"It really is Pettigrew!"
"He betrayed them, then! Like the elves-"
"Take him into custody." This from the minister. Harry watched Wormtail's face contort with panic as he realized how much larger his audience was than usual. Two of the wizards that followed the minister around everywhere stepped right up outside the cage and pulled out their wands. Harry kept one eye on them and the other on Padfoot, who had gone tense and alert. The professors were approaching.
"Mr. Potter, how did you-"
"Padfoot!" Lupin said, interrupting Snape and dropping to his knees next to Harry and Padfoot. The dog-man himself woofed softly back and licked Lupin's outstretched hand. Lupin laughed and tugged Padfoot into a hug. "I thought- but I couldn't believe you'd just be standing there right next to Harry if- thank Merlin, Padfoot, you have no idea what it's been like-"
Snape glared at them, suspicion knitting his brow as he watched Lupin's joyous reunion with his old dog-shaped friend.
"Where did you find Pettigrew?" Snape asked Harry after the headmaster joined them and placed a hand on Lupin's shoulder, stooping slightly to exchange words. "And why did you take it upon yourself to- announce his presence in this way?"
"I found him in the red tower," Harry said, watching the wizards with the minister as they broke open a hole in Harry's cage. Wormtail was shouting, and the wizards shouted back as they threw magic at him from their wands. "And I made a couple boons that required it."
"What boon could-" Snape looked down at the dog again, then up at the headmaster. Harry watched their silent exchange with interest. Snape looked to Harry again, scowling. "You said a couple."
"I did," Harry said, and beamed over Snape's shoulder as Luna's father approached. "Hello again!"
"Oh, hello, hello little elf!" Luna's father looked overcome with delight at the sight of Harry, who was rather pleased to see him as well. "I did always used to wonder what became of you! Luna talks of little else in her letters!"
"I had asked her to thank you for the book and the plums," Harry said, nodding along. "I hadn't had floating fruit in years, and you've kept them up very well."
"Oh no, I should be thanking you for those plums," Luna's father said. "In fact..." He fished around in his pocket for a moment before coming up with another jar of them. "I thought I'd bring you some in return for your invitation today."
Harry took the jar of plums and exclaimed over it with pleasure. Snape cleared his throat, which Harry ignored. "I suppose you'll want a quote for your story?" he asked, looking back at Luna's father, still smiling.
He nodded and poised his quill over parchment expectantly. Harry paused in thought, which gave Snape his opportunity.
"Mr. Potter," he interjected, "I'm certain we'd all appreciate the full story before the Aurors finish with Pettigrew."
Harry glanced over at the wizards at Wormtail's cage, who seemed to have bound him between them and were exchanging words while staring over at Harry. He frowned and launched into his explanation. "I thought I'd get the bird and her eggs both by showing you all that Wormtail over there was the one to blame for it all. Now you know that Padfoot's innocent, and the minister's foe is vanquished."
Snape and the headmaster's attention sharpened there, though Luna's father was quick to speak first. "The minister's foe, Harry? How have you vanquished him now?"
"The danger from 'you know who' is gone, isn't it?" Harry gestured broadly to include Wormtail, the Aurors, and the minister, who approached as he spoke. "That's really what your minister wanted, was to not have to worry about that particular dangerous wizard attacking people. He's not a danger anymore. That counts as vanquished as far as I'm concerned."
"And you think that just by revealing Pettigrew, you've done that?" the minister demanded, forcing his way into the conversation. Harry gave him a disapproving frown, but answered the question.
"Of course I have," he said, shrugging. It followed clearly. "You lot may have missed the bigger picture, but I know what I'm on about. Wormtail was the real problem, isn't that obvious?"
The minister and the headmaster exchanged a glance. Or rather, the minister looked to the headmaster for an explanation, and the headmaster watched Harry with his piercing, thoughtful gaze. Harry did not deign to return his stare, and turned back to Luna's father, who had to elbow to keep within speaking distance of Harry now. It was becoming rather close, in fact, since Wormtail had been taken into custody and was no longer an interesting distraction. Harry was beginning to feel anxious with so many people surrounding him on all sides.
"The play answered most of your questions," Harry said, speaking loudly over the chatter. How many wizards had he invited, again? It hadn't seemed like half so many when they were all focused on the other elves. "Anything you might have cause to wonder about beyond that is almost certainly an Elvish Secret." He cast an eye around and found Padfoot, still standing with Lupin. He stretched out a hand like he usually did before helping him to disappear. "Padfoot."
Padfoot glanced away from Lupin, who seemed to be speaking to him now in a low voice, and barked once at Harry. Harry frowned and waited another moment, but Padfoot whined and Harry dropped his arm, understanding now that Padfoot wanted to stay here with the wizards.
That was fine.
He was one of them, after all. Harry was the only one who ever forgot that.
Snape asked Harry another question, but Harry couldn't distinguish his words over the dozen other voices trying to get his attention. He reached up and touched his collarbone to check that the snake was still there, then disappeared.
The boons were complete. He had no more business with any of them.
"You're back," Draco said with some surprise, the very next afternoon. He'd looked up to find Harry sitting on the table next to the books and parchments he had spread out around him, holding a Chaldean table and trying to decode it with a confused expression.
Harry dropped the parchment and let it land where it may. "It's all finished," he explained, leaning forward over his crossed knees to prop his chin on his hands and peer at Draco's answers for their latest homework assignment. Draco shifted the parchment so that Harry could see better, which Harry appreciated until he realized what Draco had actually been looking for.
"The Elf-Who-Lived Strikes Again," Draco read, shaking the newspaper open importantly. "Sirius Black pardoned by the Minister for Magic in a shocking twist after a performance in Muggle London put on by newly emancipated elves and their leader, Harry Potter."
He looked up at Harry with raised eyebrow.
"Go on," Harry said, grinning back. He used a finger to tug the newspaper down a few inches, peering over the top to see the headline. Previous experience with the wizard press suggested there might be a picture.
"Harry, why would you get involved?" Draco asked, dropping the newspaper to the table so Harry could peruse it on his own. There was indeed a picture, of him speaking with the Minister and all the professors. He looked impatient, which was accurate, if Harry's memory served correctly.
"What d'you mean?" Harry asked, examining himself in the photograph. It was fascinating, watching himself from outside his body. It wasn't a perspective he was used to having. He looked more wild than he pictured himself in his head.
"I mean with Sirius Black!" Draco said, tapping the article to make his point.
"Oh, I made a boon with him to get him his freedom," Harry said, flipping through the paper now to watch an advertisement for Eeylops Owl Emporium chase his attention, hooting and blinking wide, round eyes up at him as it declared a sale on brass perches.
"With Sirius Black," Draco repeated. Harry nodded, grinning a little as he flipped back and forth between the advice column and the Quidditch stats and watched the little avian advertisement's feathers get all ruffled with trying to keep up.
"Padfoot, right," Harry agreed. He looked up finally at the long pause. "Padfoot's a dog-wizard," he explained. "It's how he escaped. He's been with me since-"
"I remember when you first mentioned him," Draco said in a strained voice. Harry frowned.
"You're not going to do that thing where you get all upset with me, are you?" he asked, abandoning the paper for the moment. Draco's lips pinched together, and Harry's eyes widened. "You are! You're doing it right now!"
"I'm not," Draco insisted, though his voice still had that peculiar strained quality. "No, Harry, it's just... you know you could have died, right? He could have murdered you!"
"Padfoot's harmless. He couldn't kill a lame rabbit," Harry said, rolling his eyes at the memory. "When I found him he was half starved and he smelled like the back end of a sick dragon."
"Yes, but he could have been a mass-murdering psychopath like everyone thought, and then where would you be?" Draco demanded. Harry shrugged. Padfoot hadn't been anything of the sort, so there was little point in worrying.
"Someplace else, I suppose," he said, peering at the paper again. "It's meant to be in Luna's father's paper as well, I'd wager there'll be a better picture there-"
"You're impossible," Draco interrupted, crossing his arms and sitting back in his chair, defeated. After a long pause, he continued. "I'm sure they'll send you a copy."
"Oh, brilliant," Harry said, grinning at him. Draco rolled his eyes, his posture still indicative of his annoyance with Harry. But that could be fixed. "I have a present for you."
That did it, as usual. Draco stopped slumping in his chair and sat up, looking at Harry with wary interest. "What is it?"
"It was never alive," Harry assured him, dropping his bag in his lap and starting to poke through it. That was what Draco had requested for the next present Harry got him. Harry didn't pretend to understand the odd little habits wizards had.
"Alright," Draco said, beginning to look genuinely excited. "But what is it? My birthday's not for a couple months."
Harry finally found what he was looking for, and dropped it on the table between them. Draco stared at it.
"Parchment scrolls," he said, unrolling one curiously. "Empty parchment. Er, thank you?"
"They're charmed," Harry said. "Flitwick does it for my exams. You can write something and it'll show up on mine." He pulled out another scroll and waved it at Draco in illustration.
"These aren't the parchments you use for exams, are they?" Draco asked, beginning to frown as he unrolled another.
"No," Harry said, tucking his scroll away. "I made them. The ones for my exams have to be recharmed all the time and it's annoying. These are better."
"Either way, this means you're leaving again." It wasn't a question. Draco straightened up in his seat and gave Harry a piercing glance. Harry nodded, surprised. Draco was usually a lot more upset or angry than this when the time came.
"Once I take a look around and know everything's running smoothly, I'll be going," he said, observing this new calm attitude of Draco's with fascination.
"We have things under control," Draco agreed. "People know to talk to Vince and Greg if they can't find you, and we know how the usual chains run."
"Firewhiskey, old tests and revision notes, galleons, sweets, and amulets," Harry said as Draco nodded along.
"I'll send along anything we can't manage," Draco added, and Harry grinned at him.
"Brilliant." He watched Draco shift through his parchments in silence. What was odd about it was that this was comfortable, even though he knew that Harry was going. That never happened. Harry stared until Draco looked up and blinked at him.
"Er," Harry said, his forehead creasing with bemusement. "Nothing." Draco cocked an eyebrow and went back to his parchments, and Harry made a decision. "Actually, the other elves are having a sort of going away party for me in a few hours," he said. Draco looked up again. "You should come."
"To a house elf party?" Draco asked. His face looked like he didn't know what expression he wanted to have.
"A forest elf party, for me," Harry corrected. "In the territory. Luna's coming too, so you won't be the only wizard there."
"Lovegood's a witch," Draco commented absently. Harry squinted at him. There wasn't any important difference as far as he could tell. "You're taking us?"
Harry nodded. "Since you can't vanish places and you don't know where it is, I'll have to, won't I?"
Draco looked at Harry for longer than Harry thought was necessary to make a decision about a party. "I may regret this," he said eventually. "But yes. I'll go."
"I like your father's take better than the newspaper's," Harry said to Luna as he led her and Draco into the forest, his nose buried in the newest issue of the Quibbler. "He pays closer attention, I think."
"Daddy always says good journalism is in the details," Luna responded airily. She was braiding a flower crown for herself from some early blooming firewitch as they strolled past a patch of trees that had been nearly smothered in acromantula webs.
Draco fixed wide eyes on the way the drooping strands of spider silk swayed in the gentle breeze. Harry glanced up appreciatively, then went back to the article, turning the magazine sideways to read the runic letters scrolling along one edge.
"I like this bit," Harry said, stepping neatly over the exposed roots in their path. Luna meandered toward him to look over his shoulder as they walked. Draco stumbled on the roots. "Interesting use of othala."
"Shouldn't you be keeping an eye out for all the things that can kill us out here?" Draco asked, tugging at his cloak where it had become tangled in some brambles.
"Ask nicely and she'll let you go," Harry called back to him. Draco looked down at the bush, and Harry knew he'd spotted the wood sprite when he shouted in alarm. "Ask nicely!" he called again, flipping to the next page in the Quibbler. "Ooh, he did get a lot of pictures. Is that what I look like all the time?"
"Mostly," Luna said as they turned around and walked back to where Draco was cursing at the wood sprite. "Sometimes when you spend too much time in the castle you get wrackspurts and your face gets all..." She scowled in demonstration. "Like you want to set something on fire."
"Sometimes I do want that when I've been in the castle too long," Harry agreed, impressed with her attention. "Is that the wrackspurts? I never knew."
"A little help here, Harry?" Draco demanded, glaring at the wood sprite, who was currently chattering angrily and using long talons to shred the bit of cloak she held.
"I told you to ask nicely," Harry said. He lowered the Quibbler and frowned at Draco. "They're a bit like Bowtruckles. You have to talk to them the right way. You'll need to apologize."
Draco's eyes narrowed and his mouth pinched. "I'm sorry," he told the wood sprite, which tugged at his cloak again, though she had stopped with the shredding. That could only be a good sign.
"Now ask her nicely to let you go," Harry instructed. Luna crouched next to the bramble bush with wide eyed fascination.
"May I please have my cloak back?" Draco requested through gritted teeth.
The wood sprite hesitated, then recommenced chattering and waving her fists at him.
"You've upset her," Harry said, shaking his head. He reached into his bag, fishing around for the right jar. Luna tugged a flower from her hair and began twisting the stem.
"Would you like your own flower crown?" she asked the sprite, who watched avidly as she fashioned a tiny replica of the one she now wore on her head. Harry continued searching for the jar as Luna finished and offered the little crown to the sprite, who took it with one hand and sniffed it curiously. "You put it on like this," Luna said, lifting her own crown and settling it back on her head in demonstration.
The wood sprite watched all of this with what Harry could only term fascination. When Luna finished her explanation, it looked at its own flower, bit it in half, and then spit it out, chattering angrily at Luna now.
Harry could see Draco snickering, and he rolled his eyes. "Offering her flowers is still a better idea than calling her a jumped up twig," he pointed out, crouching down next to Luna and picking up a large leaf. The wood sprite's sharp fingers still clung tightly to Draco's cloak, and she watched Harry now with skeptical interest.
Having found the jar he'd been searching for, Harry popped the cork and poured a generous helping of blackberries onto the leaf. The wood sprite perked up, and her chattering reached a higher pitch with her excitement.
"Go on, let go," he cajoled, holding the blackberries just out of reach. She held out one grasping hand and he allowed her to take a single berry from the pile. She ate the whole thing in two bites, then dropped Draco's cloak to skitter over to where Harry had set the leaf, just outside her bramble bush.
Draco backed away, gathering the edges of his cloak in his hands to assess the damage with a scowl.
"It'll mend," Harry assured him, then slung an arm around his shoulder like Draco sometimes did to him in the castle and led the way onward, Luna murmuring to herself as she hurried after them.
"This'll mend too," Harry said later, on the edge of elf territory. Draco had encountered and infuriated another, larger creature this time. "Stop insulting them and they'll stop attacking you, Draco."
Draco's arms were held straight out in front of him for Harry to fix, but his shoulders were hunched and he was definitely pouting. "I didn't insult it. I was just standing there."
"You called his den a pile of smelly rubbish," Harry pointed out as he traced the edges of one of the longer gashes with his finger. It mended as he went, and he frowned at the next one, which was wider. "Brown squonks have low self esteem and they're very territorial, Draco." He cleaned the wound, wincing as Draco sucked in a sharp breath. "Sorry. They don't like to be insulted, as you can see."
"I didn't know that was his den," Draco whined, turning his head away from the sight of his still bleeding arms and watching Luna commune with some butterflies she'd spotted nearby. "It just looked like a pile of smelly rubbish."
"Well," Harry responded, shaking his head. "Next time you see a pile of smelly rubbish, you'll know to keep your mouth shut about it, won't you?"
Draco grumbled to himself, hissing and carrying on occasionally as Harry healed his way down his arms and ended at his fingers.
"You're fine," Harry said dismissively as Draco yelped when Harry turned his hand over. "I've fixed the worst of it. None of these are deeper than a splinter."
"Have you ever heard of the Slow Slicing Curse?" Draco retorted, grimacing as he looked down at his hands again. Without waiting for an answer, he continued. "I'll have you know it looks a lot like this at first."
"Fortunately you're losing cuts and not gaining them," Harry responded, mending yet another slice of skin. "You're welcome, by the way."
"I knew I'd die out here," Draco grumbled to himself. "'What could it hurt?' I thought. 'See Harry off,' I thought. If the dangerous beasts don't kill me, Sirius Black probably will."
"Padfoot's perfectly harmless," Harry said, surprising Draco. He had clearly thought that speaking almost inaudibly would fool Harry, which was silly of him. He knew Harry had better hearing than most. "And anyway, he's not coming."
"He's not?" Draco asked, glancing over his shoulder as though he thought Padfoot might be waiting in a bush to leap out at him and prove Harry's words wrong. "Why not?"
"Because I didn't invite him," Harry said, finishing the one hand and dropping it. He picked up the other and began mending again. Draco frowned at him.
"But what?" Harry asked, then frowned as he focused on one particular cut that looked like it'd nearly taken Draco's fingernail off. Maybe a couple were worse than splinters. It still wasn't that bad.
"But you made it... sound like- he's been living in... in your pocket for months now," Draco said, his words jerky and high pitched as he watched Harry fix the fingernail. Once it was totally reattached, he pulled his hand away to examine it.
"No, that'd be Wormtail, and he was in my bag," Harry disagreed as he waited. Draco gave him a deliberate, unimpressed stare and held out his hand again.
"You know what I mean," Draco said, watching the mending process continue. "Why wouldn't you invite him to your going away party? He's been with you and the elves all this time anyway, hasn't he? That's how you made it sound."
"Yes well," Harry snapped, healing the next cut with more force than necessary. "He was, and now he isn't anymore. He was only ever a dog sometimes, you know."
"Yes, I know," Draco said slowly. His eyes had lifted to watch Harry's face instead of his hands, and he was frowning. "I suppose it doesn't matter. I'll be happier if he isn't there, anyhow."
"There you have it," Harry said, dismissing the conversation immediately and dropping Draco's newly whole hand. "Luna, we're ready to keep walking! We should only be another kilometer or so from the party."
"Oh lovely," she said, drifting back over to where Harry and Draco stood, Draco still examining his fingers and Harry, though less subtly than he thought. "Is Draco feeling better?"
"I'm fine now, thanks," Draco said, running his hands up and down his arms once more before rolling his tattered sleeves back down and donning his cloak. "Let's go."
Soon after, they arrived in the main clearing of the little community that Dobby and his fellow elves had established.
Harry had done his part by completing whatever task Dobby set him when he was in the territory, but it wasn't really his, and he knew it. The other elves were still so used to houses; the only trees that had been allowed to remain throughout the clearing were those that were thick enough to be hollowed out. Little wooden doors were stacked one on top of another as far up as the trunk could support them. The other elves liked the close, dark space inside to sleep. Harry could understand the appeal even if he was still in the habit of sleeping where he found himself tired; nothing could reach them inside a tree trunk.
Imagining what Draco and Luna must see as they looked around with wide eyes, Harry had to be impressed. All but the living-trees had been felled to make a wide circle where the elves could gather to eat and discuss the day, and, as was the situation at hand, to have celebrations. A thicket of carefully tended herbs and bushes stood directly to their right, and stream flowed through the far end of the clearing, curling sharply around one of the broader trees. They'd chosen their space well.
"So this is what a forest elf colony looks like," Luna said, her eyes bright and delighted. She moved toward the center of the clearing, peering at the comings and goings of the elves she passed. Draco followed Harry, wrinkling his nose and staring with interest into some of the smaller cauldrons boiling away half submerged in a small, elf-carved tributary of the stream.
"Tessa says running water improves healing salves," Harry explained, pausing to watch Draco examine the bluebell flames flickering in the swirl of the current. "She also says boiling the water makes it better to drink."
Draco nodded and straightened up, shifting his shoulders as he stared around the clearing. "Should I ask for the tour?" He blinked over Harry's shoulder at a lean-to situated under a sprawling oak. It was the only structure that was identifiably wizard in origin, in large part because it had remained structurally intact despite all logical expectation. "What's that?"
"Padfoot wanted to make himself a place to sleep," Harry said, shrugging. "I made all the branches stick together so it wouldn't fall on him." He tugged Draco in the opposite direction, pointing broadly past the point where the river disappeared beyond the trees. "Here's the tour. The centaurs live that way. The elves sleep mostly here, though there are a couple smaller clearings like this to the east. We eat over there-" He gestured to the bonfire in the center of the clearing, where Luna had joined Maddy and Libby in a swirling sort of dance while Dobby clapped. "Potions and things back there, you saw. They've charmed this bit of the canopy to stop the rain and snow, it's quite impressive. Er... there's usually good hunting to the south."
He looked around again. "Dobby could probably tell you more."
"Right," Draco said, though he didn't look quite ready to go dashing off to the bonfire to have his questions answered. He watched the elves and Luna dance with what Harry would almost describe as a disconcerted expression. "How long did it take you to do all this?"
"The others did most of it," Harry said, following the curve of the stream. Draco stayed strictly at his side until he spotted another batch of cauldrons bubbling in a heat shimmer a couple feet off the ground. Harry followed, allowing Draco to examine them and realize they were various types of venison stew. "I helped when I could, but I did more gathering than building. It didn't take long at all."
Draco turned away from the cauldrons and froze. "New question," he said, taking a step backward, his arm nearly passing through the heat shimmer.
"What is it now?" Harry asked, herding Draco away from the danger he had clearly failed to notice and shaking his head.
"I thought you said Sirius Black wasn't coming." He lowered his volume even though his voice had gone up an octave or so.
"He's not," Harry agreed, turning to look at where Draco's gaze was fixed over his shoulder. He scowled. "He's not meant to have."
Padfoot was there in wizard form, standing in the crowd of elves that had gathered now around the bonfire. Luna was with him, the two of them like oaks in a sea of birch.
Glancing over his shoulder as he walked, Harry noted that Draco didn't seem inclined to follow if it meant interacting with Padfoot. That was fine. He could watch the stew.
He wove through the crowd of elves, pausing to greet several of them and answer questions about Luna's talk of Crumple-Horned Snorkacks. ("No, I've never seen one. But I've never been to Sweden.") When he was close enough to Padfoot that he could see the whites of his eyes, he said, "When did you get here?"
"Just now," Padfoot said. He looked at Luna, then over Harry's shoulder at Draco, and squinted. "Why are they here?"
"I invited them and they came," Harry replied, still frowning. Padfoot nodded, his expression growing more and more uncertain as Harry didn't bother to elaborate.
"So... we're having a party, then?" Padfoot prompted. Harry looked around at all festivities and blinked innocuously.
Padfoot looked disappointed, which struck Harry as awfully rich, coming from such a fickle creature. Dog or wizard, with Harry or with the wizards, which was he? Who even knew?
"Libby said it was a going away party," Padfoot said, shaking his head. "Who's going away?"
"Well, you are for certain, aren't you?" Harry asked, and Padfoot's eyes widened. Guilt, Harry guessed, which only proved that he'd been right. The snake hissed wordlessly at Harry's tension, slipping down his shoulder to his wrist. "You're going to live with the wizards."
"Well, not as such," Padfoot said, and Harry raised an eyebrow and watched Padfoot's expression twist with the strain of his next words. "I'm going to live with Remus. Lupin, I mean. I thought the two of you got on well?"
"He's alright," Harry said, his mouth curving down into an uncertain shape. "You're going to live in his house, I suppose. Sleep in a bed."
"That was the idea," Padfoot said, shrugging helplessly. "I sort of like sleeping in a bed. It's warm. And soft."
"Soft," Harry echoed, wrinkling his nose.
Luna had followed a couple of the elves away from the bonfire and over to where Draco still stood by the cauldrons of stew. In the tense silence between Harry and Padfoot, they could hear her telling Draco quite clearly that he shouldn't be afraid of Padfoot because there were much scarier things in the forest, like Pharblex Spattergoo, which had heads like frogs and were much more territorial than squonks.
"I-" Padfoot said, clearly bewildered by what he'd just heard, but determined to keep on topic. "Remus said you have a room at his place, if you-"
"I didn't like it," Harry said abruptly.
"Oh," Padfoot replied. He paused, then visibly gathered his wits once more and continued: "Well, we can always change whatever you didn't like, or even-"
"No," Harry interrupted, still scowling. "I didn't like having a room, I meant."
Padfoot sighed heavily, pushing a hand through his newly shiny hair. He must have bathed before coming back to the territory, Harry decided uncharitably. Probably in a wizard shower instead of in the lake like a normal person.
"No, I- What I'm trying to say," Padfoot began again, his eyes darting back and forth as though he was searching for the right words on a bit parchment that had been rolled up before it had dried, "Is that there's a place for you. A... a tree, or trees even. A nice patch of grass, if you like. Food and good company. Safety."
Harry looked around, his pointed expression and raised eyebrows inviting Padfoot to take note of the fire, the food, and the elves. The trees, even.
Padfoot shook his head, the lines of his brow unusually deep. "Harry, we both know this 'going away party' wasn't for me."
Something in Padfoot's tone loosened Harry's shoulders unexpectedly. It still took him a long moment to force out the words he knew he should probably say, grudging though they were. "I haven't used my wishes yet," he reminded Padfoot, who looked as though he'd forgotten about them entirely. "And I always collect on my debts."
"I wouldn't expect any less," Padfoot agreed immediately. "Come collecting anytime, Harry. You'll know where to find me." He hesitated, his expression sobering. "And take care of yourself. I know you know how, but... I'll worry until I see you again."
Harry nodded and walked off, intending to help serve the food and reassure Draco that he didn't think there were any frog headed creatures in the forest. It was a lot more likely that something like that would live closer to the lake.
Going away parties were difficult, Harry decided later on that night. Dobby alone had burst into tears three separate times, even though Harry reminded him each time that, of all people, Dobby would have it the easiest to find Harry wherever he went.
He had eventually managed to escape, vowing never to agree to another, and by second sleep, he had put quite a lot of ground between himself and the forest.
It was quiet now, but for the smaller evidences of life. Crickets chirped. A wind rustled the leaves of the trees as he surveyed them for a safe, sturdy place to rest. An owl hooted. Harry glanced up, a frown beginning to form, and found only a predatory bird, not an envoy from the wizards.
Draco, at least, would have no reason to contact him so soon. Harry had made certain to find him and Luna a safe escort back to the castle before he left, and even discussed it with them before handing them off to Nobby. Draco had seemed pleased, and he and Luna both took the moment to say a final goodbye before popping away.
He hadn't spoken to Padfoot again after their first conversation that night, but all that needed said had been, in Harry's opinion. He'd feel rightfully annoyed by any owls from that quarter.
But there weren't owls, Harry reminded himself, turning back to the trees. Just the one, and he was eating a dormouse now.
That was good. Harry scaled the tree with the widest trunk and settled into a nook in the branches, tucking his bag against his legs and curling his arm under his head. He didn't need that sort of bother, not when he'd finally got off on his own again.
Harry had reached the sea again, after a lot of southward wandering toward no particular place. It was lovely down here this time of the year. He'd always liked the water.
"Will you catch us some fish?" the snake asked, poking his head out of Harry's bag. "Oh, or a snappy crab?"
"Probably," Harry said, crouching down by the water and letting it wash over his bare feet. It was getting dark, but he wanted to find some caves he thought he remembered from the last time they were here, to see if they were still any good for sleeping. "In a bit."
The walk netted Harry a few rabbits, which he tied to his bag to take care of later, and as he skirted around a stale town, the snake's head turned, his tongue scenting the air.
"Do you taste that?" he asked, and his tone made Harry pause. He scented the air himself, then sniffed and peered around at the gathering twilight. The snake was right. Something was... different here.
"We're going to look," Harry decided, and the snake coiled around his arm for a better view as they altered their course and headed very slightly east.
"There didn't used to be such a hill here, did there?" the snake asked later, as Harry climbed.
"I don't think so," he said, frowning. As they reached the crest of the (very even, very unnatural feeling) hill, Harry dropped down into a crouch and crawled forward.
"It's stale," the snake said, and Harry would have agreed with him and dismissed the whole thing as Not Their Business, except for what he found when he stood up.
The hill they were on dropped away very suddenly at his feet, and below them was a cliff face that looked man-made. The stale scent was all very well and good, but there was something different coming out of that cliff. Something he'd never come across before. A different kind of air.
There were train tracks leading into the cliff, and as Harry disappeared his way past fences and down to the bottom in careful increments, he began to understand.
Tunnels. Vast, enormous tunnels, of the sort that would easily fit the train the students took to leave the castle at the end of the year. Where the trains were meant to go, Harry didn't begin to understand.
"That's where it's coming from," the snake pointed out, as the two of them stood and stared into the vast darkness. "The strangeness."
"I want to know what it is," Harry said, though he didn't move at all. The snake coiled around and around his wrist in a nervous gesture, and Harry lifted his arm and held it to his chest. The tunnels were silent right now, but he knew they couldn't always be. "They must go somewhere."
"They go into the sea," the snake said. "Don't they?"
"It looks like it," Harry agreed. "Do the stale people have towns under the sea? Why hasn't Nerin ever mentioned it?"
"They can't, though," the snake said, uncertain. "Can they?"
"They can't," Harry said. He paused, chewing on his lip. "But they might. I want to know."
"Do we have enough gillyweed?" the snake asked, and Harry nodded, shrugging his bag more firmly onto his shoulder.
"And enough food for a week," he said. He looked round at the tracks and the grass, high above their heads, but there was nothing new to see. Nothing on the ground or in sea or the sky to bother them, or stop them going. He squared his shoulders and held up his hand. Light swirled into a ball in his palm and lit up the first few feet of tunnel. The snake's smooth scales slipped up his arm as he retreated back to Harry's collar.
He was going to find out what this was all about.
AN: OKAY! So this is the end of the Handbook of Elf Psychology!
'Just this last chapter?!' you cry, enraged. 'I waited THIS LONG for just one more chapter?'
Well, yes. But there will be another sequel too!
'Oh god,' you exclaim. 'Three years from now, I suppose?'
Rude. I'll do my best. And it's going to be a series of chronologically-ordered one shots instead of a continuous story, just because I feel that that fits the format of what I have planned for the future a little better.
So! Keep an eye out for The Home Life and Social Habits of British Elves, coming soon!