George pushed the Firebolt to the limit of its speed. Breathing was difficult and talk impossible as he and Harry tore through the bitter North Sea air. In scarcely a quarter of an hour, a mound of weathered stone appeared on the dark horizon. It grew rapidly into a large and forbidding castle, a ruin of jagged walls and broken turrets that took up most of the island it was perched upon. George brought them to a halt a hundred yards from the shore.
'Right,' he said, unfastening his belt from Harry's. 'This is it. Conjure your Patronus and wait here under the Cloak while I get Percy."
Harry nodded. He drew his wand and concentrated on a happy memory: of meeting Ron on the Hogwarts Express and making his first friend.
'Expecto Patronum!' he shouted.
A silvery white stag erupted from the tip of his wand and streaked towards Azkaban, with George in hot pursuit. Harry saw them land in a sort of courtyard. George pointed his wand at the entrance to the central tower and its heavy iron grating rose slowly upwards.
Three tall, hooded Dementors swept out. Harry's Patronus chased them off, but several others came gliding after them. The stag circled round. Whilst it was occupied with the second batch of Dementors, a dozen more sallied forth.
There seemed to be no end of them. The stag galloped hither and thither; the instant it charged down one group, the rest came swarming back. Each time George approached the fortress, their icy, draining power sent him reeling. Then, to Harry's horror, he swayed and crumpled to the rocky ground. The Dementors closed in.
In the nick of time, the silver stag came pelting over. It stood beside George, antlers lowered menacingly, as he struggled onto the Firebolt and took off at full tilt.
'It's no good, one Patronus isn't enough to handle them,' George panted as he pulled level with Harry. 'We'll have to go back.'
There was a sick despair in his eyes that reminded Harry of Sirius when he spoke of his time in Azkaban.
'No!' said Harry furiously. 'Not without Percy.' He called to mind how he had felt as he soared away from Privet Drive with Ron, Fred and George in their flying car. 'EXPECTO PATRONUM!'
A second burst of silver shot out his wand and headed for the island.
'You stay with George!' Harry called out to it rather breathlessly.
The Patronus, a dazzling white wizard with long, flowing hair, halted in mid-air and beckoned George to follow. George gave Harry a swift, astounded look, then zoomed after it into the dark fortress.
Harry hovered over Azkaban feeling very queer indeed. It was as though someone had drilled a hole in his head and all of his thoughts had dribbled out of it. He knew he should be worried about George, battling his way through the prison's Dementor-infested corridors, but simply holding on to his broomstick took every ounce of Harry's attention.
He gazed vacantly down at the courtyard below, where the stag was still herding Dementors to and fro. After some time, the shining silver wizard emerged from the fortress again, trailed closely by George and, Harry was vaguely pleased to note, Percy. Percy was obviously in a very bad way -- hardly able to walk, half dragged and half carried by his brother.
George and Percy's appearance seemed to enrage the Azkaban guards. Every Dementor in the courtyard jostled towards the two Weasleys, pressing as close as the Patronus would allow. Percy stumbled and fell. The sight of George trying frantically to get him to his feet roused Harry from his stupor.
'Spec,' he muttered. He shook his head to clear it. Gripping his wand tightly, Harry dredged up an image of Mrs Weasley smiling kindly at him and carefully and deliberately enunciated, 'Expecto Patronum.'
The next thing he felt was a cold so intense that it burnt. He gasped in shock and choked on salty water. There was light above him; he kicked towards it with all his might. At last his head broke the surface. Spotting his wand floating nearby, Harry floundered in its direction, so frozen he could barely swim.
As his fingers clutched the wand, a voice yelled, 'Harry! Is that you? Wingardium Leviosa!'
Harry was lifted out of the sea and into the air, where he hung shivering and dripping as George looked him up and down in consternation.
'Harry, take off the Cloak, I can't see you,' said George.
Harry wriggled out of the Invisibility Cloak. George cast rapid Drying and Thawing Charms on him.
'Accio Firebolt!' said Harry.
His broom came sailing over. He clambered shakily onto it ... and nearly tumbled off again when George ended the Levitation Charm.
'George,' panted Harry, 'put a Strengthening Spell on me!'
'Stabilio!' said George.
Harry's grip on the Firebolt steadied. He glanced around and saw Percy huddled feebly on the second Cleansweep beside George.
'I reckon Percy could use one too.'
George flicked his wand impatiently at his brother
'What happened?' he asked Harry tensely. 'Was it the Dementors? Were you attacked?'
'No,' said Harry. 'That last Patronus -- it did me right in.'
'It saved our lives,' said George. 'Scattered the Dementors just long enough for me to get Percy on the Cleansweep. I didn't realise it was possible to conjure up more than one.'
'Nor did I,' said Harry. His lingering feelings of cold, exhaustion and light-headedness were washed away by a powerful rush of happiness. 'You did it! You got him!'
'Thanks to you,' said George.
They grinned at each other.
'All right, Percy?' said Harry.
Percy looked up at him but didn't smile. There was a horrible emptiness in his eyes. The grin vanished from George's face.
'We've got to get out of here, fast,' he said. 'Those Dementors have gone spare, even the Patronus couldn't quite hold them back. I had to knock down a few of the walls to keep them off. The damage alarms will have the Ministry heading this way for sure.'
He tossed one of the leads attached to his belt to Harry. 'Put this on and throw that Cloak over you and Percy.'
Harry fastened the collar and arranged the Invisibility Cloak.
'You two hang on tight,' said George, grasping the Firebolt with both hands.
'Wait!' said Harry. He pointed his wand skywards and shouted, 'Morsmordre!'
Green and glittering evilly, the Dark Mark rose over Azkaban. George gaped up at the blazing skull, then back at Harry.
'Let Voldemort take the blame for this one,' said Harry grimly.
George leant forward and sent the Firebolt hurtling off, yanking Harry and Percy along in his wake. He drove the Firebolt even harder on their return journey. In mere minutes, they were back at the shack in the Grimsby docks.
Harry and George changed hurriedly into their own clothes. George had brought a Muggle outfit for Percy and a bottle of Gilderoy Lockhart's Thestral Feather Black Hair Potion, which he poured over his brother's head to disguise his flaming Weasley hair.
Percy looked terrible. His hands moved slowly and shakily; his face was gaunt and hollow and dreadfully pale beneath his newly blackened hair.
Whilst Percy was dressing, George took Harry aside.
'Now that the Ministry knows something's up at Azkaban, we'll have to do things a bit differently,' he said. 'I'll take the Firebolt -- I've got to be at The Burrow when Magical Law Enforcement turns up, and rather I'm found with it than you. You'll fly Percy to Bristol on the Cleansweeps under the Invisibility Cloak. Here --'
George took a map out of the backpack and ran his finger over it.
'Can't go through Nottingham, you might run into Ministry wizards flying up from London,' he muttered. 'Detour through Manchester ... don't bother trying to follow the motorways, just fly due west and you'll spot the city by its lights ... only mind you don't get drawn off course by Sheffield. Then it's the M6 to Birmingham and the M5 to Bristol.'
George looked up at Harry.
'It's a long flight. D'you reckon you can manage it? I'd send Percy on alone, but the state he's in, I honestly don't think he'd make it.'
'I got here from Little Whinging, didn't I?' said Harry.
In truth, he was far less confident than he sounded. It would mean travelling through more large cities in a single night than in the entire rest of his life. But George was right: left to his own devices, Percy would never reach Bristol.
George gave Harry an envelope with a key. The name and address of a hotel were scribbled on it.
'Stay under the Cloak until you get to Percy's room. There's a bag of food in the wardrobe, try to see he eats something. You've got the Muggle money?'
Harry passed George the bundle of notes. George turned and handed them to Percy.
'You go with Harry, Perce. Lie low until --' George leant over to whisper the rest of his instructions in his brother's ear. 'Sorry, mate,' he said to Harry as he straightened up. 'Less you know, the better.'
George heaped their kit from Azkaban in the middle of the shack, took a box of wooden matches from his pocket, lit one and set it on top. When the match had burnt all the way down, the whole pile was consumed in a flash of white fire. George gave the box to Harry.
'Take both Cleansweeps with you when you leave Bristol. Once you get to your house --' a flicker of pain crossed George's face, but he went on resolutely, '-- burn them. Put the matches on the fire as well, that will destroy all the evidence.'
'Burn your Cleansweeps!' said Harry in horror, recalling the many Quidditch matches those valiant brooms had won.
'We can't have them being found in your or Percy's possession,' said George flatly. He glanced down at his watch. 'Right, we'd best be off ...'
As George headed for the door, Harry had a sudden, awful thought.
'George, what about your clock?' he said urgently. 'The one in your living room, with hands for all your family -- won't it show Percy's not in prison any more?'
For an instant, George looked panicked. Then relief spread over his face.
'The clock's in the cellar with its face to the wall,' he said. 'Charlie brought it down there weeks ago -- it was upsetting Mum.'
George hopped on the Firebolt and with a great whoosh of air was gone. Harry and Percy flew more slowly westwards to Manchester. The Cleansweeps' top speed would still have allowed them to hold a conversation, but Percy didn't seem to want to talk and Harry was too intent on his navigations.
They arrived in Bristol around three in the morning and made it to the hotel room without incident. Percy slumped on the edge of the bed, looking as exhausted as Harry felt. Harry opened the wardrobe, found the bag of food, unwrapped a package of sandwiches and offered one to Percy, who waved it away. Harry took a bite himself and set the rest of the package on the bed beside Percy.
'You should eat,' Harry said as he poured tea from a flask. 'You need to keep your strength up. We'll find a way to prove you didn't kill Watchett. The Ministry of Magic's still investigating, and your dad --'
'Father's working on the Watchett case?' said Percy, his voice aghast. 'Harry, you've got to stop him!'
'Stop him?' said Harry. 'How come?'
For a long while Percy was silent. When he finally spoke again, his tones were flat and deadened.
'You've got to stop him because I did kill Watchett.'
Harry dropped his sandwich.
'You mean Watchett was having an affair with Penelope?' he said stupidly.
'No, of course not,' said Percy, in his irritation momentarily sounding like his old self. 'He'd caught me in the Magical Law Enforcement wing, rifling their files for information to give to the Daily Prophet --'
'You were behind those leaks Ron was talking about?' said Harry in high astonishment. 'But -- why?'
'I wanted Cornelius Fudge out of office!' said Percy fiercely. 'He's been running the Ministry into the ground. Mr Crouch was dead, murdered by Dark wizards, and all he cared about was covering it up!'
Percy glared at the wardrobe as if he thought Fudge might be hiding it, then continued more quietly, 'A Hit Wizard named Murdock Riversedge came to me. He had a plan to get rid of Fudge and replace him with someone who took their Magical Law Enforcement seriously. As I'd been transferred to the Centaur Liaision Office, I had a lot of spare time. I combed the Ministry's records for things that would make Fudge look an idiot and leaked them the Daily Prophet. Only somehow Watchett got wind of what I was doing. He started investigating me -- that's why he talked to Penelope. When he found me in the filing room ...' Percy's voice dropped. 'I only meant to Stun him. But hexing a person when you're scared or angry -- it's not like Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons. I lost control ... hit him too hard ...'
Harry shook his head. He couldn't believe what he was hearing ... he didn't want to believe it. But Percy wasn't finished yet.
'Watchett -- before I -- before I killed him -- he said Riversedge was working for You-Know-Who. He thought I was, too -- I wasn't, I swear, but Riversedge was. He had the Dark Mark branded on his arm, he showed me after I was arrested. He told me if I said anything, he'd convince the Ministry that Father was involved. So I kept quiet. I shouldn't have let George rescue me ... I deserved Azkaban ... but I couldn't bear it any more ... I couldn't ...'
Percy buried his face in his hands. Harry gazed down at him, utterly lost for words. Percy was guilty ... a murderer ...
But it had been an accident, Harry told himself. Fudge said they didn't send people to Azkaban for accidents when he'd blown up Aunt Marge. Yet Harry knew that there was a very big difference between accidentally inflating an aunt and accidentally killing a policeman. Hexing a person when you're scared or angry ... he was suddenly extremely glad he hadn't proceeded with his plan to curse Draco Malfoy into the hospital wing.
Remembering Malfoy and how he had tormented Ron over Percy's arrest yanked Harry's thoughts back to the present.
'You can't go to Azkaban, think of your family,' he said to Percy. 'Your mum's in a right state, and Ron too. You've got to get a grip ... do what George told you ... here, eat your sandwich.'
Harry picked up the sandwich he'd dropped and thrust it at Percy. After watching Percy eat it, Harry collected the Cleansweeps and the Invisibility Cloak and made for the door.
'I need to be getting back to Privet Drive,' he said. 'You'll be OK, won't you?'
'But Father, he's in danger,' said Percy urgently. 'Riversedge -- the Watchett case -- you've got to warn him off --'
'I will,' promised Harry as he slipped out the room.
It was good that Harry's route from Bristol ran straight along the M4. George's Strengthening Charm had long since worn off. It was all Harry could do to keep his broomstick pointed in the right direction on the long, icy flight to Little Whinging.
He stared numbly at the motorway beneath him, his mind reeling with what Percy had told him.
He couldn't stop himself picturing the scene: a sudden blaze of scarlet light ... a man falling to the floor and lying there, unmoving ... in his imagination, Watchett looked very much like Cedric Diggory. Harry thought of Cedric's father, sobbing beside his bed, and wondered how Watchett's parents had taken the news of their son's death.
Then he thought of the Weasleys. Would knowing Percy had been given to the Dementors for a crime he'd actually committed make it any easier for them to endure? And how on earth was he going to warn Mr Weasley about Riversedge? After Percy's escape, Magical Law Enforcement would be keeping a close watch on the Weasleys. Any attempt to contact them would draw the Ministry's attention, and with all the time he'd been gone, Harry's alibi for the evening wasn't exactly watertight.
He could tell Dumbledore, of course, but it would mean admitting his part in the breakout, not to mention the fact that Percy really was responsible for Watchett's murder. Dumbledore had helped Harry keep an innocent man out of Azkaban -- would he be willing to do the same for a guilty one? If Percy was sent back because of Harry, he'd never be able to face the Weasleys again ...
Harry came in to land near the spot where he had first encountered his godfather before catching the Knight Bus. It had snowed whilst he was away. Several inches of glittering white powder covered the pavement. Harry stumbled off his broom and ducked into the gap between the garage and the fence of number two, Magnolia Crescent. He laid the Cleansweeps on the ground, along with the belt, the lead and collar, the maps and the box of enchanted matches, and burnt the lot.
When the fire faded, Harry moved deeper into the narrow alleyway and sank down, shivering, against the garage wall. He checked his watch. It was almost five o'clock in the morning. In little over eight hours, he'd flown halfway across the country and back. At least he didn't have to worry about sneaking into the house -- the Dursleys must certainly be asleep by now.
It abruptly hit Harry that on top of all his other problems, he was facing a fortnight with a surpassingly infuriated Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. He shuddered and slumped down further ... and felt something prick him painfully in the leg.
Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out his wand. His jaw dropped. The wand had sprouted three tiny sprigs of holly. The spiky green leaves and plump red berries glowed with a soft inner light in the dim alleyway. Thinking he might have begun to hallucinate from tiredness, Harry smacked himself in the side of the head, but the holly was still there afterwards.
Too exhausted to ponder what this startling development might signify, Harry tore off the bits of holly, stuck them in his jumper and shoved the wand back in his pocket. Snow was falling again, but somehow he didn't feel cold. I'll just rest here a bit longer, he thought to himself, leaning back against the wall ...
Aunt Petunia was shaking him and calling his name, but Harry was too tired to get up, or even to tell her to leave him alone. Then the smell of smoke reached his nostrils. She's set my bed on fire, he thought indignantly.
Harry's eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright. He wasn't in his room at number four and the man in wizard's robes goggling down at him was definitely not Aunt Petunia. Nor did there appear to be any fire -- merely a light dusting of ash on his jumper and two sprigs of holly instead of the three he'd had the night before.
'I don't believe it!' yelled the wizard. He ran to the door shouting, 'Minister! Minister, come back! He's alive!'
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.
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