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It's been hell on the streets for a few weeks now, ever since the Minister. The Ministry's a wreck, trying to get it all together, not just politically speaking, but for the public as well. Meanwhile, half the drunken louts in the Leaky Cauldron have apparently formed some kind of organization and taken to shouting in the streets, the usually nonsense, about the breakouts from Azkaban and the lack of security, it's all very bland, frankly, but people seem to be listening. Of course, no one wants to take responsibility for the fact that if security was increased at all, they'd all be shouting down about 'violations of rights' and 'freedom of the people'. Circe, it's like no one can get any satisfaction these days unless they're screaming something from the rooftops. Oh, and the looting. That's started this week. Bloody fantastic. As though the neighborhood wasn't stale enough.

Everything burns.

He's swimming up from an ocean of fire and the flames are consuming him. There's been a war and the sky burns. He thinks of the Muggles, burning the world to ash to power their gadgets and factories. His father burns for his greed and his helplessness. His mother will burn for her weakness and sorrow. The guilty and the sad, the angry and the desperate, together cast down into flames for their sins. The laughing men and the graceful women. Pansy will burn and the secrets in her three a.m. eyes will melt and hiss. He has already burned, burned in the shape of the mark on his arm, which singes through his flesh and into him, his thoughts crumbling into soft ashes that leave streaks of grime on the floor.

His head is burning.

He opens his eyes.

There's nothing to see. The darkness is so complete that he wonders if he has awoken at all. He wonders if maybe this is what death is like, if he'll remain sitting on this cold and unidentifiable surface in the unrelenting dark for all eternity. The thought sends his pulse racing in panic and he thinks he might be sick, as though the coward that lives beneath his skin is crawling up through his throat. But it passes. The dead do not shake. The dead don't feel the course fibers of thick rope wrapped around their wrists.

Gradually, though his eyes still see nothing, he becomes aware of a presence somewhere in front of him. He feels the disturbance of the air that is their soft and gentle breathing. He strains his eyes toward the space in front of him and eventually discerns a shape, less of an image and more of an absence of darkness, some feet away. He does not struggle with the bonds behind his back, not yet. There is little chance that he'll be able to undo them and as long as the figure in front of him assumes he's unconscious, he'll have more time to think of a way out of this shit. But just as the idea occurs, there is a sound like a wretched gasp, and a light flares in front of him so unexpectedly that he closes his eyes, momentarily blinded. When he opens them again he can see that the figure has lit a candle with their wand. Long, shining locks of black hair catch the light of the candle as she brings it closer to him.

He can see now from the dim light that he is in a windowless chamber. Behind her is a short corridor leading to a strong door. He is seated in the only chair in the room, his hands tied between the slats behind his back. She takes a seat atop a small table in front of him and slightly to the right, and sets the candle down beside her, so that only the left side of her pretty face is illuminated. She looks vaguely familiar but he can't seem to place her face. It could just be the darkness, but he thinks there is something softly sad about her, like a forgotten ghost.

"Don't try and untie them, they won't loosen," she warns him. Her voice is clear and sweet in the darkness.

"I wasn't counting on it," he acquiesces, keeping an eye on her. She obviously one of the stars of the floor upstairs, missing out on her opportunity to flirt her way into the papers by being down here with him. They probably caught her in the hallway on her way out and stuck her with babysitting duty. She's silent for a few minutes, alternating between watching him and keeping her black eyes on the flame of the candle.

"What did you do, anyway?" she asks him at last, interrupting his feverish calculations of his chances.

"Asked too many questions, got too many answers," he shrugs, and a faint smile flickers across her face.

"Didn't anybody ever tell you not to pick fights with the kings of the playground?"

"No, I guess nobody did," he admits. She's quiet again and he watches her. He wonders how she ended up here, in this club on this street, doing what she does. Each of them has a different story and not many of them are happy ones. This girl is as unlike Pansy as she could be; she's soft and sweet and quiet, but still possesses that air of quickness, that thing that marks all of the girls here as having seen too much sorrow, having pain to hide behind their pretty faces. He wishes he could remember where he knows her from, wishes he could say her name and give her the comfort of being recognized for what she once was.

"What were you looking for down here?" she inquires curiously.

He considers lying but some instinct tells him to tell the truth. "A girl. Her name is Rose. Her parents hired me to try and find her." There's a slow but deliberate intake of breath. "You know her?" he asks shrewdly, and she pauses before answering.

"Sure, I know Rosie," she replies at length, and does not elaborate.

He lets her stew for a second, considering his words carefully. "Can you tell me where she is?" he asks.
"No," she answers softly. "I can't."

"But you know, don't you?"

"Yes," she says even more quietly than before. "Her parents. That's sad. She's a sweet kid."

"They need her home. This isn't her business, she doesn't belong here," he says in as gentle a tone as he can muster.

"I know," she agrees. She shifts her weight, leaning forward and then dropping lithely from the desk with all the grace of a weightless spirit. She moves toward him and kneels in the darkness, her face close to his. It is so familiar as to be distracting but he still can't give a name to the picture in his head. Her straight black hair drifts with her slightest movement. "You want to help her," she states.

"Yes," he says simply.

"That's why I can't tell you. There's goodness in you, Draco Malfoy, more than maybe you realize. Don't you see that's why I can't let you find her? They'll kill you and you'll be no good to anyone anymore," she finishes in barely a whisper, and her hand touches his cheek softly enough that he could almost have imagined it. There's sorrow in her words, a simple and short tragedy told in the briefest of sentences. This woman was an innocent too, once, until, lost and alone, she stumbled her way into this world, and there was no one, not even a coward and a liar like himself, to pull her out again. She is not strong enough, she does not have the magnetic and fiery power that Pansy has which makes her so good at thriving in darkness. This is a woman who will be consumed here.

The sorrow of it echoes in his ears and he wishes he could find the compassion in himself to comfort her, to give her some peace in her silent sorrow. But the weakness of it makes him cringe away like she's revealed something shameful. She stands up and her face is in shadows once more, the light of the candle blocked by her slim body.

"Untie me," he suggests, his voice low and demanding.

"I can't," she denies him, and he sees her head shake slowly.

"Untie me," he repeats, "I'm leaving this place one way or another, with or without your help. I'd have a lot better chances of getting out alive if you would give me a hand."

She is silent for another minute. He can see the dim shine of her dress robes in the dark. She's trembling. With one hesitant, quiet step, and then another, she slowly moves around to the back of his chair. He feels the shift when she kneels and the softness of her fingers as they touch his hands, feeling the ropes there, exploring them with slim and nimble fingers. Within seconds, he feels them loosening, and in less than a minute the drop to the floor with a dull noise. He stands up and rubs the feeling back into his wrists.

"Good luck," she says, as he checks his wand for his pocket and finds that, as he expected, it is missing. Damnit.

"I know you," he says, pausing in the doorway as he is about to leave the room. He looks back at her face, half illuminated in the flickering light of the flame.

"We went to school together," she says with a sad kind of smile. "I was a year above you."

"Chang," he remembers, surprised to remember the pretty girl on the arm of Cedric Diggory, years ago.

"You can call me Cho," she offers, and with a pause, and then a brief nod, he slips out of the room.

He needs his wand and he needs to find Rose and get the hell out of here before someone discovers he is missing. But the wand has to come first. He is in a passage which he did not encounter before, and there is no plush carpet down here, just cold and unforgiving stone. He's deep in the bowels of someone's dark, twisted fantasy with no wand and no way of knowing what might be around the next corner. At the end of the hall is an open door and he's more careful this time, moving as slowly as he can, scanning the room until he is sure without a doubt that it is empty. In it there's nothing but a dark wooden desk and a few bookshelves, a fire that does nothing to warm the cold stone of the walls and a cabinet in the corner. He does a brief and cursory search of the hiding place but he doesn't find his wand and he didn't expect to. If he's lucky it will be in the pocket of some dimwitted muscle somewhere and if he's unlucky than it will be with Teddy himself.

Down the passage again and at the end of it he finds a set of stairs that lead further down. His glances over his shoulder, back down the corridor, and thinks fast. He has a better chance of finding Rose than he does of his wand. Maybe somehow they'll get lucky and anyway, if he keeps wandering he'll never be able to find this staircase again and he has a feeling it's going to lead him to the girl. Making up his mind, he ducks into the stairwell. It's cold in here, and the stairs creak.

At the bottom is another corridor and he wonders how deep underground he is now. The thought makes his collar itch. This is one is dimly lit, less of a corridor and more of a short stretch of damp stone. There are two doors and only one is closed. He plants himself outside of it, to the left of the threshold, and takes a second to hope sincerely that there isn't a man on the other side with his wand held at chest level. Merlin, he's in deep. Deeper than he thought he would have gone.

The door is locked and he has no wand and for a moment he debates the task of leaving it, coming back with a wand, and trying again. Then he backs up, swallowing his hesitation at the uninviting prospect before him, and rams his shoulder into the door, near the handle.

The noise is loud and his curse of eye-watering pain is only slightly softer but he thinks- or he hopes- that it won't be heard upstairs. The wood around the door jamb has splintered slightly and now he takes his foot to it with only slightly more enthusiasm, bracing himself against the wall behind him and kicking at the weak point. Each impact comes with a jarring pain in his ankle but he can see the door weakening around the handle, and with a few more kicks, he's separated the wood enough to push his way through.

The inside of the room is in such stark contrast with the hallway that at first he is taken aback. There is soft carpet here, as well as ornate furniture: a desk, a comfortable bed, a small sofa. There is a fire in the grate and the room is warm, almost uncomfortably so. At first glance it appears empty. He stands in the center and looks around him slowly, because instinct tells him that he's in the right place. It's a comfortable place, sure, but the lock on the door makes it a prison nonetheless.

There is a noise so soft and reluctant that he almost misses it, coming from the other side of the bed. It is the gasp on a young girl desperate to become invisible. He moves slowly and keeps his distance. The last thing he needs is for her to become hysterical. At first, he sees only a glimpse of blonde hair, a small, curled up tangle of trembling limbs. Then she raises her head with wide eyes. She looks much younger than he knows she is, a little girl lost in the darkness of a bad dream.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he promises, and he can see by her unchanged posture that his reassurance is unconvincing. He is no good at softly shushing away the fears of the innocent. In fact, he feels distinctly uncomfortable. He thinks he might prefer threatening and intimidating to this delicate art.

"Rose?" he tries again, and the use of her name affects her, she begins to stir slightly. "Your parents sent me. I'm going to take you home to them, but you have to come with me, right now," he insists.

He can see exactly what he wanted to avoid beginning to take shape in her face. She opens her mouth and her voice is shrill and trembling.

"I don't know you. Leave me alone," she says says shortly, and he resists the urge to roll his eyes. He reminds himself that she's young and naive and terrified. But sympathy isn't his strong suit.

"Look, you can either come with me now, or I can leave you here and you can take your chances on your own, your choice," he offers, some of the disdainful drawl creeping back into his voice. Her eyes dart between him and the door and he waits impatiently. Slowly, she begins to untangle her limbs, and stands up on unsteady feet. She's small, with a pretty, youthful face, the kind of face where a frown doesn't quite belong. She sniffs a little, rubs at her face. He wonders with mounting horror if she's going to cry, but she doesn't, she simply approaches him cautiously.

"Okay," she agrees, and moves in a way that is unfamiliar to him, so that it takes him a second to realize she's about to grab his hand. With a quick movement he shoves both hands into his pockets.

"This way," he directs her, rather obviously, to cover up the awkwardness of his movement. He leads her through the splintered door and into the cold hallway, and she's trembling harder than ever as they climb the stairs. She's making an awful lot of noise, sniffling and whimpering as she is, and she almost stride blatantly into the hallway at the top of the stairs before he grabs her elbow and yanks her back.

He leans against the wall and pokes his head around the corner cautiously, then he freezes. Five feet away, standing with his back to them, is a wizard who would have put Crabbe and Goyle to shame. He's twice Draco's size, bent over to avoid hitting his ceiling on a low threshold as he shuffles his was down the passage, his arms stiff and apelike. Rose cowers behind, in the stairwell, as Draco ducks back. They can retreat down the steps for a few minutes until he passes, and hopefully leaves the corridor deserted. But as the giant wanders away, Draco spots a familiar strip of wood emerging from the back of his pocket. The ape has his wand. Draco contemplates the idea of trying to drop him with no wand and grimaces. The man is enormous. But Draco has the advantage of surprise and quick thinking, which puts him at least two up on the slow, stupid looking beast who is currently scratching his head as though in deep though about whether he'd like to turn left or right at the end of the hall.

Rose let's out a squeak when he darts out of the shelter of the stairwell and races up the corridor. Cursing her silently, Draco watches as the man cocks his head, listening, and then slowly begins to turn. Draco's already committed himself to the corridor and he gets close with just enough time to duck as the man catches his movement out of the corner of his eye and comes around swinging. His only advantage is in speed and he moves quickly, sending his elbow into the enormous gut. The man lets out a grunt and steps back, caught off guard. Draco doesn't wait, he follows quickly with a sharp jab to the man's jaw and ducks back as his arms come flying around like battering rams. He sees his chance as the man spins around, disoriented, and exposes his ample backside, and Draco darts forward. He knocks the large hand that is reaching for his own wand out of the way and his fingers close on the familiar wood of his, and only then does he realize exactly how vulnerable it had felt to be without it.

Even as he draws the slim piece of wood from the larger man's back pocket, the beast turns around, fumbling with a wand in his hand, but he's used to immobile, helpless opponents. Generally all he has to do is grunt threateningly and watch as they gasp and sometimes cry. But Draco is neither immobile or helpless and in a second it is over, the large man falls with a ground-shaking thud to the ground and his eyes shut even as the sparks of Draco's stunning spell fade above his motionless form.

He has to stride back to the stairwell to retrieve her; she seems petrified with fear. But Rose follows willingly enough, stumbling after him as he moves through the corridors with no clear idea of where he is going. Again, he is struck by how quiet the halls are. It seems too easy in a world where nothing is.

"Where are we going?" she whispers to him, and he finds himself ungenerously annoyed. He supposes he should make allowances for her state of mind, but he has never had patience for this kind of helplessness. He ignores her question and tries to hurry her along, glancing down other corridors that cross the one they're currently traversing and looking for anything familiar. He passes what he thinks is the room in which Chang quietly released him but he can't be sure, and he sees no sign of her. A few more twists and turns and he finds himself standing at the foot of another staircase. He figures there's nowhere to go but up.

With Rose following behind him he makes his way through the upper level. He's got his bearings now, and he moves faster, ignoring the soft noises of protest coming from behind him. A right, another right, and now he sees people, a few stray men in suits wandering the hall, a woman leaving a room and shutting the door behind her. He ignores them and if they notice his unusual speed they don't say anything that he can hear, he's already passed, heading for the door that comes out behind the bar. He has no idea what he'll find on the other side or what they're going to do about the people standing between them and the exit but he doesn't have much time to consider. He's taken the dive and there's nothing left to do but hope he gets a soft landing.

He comes through the door quick and clean, keeps his head down and his pace casual. Rose keeps pace with him but she can't shake the wide-eyed, terrified look in her eyes and she sticks out in the crowd like a bloodstain in the snow. But they're going to make it. They're moving fast and no one has darted across their path to stop them. Draco scans the crowd with his eyes while they pass through. He doesn't see Pansy anywhere. There's a sigh of relief lost somewhere between steps. He pays for his loss in concentration when a stunning spell goes whizzing past his nose so close that he can smell the devil's sulfurous cologne. One misstep and he may as well call his mother and say goodbye, because there's muscle behind them now and they're closing in fast.

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