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survival is a talent

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Harry of course intends to fill his friends in on everything that happened last night, but all the things that happened last night means he oversleeps and has to rush to get ready and down to the great hall in time to get to class.

This close to class starting, the great hall should be mostly empty, but instead it’s mostly full, and everyone is reading the Daily Prophet. That can’t be good. He heads over to his cluster of friends. Even Hermione hasn’t left for class yet. “What happened?”

Everyone lowers their papers to look at him. He flinches, not sure why, an instinctual twitch to accompany the tension along his spine.

They all share a quick glance and it’s Ron that starts by gently saying, “Harry-”

Something collides into his side and it’s only his quidditch training that lets him stay upright as Draco grabs his shoulders and demands, “Did you see?”

“See what?” he asks. He means for it to come out as irritated, but Draco’s too pale and there are lavender bruises beneath his eyes, which isn’t unusual, but him not glamoring them away is, so mostly it comes out as plaintive.

Draco shoves the paper at him just as Hermione says, “Draco, really, what’s gotten into you?”

He reads the headline once, then twice in case his brain is playing tricks on him, but it stays exactly the same.

Horace Slughorn is dead.

Harry feels a jolt of grief. He hadn’t known him very well, but he’d been nice to him, and he’d been a Mother, just like him.

“His head is missing,” Draco says. “He was murdered last night.”

He blinks for several long seconds, trying to make that make sense, and failing. “Even if – he’s a Mother, or was one, no one needs his head to summon him! What’s the point of that?”

“Unless that wasn’t the point. Unless it was more for form than function,” he points out.

“She wouldn’t,” he says, even though he doesn’t know her at all, even though Archer Damsa had been so angry last night. But they’d gotten back so late, he doesn’t know how she’d even had time. She couldn’t have, he doesn’t think, not if Slughorn had been found in time for his death to make the morning edition. “You think he was the one that killed her kids?”

“Don’t you?” he retorts. “Do you know another Mother that would have been around Hogwarts at around the right time?”

“I don’t know many Mothers, actually,” he says, although he has a point. It’s possible there are more running around Britain, but if there are, then surely Dumbledore would have called them in to help them with the cave? Unless, if they did exist, they weren’t the type of people who’d be willing to help. “It could be.”

Draco scoffs and Neville says, “Uh, guys, is there something you want to tell us?”

Harry looks up and realizes that Blaise, Pansy, and Millie are here too, staring at them and waiting. But a quick glance around shows that everyone is too, which is just rude, actually. They don’t even know that Horace is a Mother, so there’s no reason for them to connect this mysterious death with Harry except that mysterious deaths are often connected to him, but whatever.

They’re right, which is the annoying part.

“Not here,” Draco mutters.

There’s a wave of disappointed faces. Harry’s about to agree with him when the doors to the great hall blast open with a dramatic bang, revealing Nanaia standing there, Sharon and Catalina on either side of her. “Albus,” she growls, and she’s not using sonorous, but the hall has gone so completely silent that it echoes through it anyway. “What the fuck is going on?”

Dumbledore doesn’t wince or pale or anything like that, but his mouth does press itself into a thin line. “Nanaia. This isn’t the time.”

Catalina twirls her flute around her fingers and says sweetly, “I’ll summon every ghost who has so much as passed through this place since the foundation was poured. Or you can explain yourself.”

Dumbledore’s face tightens. The rest of the professors’ faces are carefully blank, even McGonagall’s, and Harry’s not sure what to make of that. Surely someone should be saying something. Surely they’re not all going to listen to someone stand there and threaten Dumbledore without even scowling about it? Even Nicolas isn’t doing anything, although instead of blank he looks satisfied, which makes no sense at all.

What is going on?

“My office,” Dumbledore says after a long moment of tense silence. “The first class of the day is supposed to start soon.”

Nanaia gives a sharp nod, then with eerie accuracy turns to look straight at him. Harry has to resist the urge to duck and hide behind his boyfriend. “Harry,” she says, “come with us. This concerns you too.”

He squeezes Draco’s hands and smiles at his friends before getting up to walk over to her. On one hand, he’s never going to turn down the opportunity to be included in a meeting about something that’s about him, but on the other hand, now everyone in the great hall is going to feel justified in thinking he’s involved in some way.

He waits until they’re halfway to Dumbledore’s office to ask, “Did you hear about the centaur?”

Catalina wrinkles her nose. “Is that the opening to a joke?”

“Why would I joke right now?” he presses. “You guys are terrifying.”

Sharon looks him up and down quickly. “You’re not terrified.”

“I have a different baseline than most people, and also none of you are trying to be scary at me, because if you were I’m sure you could manage it. Is that a no on the centaur then? It’s not a joke, it’s a real question.”

Catalina and Sharon share glance. The fact that he’s tall enough that they can’t quite do it over his head and they have to lean forward to look around him kind of ruins any sort of subtly it was supposed to have, but Catalina says, “Tell us about the centaur.”

Nanaia is still staring straight ahead, not really acknowledging them, and she stays that way as Harry quickly fills them in on the events of last night. “Uh, do you think-”

“It wasn’t Damsa,” Nanaia says flatly. “She’s got a temper but she’s not like that. If she didn’t kill him the first time around, she’s not going to kill him now.”

“So it was Slughorn then?” Harry presses. “Why would he do that?’

Nanaia doesn’t answer and Catalina squeezes his shoulder. “Horace wasn’t so nervous for no reason, Harry. It wasn’t – he didn’t do it willingly.”

“Either time,” Nanaia says grimly. The statue that guards the entrance to Dumbledore’s office doesn’t wait for the password before jumping aside.

Harry blinks, stunned into stillness for a moment before hurrying after her. “What do you mean? It happened twice?” There’s a beat of silence, during which he calls himself an idiot, then says, “You think it was Slughorn who killed Cobalt?”

“It explains some things,” Nanaia answers shortly.

“And then what? Went home and killed himself? Even if he hadn’t been in control of himself, it’s not like he could he could have cut his own head off!”

There’s a moment of silence. They step into Dumbledore’s office and Fawkes gives a single trilling hello.

“Except he could have,” Harry continues. Slughorn was a Mother. A Mother doesn’t linger in the mortal plane after death, can’t even if they wanted to, but in the moments between dying and passing on to the last plane of existence, there’s little a Mother couldn’t do, with the power of death so easily at their fingertips. Cutting the head off his own body would have been easy. “But why?”

“You’re assuming it was his choice,” Nanaia says.

Okay, he hasn’t gotten that far in his necromancy studies, not compared to them, but this stuff is basic. “Imperio would have broken with death! So would have a potion or – or anything else!”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you.” She doesn’t say it either like a joke or like she’s making fun of him. It’s almost like she’s talking more to herself than to him.

“Harry,” Sharon says, a look on her face that puts him even more on edge. “Why were you even out gathering bones piecemeal for? They’re no good if they’re not mostly intact.”

“Oh, it wasn’t to reanimate, it was for the chimera-esque monster thing,” he explains. “I felt bad about killing animals to try it, so I was going to modify the spell to just use the bones instead of flesh.”

Now all three of them are staring at him. “What are you talking about?” Catalina asks finally.

“Uh, the – the spell where you make something new? It’s in the book you gave me?” He glances at Nanaia, but then he amends, “Well actually, I’m not sure which of you gave it to me, but, that one.”

Another quick series of glances between them and then Sharon says, “Harry. None of us sent you a book.”

“But,” he starts, then shakes his head. He summons the book instead of arguing with them, pulling out the note it had come with since he’s been using it as a bookmark. “Here.”

They’re all Mothers, so Catalina doesn’t ask permission before taking it from his hands. She freezes and for a moment Harry’s worried it’s hurting her for some reason, but then she says, “This is bound in a Mother’s skin.”

“That makes sense,” he says as they all recoil. He frowns. There is something he’s missing here, something so obvious all of them know about it without having to discuss it, but he doesn’t and he’d really like it if they would fill him in. “What? How’s it different than if it had been bound in anyone else’s skin?”

Nanaia doesn’t answer, instead gingerly taking the book from Catalina’s hands. She touches the edge of the note and says, “Horace, you bastard, was this really the best plan you could come up with?”

Harry stares. “Slughorn sent me the book? Why?”

“Because he was a Slytherin, Harry, and that meant he was clever enough to try and get around an unbreakable vow, and apparently he got desperate enough to risk it despite the consequences.” She whistles and the book opens flat on her hands, the page’s flipping over each other eagerly. Nanaia is concerningly pale, the dark lines of her chin tattoo standing out more than usual. She looks up at him. “Harry, this book is very dangerous.”

He flushes. “I – I thought it was just, you know, weird stuff to try–”

“I wouldn’t try anything in here,” she says grimly, then softens. “Using bones instead of living flesh was a good instinct. It probably would have been fine. But this isn’t like your introductory text, it’s not things you can just try.”

How was he supposed to know? Nothing he’s read so far has seemed that terrible. He wants to defend himself but he doesn’t want to seem childish. Mostly he’s embarrassed. He was anonymously sent a broom in third year and it was looked over from tip to tail for curses, but he gets a necromancy book bound in human skin and doesn’t even question it? He deserves to feel like a child, probably.

Except Nanaia doesn’t banish the book or yell at him. Instead she holds it back out to him and he carefully takes it back into his own hands. He reaches out, trying to feel a difference, poking at the magic lurking in the book, the same magic that had let him know it was bound in human skin in the first place. He’s embarrassed himself enough, so he really shouldn’t say anything, but he can’t help it. “It doesn’t feel cursed or evil or anything.”

Some of the color has returned to her face and Nanaia almost looks like she’s remembered how to smile. “It’s not. Not every dangerous thing is bad. I imagine the Mother who’s skin that is wasn’t exactly a pure innocent soul, but knowledge in and of itself isn’t evil. But you should be careful.”

“You’re not taking it away?” he asks. From their reactions he’d expected to never see it again.

She shakes her head. “What good would that do? Slughorn gave it to you for a reason. If he’d wanted us to have it, he would have given it to us, but he didn’t.” She snaps her fingers and the book opens to about two thirds of the way through. “Whatever’s missing here is probably whatever he wanted you to find.”

“Missing?” he echoes, leaning forward to get a closer look. It takes him a moment to see what she’s talking about.

Two pages have been cut out of the book, so close to the spine that he nearly has to bend the book entirely backwards for him to see them. He runs a finger down the seam and asks, “Who made Slughorn take an unbreakable vow? Do you think it’s related to how he died?”

“Well, it’s not like he could tell us,” Nanaia says dryly. “But yes, I do. He took it after the first incident with the centaurs.”

Harry frowns. He’s not convinced this is all connected, but Nanaia is and she’s never steered him wrong before. “Should we ask Dumbledore?”

There’s a moment of perfect silence that answers that, but she says, “If you think that’s what’s best.”

He raises an eyebrow.

Nanaia doesn’t need much encouragement to speak plainly. He likes that about her. “Albus is my friend. I consider him to be a good man. But I am here because I think he knows something about this that he isn’t telling me. You can ask him about the book and Slughorn and see if he knows something that we don’t. But even if he does, that doesn’t mean that he’ll tell you.”

And it will alert him to trouble and danger that Harry doesn’t necessarily want him aware of if all he’s going to do is get in his way. “Okay, good point. But why are we even talking about this? Why don’t we just ask Slughorn himself?”

Even in death, Mothers can’t be compelled to appear against their will. But if Slughorn has gone to all this effort to try and tell them something, then why wouldn’t he answer them?

“We tried,” Catalina says quietly.

“Oh. Okay, him being unwilling to answer doesn’t even make sense though,” he points out.

Sharon shakes her head and they’re back to the same grim, simmering rage they’d entered the great hall with. “It’s not that he wouldn’t answer. We couldn’t find him. He’s lost.”

Lost. A Mother, lost in the afterlife. So lost that three experienced and powerful Mothers hadn’t been able to find him, one of their own kind.

“How does that even happen?” he asks, bewildered.

“That’s a good question,” Nanaia snarls and for a moment Harry’s terrified that her anger is directed at him but then he turns and sees Dumbledore standing in the doorway.

He banishes the open book back to his room. He knows that Dumbledore can’t read it, but he doesn’t want him looking at it, doesn’t want to take the chance that he’ll be able to sense something off or strange about it.

It ends up being a pointless conversation. Harry gets the impression that Nanaia knew it would be, but came anyway, as if she wants Dumbledore to know that she’s suspicious and pissed even if he refuses to do anything about it.

Sharon and Catalina stand straight backed and firm, nothing of their laughter or friendliness in the hard lines of their mouths. Nanaia asks about Slughorn’s death, about the circumstances of whatever favor he’d always claimed to owe Albus, about what exactly they’d all risked their lives for over the summer and if it’s connected to what happened to Slughorn.

He doesn’t give any real answers and they leave his office in a huff, Catalina sweeping Harry along with her so Dumbledore can’t ask him to stay behind and talk to him alone. Which is a sweet gesture, but he’s in the man’s school, Dumbledore can talk to him alone whenever he likes.

They pause on the steps of Hogwarts, deserted because everyone’s in class, where he really should be. Sharon squeezes Harry’s upper arm and says, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. We’ll keep looking for Horace. There aren’t enough Mothers in the afterlife for him to be unremarkable. We’ll find a trace of him eventually.”

Nanaia hums, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and Sharon looks nervous for the brief moment before she gets her expression under control again. “We’ll do some digging into your book, Harry, to see if we can figure out what Slughorn was trying to tell you. Be careful with it. If you need help, or advice, or just a sounding board for this stuff, then you’re welcome to contact any of us.”

“Being a Mother is a lonely journey,” Catalina drapes an arm around his shoulders to give him a brief squeeze, “but that doesn’t mean you have to walk it alone.”

His eyes burn. Sharon tousles his hair and Nanaia’s anger melts enough that she smiles at him.

It makes him all the more determined to figure out what was going on with Slughorn. He was one of them. He gave Harry a book for a reason, and he’s going to figure out what it is.

~

Considering everything going on, Draco almost skips his lunch meeting, but if Asim is taking the time to actually use his lunch break to meet Draco, then he can’t do that.

They meet at the Three Broomsticks, spell diagrams and cramped arithmancy taking up the page. They’re both drinking butterbeers while they work, and Draco’s pretty sure the only reason Asim isn’t drinking anything stronger is because he’s trying to set a good example. It’s a nice thought, but considering Asim is the one that taught him the spell that burns the effects of alcohol out of his system, it’s a bit too late for that.

“If you want this to work, you’re going to need a chunk of obsidian the size of a house,” Asim is telling him, gesturing with his bottle and splashing it over some of their equations. It’s the ones that had told them their current specification would end in a possible black hole, so he’s not too worried about it.

He thinks back to how expensive the bit had been for the patronus container and winces. “How big of a house? Cottage or manor? I don’t even know how to get a piece that big.”

“You can’t, you’ll have to make it,” he says. “From an active volcano. Cottage size should be fine. Manor sized would be ideal but probably unrealistic. You realize you’re trying to support an entire species indefinitely on this thing right? While making it impossible to tamper with?

Draco ignores the second part and really hopes Asim isn’t saying what he thinks he is. “I have to tap into underground magma and pull up enough to form a perfect sphere of obsidian the size of a house?”

He nods, then pauses, “I mean, maybe you could do it with a couple hundred smaller ones connected by a web matrix, but that’s not the most stable thing in the world, and I get the impression that stability is important to you here. Where did you get the obsidian from last time?”

“The Yokuts in America. They’re fantastic at material manipulation. Do you think they could do this one too?” He’s going to have to talk to his parents about this, or get some investors or something. His investment portfolio is doing pretty good, but even he’s not sure he has the money for that even if he drained it.

He frowns. “I don’t know if they have access to the type of volcano you’d need, although they could probably make the obsidian. I have some contacts in Ethiopa, but I wouldn’t vouch for their material manipulation abilities.”

“Give me the names, I’ll ask, and if the Yokuts can’t do it themselves they might be able to give me the name of someone who can,” Draco says.

Asim scribbles down some names on a corner of parchment then tears it off to hand to him. “You know, I hate to say this, but if you want this done properly and before your grandchildren are born, you’re going to need some help.”

He waves the names Asim had just handed him. “I know, I’m looking for it.”

“Not suppliers,” he corrects, “help. You’re good, I’m good, we could probably get Filius to join us which would certainly speed things along. But we’re not experts at material manipulation or magical forging.”

It takes Draco several seconds to figure out what he’s talking about it. “The goblins? You’re crazy. They never take commissions from wizards. Even if they did, I certainly couldn’t afford them.” He’s more likely to be able to afford to buy a whole volcano than custom goblin work.

He shrugs. “Usually wizards are asking them to make things just to stroke their own ego. You’re trying to make something to help. It’s worth a shot.” He flushes, but gives a grudging nod. It’s not like it’ll hurt to ask. Or it might, but just his pride when they laugh in his face. “About the spell building.”

“Oh no,” he says, because Asim still looks grim, so he’s assuming it’s not good news.

He rolls his eyes. “Relax. I’m working on it. But, again, I’m busy, and I’m good at this, but I’m not an expert.”

“All the official spell builders are assholes,” he says, and doesn’t specify which country’s he’s talking about because it’s true for all of them. “No way they’d help with something like this.”

Asim’s lips twitch, which means he agrees with Draco but he doesn’t want to say it. “I’m not saying you should ask a spell builder. I’m saying you should ask a spell dancer.”

Draco stares for a moment then leans over to grab Asim’s butterbeer, giving it a suspicious sniff and then a small sip. “It’s not poisoned. Are you really drunk off of half of one butterbeer?”

“Give that back.” He tugs it out of Draco’s hand. “I’m serious.”

“Who do you expect me to ask? If I knew any spell dancers, I’d have asked them. If I had anyone within six degrees of separation of a spell dancer, I’d ask. They can’t be bought, Asim, it doesn’t matter how much money I have.” Most spell dancers worked for temples or governments and were not even a little bit interested in helping anyone else.

“Your soulmate is Harry Potter,” Asim says mildly.

Draco gives that a second, just in case it starts making sense. “He doesn’t know any spell dancers either, and I’m pretty sure they don’t care who he is. Believe me, I’m not above throwing Harry’s position around if I thought it would help us.” Harry hates attention that he doesn’t feel as if he’s earned, but Draco knows he’d use it for this, for something this important, if Draco asked.

“He’s Tamil, isn’t he?” Asim asks. “That’s where the Bharatanatyam spell dancers are.”

Draco doesn’t throw up his hands, but it’s mostly because he’s still holding his butterbeer. “And? Lots of people are Tamil. It’s not like they all know each other. It’s not like I know everyone in France.” He pauses, because actually, he probably is three people or less away from anybody of note in France. Judging by Asim’s face, he knows it too. “Okay, that was a bad example, but you know what I mean.”

“He’s a Parseltongue, he’s famous, he’s Harry Potter,” Asim lists off. “If they’re going to do it for anyone, it might be him. A spell dancer can do in months what will takes us years, if we’re lucky.”

He’s right. Draco looks down at his butterbeer. “I should have ordered something stronger.”

“You’re sixteen,” Asim points out.

“It’s Rosmerta,” Draco says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t get served, it just means I pay double.”

If everyone was as easy to bribe it would make his life a lot easier.

~

Ron probably didn’t intend for getting ready for his date with Lavender to be subject to peer review, but they can only silently watch him change shirts for so long.

“Slacks and a button down is the way to go, his shoulders look huge when he’s dressed formally,” Dean says, shaking the aforementioned trousers in his fist.

Seamus scoffs. “His shoulders look huge all the time because they’re huge. It’s Lavender, do you think she wants anything that stuffy? Jeans and a long sleeve pushed up to his elbows. He has to show off his forearms.”

“He does have nice forearms,” Dean mutters, frowning. “But he can always roll up the sleeves of the button up, that’s not a compelling argument.”

Ron is sitting in the middle of his bed in his underwear, his face buries in his hands. Harry tries to feel bad for finding this hilarious but it’s difficult since it is, in fact, hilarious.

“Um,” Neville says uncertainly. “Does it matter, really? We’ve all known each other since we were eleven. Lavender knows what he looks like.”

They turn equally scandalized looks in his direction. “He still has to be seen making an effort!” Seamus says. “Just because Lavender is a sure thing doesn’t mean he shouldn’t make himself look nice for her.”

Ron shifts his hands just enough to say, “Don’t talk about her like that.”

“You’re so proper,” Dean coos. “It’s sweet, but she literally announced her intention to ride you like a broomstick in the great hall. There’s no pretense here. If you weren’t insisting on taking her on a real date, what you’re wearing wouldn’t matter because you’d be spending it naked.”

“Shut up,” Ron says and reaches behind him for his pillow and attempts to smother himself with it.

Harry decides to take pity on him. “We could ask Pansy here if you want? Or Draco.”

Ron shakes his head then holds out his hand. “Jeans and button up,” he says, his voice coming out muffled from behind the pillow. “No more talking about this.”

“Acceptable,” Dean and Seamus announce in unison.

Ron lowers the pillow.

“Make sure you wear nice underwear, since she’ll probably be seeing it,” Neville says with perfect sincerity.

Harry barely has the time to register the betrayed look on Ron’s face before he’s hiding it behind his pillow.

~

Draco loves their classroom. They’ve been hanging out there since second year, first him and Harry, and then the rest of them, and it’s seen them through a lot. But its probably time for an upgrade.

He stands in the middle of the shrieking shack. Winky had cleaned it this morning and removed all the furniture so there was nothing in there to get in the way of their spellwork. Hermione and Pansy are sitting in front of him, the rest of their friends busy at Hogsmeade. He’s pretty sure Hermione’s just here because she’s not interested in sulking in her room and doesn’t want to risk running into Lavender and Ron on their date, but he’s not going to complain about the extra help.

Blaise had said that Lavender does genuinely like Ron, which is good for Ron and possibly less good for Hermione. Whatever. He’s not Harry and he’s trying not get involved. Meddling in George and Cassius’s love life was more than enough for him.

“We should strip the wallpaper, I think,” Pansy says, squinting down at her own plans. “The runes will work just as well as covered as not, and if we put it on the bare wall and then put wallpaper or paint on top of it, it’ll be that much harder for anyone to undo this in the future.”

He wrinkles his nose. He wishes she’d told him that earlier, he would have asked Winky to do that too while she was here. “If you’re worried about permanence, we could carve them into the wall.”

“Too easy to find. What’s the point?” Pansy complains.

Hermione bites her bottom lip as she reads over the ward designs Pansy had completed over the summer. “We should start with the foundation work anyway, we can figure out what to do with the walls when we get there.”

Draco glances over Pansy’s plans. They’re so intricate that he thinks she took handmaking all that lace for Cho’s wedding dress a little personally, but he’s not suicidal so he doesn’t say that aloud. “Hermione, which of this do you want to do?”

“Well, I’m not the one that’s spent the past year studying warding under Flitwick, so nothing loadbearing,” she says, pushing her sleeves to her elbows. “How long do you think this is going to take?”

He looks to Pansy, who frowns, looking down at the several feet of parchment and her very small handwriting. “We can get the first layer done today if you’re not a bitch about it. This isn’t healing, it’s not like you have to worry about overlayering them.”

“Okay, but Hermione and I still need to be able to walk after,” he points out. “If I collapse with magical exhaustion, Poppy will kill me.”

“Sounds counterproductive,” Pansy sniffs. “Don’t power them, just lay the groundwork. You should have enough magic for that. Then just get Harry in here.”

He wonders if at some point Harry’s going to get sick of them treating him like a battery. “Laying them without activating them is about twice as hard as just doing it as we go, and it’s not like you’ve exactly made these simple to begin with.”

Pansy waves a hand dismissively, already taking out her wand to start banishing the wallpaper. “You two like a challenge. Have fun.”

He looks to Hermione, who’s mouth twitches into an almost smile, and she says, “We do like a challenge.”

“Merlin,” he sighs. “All right, let’s do this.”

~

Harry comes back early from Hogsmeade because Draco sends him a patronus asking for his help with the shrieking shack. He doesn’t understand any of the things that were scrawled across everything, but luckily he doesn’t have to. He and Draco make out in the chamber of secrets after, which is very nice, and Harry almost suggests that they spend the night down there. Except. Somebody has to stay up to harass Ron, and it’s obviously not going to be Hermione.

Luckily for him, and probably unluckily for Ron, he and his dormmates are all on the same page.

It’s something approaching three in the morning when Ron sneaks into the room, softly closing the door and walking on his toes. It’s a pretense that’s wholly unnecessary since they all throw the curtains around their bed open at the same time, lumos charms lighting their wands.

Ron screams. It’s fantastic.

“Ronald Weasley,” Neville says in a passable imitation of Mrs. Weasley, “where have you been?”

Ron turns a bright, deep crimson. “That’s not – I don’t have to – why?”

“You’re so flustered,” Seamus says. “Did you lose something, perhaps? Like your vi-”

Dean covers his boyfriend’s mouth, but he’s laughing while he does it, so the effects a little negated.

“I’m sleeping in the common room,” Ron says, turning like he plans to do just that. He pulls on the door and when it doesn’t open he turns to glare at him. “Harry!”

“Did you have a nice time?” he asks, only a little bit mocking and mostly sincere. He’s not undoing the locking charm because then they’ll have to move this to the common room and teasing Ron when it’s just them is one thing and doing it where other people – including the girl Ron was just with – might overhear them is another thing entirely.

He wonders if they’re doing something like this in the girl’s dorms. Lavender’s had enough late nights that it’s probably not remarkable anymore, and she’s sharing a room with Hermione, so maybe not.

No one else says anything and they all lean forward, waiting.

He struggles for a moment, managing to somehow turn an even deeper shade of red. “Yes. And that’s all I’m saying about it.”

They whoop and cheer and Ron buries his face in his hands. Neville’s grin slides off his face. “Um. You know Lavender is probably – I mean, I know more about Cormac McLaggen that I’d like to, is all. She’s not known for her, er, discretion.”

Oh, that’s a good point. If Ron really cares about keeping things private, he’s going to want to talk to Lavender fast.

He lifts his head and his blush has receded enough that now he’s just tinged pink. His mortification ebbs a little more as his mouth twitches for a moment before curling into a reluctant smirk. “That’s fine,” he says. If he’s trying to keep the smugness out of his tone, he’s doing a bad job of it.

There’s a beat of silence then Seamus shrieks, “Ronald! Really? Nothing to be ashamed of, eh?”

Uhg, now Harry’s the one getting embarrassed.

“Lavender can do what she wants,” Ron says. “I’m not talking about this anymore. If you want details, you can ask her for them. Why me? How come you didn’t do this for everyone else?”

“Well,” Deans says, “you all knew when Seamus and I started sleeping together. Unfortunately.”

“Unfortunately,” they all echo. There’s been a few nights when sleeping in the common room had seemed appealing for all of them.

Seamus rolls his eyes. “Anyway. We didn’t know about Harry’s because he was having his little star crossed secret love affair,” while not exactly inaccurate, he would love if it if his relationship with Draco was never described like that again, “and Neville’s happened over the summer.” Dean’s eyes widen and he slaps him in the arm. Seamus looks offended for a moment before his own words seem to catch up with him and he claps his hands over his mouth.

Wait.

What?

“Neville!” Harry shouts. “Who? When? You spent your whole summer with us!”

Neville cringes. “Er, well thing is, actually. Um.”

“Merlin,” Ron says, his nose scrunched up. “Really? Him?”

Harry stares at him. Who is he talking about? How did Ron make the connection that quickly? Ron’s oblivious except for all the times that he’s really, really perceptive but Harry doesn’t see how any of that was enough to go off of.

“It’s a secret!” Neville says, eyes wide and pleading.

Ron blinks, gesturing to Dean and Seamus. “Clearly it’s not!”

“Not that it happened,” he says hurriedly. “Who it happened with. Don’t say it.”

He scowls. “Why the hell-”

“It’s not serious! It wasn’t serious and that’s fine and we didn’t want to make things weird,” he says. “Ron, please.”

He throws up his hands. “Alright, alright! I’ll keep it a secret!” There’s a moment of awkward silence. Harry’s pretty sure he’s the only one in the room that doesn’t know now. Or, well, actually, Dean and Seamus also look confused, so maybe they’re missing this too. Ron breaks it by saying, “At least it wasn’t my sister. I was worried about that for a bit.”

Neville flings the curtains around his bed shut with a wave of his hand. Clearly embarrassment is a good motivator for his wandless magic. They can never tell Snape that. “Goodnight!”

“Sorry Neville!” Seamus calls out. He sighs. “Tonight was just supposed to be about embarrassing Ron.”

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve learned your lesson?” Ron asks dryly.

Seamus blinks. “What lesson?” Dean flicks his wand and the curtains shut around them.

Ron looks to Harry, who just shrugs. “I’m glad you had a nice time?”

Ah, there’s that blush again. “Shut up. Please.”

Harry mimes zipping his mouth shut, but his amusement must be a little too obvious anyway, because Ron throws his pillow at his face.

~

The next morning Lavender is sitting at the Gryffindor table surrounded by a group of girls, all them whispering, but they stop when they catch sight of Ron. A lot of those looks are contemplative in ways that Harry really wishes he didn’t understand.

Hermione’s at the other end of the table, her nose buried in her book.

“Lavender,” he murmurs as they walk past. He pauses to lean down, clearly intending to kiss her cheek.

She leans back and grabs his shirt, yanking him down so he has to brace himself against the table to keep from falling on top of her. She pushes herself up and quickly pulls Ron in to kiss him square on the mouth. Ron leans into and even deepens it before seeming to remember that they’re in public and jerking back. Lavender has an arm around his neck, so he doesn’t get very far.

“Lavender!” He sounds appalled, which Harry thinks is pretty rich considering he’s the one who added tongue.

“Yes, Ronniekins?” she asks, batting her eyelashes and jutting her lower lip out in a pout.

He glares. “You’re not cute.”

“Oh?” She lets go of him and sits upright, studying her bright purple nails as if she’s looking for and failing to find an imperfection. “Okay then. Prove it.” He bites his bottom lip. Harry’s seen Ron mad before, and he’s seen him on the edge of laughing, and it’s clear which one this is. “Well? Go on then. Since I’m not cute.”

He rolls his eyes then leans down again. Lavender is pointedly facing away from him, so Ron reaches out and uses two fingers against her jaw so she’s looking at him. Her lips part but he doesn’t move, just says, “You’re cute. You know you’re cute.”

“I know I’m cute,” she confirms. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Well,” he leans that much closer and Lavender eagerly tips her head back. “I was wondering if you wanted to go on a date?”

Instead of being pleased, despair flashes across her face. “Again? We already did that!”

“We can do it more than once,” Ron says mildly.

Her mouth pulls up on one side. “Oh, I know that, Ronniekins.”

Harry can’t tell if this is the worst or best thing that’s ever happened to him. On one hand, this is hilarious. On the other, as much as he likes teasing Ron, he doesn’t actually want to know anything about what goes on behind closed doors.

“I’m taking that as a yes,” Ron says, then kisses her again, although this time he keeps it chaste before breaking away and continuing to the other side of the table, sitting down across from Hermione like nothing had happened.

“She’s creating a monster,” Dean says, but he sounds impressed.

Clearly, the sentiment of Lavender being able to do what she wants extends past gossip.

On the bright side, Cormac looks miserable, and that makes up for an awful lot.

~

Monday morning arrives and Lavender drinks her tea while outright sitting in Ron’s lap. She abandons him to eat with her friends as soon as she puts her cup down, but it’s the principal of the thing.

“Wow,” Draco says, “I’m going to have to make out with Harry with on the professors’ table at this rate.”

“If you’re trying to out shameless Lavender, don’t bother,” Blaise says, yawning. “She thinks a reputation is what people care about when they have nothing else of value.”

“I’m jealous,” Pansy sighs. “She’s doing what I would do if I didn’t have things like and investment portfolio or a public brand.”

Daphne leans over, eyebrows raised. “What is this, Victorian England? She kisses boys in public, it’s not exactly a striptease for the society pages. Your great grandmother just floo’d, she wants her sensibilities back.”

“Spoken like someone who doesn’t often get featured in the society pages,” Draco says, but without any bite. “It’s not what she’s doing, it’s how they’ll blow it out of proportion. You remember what they said about Hermione, and that’s based on literally nothing. They always take what’s there and run with it, and Lavender gives them a lot more to work with than is probably advisable for someone from her kind of family background.”

“If they’re going to lie about you, might as well give them something to lie about,” Blaise says. “That’s how my mother did it before the society pages got too afraid to lie about her.”

Millie pauses mid bite, her slice of waffle held over the table and dripping syrup. “You don’t think Lavender is taking after your mother on purpose, do you?”

Now that’s a terrifying thought.

The fact that Blaise doesn’t immediately deny it makes it worse.

“Hm.” He reaches over and wipes up the syrup in front of Millie, gently nudging her wrist until her hand is once more over her plate. “Perhaps. She’s clever enough for it and easily bored. One of these days my mother is going to marry someone for the last time.”

Lavender Brown as the new Zaira Zabini. That’s a thought.

She’d play the role a little more flashy, but well. If they’re paying attention to who she’s sleeping with and how much of a flirt she is, then they’re not paying attention to anything else, usually.

“I didn’t know Lavender was clever,” he grouses.

“That is, in case you missed it, the point,” Blaise says.

Draco considers flicking his egg at him in response, but if they show up covered in food to Snape’s class, there will be no mercy.

Unfortunately, and against his wishes, he actually likes Snape’s class these days. Defense hasn’t been this interesting since Lupin taught it.

He’s been after the position for years, so maybe that shouldn’t be so strange, but it is. Quinn has gone completely off book in potions, introducing several clever concepts that Draco feels like an idiot for not thinking of himself. His only solace is that Hermione is equally frustrated with herself, so at least he’s not alone.

The strange thing is that if Quinn knows about these shortcuts, then Snape has to too. Millie’s taken the stance that Snape was the one who taught them to zir, which would make sense, except if he’s the one who discovered them, why wouldn’t he teach them to all of them? Why just zir? If they were dangerous then Quinn wouldn’t be teaching them, but ze is, and it just doesn’t make sense.

It’s the least of his worries now, realistically, but it bothers Draco enough that he ends up staying behind after potions, shooing his friends away because there’s a chance Quinn will be more likely to answer honestly if ze doesn’t have an audience. “Mister Malfoy,” ze says, raising an eyebrow.

“I have a question,” he says.

Ze looks pointedly around the empty classroom. “You ask plenty of questions during class, so is this one for Professor Silva or your good friend Quinn?”

“Whichever one will answer me,” he says. Quinn rolls zir eyes but gestures at him to continue. “Where did you learn all this? Was it Snape? And if he knew, then why didn’t he tell us?”

A strange look comes over zir face and ze rubs the bridge of zir nose which also obscures most of zir face, which Draco assumes was the actual point. Ze sighs then goes around to zir desk and opens the bottom drawer. Ze pulls out three books and drops them on top of the desk with a thump. “Go on.”

Draco throws zir a suspicious look, but picks up the first book while glancing at the rest of the titles. They’re the beginner, intermediate, and advanced potions texts, although by their editions he’d guess they were a decade or two out of date.

He flips open the first one and stares, blinking a couple times in case his eyes are playing tricks on him, but nothing changes. It’s a mess. Notes and commentary fill the margins, derisive and brilliant. He flips through it, and every page is the same, and the handwriting changes by the time he’s halfway through the intermediary book, turns angled and scrawling, and so very familiar.

“When Severus applied for his potions mastery, this is what he submitted for consideration,” Quinn says, and it’s so strange to hear someone sounding so fond when talking about Snape. “He didn’t even rewrite them to be organized, didn’t bother updating his opinions from when he was twelve, and declined to do a practical demonstration. He just submitted his old school books that he’d annotated as a student and let them decide whether or not he was deserving of a mastery. They hate him, you know. He won’t publish any of this and since it’s on record as being his work, since it was his mastery assessment, no one else can publish it either. He won’t even patent his potions under his own name. He mostly fulfills his requirements as a Hogwarts professor by attending conferences and refusing to speak at them. Honestly, I think part of the reason they were willing to hand me my mastery without forcing me to jump through all the hoops is they know we’re friends and they were hoping I could change his mind.”

Twelve. Snape starting tearing apart these potions and building them back up when he was twelve.

He can’t believe he’s going to develop an inferiority complex over Snape, of all people.

“That doesn’t explain anything,” he says irritably. “That makes even less sense. Why would he go to all that trouble not to be recognized?”

Quinn hums, running a hand over the spine of the advanced book. “If you ask him, he’d say it was because he didn’t want draw too much attention to himself while working for Voldemort. It’s logical. If he’d known what Severus was capable of, that wouldn’t have ended well for anyone.”

“If you ask him,” Draco echoes. “That makes it sound like you think it’s something else.”

“He’s letting me compile his notes,” ze says. “He offered to let me list myself as a co-author, but it gives me too much credit since I’m not really adding anything myself. I’ll be listed as editor or something. You guys are mostly my test subjects for a lay person’s ability to follow the modified directions.”

Quinn is talking like that actually answers his question when it really, really doesn’t. “If you don’t start making sense, I’ll cry.”

“You’re one of my best students,” ze says. “You should understand the importance of timing. Speaking of, you’re late for your next class.”

Fuck, he totally is. “Thank you for that very confusing answer. I’ll think of you while crying myself to sleep.”

“Anytime,” Quinn says cheerfully and Draco rolls his eyes before adjusting his bag against his shoulder and running. He’s already late, but if he hurries then he can be forgivably late.

The timing of it fits if Snape hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself, since he’s been publicly outed as a spy, like Snape would say himself, apparently. The timing of it fits if it’s Quinn pressuring him, like the potions masters board hoped ze would.

But it can’t be either of those things, because if it was, Quinn would have just answered him instead of being cryptic and weird.

Great. He’s more confused than he was before he asked.

~

Theophania usually spends RA meetings in the giant statue of Zarathurstra’s head, but for this one she’s curled up along the edge of the wall and she’s watching them. Through her inner eyelids, of course.

You’re making them nervous,” Harry tells her when Colin messes up the shielding spell for the third time.

Nagini darts between several people as she crosse the chamber. Several of them scream and jerk away, but she’s not paying any attention to them. She curls the lower half of her body around his legs and Harry resigns himself to the very undignified dance he’ll have to do later to extricate himself from around her. “She knows. She’s doing it on purpose.”

He sighs. “Any particular reason?

If they can’t do it when they’re nervous, they won’t be able to do it combat,” Theophania says.

Which is true enough, but. “I’m really just trying to get them to do it at all at this point.”

Snakes can’t sigh, but Theophania conveys the same sentiment anyway before pointedly turning her head away from them.

“Aw, is Harry being mean to you?” Draco coos, breaking form to head over to Theophania. He climbs onto her back to scratch at the scales at the base of her neck. Several people flinch while almost everyone looks horrified. Harry’s seen it too many times to be feel anything besides exasperation. “I understand, he’s mean to me too.”

Hey, what about me?” Nagini demands, unwinding herself from Harry to go harass Draco.

“Was he always like this?” Padma asks, waving a hand towards wear Draco is still draped on top of one giant magical snake while the other smaller, but still extremely large, magical snake settles her head on top of his back.

“Yes,” everyone from Slytherin answers at once. Harry doesn’t laugh but it’s a near thing.

Parvati steps forward to slap him on the back. “Rough for you, I guess. You’re only an extremely rare Parselmouth, why should the basilisk or Nagini be interested in you, right?”

“Well, Draco’s my favorite too,” he admits, “so it’s not like I can blame them.”

The RA lets out a collective groan, except for Cho, who’s laughing.

“I think I liked it better when you were pretending not to be dating,” Justin says mournfully.

He rolls his eyes and claps his hands together. “Okay, enough of that. Pay attention to me, not my boyfriend. Unlike most of you, he already knows this spell, so he’s not who you should be worried about right now.”

They fall in line easily enough after that. He keeps an eye on them, but luckily this is a spell with relatively low blowback even when cast incorrectly, which is why he’s allowing them to all cast it at the same time instead of breaking them up into groups like he does for the more dangerous or complicated spells.

He glances at Ron and Hermione, who are practicing together like they always do. Lavender is practicing with Cormac, also like she usually does, but he does it because he’s still not over her and she agrees because she likes hexing him, so he’s not sure it’s the best dynamic.

Hermione is pointedly, obviously not saying anything about Ron dating Lavender. Harry wants to ask her about it, because they sometimes sort of talk about it so it wouldn’t be completely out of nowhere, but he has no idea what he’d even say, so he keeps his mouth shut. Pansy and Millie took her out with them the last Hogsmeade weekend without the rest of them, so he hopes she’s talking to them at least.

He’s so, so grateful for Pansy and Millie. If it weren’t for them, Harry doesn’t know who would handle this level of friend not-drama. Ginny has never met a situation she couldn’t brute force her way through and Luna tends to give her advice in obscure metaphors, to the point where sometimes he doesn’t even realize its advice until several days later. Granted, Hermione’s a lot smarter than he is, so that might not be a problem for her.

The point is, the situation is at once better and worse than when Hermione was dating Viktor. Because Ron was furiously jealous, but it was tempered by the fact that he legitimately liked Viktor and was friends with him. Hermione and Lavender, on the other hand, are friendly because they have to be and don’t dislike each other, of course, but they’re not really friends either. Hermione doesn’t do furious jealousy, Harry doesn’t think. Or maybe she does and Harry’s just not great at recognizing it, which is depressingly possible.

His friends’ love life stresses him out. They both obviously like each other so he doesn’t understand what the problem is or why they keep dating other people. But he also recognizes he’s biased, since he and Draco through their lot in with each other before it occurred to them that they didn’t have to do that, and then when it did it was too late because they were already in love.

There’s a yelp of pain as several Hufflepuffs get a rebound. Draco looks over, but they’re barely singed, so Harry waves him away as he walks over to talk them through the wand movements again. He likes teaching the RA better this year than last year, and he’d still enjoyed it a lot last year. But it’s different now, when the threat of Voldemort isn’t quite so close, and when they actually have a competent defense professor, which, Snape, unfortunately, is.

Draco thinks there’s some sort of mystery or conspiracy going on that’s somehow connected to Snape’s career trajectory, and for once Harry has zero interest in sticking his nose into something, because he doesn’t care and he doesn’t want to care.

Unfortunately, Draco plays dirty, and has already made him promise to ask McGonagall about it at their next bagpipe lesson. Harry’s tried arguing that asking him for favors when they’re naked is cheating, but the problem is that Draco doesn’t actually have a problem with cheating, so the argument doesn’t get him very far.

~

Draco makes an appointment with his account manager and whines at Filius until he agrees to let him use his floo. She’s also his parent’s account manager, and he really shouldn’t be as nervous about this as he is. Elda is downright friendly by goblin standards.

“Young Mister Malfoy,” she says, not looking up from her desk. There’s what looks like a small fortune of rubies in a box on one corner and several thick reports that give him a headache just from looking at them. “What do you want?”

“Mistress Elda,” he greets, staying standing since everything in her office is goblin sized, so he hasn’t been able to fit in the seats since he was about six. Considering how the majority of her clients are much taller than the average goblin, he’s always taken it as to mean she doesn’t wany anyone staying long enough to feel the need to sit. Or that she just wants people to be uncomfortable around her, which fits just as well. “I have a business question. Well, proposition, I guess.”

She stares at him just long enough to make him wish he could apparate out of Gringotts then looks back down at her report. “Well, which is it? A question or a proposition?”

He refuses to be intimidated by her. Not because she isn’t intimidating, but because she’ll respect him more if he at least pretends otherwise. “Depends on your answer, I suppose.” If he leads with custom work, she’ll shut him down before he gets a chance to explain. So instead he pulls a roll of parchment from his robe and holds it out to her.

Elda ignores it for a moment then sighs and snatches it from his hand, unrolling it in one brisk movement. She stills then knocks both the report she’d been reading and the box of rubies off her desk to spread the it out properly. He agonized over drawing out those plans for hours, putting in as much detail as he could conceivably fit, diagraming out not only the obsidian but the proposed spell array, although of course that was pending them actually being able to create a spell that would do exactly what it was they needed it to do. She spends maybe a minute looking it over, her finger moving across it in what he thinks are corrections, then glances up at him.

He’s expecting her rage and derision, so her pity throws him. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Okay,” he says cautiously.

“These are decent schematics,” she says before her lip curls down into a sneer, “given your understanding of the subject.”

She has no idea what his experience is with material manipulation, so he assumes she’s referring to wizards in general. “Thank you.”

“You understand that this has a greater application that the one you intend,” she continues as he if hadn’t said anything. “While it would benefit the house elves, it could be used in other, more dangerous ways.”

He doesn’t even want to think about what Voldemort could do with something like this. At least a philosopher’s stone just gives someone immortality and infinite riches. This is a pathway to potentially infinite power. “All the more reason for it to be goblin made. If we don’t know how exactly you made it, then we can’t replicate it.”

He thinks she looks surprised by that, but she can be hard to read when she wants to be. “That would be fine with you? These plans could launch your career and bring you in a lot of money. If you turn the production over to my people, you’ll never know exactly how it was done. This will become unpublishable.”

Well, that’s disappointing, but. “I’ve already been published once in Charms Review and I’ve got two more articles set to be out before I graduate,” he admits. “I’ll probably end up using the concepts here in something else – I got most of the idea for this from learning how to contain a patronus charm – but I already have clear path to a charms career if that’s what I want, and you know better than me how my accounts are doing. That isn’t what this is about. I have so many choices in my life and I want others to have choices too. I hope that my house elf will choose to stay with me even when she doesn’t have to. But I want that to be a choice she makes without the threat of starvation hanging over her head.”

Elda is quiet for a long moment, smoothing a hand over his plans. She repeats, “You don’t know what you’re asking,” but this time she sounds rueful rather than pitying.

He waits, too worried about saying the wrong thing, so instead he says nothing.

“Goblins don’t do work for wizards anymore,” she says. “You stole from us and until what you stole is returned, there’s nothing I can do for you, even if I wanted to.”

That’s not exactly surprising information. Most of the many goblin wars have occurred over stolen property. “What was stolen?”

Now she’s back at pitying. “The griffin sword.”

“Griffin sword,” he repeats, trying to think back on his history of magic lessons. He doesn’t recognize the name but that doesn’t mean much.

She sighs. “Your people know it as the sword of Godric Gryffindor.”

He opens his mouth, closes it, then says, “Oh.”

Elda doesn’t offer her any more information and he doesn’t ask, but he still hesitates before leaving.

“If you did get the sword,” he starts off with, even though it’s impossible, of course it’s impossible, because no way can he convince of the board of governors to hand over a founder’s sword, “then would you be willing to do it?”

She doesn’t look at him but she does go very, very still. “Good evening, Mister Malfoy.”

“Good evening, Mistress Elda,” he says, because he is capable of taking a hint.

He should absolutely go back to Hogwarts. He promised Filius he’d come straight back.

However, this isn’t something he wants written down, and if he doesn’t start getting answers to some of his questions about something he’s going to have some sort of nervous breakdown.

Fleur and Bill agree to meet him at a muggle café across from the entrance to the Paris catacombs. He doesn’t know Bill very well at all, but he does know Fleur, and he has no problem with asking her to get her soulmate to talk to him on no notice while they’re in the middle of some sort of excavation.

They’re both in dark dragon scale armor and Fleur’s hair pulled back and pinned tightly against her head to stop it from getting in her way. The muggles glance at them before just as quickly looking away. He’s not sure if that’s do to some sort of notice me not spell or if a couple in head to toe shimmery leather just isn’t that notable.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” Fleur scolds, but she’s grinning.

“Whatever,” he says, which means yes. If Bill has any opinions about that, he’s smart enough to keep them to himself. “You said you could explain?”

“You’re lucky it was Elda you were talking to,” Bill says, sitting down across from him next to Fleur. “She’s young enough that she wasn’t there to see it happen, so she tends to take it less personally.”

Draco takes a moment to think about that sort of timeframe and what it means that Elda is considered young, and then stops thinking about it because it makes his head hurt. “I knew Gryffindor’s sword was goblin made. I didn’t know it was stolen.”

Bill winces. “Well, depends on your definition of stolen, I suppose.” Draco glares and he rolls his eyes. “Okay, we do have to get back to doing our job at some point, but here’s the quick version. First, goblins, while intellectually aware that wizards are not one huge monolith, don’t do their dealings that way. Goblins treat a species as if its all one group. It’s part of the reason that in our treaty they aren’t subject to our criminal system. They’re so ruthlessly self regulating that we really don’t need to get involved, even when the infraction involves our own people. That’s because they view an offense committed by one of them to be an offense committed by all of them and so they’re eager to fix it as quickly as possible. So, since they view Gryffindor’s sword as stolen, that makes all of us thieves, and therefore unworthy of doing business with. Banking is different because it’s set up as part of the treaty, which they view as a contract, and goblins always honor a contract.”

Draco remembers this part, vaguely. The last couple of wars had been sparked by counterfeit tender and part of the resolution had been the goblins taking control of the bank and the minting of new money. Goblin forging magic means these days its impossible to counterfeit money, which is something the wizards had never managed despite their best efforts. Of course, it’s also based on a weight system – a galleon is literally worth its weight in gold – because the goblins insisted on their money being backed by something of value rather than paper like the muggles use. It had been controversial at the time, but considering the current muggle inflation rate, the goblins had made the right call.

“This is the short version?” Fleur asks.

Bill ignores her. “The second part is that goblin contracts are always written in Gobbledegook. The practical reason for this is because several key terms have no equivalent in another language. The real reason is that goblins always honor their contracts and other species don’t. They don’t trust other people not to try and play a trick on them, or to put them in an unfavorable position when they know the goblins will fulfill it even if they end up screwed over. So contracts are always in their native language so they know exactly what they’re agreeing to.”

He can see where this is going. “But Gryffindor didn’t know what he was agreeing to?”

“So he claimed. Or, well, his son claimed, since he was dead by the time it became an issue.” Bill frowns. “Obviously I wasn’t there, but I’ve talked to some of the goblins who were, and I’ve been working with goblins since I graduated, and they’re not – they’re clear. My employment contract is in Gobbledegook. They told me exactly what was in it, what each of the terms meant, and under what circumstances the contract could be dissolved. Mum insisted I take it to a barrister who read Gobbledegook before signing, which we definitely couldn’t afford and I think she did it in return for Dad not reporting some muggle objects she’d tampered with, but anyway, it said just what they said it did. Additionally, Rowena Ravenclaw spoke Gobbledegook. There’s no reason to think that he showed her the contract, but there’s also no reason to think that he didn’t. Again, even if he hadn’t, I’d put money on the goblins making the terms clear to him before he signed.”

“What was the problem?” Fleur asks. “Did he not pay them what they were owed?”

Bill sighs. “Lastly and most importantly, goblins believe that the creator owns what they create. With goblin commissions, it’s always on loan. They own what they make. There are two standard terms for a goblin contract. One is the duration of the commissioner’s line, which means as long as there’s a living direct descendant, the object is still on loan. Lots of adoptions back in the day were for the express purpose of keeping goblin made objects from being returned to them. If someone sold a house with goblin work, they’d have to adopt the buyer’s family because otherwise one day they’d wake up and find their staircase missing. People still have to do that now, although it’s not really an issue because the only homes still around with goblin work in them are ancestral homes. For the record, the goblins have never had any problem with this. That follows the rules set out in the contract. It’s not about greed,” Bill says with a sort of desperate earnestness that tells Draco he’s told this story to unsympathetic audience in the past. “It’s about following the contract and staying true to your word, not about keeping everything. There are things that goblins made thousands of years ago that they’ve never gotten back, and they may grumble and roll their eyes about it, but they allow that loophole in their contracts with the understanding that people are going to exploit it.”

“I mean, that seems fair enough,” he offers, which is true but he says it mostly to get Bill to stop looking at him like that.

Some of his manic energy softens. “The other standard term is the duration of the commissioner’s life. They typically collect after the funeral. This option is much, much cheaper than the other one, since it has a definite end while the descendent option has the potential to last functionally forever.”

“Gryffindor chose that one, didn’t he?” Fleur asks grimly.

Bill nods. “Even if he hadn’t, Gryffindor’s line has been dead for centuries. But after his death his son refused to give the sword up, and then at one point it went missing, so it’s just been like this ever since. Goblins stopped taking wizard commission once they didn’t get the sword back when it was owed and that’s the end of it. Of course, most wizards don’t recognize that something can be paid for and used by an individual without actually belonging to them, so most of them don’t even acknowledge that the goblins have a reason for all this.”

Wait.

“Missing?” Draco echoes. “What do you mean missing?”

Bill gives him a strange look. “No one’s seen it in hundreds of years. It’s missing.”

He stares. “Isn’t it in Dumbledore’s office? The one that McGonagall pulled out of the sorting hat so she could finishing beheading Nearly Headless Nick last year? Who I guess is just Headless Nick, now, actually.” The lack of alliteration ruins it a little.

Bill’s mouth hangs open unattractively for a moment before snapping shut. “You – what?”

“I was there,” he shrugs. “Quinn needed me to perform the ghost summoning spell so ze could finish zir ghost solidifying potion. Or at least get further on it or something, I don’t if ze finished it. I haven’t seen any solid ghosts lately.”

“You didn’t tell Elda that did you?” Bill asks anxiously. “I don’t want there to be another goblin war. For many reasons, but also a war is one of the things that dissolves my employment.”

“No, although I asked if she’d take my commission if it was returned. I guess her silence makes a little bit more sense now.” Bill looks green around the edges, enough that even Fleur is starting to look concerned. He guesses this explains why the sword’s return didn’t make any headlines. Possibly because no one wanted to draw attention to it. “This is a good thing, isn’t it? It was missing, now it’s not, we can give it back and everything’s fine.”

“Well,” Fleur says, extending the word so it has several extra syllables. “I suppose that depends on whether the goblins take offense at it being hidden from them. Before, their personal grudge was against people long dead and they weren’t working with us on principal. But if they discover that Hogwarts has been in possession of the sword this whole time and has misled them about it being lost-”

“Fuck,” Draco says, gripping the edge of his nose. “Does Dumbledore know about this?”

Bill just gives him a look, which, alright fair enough.

“Great,” he mutters. “Awesome. My headmaster is a contract breaking thief and that’s why I’m going to be working on material manipulation myself until I’m his age. Fantastic.”

Fleur reaches out to pat his head. “You could steal it back.”

He blinks. “Excuse me?”

“You could steal it back,” Fleur says. “Its in his office. Something you have far more access to than anybody not currently enrolled in Hogwarts. If it’s anonymously left on the steps of Gringotts, well, then where it came from exactly and who knew about it never has to be disclosed, does it? It’s not as if he can do anything after it’s returned without exposing that he had it in the first place.”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Bill says sharply.

“Mm,” Draco hums agreeably. “However, I’ve heard worse.”

Stealing Gryffindor’s sword out from underneath Dumbledore’s nose is impossible. It can’t be done.

Then again, he’s heard that one before. This year has been a little dull. They could all do with a project.

~

Harry wakes up Halloween morning intending to go to the ministry of magic for Sirius’s trial. Draco’s coming with him since apparently Narcissa mentioned it vaguely in two of her letters, which means she wants him to be there even though she’s not going to show up herself. That seems like the type of thing she could just say outright, but Harry’s not going to argue against having his boyfriend’s company.

The ministry is a mess, of course. Today is also the election for the next minister of magic. There are several candidates, but of course it’s down to either Kingsley or Amelia. Thanks to Zaira, Amelia’s been leading in the polls for months, but Kingsley still has a shot at winning.

Luckily, he’s holding Draco’s hand, so when someone grabs the back of his cloak and yanks him into an office, he gets pulled along with him. They both have their wands raised by the time the door slams shut, although the lower them just as quickly.

“Good reflexes,” Tonks says approvingly, her hair alternating streaks of black and orange and nearly to her shoulders.

Percy frowns. “Did anyone see you come in?”

Harry is so confused. “Yes? Lots of people? We came in through the floo.”

“No one important,” Draco says dismissively, because of course he noticed.

There’s a clench of anxiety low in his stomach. “What’s wrong? Is Sirius-”

“Sirius is fine,” Tonks says quickly. “That’s not what this is about.”

“We know about the book,” Percy says. At his blank look, he clarifies, “A Treatise on the Non Traditional Applications of Service to the Lady Who Sits in Your Shadow and Knows Your Name?”

Harry’s been trying to figure out why Slughorn left him that book or what the missing pages are and has failed at every turn. Even Draco’s crazy idea to steal Gryffindor’s sword has started to look more promising. “How do you know about that?” Ginny and Ron do, but it’s not like they go running to Percy to spill their secrets.

“You might want to tell Catalina Cortez that her definition of discreet inquiry could use some work,” Percy says dryly. “That’s not important. There’s another copy of the book, one that hopefully isn’t missing pages.”

“Another copy?” Draco repeats. “It’s handwritten and bound in human skin.”

“The author’s skin, mostly likely,” Harry adds.

Tonks reaches out to ruffle his hair. “Sure is. How much skin do you think a human body has exactly? It’s a bit more than one book’s worth.”

Well – okay, sure, that’s true. “There’s really another copy? Can I see it?”

“Yes, and hopefully.” Percy rubs the back of his neck, looking guiltier than Harry’s ever seen him. Percy doesn’t tend to do things that he’ll feel guilty about later. “There’s a catch. It’s in Russia and currently being guarded by a cursed skeleton in a heavily warded chamber, so once we enter we’ll have to physically be outside of the room before we can portkey or apparate away, so there may be some running involved. I have a contact who can get us to it, but if you manage to get it, you have to hand it over to the Russian magical government. You’ll only have until we have to leave to examine it. Also we’re doing this secretly and semi-illegally and, full disclosure, I’m only doing this because the running theory is that only a necromancer can get to it and if you’re successful my contact is going to owe me a favor, and I could really use that right now for reasons I’m not going to tell you.”

There’s a long moment of silence, then Harry says, “Wow. Tonks, what have you done to him?” If only the Percy he met as a first year could see himself now.

Percy glares but Tonks giggles as she drapes an arm over his shoulders. “He came this way, actually.”

“I suppose even you can’t be this successful at politics without shady international dealings,” Draco says contemplatively.

“Shady international dealings make up a depressing amount of our governance,” Percy sighs. “I’d honestly feel better about it if I was making them on my own behalf, but it’s always to get common sense legislation passed. You don’t want to know what I had to do to get the minimum cauldron bottom thickness increased to safe levels.”

Considering it’s apparently worse than this, that might be true.

“Is that a yes or a no?” Tonks asks. “We have to be back before polling closes otherwise someone is definitely going to notice we’re missing, so there’s a bit of a time crunch here. Draco, it’d draw too much attention if you went to Sirius’s trial and Harry didn’t. You can wait in my office if you want? Kingsley is the only one who goes in there if the door is closed.”

Draco scowls. “Oh, no way, I’m definitely coming, are you kidding me? As if I’d miss this.”

Tonks turns to Percy, who shrugs. “Honestly, if we get caught I’d love for Lucius Malfoy to have a reason to bail us out. I was told that as long as Harry runs out of the line of fire if he can’t handle it, then he’ll be fine, and the rest of us won’t be in danger. Well, physically. Politically, however.”

Draco rolls his eyes, but doesn’t argue.

“Okay,” Harry says eagerly. This is a chance at getting answers that he thought might be lost to him forever. He doesn’t care how stupid or dangerous it is, he has to try. If his boyfriend gets to be there with him, all the better. “I’ll do it, let’s go.”

“We’re portkeying,” Percy warns, reaching behind him to pick up a thick rope and holding it out so everyone can grab on. That almost changes his mind. He hates portkeys. By the amused look on everyone’s faces, they’re well aware and have absolutely no sympathy for him. “Chocolate frogs.”

There’s jerking sensation around his navel, the always horrifying and dizzying sensation of portkey travel, then they’re standing in a cold, dark room. His eyes adjust and he thinks they’re in a basement. “Where are we?”

“Yekaterinburg,” Percy answers, “the Church on Blood, specifically.”

Okay, that’s probably fine and not ominous at all.

Percy is tapping his wand against the wall in some sort of intricate pattern, but Harry’s more focused on the strange look on Draco’s face. He doesn’t get a chance to ask him about it before a door appears in the wall and Percy takes an ornate bronze key out his pocket. He hesitates, turning to look at them. “Last chance to change your mind.”

“Open the door,” Harry says, trying not to sound as impatient as he feels.

Tonks and Percy roll their eyes at the same time and then he’s unlocking the door and pushing it open. They enter another long, dark hallway and then what Harry thinks is a much larger room, but it’s still too dark to see properly.

“What in merlin’s name,” Percy mutters. “Incendio!”

All the torches along the wall light up, casting the room cheerful glow. The first thing Harry sees is a skeleton sitting along the far edge of the wall, a familiar book stuck underneath its ribs, and a thick white line drawn in a circle around it. There are runes carved into its bones that he shouldn’t be able to understand but he does.

The second thing he sees is Bellatrix Lestrange standing there with a half dozen Death Eaters.

Percy automatically turns back to the exit, but there’s another Death Eater standing in front of it.

“Darling,” Tonks says, her wand held in a tight grip, “I think Pete set you up.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Percy snarls, his anger not doing much to hide his fear.

Well. This is unfortunate, but Harry’s been in worse situations. At least he’s not tied to a gravestone this time.

“Aunt Bella,” Draco says, his gaze firmly on his aunt. Harry knows that means he’s trusting the rest of them to watch his back. “What are you doing here?”

“Isn’t it obvious, dear nephew of mine?” she sneers. “Only a necromancer can get that book. Plenty have tried and failed. If Potter succeeds, I’m going to need it.”

Seriously? Is this the only plan they’re capable of? Luring him someplace so he can do their dirty work for them? He doesn’t know how they got anything done during the first war.

“Why would he do that?” Tonks asks. “It seems as if you should have waited until he’d already had it for this little ambush.”

She smiles. There’s nothing outwardly wrong about it. Her teeth are white and straight and even now there’s hints of the beautiful woman she used to be, but it makes Harry shiver anyway. “I’ve always found hostages to be particularly motivating, and you’ve been so considerate as to provide me with an ample supple. I suppose I only really need one of you alive to ensure Potter’s compliance.”

He sees several of the Death Eaters shift forward and snaps, “Draco, shield.” He’s better at offensive than defensive, so if one of them need to maintain a shield and one has to fight, it’s better that it’s Draco.

“Protego maximus!” Draco shouts and immediately a thick blue shield encircles them, just in time to for several bright red spells to bounce off of it. “This won’t hold up against the killing curse.”

“It won’t have to,” Harry says, jerking his head towards the skeleton.

He feels their confusion more than he sees it. Before he has a chance to explain, one of the Death Eaters casts, “Avada kedavra!”

“Don’t move!” Harry snaps, pressing his elbow into Percy’s side. The green light is headed straight for him, and of course Tonks doesn’t listen, yanking Percy behind her. He twists in her grip, trying to make sure he’s the one to take the spell. Draco’s pale, but he holds the shield, which is really what Harry had been worried about, and the sickly green light of the spell passes by them and careens into the skeleton, the runes carved into briefly glowing green before disappearing.

“How did you do that?” Bellatrix snarls.

“I didn’t do anything,” he answers, mostly for his friends’ benefit. “Any death magic performed here is going to be absorbed by that.” It’s probably why no one’s managed to get the book before now. Only a necromancer can retrieve the book and yet it absorbs all necromancy magic. Which means it has be beaten by some other means. If he’s reading those runes right, and there’s no reason that he should be able read them at all, then it also draws strength from the magic it absorbs, so not only is someone fighting against whatever curse is placed on the skeleton to begin with, but against everyone who’s tried and failed to retrieve the book.

Which is just great. Even without the ambush, this is a lot harder.

“Draco,” Tonks says with particular type of calm that puts Harry immediately on edge. “How good are you at healing?”

“Uh,” Draco says, at the same time that Percy snaps, “Dora, no, you can’t.”

“We’re surrounded and the moment this shield is lowered, we’re dead,” she says. “Draco. How good are you healing?”

“Pretty good?” he offers hesitantly. “I learned a lot with Asim over the summer. But between him and Poppy, I mostly just know battle triage and how to heal weird shit.”

“Battle triage and weird shit,” Tonks repeats, and it sounds like she’s smiling. “Maybe we’ll all make it out of this alive after all.”

“Don’t sound so sure,” Bellatrix says, twirling her wand in her hand. “You were right earlier. As soon as that shield is lowered, you’re dead. I think my nephew will be the best incentive for Potter, so you and the Weasley are on borrowed time.”

Tonks acts like she can’t hear her. The circles underneath her eyes deepen and darken and her hair lengthens and turns a mousy brown. She gathers it up, pauses, and Draco wordlessly takes out his own hair tie and offers it to her. “Draco, when I tell you to, drop the shield. Harry, you recast it. Draco’s going to need his strength. You know how to cast a shield charm, right?”

Percy looks like he hates this and Harry’s starting to agree. “Yes.” His aren’t as flexible as Draco’s but they’re stronger, and he assumes that’s what they need now anyway.

She nods and reaches into her pocket. Then keeps reaching, her whole arm practically disappearing into it before she pulls out a sword, which really isn’t what Harry had been expecting. Then daggers strapped to her forearms, then a whip on her hip, and there’s an undercurrent of laughter from the Death Eaters as they watch Tonks arm herself with muggle weapons. She even slides her wand into a holster on her arm instead of holding onto it.

“Tonks, what are you doing?” Harry asks, trying not to sound as panicked as he feels.

“I’m going to need to conserve my magic for something else,” she says before winking at him. Normally that would make him feel better, but not right now. This is insane.

Draco shoots him a look, but Harry shakes his head. He doesn’t know what’s happening either.

Tonks shifts until she’s standing in front of Percy, smiling in spite of everything. “Kiss for luck?”

“You’re Nymphadora Tonks,” he says, voice rough. “You don’t need luck.”

Her smile curls into a smirk and she turns from him.

He reaches out, grabbing her hand and yanking her into him, gripping her hips and kissing the corner of her mouth, right where her smile edges into a smirk. He tries to smile and doesn’t do a very good of it, but he does let her go and goes to stand by Harry, pressing a hand in the center of his back. “On three. Harry, no matter what happens, don’t let the shield drop. No matter what. Understand?”

He nods, really not liking the sound of that. He meets Draco’s eyes, waiting as Tonks counts down, “Three, two… one!”

Draco drops the shield, Tonks darts forward, and Harry is raising it in the next second, causing several spells to bounce off it and one killing curse which veers into the skeleton on its own because no one listens to him, apparently.

Tonks makes it a dozen steps forward before Bellatrix’s cutting curse slits her throat.

She drops to the ground, a horrifying gurgling sound coming out of her as blood spreads out around her.

Draco screams, pressing himself against the shield and yelling at Harry to let him go help her, but Percy doesn’t make a sound and Harry doesn’t let the shield drop even as a dull sort of horror settles over him.

“If you’re going to make it that easy for me then this won’t be any fun,” Bellatrix coos, stepping over Tonk’s body to lean into Draco’s space and grin at him. “You scream so prettily, nephew mine. Cissy never screams. It’s so boring. Maybe I’ll kill you last so I can hear you scream when your soulmate d-”

Bellatrix cuts herself off with a gasp and Harry doesn’t understand why until he looks down and sees a sword sticking out of her stomach. It’s yanked backwards and she tips to the side, falling with a painful thump that seems to knock the breath out of her. Tonks is standing there, blood soaked, and the cut on her throat slowly closing. She doesn’t look away from them as she lifts her foot and snaps Bellatrix’s wand beneath the heel of her boot.

There’s shouting and a curse comes hurtling straight at her. At first Harry thinks she ducks out the way, but that’s not right, she’s not bent in any way. She’s just shorter, suddenly, so it goes sailing over her head. She turns, regaining her height in the same breath as she reaches for a dagger and her arm bulges with muscles she didn’t have a moment ago, giving her the strength to send the dagger sailing across the room and into another Death Eater’s chest.

A burning curse licks its way over her side as she drops her sword to reach for her whip, catching one Death Eater in the leg and yanking it out from under him. The cracked and burned skin along her side bursts in a truly disgusting fashion, but then it disappears, new unblemished skin stretching across her side. She kills another Death Eater before getting hit with a shattering hex and her leg collapses uselessly under her, jutting out at an unnatural angle, but then she pushes herself upright, the bones already moving back into their correct places.

Draco is muttering to himself, his eyes tracking Tonks, and from what little Harry can catch, it sounds like he’s trying to figure out the best order to layer healing spells on Tonks so she doesn’t die.

“This isn’t how metamorphmagi abilities work,” Harry says, his voice a mix of what he’s feeling, relief and awe and confusion. “She shouldn’t be able to change this quickly. How is she doing it?”

Percy clears his throat. “I know she told you what she did her first couple years at Hogwarts before she started taking her potions. I don’t know how dangerous she made it sound, but it was more than that. It could have killed her. It should have killed her. Neither her body or her magic was ready to maintain that level of change for so long. It’s affected her abilities ever since, even after she recovered, and those changes come with consequences.”

“But it didn’t kill her,” Harry prompts when Percy falls silent. There are only three Death Eaters left and Tonks should be dead, it should be easy for them to kill her when she’s holding a muggle sword in a blood slick grip, but they can’t hit her. Their curses keep missing because she shortens her height or slopes her shoulders at an angle or lengthens her calves so one step puts her far out of their reach. He wants to drop the shield, he wants to help, but with the way Tonks is fighting he knows he’d just get in her way.

“It didn’t kill her. What doesn’t kill you,” he continues, “changes you in ways you can never recover from. But what you do with those changes is up to you.” He gestures to where Tonks is facing off against the remaining two Death Eaters. “Tonks did this.”

Tonks snaps the neck of one Death Eater, which leaves her open to a curse that tears open her thigh, but by the time she’s gutted the last of them, it’s already stopped bleeding.

The last Death Eater’s no sooner slumped to the ground then Draco’s pounding on the shield, shouting, “Drop it, drop it! Harry!”

He looks to Percy, who nods, and he lets it drop. Draco stumbles for a moment since it’s no longer there to hold him up, but by the time Harry’s reaching out to steady him he’s already running across the room.

“I’m okay,” Tonks says, then makes a face, like she knows how absurd that sounds.

Draco doesn’t even bother glaring at her for it. “How many layers can your body take before it rebounds? Are you going to go into shock as you undo them? How long can you maintain before your body rejects the change?”

Tonks has the audacity to look impressed, which Harry can tell pisses Draco off. Not because she doubted him, but because she’s wasting time by not answering his questions. “I didn’t think you’d pick up on that.”

“You’re not first metamorphmagus I’ve treated, just the most reckless,” he snaps, getting halfway through casting a diagnostic spell before realizing its worthless and abandoning it with a curse. “Answer me.”

Percy edges closer to them, but stays out of the way even as he wrings his hands together. Harry wants to take his hand or something, but he looks like he might shatter if he tries to touch him.

“Um, I don’t know about the layers,” she says, “it-”

“Depends,” Draco finishes, letting out an irritated breath. “Of course it does, that was a stupid question. And the rest?”

“Sometimes I go into shock as I let the change go,” she winces, “and I can maintain it for about twenty minutes before it rebounds, so I have to change before then, otherwise – well, you know.”

The grim look on Draco’s face confirms that he does, in fact, know.

“Why can she only hold the changes for twenty minutes?” Harry asks Percy, both because he’s curious and because he’s hoping it’ll distract him. Before he can answer, he follows it up with, “Wait, if she’s holding back the wounds for now, why can’t we just bring her to St. Mungo’s?”

Tonks opens her mouth to answer, but Draco responds before she gets the chance, “It’s a delicate balance and both those things involve her body being warped, which would instantly undo all her changes right now, and she’d be dead on arrival. You can try and go get someone, though,” he says, “we probably have about ten minutes before her throat wound rebounds, you might be able to get to a healer and back before then. But if I wait and you don’t, she might die anyway.” He shoves at Tonk’s shoulder. “Lie down. Percy, come here. You need to hold her head steady. I’m going to need you to undo the blood that isn’t really yours so I can do a blood replenishing immediately otherwise you’re going to have the fun experience of dying of blood loss without a single open wound.”

Tonks grimaces but lies down on the stone floor while Percy kneels behind her head and places his hand on either side of it, his thumbs brushing against her cheeks.

Draco runs his hands against her legs and side, trying to get a feel for something but Harry doesn’t know what. “She can only maintain them for a limited amount of time because she didn’t transform properly. Metamorphmagi can’t transform quickly for the same reason if you put your hand on a flame you flinch back before feeling either heat or pain. Your body is trying to protect you. Changes that metamorphmagi don’t have the chance to adjust to are dangerous and risk the chance of being rejected, which can be fatal due to shock all on it’s own, and that’s when the transformation aren’t keeping mortal wounds at bay. Tonks has somehow managed to break through that natural protection and sailed right past the normal definition of changing too quickly to whatever the fuck that was. I’m going to heal your throat first,” he says, speaking to Tonks now, “then your thigh, then I’ll undo the burning curse. I’ll heal the damage from that if I have the energy and it doesn’t look like the healing spells are going to collapse from over layering. I’ll probably end up splinting your broken leg rather than healing it myself since that’s not going to kill you, but it will hurt like a bitch. I’ll do blood replenishing in between. I can use a stabilizing spell maybe twice to reverse the effects of shock if I have to, but after that I risk giving you blood poisoning and it’s going to make all the other healing less effective. You’re going to be a in a fuck ton of pain, but do not move.”

Tonk’s grin has wilted, and now she just looks resigned. “I understand.” Draco nods, getting ready to begin, but she continues, “Harry,” and he leans forward, eager to do something besides standing there. “Get the book.”

He flinches back. “What?”

“Get the book,” she repeats. “It’s what we came here for. Draco is going to do his best to keep me from dying. You figure out how to get past the cursed skeleton.”

Percy swallows. “He’s right. There’s something in there and we need to know what it is. Obviously I can’t trust Pete like I thought I could and we’re not going to get a second chance at this.”

He’s still hesitating, because it seems wrong to try and get a stupid necromancy book when Tonks is dying, but she just adds softly, “Harry, it’s okay. If we get out of her alive and with the book, it’s a win twice over. Please try.”

“Okay,” he says, then swallows before deliberately turning his back on them. Tonks takes a deep breath, then a muffled scream, and Draco starts muttering, casting healing spells that Harry almost recognizes now.

That’s not what he needs to be focusing on right now so he deliberately ignores it, instead studying the skeleton. He can see the title of the book held under its ribcage, so he knows it’s the right one, but the runes don’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know. He inspects the edge of the white perimeter drawn on the floor, and well, sometimes the only way out is through.

He steps past the white line.

The runes on the skeleton glow green, just like they had when they’d absorbed the killing curse, and the skeleton stands, raising its hand in front of itself. Harry should be paying attention to that, but instead he can’t help but look at all the details the glowing runes have brought into sharp relief. There’s cracks throughout the skeleton where light shines through and scorch marks along its ribs and knees, and maybe it’s just old, but more than that it looks – battered. It shows the signs of all the people that have tried to destroy it in the past.

His studies in necromancy means he knows more about bones than probably even Draco. Looking at the skeleton, by the width of its hips and the fact the tibia is nearly fully grown but the clavicle isn’t, the skeleton was a girl, probably, and around his age.

She was his age when she died.

The skeleton tilts her head to the side, almost like she’s confused, and it’s enough for him to see a hole in the back of her skull. He thinks it’s a bullet hole, and it can’t be from after death, because if it had been the necromancy magic would fixed it so it was barely cracked.

It’s probably what killed her.

She was his age when she was shot in the back of her head and her raised hands suddenly don’t look the precursor to an attack. They look defensive, as if she’s readying herself to protect against an oncoming blow.

There are plenty of bodies around him, but she’ll absorb any of his attempts at necromancy. He could try and brute force his way through, he’s known as a magical powerhouse for a reason, but suddenly the idea of it makes him sick. He thinks of crushing her ribcage and pulling it apart to get to the book inside and he’s never wanted to do anything less.

That confused head tilt makes him think she’s not just a collection of bones that he could destroy without a second thought, that she’s not just a cursed skeleton, but a cursed person, one who’s dead but still there.

This is stupid. This is so stupid. Draco’s going to kill him. His only saving grace is that he’s probably too busy healing Tonks to pay attention to him right now.

He raises his wand and she widens her stance, bracing herself. He opens his robe and deliberately slides his wand back into the inside pocket before raising his hands, mirroring her position. “Please,” he says, hoping she understands him, because he doesn’t speak Russian and if he tries casting Dead Man’s Tongue he’s pretty sure she’ll absorb it, “I need that book. Someone I knew tried to tell me something in there. I have the other copy, but there are pages missing, and other people want it too, and I think they’re going to do something terrible with it.”

She lowers her hands. He takes a cautious step closer, and then when nothing horrible happens, another. He thinks about the runes and the books bound in a Mother’s skin and the bullet hole in the back of her head and what exactly a Mother couldn’t do in the moments after death and he could be wrong, he hopes he’s wrong even, but he knows he’s right.

He extends his arms, shifting his hands enough so they’re laying flat, and she sways away from him but still doesn’t move to attack. “Mother, may I?”

Green light explodes outward, blinding him for a moment, and he hears Percy shout, but it subsides just as quickly. When he blinks his eyes open there’s a ghost overlayed on top of the skeleton, reminding him of the graveyard in fourth year. She’s wearing a dress with a square neckline studded with pearls and another string of pearls wound around her neck. She has long, wavy hair held partially back with a bow and short bangs, small eyes, and a long nose.

She’s his age, a teenager still, and she’s holding the book in front of her.

She smiles at him, crooked and mischievous, and says, “You may, Mother,” before dropping the book into his hands.

Her ghost vanishes and her skeleton collapses. He shifts the book to the crook of his elbow and reaches out a hand, as if he could keep her together, but in the next moment she’s nothing more than dust.

He doesn’t have the time to mourn a girl long dead, but he wishes she’d gotten to linger a little longer. He hugs the book to his chest then turns away from where she’d been.

Tonks is sitting upright and leaning against Percy’s chest, still blood soaked and pale, face drawn in pain, but very much alive with her leg in a splint and her thigh and ribs tightly bandaged, which means Draco hadn’t managed to heal them completely.

Draco doesn’t look that much better than Tonks, and Harry wants to make him rest, wants to get Winky to help force feed him something to get the exhausted look off his face, wants to kiss him and hide underneath the blankets with him, away from the rest of the world.

“Let’s get out of here,” he says, and manages a smile when Tonks starts laughing, tipping her head back against Percy’s shoulder.

~

They return to the ministry and get Tonks set up at St. Mungo’s. Draco reports what he’d done to the healer, then leaves them to it. Tonks had eventually kicked Percy out, who’d wanted to stay but also had an international traitor to deal with and whatever political ramifications they were going to have to face since their little trip had been unofficial and they’d technically stolen that book, although really it’d looked like Harry had been given it in the end, but Draco doesn’t know how Percy would prove that.

He should return to Hogwarts and go find Harry, who’d reluctantly returned since walking around a crowded area carrying a book that would curse anyone who touched it wasn’t the best of ideas.

However.

His aunt is dead. They’d left the bodies in that room, and Draco assumes that’s something else that Percy is dealing with, and he’s not that upset about it, personally. He barely knew Bellatrix and what he did know of her hadn’t exactly been complimentary.

He knows someone who will be upset about it, though.

Aunt Sophia still loves her, after all. Will anyone tell her? Will anyone think to tell her? Or will she find out that the woman she loves is dead by reading the morning paper?

He’s so tired. He wants to be with his boyfriend and his friends and eat a real meal. He wants to congratulate Sirius on being a free man and wait up for the results of the election results. He wants to go home and hug his parents.

He thinks of having to find out that he’d lost Harry by seeing it in a headline and knows there’s one more thing he has to do before he can do any of that.

He’s keyed into his aunt’s wards so he floos straight there without a problem, but as soon as he steps out of the fireplace he hears her sobbing. He flinches back from the sound. Has she found out already? How?

“Aunt Sophia?” he calls out cautiously, following her cries down the hall. He loses his balance and has to catch himself against the wall, which makes no sense because he’s definitely not that tired. He looks down and actually, it turns out he’d slipped on the puddle of blood congealing on his aunt’s floor. “Aunt Sophia!”

He runs the rest of the way, bursting into the kitchen.

Bellatrix is laid out on the kitchen floor, eyes closed and mouth open, while Sophia leans over, pressing her hands against the wound in her stomach, but blood is still leaking out between her fingers. There are empty potion bottles rolling around on the floor, which isn’t a good sign.

Bellatrix is still bleeding. She’s still alive. She somehow made it out of the cave after they left and got to his aunt’s and she’s still alive.

Sophia looks up at him, face red and splotchy, and anguish carved into every inch of his cool, controlled aunt. “Please, Draco, please – she won’t stop bleeding, I can’t get her to stop bleeding, please. I don’t know what to do.”

He doesn’t move, even as his hand twitches towards his wand, the spells he’d need to use already at the front of his mind. “You – she – she tried to kill me.”

She looked him in the face and promised to kill him, promised to kill Harry in front of him just because she wanted to hear how he’d scream when his soulmate was dead, and now –

“I know,” Sophia says, fresh tears welling in her eyes, “I know. Please. I love her. Don’t make me watch her die.”

He’s not a judge. He’s not a jury.

He’s not an executioner.

He’s a healer. There is someone in front of him who needs help. Besides, if he doesn’t do this, then he’ll be doing to Sophia what Bellatrix threatened to do to him, and he can’t live with that. Even if Bellatrix deserves this, Sophia doesn’t.  

“Call Shackbolt,” he snarls, dropping down next to her and taking out his wand. “I don’t care that he’s waiting for election results, get him and his people here now. She’s not going free, I’m not doing this just so she can kill me later.”

Sophia hesitates and he does not have the patience for this right now.

“Aunt Sophia.” He’ll call for the aurors himself if he has to, but he wants Sophia to choose the right thing again, like she has before, even though it hurts. He’s doing the right thing even though it hurts, after all.

She nods sharply, grips his shoulder, then pushes herself to her feet. “Yes. Of course. Thank you.”

He keeps one ear on her as she enters the next room and floos the auror’s office, but as soon as he hears Kingsley’s voice he focuses entirely on the stomach wound that Sophia had managed to at once half heal and make worse all at the same time.

He’s gotten better at this since he healed his father, at least.

Draco takes a deep breath, raises his wand, and saves Bellatrix Lestrange’s life.