- Multiple Eras
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Order of the Phoenix
Published: 09/26/2004Updated: 09/26/2004Words: 89,188Chapters: 19Hits: 87,944
- Story Summary:
- SEQUEL TO STEALING HARRY.````Ten years ago, Lucius Malfoy got to Peter Pettigrew before Sirius could, and the universe changed. Sirius spent years watching from a distance, until one day, when Harry was eight, he took Harry from the Dursleys. After two years in hiding, Harry returned to the Wizarding world to attend Hogwarts, only to find himself once more at risk -- once more facing Peter Pettigrew, who would like nothing better than to see Harry dead in the service of resurrecting Voldemort. ````Follow Harry and his friends -- brave Neville, clever Padma, and shy Draco -- as they are caught up in the battle for dominance between the Order and the Death Eaters.
- Chapter Summary:
- SEQUEL TO STEALING HARRY.
- Author's Note:
- Thanks to my beta-reading braintrust: Heidi, Judy, Nny, and Tai for their grammar/style/continuity betas, Em for her Art!Betas and illustrations.
Buoyed by Harry's success on the Quidditch field, they planned the "excursion with Nick", as Draco called it, for the last Friday before the Christmas holidays, just after exams. Harry, who had spent much of his early life observing other children rather than playing with them, noticed Draco's excitement wax and wane; it as as though the trip was the ultimate dare, like climbing the big standing stone at the edge of his village in Wales, the one with the really big spikes the village put up to stop people climbing on it. Neville and Padma were more level-headed about it, but Draco's good cheer was infectious.
And he noticed when Draco showed up pale and withdrawn to the study-group one day. Padma and Neville didn't -- they were deep in a discussion of revision technique for mid-year exams. They beckoned for Draco to join them, but when Draco simply sat in his chair and stared at his open book without really looking at it, his pale bangs falling in his eyes, Harry edged his chair over and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Going to study?" he asked. "We're all sat over here."
"Sure..." Draco said, but he didn't move. "In a bit."
"Did McGonagall give you another horrible big book to read over holidays?"
"Professor Snape still ignoring you?"
"I don't mind being ignored. He's pretty mean sometimes. And I don't usually get stuff wrong, so it's not like I need as much attention as Neville does."
Harry bit his lip. "You look awful."
"I mean -- "
"I'm not going home for Christmas," Draco said suddenly, a little more loudly than he should have; Padma and Neville looked up from their books. He dropped his voice, cheeks colouring. "Professor McGonagall came around today with the list and my name was already on it. Mum owled Dumbledore. She didn't even ask me."
"But -- that'll be fun. You'll have lots of free time," Neville said encouragingly. "You can play in the snow -- "
"Lots of time to revise for the spring," Padma put in. Neville elbowed her. "What? Draco likes revising."
"And it's not like..." Harry paused. "If I was still living with...with my relatives, I wouldn't really...want to go home."
Draco made a quiet little noise that the other three chose to ignore.
"Well, there's still this weekend and the Excursion," Neville said. "And exams'll keep you busy -- and I'm sure you could...well, Hagrid always likes visitors, and eating one of his scones takes up pretty much all of an afternoon..."
"And we'll all send you things, won't we?" Harry said. "Neville and I'll send you a postcard and I'm sure Andromeda's going to have presents for you."
"Yeah," Draco agreed, and he did seem to brighten a little. "You think?"
"She likes you," Neville said. "You're family, course she will. And I bet your mum sends you something terrifically expensive to make up for it."
"If she remembers," Draco said, with a dry little smile. "She forgot Christmas one year."
Horrified silence followed.
"It's all right, the House Elves made me a lovely book to write in -- " Draco paused. "And, and...Mendy always makes lots of sweets...."
"That's awful," said Padma quietly.
"It's all right, really, like you said, Aunt Andromeda's sure to send me something."
"Did she say you had to stay at Hogwarts?" Harry asked suddenly. Draco gave him a funny look.
"My name's on the list. She told the Headmaster," he said, blankly.
"Yeah, but it's..." Harry wasn't sure how to ask "It's just because she doesn't want you home, isn't it?" so he changed tactics. "Would she mind awfully if you stayed with Andromeda? That'd be neat, wouldn't it? We'd have enough to play a decent game of Exploding Snap without having to make Remus play, then."
"But I haven't been asked..." Draco said, glancing at Neville, looking almost afraid.
"Er." Neville blinked. "Do you need to be?"
"S'polite," Draco muttered. "Not supposed to invite yourself over."
"Oh, well then." Neville sat up very straight and held out his hand. "Mister Malfoy, would you come stay with us for the holiday?"
"You haven't asked your -- "
"Ted and Andromeda won't care, there's lots of room," Neville said easily. "I'll write to them right now if you want, Andromeda can write and ask your mum. I think she likes to write to your mum, cos it annoys her."
Draco grinned a little at that. "Will it be an incon -- "
"Shut up, Malfoy," Neville answered cheerfully, already pulling out a sheet of parchment. Draco subsided into embarrassed happiness, while Neville wrote to Andromeda, his handwriting less legible than Harry's or Draco's but his grammar considerably better. He read it aloud when he was done, to the general approval of the others if not the librarian, who gave them a warning look as she passed (she went easy on them because Harry had asked her if the library had any Kipling and won a lifelong friend in Madam Pince, who owned a first-edition of The Jungle Books in her personal collection.)
As Neville ran off to the Owlery to mail the letter, Padma leaned over, whispering to Harry.
"She will be all right with it, won't she?"
"Yeah," Harry said. "The Tonkses are grand. You should come down too. You'll come shopping at Diagon Alley anyway, won't you?"
"We probably will, we nearly always do," Padma agreed. "I'm looking forward to some quiet, though. Not that it ever is in my house around the holidays, my whole enormous family descends on us sooner or later, but usually I can hide behind the shed in the back garden and Parvati'll draw all the attention."
"Must be nice having siblings," Draco said.
"Depends on the sibling, I guess," Harry answered. "I mean. Neville and I are sort of related to you, but it's...well, Neville picked you to come stay with him and Andromeda picked Sirius to come live with them. I guess if you could pick your family things'd be a bit better. I certainly wouldn't've picked Aunt Petunia as my aunt," he added, wrinkling his nose. "She used to give me socks for Christmas. Old knobbly socks."
"Friends are people who never give you knobbly socks," Draco agreed, and the three of them snickered until Madam Pince gave them their second warning and they all had to hush and bend to their books.
Exams passed in a blur, it seemed, of revision and last-minute research and Padma's utter adherence to the Wisdom of the Flashcard. There was nothing, she firmly believed, that flashcards could not sooner or later solve. The exams weren't all-consumingly important, since even those who failed had the whole spring to improve their marks, but Draco was shocked and pleased to have passed his Transfigurations task adequately all the same.
"What do you mean, you had to turn a mouse into a snuffbox?" Harry asked, as they assembled that Friday, Neville almost leaping around with excitement, Padma calmly double-checking that the crowbar was packed in the bag Harry was carrying and that Draco really did know the sharpening charm in case the knife he'd filched from the kitchen inexplicably went dull on the walk to the chapel.
"Didn't you?" Draco asked, pulling on his gloves. "It came out pretty nice, ivory and red lacquer."
"No, I had to turn paper into cloth," Harry said. He sniffed. "I was trying for silk but I only got muslin."
"I got corduroy," Neville answered.
"You suppose that's better or worse?"
"Dunno. Padma, what'd you get?"
"Linen," Padma said smugly. "All right. It's almost dark and Sir Nicholas said he'd meet us here after sundown -- "
"Speak of the spectre," Nick said, putting his head through a wall. "Hello, children."
"Hello Nick," they chorused, as if he were a professor addressing a class. He smiled a little and floated fully through the wall, putting his hands on his hips.
"Ready to go then, are we?" he asked, eyeing Harry's bulging bag and Draco's determined grip on the map they'd drawn of the chapel. "And if we get separated -- "
"Meet at the sign to Hogsmeade," Padma said quickly.
"Or go back to your dormitory and don't go wandering about where you might get hurt," Nick said sternly. "If I wasn't coming along myself, I would very much frown on this sort of thing. What're you fiddling with, Miss Patil?" he called. Padma dropped the leather case hanging around her neck, quickly.
"I thought -- since nobody's been there in ages, it might be fun to um...take some pictures," she said, her voice dropping in volume on the last few words. "I haven't taken hardly any pictures, school takes too much time..."
"Well, so long as you're not going to photograph me," Nick said.
"Urk. That'd be creepy," Padma said. "I don't like taking pictures of people. I like buildings and trees and things."
Nick looked rather pleased to be considered "people", then gestured them all against a wall as one of the other ghosts came floating around the corner, and drifted by aimlessly.
"As long as we can keep out of Peeves' way, I happen to know Mr. Filch is up on the fourth floor, so we'll have no problems getting out of the castle," Nick said. "Let me have a scout around first."
They waited, huddling a little bit in the shadows, until Nick reappeared from his reconnaissance.
"This way," he whispered, apparently delighed to be sneaking around the school. Harry suspected most of the ghosts were pretty bored, a lot of the time. This must be like some kind of holiday for Nick.
They made it out of the castle all right, except for one of the portraits threatening to call Dumbledore until Nick bribed her with the promise of a new varnish, and crept slowly through the most dangerous part of the trip, at least in their minds -- the wide open fields between the entrance to Hogwarts and the pounded-dirt road to Hogsmeade, crusted with frost in the midwinter cold. Once on the road they'd be partially screened by the trees, and before long would be in the forest itself -- on a trail, yes, but still surrounded on all sides.
"The Romans built this road when they passed through, I hear," Nick said, as they turned onto the flat track to Hogsmeade, the wizarding town beyond Hogwarts where the third-years-and-up were allowed to visit. Harry could see very distant buildings rising up out of the fields. "Very flat, as straight as possible, strong construction charms..."
"Roman wizards wanted to civilise the locals," Harry said, breathing easier now that Hogwarts was out of sight. "I read about it."
"Or conquer," Draco said unexpectedly, and Harry glanced at him. "Well, that's what the Romans did. All the oldest pureblood families in England are descendent from the Roman wizards -- Nigellus, Mulciber -- Malfeus, where Malfoy comes from," he added, with just a slight hint of pride. "Most of the books I read in my father's library say the people who were living here didn't have any magic, but I don't think that's really true."
"Why not?" Harry asked curiously.
"Cos the Romans didn't build that," Draco said, pointing off in the distance. Harry turned to follow his hand, and saw Padma and Neville stopping to do the same. Across the flat farmland that had once been and was still called the Hogsmeade Fens, there were strange stony shapes rising in the distance, sharp-edged in the frosty air.
"Creadonagh valley," Nick nodded. "We used to play war-games there when I was a boy at Hogwarts. Terribly dangerous and foolish, but back then there were a lot more wizards, and surviving Hogwarts was its own final exam."
"It's just a stone circle," Padma said. "There's lots of them in Britain. That doesn't mean they're magical."
"Some of them are," Harry murmured, thinking of Betwys Beddau, the town whose residents lived their whole lives inside a stone circle, and nearby Rhos Y Beddau, where the bogs had eaten the stones back into the earth.
"It's wild magic," Nick said soberly. "Don't you go near it. The Forest is bad enough, but it still follows some law; Creadonagh valley is its own law. Come, children. You'll have to be back in your beds before dawn."
They followed Nick further along until finally a little footpath, lined on either side with rocks and looking like something a child might have devised in a parents' garden, broke off from the main road.
"Don't go outside the stones," Nick warned. "Inside them you're protected by iron charms buried underneath -- works as well on unicorns as it does on the fey, not that the fey are your biggest worry, mind you -- and the rest of the really dangerous ones won't come near the path at any rate."
"Is the chapel safe?" Draco asked. None of them had moved, and Padma and Harry had huddled in closer, staring at the dreary little trail. It dipped down, where it left the Hogsmeade road, and ran straight into the shadows.
"It's holy ground," Nick said simply, and began to drift down the path. He looked a little less translucent, here, as though being closer to his body made him closer to real again himself.
"We're not supposed to go into the forest," Padma whispered.
"We knew we were going to have to," Harry whispered back. "You want to carry the crowbar?"
Padma nodded, looking a little less frightened when she had a long bar of steel in her hand. Harry silently passed Neville the other one, grinning a little at the boy's thankful look.
"Draco, light your wand," Harry whispered, and Draco muttered "Lumos!", brandishing his wand like a sword ahead of him.
"All right then," Neville said.
"All right then," Padma repeated.
Harry, deciding this was getting them nowhere, shoved Draco hard. He stumbled forward onto the trail and nearly fell headlong, but once one of them had stepped off the road, the rest of them felt better about following.
"You didn't have to do that," Draco hissed to Harry, as they made their way down the narrow path.
"I'm a Slytherin. It's what we do," Harry answered. "Keep that wand lit."Nick was a glowing silver beacon up ahead, which helped light the trail so that they could see well enough not to go off of it; soon Neville and Padma lit their wands, too. Off in the darkness, things scurried and chirped unnaturally.
Harry, who used to make a habit of going to the Muggle cinema with Sirius on weekends when they lived in Little Whinging, half-expected a frog to poke its head out of one of the little brackish ponds near the trail and cry "Edless-orsman!"
"I hear there are werewolves in the Forest," Draco said, and Neville looked like he wished he'd checked to see if it was a full moon.
"Nah," Harry answered, without thinking. "No indoor plumbing." Which was the reason Remus always gave that he didn't like camping. All three of them looked at him strangely, and he shrugged. "They're people a lot more of the time than they're wolves. I wouldn't want to live in here, would you?"
"Look," Neville said, pointing with his lit wand to where Nick's faint glow had vanished and was replaced by the eerie flicker of silvery light through narrow windows. Even in the Forbidden Forest, with things creeping and crawling all around them, they stopped to take in the Hogwarts Chapel.
It was a squat, low building, with thick-looking walls and narrow windows; it looked more like Hagrid's hut than any church Harry had ever seen. Bits of the roof on one side had fallen in, and here and there he could see loose stonework which confirmed his impression that the walls were built more crudely than the graceful gothic arches of Hogwarts. It was a rude little chapel, square and unassuming, as though it had grown up out of the ground.
Despite that, he could tell that there had been additions over the years; wizards couldn't bear to leave well enough alone. The thin arrow-slit windows had been fitted with bright stained-glass at some point, which was cracking in places, although it still seemed mostly intact. There were strange little crenellations poking up from the four corners of the building, and stone carvings, clearly stuck-on after the fact, decorated the eaves, the windowsills, and massive, open doorway. Grinning gargoyles looked down from the tops of the walls, and Harry thought he could make out human figures over the door. Metal straps still hung like horizontal bars across the doorway, though the wood had rotted away.
They hurried down the hill, then, and as they approached Harry saw that two of the door-bars met in a tarnished lock that was still secure; they ducked under the bars and stepped over two others to get inside, Draco examining the lock interestedly as they passed, Padma putting out a finger to touch the figures that seemed to be climbing up the doorway towards some eroded carving at the summit.
"Oh -- it's lovely," Padma said quietly, once they'd stepped over the leaf-detritus on the inside entrance and gotten their first proper view of the inside. The room was small, barely bigger than a Hogwarts classroom, but it was lined with stone benches, carved into graceful curves on either side of a central aisle. Moonlight filtered in through the broken roof, and below the holes the fallen stones littered the floor. A few had broken cracks into the benches below them.
The stone floor was laid out in unevenly-sized blocks, some of which had begun to heave up with time, and Harry decided that in another few decades roots would probably start to peek through. One, far off in a corner under the roof (where sunlight would fall in the daytime, he realised), already had. There were small clerestory windows set halfway up the slope of the roof, a vertical insert that would let in even more light, without letting in rain.
Their lights made the narrow stained-glass windows flicker and seem to move; Harry recognised one or two of the religious scenes from the Betwys Beddau church, where they used to show old films in the evenings sometimes. In one of the unfamiliar ones, a man was putting his hands in another one's injuries; probaby a healing spell, he guessed. In the next window over was a woman holding, of all improbable things, what looked like a red Easter egg.
Nick was standing about two thirds of the way down the aisle, opaque enough now that he was blocking the altar at the front of the chapel, though they could see that a rusting iron cross still hung in fragments above it.
"I'm taking a picture," Padma whispered, and the little magical flashbulb on her camera popped quietly, filling the room with light. Draco wandered down one of the benches to inspect the ceiling holes, then raced back quickly when they creaked and threatened to drop another few stones. Neville was crouching, wand held above the floor so that he could read something carved there, as Padma's flashbulb popped again.
"I didn't think they really buried people under these stones," Harry said, watching Neville trace a line of text with his finger. "I thought they were just memorials."
"I can't speak for Muggles," Nick said, his voice as hushed as theirs, "but in the wizarding world they do. Did, once. Maybe they still do." He shrugged, as if uninterested in the funerary rites of the living, and drifted a little further. "I'm over here, near the front."
Draco, who was closest, wandered over and stood carefully at the edge of the stone, inspecting it critically. Padma's camera flashed again.
"Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, 1450 - 1492. Executed by order of Henry Tudor, false pretender to the crown," Draco read, spelling out the words carefully, working his way around the odd y and spare e that made it slightly difficult to read in modern English.
Nick smiled. "I was very political even as a young ghost. I grew out of it. Notice it doesn't say beheaded," he said sadly. "No matter how much I shouted, they wouldn't put Beheaded on it when they were carving it."
"Why did he have you executed?" Harry asked, joining Draco at the gravemarker. Below Nick's name and the date of his death, there was an elaborate carving of a skeleton in profile, holding a lantern in one hand and a sickle in the other. Behind the skeleton a flat, stylised rose, like a Tudor rose simplified, spread its petals.
"Read the epitaph," Nick said quietly. It was a long one, in small, worn script, but Draco did his best.
If in politics you would muddle
Especially affairs of Muggles
Pay heed to my foul murder
At the hands of Henry Tudor.
I was a stout and loyal Yorkist
A soldier in the War of Roses
Naturally, therefore, did I own
The Duke of York should wear the crown.
Into conspiracy I entered
To kill the false Tudor pretender;
While traveling in France they caught me
Knowing that the Red Rose sought me.
On the chopping-block he placed my head;
The headsman tried to strike me dead.
Forty-seven times he tried
Before I had completely died.
Remember if you will my name;
Sir Nick may lie below in shame,
But while his body this stone lies o'er
The white rose triumphs evermore!
"Remus is from Yorkshire," Harry said, in a hushed voice. "This was about the end of the War of the Roses, wasn't it? He gave me a book on it once."
"What's the War of the Roses?" Draco asked.
"An old, very foolish war," Nick sighed. Padma's camera case clicked shut, and she came forward, Neville following. "And I was on the losing side, as it turned out."
"We should start," Padma said, taking the crowbar from Draco. "All we need is to get it a little bit apart from the others so that we can get the lifting charm underneath it."
"We know, Padma," Harry sighed, but he took Neville's crowbar and circled around to work his into the stone chink on the other side. Neville and Draco, wands ready, knelt down next to them, while Nick hovered and gave generally ineffective instructions.
Once they'd floated the heavy stone away, all four of them focusing hard in order to get it leaned up against a wall, they were faced with a smooth, dark dirt surface, where small bugs were frantically crawling away into the cracks between the other stones.
"Who wants to dig?" Nick asked cheerfully.
"We er, have to do something first," Harry said. "You're all...preserved down there, right?"
"I should be, yes."
"We have to draw lots to see who's going to do it," Harry said.
"Why?" Nick asked, confused.
"Cos...it's a body," Padma said. "I mean. A real dead body."
"It's my body, thank you -- "
"No, but it's...I mean. Someone's going to have to reach down with the knife and, and..." Neville trailed off.
"Oh," Nick said, thoughtfully. "Yes, I can see how that might not be something you're quite used to doing."
Harry, who felt like a horrible friend for what he was about to do, took four sticks out of his pocket. There were supposed to be three short ones and a long one; instead there were four long ones.
"We'll draw by name," Harry said. "Draco, you first."
Draco had once mentioned to Harry, possibly without meaning to, that his mum had a Grave Hand on a stand in her study; it was supposed to have been the hand of a patricide, and he didn't know what it did, but his mum had paid a lot of money for it. Draco was used to strange dark magic, so much so that he thought odd when the others were wary of it; and besides, better Draco than Neville, who was nervous and likely to botch the job, or Padma, who had been the strongest opponent of even doing it in the first place.
Harry just didn't think he could do it himself. Whenever he tried imagining it, he remembered the night Peter had taken him away from Sirius and Remus and tried to kill him, and he shuddered.
No, it was best this way. Draco could do it. He held out the sticks, and Draco's hand shook a little as he drew.
"Long stick, first try," Neville said in a hushed voice, as Draco's face fell. Harry tucked the other sticks back into his pockets, snapping them in half in the process, just in case.
"All right then," Padma said. "Draco doesn't have to help with the digging charm."
Draco stepped back, and the other three began to dig, lifting balls of dirt with their wands and piling it carefully to one side. It was easier than digging with shovels, but Harry was still sore from concentrating by the end of it, when the dirt was whisked away and a plain, warped brown coffin lid looked up at them.
Neville turned away. Padma reached around and turned him back, while she carefully charmed the lid up.
Sir Nicholas looked very peaceful, really, Harry decided.
"That's me," Nick said, pleased. "I look well. I should see about a further gratuity to the heirs of the men who did the preservation-charm."
Draco came forward.
"Knife's sharp?" Padma asked. Harry took it carefully out of his bag, and offered it to Draco.
"We're mad for doing this," Draco said, holding the knife.
"It's for Nick," Padma reminded him.
"We're still mad," Draco continued, as he knelt at the edge. It wasn't quite as deep as they'd expected; he'd be able to lean over and brace himself on the coffin-lid while he...did what they'd come to do.
"Neville, hold my belt," Draco said.
"Your belt?" Neville asked, confused.
"So I don't fall in. I don't fancy landing on top of a dead body," Draco said sharply, pointing to his back, and Neville hooked his hand around the belt, gripping the nearest stone bench-arm with the other.
Draco began to talk as he eased himself out over the grave, not really babbling, but only because it was such a calm monotone.
"I guess they put a preservation spell on the coffin, too. It must be an interesting job, being a mortician for a ghost. On the one hand, you know exactly what your client would like done with the body, but I suppose perhaps sometimes the ghost and his survivors might fight a bit about it. There's a big graveyard near our house and it seems like people enjoy putting really ugly things on top of graves, don't you think? Imagine if you'd bought a tombstone for someone and they suddenly told you it was hideous and they wouldn't be caught dead with it on their grave."
Harry watched as one hand gripped the lid, testing it first to make sure it wasn't completely rotten. He didn't think Draco had even realised the pun he made. Draco's other arm began to stretch out, probing gently with the knife blade below a wide lace ruff.
"I always wanted to go look at the graveyard," Draco continued, "because I think it must be very interesting to read all the epitaphs, like Nick's, but then again I read that there are all kinds of trouble wizards can get into. In America they have these things called Haints -- "
Harry turned his head as the knife slipped forward, and saw Padma close her eyes; Neville hadn't looked at the body since they'd uncovered it.
There was a moment of absolute silence, and then a slightly...wet noise, before the thunk of a blade on wood.
"Oh my goodness!" Nick exclaimed. Harry looked up automatically, and Nearly Headless Nick's ghost floated there, now entirely headless.
"Pull me back pull me back pull me back," Draco insisted, and Neville tugged hard. The lid slammed shut as Draco flew backwards, knife skittering across the stones. He and Neville ended up in a pile, and Padma automatically bent over to haul Draco to his feet.
Harry, meanwhile, was looking down the aisle past where Nick was floating, his body ending suddenly in a fancy lace ruff.
"WELL DONE LAD!" Nick's head boomed, from where it had rolled, near the front pew. It was lying on one ear and beaming joyously. "Where's my body gone -- oh, there it is, just be a second..."
The ghostly body drifted over and, while Harry watched in horrified fascination, picked up its equally ghostly head by the hair. Harry became aware of Draco chanting "ew ew ew" in the background as he brushed off his hands and dusted himself down.
"Look!" Neville said. "It's Completely Headless Nick!"
They had pushed the dirt back into the grave, and exhaustedly gotten the stone in place, though it was a little uneven; Nick didn't seen to notice, as he was still getting used to having a mobile head.
"Will it stay on?" Draco asked, as they tidied up their tools and repacked Harry's sack. Harry passed around cheese sandwiches from one of the pouches. Draco seemed to be recovering all right, though he was very, very keen on a wash, he said.
"I don't know," Nick answered, and with the air of a man balancing a book there, he put his head on top of his neck. "How do I look?"
"Bit crooked," Padma said critically. Nick opened his mouth and his head toppled forward.
"It might take some practice," he admitted, retrieving it and tucking it safely under one arm. "Oh, thank you! That was a job very well done, very well done indeed."
"Now we just have to sneak back into the castle, and even if we get caught we won't be in quite as much trouble as before," Padma said happily, as they climbed back out of the old chapel. "I want to take a picture of it from the top of the crest, so don't leave me behind, okay?"
They waited patiently while she opened her camera case and uncapped the lens; she clicked the shutter, the flashbulb popped, and --
"What was that?" Neville asked, grabbing Harry's arm. Harry had seen it too; some kind of large animal, nearby. Draco lit his wand and held it up, but it wasn't bright enough; Padma popped the flashbulb again, and this time all four of them saw it -- a horse, a deep grey horse spattered with what looked like silver paint.
"That's a unicorn," Nick said, drifting closer and holding up his head like a lantern at arm's length. The animal, clearly terrified, had stumbled when his light fell on it, and fell to its knees; as they watched, it struggled back up, and the silvery liquid pulsed down its legs.
"It's been hurt!" Draco said.
"Nobody would hurt a unicorn," Nick said to himself. "Unless -- go. Go now," he said, turning to them. "You're in danger here. Go, run and tell Hagrid someone's hunting unicorns -- "
A blast of purple light flew out of the darkness and hit Nick square, and he went pinwheeling backwards from the blow; Harry saw a tall figure in shadow against the nearly-setting moon, and another smaller shape behind him.
"Run," he whispered, shoving Neville down the path. Neville took Padma's sleeve in one hand and managed to grab a corner of Draco's coat in the other, as Harry backed slowly away, wand outstretched for all the good it would do him against a grown wizard.
Two grown wizards; one tall and thin, one shorter and limping badly, almost dragging himself along. Nick had lodged in a tree and was lost in the leaves, crying for help; all Harry saw was shadows as the men crossed the path and one of them wrenched the head of the unicorn to the ground, the taller one -- the other one bent and no he didn't just try to bite the unicorn --
The unicorn screamed and went limp, and before Harry knew it he was running as fast as he could, hearing hoofbeats in the distance and shouting now, calls of "Intruders in the forest!" and "To the path!" and what sounded like names -- Ronan, Magorian, Firenze. The bag bumped against his hips as he ran, and his breath came in short bursts; he caught up to the others only when they could actually see the road to Hogsmeade rising above them, and Draco yelped in terror when Harry passed him on one side.
They skidded to a halt on the road, panting, turning to stare at the forest.
"What happened?" Neville asked breathlessly.
"Someone killed it," Harry said, trying to keep the hysteria out of his voice. "There were two men and they went across the road and one of them bit it and it screamed..."
"You can't kill a unicorn!" Padma said. "It's a horrible curse!"
"Well they did!" Harry nearly shouted. "Do you want to go back and see for yourself?"
"I want to get out of here," Draco whimpered.
"Draco's right, they might have seen us, we should go back to the castle," Padma urged. "It's not safe here."
"Hagrid," Neville said suddenly. "Nick said we should tell Hagrid -- "
Just then they all jumped again as Nick, still vaguely purple from whatever they'd done to him, came zooming out of the forest.
"Back to Hogwarts, all of you," he said. "I'm off to find Hagrid. Now! Go!"
Unused to stern orders from the cheerful spectre, they turned and hurried up the road, Harry unshouldering his bag so that he could carry it more easily.
They woke two portraits as they ran into the main entryway, and both of them began shouting about children out of bed; Neville and Padma made for the side-stairs, while Harry shoved Draco towards the cellars and made a mad dash for the dungeons.
He ran smack into Snape, coming out of his quarters, throwing a black robe around his green pyjamas. Snape reached out and caught him before he could fall backwards, scowling deeply.
"What are you doing out of dormitories at three in the morning?" he demanded. Harry stared up at him dumbly. One of the portraits howled, and Harry found himself thrust into Snape's sitting room. "Bloody paintings," Snape muttered. "Stay there. Don't even think about moving," he ordered, and ran down the hallway. In short order the portraits fell silent, and Harry hoped the others were safer than he currently was.
Snape returned, bare feet hardly making a sound on the stone floor, and shut the door behind him.
"You look ill," he said, before Harry could speak. He went to a shelf above the fireplace and took down a bottle of thin blue liquid, pouring some into a cup. "Drink this."
Harry accepted it and stared at it for a second before sipping it. His shoulders relaxed, and he could feel his cold-numbed fingers again. Snape leaned against the wall next to the fireplace and crossed his arms.
"Out or in?" he asked. Harry blinked. "Were you sneaking out, Harry, or sneaking in? Never mind -- there's leaves on your boots. What were you doing on the grounds at this hour of the night?"
"Unicorns," Harry blurted. Snape frowned. "In the forest. There's a dead one."
"There's a dead unicorn in the Forbidden Forest," Harry said. "Nick's gone to get Hagrid."
"You were in the forest?" Snape demanded.
"I was on a trail..." Harry said faintly.
"Why on earth -- Nick? There's no Nick in Slytherin -- "
"No, Nearly Headless Nick. Sir Nicholas. He was showing -- " Harry quickly mentally edited 'us', " -- showing me where he was buried. I thought it would be fun -- "
Snape looked furious. "Fun? You thought wandering about in the Forbidden Forest in the middle of the night would be fun? Is insanity genetic to your family, Harry, or did you learn it from that idiot godfather of yours?"
Harry hung his head. After a moment, Snape spoke again, sounding more controlled.
"What's this about a dead unicorn, now? If you've hurt anything in the forest -- "
"I didn't do it! There were men in the forest," Harry said quickly. "Two of them. One of them bit it and, and killed it -- "
"It was hurt and it fell down, and Nick said to run, and one of them bit it and it screamed," Harry said, trembling suddenly, eyes still on the carpet. He took another sip of the drink, but his hands still shook. He nearly jumped when he felt Snape's hands encircle his own, clenched around the glass. Snape was crouched, head ducked so that he could see Harry's face. Harry noticed, distractedly, that one of the claw-scars on his temple was a little longer than the others, and not quite as evenly spaced.
"And you saw this?" Snape asked softly. "You actually saw it happen, Harry? It's important."
"You said Nick had gone to get Hagrid?"
He nodded again.
"I should rouse the Headmaster, he'll want to know of this. Drink the rest of that and go straight to bed. Don't argue with me, Harry," Snape said, rising. "We'll discuss this further in the morning."
He was gone again, leaving Harry in the dimly-lit room, alone and feeling suddenly very small.He sipped the drink and glanced around, hoping for something to distract him from the fact that he was probably about to be expelled from Hogwarts. His eyes lit on a clock on the wall, a dozing portrait of a hawk-faced man who looked like he was probably an ancestor of Professor Snape, and an open book on the table. He rose, mindful to take another sip of the bland blue liquid, and peered at the book. French. De L'Emploi de la Pierre Philosophale....Snape's handwriting on the parchment next to it read The Uses of the Stone of Philosophers.
The portrait snorted and woke, and Harry quickly gulped the rest of the potion and picked up his bag, fleeing the sitting room for the sanctuary of his dormitory. Snake, who was hibernating most of the time now, didn't even open an eye when he stuffed the bag under his bed, pulled off his clothing and reached for his favourite pyjama shirt, the one that was a hand-me-down from Sirius which said Phoenikoi Do It Over and Over in faded letters on the front. He slid into bed and lay there, trembling a little -- though not as much, now that the potion was hitting his stomach -- and wrapped the blankets tight around him.
He strained his ears to make out anything, but even if there had been noises in the forest he wouldn't have been able to hear them from here. He didn't think he could sleep, but the warmth from the potion was spreading to his fingertips and toes, and he felt his eyelids droop; perhaps Professor Snape had given him something to -- he yawned widely -- put him to slee....