Tiffy, the new house elf, was still not comfortable enough with the layout of the manor. This, Draco had soon learned to take full advantage of. As soon as his mother had rushed him to his room, he called the house elf, and had her apparate him to the little pantry on the ground floor – supposedly because he wanted a snack. He doubted Tiffy had even been aware that his mother had locked the door to his room.
He considered having her apparate him to the first floor study directly, but if her help was discovered, it would be better if she was not punished too harshly. Otherwise, she might not be as helpful the next time.
As soon as he had sent Tiffy away – she insisted on fussing over him until he was forced to order her to leave – he climbed the oft forgotten stairs next to the pantry, leading up directly next to the study. He could already hear voices from the main staircase, when he got to the door, so he dashed inside and made himself comfortable on the wide windowsill, hidden behind the heavy brocade curtains.
He was not a moment too soon. His father's footsteps followed in after him – firm, long strides that spoke of displeasure. He walked directly towards the windows, and Draco's stomach lurched, but Lucius did not look behind the curtains – instead, he drew them completely shut. A different set of footsteps followed, making small, shuffling sounds. Then the sound of chairs.
"A visit during daytime – I'm sure you must have truly important business to discuss with me," came Lucius' voice, speaking in his usual drawl. But there was undeniable annoyance lurking behind the veneer of politeness.
"Oh it is, it is. Very important," spoke a second, wheezing voice.
Draco was disappointed. The voice did not sound like it belonged to a particularly dangerous dark wizard, as he had anticipated – excitedly hoped for, in fact – when he had been rushed out of the drawing room by his mother. The visitor seemed to be more like one of those colourful characters, like Mr Borgin, that his father sometimes associated with.
"Let's hear it, then," said Lucius.
"Well, Mr Malfoy, we both know, I think, how important it is not to lose the Dark Lord's favour—"
Draco sat up. This was far more serious than he had thought. Was the visitor a real Death Eater?
"You managed to do that quite some time ago, didn't you, Wormtail?" said Lucius. "Why so worried now?"
Wormtail? What sort of name was that, wondered Draco.
"I – well, I tried to regain his favour by helping him cleanse Hogwarts of the mudbloods in Spring—"
Draco felt his heart begin to race. The visitor must be one of those men who had been sighted in the Chamber of Secrets, helping the Heir of Slytherin! He had read about Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew in the newspaper, before his parents had explained all the sordid details. Apparently both of those men had been Potter's parents' friends, before betraying their whereabouts to the Dark Lord. What a joke on Potter that was!
"You mean you failed at helping him. We both know how that little endeavour of yours ended, don't we, Wormtail? Exactly like the last one, when your intel led to the Dark Lord's downfall—"
"It wasn't really my endeavour, though, was it?" Wormtail's tone had become malicious. "You chose to plant that – that key to the Chamber of Secrets at Hogwarts last year—"
Draco wondered if he had misheard. Had his father been involved in the happenings of the previous school year? Lucius had confided in his son that he knew who the Heir of Slytherin was, but beyond that, Draco had been told that their family was to stay out of that business. Would his father not have told him if he had set the whole thing into motion?
"Unfounded speculation—" Lucius' voice had risen. He was beginning to sound angry.
"Is it? I wonder if the Dark Lord will think so when he returns. After all, he'll remember where he left such a very valuable object." Wormtail sounded entirely too calm when saying this.
Draco felt anger rise on his father's behalf. Was that a blackmail attempt against Lucius? Unthinkable! His father would not stand for it, coming from some – some shady character hiding away from the law! Draco anticipated the sharp setdown his father would deliver for quite a while, as the silence lengthened in the study.
When Lucius finally did speak, it was a calm, careful reply. "A rather bold statement. You seem very sure of your – wild guess."
"How about I guess some more?" the wheezing voice continued. "I'm quite well-informed, you see. I know about the ministry raids last summer. Being hunted by Weasley and his like at the ministry can't have been – easy. So a little payback only made sense. The key to the Chamber of Secrets planted with Weasley's youngest child—"
Draco remembered his father's rage at the raids. He also remembered feeling quite grown-up when his father had allowed him to go along to his trip to Borgin and Burkes, to sell some of his illegal items. So had his father really—? Maybe even on that very day, when he had had that row with Weasley (which he definitely had not lost)?
"What are you getting at Wormtail? I haven't got all day!" Now Lucius really did sound angry.
"I was hoping we could find a way to redeem ourselves," came the reply.
"We, Wormtail? After you ineptly destroyed the Dark Lord's plan—"
"I destroyed it?" The visitor's voice had risen in anger, sounding almost like a squeak. "I didn't know what the plan was! I tried to help as much as possible, after you had abandoned his – his – whatever magical object it was! I do wonder, was that what the Dark Lord had in mind when he left it in your keep?"
Draco was beginning to wonder the same thing. Had his father gone against the Dark Lord's wishes? For what purpose? To protect his own skin? To take revenge against the Weasleys? Those were both perfectly acceptable goals for Draco, he told himself.
Even if his father had apparently been afraid enough of Weasley's raids that he had let go of a magical object the Dark Lord had entrusted him with – which maybe ought never to have left Malfoy Manor. Even if he was now worried enough about the Dark Lord's reaction to finding out about that that he was letting himself be blackmailed.
Even if Lucius had let an ancient monster loose on the students of Hogwarts – which had petrified a pureblooded girl – a bloodtraitor Weasley though she was. It could easily have killed someone, Draco knew. It had done so, fifty years ago, after all.
There was a very long pause in the conversation.
Then, finally, Lucius Malfoy spoke. "Never let it be said that I'm not generous with the Dark Lord's followers. Very well, Wormtail. I'll help you regain your lost favour."
Monday evening, Ron had planned to go to the village by himself, but Fred and George decided at the last minute that they wanted to go along, and then he had to wait for his elder brothers to get ready. Fred and George kept whispering to each other, making him nervous and annoyed the entire way, until the red telephone box came into view as they came off the public pathway and on the main road, leading into what passed as the centre of the village. It was right in front of the muggle post office, next to the single bus stop.
"Everard's first, then you can wrangle with that contraption—" said Fred, following his brother's gaze.
Everard's Enchanted Essentials was the only shop in Ottery St. Catchpole owned by a wizard, and as the name suggested, stored a little of everything any of the magical inhabitants in the vicinity might want to buy but were unwilling to make the trip to London for. This included useful things like floo powder, but also a small selection of novelty items, the sort Ron's brothers enjoyed buying from places like Zonko's and Gambol and Japes.
Ron put up a fuss. It had been his idea to come to the village in the first place, so he thought it only fair that his brothers should wait for him to make his phone call first. As was usual in such cases, numbers and age won and Ron found himself dragged along to the tiny, cramped inside of Everard's. He stared out of the window while his brothers were huddled together close to the shelves, being utterly suspicious. It was only because Mr Everard knew the Weasley family well enough that he did not suspect them of stealing from him.
Fred and George were readying themselves for Lee Jordan's visit planned for the following day. Ron could understand their eagerness, though it made him a little envious. With the state of Harry's home life, visits on either side were out of the question – unless another disaster happened, like the summer before. As for Hermione, Ron had only seen her once, for a short afternoon visit, when his parents had needed to go to London. Not that he was complaining. Hermione's parents had been kept busy enough checking up on Harry all throughout the summer, calling him every few days and even visiting a couple times, to make sure that he was doing reasonably well.
Once Fred and George were finally done shopping, it was Ron's turn. Nervously rubbing his hands against his pockets, where he kept the muggle change, he stepped into the telephone box. He had been wanting to call Harry for weeks now, almost from the day he had returned home, but had hesitated, restrained himself, until Hermione had shown him the use of a telephone during his visit, among other muggle household items. Even his dad had explained it to him, first pleasantly surprised by his youngest son's interest in muggle things, then a little bemused when Ron had added that he would actually be taking muggle studies come September.
It all went well, until a deep voice answered, "Vernon Dursley speaking."
As soon as Ron asked to speak to Harry, the man started shouting, forcing Ron to pull the receiver away from his ear. How bizarre. Hermione had reasonably explained to him how shouting on the phone was completely unnecessary, and indeed, he could hear quite well without the bellowing. Fed up with the foolish muggle, Ron shouted back something about Hermione having warned him about the response. The Grangers' visits were a very touchy subject for Vernon and Petunia, he knew, but being reminded of them finally did the trick and Harry was put on the line.
"Er, hi, Ron," came his friend's quiet voice.
Ron had to get over the surprise of hearing Harry sound so timid, before he recounted his news. "You won't believe what happened, mate. Dad won the yearly Daily Prophet Draw. It's seven hundred galleons, can you believe it? Seven hundred!"
"Yeah, it's so exciting! Mum and Dad are talking about visiting Bill in Egypt. They're even thinking of paying for Charlie's portkey from Romania—"
"That's great, Ron. I hope you'll have fun."
"Yeah," sighed Ron. "It's just – what with Hermione now in France—" He lowered his voice when saying this. "Have you told your relatives about that…?"
"Er, it hasn't come up yet," came Harry's evasive answer.
Ron decided Vernon Dursley was probably listening in on the conversation. "Yeah… we'd only be gone for three weeks – a month at most – and I'll send you an owl—"
"I'm fine, Ron," came Harry's hasty reassurance. He must have caught on to Ron's worry for him. "I'm outside a lot," he went on as Ron did not respond right away. "And I sometimes visit Mrs Figg. Snuffles is also alright."
"Right, yes. Good to hear, mate," Ron replied in a more upbeat voice. He had understood Harry's coded message. He had talked to Mrs Figg. So if the Dursleys did something foolish again, like lock him in his bedroom, she would be able to inform someone, even if Ron and Hermione could not be around to check up on him. Hearing even that little bit of news about Sirius was also reassuring.
His worries settled, Ron quickly told Harry about all of the things he was looking forward to on his upcoming trip to Egypt, ending with, "And we'll all be together in one place again – the whole family!"
Harry congratulated him once again, and they hung up, unwilling to stretch Vernon Dursley's patience beyond what was necessary.
"How is he doing?" George asked as soon as Ron stepped out of the public telephone box.
"Do you reckon he needs rescuing again?" added Fred.
Ron shook his head and grinned, touched by his brothers' worry for his friend, by their willingness to stage another rescue mission, if necessary. Annoying as the twins could be, he was still glad to have them as brothers.
Fred and George kept picking up odd threads of conversation as they walked home, but would not come to the point. Ron wondered what they wanted from him, hoping it was not going to be some sort of an elaborate prank, but they arrived home before the twins had made up their minds.
At home, they were met with the same scene they had left: their mother teaching Ginny the first year syllabus. This had become a very common scene, as their mother and sister seemed to be dealing with the disastrous events of Ginny's first year by trying to at least undo the damage that had been done to her education. Having missed most of the first year, she would have quite a bit of catching up to do in her second year.
It was only when their dad arrived home that Ginny got a reprieve. He swept into the house, excitement virtually oozing out of him. "I did it, Molly," he began before he had even taken off his shoes. "I got entry leave in Egypt for all of us, and paid for both portkeys. It's all set up—"
He was immediately bombarded with questions, and did his best to answer them. They would be leaving in a couple of days, and staying for exactly four weeks in Egypt. "You were right, Mollywobbles, the portkeys were much cheaper than the ship. But no matter – we wouldn't want to sail but leave Charlie to travel by portkey, anyway. We'll bring our tents, to save on accommodation—"
The excitement spread through the rest of the family. Ron's mum could not wait to see both her oldest two sons; Percy, the headboy-to-be, was explaining how the trip would be educational enough to make up for distracting him for his NEWT preparations, the twins were reminiscing about all the nasty curses Bill had told them of previously – even Ginny tried her best to be cheerful.
Ron tuned them out, as his mind drifted to Harry. He was no longer dragging his feet, now that he had spoken to his friend. Instead, he was thinking of all the cool things he might find in Egypt to get Harry for his birthday, which would be happening in only a few days, on Saturday.
Charlie's beaming, incredibly freckled face met them when they materialised in Egypt two days later, Bill not far behind him. Both young men were dressed in what Ron surmised were local-style robes, though Bill still had his various piercings. Ron immediately decided they probably had the right idea. The heat had suddenly engulfed him and there was no getting away from it. All his clothes – especially the shoes – were quickly becoming uncomfortable. Then Bill smirked at them all and cast some cooling charms on them and Ron could breathe again.
"Mum, Dad, haven't you heard of light packing? Did you bring the entire Burrow?" was Charlie's greeting.
While his mother started arguing back, Ron's eyes were drawn to the majestic sight of the pyramids, which looked deceptively close by. Nearer to where he stood, he could see that they were at something like an apparition point, which further extended into a busy shopping district. The buildings and tents were all of a similar colour, blending in with the sand surrounding them. The brightest points of colour were the palm tree leaves, far above their heads, which were doing next to nothing to provide them with shade, and the robes of the people milling around them.
"This is the largest magical area of Giza," said Bill. "My flat is not too far from here, in another magical neighbourhood, and you can see where I work." He pointed towards the pyramids with a wide, sweeping motion. "I thought it'd be nice to get a quick glimpse of the area, so I thought of hiring a flying carpet to take us to the camping site."
They dragged their luggage to a tent not too far from the apparition point, displaying magnificent-looking carpets of varying sizes. Bill talked to the vendor and procured one of the largest models. In no time at all, they were flying over the city, the landscape spread out under them, the magical bazaar they were traversing, and the muggle parts of Giza in the periphery.
"I do wonder how they manage to hide the flying carpets," said Mrs Weasley, trying to get comfortable sitting on her knees.
"The same way we hide our brooms, Mum," said Bill in response. "They work very well here. I happen to have one myself, actually."
"Oh, do you?" asked George. "How come you didn't bring it?"
"It wouldn't have been of any use. It's just a one-seater."
"Or a very snug two-seater, eh?" Charlie nudged him.
"Piss off," replied Bill, making the twins snigger.
"Boys," said Mrs Weasley, but her tone was more perfunctory than anything.
Ron was watching the vendors they passed, hoping to get a glimpse of something interesting to buy for Harry. He could hear the conversation shift, as his mother took the first opportunity to prod her two eldest about returning home.
"Look, Mum, that there's the Shafiq estate," Bill said, hoping to distract her. It worked. The mansion with its surrounding lands just outside the city borders was impressive enough to have the whole family marvel at it. "They're actually related to the Shafiqs back in the UK…" He went on to explain, like a good tour guide, and managed to get his mother off his case for the remainder of their trip.
This was merely a short reprieve, however. She picked up the topic once again once Bill and Charlie – who was staying at Bill's flat – had joined them again the next morning. Her eldest son, who had become used to his mother's worries ever since he had become an apprentice in such a dangerous field four years ago, took it all in stride. Without outright telling her that he had absolutely no intention to come back, he deflected all her prodding – sometimes by throwing Charlie under the proverbial bus.
They went to the bazaar that morning, both to get a good look at the local wizarding culture, and because some of them really wanted to do some shopping – Ron among them. Bill showed them the way, before going to work, promising to show them around the tombs that evening, after his working hours were finished.
Ron wanted to look for something suitable for Harry, but everyone else had other ideas. His mum tried to amuse Ginny, whose moods were still fluctuating, and kept steering them to wherever her daughter's eyes were drawn. George decided he wanted to buy the same sort of robe Charlie was wearing, and soon had his twin brother and father convinced to do the same. Even Percy bought himself a fez. Ron tried to get himself heard, but part of the problem was that he had no clear idea what he was looking for, and there was a lot to take in.
Among the magical oil lamps and lanterns, miniature pyramids that promised secrets within, beautiful mosaics that kept shifting and rearranging themselves, and other items clearly meant for tourists, it was easy to lose track of what one was actually after. Ron came to a stop in front of a vendor selling enchanted muggle-style cameras – also for tourists – while his mum was trying her best to use the translation charms to talk to the vendor on the other side of the aisle who was selling local sweets. His dad joined him a moment later.
"Fascinating things, aren't they, muggle cameras? I've been wanting to take one apart for a while now. These of course just look the part, but if you're really interested—"
Ron tried to explain that this was not another case of his new-found interest in muggle things, but his dad was already on a tirade, explaining his understanding of how muggle cameras worked. Percy joined them a moment later, to tell Ron that he supported his little brother's choice of muggle studies.
"A soft subject, some might say – but useful for ministry work," he said, causing Ron to roll his eyes.
Then Percy and their dad began talking about ministry work in general, and Ron joined his mum and Ginny to eat some sweets.
After lunch, the family headed towards the pyramids right away, before Ron had managed to buy anything. Bill met them there, and took them towards the areas accessible by tourists.
"These tombs no longer have anything really dangerous inside," he explained. "All the curses are contained, but you can see the effects they used to have. Gringotts sponsors the clearing process, and in exchange, the goblins receive all the revenue from the tourists. After a while, we remove all remnants of magic, and allow the muggles to 'discover' them."
Bill went on to explain about the different types of magic once they went inside – the ancient Egyptian, the Latin (and Greek) based (that he was mostly working with) from the time of Alexandria's founding, the later Arabic based, and then a mixture of different things, as people from all over the world had begun looking for treasure inside the pyramids in the later centuries.
"Those are the trickiest to remove," said Bill. "You have to know what sorts of spells were commonly used in the different centuries in different parts of the world, and then you have to guess what sorts of effects combining those might have had."
Ron immediately thought of Hermione, and how exciting she would have found Bill's work. He began asking his brother questions – almost in her stead, so he would be able to answer her questions later.
Bill was happy to explain in the beginning, but soon became wary and regarded him thoughtfully. "You're not still worried about that cursed object you found at school, are you Ronnie?" he asked.
Ron hastily shook his head, but did not go back to asking questions. This led to his parents picking up the topic of the cursed diary again, which led to Ginny drawing back into herself, which led to their mum taking her outside when they came across a tomb with mutant skeletons inside. Ron was glad when his mum picked up her old topic of Bill's employment again when they rejoined her, telling Bill about all the jobs he could get as a curse breaker in the UK, with his one year experience working in the pyramids.
Once they had seen enough and were ready to leave to have dinner, they left the tombs, but the tourist traps were not over. There was a photographer, taking charmed photos with the pyramids in the background. Their dad wanted a photo of the whole family – not something they got to do all that often any more – and Ron requested an extra copy to send to Harry as well. Then he saw a stand selling pocket sneakoscopes – to warn him of any leftover curses in the tombs, supposedly – and decided it would make for a nice enough gift. Harry had liked his foe-glass well enough, after all. He became aware of Bill watching him warily, but thankfully Fred chose that moment to ask their elder brother if he could teach him a curse written in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
At dinner, Bill brought up the events of the previous school year again, saying how worried he had been to hear his sister had been petrified. He was very gentle about it, reassuring Ginny, and telling her she would have no problems catching up to her year-mates come September. He even offered to tutor her while she was in Egypt.
Ron found his prodding much less reassuring, once Bill's attention had shifted to him. He had absolutely no intention to explain to his brother – or anyone else from his family – how he and Hermione had known to help Harry (Sirius had told them to), or how scary he had found the supposedly dead marauders (he had been rather reassured by Sirius' presence, actually).
It was when he brought up the sneakoscope Ron had bought – as supposed evidence of the youngest boy being worried – that Ron saw the twins slip beetles in Bill's soup. He kept a straight face while the sneakoscope went off and his eldest brother took it as evidence that it was rubbish sold to wizard tourists and not at all reliable, all the way until Bill took his first spoonful of soup and spit it back out, much to everyone's hilarity.
That night, when they had gone back to the camping site, Bill and Charlie stayed around, not wanting to leave for Bill's flat until it was time to sleep. While the twins were shooting off fireworks and the rest of them were watching, Ron decided to go to his parents' tent (that they shared with Ginny), to write a letter for Harry. He had to send the owl early in the morning, because Harry's birthday was only two days away and Errol would take at least a full day to reach Surrey.
He had barely written a couple lines, when he heard his eldest two brothers come in, and make themselves comfortable on the pillows arranged on the floor near the entrance.
"Do you reckon Mum will take the hint?" Charlie was sniggering.
"What, that after taking twelve OWLs and seven NEWTs and a gruelling three-year long apprenticeship I really want this job? For more than just the one year? You think?" Bill sounded more frustrated than he ever let on in front of them, and Ron realised that his brothers were unaware he was there, sitting behind his parents' bed.
"Maybe if you show her the really scary curses she might—"
"Piss off." Bill shoved Charlie, making him cackle harder. "What about you? Has she already started telling you to come back after your apprenticeship?"
This finally ended Charlie's amusement. "Sure she has. Keeps bringing up the dragon reserves back home, and how she'll try to get used to me working there – even if they're so dangerous."
"But not as dangerous as the dragon reserve in Romania, huh?"
"She can keep thinking that all she wants. I'm planning to stay in Romania. They already offered me a job starting next year, when my apprenticeship is finished—"
"Wow, congratulations, man."
"Yeah. Haven't told Mum yet." Charlie grimaced.
"How are you going to explain it to her, anyway? You gonna tell her you don't fancy running into McFusty in the British dragon reserves?"
Charlie gave a rude response to that.
It was Bill's turn to cackle. "Or would you fancy running into her – or just fancy her?" He yelped as Charlie shoved him, but only laughed harder.
At that point, Ron considered leaving, because he clearly was eavesdropping on a private conversation, but then Bill mentioned his name.
"Yeah, I do know what you mean," sighed Charlie. "We're away and look what happened to the kiddies in the mean time."
"I couldn't believe it when Mum told me little Ginny had been petrified last Christmas," said Bill. "I really considered taking a break and going back with them, but Mum told me it was all over and all we could do was wait for her to be given the mandrake potion. And then, I hear about this cursed thing Malfoy supposedly gave her—"
"You keep going on about Ginny, but what about Ron? That friendship with Harry Potter—"
"Do you remember how much he liked hearing about him? His favourite bedtime story—"
Ron felt his face heat, glad they could not see him.
"Ginny was the same," Charlie added, laughing. "Something about a kid their age doing important things, I guess. But then, last year, Ron and Harry wrote to me about that baby dragon, remember?"
"Sounded like a fun bit of mischief then."
"It did…" Both boys sighed.
Ron was becoming alarmed. If his brothers were becoming suspicious of his adventures with Harry, he would be in a bit of a pickle. There were plenty of things he was not telling his family, after all, most notably about Sirius. Before he could start worrying about how to escape from the tent without being seen, Fred and George came in, telling their elder brothers that their parents were looking for them.
They all left, but the twins came back very soon after. "Ron?" he heard them calling. "Are you in here?"
"What do you want?" Ron answered, when he saw he had been found. He tried to sound abrasive, hoping his brothers would not realise he had been eavesdropping.
"Remember that piece of parchment we lost?" began Fred, immediately worrying Ron.
"We're just saying we know you know enough to understand what we're about to tell you," said George, and it was uncanny how earnest both boys looked.
"When McGonagall took us back to the Gryffindor tower but then told Percy she still had something to discuss with you three—" began Fred, shooting a look at his twin.
"We might have followed your comings and goings after that," added George.
"What?" Ron felt a sudden stab of alarm, before remembering that the twins would not have known how to see Sirius on the map.
"We, er, somehow knew that you met up with Snape, and then Lockhart, and then went to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom." The twins exchanged another look.
"And then Harry and the teachers disappeared," said George.
"You and Hermione waited for some time, before following after them – who knows where—"
This finally made Ron sigh in relief. He had been right. The twins never had figured out how to make the map show the marauders. His brothers noticed his reaction, and did some more silent communicating with each other.
"We just wanted to say—"
"We waited for all of you to reappear for quite some time," said Fred, still utterly serious.
"And we worried – of course we did. But—"
"But we were not all that surprised to hear your explanations after – about the cursed diary, say."
"Because we knew you'd been looking for it."
The twins paused, regarding their younger brother with a strange intensity.
"And – and what, exactly are you getting at?" asked Ron, when the silence got to him.
Another look passed between the other two boys. This was beginning to annoy Ron.
"We just wanted to tell you that we notice you're up to some things—"
"And that we trust you to know what you're doing."
"Really?" Ron blinked in surprise.
"Yeah. You may not have talent for our sort of mischief, but we like your, er, style." Fred smirked at him.
"And support it," added George. "And we want to do our bit – like we helped you with the diary. So if you need Bill to lay off you—"
"Or if there's something you need him to teach you, but don't want to make him suspicious—"
"Then you can count on our help."
"We'll distract him, and question him in your stead."
Ron felt warmth bubble up in his chest, as he mumbled his thanks. "Actually, there are a few things I wouldn't mind Bill telling me about…" he began, thinking of Hermione's general interest in warding, and Sirius' need to break in and out of potentially warded places at the moment.