Draco Malfoy’s shiny dragon-leather oxford sunk four inches into the largest, most excessive dog dropping he had ever seen. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have sworn the source had to be hippogriff.
“I cannot believe this is my life,” he announced, looking in horror at the mess that had once been his foot. This is clearly what happened when one abandoned everything one knew for a fool’s errand of a search for a myth. London was disgusting. His shoe was ruined, and he couldn’t even do a scouring charm in front of all the bloody Muggles. Harry Potter. They might as well have been on a search for Merlin’s grave.
None of his five unlikely compatriots gave him a moment’s sympathy.
“Believe it,” Girl Weasley said cheerfully. She looked down at her book again, squinting at the small maps. “London A-Z? Are you sure all this is accurate, Hermione?”
“Aside from wizarding areas, yes,” Granger said crisply. “And it’s entire when you purchase the wizarding supplement.”
“Muggle London is massive,” Boy Weasley said glumly. He peered over his sister’s shoulder. “How are we ever going to find this bastard?”
“Logic and deductive reasoning,” said Granger.
“Innovative thinking,” Luna suggested.
Girl Weasley shrugged. “Dumb luck?”
“A combination,” said Neville, grinning.
We aren’t, Draco wanted to say, but didn’t. The city was too big, and Harry Potter was just — some boy who got lucky, once. It wouldn’t even matter if they did find him. It’s not like it would help.
“My foot is still entirely dung,” Draco informed them. “If anyone wanted to duck over to some helpful alcove so that I could prevent my entire sock from becoming subsumed in faeces, I would be much obliged.”
Granger ignored him. “The boy from his old school —”
“Ali,” Boy Weasley substituted.
“Ali, gave us a good lead. I’m absolutely positive we’ll be able to find him — or find someone who can find him.” Granger shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s been out of his family’s protection for so long and they haven’t found him.”
Everyone glanced, reflexively, at Draco. Draco tried not to take it personally. He had once been they, after all.
“They underestimate Muggle areas.” Draco checked the street for onlookers, palmed his wand and crouched over his shoe to clean it.
“Thank Morgana,” said Girl Weasley. She peered into her map. “Okay, both of the possible addresses are in someplace called… Peckham.”
Everyone but Hermione traded baffled looks. “Muggles,” said Boy Weasley bewilderedly, and Draco nodded.
Granger hummed, as if this meant something to her. “We’ll take the tube, then we’ll split up to check the addresses.”
Both Weasleys looked thrilled. Draco made a face. “Must we. Why can’t we just Apparate?”
“London is rather a populated area, Malfoy. Not to mention that some of us still have the Trace, and we can’t risk the Statute of Secrecy.” Granger adjusted her handbag, which clunked forebodingly. “And the two of us who can actually perform Apparition need to save our strength in case we need it for an emergency.”
“Cheer up,” Neville said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You can do the ticket thing.”
Draco did like the ticket thing. “Glorious. A metal tube beneath the ground, let us all descend merrily into hell.”
“I don’t think it will be as bad this time,” Granger said. “It’s not peak hours.”
“Ooh, perhaps we’ll see the Underground dragons.” Luna smiled blithely up at the terraced houses, as if at old friends.
“I don’t like being in confined space for that long,” Girl Weasley admitted. “The Under-train is amazing, though.”
“Yeah,” Boy Weasley agreed, “Dad would have…” He trailed off, putting his hands into his pockets for something to do.
Granger touched Boy Weasley’s arm lightly. “No time to waste,” she said, and led them down the street. Though she was the shortest of their number, she somehow managed to convey height through sheer intensity of expression.
Our fearless leader, Draco thought, and regretted every decision he had ever made. Hermione Granger may have been the most determined and capable person Draco had ever met, but this wild-ghoul chase had been doomed from the start. Draco was shocked they had survived for this long. He wasn’t foolish enough to expect to survive much longer, let alone find Harry Potter wandering around this infested city.
In a small and leaky flat in Peckham, Harry Potter stared at his face in the streaky mirror.
“This is not forever,” Harry told himself. “This is not going to be your life forever.”
Harry’s reflection just stared back at him, glasses smudged, face drawn. His scar stretched jaggedly across his forehead, breaking into lightning tendrils and cutting through part of his eyebrow.
His one and only sort-of-friend, Ali, had told him his scar was wicked.
“You should get your hair cut short,” he’d said, “No one’ll fuck with you if they see that scar.”
People didn’t fuck with Harry all that much, really. When he first started at the local comprehensive, older boys tried to rough him up but they always seemed to have things happen to them afterwards — Harry would find himself on top of a roof, or the boys’ fists would slide from his body as if they’d been trying to punch oil. Eventually, people stopped trying. He still got called the same sorts of names Ali did, although unlike for Ali they didn’t always feel personal to Harry.
“You don’t pray,” Ali had said one day, rolling up his prayer mat. Harry had been watching the door, making sure nobody came barging in. “You Hindu?”
Harry had shrugged. “I don’t know.” The Dursleys were strictly C of E. He didn’t know what his parents had been, if anything.
Ali had nodded thoughtfully. “Hope you find out, one day,” he’d said.
The Dursleys had moved house again not long after that, Harry in tow like a collection of unwanted boxes, but it had been Ali who put him in contact with his sister’s best friend’s cousin in London, when Harry finally took the bag filled with all of his worldly possessions and fled in the dead of night.
Three months later, Harry had managed to acquire an exhausting job, a temporary sofa in a flat with serious mould problems and four horrible flatmates. It was already several orders of magnitude better than the first seventeen years of his life.
“This is not forever,” he said again. He shouldered his bag, gave himself a decisive nod in the mirror, and left.
“Oi, Potter,” said Tall Flatmate, catching him on his way out the door. “Rent at the end of the week, mate.”
“I just paid rent last Saturday,” Harry said. It had been higher than rent for sleeping space on a stained sofa ought to have been probably, but he’d paid it anyway. He hadn’t had time to find other accommodations.
Tall Flatmate shrugged and picked something out of his crooked teeth. “Lauren told me to tell you.”
Harry watched Tall Flatmate for a long moment. “Fine,” he said, and left.
He’d have to get a new flat, and soon. He’d look at postings at work, maybe, or ask his coworkers. Harry was glad most of his belongings fit into the messenger bag he took with him everywhere; he did not trust anyone in that flat with his toothbrush, let alone anything else.
Harry had not stood on the train platform for more than three minutes before he felt eyes on the back of his head.
Every couple of years, a funny-looking stranger would stop in the middle of the street to gawk right at Harry. When he was thirteen some stout bloke had even knocked Harry out and, when he woke up, he was bleeding from his left arm and the man was gone. Only three minutes had passed, and he still didn’t know what had happened. Harry had always figured he was a target for weirdos — this was just a few more weirdos than normal.
The strangers were conspicuous and improbable on the tube platform: two boys and a girl, all of them staring at Harry like he was an unattended rucksack that had just begun ticking. Something about them was off. Something about them struck a strange yet familiar chord right below Harry’s throat.
One of the boys — tall, blond, pinched expression — stared right into Harry’s face. “Are you Harry Potter?” he demanded, his accent akin to Joanna Lumley’s Etonian nephew.
Harry scanned his oddly-cut fine dark wool coat and his shiny shoes and disliked him on sight. “Who’s asking?”
Posh Bloke straightened up, long nose wrinkling. “I think you’ll find—”
“Malfoy, not now. We don’t have much time,” said the girl, dark-skinned with bushy hair and rather large front teeth. She sounded nearly as posh as the other one — what the fuck was Harry doing, getting harangued by toffs of a Wednesday morning? Jesus Christ, he was going to be late to work because these arseholes were bored.
Could Dudley be somehow behind this? They hadn’t been in contact since Harry left the Dursleys, but… Harry tried to back away from them, craning his neck to stare down the tunnel for approaching lights. He backed up so quickly he nearly ran into the tall ginger bloke.
“Mate, sorry to bother you,” Ginger said, less posh. Harry’s shoulders settled. “Just give us a listen, all right?”
Posh Girl’s brown eyes darted nervously between platform entrances. “We don’t have much time. Harry — you’ve always had strange things happen, haven’t you? When you were angry, or scared, or upset, things would happen. Things you couldn’t explain. Things no one could.”
Harry’s insides felt like he had been plunged in cold water. How could she — did someone tell her, or did his aunt and uncle get gossiping at a stuffy party about nasty Harry and the trouble he brought with him? How could she know? Or — had he done something just now? He looked around the platform, but nothing seemed out of order.
“Thought so,” said Posh Girl, satisfied like she’d just been awarded a high mark. “I’m Hermione Granger, this is Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy. I’m afraid you’re in tremendous danger. We’re here to help.”
Harry swallowed his reaction, covering with a half laugh. “Yeah, all right. You have fun with that. I’m going to be late for work.” He clutched his messenger bag, trying to squash the tide of sour fear rising inside his ribs. Everything was fine. The train would emerge any minute and take him to work where Aurelia would yell at him and the customers would be rude and everything could go back to bloody normal.
“Harry, please, listen to me.” Hermione Granger got between Harry and the edge of the platform and looked up at him with gigantic, pleading eyes. “It started when you were young. Six, maybe, or seven. You fell out of a tree and bounced instead of breaking a bone, or you got angry with someone and something bad happened to them — their coursework disappeared from their desk, or a pencil flew out of nowhere to hit them in the head. You couldn’t explain it. No one could. Maybe you can even — maybe you can direct it now, a little bit. Things you can’t explain.”
Or you turn your teacher’s wig blue, Harry thought, his stomach plunging down past the tracks, down towards the molten centre of the earth. Or you vanish glass for a boa constrictor in the zoo.
“The same thing happened to me. To all of us,” Hermione said, motioning to the boys who flanked her like lieutenants. “If you’d like, we can tell you more — and there’s something you should know, Harry: there are people after you.”
“And they’re you, and you’re right here.” They know, they know, they know, beat Harry’s treacherous heart.
“Besides us. Besides us, Harry, you know what we’re talking about. You can feel it, can’t you?” Hermione Granger’s large brown eyes watered with earnestness. She believed so hard she fairly shone. “Haven’t you wanted answers?”
God, what hadn’t Harry wanted? He’d wanted a place to sleep that wasn’t a cupboard. He’d wanted to stop moving house every five minutes. He’d wanted London. He’d wanted friends. He’d wanted clothes that fit him. He’d wanted someone to — someone to touch him, just affectionately, on the arm or the shoulder, a touch that meant you are not alone. He’d wanted enough to eat, a better job, something — anything that belonged to his parents. That he could have answers never really seemed like a possibility.
“I’ve got work,” Harry said, as the train came rushing towards them. The wave of warm air blasted Hermione’s hair into a small typhoon. His stomach twisted. “The Stockpot, on Old Compton Street. I get off at half twelve.” Before he could rethink he pushed onto the carriage, turning back to glimpse the three of them still waiting on the platform: Posh Spice, Ginger Spice, and Hermione Granger, who rushed forward.
“In the afternoon?” she called.
Harry snorted. “In the morning!”
Before Hermione could reply the doors whooshed shut, sealing Harry off from whatever — whatever that was. He sat in a vacant seat and stared at a peeling advert on the wall. Answers. Fucking hell.
“That went well,” said Hermione, watching the train disappear into the tunnel. She felt for the reassuring rattle of her overstuffed handbag. It would be a bit much, she thought, to take out her To-Do List and tick off ‘Find Harry Potter’. She’d do that later, preferably alone, when she could be adequately victorious. She had been right. She had been right all along. Hermione never, ever tired of that feeling. It surged through her like a sugar rush.
Malfoy and Ron stared at her blankly.
“Did it?” Ron asked, tilting his head.
“It did,” she insisted. “He told us where he worked!”
Malfoy shrugged. “Could be a lie.”
“Or he could dodge us,” Ron added. “Slip out the back when we show up, or something.”
“He won’t.” Hermione eyed the empty tunnel. Their situations were entirely different, but Hermione had once been a girl around whom strange things happened every day. She had been a girl who wanted answers. She had been a girl who wanted more, and she could see that same hunger in Harry Potter’s tired face, in his startlingly green eyes. He wanted more. He wanted more, and he would meet them outside of his work at half twelve in the morning just to see if they could give it to him.
Or she’d track him down again. Of course it would be better if Harry would meet them of his own accord, but Hermione was not above forcing him to see reason. Honestly, what did she have to lose?
By the time the cloudy sky went dark, Harry had started to wonder whether he imagined the whole experience. Then he was busy with the dinner rush, and they got a load of drunks at eleven, and before long it was time to clock out and Harry was sore, exhausted and smelt faintly of curried eggs. He was really not expecting to be accosted right outside the door but — here they were. Posh Spice, Ginger Spice, Hermione Granger and —
“There’s more of you now,” Harry said blankly.
“Yes, this is Neville, Luna and Ginny,” said Hermione, “Is there somewhere we can go, Harry?”
Harry looked over his shoulder. Costin and Aurelia were still inside, nicking whatever food would spoil before tomorrow. Harry had maybe planned on going out with them after they finished. They usually went down the pub on Tuesdays and then showed up to their Wednesday shifts reeking and hungover. Not that Harry had ever joined them before, just — maybe he could, this time.
“Dunno,” Harry said, avoiding her eyes. “I kind of already made plans.”
“I told you this wouldn’t work. I don’t know why I’m even here,” huffed Posh Spice. Malfoy.
“You are here because you’ve made a turn for the moral,” said one of the girls. She had what appeared to be conkers strung into her dirty blond braids, and was wearing a truly bizarre combination of skirts.
Malfoy ground the toe of his expensive shoe against the pavement. “And every day I regret that decision.”
“No you don’t,” Conkers said peaceably.
Hermione settled her shoulders and leaned closer to Harry, eyes pleading. “Harry, this is of very serious consequence —”
Ginger Spice — Ron — put a hand on Hermione’s shoulder. “Just give us a chance. We’ll buy you a drink,” he said. His freckly face was genial, genuine. Harry almost trusted him, despite himself.
“Yeah, all right,” Harry said, and lead them to the sleazy pub round the corner. None of them said anything as they walked — maybe they were all a bit nervous of the down and out. Posh kids and all, could have been their first time out of Sloane Square. Harry led them past a leather bar to see if that helped their comfort levels. It did not.
They fought their way through the crowd at the front and found a booth in the smokey haze, settled in with their illegal pints. Well, at least Harry’s was illegal. The others didn’t look much older than he was, but who knew, they could have been eighteen.
“So,” said Harry.
“So,” said Ron.
Across the room, a bloke in a Manchester United shirt began crooning “Candle in the Wind” in the vague direction of his pint. His mate clapped him on the shoulder sadly, and harmonised the verse.
“Oh, for Merlin’s sake,” sighed Malfoy, putting his head in his hands. “We bring the actual Harry Potter here, and this is what we do with ourselves.”
“We’re doing our best,” said the handsome one, whose name may have been Neville.
“Malfoy, the Statute,” hissed Hermione.
“We’ve brought him here to talk about fairly non-Statute stuff, Hermione,” said Ginger Girl. “Best do a Muffliato in advance.”
“Right,” Hermione said, and bent her head, muttering something.
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Conkers. “Some Muggles are quite aware of magic, you know. The Ministry doesn’t like it, of course, but what can they do, when Gorbles have been populating the Underground since the mid-eighties?”
“First of all, I actually brought you lot here,” Harry said. “Second of all, and this is a general question, but what the fuck?”
The two gingers, Posh Spice, Handsome One and Conkers turned towards Hermione. Hermione sighed. “Well, this is going to be rather difficult to get into over a pint.”
“Maybe try for two, then,” Harry suggested.
“I’m afraid it might take more than that.” Hermione stared down at her drink. “Oh, dear. May as well come out and say it, shall we? Harry, you’re a wizard.”
“Right,” Harry said, “Fuck it. Sounds great.”
Hermione went on to inform Harry that there was, in fact, an entire world of witches and wizards living amongst the sorry masses. There were magic shopping centres and magic government organisations and magic quality control bodies. And there were magic schools, to which every young witch and wizard got an invitation.
Every young witch and wizard, that is, except Harry.
“You were meant to,” Handsome One assured him, “Everyone expected you to be in our year, and when you weren’t —”
“There are loads of theories about it,” Hermione said earnestly, over the dull buzzing of Harry’s cranium. “Some say it was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Some think maybe the Muggles who raised you managed it somehow, like they emigrated to somewhere unreachable, and somehow the magical trace was disrupted. But I knew — I mean, we knew you were out there.”
“There are about three things in that little speech that I didn’t understand at all,” Harry said faintly, “But let’s move forward — how exactly did you know about me? If there are loads of… wizards, and witches, how come you wanted to find me?”
“Well, you’re in terrible danger, Harry,” Hermione began, taking a deep breath for another speech.
“When you were a baby you defeated the darkest wizard of our time. Now shit is mad and the dark wizard’s followers are after your head. We’ve left school and spent the last five months tracking you down to give you a heads up, so, you know, you’re welcome.” Ginger Girl took a long sip of her pint, then glanced at the rest of them. “What? I think that’s pretty succinct. Hermione would have taken ages.”
“Yes, well done, Ginny,” Hermione said, looking rather put out.
Harry blinked at Ginger Girl — Ginny — and wondered what Aurelia and Costin were up to. Probably not an elaborate prank. Right? “Okay. Why haven’t these… followers found me before?”
“You were under some sort of protection when you still lived with your family, so long as you were under seventeen. But now that you’re not living with them, and you’ve passed your birthday…” Hermione made a face. “None. So it’s lucky we’ve found you first.”
“The Dursleys aren’t my family.”
“The Muggles you lived with, then,” Ginny substituted. “So, these days, loads of danger and suspense. Best we talk you into believing us pretty soon before we all get killed.”
“If this is a practical joke, it is both detailed and imaginative, as well as totally fucked up.” Harry drank deep from his pint. “All right. Go on then, this is already bizarre enough: what are Muggles?”
“Non-magic people,” Malfoy drawled.
“Of course,” Harry said. He drank his pint, feeling a little bit like he was dreaming. “Fuck it again. Muggles, brilliant. Darkest Wizard of All Time, cool. What’s next?”
“Er,” Ron said slowly. “Hate to break this one to you right away, as it’s not exactly cheery, but You-Know-Who — the Dark wizard — he’s sort of… taken over the Ministry.”
“You can call him by his name,” Harry said. “Can’t you? Oh, fuck, it’s a secret, isn’t it.”
“It’s not a secret.” Hermione pulled a napkin towards her and a pen from her small purse. “We don’t say it out loud.” She slid the napkin across the table.
Harry blinked down at it. “What, Volde—” Six people attempted to cover his mouth at once, which was quite the production. Whoever it was who was who had been mourning Princess Di by way of Elton John stopped to look at them.
“Just drink,” Ginny advised him.
The street lights swam a little when Harry and his inexplicable new gang of devoted followers finally stumbled out of the pub.
“Sorry, I’m just having a spot of trouble processing the whole, Big Evil, Out To Get Me, I Defeated a Dark Warlock —”
“Whatever. Just a bit mad, wouldn’t you say?” Harry ran a hand through his disastrous hair and pointed himself towards the bus shelter, letting the rest of them trail after him as it seemed they were intent on doing.
Ginny lengthened her stride to keep up. “How’d the Muggles say you got that scar?”
“Car accident.” Harry touched his forehead absently, the lightning spread of scar tissue familiar under his fingers. “Killed my parents.”
“Not quite,” Ginny said.
“Oh, good, more exciting revelations from the drama club.” Harry pulled up in front of the night bus stop and checked his watch. Great, he’d be here for ages.
“We can show you, you know,” Malfoy said, eying him intently. His odd face looked stark and shadowed in the streetlight, all cheekbone. “Well — some of us can.” He glanced at Hermione, who nodded.
“I’ll take him,” she said. She took out a long stick — her wand, Harry remembered. That was a wand. Hermione took Harry’s arm. “Take a deep breath,” she advised, “This is going to feel odd.”
Harry wanted to respond, but all of a sudden the world went black and Hermione’s arm was the only thing anchoring him in a whirling press of movement. He would have sworn but there wasn’t time — his eardrums throbbed and his ribs ached and, before he could get a grasp on anything, Hermione was dusting off her jeans and Harry was sat on the pavement, blinking up at the familiar sight of the off license across the street from his flat.
“Well done, Harry.” Hermione beamed at him. “Didn’t even vomit on your first try! Most people do, you know. I was sick all over the instructor.”
“Er,” Harry said, as Ron popped next to them, clutching Malfoy’s elbow with one hand and Ginny’s wrist with the other. He seemed to yank them into existence, like pulling a rabbit from a hat.
“Just a sec,” Ron said, hands on his knees. “Knackered. Hermione, do you think you could go back for Luna and Neville?”
Hermione popped away without another word, leaving Harry to stare up at the thin air where she had been.
“C’mon mate,” said Ron, putting out a hand. Harry grasped it and Ron pulled him up. “That was Apparition. Nifty, right? I just got my license. Failed the first time — splinched half an eyebrow — but did all right the next. Dead useful. Only Hermione and I can do it so far but — not bad.”
“Beats the night bus,” Harry admitted, still taking this in. He tried to seem nonchalant and felt he was not doing a very good impression. Something else occurred to him, sickly and cold. “How’d you know where I lived?”
“It’s where we looked first,” Ron said, “You weren’t in, but one of your flatmate said you’d be in the… The… Underthingy.”
“Underground,” supplied Malfoy, mouth curving in a smug sort of way. “You see, Weasley, I know Muggle things too.”
Ron rolled his eyes. “Yeah, throw a parade, mate.”
There was a loud crack and Hermione appeared, with Luna and Neville on either side.
This time the night before, Harry was having a crap drink in his crap flat with his crap flatmates. He couldn’t quite connect the dots with the him yesterday and the him today — with the magic and the evil warlock and these six strangers who all looked at him like he was…
“I’m going to bed,” Harry announced. “You can all… Just leave me alone, for the time being, all right?”
“Harry,” Hermione sighed, clearly gearing up for a speech about his safety.
“Save it,” Harry snapped. They all kept looking at him with awful, hungry eyes. He didn’t know what they wanted from him. He didn’t have anything to give. “Please, just — I’ll talk to you tomorrow. You can meet me after work, again, all right?”
The six of them exchanged glances, uncertainty written in the planes of their faces. “Okay,” Hermione said, finally.
“Try not to get murdered,” Malfoy advised him.
Harry flipped the two fingered salute, and went home.
When Draco was a toddler, he named every single one of his imaginary friends Harry Potter. That era came to an abrupt end when his mother gently suggested he perhaps not mention his imaginary friend in front of his father, or his father’s friends, or really anybody, anywhere. When he was older, Hogwarts, terrible cesspool of gossip that it was, rehashed the Tale of Potter roughly twenty times per day. Now that Draco had actually met Harry Potter, the entire fiasco felt like an out-of-body experience.
Harry Potter, as it turned out, was not a myth, nor a mystery, nor a ghost. He was just a boy. An underfed teenage boy with horrid hair and ill-fitting clothes, and, as if that weren’t enough, he was also clearly an irritable, vulgar, unimaginative arsehole.
He was also undeniably fit.
Draco put that to the back of his mind.
“We can’t just let him go,” Granger insisted. “If we could find him, they can.”
“That doesn’t mean we should stake out his flat like a bunch of weirdos,” Boy Weasley said.
“Too late,” said Girl Weasley.
“I think it’s nice.” Luna smiled serenely. “Like we’re watching over him as he sleeps.”
“What if we want to sleep,” Draco grumbled, pulling his coat closer around his torso.
“We’ll take it in turns,” Neville said, with an annoyingly encouraging smile. “We’ve got the tent, so.”
“Amongst pavement that smells of piss.” Draco winced, covering his nose with one gloved hand. He could just glimpse the tent under its Notice-Me-Not spell, tucked in the narrow gap between a grotty shop and a row of terraces. A tent. Merlin help him.
“Fine then, whinger. You can take first shift.” Girl Weasley clapped Draco on the shoulder and disappeared into the tent.
Draco left the rest of the motley crew to squabble over who would join him and went to lean against a tree that had certainly seen better days, not unlike the whole of their surroundings. The Actual Harry Potter lived on the first floor of a decrepit brick building in a part of London so pungent that civilians ought to have been handed masks upon entry. The ground floor had at one point held a shop, but the sign had long since worn off and the windows were bolted over. Crime, clearly. The air stank of piss and old beer. Everything was just disgusting, and if he thought about it too long Draco would go screaming for disinfectant potion and never again return. Draco kicked a half-empty Strongbow can away from his immediate vicinity, and then regretted it, as there was now cider on his dragon-leather shoes.
“Well he’s a bit of all right, isn’t he?”
Draco raised an eyebrow. Granger giggled, as if she couldn’t quite believe she had said that either.
“Oh, you know what I mean. Saviour of the Wizarding World, and handsome as well? Could be lucky he never grew up around witches and wizards, really.”
“Practically a Muggle,” said Draco. “We’re doomed.”
“Maybe.” Granger leaned against the wall of the bus shelter, obscuring the frankly creepy unmoving advert for blocks of grey plastic, or something equally daft. “But at least we’ve tried.”
“What a disgustingly Hufflepuff statement, Granger.”
“You can call me Hermione, you know.”
“Don’t be crass.”
A massive bus blasted down the road and didn’t so much as pause at their stop. Either Hermione had spelled them both, or Muggles were horrifically rude.
“We’ll teach him.” Hermione sounded quietly confident, which Draco supposed made sense from someone who had not witnessed rather more death than one generally ought to in the last year. There was still all the torture, but she apparently had a strong constitution. “We’ll teach him, and we’ll —”
“Set the world to rights?” Draco snorted. “Bit late for that.”
“I’m sorry about — you know.” Hermione’s face was pained, like she was trying to project empathy from every pore in her nose.
“Don’t be. It’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” Draco swallowed hard. “And where would you be, then?”
“Oh, somewhere awful, I expect.” Hermione sent a small smile his way.
Seeing as Hermione was Muggleborn, Draco didn’t feel entirely charitable joking about what awful places she could have been at this moment. “Hm,” he said, noncommittal. “So what is our grand plan, fearless leader?”
“Oh, I was thinking we’d probably track him for a while until something goes terribly wrong.” Hermione tapped her chin, looking a little too pleased about this prospect. She really was far too devious for Gryffindor. The Sorting Hat had squandered her potential. “Which it will, of course. Then we can — well, we’ll have to find him a wand. Or I suppose he could duel one of us, and then…”
“And then one of us would have no wand.”
“Well, yes. I see what you mean.” Hermione pursed her mouth and looked into the middle distance. “I’ll think of something.”
“And in the meantime, we stalk.”
“Essentially.” Hermione eyed the windows of Potter’s flat with the air of a cat who knew very well where the mouse had gone. Her eyes glinted with evangelical optimism. “He just needs to adjust to the idea.”
Hermione, Neville, Luna, the Weasleys — all of them put so much hope into the spectre of Potter. Potter the saviour, Potter the prophesy, Potter the main reason for running off in the middle of the night with a bottomless handbag and a terrible tent. Draco didn’t want to voice the thought that — well, what if Potter wasn’t up for the task? What if he got knocked off on his way to work? What if he had a nutty and went back to the Muggles who raised him? What if he made a stupid target of himself; what if they trained him up and set him off on the Dark Lord and they all died anyway. What then?
This was why it was bollocks to go run off and try to change the world with a whole mess of Gryffindors. And Luna Lovegood, but she hardly counted as a voice of reason. It all fell on Draco to crush their terrible dreams.
If Harry Potter had gone to Hogwarts, Draco hoped he would have at least been a Slytherin.
Harry could swear someone was following him.
He was weaving through the crowd on his way to the tube and he could feel his neck prickling. Hell, if it was Hermione and that lot — he’d told them to give him a minute to get used to the idea that, you know, everything Harry thought he knew about himself was a lie. A minute, a workday, a sixteen hour shift to make rent and think about how, you know, turned out he missed his stop at magic school and now there were evildoers after his balls.
There it was again, that nerve-tingling feeling that he was being bloody watched. Harry ducked into a narrow side street, barely wide enough for a taxi to fit through. Best to flush them out, he figured, and purposely slowed his pace.
“I told you lot to give me a fucking minute,” Harry snapped, turning around. His stomach plunged — it wasn’t Hermione and the rest. Two burly blokes holding sticks — wands — were blocking the street and looking vicious.
“Found you,” one growled.
Harry didn’t know what he was doing, he didn’t know how he was doing it, but there was a force inside his ribcage that burned as bright as a young star and it was so easy to just — let it out. It felt like burning, like flame, and it ran through Harry’s veins and out into the road, plunged deep into the cobbles and bricks and ruptured them. The ground trembled. Wind rushed through the chasm between buildings. The blokes stumbled but Harry didn’t move; his feet were rooted to the ground. There was the sound of shattering glass and, somewhere, a scream.
Harry knew this was magic, now. It was so easy. He let it out.
“Merlin’s fucking trousers,” came a shout, and flashes of red light blew past Harry to knock the two blokes over into a neat pile against the brick building to their left.
A voice swam through the wind. “Harry? Harry can you hear me?”
Cobbles erupted beneath Harry’s feet. Glass tumbled over his hair like rain.
“Oh for Merlin’s sake, Potter.”
Somebody shook Harry roughly by the shoulders. The fire inside his ribs dimmed to a low simmer, then went out. Harry blinked. The world shifted in focus as if he’d just put his glasses on. Malfoy hastily stepped back, adjusting his coat.
“I knew you lot were still following me,” Harry said, after a long moment.
Hermione, Ron, Neville and Ginny were looking at Harry a bit like he was an unattended rucksack again. Luna just looked thoughtful. Malfoy looked — something else.
“We’d better get going,” Ron said eventually, eyes darting from Harry to the fallen bricks to the fallen humans, “They’re only stunned. Hermione, will you?”
Hermione crouched over the men, waving her wand in serpentine shapes as white mist flowed from their heads.
Harry looked at the slumped figures. “I don’t suppose I have to go to work, then.”
“I think that would be unwise,” agreed Luna.
Harry took a shallow breath. “I’ll just go… Get my stuff.”
“Can’t,” Ron said, face apologetic.
“If they found you here, they know where you live.” Ginny wrinkled her nose. “Sorry.”
Harry looked down at his jeans and jacket. His messenger bag had most of his essentials, but his clothes were back at the flat.
“We may have already packed your things,” Hermione said, wiping her knees off. “I had a feeling you might need them.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. There were a lot of things about this experience that were suspicious at best and incredibly intrusive at worst, but — well, whatever. It wasn’t as if he liked his flatmates much. Let Tall Flatmate miss out on his exorbitant rent this week; it would be a character-building experience for him.
“This is all very ‘come with me if you want to live.’” Harry said. Most of the others’ faces were blank, but Hermione quirked a smile in his direction.
“It’s the best way to cut to the chase, don’t you think?”
Harry eyed the burly men, wondering how many of them were out there, wondering if whatever he had done would be enough. “Fine. Where are we going?”
Hermione exchanged glances with Ron. “Somewhere they won’t expect.”
After Apparating it took Harry a minute to cotton on, seeing as they were surrounded on all sides by woodland and scrub, but they were definitely on Hampstead Heath. Neville spent the entirety of that minute hunched over with his hands on his knees, fighting the greenish tint of his skin and taking measured breaths.
“I hate Apparition,” Neville moaned quietly, after hacking bile into a shrub that certainly did not deserve it.
“Sorry, Neville,” Hermione said, not sounding the least bit sorry.
Harry put his hands in his pockets and peered through a gap in the trees. An old white man tramped through tall grass with his labrador, probably totally unaware of the underage magicians a few metres to his left. “I get that north of the river is a whole other universe, Hermione, but we are technically still in the same city.”
“They’ll expect us to get as far away from our original location as we can manage,” Hermione explained, kneeling to dig tentpoles out of her small handbag like Mary Poppins. “Besides, London is rather large, you know.”
“Is it,” said Harry. Hermione’s smile was catching; Harry couldn’t quite tamp down on his own.
“Besides,” Neville panted, “There are registered witches and wizards living around here and the Ministry can’t Trace us.”
“Can’t — what?” Harry stared down at Neville. “What is this, 1984?” He thought of CCTV, only personalised: thousands of little magical cameras following Neville and Hermione around.
Neville squinted at him. “It’s 1997, Harry,” he said slowly.
“Wizards aren’t exactly familiar with Muggle literature,” Hermione said. “Or — or, really, any literature. Education at Hogwarts was frankly irresponsible even before Umbridge, and the Carrows.”
Harry tilted his head back to stare up at the gently moving leaves, and made peace with how he’d probably be vaguely confused and behind on references for the rest of his life. He was like someone who had been raised in a cult, or someone who hadn’t been raised in a cult but had instead been pulled into the cult after a comparatively normal childhood. Or, not a very normal childhood, but — a different one, anyway.
With a great crash, Ginny and Ron came tramping through the grass, batting tree branches away from their path. “There you are,” Ginny huffed, “We were all the way by some swimming ponds. The number of men’s penises I did not expect to —”
“Ginny,” said Ron.
“Dicks,” Ginny said staunchly, “Willies. Wangs.”
Ron went a sort of maroon colour. “I blame Fred and George.”
“You shouldn’t give them credit for my bad behaviour.”
Luna emerged from the woods next, followed closely by Malfoy. All of them began picking twigs from their hair. “I see we seem to have slight accuracy problems with Apparition,” Luna said. “If only Portkeys were unregulated.”
“Yes, a smaller government, even less regulation, that would solve everything,” muttered Hermione, digging the rest of the tent from her bag. “Erecto.” With a wave of her wand, the tent neatly assembled itself. Harry hoped she had another couple tents in that bottomless handbag, as the entire contraption looked only about large enough for three of them, if they squeezed.
“I reckon we should get some food,” Ron announced. “We’re running low, aren’t we? And who knows where we’ll be next.”
“Good idea.” Hermione sat back on her heels and squinted up at him. “Let’s get the protections up and then we can go. Harry, I was thinking we might start teaching you some magic.”
“Wicked,” Ginny said. “I wonder if he’ll blow anything else up.”
Harry looked down at his hands, remembering the overpowering fire feeling from before. Leaves swirled up around his legs like small tornados, or yippy dogs.
“Not like that, good grief, Potter,” Malfoy said, grabbing Harry’s elbow. “Unclench, please.”
Harry took a breath, and the leaves settled.
“It’s honestly a miracle you haven’t utterly blown up your workplace. Or any other location, for that matter.”
“It didn’t feel like this before,” Harry said. “Or — well, maybe it did, but I hadn’t… noticed.”
“Those of us without —” Malfoy waved his hand at Harry vaguely. “Whatever that is, use wands. Wands help us channel our magic, so it will do what we want it to do rather than cause unmanageable devastation in the inner city.”
Harry scowled. “The street looked fine when we finished.”
“Yes, after we fixed your damage.” Malfoy glowered at him.
“Oh, calm down, the both of you,” Hermione said, getting to her feet and fixing them with an impressively authoritarian moue of disapproval. She paced a wide circle around their campsite, waving her wand about and chanting nonsensical phrases. The air shimmered and fogged and then went still.
“Harry, you can borrow my wand. Draco, why don’t you teach him something simple to start? Wingardium Leviosa, maybe. Or Expelliarmus.”
Hermione handed Harry a slim piece of innocuous pale wood, unadorned except for intricate carvings around the handle. At first glance it was nothing more than a piece of wood, less than a foot in length. But there was a faint, sort of — well, a feeling. A buzzing. The wood was warm under his fingertips, almost as if it was alive.
“Oh, fine,” Malfoy sighed. “Potter, do you know any Latin?”
Harry laughed. “You’re joking.”
“Well I don’t know what they teach at your… schools.”
“No, Malfoy, my crap school hadn’t done Latin since about the nineteenth century. Back when they also enjoyed caning, and tuberculosis.”
“You don’t need Latin for magic, Harry,” Luna said over her shoulder, “Not all spells are of latinate derivation, anyway. You’ll be all right if you just understand the essence.”
“I thought it might save time,” Malfoy said primly.
“What you’re doing now certainly isn’t saving any,” Harry said.
Malfoy pinched his pinched face in Harry’s direction. “I’ll demonstrate. Repeat after me. Wingardium Leviosa.” Draco flicked his wand at a small twig, which obligingly rose up from the ground and hover in front of the tip of his wand.
“Wingardium Leviosa,” Harry said, and flicked his wand. A sudden blaze of fire consumed a host of twigs and a blanket of fallen leaves.
They both jumped back from the flames licking at their shoes, and Malfoy sent a stream of water at the impromptu bonfire.
“Oh,” Hermione said, hand over her heart.
Malfoy shot her an irritated look. “I have this handled, Granger. I don’t think Weasley does, though.” He nodded at Ron, whose shimmering protective wall was wobbling and turning violently green as he ignored it in favour of staring at Harry.
“Ron,” Hermione sighed, and corrected his grip.
“Pay attention, Potter,” Malfoy said imperiously, and waved his wand in a slow motion. “You see, it’s a swish, and a flick.”
Harry scowled and suppressed the desire to push Malfoy over. “Wingardium Leviosa,” he repeated and, then as flaming leaves shot towards the canopy of trees, “Oh, fuck.”
Potter could have been worse. The frankly frightening amount of power he had demonstrated against the Death Eaters — Rowle and Thicke, Draco’s brain supplied unhelpfully — covered over a lot of weakness in technique.
The fact that they were having to start with spells Potter should have learned when he was barely out of short pants, however, was more than a little dispiriting. The sun had set by the time Potter managed Expelliarmus, and whatever the hell forest they were in grew frost-cold in the span of an hour.
“That’s good, Harry,” Luna said blithely, having finished demonstrating a new technique to their bad-tempered pupil. “It’s a bit cold now, shall we go in?”
Potter eyed the small tent. “Who’s in there already?”
“Oh, everyone. Come see.” Luna ducked into the tent. Draco followed, just in time to see Potter’s chin drop open as he stepped through the tent flap, exposing a pink mouth and white teeth to their full and unbearable possibility.
Draco thought the decor looked rather like a down-on-its-luck seaside cottage, from the bleached wood floorboards to the shabby inglenook fireplace, but he supposed to Potter the interior must look fairly palatial.
“Yes, yes, it’s bigger on the inside,” sighed Draco, flopping onto one of the threadbare sofas.
Hermione and Potter snorted, glanced at each other, and burst into uncontrollable laughter.
“What?” Draco snapped, trying not to notice the warm way Potter’s eyes crinkled.
“Don’t look at me,” said Neville, “I have no clue.”
“I think it’s from the fellytone,” Ron said wisely.
“Oh, Ronald, honestly,” said Hermione, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Yes, the telly. Or the television, whichever. There’s this programme — oh, forget it. It’ll take too long to explain.”
“You don’t have television?” Potter squinted at all of them as if they had simultaneously begun to step-dance on the ceiling. “Honestly? Not at all?”
“I think we all would have benefited from the Muggle Studies curriculum,” Luna said thoughtfully. “And perhaps maths.”
“Ugh,” said Ginny. “I remember those.”
Luna cocked her head. “Do you?”
“Can just use a calculating charm, can’t I,” Ginny muttered, popping the kettle on and taking down seven mugs.
“Well, Ron and I are up in the loft area,” Hermione said, motioning to the ladder against one canvas wall. She ducked her head, clearly embarrassed about their occasionally audible fumblings, as well she should have been. “It’s meant for storage, but there’s a futon. Everyone else gets the bunkbeds.”
“Joy,” Draco drawled.
“One bunk in there, that’s Ginny and Luna. Draco and Neville are in the other. There’s two bunkbeds, though; I’m sure you can have one, Harry.”
Draco trailed after Neville and Potter, forcibly wrenching his gaze from the latter’s arse. “I feel like we don’t spend enough time discussing my suffering,” Draco announced.
No one acknowledged him.
“I had never slept in a bunk bed before, you know. I had never even seen one.”
“Shut up, Malfoy,” Neville said mildly. “It’s not much, Harry, but it does the job.”
“You can hear Granger and Boy Weasley making horrific Gryffindor love. It’s, honestly, I think it qualifies as a war crime.”
“Is Gryffindor love different from any other kind?”
“More saliva,” Malfoy informed Neville, with dignity. “Slytherins would never.”
“I don’t know, I’ve seen you and Pansy Parkinson —”
Draco impelled a pillow towards Longbottom’s face before he could finish that undoubtedly touching memory of their schooldays.
“I used to live in a cupboard,” Potter admitted, like that was something people just went around saying. “This looks all right.”
“Well there’s no need to jest, Potter,” Draco huffed, sitting on his own bed. “Just choose your sleeping quarters already.”
“You can have the bottom bunk, Harry,” Neville said, taking his wand out to switch the sheets. “I don’t mind.”
“Cheers,” Potter said, and slumped onto his bed. The duvet sort of drifted down around him, curling around his legs like a fluffy cat. He patted it absently. Potter had abysmally bitten nails and long, brown fingers.
“We don’t have much storage space, unfortunately,” Neville continued, as if he weren’t damning Draco to night after night of sleeping right across from Potter, “But we’ll make some room in the wardrobe. Right, Draco?”
“Hm?” Draco forced himself to stop analysing stupid Potter’s stupid hands. “Oh, I suppose. If we must.”
Neville raised one eyebrow, but didn’t argue. It was one of the most annoying things about Longbottom, and there were many.
“I don’t have much stuff,” Potter said, as if they hadn’t broken into his flat and stolen his not very much stuff already that day.
Draco lay down and pretended he was dead. “Don’t fret, Potter. I’m sure you’ll inconvenience us in many, many other ways.”
“I live to serve,” said Potter dryly, and honesty, what the hell was Draco supposed to do with that?
Hermione’s nerves pinged at every sound, every rustle in the dark. She slept at the knife-edge of waking until, finally, a dog barking somewhere in the dawn summoned her brain to full and unbearable anxiety.
Ron, Hermione had learned in the past few months, slept like an old cat. She could rouse him enough that he would answer a few questions in a raspy, half-conscious voice, but he’d slip right back into sleep if she didn’t keep prodding him. She smiled at his dear, slack face, and shuffled out of the bed, making far too much noise. She pulled on an extra jumper on her way out of the tent and wished she had grabbed two — the air was damp and chilly.
Ginny sat on an overturned log at the edge of the trees, just outside the network of protective charms that shielded them from Muggle view. Her long hair was pulled into a braid and she had a hat with earflaps pulled low over her eyebrows.
Hermione stood next to her, looking out at the stretch of heath ahead.
“This reminds me of home,” Ginny said, nodding at the landscape. “It’s weird we’re in the middle of the city.”
“We have to get Harry a wand,” Hermione said. “It’s dangerous to have any one of us without; what if we got separated? And if the Death Eaters realise we’ve found him — it’ll be even more dangerous now. We won’t just be a Mudblood and some truants.”
“Hermione,” Ginny said. “Don’t say —”
“We have to plan more carefully. Our first goal has been accomplished, but this is — god, this is only the beginning. There’s so much more to do; I can’t believe I’ve given it this long before really considering a plan of action!” Hermione brushed her hair out of her face, heart pounding. “We need someplace safe, away from people, but where the Trace won’t be detected. A source of food, and we’ll need a way to get to Ollivander’s, or someone to bring Ollivander’s to us. Luna’s father knows Ollivander, but I don’t know if he —”
“Hermione!” Ginny stood up and punched Hermione lightly on the upper arm. “Don’t count your owls before they’re delivered. Just, you know, take it one owl at a time. Let an owl in, pay the owl, let the next one in. Like an owl assembly line, minus the assembly.” Ginny wrinkled her freckled nose. “Lovely, now I’m imagining actually assembling the owls. Loads of guts and feathers. Must smell incredible.”
Hermione laughed and shook her head. “Your brain is rather an interesting place.”
“Good morrow, cauldron, I am kettle.” Ginny doffed an imaginary hat, bowing slightly.
“I thought one would replace kettle in that idiom. For syllables, I mean. It scans better.”
Ginny squinted at her. “You’re doing that thing where you leapfrog about eight steps and assume I’m following. I am not following. I am about twelve feet behind you.”
“Wizards really ought to switch to metric,” Hermione mused, watching the long grass move with the wind. “I understand as a culture we’re a bit backwards but it simply makes it more logical for everyone involved.”
“Again, twelve feet. Maybe fifteen feet.” Ginny put her hands in her pockets and leaned against a nearby tree. “I never thought we’d actually find him,” she said. “It’s so— it’s like discovering a secret passageway at school. One no one else found, and Fred and George hadn’t filled it with dungbombs yet.”
“It’s like magic,” said Hermione. She glanced at Ginny, who had never known magic as anything other than oxygen in the air she breathed. “Wonderful, but actually rather tricky when you get down to it.”
Hermione could hear steps before she saw anyone, but before she could fully go into panic-mode Ron ambled up next to them, rubbing sleep from his eyes and yawning hugely. “What the fuck,” he rasped, “Are you people doing awake.”
“More cauldrons for the kettle,” Ginny noted.
Ron made a face at his sister and turned to Hermione. “You worrying again?” he asked, quietly, as if Ginny couldn’t hear every word they said. This had been rather a running theme for their adventures so far. There was not a lot of privacy in a tent, as it turned out.
“I’m all right,” Hermione told him. “There’s just — rather a lot to do, as it turns out.”
“We did it, though,” Ron said. “We found Harry Fucking Potter.”
“Plus none of us have died,” Ginny pointed out helpfully. “We’ve not even almost died. I’d say that’s a rousing success so far.”
“There was that time we all accidentally ate poisonous mushrooms.” Ron shrugged. “But we all came out of it all right in the end.”
“I doubt the toilet will ever be the same,” Ginny said gloomily.
“I thought we made a pact to never speak of that again. Or — no, you said you’d never speak of it again if I would stop saying I told you so. Well, I absolutely told you so.”
“We should never have trusted Neville,” Ron said. “He’s a bastard in disguise.”
“Oh yes, that dastardly Neville Longbottom. All deceit and malice.” Hermione laughed and leaned slightly so that her shoulders touched Ron’s upper arm. He was a steady source of heat in the dewy air. She thought of her To-Do List, which grew ever longer with every passing breath. She couldn’t help mentally adding tasks, even as she tried to joke. They had found Harry Potter, but now — now they actually had to find a way to win the war.
This was, by all reckonings, a rather less straightforward goal.