DISCLAIMER: The Harry Potter series and all the characters associated with it are the property solely of J. K. Rowling, her agents and publishers. No infringement of any rights is intended from the creation of this story. Nor is any money being made from it.


Circles of Power

Part Twenty-Seven - Plans, Plots And Presentiments

By Mad Martha

       

Can't think can't see can't hear can't BREATHE -

"Head between your knees! That's it dammit, Potter, you are not going to faint, do you hear me?"

Draco undoubtedly meant his voice to sound as hard as the hands that were ruthlessly shoving Harry's head down to his kneecaps, but instead he sounded ridiculously young and frightened; as young and frightened as Harry himself felt at that moment.

Everything else around him was a confusing mash of arguing voices that his brain, running in circles as it was, refused to comprehend.

Ron was gone, Ron was missing, Ron had somehow been snatched from under the very noses of all his colleagues, and Hermione too, oh God, how was he going to face Krum when he saw him, and Molly Weasley and -

"Here, Draco, try this."

A slender, honey-coloured hand, one that he felt sure he should know from somewhere, suddenly appeared in front of him holding something under his nose. For a split second Harry's mind formed a wordless ? before something painfully strong-smelling seemed to shoot up his nose, setting his sinuses on fire and making his eyes water.

The dizziness and confusion receded and Harry lurched back to full awareness, choking and jerking his head away from the offending smell.

"Shit!" He sat back, blinking painfully. He was sitting on the bench in front of the lockers; he didn't remember how he got there.

Cho Chang was crouching in front of him, still half-dressed in her Quidditch kit, her liquid dark eyes watching him worriedly. Her hands were busily screwing the cap back onto a little brown bottle.

"What's that?" Harry muttered.

"Smelling salts," Cho told him. "Are you with us again, Harry?"

The question appeared to be quite serious. Harry looked around, still feeling dizzy and sick to his stomach, and saw that the room was full of people, some of whom were staring at him. One group was arguing vociferously though; Mad-Eye Moody, Arthur Weasley, Remus Lupin, Sirius and Ludo Bagman. Bagman was blustering, trying to justify himself.

"Well really, Moody, old man - there didn't seem to be any need to stop people Apparating out of the stadium. The whole point seemed to be stopping the wrong people from getting in - "

Sirius saw Harry looking and walked quickly over, crouching down next to Cho. His eyes were dark with tension and distress.

"Harry, are you all right?"

"Yeah," he managed, although at that moment Harry felt sure he would never feel all right again. "Sorry I acted like an idiot."

Cho shook her head and Draco made an impatient sound, but Sirius simply squeezed his knee.

"Harry, you're not a machine - it was shock, that's all."

"What happened?" Harry asked after a moment.

Sirius shot an angry and disgusted look over his shoulder at Bagman. "That imbecile didn't have full wards set up over the stadium. They're set to stop people Apparating in or using portkeys to get inside, but not to stop them getting out that way. But we're still not clear on how it happened. You can only transport yourself via Apparition, and Draco doesn't remember anything that could have been a portkey, so on the slim chance that they left voluntarily for some reason, we've sent people out to a few places to look for them - the student house, the Burrow, Diagon Alley and to Hermione's parents."

"They wouldn't have left without saying something to someone," Harry said at once.

"I know that, but we have to cover all possibilities," Sirius replied.

"What I want to know is why they took Granger," Draco said quietly. "I was standing right next to Ron and wasn't touched - if this was Lord Voldemort or my father, taking Granger makes no sense. She's of no use or interest to them."

"It makes sense if you were the one that engineered this," Simeon Clare's voice said unexpectedly. He was leaning against the lockers a few feet away and his expression was unfriendly.

"He didn't," Harry said curtly, before anyone else had time to react. There was a small, tense pause. "Don't be stupid, Sim - he's had a thousand opportunities over the past few months, and most of them have been a lot less risky than snatching two people out of a crowd at a Ministry Quidditch match."

Simeon's glare didn't abate, but he turned and walked away. Harry leaned his back against the cold metal of the locker doors and glanced up at Draco. The blond youth looked a little surprised, as though he hadn't expected Harry to defend him against the accusation.

"It's true," Harry pointed out, "isn't it?"

"Yes, but ." Draco was trying to keep his usual indifferent mask up, but failing; he looked desperately upset. "Harry, he was standing right next to me. I was talking to him moments before you caught the Snitch, but when I turned back they were both gone - "

"Don't blame yourself," Cho put in before Harry could say it.

"It's not like we're dealing with amateurs, after all," Sirius added. He gave the agitated Bagman another filthy look. "Unlike our own people, who seem to be complete morons."

Moody broke away from the group surrounding Bagman and approached slowly, his magical eye flicking from one to the other of them.

"Shirt off, Malfoy," he said curtly.

"But we would have known if the Seal had been activated," Cho began uncertainly.

Moody ignored her, both eyes now fixed upon Draco.

For once there was no hint of argument or protest from the blond youth. He shrugged out of his robe, handing the garment to Cho to hold, and stripped off the dark blue t-shirt he was wearing underneath, turning to present his back to the elderly Auror. The dark green Seal of Honour stood out in sharp relief against his pale skin, but the tiny animated phoenix was undisturbed.

Harry let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.

Moody nodded once, sharply. "Very well. You can put your shirt back on, boy."

Draco's expression when he turned back was slack with relief and he dressed again with hands that trembled very slightly. Meanwhile, Moody turned his attention to Harry.

"How are you feeling now, Potter?"

Harry wondered what he was supposed to say to that. It seemed like a singularly stupid question, especially considering that Moody knew all about him and Ron. He settled for a shrug.

"That's not an answer, laddie!"

"Well, what do you want me to say?" Harry snapped back, suddenly furious. "They've taken my friends! How do you think I feel about it?"

"That's better," was the unexpected reply. Moody turned to Sirius and Cho. "I want this pair taken home and kept there. They're still targets as far as we know. I'll send some people along shortly to tighten up the wards on the house and generally make sure everything is secure, but these two are not to leave there, do you understand me?"

He looked at Harry and Draco then, who were both staring at him. "You go with Black and Chang and you stay put, is that clear? I don't want any clever moves or heroics from the pair of you - things are bad enough already without that."

The pair of them set up a storm of protest; Harry in particular wanted to be involved in whatever search was being performed. But Moody dismissed them curtly.

"You'll do as you're told!" his harsh voice snapped back, over their angry and indignant voices. "They've got one of the three of you already, and I'm not going to be the one to hand the other two of you over to them, do you hear me? You'll leave it to those of us with more experience to deal with ... or are you trying to say I don't know my job?" His magical eye spun on Harry with dizzying speed as he said this, effectively silencing the younger wizard.

When neither of them said anything more, Moody turned to Sirius. "Get them out of here," he said curtly, jerking his thumb in Harry and Draco's direction. "I need to see Dumbledore."

       

Late afternoon rapidly gave way to evening, and a sense of unreality began to settle over Harry. The wards over the student house were so tight now that even had he been able to think of a plan to help Ron and Hermione, he could never have left the building. So instead he lay in the middle of their bed, clutching a pillow to his chest tightly and staring blankly into space. His brain seemed to have locked up, and with it his muscles. He couldn't move from the spot and he didn't want to.

Sometime around eight in the evening, there was a gentle tap on the door and Bill Weasley put his head around corner.

"Hal? Are you okay?"

Harry decided that this was the stupidest question ever and that he was very tired of answering it. He stared back at Ron's brother stonily. Then he wondered why Bill of all people was here.

Bill didn't wait for a reply, but walked right in. He was carrying a small tray with a couple of covered dishes on it. Food was the last thing Harry wanted right now, and his stomach began to churn ominously at the smells wafting across the room. The other man set the tray down on the end of the bed and dragged up Ron's armchair. He sat down in it with a sigh and studied Harry with concern.

"Are you all right?"

"Wonderful," Harry muttered sullenly.

"Right .... You should eat something. Starving yourself won't help Ron or Hermione."

It was amazing how quickly you could take a dislike to people you normally got along with quite well. Harry didn't want to be surly towards Bill, but he was fed up of people telling him not to worry and that they would find Ron and Hermione in no time. People who were 'disappeared' by Voldemort didn't generally turn up again unless they were dead. Harry was under no illusions; Ron had a chance, because they knew Voldemort wanted him for something, but Hermione was Muggle-born, a 'mudblood', and a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Her chances of surviving an encounter with the Dark Lord were vanishingly small.

Under the circumstances, missing a meal or two seemed like a minor detail to Harry. His fingers sought out the fine gold band around his left wrist and he began restlessly to turn it.

Tomorrow he might have to face people like Molly Weasley and Viktor Krum, knowing that once again Harry-bloody-Potter had probably got someone else's child or lover killed in the crossfire between him and Lord Voldemort. The Diggorys and Cho had in time forgiven him for Cedric Diggory's death, but Harry hadn't yet forgiven himself, and his guilt over that was nothing compared to how he would feel if anything happened to Ron and Hermione. They were his closest friends and Ron was his lover. Harry thought it quite likely that their deaths at Voldemort's hands would succeed in killing him where all other attempts had failed. He wouldn't be able to live with a loss like that.

Some of this must have shown on his face, for Bill's expression darkened slightly.

"Come on, Hal, you mustn't give up. We're going to find them "

"Are you?" Harry interrupted curtly. "Where do you reckon they are, then? I mean, Voldemort isn't even in this country at the moment, is he? I know that just from the lack of aches and pains in this - " and he tapped his scar with one finger.

Silence. Harry's annoyance grew.

"Why are you here anyway?" he demanded.

"Moody detailed me to stick with you," Bill told him calmly.

"Moody detailed you? Since when does he have any say over what you do?"

Another silence, although Bill didn't look away from his accusing eyes. Then Harry remembered what Ron had told him, about the night at Hogwarts when he'd been summoned to Dumbledore's office along with Draco. Bill was a member of the Order of the Phoenix.

"Oh, I get it," he sighed. "Forget I asked. I suppose that at least explains why you, and not Cho, are up here."

"That and the fact that Ron is my brother."

There was a tiny edge in Bill's voice at last, but Harry didn't care. He rolled onto his back, pillow clamped to his chest, and stared up at the canopy of the four-poster bed. For the first time, the sparkling gold stars and moons on the black cloth failed to amuse him.

"Eat, Hal, for crying out loud. I know you're upset, but making yourself ill isn't going to help anyone."

Harry's response was brief and to the point. Tight-lipped, Bill stood up and pushed the chair back into its original place.

"Suit yourself," he said curtly, and left Harry to brood in solitary silence.

Twenty minutes later Draco stuck his head around the door. "Something's happening," he said urgently. "An owl arrived for Black and he took off up the chimney like he had a griffin on his tail."

       

Harry opted to stay put and wait for the news in his room. He wasn't feeling very friendly towards the other people in the house at that moment. But Draco, who didn't seem care what mood Harry was in, chose to stay with him. He banished the unwanted dinner tray and plunked himself down on the end of the bed, with his back against one of the posts.

They waited in grim silence, neither of them meeting the other's eyes.

It was over an hour before a low rumble of voices from the ground floor alerted them to Sirius's return. Then they heard him running up the stairs. He burst through the bedroom door, looking windblown, and paused, looking at Harry for a moment.

"Well?" demanded Draco.

"We've found Hermione."

Harry sat up sharply, the pillow falling into his lap. "Is she all right?"

"Apart from bruises and a concussion." Sirius shut the door and quickly dragged up the chair by the side of the bed, taking a seat.

"What about Ron?" Harry demanded, but Sirius held up a hand to silence him.

"No - wait until I've explained. A shopkeeper in Diagon Alley found her. She was stuffed at the back of his coal bunker, and she'd been there for most of the day."

Silence. Then Draco said sharply, "She can't have been! She was at the match with Ron and me; we all travelled there together."

Sirius shook his head, his eyes seeking out Harry's. "She told us she went out early this morning to collect a book she'd ordered from Flourish and Blotts. One of the assistants - or so she thought - addressed her as "Auror Granger" and asked her if she could look over something for him at the back of the shop. When she got there he hit her over the back of the head with something heavy and - she thinks, but can't be sure - secured her with the full body-bind curse and shoved her into the cellar. It wasn't until we instituted a search that the staff there looked and found her."

Harry stared back at him. "I don't understand. Why would someone ." He stopped.

Sirius nodded once. "She has a chunk of hair missing at the side of her head."

"Polyjuice!" Draco exclaimed.

"That's what we think."

"But why?" Harry burst out. "Why go to all the bother of changing someone's appearance and following Ron and Draco to the match?"

"Hermione is someone you both trust implicitly," Draco said at once. "Hell, even I do. They could have used the Polyjuice to gain entry to this house, but the wards are too tight and they wouldn't be able to portkey anyone out. Using Hermione to lure Ron - or any of us - outside would be possible, but cause too much suspicion too quickly. So they waited for the match, where we'd be out in the open and ." His voice drifted off uncertainly.

"We think they probably counted on Draco's presence being a cause of misdirected suspicion," Sirius put in. Draco's expression soured into impotent anger at this.

"Bagman," Harry said abruptly. "The insecure wards. They must have known it would be possible to portkey someone out."

"We've got him at the Auror Facility and Moody's grilling him as we speak," Sirius said, with grim satisfaction. "He's already on record as a former Death Eater, even if he was exonerated - he's going to have a lot of explaining to do this time around."

"So it was Ron they wanted all along," Harry said quietly. He was starting to feel numb all over again. "What do we do now?"

Here Sirius hesitated. "Moody talked to Dumbledore," he said finally. "He wants us to sit tight and wait."

"For what?" Draco demanded, astonished and angry. "For Ron's body to be delivered back to us for burial?"

Harry flinched, but the other two didn't seem to notice.

"No," Sirius said curtly. "He seems to think that they might try for a hostage situation."

"The Dark Lord doesn't deal in hostages," Draco said flatly. "If he wants something, he takes it. He doesn't bargain with anyone."

Sirius's lips tightened, his expression bleak and angry. "Dumbledore thinks he might, in return for Harry."

Silence.

"So what - he wants to use me as bait?" Harry didn't know how he felt about this, but he was ready to fall in with Dumbledore's plans if it meant a chance for Ron.

"I don't know." Sirius was frustrated. "We have to wait and see if they actually decide to use Ron that way first, I suppose. Dumbledore was playing it very close to his chest."

"That's a novelty!" Draco snapped. He got up and began to pace the room angrily.

For a moment it seemed like Sirius might say something sharp to him, but he restrained himself and shook his head, turning back to his godson. "Harry, I know it must be hard for you hanging around like this with nothing to do, but you must sit tight and wait. Try to get some rest - we don't know what's coming." When Harry merely shook his head, he sighed. "Look, for God's sake don't try anything silly and reckless. We don't have a clue where they're holding him anyway. And if you try to get past the new wards on the house, you'll end up getting hurt."

When Harry made no response to this, Sirius got up. He looked at Draco with doubt and exasperation. "I can't believe I'm going to say this to you of all people, but would you keep an eye on him, please?"

Draco looked at him, his usual impenetrable mask in place, and shrugged. "I'm not going anywhere."

       

Harry didn't sleep that night.

He couldn't even say that his mind had been going around in circles; instead the numbness had settled in once more, leaving him staring blankly into the dark throughout the night.

When dawn finally arrived, he dragged himself from the bed and went to the bathroom for a shower and shave, although he went through the motions like an automaton. He changed his clothes and went downstairs, wondering vaguely who had been on guard duty all night.

Cho was in the kitchen when he got there, and with her were Seamus, Neville and Dean, although the three men looked bleary-eyed and scruffy as though they'd also spent a restless night. The four of them jumped to their feet when Harry walked in, making him blink at them in confusion.

Seamus spoke first, and all his earlier hostility was gone, replaced by stricken concern. "Harry, man are you okay?"

Harry wondered what he was supposed to say. The question had gone beyond annoying and was just a chore now. But to say "yes" was patently untrue, and to say "no" would probably upset them all. He settled for a shrug and slid into his place at the kitchen table, feeling like death warmed over.

"D-do you want a cup of tea?" asked Neville, anxiously.

Harry thought about it. Food was impossible, but thirst couldn't be ignored. "Alright then."

Relieved at there being something he could do, Neville shot off to boil the kettle, and the others slowly resumed their places at the table, watching him as though he was something that was suddenly going to break or spontaneously combust. Of all of them Cho's behaviour seemed the most natural, although her dark eyes were very watchful.

"I don't suppose you slept?" she said to him, and tutted when he shook his head. "Look, I can get you a potion - "

"No," he said sharply, cutting her off. "No. Thank you, but I'll manage."

"Harry, you're not going to be good for much if you don't rest."

"It's not like I'm going anywhere right now," he reminded her edgily. "I'll rest when I know more about what's going on."

"Hermione should be coming home today," Dean put in carefully. From the look on his face, Harry guessed he was afraid there might be some kind of backlash against her for having been caught out by a Death Eater.

"Good," he replied quietly. "I'm worried about her. I don't want her to think it was her fault."

There was a perceptible lessening in the tension at this.

"She'll blame herself anyway," Seamus commented, "but it's not like she could have known . Will Moody say anything to her?"

"He's already talked to her," Cho said. "Don't worry, he's not blaming her. There wouldn't be any point, even if she had been careless. The important thing now is to concentrate on finding out what happened to Ron."

"What about Malfoy?" Seamus wanted to know. "Surely he - "

"It wasn't anything to do with him either," Cho broke in before he could go any further. "He was nearly frantic when he realised the pair of them were missing."

"But "

"It wasn't Draco," Harry stated flatly.

There was a pause. Then Seamus said very carefully, "Look, Harry, I appreciate that you and Ron spent a lot of time with him recently and probably I don't know saw a different side of him or something. But he's still Draco Malfoy. His father's second on the list of most wanted men right now, and - "

"It wasn't him." Harry gave Seamus a searing look and went back to studying the surface of the wooden table in front of him.

Silence fell, which was broken again only when Neville put a large pot of tea and a handful of mugs on the table. He slipped into Hermione's usual seat and studied Harry worriedly.

"You look terrible," he commented.

This brought the first smile to Harry's lips since he'd heard about Ron's disappearance; it was a feeble ghost of a thing, but a smile nevertheless. "Thanks, Nev."

"Have some tea." Neville began to pour it determinedly.

A motherly Neville was so bizarre that he succeeded in distracting them all for a moment or two. The tea was still too hot to sip when Draco walked in.

From the wary, defensive look in his eyes, Harry knew he was expecting a cool reception. Admittedly Seamus and Dean both tensed slightly when they saw him, but to Harry's surprise and mild relief they didn't say anything as the blond youth hesitantly came to sit next to Harry. After a moment's consideration, Neville poured him a mug of tea as well.

Cho was studying him over her mug. "You didn't sleep either, I take it?" she commented rather sardonically.

Draco shrugged. "Not much. I was wondering about the wards on the house, actually."

"Are you suggesting my wards are unreliable?" Her tone was good-natured and she gave him a half-smile.

Draco actually smiled back at her. "Not at all."

Harry observed this exchange with a kind of dull surprise - he had no idea Cho and Draco were so friendly - but that was nothing to the expressions on Dean, Seamus and Neville's faces. At any other time their stunned looks would have been priceless, but Harry barely noticed today. He had too much else on his mind to do more than vaguely note the apparent connection between Draco and the Chinese girl.

There was a sudden rattling sound from the living room and someone - several someones - Floo'd into the house. Before any of them could do more than get up, though, Sirius walked into the kitchen, and with him were Remus Lupin and Hermione.

Harry was out of his seat and hurrying to her before he fully realised himself that he'd moved. She looked terrible - pale and bedraggled, her robes torn and covered in coal dust, and her hair hacked off short. She was wearing a sturdy bandage around her head, and there were more, smaller dressings on her hands. The moment she saw Harry she burst into uncharacteristic tears.

"Hermione ." He grabbed her, pulling her into a tight hug, and she positively howled into his shoulder for several minutes, before she got herself back under control and eased out of his grasp.

"Oh Harry, I'm so sorry ." Her face was now a complete mess.

"Don't. It's not your fault." Harry fished around in his jeans pocket rather helplessly for a handkerchief, but it was Draco who silently pulled out a square of white cotton and offered it to her.

"Thanks," Hermione mumbled, and she blew her nose firmly and straightened up.

Everyone was studying her worriedly.

"Your hair - !" Neville blurted out.

"It's not as bad as it looks," she said at once. "They had to cut a huge chunk out to get at the lump on the back of my head though, so I told them to take it all off. There's no point in trying to hide a big bit that's missing," she added, glancing at Cho who smiled her agreement. "I'll get it all neatened up as soon as I can." She smiled weakly. "Maybe it'll be easier to control at this length."

"But the injury," Harry said, staring at the bandage. "Sirius said you were hit with something?"

"It felt like a poker," Hermione said, "but I really don't know."

"It might have been a big candlestick," Lupin added. "There was a candlestick on a table nearby."

"It's really irrelevant what she was hit with," Sirius said impatiently. "The fact remains that she was knocked out cold and when she came around she was held by the full body bind. Meanwhile, her assailant had taken some of her hair, added it to a Polyjuice Potion and gone to the Quidditch match with Ron and Draco."

"What did he look like?" Draco asked Hermione.

She shrugged. "About my height, in his forties, slender build, dark hair - nothing remarkable. He knew my name, but that doesn't mean much. My picture was in the Daily Prophet just before Harry's birthday."

"That description could match of a score of Voldemort's more trusted people," Draco commented. "Besides, just because he was the one who took your hair doesn't mean he's the one who drank the potion. In fact, it's more than likely that it wasn't. That's the way the Dark Lord does things."

"Great," Sirius muttered. "Draco, do you have no idea where Voldemort could be holed up? He must have some places he uses more frequently than others."

"I don't know," Draco said tightly. "I've told you before - I wasn't trusted with that kind of information. He used to use the Manor sometimes, but very rarely after my father was forced into hiding. He wouldn't use it now for the same reason. It's more likely that he's on the continent somewhere, maybe in France or Germany. Or Eastern Europe - you said yourself that he has a lot of supporters there."

Sirius was clearly hanging on to his patience by a thread. "There's a lot of Europe to search," he pointed out acidly.

"And you're wasting time," Draco told him, with a poisonous smile.

"Enough," Lupin said quietly, but with a warning note in his voice. "I don't think - "

He was interrupted by a suddenly flurry of owls swooping into the kitchen. Three, one of which was Hedwig, homed in on Harry, each vying to deliver their letters first, while a fourth went to Draco and a couple of others dropped mail in front of Neville and Dean.

Draco looked at his letter and almost at once his face seemed to change, taking on a rigid look. It was a stiff piece of high-quality cream parchment folded with knife-like creases into three, and there was a blob of dark red wax on the back embossed with a crisp seal. He hesitated, then tore it open and unfolded it.

Meanwhile, Harry took his three letters to the table and sat down to open them. His first, hurried examination revealed that none of them bore the ominous dark green seal of the brief missive he'd received from Voldemort on his birthday. These letters were much more jazzy affairs, and it didn't take a genius, let alone Harry, to work out what they were. The orange border with speeding cannonball and double 'C' logo on the first, coupled with the blood-red border of the second, said everything. As for the third he knew the pointy handwriting in the address rather well.

Feeling sick, Harry put them down unopened and looked instead at Draco, who was growing tenser by the second as he read his letter. Finally he re-folded it and put it down on the table, pushing it away.

"Was that from your mother or your uncle?" Sirius asked. The Malfoy crest on the seal had been rather obvious.

"My uncle." Draco was putting up a good show of not being concerned by it. "He was writing on behalf of the family, though." That could be considered an ominous phrase where the Malfoy family was concerned.

"What did he want?" asked Harry, momentarily dragged out of his own misery by the blond youth's tone.

Draco shrugged. "He wants to know why I haven't let them know where I am before now. My mother has been worried sick, etc. etc."

"Mind if I take a look?" Lupin asked.

"Can I stop you?"

"Not really." Lupin picked the letter up and unfolded it again, scanning the contents.

"How did he find out where you are?" Harry asked.

At this, Draco's tone became acid. "I've been walking around Diagon Alley with you and Ron for the past week. I should think it's fairly obvious how he found out, isn't it?"

Harry blinked and shook his head. "Sorry. I'm not thinking straight today."

"Doesn't matter. What are those?" Draco indicated the three letters in front of Harry. "Isn't that the Chudley Cannons logo?"

Harry flinched and pushed them to one side. "I know what they are. They can be burned."

"Why?" That was Hermione. When he wouldn't answer, she picked the letters up and turned them over, examining them in her methodical way. "Wigtown Wanderers ... Chudley Cannons ... and who's this from?"

Cho plucked the third envelope from her fingers and looked at the address. "That's Oliver Wood's writing."

"How'd you know that?" Seamus demanded, tearing his attention away from his own mail.

She shrugged, giving the letter back to Hermione. "I went out with him for a while, after Harry dumped me."

She gave him a mischievous look, but Harry was oblivious; his forehead was propped up on his left hand, while the right dangled limply between his knees. His feelings about the letters were obvious.

Hermione exchanged worried looks with Sirius and Lupin, and put the envelopes down on the table again. Draco grabbed them at once and calmly ripped them open, unfolding the paper briskly.

"Interesting," he commented, scanning the contents. "It's quite an honour to be offered a trial with the Wigtown Wanderers .... Not quite such an honour with the Cannons these days, but I'm sure Weasley'll be delighted "

"It's not like he's going to know, is it?" Harry snapped. "For God's sake, chuck them on the fire. It's not going to happen."

Draco looked at him for a moment or two. "Don't be such a bloody pessimist, Harry."

Harry glared at him. "You can say that to me? You know better than anyone "

" - that Voldemort took Ron for a reason," he interrupted sharply. "We knew all along that it was a risk, didn't we? But he's not going to kill him or do anything else just yet, because he wants him for something even if it's something as small as luring you to him. So let's not start ordering the headstone just yet, shall we?"

There was a tense pause while Harry and Draco glared at each other. Sirius looked as if he was about to interrupt, but Lupin shook his head at him quickly.

Cho stirred. "Draco "

"No!" he snapped, shooting her a look that shut her up on the spot. He turned back to Harry and leaned across the table, grabbing his wrist and shaking it. "Listen to me, Harry! You are not going to give up, do you hear me? Not after all the crap we've gone through over the last few months. We are going to find Ron, fry Voldemort permanently, and then you're damn well going to take one of these trials, is that understood?"

He released an astonished Harry, and sat back, giving him a jaundiced look. "Because it was perfectly obvious to me, even if it wasn't to anyone else, that you were as happy as Larry flying rings around everyone else on the pitch yesterday, and Ron was even happier watching you do it."

Lupin said, dryly humorous, "I'll second that."

"Hear, hear," Sirius added, after a moment's consideration.

"I have the approval of the Gryffindor Marauders," Draco commented sourly, "my life is complete." He picked up the letter from Oliver Wood and looked at it down his nose. "Do I want to know what drivel this idiot has to say?"

       

After such a dramatic start to the day, it seemed like something important ought to happen immediately. Instead, the hours crawled past with painful slowness.

Harry quickly tired of the lack of new information, and of the endless theories everyone insisted on passing around, and took himself back to his room, where he resumed his position on the bed, hugging Ron's pillow and restlessly twisting the bracelet around his left wrist. He knew that this was more than a little pathetic, but without anything more active to do he was at a loss.

At lunchtime Draco appeared, levitating two mugs of tea and a large plate of sandwiches in front of him. He put the mugs on the bedside table and rather pointedly put the plate on Harry's lap.

"And if you dare turn your nose up at perfectly good chicken salad sandwiches, Potter, I'll put a binding curse on your hands and force feed you," he said.

Harry glared at him. "I'm not hungry."

"Liar. You're being melodramatic. I can't imagine Weasley giving up a single square meal if the positions were reversed - he's a human dustbin if ever I saw one."

Draco grabbed his own mug of tea and a sandwich, and went to look at the long bookcase.

"I've been thinking," he commented.

"So have I," Harry retorted rather defensively.

"No you haven't - you've been wallowing. Look, if we're all linked together somehow, then surely there must be some way of locating Ron using the circle?"

Harry looked at him, interested but a little doubtful. "We'd need all three of us to make it work, though."

"But we've already proven that we don't all need to be in the same place at the same time to make it work," Draco pointed out. "You and Weasley transfigured some blankets into a feather bed when I was a couple of hundred miles away, didn't you? And that was before we learned to work together. So if he is on the continent somewhere, theoretically at least there should be some way of activating the link to him."

Harry sat up and put the plate to one side. "What did you have in mind?"

"I don't know, that's the trouble. I was hoping there might be something in your book collection that might give us some ideas. Have you still got that book of Nicholas Flamel's?"

Harry got up and went to the bookcase to find it. "I don't know what use it'll be," he warned. "It's more like a collection of memoirs than a serious study of the subject."

"Typical. At least practitioners of the Dark Arts have the sense to make proper notes."

"Only because something nasty is likely to happen if you screw up a Dark spell," Harry retorted. He pulled the book off the shelf and held it out.

"Something nasty is likely to happen if you screw up any spell. Or weren't you listening when Flitwick gave us the basic lecture on proper pronunciation during our first year?" Draco accepted the volume and began flicking through it. "Look, the big question has to be does Voldemort know we're a circle? And if he does, can he take measures to block the link between us?"

"You tell me." But Harry's mind, until now so sluggish, had finally started to work again under Draco's bracing practicality. "There must be some way to block it, or the privacy spell we use now wouldn't work."

"That's a good point." The blond youth shut the book with a snap and rested his chin on the edge of it, his brow furrowing thoughtfully. "The domestic privacy spell is a variation on Silencing Charms. Sound is a vibration and the silencing charm is a restrictive ward, acting as a barrier against movement in the air around a defined area. That's why if you walk up to a privacy spell at speed you'll bounce off it, but if you move slowly and calmly you can sometimes push through, although it breaches the integrity of the ward and ruptures it."

Harry was strongly reminded of lecturers he'd seen on Open University programmes when he was a boy. "You took optional classes in magical theory, didn't you?"

Draco looked surprised. "Of course. Didn't you?"

"I was at Quidditch practice ...."

"I might have known."

"You might have won if you'd done the same." Harry stared at the bookcase thoughtfully, ignoring the other man's spluttering indignation. "So what do we want something on protective wards?" He trailed a finger across the spines of several books on defensive wizardry.

"No. What we need is to try to contact Ron, and either we can do that or we can't there's only one way to find out."

Harry looked at him. "Meditation, like we did at Hogwarts?"

"I think that's our best option."

So they stripped off their outer, more restrictive layers of clothing and sat back to back in the middle of the big four poster bed.

For the first time Harry found it difficult to empty his mind of thoughts. Worry about Ron triggered his imagination and random images kept popping into his head, making him tense. He tried to concentrate on his breathing instead, but it seemed to take forever for his muscles to unknot themselves and the flow of ideas to dwindle to a trickle.

Finally everything inside his mind and body was still.

Harry opened his eyes mentally and reached out to touch the shining golden thread that attached him to Draco; like a warm handclasp, he felt the other man return the touch. Then he looked for the thread that linked him to Ron.

It was there, warm and bright and when Harry touched it, it seemed to pulse with life. Something inside him that had been tense and frightened from the moment he had heard of his friend's abduction, now dissolved into relief. Ron was alive and well, without a doubt. But there was no returning touch as there had been with Draco; wherever his partner was now, he couldn't feel Harry reaching out to him.

"It's not a wasted effort," Draco said quietly, when they both returned to themselves. "It at least confirms that Voldemort knows about the circle."

Harry said nothing. He was standing in the middle of the room, bending and stretching to release any lingering stiffness in his muscles that came from being sat in one position for over an hour.

"It's one more piece of useful information when ... when whatever is going to happen, happens," Draco persisted. "Particularly if you have to face him on your own."

Harry stepped into his jeans and pulled them up, straightening and looking at the other wizard. "What you mean when he offers Ron in exchange for me?"

"Possibly. If that's what he does."

"You're really not buying that explanation, are you?" Harry tilted his head to one side, looking at him thoughtfully.

"No," Draco said flatly. "Any hostage situation implies a level negotiation and co-operation that I don't believe Lord Voldemort is capable of. He demands and he takes. That's all there is to it. He wanted Ron and he took him, and I don't believe he has any intention of giving him back until he's finished with him."

"But it would suit his purposes to let us believe that he might negotiate, wouldn't it?" Harry persisted. "Because if there was the slightest chance of getting Ron back in a way that didn't risk bloodshed, we'd do it, wouldn't we?"

Draco gave him an odd look. "You tell me."

But Harry was staring into the distance, his mind running on wheels. "In fact, there's a good chance that we might ... hold back a little or something while we were negotiating. And some of our most important people might be drafted in to help, don't you think?"

"You're thinking it could be a diversion." It was not a question.

"I don't know." Harry gave the blond youth a frustrated look, and sat down on the edge of the bed. "I'm stuck in this damned house and dependent on a bunch of other people for information on what's going on. A bunch of people who, I might add, are not necessarily going to tell me everything because I'm not a member of their special club."

Draco sat down next to him. "I bet you're regretting saying no to Dumbledore now," he commented wryly.

"Not exactly. If we'd all joined the Order of the Phoenix, I'd be under Moody's orders now and that's not exactly somewhere I want to be when the crunch comes."

"You're under Moody's orders anyway, in case you've forgotten."

"Yeah, but there's a difference between orders from your commander-in-chief because you're one of his soldiers, and orders from the Chief Auror because your safety is his responsibility."

Draco gave him an astonished look. "You know, even after all this time your casual reinterpretation of the rules to suit yourself amazes me." He shook his head. "Why weren't you sorted into Slytherin?"

Harry smiled in spite of himself. "Because I asked the Sorting Hat not to," he replied, just to see the look on his old nemesis's face.

       

The afternoon dragged on.

Draco occupied himself with a book from Harry's collection, while Harry himself alternately lay on the bed staring up at the canopy or wandered around the room aimlessly.

During one of his fidgets, he found himself turning over the jumbled collection of crystal balls, scrying bowls and other bits and pieces of divination gear Ron kept on top of the chest of drawers under the window. Most of the crystal balls had tiny chips out of them or were unusual colours that his partner had discovered he couldn't work with easily. One of the scrying bowls it's mirrored black surface also scratched and pitted held a mess of pendulums, their chains tangled and tarnished from lack of use. Harry sorted through them idly, separating the fine chains out and coiling them up neatly. Then he tidied the stacks of Tarot cards lying around and propped up a couple of magic mirrors.

There was a sudden dull rattle and a thump, and Harry knew he'd knocked something down behind the chest of drawers.

"Damn." He pulled out his wand. "Accio ... thingy."

Behind him Draco sighed. "Oh yeah, that'll really work."

"Got any better suggestions?" Harry demanded, aggravated. "I don't even know what it is."

Draco sat up from where he sprawled across the end of the bed and took out his own wand.

"Propulsa!" he said coolly, and the object shot out from the back of the chest of drawers. Harry snatched it quickly out of the air ... and stopped, staring at it.

It was the damaged and twisted mobile they'd found in the ruins of his parents' house. The last time he'd seen it, Ron's grandmother had been holding it as they stood on the Astral Plane.

The Astral Plane ....

       

"I really don't think this is a good idea," Draco said unhappily.

"I know he's got it here somewhere," Harry muttered, ignoring the other man as he ruthlessly turned Ron's drawers out. "He took a box full of the stuff to Hogwarts with him. He never goes to stay anywhere without taking his kit with him; he even takes it to his Mum's."

"He probably left it at Hogwarts in fact, I hope he did "

"Don't be stupid. This is as good a chance as any of finding out where he is."

"Do you have any idea how dangerous travelling on the Astral Plane is?"

"A better idea than you, probably." Harry sat back on his heels and surveyed the mess of t-shirts, underwear and socks on the floor. "Ron must be the only person in the world who doesn't hide things under his socks." He dumped the lot back into the drawers higgledy-piggledy and slammed the chest shut. "Maybe it's still in his bag." He plunged into the cupboard.

"Harry, will you just listen to me for one minute?" Draco demanded. "You could get yourself killed worse than killed! if any of Voldemort's Seers are running around the Astral right now!"

"Aha!" Harry reappeared from the closet holding a medium-sized wooden chest. "I knew he'd have them around here somewhere!"

He opened the box to reveal dozens of packets of herbs, some of them mixed, some not.

"Oh my God," Draco groaned. "Do you even have any idea what most of these do?"

Harry grinned at him a bit manically. "No, but I bet you do, Mr. Top-Of-The-Potions-Class!"

"I just knew you were going to say something like that."

"You sort them out, while I look through his books and see if there's anything on astral projection."

"Harry! It can't possibly be that simple, or everyone would be running around on the Astral Plane!"

He might as well have saved his breath. Harry wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to him as he pulled books off the shelves and sat down on the floor to flick through them.

"While you're at it, Draco, see if there's anything in there for headaches," he said absently. "The last time I did this, I had a killer migraine afterwards ."

       

"This has to be the most criminally stupid thing you've done yet, and that's saying something," Draco said angrily as he watched Harry setting up Ron's oil burner. "What the hell am I supposed to do if you get stuck there?"

"Send an owl to Ron's grandmother for advice," Harry replied. He was annoyingly calm. He glanced at the blond youth. "Look, stop fretting! We don't even know if I can do it, yet. It's not an exact science after all, and I'm a really weak Seer."

"I should tell your precious godfather what you're doing," Draco snapped, unappeased.

"But you're not going to."

"What makes you so sure?" Harry smiled at him lopsidedly, and Draco glared back. "Don't think you can bat those eyes at me and get away with anything, Potter! I'm not Weasley, thank God."

"No. The sooner he's back here, the better." Harry briskly lit the tealight inside the oil burner and sprinkled a pinch of herbs into the water in the dish above. "You'd better sit over near the window, in case the fumes get a bit high."

Leaving Draco to settle himself into the armchair, Harry lay down on the bed once more and tried to settle his mind. Ron's books were all far beyond Harry's understanding of the subject, but there seemed to be some consensus of thought that if one wanted to travel on the Astral Plane, you had to start out by invoking a suitable trance state. You also needed to focus on your objective. Neither, he thought, was likely to be difficult.

Having been in one trance-state that afternoon already, it wasn't hard to invoke it again. Harry took a deep breath of the hallucinogenic smoke from the herbs and let himself go, tipping back into the trance as easily as a diver slipping over the side of a boat.

Focus on Ron .

"Are you really Harry Potter? I thought it might be one of Fred and George's jokes ."

Tall, thin and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose . Also hand-me-down robes and an inferiority complex a mile wide; this was Harry's earliest memory of his friend. Fortunately, it hadn't taken much to convince Ron - on that occasion at least - that having a scar and being famous wasn't much in comparison to having six siblings and a complete set of parents.

Harry couldn't think of anything about that first journey to Hogwarts that wasn't good; even the encounter with Draco and his friends was rose-coloured in the light of Ron simply having been there with him at the time.

Other moments sped through his mind ....

- the encounter with Fluffy the three-headed dog -

- the giant wizards' chess game

- flying Mr. Weasley's car to Hogwarts

- scrambling down into the Chamber of Secrets together

- mediating arguments about Scabbers and Crookshanks between Ron and Hermione

- climbing into the Shrieking Shack when they first met Sirius

- going to the Quidditch World Cup

- fighting over the Tri-Wizard Tournament, then making friends again

- dragging Ron out of the lake during the second task

- seeing his frightened face by Harry's infirmary bedside after Voldemort's return

- watching in a mixture of awe and terror as Ron developed the Sight

- just being grateful for Ron's presence during Sirius's second trial and for his silent support after the suicide of Peter Pettigrew

- fighting like cat and dog with him during their final year at school until the truth neither of them wanted to face finally came out ....

Oh God, yes, that - the moment that had changed both their lives.

The moment when Ron had faced him, white-faced but resolute, and said: "You're going to hate me for this, but ... I fancy you."

Stupid, awkward, laddish words, and yet even now Harry was struck by the courage it had taken for Ron to say them. At seventeen years old plenty of their friends, including Neville, would probably have punched him for it, as he was all too aware. But he'd done it because he realised that their friendship might not survive many more quarrels, and it was better to give it a quick, honest death than to tear it apart slowly and painfully, bit by bit.

Stunned, the only response Harry had been able to come up with was "Well, you've got a bloody funny way of showing it" which luckily turned out to be exactly the right thing to say.

They did not become lovers at that point; that happened much later. But following an afternoon of talking, they managed to reach an understanding which allowed them to put aside their differences and finish the school year without failing their NEWTs.

The turning point in their relationship came during the first two weeks after they left school. The idea had been Hermione's; aware of what was going on, she advised the pair of them to "go away for a while and get yourselves sorted out, one way or another". So they hired a cottage in the Scottish Highlands for a fortnight with the expressed intention of going hiking.

The memories attached to this incident came back to Harry with even more clarity in his trance state than he remembered when he was lucid.

They were two teenaged boys; Ron eighteen and Harry just shy of that. Talking about their feelings did not come naturally to either of them, and getting started on the subject had been painfully difficult after several months of pushing it to the backs of their minds. After two days of determined hiking that had done nothing at all to promote serious conversation, Ron had Apparated to Hogsmeade and returned an hour later with a selection of bottles from Madam Rosmerta's cellar.

They hadn't got as smashed as Harry liked to tell people later, but a couple of shots of Firewhisky had been more than enough to loosen them both up. They'd talked for hours, rehashing a lot of what they'd said earlier in the year. Then they bolstered their courage with another shot of whisky, and broached the big question: Where to go from there? Ron wanted to take the next step, without a doubt; Harry had been less sure.

It was odd to think of that reluctance now, when they had been together for three years and he couldn't imagine being with anyone else.

Perhaps it had been the Firewhisky talking, but in the end Harry had come to the conclusion that nothing ventured was nothing gained, and that the worst that could happen was that in the morning they would decide it had been a big mistake. But fortunately for them both, it hadn't. Not by a long shot.

The Ron Harry remembered now was the Ron he'd woken up next to, that memorable morning after. Three years younger, a little skinnier and a couple of inches shorter, with a little less hair on his chest and a really annoying habit of taking up most of the bed. Harry had cured him of that by stealing all the covers until he learned better manners.

This was the Ron who'd blinked at him that morning, grinned, and winced at his hangover. Sorry? Harry had asked him. Only for drinking too much Firewhisky! Ron had replied.

It was the grin Harry remembered best, one that had lit up Ron's face.

And it was the grin he held in his mind as he reached out once more and touched the golden thread that linked him to his friend through the wizard circle. Holding tight to it, Harry let himself sink further into the trance, like a pebble dropping through the deep, dark waters of the ocean ....

Something grabbed him, hooking him and dragging him back up through the waters like a fish. Harry gasped as he was hauled up into the light, spluttering and gasping, and dragged unceremoniously to his feet. It was a bright summer's day and he was standing in the middle of the Quidditch pitch at Hogwarts. But the stands were empty and the grounds were silent. And standing in front of him, still clutching the front of his robes roughly, was someone who looked more than a little pissed off with him.

"Damn it, Harry! Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

It was Cedric Diggory.

       

Harry couldn't remember ever seeing Cedric look this cross when he had been alive. The handsome Hufflepuff prefect had always been nice enough to make your teeth ache. But it wasn't just the anger on the boy's face that silenced him; it was the fact that it was Cedric at all, that he should be here on the Astral Plane now, when he was seven years dead. Harry stared at him, shocked, and couldn't think of a thing to say.

"Well, don't just look at me!" Cedric said indignantly. "Don't you have some explaining to do? You shouldn't come here at any time, even with Weasley!"

"I ... I don't ...." Harry swallowed. This was beyond bizarre. Unbidden, the memory of Cedric's surprised expression as he fell dead at fourteen-year-old Harry's feet swam to the front of his mind, nearly choking him. "Cedric, I don't .... Why are you here?"

Cedric stared at him for a moment, and some of his anger seemed to dissipate. "I'm here because you seem to need help," he pointed out. "I've tried to help Weasley in the past, but he ignores me unless it's something really important."

That snapped Harry out of his stupor. "It's Ron I'm here for Cedric, I have to find him. Can can you help?"

Cedric looked surprised. "Why, have you lost him?"

"Voldemort has snatched him. I have to find out where they're keeping him."

The boy looked doubtful. "I don't know, Harry it's pretty dangerous. Voldemort's Seers come here a lot and ...." He sighed, seeing Harry's face. "We can try. Do you have anything that links you to him?"

"The wizard circle ...." Harry paused, looking around. The links between him and Ron and Draco were no longer visible. "Damn."

"You must have something that links you to him, surely? What's that?"

Cedric was pointing to Harry's left wrist; when he looked down he was surprised to see the gold of the bracelet there almost glowing. When he touched it with his fingertips, it was warm and pulsing faintly ... like the link of the wizard circle.

"My bracelet, we both have one ...."

"That'll do. Here, you'll need this."

And Cedric handed him a broomstick which looked suspiciously like Harry's old Nimbus 2000, the one that had been smashed to pieces by the Whomping Willow in his third year at Hogwarts. In fact, now that he noticed, Cedric was dressed in his Hufflepuff Quidditch robes.

It was all so weird ... but there was no time to think about that. Cedric was straddling his own broom and kicking off the ground, and Harry had to hurry to catch up with him.

"Where are we going?" he called, as they climbed into the airspace above the stands.

"Wherever your bracelet takes us," Cedric called back. "Just stick close to me and do what I say, Harry!"

Not having much choice, Harry did as he was told.

It was the strangest broomflight he'd ever had. As they climbed higher and higher, the grounds of Hogwarts disappeared into an amorphous swirling mist, as though they were flying above the clouds, although that was impossible. Nothing of the land below could be seen.

Cedric angled his broom alongside Harry's. "Stay close to me," he said. "If we get separated here, I might not be able to find you again. You don't want to get lost on the Astral Plane if you don't know what you're doing."

Harry looked at him. "Cedric, I don't understand. Why are you here anyway?"

The Hufflepuff boy looked puzzled. "Does it matter?"

Harry was thinking of the conversation he'd had with Ron when they came here. The spirits wandering around here are mostly dead people, he'd said, and they tend to have things on their mind.

"I don't understand why you haven't - I don't know - moved on?" he asked, a little uncomfortably.

"To where?" Cedric wanted to know.

Which was a fair question, and one which stumped Harry. It was definitely one to ask Ron if when! they got him back.

"Voldemort's supposedly not in England anymore," he said, changing the subject. "Can we find Ron if he's abroad?"

"We can find him almost anywhere here," Cedric replied. "This isn't like the living world time and space are different. If you were a clairvoyant, you could do this on your own. So could Ron, if he wasn't so stubborn."

"Why do you think he's stubborn?"

"He comes here sometimes, but he won't try to use his gift or let us talk to him. If you ask me, he's scared. It's a pity because he has a really strong gift and we could use someone like him."

Harry wasn't sure he liked the phrasing of that. "Ron isn't easily scared."

Cedric shrugged. "He acts scared. Sometimes there are things we just have to tell him, but he fights it."

"Like when the Death Eaters attacked our house?"

"That was one occasion. We had to pull him here and show him just to make him listen to us."

Harry thought about this and whichever way he looked at it, it was worrying; worrying that Ron was refusing to use a gift that could be useful, and worrying because it couldn't possibly be a good thing that he had so little control over it. Granted, he knew very little of clairvoyancy himself, but he had an idea that old Mrs. Weasley would have something to say to her grandson if she found out that spirits were actually reaching out and grabbing him against his will. There had to be some way of controlling that, or every clairvoyant would go mad.

On the other hand, he remembered that Ron's main objection to clairvoyancy was its closeness to necromancy, and that was something he could well understand. Listening to Cedric was giving him some idea of why his partner said it was "creepy" talking to the dead. For one thing, they didn't age. Nothing could change the fact that Cedric was still a seventeen-year-old boy with a teenager's outlook on things. And there was something about the way he was talking that made Harry think maybe the concerns of the living were lost on him. He talked of the spirits making use of Ron as though Ron himself had no other purpose.

"I'll talk to him about it," Harry said quietly.

"Good." Cedric suddenly raised his head. "I think we're getting close ...."

The swirling mist parted for a moment or two, letting through an unexpected blast of chilly air. Far below was a mountain range covered in trees and icy peaks.

"Where the hell are we?" Harry demanded, as Cedric led him in a slow descent.

The boy threw him a sudden grin. "Not in England, that's for sure!"

       

It was starting to grow dark when Harry re-emerged from the trance. He sat up slowly, his head feeling like someone had put it through a mangle, and felt Draco propping him up with pillows.

"Thanks," he muttered thickly. Hot knives were pushing into his forehead. "Headache potion?"

"Here." A glass tumbler was pushed into his hands and he felt the side of the bed dip slightly as Draco sat down beside him. "Is your head bad?"

"The worst." That was no exaggeration. Harry hadn't thought that anything could be worse than the headache he'd woken up with after his first venture onto the Astral Plane, but this was a killer. He hadn't realised it was possible to feel this much pain and still be alive.

"Did you find him?"

"Yes." The word was hissed between clenched teeth. The potion was foul and Harry could feel his stomach rebelling against it.

"Where is he?"

"Transylvania."

And he passed out.

       

When Harry awoke again, it was full dark and there was a tiny light in a saucer on the chest of drawers next to where Draco was sitting in the armchair. He sat up again and was relieved to find that his headache was mostly gone.

Seeing him move, Draco quickly got up and came to his side. "Thank God you're finally awake! How's your head?"

"Not too bad." Harry glanced at him guiltily. "Sorry I collapsed on you like that."

"Frankly, I'm amazed you're awake again so soon. Black was up here a little while ago - I told him you were finally getting some sleep. But it's just as well you've woken up now, because half the Order of the Phoenix is here, and Dumbledore's supposed to be coming shortly."

Harry stared. "Why?"

"I don't know. Something big's happening though." Draco looked unnaturally pale, even in the half-light. "Harry, this could be war."

"Shit."

"That's putting it mildly. What did you find out about Ron?"

"That he's in Transylvania, in some weird old castle in the mountains ."

"Grindelwald's Retreat?"

"Huh?" Harry blinked at the blond man.

"You said Transylvania before you passed out. Grindelwald supposedly had a hulking great castle in the Apuseni Mountains, but the Romanian Ministry searched for it for years after Dumbledore destroyed him and couldn't find it. It's almost an urban myth these days." Draco gave him a half-smile. "When I was a kid, it was a joke - if you got lost anywhere, your destination had to be Grindelwald's Retreat."

Then the smile slipped. "This isn't good news, you know. If Voldemort's hiding out there crap, who knows what kind of weird stuff he found in that place?"

"All the more reason to put a stop to him before he starts using it," Harry pointed out. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up cautiously.

"Hey! Hang on a minute - when did we go from 'finding Ron' to 'putting a stop to Voldemort'?" demanded Draco.

Harry glanced at him, mildly surprised. "I don't think it's going to be possible to do one without the other, do you?"

"But . Harry, for Heaven's sake! Do you honestly think Dumbledore's going to let you stage a raid on a castle in Romania?!"

"We don't know what he'll let me do until we ask him," was the reasonable reply.

"He's more likely to tie you up in spellrope until this is all over!"

But Harry, the veteran of a number of unlikely adventures sponsored by the elderly headmaster, was undaunted. "Let's see what he has to say tonight, shall we?"

       

Draco had probably been exaggerating a little when he said "half the Order of the Phoenix", for there was no way that many people could easily fit into the student house. Nevertheless, the kitchen and adjacent dining room were packed to the brim with people, many of whom Harry had never seen before in his life. It was strictly standing room only, the table and chairs having being temporarily shrunk out of the way to accommodate everyone.

By the time Harry and Draco made their way downstairs, there was very little room for them. Sirius grabbed Harry's arm as they edged through the crowd and whispered at him to find a spot and stay put -

"You opted out of the Order, so just listen, okay?"

Harry prickled with resentment against this, but there wasn't much he could do about it. After all, he had opted out. He could hardly complain when members of the Order told him their private counsels were none of his business, and at that he was lucky he and Draco were being allowed to attend at all.

Dumbledore was near the dining room window, in an armchair brought through from the study. The windows, Harry noted, had been blocked out with something opaque to prevent anything of this meeting being seen from outside. He wondered who was on guard outside; looking around, he decided it had to be Cho, who also wasn't an official member of the Order. Oddly enough, Lupin also wasn't present. Harry wondered where he was as he wedged himself into a spot behind the kitchen counter where he could at least see the leaders of the Order.

Beside Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody, Professor McGonagall, Arthur Weasley and - of all people - Mundungus Fletcher stood facing the crowd. Harry stared at the final member of the leadership, wondering where he had seen the elderly witch before, and when it came to him he nearly fell over in shock. Mrs. Figg! The batty old girl with dozens of cats who the Dursleys used to leave him with whenever they wanted to go out somewhere . He could have slapped himself for being so stupid, for he had to have heard people refer to Arabella Figg a hundred times over the years and yet had never made the connection before. She was one of the Order's most prominent Seers.

As if she felt his eyes upon her, Mrs. Figg looked up and smiled at him, her familiar smile but with more than a hint of mischief in the crinkled folds around her bright eyes.

Professor McGonagall stood up then, raising one hand, and the quiet murmur of conversation in the room dwindled to a halt.

"Good evening, ladies and gentleman. Thank you all for joining us here at such short notice," she said, her voice as crisp and clear as when she handed out school notices at Hogwarts. "I know you have all been kept up to date on the latest incidents, so I'll hand you over to Albus without further ado."

"'Incidents', plural?" Harry muttered to Draco. "What's going on?"

"Shut up and maybe we'll find out," the blond youth muttered back.

"Good evening, everyone," said Dumbledore. He didn't have to raise his voice to be heard; suddenly you could hear a pin drop in the overstuffed confines of the kitchen. "As Minerva rightly said, you have all been kept informed of the latest incidents to occur, but for the benefit of our young guests here - " his eyes flicked briefly towards Harry and Draco, " - I will recap. Yesterday, at the Inter-Agency League Quidditch match, Ronald Weasley and - as we believed then - Hermione Granger were abducted from the stadium by Death Eaters during the closing moments of the game. Of course, it since transpires that Miss Granger was not abducted and that an individual masquerading as her was put in place in order to snatch Mr. Weasley. His present whereabouts are unknown, but it's reasonable to assume that he is now in Lord Voldemort's custody, wherever that may be. Alastor?"

"We've learned a few interesting things since then," Moody's harsh voice said. "I'm sure we all remember our old friend Ludo Bagman. We've had him in for questioning ever since it came to light that security at the match was compromised, and some curious details have come to light in the process. Not only was he paid to ensure that the wards weren't set up properly over the stadium, but it would seem now that Mr. Weasley wasn't the only person to go missing during the course of the match. He was just the only one to be snatched from the stadium itself."

Harry went cold all over. It hadn't occurred to him before that other people might have been targeted as well as Ron. Beside him, he felt Draco tense up.

"How many people in total are missing?" a woman's voice asked from somewhere near the back.

"Upwards of thirty," was Moody's reply, and a low murmuring of shock and dismay. "A wide selection of individuals, but while all the more prominent abductees were allies from good families, the lesser names were nearly all people with close Muggle connections. But we expected that as soon as the reports started filtering in and we realised the scale of the problem."

"Why?" Harry burst out before he could stop himself.

It was Sirius who replied. "Voldemort's making a point. His target is still the so-called mudbloods and Muggle-lovers. He's cleansing the wizard population of what he considers to be a taint." His voice was thick with disgust.

It was on the tip of Harry's tongue to protest that Voldemort himself - or Tom Riddle, the man he had been - was half Muggle-born, but Draco pinched his elbow in warning and he shut up.

"I have a list of the people who have disappeared and where they were last seen," Professor McGonagall put in, "but if You-Know-Who follows his old modus operandi, then I suspect we will shortly start hearing reports of the Dark Mark appearing again as the - the bodies are returned to their families."

There was a sickening silence, then Dumbledore cleared his throat softly. To Harry's surprise, he felt Draco jump slightly at the sound. The blond wizard was wound tight with tension as the elderly headmaster spoke.

"Needless to say, this is an exceptionally overt move for Lord Voldemort and his followers, and it argues strongly that he will shortly be pressing forward with his campaign of intimidation. The Ministry is currently in emergency session following Alastor's report of the abductions, but I must tell you all that I hold out little hope for decisive action being taken in the near future. Therefore we cannot afford to wait for official sanction before we move. My friends, we need information and we need it now. I am going to disperse many of you to the homes of the missing in order to wait for the inevitable arrivals. We need to capture as many of the Death Eaters involved in these outrages as we may, in order to interrogate them and discover their Master's plans. The rest of you will go to pre-determined points to keep watch in case any further attacks on areas such as Diagon Alley occur. Your individual assignments are with Minerva and Arabella - please see them at the close of the meeting. Yes, Miss Granger?"

"What about Ron?" Hermione asked quietly. "And for that matter, what about Harry and Draco?"

Suddenly all eyes were upon the two young men, and Harry felt his colour rising at the unexpected scrutiny.

"Regarding young Mr. Weasley," Dumbledore said heavily, "it is of little consolation, but I strongly doubt he will be among those returned to us. Lord Voldemort has his uses for him and will keep him close, at least for the time being. It is regrettable, but I can expend no more resource in searching for him." At Harry's horrified protest he said sternly, "Harry, you must see this from the wider perspective. Wherever Ronald is, it is not in the British Isles. Our associates in Europe have been informed and are doing their best to locate him; more than that we cannot do. We have greater concerns than the whereabouts of one young man."

Draco was now drawn in so tight that Harry half expected to hear his teeth grinding with the tension. And he had a grip on Harry's right elbow that was painfully sharp. Meanwhile, Dumbledore had turned back to Hermione.

"As regards Harry and Draco, we must continue to maintain sensible precautions. I think for the time being it would be appropriate for me to set up base here. That way I can continue to supervise operations and assist in guarding our young friends here, especially since many of those currently keeping watch over this house will be needed elsewhere."

Harry opened his mouth to protest again, and this time Draco not only pinched him but dug a knee into the back of his thigh as well. He fell silent but fumed inwardly.

"I believe that's everything," Dumbledore concluded and slowly stood up. "I must return to the Ministry and speak with Fudge, but I doubt anything they have decided will affect our plans. I'll return here by midnight at the latest. Please collect your assignments, ladies and gentlemen, and God speed to you all."

The meeting broke up with little more than a murmur, and people began to file slowly out of the cramped kitchen. Draco seized Harry and began to steer him towards the doorway too.

"What are you doing?" Harry hissed furiously, for he had quite different ideas about where he was going. "I need to speak to Dumbledore - "

"No, you don't. I need to speak to you first," Draco snapped back softly. "Come on, back upstairs ." And he pushed Harry firmly out of the door.

       

"Draco, what the - " Harry protested, as the blond youth pushed him through a door and quickly shut it behind them. "Why are we in Ginny's room, for heaven's sake? She'll be furious."

"What she doesn't see she can't complain about," Draco replied curtly. He quickly cast a silencing spell on the door, and turned to look at Harry. "Besides, I think our rooms might be monitored somehow."

"What?! Draco - "

"Look, Harry - do you have a plan for rescuing Ron?"

Harry stared at him, bewildered. "I wouldn't call it a plan as such, but . No, wait a minute! What's going on? Why wouldn't you let me talk to Dumbledore?"

"Because I thought it was already quite obvious that he wouldn't listen to any suggestions for finding Ron," Draco told him, "and I was afraid if I let you talk to him you'd blurt everything out and ruin our chances of finding him independently."

Harry eyed him suspiciously. Draco's statement was just a shade too glib for his liking. "Since when have you been so enamoured of the idea of us rescuing Ron?"

"Since it became obvious that the so-called heroes were going to leave him with Voldemort to rot." When Harry continued to look unconvinced, Draco sighed. "Harry, do you trust me?"

"This is not a good time to ask me questions like that," Harry snapped, growing annoyed.

"Well, I have to ask you to trust me now," Draco replied steadily. "I I have my suspicions of something, but I'm not remotely sure about it and if I told you now, you'd either refuse to believe me or you'd panic. Either way, we'd still be stuck in this house and Ron would still be stuck with Voldemort, so I'd rather say nothing until I'm certain, okay?"

There was a long pause as Harry studied him, weighing it up. Weighing up staying in the house with Dumbledore and waiting for something to happen, against the possibility of taking some action that might help Ron.

"Okay," he said finally, and watched Draco draw a relieved breath. "So what are we going to do?"

"I think that's up to you and your 'plan', isn't it?" the other man countered. "What were you thinking of doing?"

"We have to actually get to Grindelwald's Retreat," Harry said, "and frankly I'm open to suggestions on that. But once we're there well, I do have a couple of ideas. What about you?"

"If we can get to the Retreat, get inside and free Ron, then there's an outside chance that the three of us, in combination, might be able to take out the Dark Lord with the Avada Kedavra Curse," Draco told him. "There are no guarantees of that, though. He survived the curse once and came back stronger than ever. Personally, my choice would be to grab Ron if we can and just get out of there, rather than trying to take on more than we can chew."

Harry nodded. He hadn't expected much else from Draco, although admittedly it hadn't occurred to him until now that the three of them as circle might be able to use the Killing Curse to greater effect than just one wizard alone. But what Draco was saying made sense, even though it didn't totally tally with his own ideas.

"What about getting to the Retreat?" he asked. "I've never been outside Britain and I don't own any kind of passport. I'm assuming we can't just Apparate there."

"Too far," Draco replied. "I went to Romania once, a long time ago, and my father arranged for us to use the Ministry Transport Network. Have you ever used that?" Harry shook his head. "It varies, depending on where you want to go and how important it is. The Minister and his staff - and people like Dumbledore, presumably - use the magic mirrors, but there are also priority portkeys and boosted Apparition pads. It's possible that you and I, as Aurors, might be able to get access to them, especially since we're more or less under a state of emergency." He sounded doubtful though. "Of course, once we actually get to Romania, it's a different matter. We'll probably have to use local transport to get to the Retreat itself."

Harry considered this for a minute or two. "What about a portkey? Do you know how to make them?"

"I do, but that's no good if we don't know where we're going in the first place "

"Could you make it to take itself to something already there that matches it exactly ?"

The blond wizard blinked and considered this. "I suppose it's possible," he said a little doubtfully, "but what did you have in mind?"

Harry was thinking of Cedric using his bracelet to find Ron on the Astral Plane, but he had a feeling this should be a last resort. "Never mind. We'll hold that option in reserve. First we have to go to Hogwarts."

Draco stared at him. "What for?"

"Because that's where Professor Snape is," Harry replied, "and we're going to need his help, especially to get access to Voldemort."

Draco promptly lost what little colour he possessed. "You have to be joking," he spluttered. "Snape would never - "

"He might," Harry interrupted. "At any rate, I have to try. And you've got to admit that if we get into trouble, he'd be an excellent person to have at our backs."

For a moment he thought Draco might argue with him, but then the blond wizard simply shook his head.

"I think I'll just worry about that when we're actually trying to explain all this to him," he said dryly. "In the meantime, we have to find a way of actually getting there - and getting past the wards on the house isn't going to be a joke. They're as much to keep us in as anyone else out, you know. Apparating, Flooing and using a portkey are all out of the question."

"I've been thinking about that too," Harry said calmly. "Cho set them up, didn't she? And she's wizard born and bred."

"So?" Draco asked, puzzled.

"So I'm willing to bet that she forgot about the front door."

 

End Part 27/30

 

 

Sally - Do I like being cruel to Harry? I don't think so! *thinks* Okay, so maybe I am just a little bit cruel to him . Anyway, Harry only loses at Quidditch in fics where he's playing against Draco, hadn't you noticed? *grin* To be honest, I suspect at least part of Draco's panic was because he knew he'd be blamed for Ron and Hermione's disappearance, but even so .

Brooke - I am the Evil Cliffhanger Woman, didn't you know? *grin* I'm glad you liked the game - I was looking forward to writing it for ages and had a lot of fun with it!

Jennavette - I know I keep saying this, but Ron really is my favourite character (other than Harry) so I try hard to do him justice when I write him. If it works for you too, that's great *smile* Anyone writing him as an idiot or a total bastard is going to have to work hard to convince me, because frankly I can't see the reasoning for it.

Rainyday - Glad you liked the Quidditch match! I do stupid things when I watch the movies on video, like yell at the screen, even though I know what's going to happen. Don't you worry about Ron, I've got it all under control mostly *grin*

PoisonSnakey - I hadn't thought about the Inter-Agency League Quidditch finals, to be honest - there's just a bit of other stuff going on! It's an idea.

TheSeer Well, yes, I had good reasons for Harry not joining the Order! Primarily because if he had, the story would have had to have gone in entirely different directions. But Dumbledore had to offer, because it wouldn't make sense for him not to offer a place to the wizard circle. It was the logical step. I like the sound of your story idea and hope you'll write it we need more Harry/Ron fics, especially angsty ones *grin*

Nayako Calm down! Have an Ice Mouse. It'll be okay. Maybe. *grins evilly*

Beth Ann If you were yelling at the referee, then my work here is done *grin* I am indeed cruel ... but you already knew that, didn't you?!

Jen Clearly I am not alone in my Quidditch obsession that's reassuring! I was worried that the game would bore non-sports fans to death (notwithstanding the fact that I rarely show interest in sport myself). Where have Ron and Hermione gone? Hm that would be telling!

Quoth the Raven Despite appearances, both your reviews got through! I'm getting a double whammy today though Fanfiction.net and my e-mail are both acting up a bit. *sigh* I'm really glad you liked Charlie at the match since there isn't really a lot of contact with him in the books, it's hard to know how to write him, but I hope I got him right. I'm also pleased that the bit about Harry's career worked for you. I really don't see him as an Auror, unless he's forced into it. I liked your comment that he's pretty much been trapped into the job by public opinion, though I hadn't taken my reasoning that far, but you're absolutely right. The wizarding world sees him as their saviour, rightly or wrongly, and even if he hadn't become an Auror his life would never have been his own while Voldemort was loose. And his own guilt would have eaten at him. Regarding Ron and Hermione's disappearance, you'll see now that there was a bit of a twist *grin* Although I'm still praying it'll work out in the last few chapters.

LadyBird I'm really glad you liked it! You know, I never expected to enjoy the Quidditch scene in the first movie (I saw the movie before I read the book), so I was amazed when I enjoyed it so much *grin* Regarding a Harry/Draco/Ron threesome, I've been asked this before. To be honest, no, I'm not considering it and certainly not in this story. The dynamics are all wrong, most notably that Ron and Draco aren't interested in each other and are both far too alpha-male to share Harry. But more than anything, Ron is far too jealous and possessive of Harry. There was a point where I did consider it and even discussed it with Beth Ann, but we both agreed it couldn't work. It might be interesting to try it in another, totally separate story, just to work through how it would affect the various relationships in the circle though. As for more writing I'm always writing, don't worry! I can't not write. It's a compulsion.


Return to Archive | next | previous