Canton being wizarding China, of course… Down at the other end of the bar there is an Azkaban Warden—"
"Really?" Harry jumped in with enthusiasm that was entirely genuine.
Marty's bushy red eyebrows furrowed. "Fellow by the name of Kip, I believe, due to head back tomorrow night in fact." He blew out a breath and shook his head. "Can't understand what makes a man take that post."
"Do you think he'd mind me asking him about it?"
"It's hard to say with that type, to be honest. Some of them treat it like a sacred duty, but others are just in it for the gold, and can't stand it otherwise. Kip's a decent sort, though."
"Thanks, Marty," Harry said, grabbing his butterbeer.
"Think nothing of it, Mr. Potter. Don't be a stranger," he added, pointing at Harry's new portkey, before moving on to other patrons.
Harry wended his way down the bar toward the man on the far end. The closer he got, the more he realized that Kip was deep in his cups, and evidently some fairly morose thoughts as well.
Harry quickly decided how he would play this, flattening his hair over his scar and pulling the label off of his butterbeer.
He toppled into the stool next to Kip with an emphatic, "Fuck!"
The warden gave him a woozy sideways look. "Amen t' that."
Harry took a sloppy swig of his drink, before driving his pointer finger into the bar. "Why do we bother goin to school for all those years just to sit behind a desk and not make enough money to pay for a place that looks like a… a damn cat lady died there?"
Kip burbled out a laugh. "I dunno, mate. Sounds better than a rock in the ocean. That's my flat, every other month."
Harry put on a faintly bewildered face. "What would you go and do that for?"
Kip let out another laugh. "Not cause I wanna, that's for damn sure. I work at Azkaban, s'why."
"Blimey," Harry slurred, making a face. Then he turned exaggeratedly thoughtful. "Bet it's pretty good money though, innit?"
Kip contemplated his glass. "Yeah. Dunno if it's worth it, sometimes."
Harry raised his bottle, splashing a little. "Here's to doing things you hate, cause you fuckin have to."
Kip gave a nod that nearly had him knocking his forehead on the bar. "Ay." He downed the rest of his drink. Harry raised his hand and ordered the warden another, with which Marty bemusedly complied.
Harry was going to get this man plastered. "So tell me about it."
An hour later, Harry was supporting a mostly incoherent Kip up the stairs behind the bar that led up to a modest inn over the pub. Marty had offered to take the warden up, but seeing as Harry and Kip were now best friends, it hadn't taken much convincing to let Harry do it.
"I fuckin love you, man," Kip was professing as they struggled up the stairs. "You're like my little brother."
"Uhuh," Harry said, blinking furiously against the onslaught of alcohol-laden breath. He'd managed to get almost all of the information he needed; how to get to the portkey room at the ministry that Kip would leave from, what time it would happen, what kinds of security measures they had. Now all he needed to do was borrow Kip's portkey, duplicate it, and slip in just behind the man when it activated the following evening.
Kip was drunk enough that Harry figured he had all night to work before the man would even be conscious, let alone think to check on the portkey.
"There you go, buddy," Harry said, having kicked open the door to the first room. He deposited the man into the cozy looking bed. Kip rolled over onto his back and promptly began to snore. Harry considered him for a minute, before sighing and pulling the man's shoes off.
Like many magical items of value, the Azkaban portkey was kept close—in this case, it was a pair of dog tags on a chain around Kip's neck. The man was so dead to the world that Harry had no problem removing them, or replacing them with a set he'd transfigured from a dresser knob.
That done, he turned the lamps down and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Down in the main pub, the place was even more crowded now that evening had fallen. It took a few minutes to get Marty's attention, as he was being kept busy orchestrating his fleet of servers.
"Just got a message from Tonks," Harry told him over the din. "She got caught up in something; can I use your floo?" He didn't fancy the idea of climbing down the side of the building if he could help it.
Marty waved him over to the big stone fireplace with a smile and a salute. Harry nodded his thanks, and tried to contain the giddy feeling of success. He tossed a handful of powder into the roaring flames, and zipped away.