Actions

Work Header

The Hush of War

Chapter Text

Pyrrhic Victory: (n) 1. A victory or goal achieved at too great a cost. 2. A victory that is accompanied by enormous losses and leaves the winners in as desperate shape as if they had lost.

ɤɣɤ
15 November

Dear Son,

France is...well, it’s France, which you know means that I’m not, actually, having the time of my life, and, in fact, the only redeeming factors are the wine and the women, who are slim with pretty faces.

Currently, I’m in Pau, which is about as nice as the name suggests, and on the exact opposite side of the country, and that much further from merry old England. I have made contact with a werewolf who recognised a photo of Moony and said that he last saw him with another pack, heading for the beaches to, as he put it, ‘catch some tail’. I had no idea that Remus was travelling in such vulgar company, but I can’t fault him for it; obviously, the French are rubbing off on him.

Unnervingly, the same werewolf believed to have known me. He called me Regulus! I don’t know what to make of that, and the werewolf had no clues to offer; he admitted that the last time he saw me—Regulus—it had only been for a moment.

I’m on my way west to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, which is, incidentally, where I got my post-Azkaban wand from. The wolf fellow gave me the names of a few people there who might be able to give me some leads, so hopefully I’ll have more to tell you in my next letter.

And before I forget, it has come to my attention that you were drunk on a school night, and subsequently slept through your DADA class. I would like to remind you that I’m merely across the Channel, and not the Veil, and that I can (and will) hex your pale little arse so impressively that you’ll remember things you did in a past life if I find out that you’ve done it again, you little heathen.

Love,
Dad

ɤɣɤ

She had been lobbying for months, and as soon as Mrs Smith got the certified letter from the Ministry approving the school proposal, she wrote to Zacharias and told him all about it. It came on the fourteenth of November, a Friday. He was the first, excluding his mother of course, to hear that the Firth College for Young Wizards and Witches had received Ministry sanction and could begin construction immediately.

Even as he read her letter she was contacting the Daily Prophet to schedule a Press Conference, which he had better read tomorrow when it came out. Spearheaded by her, the entire Department of Education had lobbied for the swift and full approval of their proposal, which included reinstating Learner Wands for under-eleven wizards and witches.

Of course most Old Families would continue to let their children practise with the parents’ wands, but Learner Wands would do just as well for the children of the more stringent parents, and for using outside of their homes.

In his mother’s opinion, learning should never be hindered, so it was of utmost importance that children had the opportunity to not only practise spells any time, but also be able to perform safety spells, such as the Hide and Seek spell, which not only hid a child in the event of suspicious activity, but also alerted the parents of their child’s exact location. Prior to the prohibition of Learner Wands, it had saved dozens of young wizards and witches from abduction—by both wizards and muggles—which was not uncommon in a society so small.

It was the following morning that two things happened. At breakfast, the Prophet owls soared in dropping off the morning editions of the newspaper, and then his mother’s owl followed, looking harried.

Giving Sophia a piece of his kipper, Zacharias shook open the paper; his eyes widened at the headline. It was not, in fact, the press conference his mother had given on behalf of the school yesterday afternoon, but instead:

Maybe, babies? Not likely, letter claims
Staff Writer
[Derbyshire] – The Derbyshire Orphanage which has been enjoying a regular delivery of young children—aged six months to three years—who are ‘presumed orphans’, reported last night that they received something else this time: a letter.

Representatives for the Orphanage declined our request to print the contents in full, but did allow us to read the letter, which was delivered to the Orphanage by private, untraceable owl early yesterday morning, and had no signature, magical or otherwise. Ministry officials are looking into the possible origins, but more worrisome is the claims made in the letter itself.

This is the first contact received by the anonymous donor, though there were initial efforts to locate him or her.

The consignment of new orphans at the Orphanage has been steadily dwindling since mid-October, due in part, the anonymous letter claims, to the Ministry for its secretive placement of armed Aurors at the delivery site. When queried about this, Ministry officials were able to give no comment.

The orphan donor “[...] will no longer be leaving magical children at the Derbyshire Orphanage, as it is felt that knowledge of their origination or their beneficiary is not necessary for the successful and happy placement of these children in new homes,” the letter reads in part.

Margaret Ghoulsby, chairman of the board at the Orphanage, said Friday, “We had noticed a decline in the delivery of adoptable children over the last month, but thought it due to the natural depletion of magical children born in the Muggle World. While it is certainly a subject which must be handled with the utmost care and consideration, it is also a sad day for the Orphanage.”

She went on to say, later in her public speech, “We hope that a resolution can be reached, as there are still hundreds of families on the waiting list, who would love nothing more than to welcome a child into their family.”

As of today, the Orphanage has received two hundred and eleven children, all of which have been adopted within a fortnight. Notable adoptions have included Undersecretary to the Minister George Pratt-Halston and his partner, Kevin Pratt-Halston of the Falmouth Falcons, who happily received Anastasia Hannah Pratt-Halston, 11 mos.; Mr and Mrs Francis Webb of the Webb fortune, who welcomed Francine (Frenchy) Webb, 6 mos., in October; Mr and Mrs Amos Diggory, parents of the late Cedric Diggory of Tri-Wizard Tournament fame, received Quentin Martin Diggory, 24 mos.; and Holyhead Harpy Jasmine (Jazzy) Jenkins, who was approved for three-year old Jamaal Jenkins in late September.

Zacharias felt a little sick to his stomach, which was unusual. What a cock-up; everyone—everyone—knew, even without solid evidence, that these magical children were stolen from muggle parents. It was unspoken, something not to be mentioned in polite company, but so what?

Eventually, unless their parents were some strange, religious fundamentals—which had been the case in one magical person in the early 1950s—all muggle-born entered the Wizarding World for schooling, and, hopefully, life. In a few cases, students received their education and returned to the Muggle World—but they didn’t stay long; they never got very far without any sort of documented education.

Zacharias sighed. What kind of triumph was this for his mother if there wouldn’t be any new children to fill the school? Looking further down the page, there was the article covering his mother’s press conference; if not for the Ministry’s cock-up, it would have been the front page headline.

Zacharias flipped his fringe out of his eyes and pushed the newspaper aside. Sophia hooted cautiously and he gave her a small smile. “Give it here then, Sophia.” She stretched her leg out for him and he untied his mother’s letter, which said about what he’d expected it to say.

She was angry, but she also said that of course they would be following through with the school, and one way or another, she would make sure that the adoptions were reinstated. Zacharias didn’t doubt that: his mother had contacts on both sides of the fence with this issue. It was only a temporary setback, but it was a setback just the same, and it made one wonder: why couldn’t the Ministry ever leave well-enough alone?

Surely there’s some better use of their resources, Zacharias thought. No, he considered bitterly, with the Ministry, there probably isn’t. His mother worked for it, of course, but as a collective, the Ministry was about as useful as a werewolf at the full moon.

ɤɣɤ

As it happened, werewolves were more or less immune to the effects of Dementors. The effects, one must note—not the Kiss. To be fair, werewolves were immune to a lot of things of that sort, but at the current time, Tom had most need of their immunity to the cold and fear caused by the Dementors because they could get close enough to—well.

And generally, they were quick enough to get away again, but, as Yaxley had pointed out, their exceptional abilities were, at times, also a handicap. Several particular werewolves had been so immune to the effects, in fact, that they’d not noticed the swarm of Dementors coming up behind them until it was quite too late. Such was life.

At any rate, along with the weres, an alliance with the French Ministry—specifically their own Oureurs, who usually handled government policing, but had been apprised to the situation and their new role in it—had ensured cooperation enough to hopefully get this matter under control. Dementors were quite a distasteful group to Tom, though he expected the French—which had within the past six years renounced all political ties to the British Ministry—to feel the same about him.

Now Tom had the French wizarding government on his side, which was more than he could say about the British Ministry: obviously they wanted nothing to do with him. They were notoriously meddling and stubborn; it was their own fault that he’d been forced to halt the delivery of orphans. He had warned them twice about putting Aurors around the Orphanage in hopes of catching Lucius or Narcissa dropping the children off, but they had not listened, and he had been forced to communicate with the public instead. And the public was taking it much more seriously than the Head of Aurors had, may he burn in hell.

It was a terrible shame that he’d been pushed to such an extreme; Narcissa—not to mention her house-elf—was being run ragged trying to deal with the forty-odd children now being kept in the old nursery.

Because France couldn’t—and wouldn’t—work with the British Ministry, and because the Continental European Magical Union, CEMU, was able to foresee the dangers posed by Dementor breeding, they were willing to work with him on this issue. At one time Britain had been a member of that union, but they had reneged on the International Terrorist Suppression Act, ITSA, when Grindlewald came along, and been booted from the alliance. It was a terrible shame; CEMU had even gone out of its way to pass word on to the British Ministry about the breeding season, but the memo had been returned: the post box was full.

That was fine with him; it would make it much easier to have France’s help and cooperation, and he cared little for governmental alliances after that. It had been a week since he’d allowed Yaxley to pull five werewolves from the mission; they were all older weres who had been with Voldemort for a decade or more, but no one of any particular importance. He supposed he could, if he thought about it, remember several of them to have been wizards from his and Yaxley’s time at Hogwarts together.

No one of consequence, though.

But it was of no matter; Tom was not convinced that the werewolf mission was destined for failure; yes there was the distinct possibility that many of them would perish during it, but they were aware of the risks when they joined him. He had never—not once—led a wizard into battle without forewarning him. It was not his concern if, upon telling a man he would most likely die during a fight, that man chose to fight anyway.

Yes, Voldemort believed that even though many weres would die for it, his original plan to gather as many Dementors together as possible was a good one: well thought-out and considerate of all angles. It was for this reason that the dark lord was preparing for a rendezvous with his infantry werewolves.

He hissed twice and Nagini slithered into the room and around his legs. Voldemort smiled down at her; she had been an excellent familiar for years and years, and was always good company on trips such as these.

“Will there be heat?” she asked him curiously. He nodded and replied that, yes, France would be a bit warmer than England.

He always felt dreadful for Nagini during the cold months. For a snake so large, she had always had difficulties keeping herself warm even in the summertime. Well, he thought, somewhat sadly, she hasn’t always had so much trouble, but that way lay...not madness, but perhaps grief, which was a madness of a different kind.

There was no time for this kind of dallying; he was already pushing his schedule to bursting. With a turn and a crack, Voldemort disappeared from Ard-Mhéara, and the snake went with him.

ɤɣɤ

Narcissa sighed, and wearily pushed a wayward curl out of her eyes.

She hadn’t been this exhausted since that week she’d spent preparing for the Ladies of England Association’s annual Young Ladies’ Competition of Excellence. She was still sore that Eloise Cavendish (now Parkinson) had beaten her for the award, which had included lifetime dues for the organization and a collection of highly-acclaimed books on spell-crafting. Of course, she’d been fifteen at the time, and her mother had purchased the membership and books for her afterwards, anyway.

A cry cut through her moment of semi-peace, and she frowned, looking up from a letter from Draco and into the hall, from where she knew the sound to be coming. That little brat had not given her a moment’s peace since she snatched him up the week prior.

He had been a special case; he was the only magical child that she’d taken so far that she couldn’t find any information on, and he was also the youngest. So young, in fact, that she’d contemplated leaving him where he was, most likely to die from exposure, as his mother had been an unconscious woman lying in a street in London. Or so Narcissa assumed.

The curiosity of it all had been the deciding factor in the end; after all, Narcissa had never encountered the strangeness and tackiness of giving birth in an alleyway.

And she’d never seen skin such a strange shade—almost yellow—that she saw on that child. After consulting Severus, Narcissa had learned that the likely cause of the terrible, constant wailing and the jaundiced look of the baby was most likely withdrawal.

How tacky, Narcissa thought. The mother had been a potion-addict—like those tramps that always begged for sickles on Skulking Street—and probably wouldn’t have noticed that the brat had been taken even without Narcissa’s Obliviate.

Narcissa had never seen the temptation of opiates or stupefacients, but then again, she’d seen the effects of badly prepared moonwort bases. Andromeda had been terrible in Potions, and had nearly suffocated on the toxic fumes trying to brew one summer. Why on earth anyone would want to use the very same mixture as a recreational stimulant—admittedly, prepared correctly—Narcissa had no idea.

The opiates had probably been absorbed while still in the womb. Unfortunately, exposure to them had most likely damaged the boy’s magic, as well. She’d located him using the same spell she did for all the other Mudbloods—something she was pleased to admit she’d created herself—but even the spell had known the magic was weak, and at first she’d almost ignored its callings, thinking it was surely a mistake. Perhaps, though, she thought, his magic would grow with time. There was no reason to say that it wouldn’t heal itself after the drugs were out of his system.

But it could take a while for that, and he was only a few weeks old even now, though Narcissa couldn’t be sure of the exact date of his birth. Arbitrarily, she’d given him the birthday of 31 October because it suited her mood: he just cried so damned much.

The Hallows Baby, as she called him, had reddish-blonde hair and overlarge eyes. He was dreadfully unfortunate-looking, and would probably do well with that tacky Hapbouer family that always tried to weasel their way into the Society pages. They had added their names to the waiting list, as she recalled, even though they already had three children of their own.

Another cry followed the first and Narcissa gave a tiny little scream of frustration. Would that the damned Ministry would get their damned Aurors away from the Orphanage so that she could wean this brat from his drugs and get him out of the Manor.

She’d nearly been caught two nights ago when she tried to deliver the children; having to bring them all back—when she’d thought this bunch would finally be out of her hair—had been irritating.

Lucius poked his head into her study and gave her an inquisitive look.

Following her foul mood, she narrowed her eyes. “Lucius, I don’t care what you have to do to get it done, but you get this brat out of my house, and you do it before tea tomorrow. I swear to Morgan, he’s worse than Draco at his most colicky.”

Lucius cringed, no doubt remembering just how bad Draco had been with colic. Narcissa, a first-time mother at only nineteen, had harboured thoughts of sending him ‘back’ more than once.

Unlike with her best and worst friend Eloise Parkinson, who had savoured every dirty-nappy moment of it, motherhood had been something that grew on Narcissa over time. Her own mother had shown her little affection, and it had taken months of Draco’s tiny smiles and enthusiastic giggles to make her realise that she loved him—and just how much she did.

At the time, she had thought Lucius felt the same, but as she aged, she came to realise that Lucius had always loved Draco, and her as well; she had just not known what to look for.

She wondered if that made her a bad mother. Glancing down at the letter from Draco again, she frowned: his letters only came once a week now, and she was still a bit uncomfortable with how much that saddened her. When he’d first gone to Hogwarts, she’d got a letter every other day, at least.

“I’m taking care of it now, Petal,” Lucius replied. She huffed, and smiled at him, feeling embarrassed for her curt words. “My contacts tell me that the Ministry has not, even now, removed their Aurors from Derbyshire, so we’re working around it.”

Narcissa lifted an eyebrow, and asked, “How?”

Lucius gave her a seductive look. “Why, Petal, you certainly didn’t think that Derbyshire was the only orphanage in Britain, did you?”

“As a matter of fact,” Narcissa replied, “I believe it is.”

Lucius tsked playfully. “But have you forgotten, my love, that the Nimuean Nunneries, not to mention the Merlinian Monasteries, are known to accept abandoned children into their care until more suitable parents can be found?”

Narcissa smiled. “I’d forgotten, of course,” she admitted, and it was true that she had. It had been years and years since a nunnery or a monastery had received a child, and those were always squibs.

Lucius dipped back into his study and she followed him inside. He was egotistical and overly ambitious occasionally, but those were necessary characteristics in times like this, when something needed to get done, quickly, and with attention to detail. She noticed traits like that developing in Draco, and she was always torn between trying to stamp them out and encouraging them.

Such thoughts reminded her of her son, and his most recent letter. Narcissa knew Mercy Sinclair, of course: she’d come to dinner several times when Lucius was just rising through the Death Eater ranks; Mercy had been rising as well at the time. Thusly, Narcissa had expected Draco to enjoy more dodgy experiments and spell-crafting in his Defence class, but she had certainly not expected him to not only study, but create a Hecatomb Ward.

She was quite envious that her own school years had not included anything so fantastical.

It was therefore serendipitous that Mrs Sinclair’s letter had arrived only hours later, requesting her need for adult chaperones. Of course Narcissa had replied with haste; she would never forgive herself if she neglected an opportunity to watch the creation of a Hecatomb Ward; there was only so much she could learn from studying the ones on the manor. She could certainly manage a handful of hormonal teenagers for a few hours for that kind of occasion.

Lucius was back at his fireplace, speaking with some official of some sort, who was not cooperating to his liking. Narcissa followed the curve of his back with her eyes as he bent, and recalled that it had been quite some time since the two of them had found a quiet moment to themselves.

A terrible wail came from the nursery, followed by the sound of the house-elf in charge banging his head against the floor. They were not allowed to use the wall, of course, as it would damage the wallpaper, which was turn of the century original. Narcissa slammed the door, blocking the sound and causing Lucius to jump from his floo call, startled.

That didn’t mean that she couldn’t use the wall, though. Narcissa sat Draco’s letter aside; she would be sure to finish reading it as soon as they were finished.

ɤɣɤ

It seemed to Harry that he was very popular today. Or, perhaps, unpopular. In his experience, the two were about the same.

It was Saturday, and it had been his misfortune to realise ten minutes ago that he’d promised Malfoy he’d meet him five minutes ago in the Arithmancy classroom to test some theories. Malfoy’s temper was not something he held easily in check, or that Harry was able to easily soothe, and he was not looking forward to the meeting. Of course, not showing up would be even worse.

Harry had been in the middle of a game of Exploding Snap when Hermione had returned from her own study session with Theodore Nott. They had probably been doing more than studying, but it was good for house unity for the younger students to see them working together, and it had been her that reminded him of his engagement. And why, Harry wondered, had he felt so guilty about leaving Seamus mid-game to study? It was a legitimate concern; why had he had to lie about it, and tell Seamus that he had detention instead?

He felt awful, but he didn’t know why. And he was going to be late, and Malfoy was going to whinge, but that didn’t seem so bad, really.

It was therefore his further misfortune that he happened across Zach Smith on his way to Professor Vector’s classroom. It seemed to Harry that Smith had been lying in wait, which was not at all a Hufflepuff characteristic, though Harry had his suspicions about Smith only being a Hufflepuff out of family honour or some such. Tradition, maybe.

Harry suspected that he wasn’t the only one who had fiercely guided his own sorting.

“A moment, Black,” Zach said pleasantly enough. Harry glanced down the corridor—he could almost hear Malfoy complaining and insulting him now.

“I’ve really got some—“

“Don’t worry,” Smith interrupted casually. “Malfoy knows you’ll be late; he’s not pleased about it, mind you, but he’s aware.”

Harry stared at the Hufflepuff, gobsmacked. How did everyone here always seem to know what he was up to? “What kind of deranged Hufflepuff are you?” Harry asked in wonder.

Smith looked shifty, but then, he usually did. “I’m descended from Helga,” he finally said. “What kind of Smith would I be if I let that damned hat put me in Slytherin?”

Harry laughed, suddenly feeling much less rushed. Let Malfoy wait. Smith had apparently engineered this entire incident; it was the least Harry could do to listen to him. “All right, Smith, I’m all ears.”

“Let’s walk,” he said, doing just that. Harry followed, setting a leisurely pace. He knew that Smith had given up that little piece of information with the intent to get something in return—with the intention of creating a camaraderie that would make Harry feel comfortable enough to divulge whatever Zach wanted to know. It was a game Harry was coming to know, and if not love, then at least appreciate in its own way.

“I know what my mother does when she’s not working or mollycoddling me,” Smith began without preamble. He was careful not to go into specifics that any unwelcome ears might get wind of, but he left no questions unanswered for Harry. “I may be arrogant, but I’m not blind, and my mother does wear sleeveless dresses occasionally.”

“Okay,” Harry said. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his frockcoat, and continued walking, waiting for Zacharias to get to his point, whatever it was. It didn’t take long; that was the thing about Hufflepuffs—and Slytherins—they didn’t beat around the bush.

Zacharias’ blond hair was in his face, so Harry couldn’t see his expression, but he could probably imagine it. “What I’m wondering, Black, is why you haven’t put up a fuss about her, or my father for that matter. The way I see it, even Weasley couldn’t have missed all the hints and signals sent your way. You know just as well as I do how my parents spend their free time, and yet, nothing’s come of it.”

Harry’s mouth opened, attempting to make a response, but nothing came forth. He cleared his throat. “I don’t understand,” he said at last.

Smith stopped and looked at him directly. “You’ve got more going on with Malfoy than an Arithmancy project.”

Harry, for some strange reason, felt himself blushing. “I—we’re just de-cursing a ring.”

“You’re collaborating with him, though I’m not privy to the reason,” Smith said. “And he’s not the only one you’re collaborating with.” A pause, and then Zach shook his head. “I’m going about this all wrong.

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot; what I meant was that I trust my mother’s inherent logic, and the things she believes in are things that deserve due consideration—for some reason, my mother believes in you, Black, so even if you are going against everything I was ever taught you were supposed to fight for, I’ll assist you where I can.”

Smith stuck his hand out unselfconsciously. Harry cleared his throat again as he slowly grasped the proffered hand.

“You can call me Harry, you know,” he said as they shook. Truth be told, he was getting tired of all this Potter-Black nonsense.

Zach smiled suddenly. “Harry,” he said, nodding. “Don’t ever call me Zach.”

Harry laughed. “Zacharias, then.” He turned sharply at the sound of a throat clearing behind him.

“As touching as this is,” Malfoy said, arms crossed, “I’ve been waiting on you for nearly half an hour.”

Harry gave Smith an apologetic, questioning look.

“We can talk later,” the Hufflepuff said easily. “I expect that we’ll have plenty of time.”

“Right,” Harry said, not understanding whatsoever. He followed Malfoy into the Arithmancy classroom and to the workstation waiting for them. Malfoy’s mathematical reference book sat open on the table; the ring not far from it.

“It’s not cursed,” Malfoy said once they were situated.

Harry gave him an eloquent look. Rolling his eyes, Malfoy said, “I took the ample time that you were using to not focus on the project to, strangely, focus on the project. This ring is not cursed, Potter, and if Dumbledore thinks it is, he’s more barmy than I suspected—unless he knew the whole while and just wanted to give us busy work.”

Harry plucked it from Malfoy’s fingers and examined it closely, though what he was looking for, exactly, he didn’t know. “How can you tell it’s not cursed?”

Malfoy took the ring back and dropped it on the desk, where, once it stopped rocking, started glimmering strangely in the last dregs of sunlight filtering in through the windows. The Arithmancy classroom was on the west side of the castle, and the sun setting along the horizon was casting a purplish glow to the ceiling and walls.

Soon, the torches would light, and the bizarre shimmering of the ring would be invisible to all not looking for it especially.

Harry cocked his head to the side, having seen nothing like this before, but not discounting anything—except bringing someone back from the dead—with magic. He’d seen too much by now to be sceptical any longer. “Huh,” he said. “That’s kind of pretty.”

Malfoy gave him an incredulous look. “Pretty?” he asked. “Potter, do you have any idea what this is?”

“No, not in the least, sorry.”

“Look behind you,” Malfoy said, and Harry did, gasping at what he saw. On the wall was the reflection cast by the ring, and had Harry paid closer attention before, he would have realised how odd the cut of this particular gem was: it did not reflect a prism of colours in a static, mathematical sort of way, but in a very deliberate fashion that, with the right light, as Malfoy had demonstrated, created an image on the wall.

It was a coat-of-arms; that much Harry could see, though for no family he knew of. Admittedly, his knowledge of coats-of-arms was limited to the embroidery above the Weasley’s kitchen fireplace and the tapestry for the House of Black, though now that he thought about it, he thought he could remember a sigil on his Grandfather Evans’ lapel.

Refracted in reddish light were two entwined snakes, each striking either side of a unicorns neck. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy touch the ring, and the movement jostled it, sent it rocking again, so that it appeared that the snakes were moving in and out—striking again and again and again, and the unicorn was thrashing wildly, and rearing onto its hind legs.

It was like a hologram, though Harry doubted Malfoy would get the reference. Harry glanced down at the ring again, and studied the cut of the stone more carefully. One would never guess that it could create such an image, though it was certainly oddly shaped, with small chips and chinks cut out of weird places.

He looked to Malfoy for an explanation. “What family is it for?”

Malfoy leaned back on his stool until his elbows were able to rest on the desk behind him. “I had Mum look it up in one of our Lineage books, and she says that this ring belonged to the Gaunt family—they’re not spoken of in polite company, but, well.” He shrugged, quirking a grin.

Harry rolled his eyes, ignoring the way his stomach did a strange little flip at the sight of Malfoy’s strangely imperfect teeth, and said, “Yes, yes, I’m not polite company, I get it.”

Waving it off was not as easy as he expected it to be. It was so very odd to notice that something about Malfoy wasn’t, technically, perfect. Not to say that Malfoy was supposed to be perfect, of course, but he’d always given the impression that his whole family was very close to it.

To see the way Malfoy’s canines pushed forward around the rest of his teeth—it was almost startling. Perhaps that was the reason Malfoy never smiled much; perhaps he didn’t want to show off his flaws. That would be a perfectly Slytherin reaction, Harry suspected, though he wasn’t entirely sure—

“Well they were quite vulgar,” Malfoy said, interrupting Harry’s thoughts. “One of the last unadulterated branches of Salazar Slytherin’s line which remained thus simply because they refused to marry outside their own immediate household after a while. Until the eighteenth century, they were quite well respected, but that was about the time that the madness set in and the inbreeding started.”

Harry snorted, shaking himself from his former line of thought with a quick jibe. What in the world was wrong with him, noticing Malfoy like that? “As if inbreeding isn’t rampant everywhere else in the wizarding world.”

Malfoy gave him a weary look. “Potter, none of my ancestors were simultaneously brother and uncle. The Malfoys are very firm in limiting our marriages to second-cousins or further distant. Many years of research has proven this to be perfectly safe and normal.”

Harry gave him an indulgent look. “Of course. You were saying?”

Malfoy rolled his eyes. They were gray. Or blue. Harry couldn’t decide. “There’s no fucking curse on this fucking ring, Potter,” he said in exasperation. Harry was going to point out that Malfoy had already established that fact, but the blond continued. “And there’s no way that Dumbledore could have not known that.”

“How do you know?” Harry asked. Malfoy wasn’t really angry with him; Harry had no idea how he could tell, but he liked that he could.

“Because it’s a family signet ring, for one,” Malfoy said. “As you can see by the coat-of-arms reflection it’s casting on the wall. Signet rings have spells on them that can’t be modified by anyone but the head of the family, and even those spells are limited. By the very nature of a signet ring, they’re immune to curses and hexes because they’re vital for business transactions and signing contracts and wills.”

“Oh,” Harry said dumbly. “Okay.” He looked back at the wall; the ring had stopped rocking, and the sigil was stuck in one position, with one snake striking as the other reared back.

“Also, I had Snape test it,” Malfoy added smugly. “Just to be sure.”

Harry laughed, and felt odd about the smile Malfoy gave him in return. Surely he wasn’t attracted to Malfoy, was he? Malfoy was a decent enough looking bloke, but he had nothing on Seamus, so why was Harry feeling like he wouldn’t mind spending more quality time with Malfoy when he was starting to feel so awkward around Seamus?

This was ridiculous. Malfoy was a twat; there was no reason to be attracted to him. After all, they had only even been speaking civilly to each other for a fortnight.

“So if there’s no curse on this ring,” Harry finally said, “what are we going to do about our project?”

Malfoy looked inordinately pleased with himself. “We’re going to find out what’s wrong with it, of course. It may not be cursed, but there’s definitely something off about this ring, and I suspect that we can figure out what that is with—wait for it—Arithmancy. Dumbledore’s too crafty for his own good; my guess is that he knew something was wonky with this ring, but he’s exhausted all of his own ideas, and hopes that we’ll come up with something he missed.”

Harry plonked his head down on the table. That sounded a bit out of his expertise, and this project was becoming more and more aggravating. At least Malfoy was pleased, though: he’d been awfully upset about having a boring piece of jewellery for their project.

“Alright,” he said with a sigh. “Let’s get started then.”

The next hour passed in a blur of not understanding half of the things Malfoy said due both to being so new at this particular school of mathematics, and also because Harry kept catching himself staring at Malfoy’s mouth instead of listening to whatever he was saying.

He finally broke down, when it became too much, saying, “You wanna go get something to eat from the kitchens? I didn’t make it to dinner and everything you’ve said has gone right over my head.”

Malfoy, interrupted, stopped his litany of thoughts on how they would first determine the era of magic—Old, Middle or New—affecting the signet ring, and then narrow it down to a type. He looked at Harry incredulously. “Potter, are you to tell me that instead of solving a mystery—the answer to which eluded even your illustrious headmaster—you would rather gorge yourself on pasties?”

Harry nodded. “Yeah. I can’t focus on this right now; it’s difficult for me to begin with, you know, me being such a moron, but without food, I’m liable to become irritable, and then you’ll have to deal with me when I’m in one of what Hermione calls ‘my moods’. It’s a horrible thing; I wouldn’t wish it on even you,” he added seriously.

Malfoy snorted. “Alright, Potter,” he said, and began gathering his things. Harry followed suit. “We will make significant progress on this project before the night’s over, though. I’ve got Ancient Runes and History assignments to finish, too, and I’m not going to get behind on everything just because everything’s ‘going over your head’.”

“Of course,” Harry said, leading the way from the classroom. He felt immeasurably better just by leaving the room. Possibly, being in a less daunting space would make it easier for him to pay more attention to the project, and less to trying to make Malfoy smile again.

ɤɣɤ

Draco waited as Potter spent an inordinate amount of time diddling a painted pear. Of course, there was no reason to even think of Potter diddling anything; he’d told Nott that the Gryffindor wasn’t to his tastes, and for the most part that was true, so there was no need to use words like ‘diddling’ in the same thought as ‘Potter’.

“Come on, you wanker,” Potter muttered at the pear, as it continued to wriggle on its painting and refuse entry. Draco shook his head. He couldn’t remember Pansy or him ever having so much trouble sneaking into the kitchens. One quick tap of their fingers had always had the door opening right up. Perhaps it had realised that they would stand for none of this nonsense.

The pear made little squeaky-giggly sounds of enjoyment; Draco sighed. Potter turned to him sheepishly, still tickling, and said, “Sometimes if you get its tickle-spot it won’t open for you until it’s satisfied; kind of like a cat, you know?”

“Of course,” Draco said. He pushed Potter aside with his shoulder and said, “Allow me.” The pear shrunk back from the poke he gave it, and the door swung open. Half a dozen house-elves were waiting as they descended the few stairs, and Draco wasted no time requesting a clean table for them to work at.

“And—erm,” Potter added, “could we have some tea and pasties?”

There was a series of vigorous head-bobbings, followed by the harried, blurred movements of house-elves working. It was only moments before a table and two chairs appeared in front of them, with tea and cakes already on top.

Draco sat immediately, feeling both pleased that his favourite kind of cake had been provided, and frustrated that it was taking so long to make head-way on this project.

He’d written to his mother that morning to clarify something she’d mentioned, but he’d not heard back from her yet, and now he was really beginning to wish that he had. As a young woman, she’d placed in several spell-crafting competitions, and it was those skills that he had need of most right now. Yes, he’d discovered himself that the ring wasn’t cursed, but now...now he didn’t really know what to do next.

Of course he made no mention of it, but he’d really insisted on having this extra study session on the—slim—chance that Potter would come up with some random grand idea. Rumour had it that was how Potter worked all his escapades.

He watched the Gryffindor chewing messily on an apricot tart and resisted the urge to wipe the crumbs from the boy’s lips. Honestly.

“So,” Potter said, unexpectedly. “Dumbledore’s a bit barmy on the best days, and downright enigmatic on the more frustrating. You were probably right earlier when you said that he already knew it wasn’t cursed.”

Draco tried not to preen. He couldn’t remember Potter ever saying he was right. With a struggle, Draco settled for a smug smile. Potter gave him a funny look, bit into another apricot tart, and cleared his throat.

“Right,” he said. He shook that dreadful stripe of red hair from his face and then, “I’m usually in the middle of one of Dumbledore’s convoluted plots every year: you would think by now I’d figured out how they work by now, but I haven’t, so if you want my opinion—“

“I can’t imagine anyone wanting that,” Draco interrupted, mostly because it was expected of him. In true fashion, Potter carried on as if he’d not heard at all.

“—I would say that we should ignore, for now, what’s wrong with the ring, and instead try to figure out how it’s important to the Headmaster—because it is. He wouldn’t have bothered with this little game if it weren’t.”

Draco looked at Potter incredulously. No wonder the boy was a Gryffindor; he had no sense of strategy—or common sense—whatsoever. “What?” was all he was able to manage at first. “Potter, are you daft? That’s ridiculous. We can’t sit here for the next three weeks pondering what crazy scheme that mad headmaster had up his sleeve; we’ll fail, and we won’t figure it out, anyway; do you want to know why? Because it’s busy-work, Potter.”

Potter scoffed. “Malfoy, I think I know Dumbledore a bit better than you. He wouldn’t have given the ring to us if he didn’t have a plan. ”

“Hippogriff shit,” Draco said. “If you think your precious headmaster would let me get close enough to something that he thought was important to the outcome of the war effort—which, why would he involve you, if it didn’t?—then you’re just as mad as he is. If I didn’t suspect you of sedition yourself, I’d waste no time whatsoever giving whatever information I discovered from it to my father, and you damned well know it.”

Draco stopped suddenly, surprised that he’d said so much. He rarely spoke so freely with anyone but his mother or Pansy—maybe Crabbe or Goyle, when they weren’t busy managing his father’s finances. Potter knew where he stood, Draco rationalised, but he’d just directly admitted it, and in the presence of at least a dozen house-elves that weren’t under his command.

He was so baffled by his slip that he nearly failed to notice the fact that Potter hadn’t reacted to the admission at all.

A particular house-elf, looking a bit more rundown than the others, came forward at Potter’s request. She curtseyed, but her floppy ears stayed limp even after she’d risen. “How may Winky help Harry Potter, sir?” she said, and Draco was shocked to hear the exhaustion in her voice. He’d never before heard of an elf being tired—though of course they could be, he reasoned.

“Winky,” Potter said, “please tell the other elves not to speak of anything they might’ve heard said between Malfoy and I tonight. This is very important; can you do that, Winky?”

The elf wrung her hands fretfully. Draco glanced up, and noticed that every elf in the Kitchens had stopped what it was doing and was watching the exchange.

“Winky wants to help Harry Potter, sir, but Winky doesn’t think that any elves will listen to her.”

Potter’s eyebrows scrunched as if he understood whatever this odd elf meant by the crazy words she was saying. He frowned, considering, but another elf spoke up, saying, “Hogwart’s house-elves will help Harry Potter. Sir.” The rest nodded, and it was an eerie sight.

Potter nodded his thanks, plucked another apricot tart from the tray, and that was about the time that Draco realised that the stupid Gryffindor had been trying to save Draco’s arse from his own stupid mistake.

Potter looked back at him, and it was a funny thing how just at that moment, the kitchen torches flared bright enough that the uncanny colour of Potter’s eyes made Draco look away, just for a moment.

“Well,” Draco said. He felt a bit awkward.

Potter didn’t seem to notice. He said, as if the previous conversation had not been interrupted, “Dumbledore expects me to spend more time trying to figure out what he’s up to than actually work on the ring. If he actually wanted me to find out what was wrong with it, he would have set the project for just me—or me and Hermione.”

“You’re serious,” Draco said, eyebrows raised. He’d thought Potter was just being lazy.

Potter nodded. “’Course, Malfoy,” he said, rolling his eyes.

This was all very intriguing, now that he thought about it. To learn that Dumbledore didn’t expect—or want—them to find out what was wrong with it...Draco didn’t quite believe that. More than likely, Dumbledore just assumed that he wouldn’t be able to get a lick of effort out of Potter without an appropriate amount of intrigue and mystery.

Something was niggling at Draco’s brain. An idea, though he couldn’t quite catch it, as was often the case when he was first getting a brilliant idea. It was just like Potter to do something arse-backwards and—No, that was it, he thought. We have to go backwards, just like in beginning Arithmancy.

Deciding on a course of action, Draco said, “I think it would be brilliant to find out what Dumbledore’s game is, then.”

Potter quirked a grin. “Good luck with that, then.”

Draco huffed, and said, “Don’t you think it would be a bit easier to deduce what the purpose of the ring is if we knew how it was affected by magic?”

Potter seemed to consider this. “Alright, Malfoy; you win.”

Draco couldn’t help it this time; he smiled delightedly, and he didn’t even think to keep his teeth covered when he did. “Say it again,” he pleaded, laughing. “Oh, please, Potter—say it again.”

Potter grinned back at him. “No."

Draco gathered his books. “Well, fine. Let’s go.”

Potter stood up as well. “Where are we going?” He looked longingly at the last two apricot tarts, and after a moment’s hesitation took them, too. “It’s nearly curfew—Hermione’ll kill me if I get caught after.”

“I’m going back to Slytherin to check some references on this,” Draco said, jogging up the wooden stairs and pushing against the back of the fruit painting. “I have no idea where you’re going or what’ll happen to your dead body after the—Head Girl catches you.”

ɤɣɤ

Malfoy stopped short suddenly, and Harry, not exactly paying full attention, bumped into him on the kitchen stairs. He didn’t want to admit to himself that he’d enjoyed their banter, but the feeling he got when his chest bumped into Malfoy’s back was a bit different. Malfoy was standing in the middle of the doorway, blocking the exit, and Harry, who was a step lower, couldn’t see around to see what had made him stop.

“Malfoy, move your pale arse,” he said, giving him a little push. Malfoy didn’t move, and in the short span of time from when Harry bumped into him, to when he hastily stepped back down, he could feel the tenseness in the Slytherin’s back.

“Malfoy,” Harry tried again, louder.

Malfoy shushed him, and tried to step back down the stairs, but Harry was in the way, and a voice called out from the other side of the door. Harry couldn’t see anything, but he would recognise that voice anywhere.

“Harry!” It was Ron.

Malfoy finally moved forward and Harry quickly followed him up, but as soon as he entered the corridor, he wished he hadn’t. He realised now what Malfoy had been staring at: Ron was sitting on the floor underneath a bit down the hall underneath a painting of an extremely buxom woman wearing a low-cut dress. She looked quite put out.

“I was hungry,” Ron was saying, “so I reckoned I’d come get me some sandwiches, but she wouldn’t let me in.” He pointed vaguely above his head, and the witch snarled down at him, folding her arms over her chest.

Ron continued, confused, “I tickled her pair. Isn’t that what we always did, Harry? Tickle the pair, right?” He chose that moment to lift a bottle of Odgen’s Favourite Firewhiskey to his lips and drink.

Harry looked over to Malfoy, who was staring at Ron with a fierce look, but his lips remained pressed firmly together. The Prefect badge on his robe gleamed in the torchlight, and Harry felt brief sense of panic. What in Merlin’s name was Ron doing? And here, Malfoy was a Prefect, and—oh, Merlin—he had to get Ron sobered up and back to Gryffindor immediately, but what was that spell Hermione used?

Harry ran over, and Ron took that moment to better focus his eyes; he noticed Malfoy standing back, and he rose to his feet of his own accord, brandishing the firewhiskey like a weapon.

“Malfoy!” Ron exclaimed. “What are you doing here, you dirty ferret?” Malfoy didn’t answer; Ron took a few wobbly steps forward. “Have you been with Harry this whole time?” he asked shrewdly.

“Ron, shut it,” Harry said frantically. He grabbed him by the shoulders, trying to pull him back, but his friend was much taller, much heavier, and he lumbered forward.

By now, Ron was only feet from Malfoy, who was still standing against the far wall and still looking at Ron with that strange, hard look. Harry had never seen it before but he knew he never wanted to see it again. It wasn’t vicious or vindictive, as he’d expected Malfoy might look if he caught Ron drinking again, but something else entirely.

It was then that Harry realised that it had indeed been Malfoy to catch Ron the first time, and he remembered McGonagall’s dire warning then. “Please,” Harry said, directing his words to Malfoy now. “Please let me just get him back to Gryffindor—I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Malfoy glanced at him, then back to Ron, and still said nothing. Harry’s heart was beginning to beat rather frenetically; the weight of it all was crashing down on him full-force, and the only thing he could think was that if Ron got caught, there would be no more second chances.

“Have you been fucking Harry?” Ron asked loudly. Harry, shocked beyond measure, let go of Ron’s arms, and the redhead stumbled forward, upsetting a painting as he grabbed the frame for balance.

Malfoy looked just as stunned as Harry; his mouth opened just a fraction, and made a little sound of—something. Ron poked the Slytherin’s chest, dropping the firewhiskey in the process, where it shattered on the floor, dousing their feet and flooding the corridor in a strong smell of alcohol. “He’s with Seamus,” Ron continued. “You stay away from him, you filthy Death Eater...Why do Slyth-erns like to fuck my friends? You tell Nott to leave Herm-y-nee alone—he’s just as—”

“Ron!” Harry exclaimed. “Ron, please stop. Just—please, shut your fucking mouth.”

Ron looked back at him slowly, drowsily, “Did you break up with Seamus, Harry?”

Having no idea how to respond to that, except to try once again to get Ron back to Gryffindor, Harry didn’t answer. He closed his fingers tightly around Ron’s arm again, and said, “Please, Malfoy—“

“You’re sleeping with Finnigan?” Malfoy interrupted incredulously. It was the first thing he’d said since they left the Kitchens, and the last thing Harry ever wanted to hear from the Slytherin.

“What? Yes—no, I don’t know, Malfoy,” Harry said desperately. “Please—please Malfoy, just don’t report this, please?”

Ron was still staring at Harry, as if he were patiently waiting for an answer, and he wasn’t resisting Harry’s pushes as much, but that still didn’t make him any easier to move.

“You know what you ought to report, Malfoy?” Ron added loudly. “You ought to report the Head Boy and the Head Girl snogging with their robes off in the—“

“Ron!” Harry exclaimed, hoping to spare himself—and Malfoy—any details about Hermione without her kit on.

Ron ignored him, and slipped on the wet stones beneath his feet. Harry caught him before he hit the ground, but Ron didn’t seem to care, and Malfoy didn’t either. His eyes narrowed slowly, and Harry said again, “Please, Malfoy, I’m taking him now—“

“That won’t be necessary, Mr Black,” a hard voice called from behind him. Harry looked up; in front of him, Malfoy’s eyes were wide with shock. Harry didn’t even have it in him to protest any longer. He let go of Ron’s arms, and turned slowly, so as not to slip in the firewhiskey.

Professor McGonagall, a roll of essays in her hands, stared at the three of them with a hard look. “Mr Malfoy, it’s nearly curfew; please see to your Prefect duties.”

“Yes, Professor,” he said, and hurried away without a backwards glance. Harry watched him, walking stiff-backed and quickly, and tried not to think about Malfoy’s Prefect duties—or how even though he’d never told Harry he wouldn’t report it all, he hadn’t said he would, either.

Harry felt defeated, and angry that Ron still hadn’t grasped the enormity of the situation. His redheaded friend was now staring at the still-life pear painting, contemplative.

Harry heard him mumbling to himself, and wondered if he’d finally remembered what kind of pear he was supposed to tickle. His suspicions were confirmed when he reached up and lightly stroked the fruit, though the door still didn’t open because his finger had landed on the apple instead.

“Mr Black,” McGonagall said. Harry turned back to find her watching him, frowning.

“Professor?” he replied wearily.

“You understand that there’s nothing that can be done now, don’t you? It’s out of my hands. He was given a warning.”

Harry nodded, though he wanted to ask whose hands it was in now. McGonagall was right: there was nothing to be done now, but it still didn’t seem quite real—what was he going to do without his best mate? How was Ron to join the Aurors with him if he didn’t get the necessary NEWTs?

“Very well, then; you may return to your common room.”

“But Professor—“

“You are dismissed, Mr Black.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Harry said. He turned towards the main staircase, but as he reached the first step, he felt like seven storeys was an insurmountable task. He wasn’t sure he would ever make it to the top.

ɤɣɤ

France was not as warm as he had expected it to be.

He gave Nagini an apologetic hiss, and she gave him the equivalent of a shrug in reply. “I am accustomed to it,” she said. Feeling remorseful, Voldemort cast a mild warming spell around her, but he knew, from experience, that it would do no good. She would just have to find something large to eat, so that her metabolism would warm her up from the inside.

“Milord!” someone called from behind him. The Dark Lord turned, took in the pretty scenery of Saint-Jean-de-Luz with mild appreciation, and nodded at the men striding up. It was Yaxley, who knew well enough to treat him with respect when in the company of others.

“Edward,” he said. Nagini slithered off to find a badger for lunch, and Tom nodded to the second man.

“Milord, this is Philippe Delacour, captain of the Oureur squad in charge of the Dementor project.” Captain Delacour gave him a stiff nod—so stiff that barely a single blond hair moved on his head. This was acceptable. The French were not so frightened or wary of him as those on his own little island were, but that didn’t mean they trusted him. Of course, the man was French, and most likely didn’t care for him simply because he was English. Just as well.

“A singular pleasure to meet you, Monsieur Delacour.” They did not shake hands: a smart decision when wizards were involved. “Could you update me on your progress?”

Delacour turned his head and stared off at a group several hundred metres off; Tom had not previously noticed them, but now that he did, he realised that they were mostly his men, and they were building. The thing that they were building was nothing like Voldemort had ever seen, and it ached with wickedness. “You English,” Delacour said roughly, “do not appreciate life as you should.”

He paused, and his eyes flickered briefly to meet the Dark Lord’s. “My younger sister,” he continued, “once met an Englishman—she thought of little but him from that day forward. She was probably thinking of him when a pack of Polish weres sneaked up on her.”

The Frenchman nodded to a young girl among the group, standing just a bit away from the rest, and directing them from a position on the tip of her toes. She craned her neck to see around a large wizard, and turned, and it was then that Voldemort saw the long, jagged scar running down her neck and across her clavicle that her golden hair had been hiding. It looked like it had been a deep wound; Tom wondered absently how she survived it.

“Part Veela,” Delacour answered his unspoken question. “Our magic does more than attract sexual partners.”

“Impressive,” Voldemort allowed. He had met a Veela once; the effect she’d had on him had been the root of an impressive row with Calixta. She’d always been the jealous type. Next to him, Yaxley shifted on his feet, and Voldemort shared a look with him. Perhaps he was remembering the same incident.

The Oureur huffed sarcastically. “We already lose Gabrielle once a month thanks to you Englishmen; do not under-appreciate the value of those other twenty-nine days to me and my family.”

“Duly noted,” Voldemort said. In truth, he cared not one whit for the teenage Veela-girl, but he would not knowingly send a child to her death anyway. He sneered, and then added, “Now tell me about your work.”

To his credit, Delacour didn’t flinch. “With assistance from Monsieur Weiss, Luxembourg’s leading Runist, we are creating a threshold that will, in theory, attract the most primal parts of the Dementors in the area. They won’t be able to ignore the call of the runes, and we—with assistance from the werewolves—will be able to shackle them until such time as we can feed them and release them—hopefully sated—for breeding.”

Tom nodded slowly, considering the idea. He turned to his old friend, and said, “What do you make of this, Edward?”

Yaxley ran a hand through his grey hair. “Best shot we’ve got, you ask me. It’s not like we can put an advert in the Quibbler and they’ll all flock to us, no questions asked.”

“What about the shackling?” Voldemort asked. “Can you actually hold a Dementor captive? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Sure,” Edward said. “Same process they use at Azkaban and Kiljoy, only more focused. It’s all rune-work; you just got to get the right runes on the shackles, and Dementors are like viruses in that regard; one rune series might work for a handful of Dementors, while it might require a whole different formula for others.” He gestured roughly at a tall, thin man with thick glasses standing next to the Veela-werewolf. “That’s what we’ve got the Runist for. He’s quick; he can get them shackled before they realise what’s happening.”

“Good,” Tom said. He turned back to Delacour. “What will you require from my end to make this a success?”

The Frenchman reached into his government-issued work-robe—which was admittedly much finer than anything British Aurors wore—and pulled out a folded parchment. “All of Monsieur Weiss’ rune-work is here; he affirms that we will need four-hundred and seven souls to feed all of the Dementors in continental Europe...four-hundred eighty-nine if we are to include those residing on the British Isles, as well.”

“Is there a margin of error?” Tom asked, ignoring Delacour’s last, cheeky remark.

Delacour nodded. “Monsieur Weiss suggests that we have on hand no less than five-hundred fifty souls, to account for any rogue Dementors that we were unaware existed.”

“Wise,” Tom agreed, nodding again. He let his eyes rove over the group of men and women, all werewolves as far as he could tell, who were busy directing wood and stones into some pre-arranged design for Dementor-attraction. It would only be a matter of time before they were finished and the Dementors started showing up; Voldemort had no doubt that they would, either.

He glanced over Weiss’ equations; they were sound, and he wondered why he had not thought of the solution himself. Ah, he remembered, it was because I never put the thought into it. It was almost worth regretting; he had once been very adept at Runes—he had once loved working them.

“I will have your five-hundred and fifty persons,” Voldemort finally said. “It will take time to acquire them, however. Is Yuletide soon enough for you?”

Delacour shook his head regretfully. “I’m sorry, lord,” he said, showing the first sign of respect since the beginning of their conversation. “You have a fortnight, maximum, before it begins.”

There was no need to explain what ‘it’ was; Tom knew. He glanced at Edward, standing at his side. Yaxley nodded minutely, confirming the time-limit. “They are much too restless even now.”

“I was under the impression that we had a upwards of a year to deal with this before it became a crises; I was under the impression that there was a strict time frame—that Arithmantic maths were factored into the breeding time.”

Delacour looked pained. “Arithmancy is a young art, even now. The last time the Dementors bred, it was even younger. If mistakes in calculation were made then, it would affect our calculations now, and I would not be surprised if that is what’s happened.”

Voldemort glanced up, and exhaled, though it relieved none of his stress. The sun was now beginning to set over water, but the were-workers were not slowing down. “A fortnight,” he repeated. He could see Delacour nodding in reply from his peripheral vision. “I will make it happen,” he said wearily. “You’ll have your persons, though I can’t guarantee the succulence of their souls.”

“Dementors care little for taste,” Edward said quietly. And of course he would know. For all that he, like everyone else, despised Dementors and redcaps and all those other vile creatures, he loved them just as much—just as he loved his werewolves, the same ones who were building some vast, inexplicable effigy of stone and wood that even now exuded a darkness that put even Voldemort on edge.

The longer he stood near it, the more he wanted to leave. No wonder the French had required his cooperation via werewolves. They could stand this sort of thing like no human wizard could.

Tom chuckled darkly. No, Dementors wouldn’t care much for taste, would they? The few unfortunate werewolves who had already lost their lives on this mission could attest for that—but it was their soulless bodies, left behind, that had guided the researches to this one spot in the end. They had contributed much more than they probably thought.

The building site was chaotic in the way that all building sites were; there was no sense of fear among the people here, and maybe that was what was most frightening of all to Edward about this mission. The werewolves here felt safe, and they would be unprepared when the first Dementor, called by their work, showed up to eat.

But with error, there was learning. Voldemort hissed, and Nagini slithered up to him from a hiding place nearby. She was cold to the touch, but so was he, and they had no time for creature comforts. With a turn, they disappeared.

ɤɣɤ