A/N: Hello again! I'm back with another chapter, and while this one is a little slow, there's a special treat at the end that I hope you'll enjoy. I hope to post the next chapter before long – it's been a little crazy starting up a new job in Singapore, and I apologize for the long waits between updates. I promise, this story will keep rolling, so if you're enjoying it please keep reviewing!
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Harry Potter
Chapter 25: Opening Moves
Draco awoke with a sense of deep satisfaction, even though he'd barely slept the night before. Casting the diagnostic spell on Snape's potion had taken quite a bit of time, but in the end he got it to work. Now that he knew what the potion was, he was even more excited for the evening, when Snape would let him keep the potion as his reward. His imagination was racing, coming up with different situations in which the little vial in his inner pocket would come in handy.
But first, Draco had to make it through morning classes. Today, that meant Care of Magical Creatures with the newly-appointed Professor Rubeus Hagrid. Draco was actually looking forward to the lesson. He didn't know much about Hagrid except that he had attempted to raise a dragon in Draco's first year at Hogwarts. Malfoy shuddered, remembering the disastrous detention in the Forbidden Forest that had followed the whole dragon fiasco. Still, if that dragon was any indication, Hagrid was both willing and able to bring students into contact with dangerous, deadly, and most of all interesting beasts. Depending on what the enormous Groundskeeper-turned-Professor had in store, this class might actually have some practical value.
It was a double class that morning, combining Slytherin and Gryffindor third years. As students trickled into the paddock outside of Hagrid's hut, Draco made sure to sneer openly at Harry and his friends. He had to keep up appearances in front of his Housemates, after all. Ron Weasley rose to the occasion nicely, flashing a rude hand sign at Draco. Prat, Draco thought, though he felt almost fond of the redhead. Ron was thoroughly uncomplicated and utterly dependable – a little like Dobby, in fact – and lately, Draco had come to appreciate those traits more and more.
Theodore Nott was walking with more swagger than usual, flanked by Crabbe and Goyle. It was still strange to see, but Draco found that he enjoyed the sense of freedom that came from not having the two bodyguards following after him. Nott was welcome to them – Draco was still a force to be reckoned with, and everyone knew it. The other Slytherins were well aware that Draco neither asked for nor needed their pity, and they respected that. Pity was for the weak, and Slytherins despised nothing more than weakness.
When the last of the stragglers arrived, Hagrid came out of his hut. He was rubbing his spade-like hands excitedly, beaming like anything.
"Mornin', you lot!" he boomed. "It's yer firs' lesson o' the year, an' my firs' lesson ever, so I've prepared sommat extra special for yeh."
Draco wondered why Harry, Ron, and Hermione all went pale at the same time.
The class followed Hagrid down towards the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest, and Draco began to experience an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. But they didn't go very far in, stopping once they reached a clearing filled with winged horses.
Draco first thought they were thestrals, but these creatures weren't as gaunt or skeletal. They looked every bit as menacing as the winged horses that pulled the carriages, however, and a good deal more regal.
"These 'ere are hippogriffs," Hagrid announced to the class. Students huddled together, not sure they wanted to get too close to those hooves. "Wonderful creatures, hippogriffs are. On'y thing you oughter remember is they're powerful proud beasts. Have ter earn their respect, or else they can be a bit… touchy. Anyone want ter try?"
Draco was not particularly surprised when Harry was the one chosen to greet a hippogriff first. Anything foolhardy or stupid, and you could guarantee that the overly noble Gryffindor would jump in head-first.
When Harry didn't get his head bitten off, and even managed to wrangle an unexpected flight out of his assigned beast, the rest of the students relaxed considerably. They began going up to different hippogriffs, bowing and waiting as Harry had demonstrated, and soon the clearing was filled with the bobbing heads of students and hippogriffs. The lesson might have finished well, if it hadn't been for Theodore Nott.
"This beast can't be too smart, if it respects Potter," he announced loudly, walking brashly towards the hippogriff named Buckbeak. Draco groaned inwardly.
It looked like Nott was determined to show that he was the new hotshot in Slytherin, and he was going to do it by imitating Draco's attitude toward Potter. Hardly an original or clever strategy, and very likely to backfire. Draco and Hagrid both lunged at Nott, Hagrid bellowing a warning, but it was too late.
There was a flash of sunlight off a curved beak, and then Nott's agonized cry rang out through the clearing. Buckbeak was raising his head for another strike, but Hagrid got to him first. He shooed away the hippogriff and scooped Nott up in his arms like a lost puppy.
"I'm bleeding!" Nott keened. "The monster bit me!"
"Yeh jus' startled him," Hagrid said, his face pale and worried. He placed Nott down gently. "Look, it's jus' a scratch."
Nott's face went purple with outrage, and he took a deep breath. Draco thought it was time to intervene, before Nott realized that he had a perfect opportunity to get Hagrid in trouble.
"Shut up, you sniveling worm!" he cried out, shouldering past Crabbe and Goyle. "You're embarrassing yourself. If you don't have the brains to listen to instructions, at least have the balls to take what comes like a man."
Nott spluttered incoherently. Draco's interference had completely taken the wind out of his sails.
"Professor," Draco said in his best Slytherin voice, quiet yet completely assured, "may I take Nott to the Hospital Wing? It looks like he just got a scratch, but it might be a good idea for Madame Pomfrey to take a look."
Hagrid gave him a look that was equal parts surprise and relief. "I reckon that's a good idea. Yeh do tha', Malfoy. The rest o' yeh, learn from this. Yeh don' treat hippogriffs like servants and get away with it."
Draco walked out of the Forest with Nott, pretending to support him, but really keeping a tight grip on the boy's shoulder and upper arm. When they got out of sight of the rest of the class, Theodore shook him off angrily.
"What the hell were you playing at?" he spat angrily. "You don't have power any more. You're an orphan, a beggar! You don't get to treat me like that!"
"Let me make something clear to you," Draco purred, leaning in close and grabbing the collar of Nott's robes. "Power isn't something you get from your daddy. It's not an allowance or a new pair of dragonhide gloves. If you want it, you have to take it."
He released Nott's robes suddenly, making the weedy boy stumble. Nott glared at him and smoothed out his clothes. "I intend to," he declared. "Once my father hears I got injured in class, that oaf will be out on his ass. As for you, you'd better just stay out of my way. Challenge me in public like that again, and Vincent and Gregory will send you to the Hospital Wing."
"Let me teach you something I learned from my father," Draco said, feeling extremely scornful. "If something threatens your authority, deal with it yourself. Especially if you're new to that authority. I'll tell you something else, too. If you mention anything about this morning to your father, if Hagrid gets so much as a slap on the wrist, I'll go straight to the Minister of Magic and denounce you. Maybe you think the House of Malfoy is finished, but he certainly doesn't. If I ask him, he'll stonewall your father's career faster than you can say Avada Kedavra. Got it?"
Nott's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why are you defending that oaf? Did losing your parents turn you soft? What's next – protecting Muggles and blood traitors?"
Draco's wand was in his hand before he knew it. Nott stumbled back a step, shocked by the speed with which he'd reacted.
"I would be very careful about what you say next," Draco whispered, furious that his Unbreakable Vow prevented him from actually hexing Theodore. "I'm not defending that oaf – I'm protecting the reputation of Slytherin House. Hufflepuffs are weak. Gryffindors are stupid. We are neither. But what you did back in the clearing? That was both. If that story gets out, you become a laughingstock. I don't particularly care about that, but I do care about our House's reputation. This is my last warning – if word about this class gets outside the school, I'll know who to blame."
The walk up to the Hospital Wing was carried out in stony silence. Draco knew as he left that he had made a new enemy.
Then again, he reflected with a laugh, if the worst thing I have to worry about this year is Theodore Nott, I should consider myself blessed.
Later that day, after a satisfying supper in the Great Hall, Draco went to Snape's office for his private lesson. He produced the golden potion with a little flourish, and placed it on the Potion Master's desk.
"Felix Felicis," he announced, trying to sound bored instead of supremely pleased with himself. "Otherwise known as Liquid Luck."
Snape merely raised one eyebrow. "Correct. This potion is yours, Mr. Malfoy. Keep it close, and use it only when you have no better options. I assume you know its properties."
"Yes, sir," Draco replied. Magically manufactured luck – it sounded almost too good to be true, but if it was half as effective as the book in the library claimed, it would be an invaluable tool in a battle against a foe of superior skill.
Do your worst, you snake-faced bastard, Draco thought, imagining Orochimaru's burning yellow eyes. This world has a few tricks you haven't seen yet.
"If you're done patting yourself on the back," Snape said drily, "perhaps we can move on. There is much to cover tonight, starting with the basics of Occlumency."
Draco put the vial of Liquid Luck back into his robes, and mentally resigned himself to another late night. After his meeting with Snape, he had one more important task to carry out, and he wasn't sure how long it would take.
It seemed that sleep was going to become a thing of the past. Well, no one had said that the life of a spy was going to be easy.
Thursday evening was the first meeting of the Gryffindor study group, and the beginning of Harry, Ron, and Hermione's plan to train their classmates. Hermione had passed word around to the girls, while Ron and Harry told everyone else. It would be the exact same group that had met last year to go over Sarutobi's homework assignments, with one addition: the youngest Weasley. Ginny had changed greatly since the episode with Riddle's diary – she was more confident and outspoken, and she attacked her studies with determination. It was actually Ron who suggested that they include Ginny in their group, although Harry and Hermione agreed instantly. Ginny had already come face-to-face with one Dark Lord, so in a way she had more experience than anyone there except Harry.
After dinner, everyone gathered in the Gryffindor Common room. They were lucky – except for them, the room was deserted. There was a good deal of chattering at first, but when Harry cleared his throat, silence fell immediately.
"Erm…" he began, embarrassed. "You know why we're here…"
"'Cause Umbridge is a fat toad," Fred and George chimed in. Harry laughed with the rest, feeling the tension lighten somewhat.
"No arguments here. Look, we've all had a few classes with her already, and it's clear she's not going to teach us anything useful."
A chorus of nods gave Harry a little more confidence. His audience was primed – he wasn't going to have to convince them that Umbridge was a disaster.
"Unfortunately, this year Hogwarts – all of us – well, we're in more danger than ever. If that were otherwise, I wouldn't care if Umbridge had us making daisy-chains all year, but it's true. There's a new Dark Lord on the rise, and he won't stop until he's enslaved all of wizardkind."
That got a rise out of them, as Harry had known it would. Fred, George, and Ginny were the only ones who took it in stride – after seeing the change in their parents' behavior that summer, they had probably guessed that something was very wrong with the Wizarding World. But Dean, Seamus, and Neville were raising their voices in shock, and Lavender and Parvati looked terrified.
"Shut up, the lot of you!" Ron bellowed, channeling Hagrid at his fiercest. "Listen to what Harry's got to say. Then you can have a mental breakdown."
Harry nodded his thanks, and looked around at the circle of students. "Professor Sarutobi told me all of this, after the fight at the end of last year. Here's what really happened: this new Dark Lord sent one of his followers to distract the teachers while he tried to kill Dumbledore. Ron, Hermione and I helped the teachers fight, and… well, we got lucky."
He felt a phantom pain in his stomach and tried not to wince. Fawkes' tears had healed his stab wound without even a scar, but the memory of that searing pain resurfaced every now and again.
Hermione took up where he left off. "Dumbledore and Sarutobi fought off Orochimaru – that's his name, Orochimaru – but they couldn't defeat him. So as of last year, the Wizarding World is at war."
Neville raised his hand as if he were in class, his innocent face screwed up in concentration. "Why doesn't the Ministry believe Dumbledore? I mean, four teachers and the three of you fought Orochimaru's follower in the Great Hall – isn't that enough proof?"
Harry silently cursed Fudge for the umpteenth time. "You'd think, wouldn't you?"
But that question was more Hermione's style. She shushed Harry with a wave of her hand. "The Minister doesn't think too clearly where Dumbledore is concerned," she said. "Fudge thinks Dumbledore broke out Sirius Black from Azkaban last year – remember the breakout? It was covered by the Daily Prophet. In any case, Fudge reckons that Dumbledore is using Sirius as a tool to gain power."
Dean Thomas scratched his head. "How's that? Not sure I follow you."
"Think about it this way. Let's say you let a lion loose in the streets. It kills dozens of people, and your government fails to kill it. Then you step in and kill the lion. Now the people love you more than the government. When you tell them you can protect them better than the government, they believe you, because you killed the lion when no one else could. Do you see? Fudge is terrified that by pretending that Sirius is some new Dark Lord, Dumbledore can make a bid to become Minister of Magic."
"Um…" Lavender said, her voice small and hesitant. "How do you know Sirius isn't a this new Dark Lord? I mean, I don't think Dumbledore is making him a lion, or whatever, but how do you know Sirius wasn't behind the attack? No one's ever escaped from Azkaban before, and he murdered all those people…"
"Sirius is innocent!" Harry exclaimed, goaded into saying too much. Ron put a hand gently on his shoulder.
"Easy, mate," he whispered.
"Sirius isn't important," Hermione said, much more calmly than Harry would have been able to. "There is a new Dark Lord, and it's not Sirius. We have proof."
"Do you really?" Seamus demanded, a little belligerently because of his fear. "If I'm hearing you right, you never fought this bloke at all, just his follower. So really, the Dark Lord could be anyone. You've only got Dumbledore's word about this 'roachy-mara' guy."
Fred and George rounded on the Irish wizard, furious. "Since when has Dumbledore's word not been enough?" George demanded. Seamus shrank back from the heat in his tone.
Hermione spoke up before the twins took matters any further. "Actually, we've got more than that. We didn't see Orochimaru, but we know someone who did. Someone we trust."
"Who?" Dean, Seamus, Lavender and Parvati all asked at once.
Harry held out a hand, gaining their attention once more. "Before we tell you, you have to swear that you won't tell anyone what you're about to hear. We hope that you'll believe us, and that you'll allow us to train you for the coming war. But even if you think we're full of hippogriff dung, you have to swear that nothing you learn tonight leaves this common room. Otherwise you become our enemy, and we'll act accordingly. Got it?"
Eventually they all nodded agreement, some solemnly like Neville and Ginny, some fearfully. "We swear."
"That's good enough for us," Harry said. "You can come out now… Draco."
There was a slight ripple in the air in the middle of the circle, and then Draco Malfoy swept off Harry's Invisibility Cloak with a flourish. The blond Slytherin grinned, enjoying the gasps of shock. "Now I know how you dastardly Gryffindors kept getting the drop on me the last two years. Merlin's Bones, but this thing is useful…"
Fred and George traded chagrined glances. "It's a sorry day indeed when the Weasley twins are pranked by a Malfoy…"
"Too true, brother mine."
"Malfoy…" Dean said, his face a picture of confusion. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here so that there can be no doubt about their story," Draco said, pointing to Harry and his teammates. "I've seen Orochimaru's face. He killed my mother in front of my eyes. He's the reason I'm an orphan now."
His tone, so matter-of-fact, rejected pity even as it left no doubt of his sincerity.
"If not for Dumbledore and Sarutobi," he went on, "I'd be worse than dead right now. Orochimaru would be wearing my body like a set of robes – he has magical powers that are stranger than Professor Sarutobi's, and darker."
After a moment of silence, in which the Gryffindors tried to come to grips with these revelations, Seamus ventured to comment. "I reckon if things are so bad that Potter and Malfoy are teaming up… I'd better get on board."
No one disagreed.
"I've got to get back," Draco said, gathering up the Invisibility Cloak. "I know this is a lot to take in, but just remember what you're fighting for. Most of you still have your families. If you get strong enough, you just might be able to keep them."
He disappeared entirely, leaving behind a leaden, horrified silence.
"Hey, Malfoy," Ron said in a stage whisper, "you're gonna give that cloak back, you know!"
A disembodied voice came floating back: "Not a chance in hell, Weasel!"
Fred asked what was on everyone's mind. "So," he rubbed his hands together with anticipation, "when do we start?"
Harry grinned. "No time like the present," he said. "Let's head up to the Boys' Dormitory. Professor Sarutobi gave us a present that I think you all should see."
Just like that, the Gryffindor study group became the first members of the "Hogwarts Resistance," as the twins half-jokingly called their mission to practice combat magic under Umbridge's nose. That night Harry, Ron, and Hermione began drilling their classmates in the basic physical and magical exercises that Sarutobi had taught them. It hadn't even been a year since they were on the receiving end of these lessons, but it felt like a lifetime had gone by.
At first, Harry was worried that the pace would wear out the other students, or that fear of getting caught would discourage them. But his classmates were true Gryffindors, and the knowledge of what was waiting for them out in the world drove them to work hard, harder even than they might have believed they could.
They met for training every evening after dinner, making sure that no one was around to see them climbing the stairs to Sarutobi's trunk. There wasn't enough time to teach their classmates everything that they had learned from Sarutobi, so Harry, Ron and Hermione focused on improving their fitness, precision casting, and repertoire of offensive and defensive spells. After the first week everyone was drained physically and magically, but their progress was evident and kept them motivated.
Seamus put it into words on the fifth day of training, after completing an obstacle course like the one Sirius had used to drill Harry and his friends at Grimmauld Place. "This is brilliant!" he exclaimed, as sweat dripped down his face. "I can actually tell I'm getting better!"
"Bloody right, mate," Dean said after blowing the head off of an animated Death Eater cutout. "I just wish that was Umbridge."
As happy as Harry was to finally begin helping his classmates learn how to defend themselves, he worried that they weren't progressing fast enough. After all, even with the other Gryffindors, their group only numbered eleven. That was a far cry better than three (or four including Draco), but it was hardly an army.
An army, of course, was what they needed, and it was exactly what Umbridge feared that Dumbledore was trying to create. But the more students they brought in, the greater the risk of exposure. It had been risky enough trusting their fellow Gryffindors.
But Hermione was working on that angle. Outside of teaching her classmates and sneaking off to the Shrieking Shack with Ron and Harry to train with Mad-Eye and Sirius, she spent long hours in the library crafting strategies to expand their training to include members of other Houses. Not only that, but she created study guides and sample essays to minimize the time that the Gryffindors needed to spend on homework, allowing them to train even more.
Harry had no clue how she was managing everything – it didn't seem like there were enough hours in the day for Hermione to do all of that. "Take it easy," he said to her one night. "You're no use to anyone if you wear yourself out."
"Trust me," Hermione said, her eyes glinting oddly. "It's all about efficient time management. You just worry about training, and let me worry about recruiting outside Gryffindor. I've got a few ideas, but it'll take a few more weeks before I'm sure."
Harry trusted Hermione, but he still asked Ron to keep an eye on Hermione. The protective Weasley would make sure that Hermione didn't exhaust herself.
Ron was also in his element as a budding strategist. The addition of eight more wizards and witches into their training sessions allowed him to test out new battlefield tactics that required more than three people. Once their classmates were familiar with basic combat spells like Protego, Stupefy, and Expelliarmus, he began putting them through larger-scale fights with five and six to a side, experimenting with different formations and combinations of spells.
Every day, Harry blessed Professor Sarutobi for giving them his trunk, which served as the perfect meeting place for the Gryffindors. As long as they met in Gryffindor Tower, they could train in secret with virtually no chance of discovery. In honor of Gryffindor's mascot, they began calling the trunk the Lion's Den. Slowly but surely, the grueling workouts transformed the eleven Gryffindors. They were becoming more than classmates and fellow conspirators – they were becoming a team.
A week after the first evening, the Weasley twins fulfilled their promise and showed him the fruits of their labors over the summer. "We decided to switch gears from pranking to military research and development," George explained, as Fred began unpacking labeled vials and wicked-looking gadgets from a giant carrying case. "We've got a few things we thought might come in handy."
Fred held out a leather pouch tied with a bit of twine. "This is a variant of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. We've worked out an enchantment that lets the caster see through it – sort of like Muggle night-vision goggles."
"We're working on a magic-dampening version," George added, "but we haven't quite got the trick of it yet."
"We've also got a decent variety of potions listed in St. Mungo's Guide to Magical Medicine. Blood-Replenishing potions-"
"-and of course, the ever-popular Skele-gro."
"Blimey," Harry said, mightily impressed. "We've got our own Hospital Wing."
"Not quite, old boy," George said modestly, "but at least we'll be prepared in case of a scuffle. I just wish we'd been able to create a few more offensive options. It's devilishly tricky to mix poisons and the like… rather hard on the test subjects, don't you know."
Harry nodded, hoping that the twins hadn't learned that from experience… he didn't really want to know. But something George had said had given him an idea…
"You know, the two of you are already far beyond me in terms of potion and spell creation," Harry said thoughtfully. "But I think I know someone who could put your talents to their proper use."
"Really?" Fred asked, bouncing on his toes. "And who might that be?"
Harry grinned wickedly. "Let's put it this way… how long has it been since your last detention with Snape?"
The twins' faces fell as one. "Harry, you're not serious!"
"Of course not, he's my godfather," Harry quipped. "But I'm definitely in earnest. Make it happen."
Several days later, the entire school heard the story of the Weasley twins' latest prank. Apparently, during a double Potions session with fifth-year Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs, Fred and George cast a spell that made the smoke rising from their cauldron resolve into an image of Professor Snape in an improbable embrace with an Acromantula. Justin Finch-Fletchley told Harry during Herbology that Snape obliterated the smoke, and the Weasleys' cauldron along with it.
"Honestly, I thought he was going to hex them, too," Justin said in a hushed tone. "Instead, he only gave them detention every night until Christmas." Justin shuddered. "Can you imagine that? I'd rather get hexed."
Nice one, you two, Harry thought with satisfaction. It seemed the plan had worked out, and Professor Snape had two clever new apprentices. No one would ever believe that the Potions master was actually teaching the Weasley twins – those detentions were the perfect cover.
A few days later, while training in the Lion's Den, Harry asked the twins how their detentions were going.
"Capital, really amazing," George said earnestly.
"Yeah," Fred chimed in, "we're learning loads. You should have seen Snape's expression when he realized we've been holding back all these years. After he finished tearing strips off us, he put us in charge of some particularly tricky potions that he's got brewing."
"The man's a genius," George said, "and believe me, those are words I never thought I'd say. Some of his latest potions are just about ready for the animal-testing phase. Wait until we perfect our souped-up version of the Draught of Strength!"
Harry suppressed a shiver, thinking about the horrors likely to result from the combined imaginations of Snape and the Weasley twins. Now that was a combination likely to give even Orochimaru pause.
And so the first month of school passed. The days grew colder as summer gave way to fall. Dementors patrolled outside the school grounds and Umbridge prowled within. And high in Gryffindor Tower, eleven young witches and wizards trained for the coming war.
That morning, like most mornings since he'd accepted Orochimaru's tainted offer, Bill Weasley awoke feeling unclean and shrouded by evil. Not only was he trapped in a school dedicated to raising the next generation of Dark wizards, but Bill was forced to use his own training to further their monstrous growth. In another world Bill might have enjoyed teaching – Durmstrang students were not monsters, though they served one, and at times Bill even found himself enjoying watching them learn. But it was what they were learning that disturbed him. Bill now spent his evening hours creating lesson plans to make deadly curses easier to understand and cast. He tutored students during his office hours on the finer points of torture and lingering poisons, and worse, he did it well.
Every day was a nightmare, but Bill had no choice. He could refuse to follow Orochimaru's orders and die a courageous death, but it wouldn't be useful. Orochimaru had dozens of adult Dark wizards working for him now – Bill saw them sometimes in the corridors, on their way to or from the Headmaster's chambers. Perhaps none of them had Bill's magical talent or familiarity with various types of curses, but any of them could teach children to use magic to kill. Bill's death would accomplish nothing, and he refused to accept that. So he persevered, but every day left its mark in agony upon his soul.
Today, at least, he had no classes to administer. "Headmaster Karkaroff" had declared a school-wide holiday, canceling all classes and organizing a dueling tournament that all the boys were allowed to attend. The duelists were his hand-picked lieutenants and the undisputed leaders of the school, the Eight Dragons. At the end of the day, only one would remain victorious.
Bill grimaced. There was no difference between today's spectacle and the gladiator matches of ancient Rome, except that those Muggle gladiators hadn't been riding dragons.
Bill met his brother Charlie at breakfast, and together they walked down to the Quidditch pitch. Boys ranging in age from eleven to eighteen milled around chaotically, chattering and placing bets on the upcoming tournament.
"It's going to be a bloody mess," Charlie said angrily to Bill, as they made their way towards an empty row of bleachers in the back. "Those damn kids are too eager for their own good, and the dragons are worse. I wouldn't be surprised if half of them ended up losing an arm, or worse."
"I guess we'll see," Bill said, distracted by the sight of a few familiar faces in the bleachers across the pitch. They were deathly pale, and when they smiled, sun glittered off of fangs. "The vampires don't seem to mind staying at Durmstrang anymore," he commented.
"They wouldn't," Charlie agreed bitterly. "Not with the amount of wizard blood they're receiving from the Headmaster. The longer this goes on, the stronger they'll get. Give it enough time, and they'll worship him."
The stadium filled up before their eyes, and soon enough it was time for the tournament to begin.
There arose hundreds of shouts from the crowd, as two dragons emerged from the mouth of the tunnel down at the end of the pitch. Two teens were perched on saddles resting between the dragons' necks and their wings. One was the Head Boy, Mikhail, whose Welsh Green was now the size of a large horse. The other boy, Boris Poliakoff, rode a Ukrainian Ironbelly that was bigger than a house. The dragons roared in challenge, momentarily drowning out the crowd. The boys raised their wands in salute to the Headmaster, who stood next to a group of vampires. His voice echoed throughout the pitch, carried by a Sound Amplification charm.
"It is good to see you all today, taking a well-deserved break from your studies. As you watch your classmates in the stadium, pay close attention. They are your elders, but they are also your brothers-in-arms. If you work hard, one day it might be you riding a dragon for the glory of Durmstrang. Let the tournament… begin!"
As the dragons took flight and bright jets of light erupted from the boys' wands, Charlie leaned in close to whisper to Bill.
"Two boys came to my office a few nights ago. One of them was the leader of the Dragon Corps – Viktor Krum. The other is the boy riding the Ironbelly. They guessed I wasn't serving Orochimaru willingly. Said they were forced into swearing the Vow, too."
Bill tried not to stare too openly at his brother. "They said that?" he whispered. "What did you tell them?"
"What do you think?" Charlie asked scornfully. "I told them it was none of their business why I served Orochimaru, and if they came to me again I'd report them. But don't you get it, Bill? If they were telling the truth, then we're not the only ones capable of fighting back! They could be useful when we try to esca-"
Bill kicked Charlie hard in the shin. "Don't say that!" he hissed. "We have no plans to escape, do you hear me? None! Orochimaru has us right where he wants us, and there's nothing we can do to change that right now. Got it?"
"No," said Charlie, every bit as mad as Bill. "I refuse to lie down and take this. If there's a way out of this nightmare, I'm going to find it. What's the worst that can happen? He'll kill me? It would be a blessing, compared to the hell I'm living now."
"You know that's not the worst that can happen!" Bill reminded Charlie, willing his hotheaded brother to see sense. "He could kill our family – Ginny, Mum, Ron, and everyone else. We can bear this for their sake. We have to bear this."
Charlie seemed to shrink in upon himself, his eyes haunted and older than his years. "I know that. But I keep asking myself: if I sell my soul to keep my family safe, am I any less damned? Innocent people are going to die, Bill. They're going to burn to death, torched by dragons that I helped raise. I don't know if I can live with that. Not even for our family's sake."
"I know," said Bill. "I carry that same guilt. But as long as we're alive, we can hope that something will change. Dumbledore and Sarutobi know about Orochimaru. They were marshaling the Order of the Phoenix months before we were taken, and now that I haven't checked in, the Order will know I'm gone. You have to trust me, Charlie – the best thing we can do now is wait, and hope that good can triumph over evil. When the Order finds us, we'll be ready. When we die, let's make bloody sure that our deaths mean something."
Charlie looked at him for a few long seconds, a touch of wonder in his eyes. "That's why you agreed to Orochimaru's bargain," he breathed. "You knew the Order would come."
"I hope," Bill corrected him gently. "But it's a reasonable hope, given that I was in communication with the Order for several months. It may take awhile, but they'll find Orochimaru."
Charlie smiled, and it was like watching the sun break through the clouds. "And we'll be waiting when they do."
Charlie fell silent after that, and watched the tournament with much higher spirits. Bill, watching him, felt bad for lying his brother.
Sure, it was always possible that the Order would find them. But Bill was not prepared to wait for that day. He had only told Charlie that because if Orochimaru ever used his Legilimency to probe Charlie's thoughts, he would think that the Weasley brothers were content to wait.
Bill, however, had something more proactive in mind. It wasn't going to be easy, of course. But every night, Bill made a little more progress unraveling the magic that bound him to Orochimaru's will. Sometimes it felt like swimming against the tide, and others like trying to grasp strings slippery with grease, but every night he tried anew.
Success, Bill knew, was not likely. There had never, as far as he knew, been a witch or wizard who managed to break free of the Unbreakable Vow. But Bill also believed in the basic tenet of the Curse-Breaker, that no spell was flawless. Maybe it was set in stone, but that just meant you had to find the right chisel.
Protected by his Occlumency and Charlie's ignorance, Bill would do something that no wizard had ever done before. Once the Unbreakable Vow was shattered and its hold on him broken, Bill would wait. He would wait patiently until the right moment made itself known to him. And then he would fight, drawing on every ounce of his cunning and the full fury of his righteous soul.
Down in the arena below, a well-aimed Stunner caught Mikhail by surprise, and he slumped over in his saddle. Poliakoff's dragon, Ivan, screamed his victory to the skies, as the Welsh Green brought his rider to the ground. The stands reverberated with the cheers and shouts of students, and Bill yelled right along with them.
A/N: That's the end of this chapter, but I've included a little something that I promised you all long ago: the one-shot with news from Konoha. I've been going back and forth about where I want that story line to go, but I believe that I've finally figured it out. Before you get too excited, I will NOT be starting this as a new story until after I've finished Professor's Journey. This is just a first taste, to thank all of you who have taken the time and effort to review. This story only lives because of you – bless you, one and all, for encouraging me to work harder and write more. This one-shot is for you.
Konoha - Two Weeks After the Invasion
Training Area 44, otherwise known as the Forest of Death, was not very popular among the shinobi of Konoha. It was dark and gloomy, and filled with poisonous insects – the weaker chuunin didn't want to risk an embarrassing death, and the stronger ones figured there were more cheerful places to train. Sometimes members of the Aburame clan went there for research purposes, and every now and again a foraging team went searching for rare compounds to make medicines and poisons, but for the most part, it was possible to spend days in the forest and never see another living soul.
That made it the perfect training ground for Uchiha Sasuke. In the weeks following the failed Invasion of Konoha, the lone Uchiha retreated even more from the rest of the world. Sakura tried to follow him a few times, but a few harsh words were generally enough to send her running. Naruto would have been harder to shake off, but the village outcast had done the unthinkable, and vanished from Konoha over a week ago. Naruto had harbored a deep reservoir of guilt after collapsing the barrier – he felt responsible for killing the Third Hokage, even if Kakashi and Jiraiya talked themselves hoarse trying to convince him otherwise. Sasuke had no idea where Naruto was now, though he was willing to bet that his teammate wouldn't make it very far before running into some kind of trouble or other.
So while search parties looked for Naruto and the high-ranking shinobi of Konoha met behind closed doors to decide the future of the village, Sasuke was pushing himself to his limits in the forest. A black mood had descended upon him after the Invasion, and with each new dawn his thoughts turned darker, bleaker. Pushing himself beyond the point of exhaustion helped a little by numbing his mind, but it never worked for long.
Sasuke knew what the problem was, although at first he didn't want to admit it. But training for days in perfect solitude had a way of making you realize when you were lying to yourself. Sasuke was angry, despairing, depressed, and he knew why: Orochimaru, the Snake Sannin, was dead.
It was almost funny – the village rejoiced after fighting off the combined forces of Suna and Oto, and they mourned the loss of their beloved Hokage. Sasuke, on the other hand, mourned the loss of the man responsible for Sarutobi's death. The Snake Sannin had given Sasuke a taste of power with his Curse Seal, and Sasuke hungered for more.
Itachi was out there somewhere, no doubt still growing in power, and no one but Sasuke even knew, let alone cared. This stupid village wanted to turn him into a symbol – the last Uchiha, top of his class, wielding his sharingan in service of Konoha. But a symbol was a tool, and a tool couldn't kill Itachi.
Sasuke needed more, he needed to get stronger now, not when his superiors told him it was safe. Orochimaru had offered him that opportunity, and although Sasuke hadn't made his decision then, he realized too late that deep down, he had always meant to go with the Sannin. He would cast aside Konoha like an old overcoat, and become what he was always meant to be: an avenger.
It would have been the perfect plan, if Naruto hadn't collapsed that barrier and crushed both Orochimaru and Sarutobi like a couple of bugs. Sasuke snorted. Typical Naruto, rushing in and making Sasuke's life difficult.
Of course, Sasuke didn't feel all that angry with Naruto. If Orochimaru could get taken out by the dead last so easily – obliterated by his own barrier, in fact! – then maybe he wouldn't have been able to teach Sasuke enough to take on Itachi anyway.
But now it seemed like Sasuke was out of options. He could train all he wanted in this Kami-forsaken forest, and it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference. He needed to find someone truly strong, someone who could give him a challenge that would force him to grow, give him an edge hard enough and strong enough to face his brother.
If he stayed in Konoha, he thought he might go insane. Likely Team 7 would go back to doing C-rank missions, until Kakashi thought that they had "recovered" from the ordeal of the Invasions. Like Sasuke even cared about that!
No, Sasuke couldn't stay here. It wasn't ideal, but unless he could think of something better, he was going to have to-
Sasuke had ducked just in time, and the kunai aiming for his head instead buried itself hilt-deep in the trunk of the tree behind him. His instincts took over and he kicked away from the ground, scanning his surroundings with his sharingan. To his shock, there were at least a dozen chakra signatures belonging to shinobi concealed in the surrounding trees – how could he possibly have failed to sense them approaching? Whoever these assailants were, they must be strong.
Sasuke sent a barrage of fireballs towards his enemies' hiding places, using the fire to hide shuriken connected to wires that he held in his hands. It had been useful against Orochimaru, so maybe it would work again. But he never had the chance to find out.
Two of the shinobi activated Water Release techniques that turned his flames into dozens of hissing gouts of steam. It seemed his assailants had been warned about his skill with ninja wire, because they brought out kunai with oversized, hooked blades. Sasuke had to drop his wires or get pulled off balance in twelve directions.
Sasuke snorted with annoyance. These cowards didn't have the guts to close with him – instead they buzzed around like mosquitoes. He would show them the error of their ways. A bright chirping filled the air as he shaped his chakra to perform Chidori. He was much better with this technique than he had been during his fight with Gaara – he could perform more of them in a row now, while using his sharingan eye to avoid counterattacks.
No sooner had he completed the technique, than his opponents jumped farther away. He was about to give chase, when another shinobi came through the trees, flying on a creature that couldn't possibly be alive – was it made of ink?
The shinobi, who was pale and had short hair as black as Sasuke's, unrolled a scroll that virtually exploded with tiny creatures. They were all made of ink, and every one of them went for Sasuke like a bull seeing red. He cut them down by the dozens, his chidori turning the creatures into harmless blobs of ink, but there were always more.
Sasuke fought his way free and deactivated the technique. He couldn't afford to waste any more chakra on these manufactured beasts. It was time for some more fire.
"Stop!" A deep, commanding voice rang out in the Forest. Sasuke's opponents came to attention, and the pale shinobi flying in the treetops brought his bird down to ground level. He rolled up his scroll, ending the avalanche of ink creatures.
From out of the shadows emerged an old man, his right eye and the whole of his right arm swathed in bandages. He walked with a cane and appeared frail, but his voice and the glint in his one uncovered eye spoke of power.
"Danzo?" Sasuke exclaimed. He recognized the elder from Konoha's Bingo Book, but he had never met the man. Certainly he didn't remember doing anything that would motivate one of Konoha's elders to have him killed.
"You know me," Danzo rumbled, as his silent assassins gathered behind him. "That's good. I hate wasting time."
"Any reason why you're trying to kill me?" Sasuke demanded, his heart racing. He could probably handle an old man, but those thirteen minions were another question… especially the one who could create ink monsters. He was watching Sasuke with an expression that was utterly blank, yet somehow managed to convey amusement. He was dangerous.
"If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead," Danzo snapped, and Sasuke jerked upright. Danzo no longer leaned on his cane, and his posture was different. Sasuke revised his threat assessment right away – Danzo was not just any old man, that was sure. "No, Sasuke, this was simply to make a point. My shinobi are quite skilled, yes? Perhaps you could have defeated them all, but the fact that they even gave you a moment's pause tells the true story: you are weak."
"Watch it, old man," Sasuke sneered. "I was just having some fun. I could have killed them any time I wanted."
"Even if that were true, it would only mark you as foolish," Danzo said, sounding disappointed. "A true shinobi kills swiftly, without remorse. I would have thought that you, of all people, would know this."
"What do you mean, me of all people?" Sasuke demanded.
Danzo shrugged. "You are the brother of Itachi, are you not? Do you imagine that he would have toyed with these shinobi? They would have been dead before they even laid eyes on him."
Sasuke froze. "What do you know of Itachi?"
Danzo's eye held his gaze, unblinking. "More than you can imagine. Sasuke, my people have kept a close watch on you, though you knew it not. I know, for example, that you do not believe that Konoha can teach you anything. That is false. There is much here for you to learn… much I can give you."
"If these fools are the best you've got," Sasuke said with as much scorn as he could muster, "I think I'm better off on my own."
"Is that so?" Danzo asked, amused. "So there's nothing I have that you want… not even the secrets of the sharingan?"
Then, to Sasuke's utter shock, Danzo unwrapped the bandage covering his right eye, revealing a pupil-less orb of red and black.
"How… how did you get that?" Sasuke stammered.
"Konoha suffered a tragic loss the night of the massacre," Danzo answered calmly. "I did my best to ensure that the legacy of the Uchiha would not disappear entirely. Do not be a fool, Sasuke. I can make you stronger, help you unlock the true ability of your sharingan prepare you to face Itachi. Come to me. It is your destiny."
"Say I do," Sasuke said after a moment's pause. "What do you get out of this deal?"
"A greater chance of peace for Konoha," Danzo replied immediately. "Your revenge and Konoha's security both rely on the same thing: Uchiha Itachi's death. So what do you say?"
There was really nothing more to consider. If Danzo knew anything about the deeper secrets of the sharingan, anything at all, it was worth Sasuke's time. He would walk down this road, and perhaps with Danzo's help, he would reach Itachi that much sooner.
"I'm with you," Sasuke said at last, "until I think you have nothing more to teach me."
Danzo stamped the butt of his cane on the forest floor. "So be it. First, you will have to disappear. Perhaps leave a note saying that you are leaving the village to bring Naruto back – after your missions together, no one will find that hard to believe. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, you're missing in action, absent without leave. You will become a ghost, and then your training will truly begin."
"You'd better not disappoint me, old man. One sharingan doesn't make you an expert – Kakashi was my teacher, but he can't even hold a candle to Itachi."
"I assure you, I have a few more tricks up my sleeve. Oh, and Sasuke…" the old man grinned, and his sharingan eye whirled disconcertingly. "Welcome to Root."