Actions

Work Header

The Hush of War

Chapter Text

Warfare (n): 1. the waging of armed conflict against an enemy, 2. an active struggle between competing entities

ɤɣɤ

Ron was not at dinner, which should have been the first sign that something was wrong, but Harry, so caught up in a discussion of the pros and cons of performing a Wronski Feint during bad weather, and Hermione, so absorbed in a bit of light reading, hardly noticed. Seamus sat next to Harry and positioned a fork to hover vertically above a bowl of mashed potatoes.

"Harry," Seamus said, accent thick in his excitement, "you gotta remember that your visibility's gonna be like…I don't know, really shoddy. You could come up on the ground and not even realise it 'til your head is buried under the dirt and your legs are twitchin'."

Harry looked at him askance as he shovelled another bite of steak and kidney pie into his mouth. He swallowed and said, "Seamus, when's the last time you performed a feint of any kind?"

Seamus looked a bit shifty, which was not altogether unusual: Seamus was usually pretty shifty, actually. He'd gotten along famously with the twins, after all. "You know I haven't," Seamus said with a scowl. "I'm not a Seeker, anyway."

Harry considered the fact that in fifth year Seamus hadn't been much of a Chaser either. Seamus seemed to pick up on Harry's line of thought because he said next, "I've been practising. You've gotta replace Katie and Alicia—I'm gonna try out."

Harry looked at him dubiously, which he was allowed to do because Seamus knew how badly he'd performed in fifth year. "Good luck," Harry said, grinning.

Seamus gave him a mocking, narrow-eyed glance. "Won't need it," he said. On the other side of him, Dean leaned forward and gave Harry a significant look.

"Everyone knows the Irish can't play Quidditch," he said good-naturedly.

Seamus looked over at him. "And I s'pose the World Cup three years ago was just a fluke then?"

Harry and Dean laughed. "You're both welcome to try out," he said. "I'm holding tryouts for Beaters too—hopefully there are better flyers to be had than Kirk and Sloper by now."

Seamus grinned and elbowed him suggestively, which Seamus was wont to do on occasion—or often, actually. "Beaters, huh? I hadn't even thought of that. Might be fun—I have a natural talent for handling thick wood and feisty balls."

Dean rolled his eyes. "That was really bad—even for you." Harry nodded sadly in agreement.

"Oh honestly, Seamus," Hermione said exasperatedly from Harry's other side. All three boys turned to look at her, eyebrows raised. Harry would have thought, by then, that Hermione had grown accustomed to crass boarding-school boy humour. Obviously, he had been wrong.

"What?" Seamus said defensively.

Hermione pursed her lips and Harry settled in for a lecture on the proper etiquette used around ladies.

"I could have come up with a better pun," she said, and then turned back to her book: it was well over a thousand pages and she was reading them so quickly that the words blurred to Harry's eyes. All three boys burst out laughing.

"Of course you could have," Dean said. "But yours probably would have included something frightful about beating balls. Everyone knows about how you like to manage Ron."

"Bet Ronnie likes it too," Seamus snickered.

Hermione scowled. "Where is Ron?" she asked, looking up and down the table. Harry followed her glances, frowning.

"I don't know," he said. "He was in the dorm when we came down. He said Neville had forgotten something for his Herbology thesis and he was going to take it to him first."

Hermione looked at him, then at her watch, then back to Harry. "Well it's a quarter 'til and he's still not here. Certainly it can't have taken him forty-five minutes to drop something off at the greenhouses…?"

Harry shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said, standing up. Dean, Seamus and Hermione followed. He grabbed a few rolls off the table and wrapped them in a napkin. "We can just bring him something back and if he's still hungry later, I'll let him use my..you know...to go down to the kitchens." Hermione neglected to say anything about how, as Head Girl, she could not advocate such an expedition, which proved just how curious the situation was to her.

After all, Ron never missed a meal.

ɤɣɤ

Harry stumbled into the dorm room and landed on top of Dean with Seamus landing on top of him. The Irish boy had gotten it in his head that they should play levitating leap frog up the stairs and Harry had been in too good a mood to tell him it was a bad idea—which it had been, judging by the state of things.

They'd done well going up the seven main staircases, and Dean had even convinced Hermione to leap over all of them once—for self-levitation practise purposes, of course—but Harry had lost control of his Wingardium Leviosa at the top of the stairs leading to the boys' dorm and fallen on top of Dean. Seamus, thinking this was probably better than the game itself, used it as an excuse to fall on Harry.

They lay sprawled in a laughing heap inside the door until Dean started to complain about Harry's armpit being in his face.

"Seamus, stop rutting," Dean said exasperatedly. "I can feel it all the way down here, you pervy sod."

"Harry doesn't seem to mind," Seamus said. "He's writhing like he likes it."

Harry lifted his head from the floor. "You mistake my resigned squirming to get away with writhing," he said blankly. He was very glad that Hermione had gone on up to the girls' dorm instead of following them up to talk. None of them would ever live it down if she had seen any of this.

Seamus finally lifted himself up and Harry and Dean untangled themselves from each other, still giggling occasionally.

They stepped all the way in the boys' dorm, shut the door behind them, and finally saw Ron. He was sitting, white-faced on the edge of his bed, staring at nothing. Harry had a moment of embarrassed guilt at having been caught in such a position with Dean and Seamus before he realised that Ron had noticed none of it. He was not white-faced from seeing them sprawled suggestively on the floor—it was for an entirely different reason.

Harry just didn't know what that reason was.

"Ron, mate, what's wrong?" Dean asked, plopping down on his bed. Seamus crawled up the ladder to his own bed and lay down, staring down at Ron. The year before, he'd been able to talk Dean into converting their beds into bunk beds, and Professor McGonagall had not made them change it back. Seamus called it the Fort.

Ron didn't move, didn't acknowledge them at all. He hadn't seemed to have heard. Cautiously, Harry walked over, sat next to Ron, and put his hand lightly on his redheaded friend's shoulder. Ron jerked and looked at Harry. His eyes were abnormally large, almost as large as Luna Lovegood's.

"Malfoy," Ron said hoarsely.

Harry furrowed his eyebrows. "What did he do? Did he say something about your mum again?"

Ron shook his head slowly. "No."

"Erm…did he call you Weasel?"

"No," Ron said in that same hoarse voice. Harry exchanged looks with Dean and Seamus. He was running out of ideas. Altercations with Malfoy usually followed the same agenda: taunting family and then ending with a riveting bout of name-calling.

"Well did you get into a row with him at all?"

"No," Ron said.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Then what did the little ferret do?"

"He saw me," Ron said.

"Okay," Harry said slowly. "Saw you what? He sees you every day—oh, did he catch you wanking in the prefect's bathroom?" he asked with a teasing grin. Seamus and Dean sniggered.

"No," Ron said, completely ignoring the jibe. He paused and then added, very slowly, "He saw me having a bit of a drink, and he reported me to McGonagall. She wrote my mum."

Harry inhaled sharply. He'd thought that Ron had run out of firewhiskey in their first week back and so had said nothing about his friend's increasingly bad habit. He'd hoped that with enough time without alcohol, Ron would forget about it. He reckoned he had been wrong.

"You got caught?" Seamus asked, scandalised. "How'd you get caught?" He leaned further over the bed and stared down at Ron in curiosity. "You must have been doing it in plain sight for Malfoy to catch you."

"Greenhouse Four," Ron said, nodding. He'd seemed to get a bit a colour back by now, but he was still so pale that every one of his freckles stood out in stark contrast. Seamus sighed in exasperation.

"Really, mate," Seamus said, "you should have known better. Malfoy's taking Herbology too; of course he'd be there tonight." Dean craned his neck over the side of his bed to stare up at Seamus. Seamus looked down at him defensively. "What? So I like to see men getting their hands dirty."

Harry sniggered, totally forgetting the situation at hand. "You would," he said.

"Even Neville?" Dean asked, lips twitching. Seamus sneered at him playfully.

"She took my prefect's badge away," Ron continued slowly, bringing all of them back to the conversation. Harry gaped.

"Bollocks," Seamus said. "Now one of us is gonna have to do it."

"Shut up, Seamus," Dean said. Harry gave him a thankful look. Ron hadn't been paying attention, but it still wasn't the time for jokes. He seriously doubted McGonagall would pick Seamus as Ron's replacement anyway. Most likely, it would be Dean.

"It'll be okay, Ron," Harry said, patting him awkwardly on the back. Ron glanced at him.

"No it won't."

Harry bit his lip. "Ron—you really shouldn't be drinking as much as you do anyway. Especially not when we’ve got Potions essays due."

"This is a regular thing?" Dean asked. Harry looked significantly at Seamus and then back to Dean. Dean got it in one. He promptly closed his mouth.

"I'm out anyway," Ron said, flopping back on his bed. "McGonagall confiscated my last bottle." He sighed heavily and then pulled the duvet over his head. "I'm just going to go to bed. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and this will all have been a bad dream."

As soon as Ron's curtains were closed, Seamus scurried back down the ladder and into Dean's bed to talk about Ron, but Harry was suddenly feeling just as tired as his friend. He padded back over to his bed, pulled off his shirt, and went to sleep, still wearing his trousers.

And to think, he had thought this year would be easy.

ɤɣɤ

Harry woke up sweating and breathing heavily. He sat up in his bed in Gryffindor Tower and fumbled for his wand to cast a Tempus spell, groaning at the time. It was only eleven-thirty, but he’d been waking up like this almost every night since he’d arrived back at Hogwarts on September first, nearly two weeks ago, and knew that he wouldn’t get back to sleep. He didn’t know why the dreams unsettled him so much, but they did, and always left him feeling horrible in the morning.

Vaguely, he wondered why he hadn’t had these dreams so often while he was still staying at River House over the summer, and then remembered that many of his nights had been occupied with Voldemort. They weren't now: Voldemort was temporarily satisfied with him. He'd left him alone thus far.

But perhaps his mind was trying to tell him something. He lay back in his bed, trying to go back to sleep, but after fifteen minutes, realised it wasn’t going to happen. Of course he wouldn’t be that lucky.

He just couldn’t get them out of his head once he had them each night. If only he could make out whom the voice belonged to, or remember what they told him once he woke up—then maybe he'd be able to forget about it.

With a sigh, Harry stood up and rummaged through his trunk for his map. Perhaps some wandering would tire him out enough to sleep. He pulled the map out and activated it, scanning the castle for any late night lurkers that might impede his exploring.

A black dot moving around in the dungeons caught his eye. He hadn't thought once of Malfoy since he'd gotten back to Hogwarts, but seeing him wandering around brought back memories of the night Voldemort had come for him. He remembered Malfoy's strange, crazed eyes and cringed.

Why was he surprised? He hadn't been wrong when he'd generalised Malfoy as a future Death Eater all those years ago, he just hadn't known to what extent Malfoy would be one. Clearly, Malfoy was just as mad as Bellatrix Lestrange or Fenrir Greyback, who Harry had heard stories of from Professor Lupin.

Malfoy was so strange; it was obvious to Harry that he had no preference whatsoever what happened to the wizarding world, so long as he got to Avada Kedavra without discrimination. Malfoy, Harry thought, would kill his own mother without a second thought, and do it messily at that. Of course, Harry could be wrong. He didn't think he was though.

He was certain, now more than ever, that every time Malfoy had played a dangerous prank on him, he really had been trying to kill him. Harry snorted in bitter amusement as the little black dot paced up and down the dungeons. What was wrong with him? Why was he so amused by this?

Harry looked out through his curtains at the other boys. Neville had come in sometime after Harry had drifted off, and was now snoring almost as loudly as Ron. Ron—Harry glanced at his sleeping friend and frowned.

He should have done something sooner, but he hadn't thought it was so bad. He still didn't, really: all the muggle men his Uncle Vernon invited over for dinner during the summers drank just as much as Ron. But they were grown men, Harry thought. They didn't have studies to worry about—or dark lords either.

“Well,” he said quietly to himself, looking back down at the map. “What could it hurt?” Ron was snoring so loudly now that he figured he could slam the dormitory door and no one would notice it.

Hermione would fix it, Harry thought as he grabbed his invisibility cloak and headed out of the dorms. She would probably have Ron's guts for garters in the process, but at least she would know what to do. On his way to a little corridor in the south dungeons, Harry pulled the cloak tighter around himself and repressed a shiver as he thought of how horrible Ron's day was going to be in the morning.

ɤɣɤ

From two week’s worth of listening to Hermione revise (and revise again) the prefects' round schedules, Harry knew that Draco Malfoy patrolled the dungeons from nine p.m. to midnight every Sunday and Wednesday night—and then wandered around for an hour or so more just because he could. After seeing Malfoy at the Death Eater meeting over the summer, Harry suspected that the Slytherin probably did it for the chance to be cruel if he happened to catch someone out after hours.

Hermione, as Head Girl, patrolled as well, but he was fairly sure she did it for the love of rules.

Harry had refused to even think about this since the start of term because Malfoy was just such a pain in the arse that he couldn’t muster up the patience for it, but he wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again that night, and he might as well do something productive. Maybe Malfoy would surprise him. Maybe Malfoy wouldn’t be such a little bastard. Harry doubted it.

He was under the invisibility cloak when Malfoy sauntered by, and he stepped out behind him, pulling the cloak off and tucking it away. “Malfoy,” he said, slipping his hands in his pockets and trying to look unassuming. Malfoy whirled around and sneered at him.

“Out after hours, Potter?”

Harry smiled benignly, and said a little silent apology to James Potter. “I’m not a Potter, Malfoy,” he chided gently. “You know that. Everyone knows that.”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes, and took a step closer. “You’re not worthy of being a Black,” he sneered. “It’s quite the scandal.”

Harry shrugged again. “Maybe not,” he agreed easily, but didn’t say anything more. The fact alone that Malfoy had yet to take points or draw his wand showed that he was at least a little bit intrigued by what Harry had up his sleeve, whether he wanted to admit it or not. Harry had all night; he wasn’t going back to sleep. He could wait for Malfoy to direct the conversation.

It didn’t take Malfoy as long as he’d suspected it might. "I caught the Weasel indulging himself in the greenhouses tonight," Malfoy said, sneering. "He lost his badge."

Harry frowned. "You think he didn't tell me?"

Malfoy shrugged. "Just wanted to make sure you were aware of it."

"I am," Harry said.

"Is he heartbroken?" Malfoy asked with feigned concern.

"Worried more about what his mum's going to say, I'd think," Harry said flatly—this was turning out just as he'd expected: Malfoy was going to be a prat until one of them lost his temper and started a fight. It was not going to be Harry, he decided stubbornly.

Malfoy snorted. "Disgraceful."

There was a long silence, during which Harry only stared blandly at Malfoy before the Slytherin finally broke. "What do you want, Potter?" Harry raised his eyebrows, smiled coolly, and waited. "Black, then," Malfoy corrected with a sneer.

"What do you think of Voldemort?" Harry said, non sequitur, head cocked innocently to the side. He had no idea what he was doing really, but he knew that Malfoy would eventually become a Death Eater and be under Voldemort’s control, or he would strike out on his own—probably killing everyone in the process. Harry had a vested interest in keeping that from happening, as he assumed he would be one of the first to go.

There was no way Malfoy would ever defect to the Light side, but that didn't bother Harry as much as it might have before. Better to have Malfoy on Voldemort's side than on no one's. He would be much less dangerous under the Dark Lord’s control.

Malfoy gaped at him, but managed to collect himself quickly. Harry could see the warring emotions under Malfoy’s mask of indifference and impatience, but suspected that he would be one of the few who could. He might not be friends or even friendly acquaintances with Malfoy, but he knew him—knew his facial expressions—when he was angry or excited, plotting or bored.

Malfoy had nearly as many facial expressions as any one of Harry’s lively Gryffindor friends, and definitely more than the other Slytherins. Even Crabbe and Goyle were better—and then Harry had a thought: was the dumb shtick their way of hiding their emotions? Harry mused over that for several seconds before turning back to the blond. Right now, Malfoy was confused and angry; it showed all over his face.

“What?” Malfoy asked scathingly. “What do I think of the Dark Lord? Are you mad, Black? He’s a fair sight better than your side,” he spat.

Harry smiled. “Yes,” he agreed. “I think so, too.” He took a moment to bask in wonder at how Malfoy had finally called him by the right name, and then said, “But do you think all the muggles should be killed?”

“Of course,” Malfoy sneered, rolling his eyes at what he assumed was merely ignorance or Gryffindor righteousness. “Muggles are vile, filthy creatures. They should be wiped off the face of the planet.”

Harry nodded, having expected that. “I suppose that’s one solution,” he said with a shrug. Malfoy was spouting off excuses his father had fed to him for years. That was what Harry would need to correct, so that Voldemort would accept him, and Harry wouldn’t have to worry about a rogue elitist psychopath.

Malfoy, again, gaped at him. “The Golden Boy thinks that muggles should be eradicated?” Malfoy questioned. His face showed his doubt—no control whatsoever.

Harry shrugged. “No,” he said. “I think that muggles should be ignored so that wizards can spend their time doing more productive things—like eliminating squib births, thinking for themselves, and replenishing the bloodlines so that magic doesn’t die.”

“You want to kill off the squibs?” Malfoy asked, eyebrow raised. He looked intrigued, of course. Another set of people he would have an excuse to kill, Harry assumed.

“No,” Harry said, rolling his eyes, “I want to prevent them from being born, so that kids don’t have to grow up feeling like they don’t belong.”

“That’s impossible,” Malfoy said. “They’re just freaks of nature.” He shrugged. “Magic does what it wants, sometimes.”

“Like with muggleborns,” Harry added helpfully.

Malfoy shivered in disgust. “Exactly like mudbloods,” he corrected.

“Only that without muggleborns, all magic would eventually die out,” Harry countered. Malfoy opened his mouth to respond, but Harry cut him off. “Voldemort—"

Malfoy flinched. “Stop saying his name.”

“The Dark Lord,” Harry corrected, smirking at Malfoy’s look—he knew full well that only Death Eaters and sympathisers called Voldemort by that title—“says differently.”

Malfoy scoffed. “Even the Dark Lord can’t prevent squibs from being squibs. They’re just born that way,” he insisted. “And how would you know what the Dark Lord says?”

Harry withheld a smile. Malfoy was going to be difficult, but Harry had accepted this task, and who knew? Maybe it would add some excitement to what was starting out to be a rather boring year.

It didn’t matter that they believed in different things; he would try to get into Malfoy’s head—whether Malfoy realized it or not—and then he would see where that took him. Malfoy would probably still become a ruthless arsehole, but Harry had always expected that, and maybe, just maybe, he could make Malfoy into slightly less of a prick.

He ignored Malfoy’s question. He wasn’t stupid.

Malfoy was intelligent and could possibly become a powerful ally, but Harry would not tell him anything sensitive unless he could trust him absolutely. And that meant he was likely to never tell Malfoy even so much as his birthday. He wouldn’t trust the git if his life depended on it—especially if his life depended on it.

“You should have more faith in your master, Malfoy,” Harry said quietly. “And you should start thinking for yourself, instead of letting your father do it for you. I’ve seen you in the library—always studying. You aren’t stupid, so stop being so ignorant.”

Malfoy flinched, stunned, and opened his mouth slightly, but did not speak. It seemed, for once, that he’d been rendered speechless. Harry gave him a polite nod, turned and walked away.

“The Dark Lord’s cause is not ignorant,” Malfoy finally said, but Harry could tell that he was reluctant. He paused and turned back around to face the Slytherin.

“No,” Harry agreed. “Not anymore.” And then he spun back around and trekked back up to Gryffindor Tower. He might be able to get some sleep tonight, after all, and hopefully, he wouldn’t be too tired to hold Quidditch tryouts in the morning.

Harry didn't give a shit about what Malfoy did with his life, but he never backed down from a challenge.

ɤɣɤ

The Great Hall was nearly empty when Harry walked in. It was only seven a.m. by the time he’d gotten ready for the day, but he was not at all surprised to find his best friend, Hermione, already perched at her usual place on the Gryffindor table with a book in her hand.

Ron had been gone when he woke up, which was extremely unusual, as Ron always slept in, and it left Harry feeling wary of what the day would bring. He wondered if Hermione knew yet; how fast did Prefect news travel to the Head Girl? Would McGonagall have already spoken to her? Harry didn't know.

Hermione didn’t notice his entrance until he slipped into a seat across from her, and began filling his plate with breakfast foods.

“Morning, Harry,” she said softly. She didn't look up from her book and she didn't smile at him like she usually did. Harry winced. She knew. “You don’t look like you slept well,” Hermione continued. She flipped another page in her book. This was how she dealt.

“Death’s brother, sleep,” Harry returned with an awkward attempt at matching her casualness. He thought of his night time conversation with Malfoy, and wondered if that constituted as an arguable reason for not sleeping well.

“Virgil said that originally,” she stated. She began buttering a piece of toast with her free hand. Finally, she set the book aside and gave Harry a calculative look, no doubt wondering how much he knew and how to broach a mutually dreaded subject. Harry certainly wasn't going to be the one to bring it up, but he did wonder where Ron was.

Harry gave her a pained smile and went back to his own breakfast. They could both dance around the subject by repeating platitudes, but it wasn't going to make it any easier.

Hermione cleared her throat, and Harry tensed, waiting.

"Professor McGonagall cornered me this morning before breakfast," she said, rather heroically all things considered. Harry wondered how long she would hint and tease before she finally came out with it.

Not long, apparently, because she immediately followed with, "And how long have you known?"

Harry tensed further. "Known what?" he asked in a pathetic attempt to seem innocent. Hermione wasn't that stupid; Harry didn't know why he'd even bothered to try, but he just didn’t want to talk about this uncomfortable subject. Ron would take care of it, and then they could go on as usual. She gave him a condescending glare.

"You know what I'm talking about Harry Black," she said. It made him jump—he still found himself unprepared to be called by that name. The first two weeks of classes hadn't been bad—none of his professors seemed to have had a problem remembering to call him 'Mr. Black'—well, except for Snape—but he had been prepared for it then. He hadn't when Hermione called him by it. "I know you know."

Harry shrugged noncommittally. "Where's Ron?" he asked.

Hermione slammed her buttered toast down on the table. It landed buttered-side down with an awkward squelching noise and Harry stared at it to avoid staring at Hermione. She leaned her head very close to his in an attempt at privacy, even though the Great Hall was virtually empty.

"Do not play me for a fool, Harry James Potter Black," she hissed, as if she didn't know which name would intimidate him the most and finally decided to use every one she could think of. Harry flinched, thinking it sounded absurd, and hoping no one else ever called him that. "You knew! You knew all along. Ron was acting strange this summer—and when I thought about it, I realized you were, too. Were you doing it too?"

Harry lifted his head from where she'd jerked it level with her own. "No," he said indignantly. "I've got more important things to worry about than getting pissed."

"Then why was Ron doing it? Why did you let it go on?"

"Who says I knew anything about it?" Harry asked.

Hermione snarled. "I am not a fool, Harry. Quit playing me like one."

"Fine," Harry muttered, resigned. "Yeah, I knew."

Hermione looked as if she couldn't tell whether to be triumphant at having gotten the information out of him or horrified at what the information was. "I knew it," she said. And then, "Why was he doing it?"

Harry had a faint idea, but it seemed so stupid even to him that he was reluctant to repeat it to Hermione. He took a tentative bite of his breakfast, stalling for time, but Hermione shoved his plate away and once he had swallowed what was in his mouth, he had nothing left to occupy himself with. "I don't know," he said.

Hermione gave him another look. "Bollocks!" she hissed, still leaning very close to him. She was staring at him with narrowed eyes and Harry realised that she looked even more intimidating than ever before. "Tell me." It was not a request; it was an order.

"I think he fancies you," Harry said, scratching his neck uncomfortably.

Hermione rolled her eyes in exasperation. "That’s lovely, Harry, but why was he drinking so much alcohol? Why was he so dependant on it that he couldn't stop once he got back to school?"

"You're the smart one," Harry sneered. "You tell me."

Hermione slapped him.

Then gathered her things, and walked right out of the Great Hall. Harry stared at her retreating back, feeling like a huge prat and wondering if that was how Malfoy felt every single day of his life. He glanced across the hall to see if the Slytherin had actually made it to breakfast himself, and instead, his eyes landed on a rabbity-looking brown-haired, brown-eyed Slytherin. Theodore Nott caught his eye and stared.

Harry looked away and quickly followed Hermione out of the Hall.

ɤɣɤ

"I'm sorry," he pleaded as he finally caught up to Hermione on the third floor. They had Defence with Hufflepuff first thing on Mondays and Wednesdays, so he had known, relatively, where to find her. She ignored him, swinging her bag over to her other shoulder and staring resolutely ahead as if she hadn't heard him at all.

"I'm sorry," Harry repeated again. He was struggling to keep up with her pace, even after six plus years of Quidditch. "Look—," he said, grabbing her shoulder and forcing her to stop. She spun around with a magnificent scowl and crossed her arms over her chest, looking as if she would tap her foot if it weren't a gesture so beneath her.

"I knew," he said plaintively. "You're right, I knew, but I didn't think it was so bad. Yeah, it made me uncomfortable, but how the hell was I supposed to know it was such a bad thing? My relatives had a few glasses of wine every night with dinner and my uncle's business partners did, too."

He sighed and ran his free hand through his hair. "He did it a lot over the summer—every night, I'd reckon, but," he looked around as if to find something to help him explain, but found nothing. "But it was never really my thing. My da—Sirius has a brandy every now and then, but it wasn't nearly as much as Ron did. I just thought Ron had a taste for it. Like sweets," he finished lamely.

Hermione snorted humourlessly. "Like sweets?" she asked. Harry shrugged uncomfortably. Hermione shook her head in disbelief. "Honestly, Harry, if you didn't think it was all that bad then why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't think it was my place to tell you."

"But it would only be 'not your place' to tell me if Ron was doing something he ought not to be and you were protecting him from me. Don't you agree?"

Harry looked at her warily, and refused to answer. He hated being backed into a corner.

"If you didn't think Ron was doing anything wrong," Hermione carried on, "then it wouldn't have mattered who knew, would it? It would have been me learning something new about my friend, wouldn't it?"

Harry shrugged. "I guess."

"So you knew it was wrong," Hermione deduced.

Harry looked at her sharply. He hadn't really meant that. He had meant—well, he really didn't know what he meant, Harry realised.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Hermione asked again.

"Wasn't my place," Harry repeated. Honestly, if they were going to go through this again—

"You knew it was wrong, and you knew—even if it was only subconsciously—that Ron needed help. Why did you hide this for him? I know you must have—Ron is about as subtle as a troll in an antique shop. He would have ousted himself already if you hadn't been guarding his back."

"I snuck him up to my room to sleep it off while Fred guarded the door," Harry admitted. It was practically impossible to keep secrets from Hermione, and with that, he suddenly got the horrifying thought that it was likely Hermione was going to find out what he had been up to as well. He struggled to keep his expression from changing. Now was not the time to think about that. "And I gave him a hang-over potion once."

"Why did you have a hang-over potion?" Hermione asked suspiciously.

Harry narrowed his eyes at her. This wasn't about him, and he was damned if he was going to let it get turned around. The consequences of Hermione on an Inquisition could be more than just a little bit damaging. "My dad gave it to me on my birthday, but I didn't drink enough to need it."

"Why was he doing it?" Hermione asked abruptly. Harry rubbed his eyes tiredly.

"I told you. I don't know, but once, when he was at it in the drawing room while I talked to my grandparents' portrait, he told me that he loved you."

Hermione snorted. "Right, Harry."

"That's what he said," Harry said defensively.

"Ron doesn't love me," Hermione said flatly. "I don't think he knows exactly what he wants, but it's certainly not me. I'm everything he doesn't like: rules, logic and not a fan of Quidditch."

Harry shrugged. Love could be funny like that, or so he had always thought. Maybe he was wrong, but he didn't think that sort of thing mattered when you were in love. But maybe Hermione was right; maybe Ron really didn't know what he wanted. The bell in the North Tower sounded the hour, and they hurried into the Defence classroom just as the professor was shutting the door.

Ron was not in class either. Dean, Seamus and Neville were saving the two of them seats near the back and from the look on Neville's face, Harry knew that he had been informed about what happened in the dormitory the night before. Harry gave them a weak smile as he led Hermione to the table across the isle from theirs. They smiled faintly back.

On the opposite side of the room, the Hufflepuffs had no idea what was going on; Justin Finch-Fletchley and Hannah Abbott even seemed to be clueless. Harry supposed that it wouldn't be too long before they found out. If McGonagall didn't announce it to them, then Malfoy surely would.

He saw Zacharias Smith leaning back in his chair next to Justin Finch-Fletchley and looking at him, eyebrow raised. The two of them had eaten dinner together with Harry's father and Zacharias' parents over the summer and then lunch at Merlin's Magic Mushroom, but Harry didn't think that made them friends.

The fact that he'd seen Zacharias' mother, Yasmin Smith, at a Death Eater meeting, however, did mean he would have to keep an eye on him. He gave Smith a similar glance and turned back to the front just as their new professor cleared her throat.

"Good morning," Professor Sinclair said, smiling. She was a woman of about thirty-five years with black hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks and a warm smile, but Harry got the feeling that she wasn’t as kind as she looked. She would have to be at least a little hardened to be a Death Eater.

He wondered, knowing that Smith's mother was a Death Eater as well, how many other students knew about her. There were certainly more students in the school with Death Eater ties than he had originally thought. Strangely enough, it didn’t bother him. He reckoned that everyone had their secrets…and how macabre a thought was that, he wondered. He also deluded himself into believing that those families had good reasons for joining Voldemort.

"Good morning, Professor Sinclair," the class echoed back. She smiled brightly at them.

"It is a good morning, isn't it?" she continued. Harry liked that about her: she was always so bloody cheerful. "My husband floo-called last night," she said.

That was another thing about her: she liked to tell her classes amusing anecdotes about her husband, Vlad, a Russian wizard who had gone to Durmstrang, but had always failed his Dark Arts classes. He just didn't have a knack for them, apparently.

The class tittered in expectant amusement. They had only known her for two weeks, but whenever she mentioned her husband, it was sure to be a laugh.

"Some colleagues invited him to go hunting in Romania this weekend," she continued, propping herself on the edge of her desk and grinning mischievously. Harry wondered who those 'colleagues' were. "He caught a rabbit, and they were going to have it for dinner, but when he tried to cast a skinning spell, it backfired and shaved his head instead. He looks ridiculous," she ended fondly.

Harry laughed along with the rest of the class. Even Hermione looked like she wanted to crack a smile, but she absolutely refused to do so, and instead stared down at her blank parchment. She didn't like Professor Sinclair as much as everyone else did. She assumed (rightly, though Harry would never tell her) that Mercy Sinclair was a Death Eater or at least a sympathiser if she could be so blasé about the Dark Arts.

"So, yes," Professor Sinclair continued jovially once the laughter had died down, "it is a very good morning for me…but maybe not for my husband, who left his wool cap on the kitchen table."

There was more scattered laughter and then the professor hopped off the desk and stood facing the class with her hands behind her back.

“Now that I've sufficiently ruined my husband's terrifying reputation for the morning, let's get down to business. I know that each of you has taken at least five years of History, and that some of you are still taking it, but today I would like to give you a bit of a history lesson anyway.” The class groaned, and she added with a smile, “Oh, hush. I think you’ll find it interesting. We’ll be covering the history of warfare.”

Hermione’s hand shot up and Professor Sinclair smiled patiently. “Yes, Ms. Granger?”

ɤɣɤ

No matter what anyone said about Hufflepuff loyalty, Zacharias despised—loathed, hated even—Justin Finch-Fletchley with so much raging enthusiasm and fervour that sometimes he found himself coming this-close to pushing him down the stairs or over one of the banisters in Hufflepuff Den.

He wished that Finch-Fletchley had not been such an out-of-shape layabout and had joined the house Quidditch team; there, Zacharias could have easily bumped into him just-so, so that Finch-Fletchley fell from his broom. There were no padding spells on Quidditch pitches. If you fell, you splattered—unless a professor managed to slow your fall in time. The likelihood of that was even less than Granger managing to free all the house-elves.

Zacharias didn't hate Finch-Fletchley because he was muggleborn; in truth, Zacharias didn't care one way or another about them. He hated Finch-Fletchley because he was an obnoxious, lazy, brown-nosing, self-righteous little git. He should have been in Gryffindor, but even Potter—Black, Zacharias corrected himself—was better than that. He hadn't thought so at first, but after being forced to dinner with him over the summer, he'd realised that he wasn't so bad. He wasn't so great either, but at least he wasn't so bad.

Finch-Fletchley on the other hand—well, Finch-Fletchley really was as bad as Zacharias thought—he'd spent over six years sharing a dorm room with the wanker; he would know. Finch-Fletchley was one of those muggleborns who absolutely refused to be quiet. He picked a different cause to advocate daily, fluctuating between the mundane and the outrageous, but always, underneath, insisting something even worse: that muggleborn wizards were just as good as pure-blooded or half-blooded wizards.

Zacharias didn't have a problem with that, per se, but he did have a problem with the way Finch-Fletchley went about it. No one, really, other than a select few, actually gave a damn about whether someone was pure-blooded or not. Most of the pure-bloods felt the same as Zacharias: they just didn't care so long as the muggleborns weren't arses about it and didn't compromise their world or family traditions. But Finch-Fletchley went out of his way to make sure he was noticed—as a muggleborn.

Zacharias had a problem with this because Finch-Fletchley, usually, was wrong. He'd entered the wizarding world after spending ten years with absolutely no idea it even existed, only to pretend he was an expert on wizarding culture and traditions.

Finch-Fletchley liked to study (bits and pieces) of wizarding folklore and then brag about how much he knew. However, like muggle folklore, wizarding folklore was just that: folklore. It had no basis in reality. There had been, despite Finch-Fletchley's avid arguments to the contrary, no wizard named Merlin. Ever. It was folklore…a bedtime story, but it was still part of their culture.

Zacharias' favourite rant was when Finch-Fletchley would start talking about what a great wizard Merlin had been—about all the noble things he had done, about how he was a half-blood. That far back, even the Malfoys couldn't trace their lineage, Finch-Fletchley had once said pompously.

And what was even better, Zacharias thought, was that even the folklore of Merlin didn't make him out to be some altruistic all-powerful bloke. Even folklore suggested he would have been a Slytherin.

Because he had nearly been late for DADA, Zacharias was forced to sit next to Finch-Fletchley in class. Finch-Fletchley smiled at him. He'd been trying to win Zacharias over since day one—because he had the convoluted idea that to bring down (hardly-existent) pure-blood superiority, he needed to befriend them. But Zacharias had grown up around dark magic, and he knew enough to suss someone out before offering any sort of alliance. Finch-Fletchley had not passed the test.

The new Defence teacher was a woman that his mother had had to dinner on many occasions as Zacharias was growing up. She gave him a quirky smile as he slid into his seat and then turned to face the rest of the class. Beside him, Finch-Fletchley scowled, dumbly assuming the professor had smiled at Zacharias because he was pure-blooded (and if rumours were correct, descended from Helga Hufflepuff—but that was really of no importance).

"Yes, Ms. Granger?" Professor Sinclair asked.

Zacharias turned his head slowly. No doubt Granger would have questions before the class had even begun. He wondered what a class would be like if Granger decided to save her questions for the end—see if they were actually covered in the course before she asked them. Zacharias suspected she might be surprised.

"How would you define the history of warfare?" Granger asked. "War has been around since before recorded history, wouldn't it be a bit risky to generalise it all into one history?"

Professor Sinclair smiled; Zacharias wondered how she put up with it. "Ah, very good question, Ms. Granger. You are absolutely right. Perhaps I should have worded that better. What we will, in fact, be discussing is the history of wizarding warfare and the common denominators in those wars."

"But how can we know that every war since the beginning of wizarding history is being covered?" Granger continued unrepentantly. Zacharias saw Black put his head in his hands next to her, and smirked.

"We can't," the professor shrugged. "But we can discuss what we are sure of."

Granger's hand fell.

"Now, who has read the chapter I assigned last Wednesday?" A scattering of hands soared back into the air and Professor Sinclair frowned. "You could at least lie to me," she said frowning. "It wasn't that boring was it?"

The class tittered; even Zacharias smiled. He liked her; he really did.

"Well it probably was," Professor Sinclair allowed. "It was chapter one, for those of you who didn't even bother to check the syllabus, and it was an overview of what would be covered in the book—probably the least intimidating chapter in the book, I would hazard. What it covered," she said, her voice rising, "was the Ten Wars. Who can tell me what the Ten Wars were?"

Zacharias raised his hand before Granger could because no matter what she believed, monopolies on answering questions in class were very gauche.

"Mr Smith?" Professor Sinclair called.

Zacharias sneered at Finch-Fletchley before he answered because he hated him, and for no other reason. Finch-Fletchley didn't notice. "The Ten Wars," Zacharias said clearly, "were the defining wars of British wizarding history. They were each wars that resulted in extreme change for the British wizarding world."

"Very good, Mr Smith—five points to Hufflepuff," the professor smiled. "Now, who knows what each of those wars was called?"

Granger's hand shot up and Professor Sinclair acknowledged her. "The Ten Wars included, in chronological order: the Roman Occupation, the War of Muggles, the Derbyshire Devastation, the Falmouth Famine, The Iceland Battle, the War of 1212, the Clover Wars, the Goblin Rebellion of 1612, Pax Britannica and World War II."

"Excellent, five points to Gryffindor, Ms Granger," Professor Sinclair nodded.

"Why isn't the first war with You-Know-Who not on that list? Or World War I?" Dean Thomas spoke up suddenly. The professor gave him a grin.

"Because then it would be the Eleven Wars and eleven is not a strong magical number," Professor Sinclair answered.

Chapter Text

Scare Tactic (n): 1. A strategy using fear to influence the public's reaction.

ɤɣɤ

McGonagall was waiting for them when they got out of Defence class at eleven that morning. She stood imposingly outside Professor Sinclair's classroom with her hands on her hips, watching the students file out. When Harry exited with Hermione, she stepped forward.

"The Headmaster would like to see the two of you in his office immediately."

"Is it about Ron?" Hermione asked anxiously.

McGonagall gave her a strict glare. "You will see when you arrive, Ms Granger. I'll remind you that I am not your secretary." Hermione blushed and they followed her through the corridors to the gargoyle that guarded Professor Dumbledore's office. "Blood lollies," McGonagall said with no little amount of distaste.

Harry entered first and Hermione and McGonagall followed him up the spiral staircase. "Come in!" Dumbledore called before they even reached the door. Hesitantly, Harry turned the handle and pushed the door open. There were three empty seats in the Headmaster's office, but Ron was still not there.

Harry fought to keep himself from glaring suspiciously at Dumbledore as he took his seat. He still had unanswered questions about what happened to his father. He didn't think Dumbledore was going to answer them now, though. Hermione sat down quickly next to him but McGonagall remained standing, as if she refused to weaken herself in front of any of them. She stood next to Dumbledore's desk with her arms crossed across her chest and her lips pressed into a thin line. The third chair remained empty.

Dumbledore smiled pleasantly at the two of them over his desk, and Harry stared back politely. He was not about to play Dumbledore's little games: he wanted to know what was going to happen to his friend and Dumbledore had damn well better tell him. Hermione trembled next to him, but seemed to be thinking along the same lines; she remained quiet as well.

"Good morning Mr Black, Ms Granger," Dumbledore finally said after several moments of silence. From the corner of his eye, Harry could see McGonagall narrowing her eyes. "How do you find your newest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher?"

Harry shrugged. "I like her. She's interesting."

Hermione huffed. "Her husband practises Dark Arts!" she said.

"Ms Granger," Dumbledore said complacently, "I'm sure that you will find that Professor Sinclair's husband does not practise Dark Arts, as he has thus far been unable to master a single Dark Arts spell."

Hermione muttered something that sounded like 'but he's still trying', and then said louder, "What about Ron? What's going to happen to him, Professor?"

"Ah," Dumbledore nodded. "We get to the meat of it all. I admit, I had hoped we could enjoy a bit more of the small talk, but if you insist—"

"Albus!" McGonagall growled. "My students have other classes to attend. Please get to the point."

Dumbledore chuckled. "Very well, Minerva. We shall get to the point as soon as—yes, here he is! Come in, please!"

Theodore Nott, Head Boy walked in, staring suspiciously at Professor Dumbledore. He was tall and weedy looking—as if he'd grown too fast for the rest of his body to catch up—and had plain brown hair and plain brown eyes. If Harry hadn't known that his father was one of the Death Eaters that was arrested after the battle at the Department of Mysteries, he would have said that Theodore Nott was utterly plain and unassuming.

But this particular Nott was not Marked, Harry knew. He had always distanced himself from the other Slytherins, never getting too involved with Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle or Zabini. He even seemed to dislike the Slytherin girls. He was never rude or cold to them, as far as Harry could tell, but he was not welcoming either. He had always been the wallflower.

"Welcome, Mr Nott. I'm so pleased you could join us," Dumbledore nodded.

Nott gave him a bland smile and sat in the unoccupied chair. "Thank you, Headmaster. I would have been here sooner, only Professor Snape just informed me. May I ask what this meeting is about?"

Harry felt his eyebrows furrow. So the Head Boy didn't know already? Malfoy hadn't even told him? Harry noticed that Nott had refused to give either him or Hermione a condescending look and realised that Nott was probably even more distanced from the other Slytherins than he'd originally thought. Perhaps all Slytherins weren't stupid after all.

"No one ever wishes to indulge in a nice chat," Dumbledore bemoaned. McGonagall narrowed her eyes. "Very well, Mr Nott. We are here to decide on a replacement for the male seventh year Gryffindor prefect. As Head Boy, you are entitled to voice your opinion and cast your own vote in the matter—as are Ms Granger, myself and Professor McGonagall, as Gryffindor Head of House."

Nott nodded slowly. "What happened to Weasley?"

Harry clenched his fists and beside him, Hermione tensed. He didn't want Ron's humiliation brandished around for the entire school, but, he supposed, with Malfoy having been the one to catch him, that was probably too much to hope for.

"He violated clause 6.5 in the Hogwarts Handbook for Perfect Prefects," Dumbledore answered sadly. Harry had no idea what this meant, but apparently, Nott did because he nodded in recognition.

"Consuming alcoholic substances on school grounds," Nott said. Hermione frowned beside him. "Disgraceful."

Harry bristled.

"What do you mean disgraceful?" Hermione said, beating Harry to it. Nott looked over at her placidly. "I'm sure it's no more than the Slytherins get up to on a regular basis."

Nott's lips twitched in faint amusement. "I meant no offence to your friend, Granger, only that, as a prefect, he was setting a very bad example for the other students." It sounded almost snarky, but the words were so that Hermione could not argue against them. She sat back in her chair gruffly and folded her arms like McGonagall. Nott looked back to the Headmaster, who had watched the short proceeding in calm disinterest.

"So who are you suggesting to replace Weasley?"

Harry knew as soon as the words were out of Nott's mouth. No wonder he had been invited to attend this meeting. They were going to suggest him, but did he really want to be a prefect? In the beginning of fifth year, when Ron had become prefect, he had been jealous, but—but…did he really still want it?

He would, obviously, have to learn the entire Hogwarts Handbook, and if it was full of clauses like that, he wasn't really sure he was up for it. Plus, he was Quidditch captain this year and that was certainly going to be time consuming.

Not only that, but Ron would be jealous of him. He would probably resent Harry for taking over his job.

"We are suggesting Mr Black," McGonagall spoke up. Hermione immediately agreed, and Nott shrugged and nodded.

"I don't want it," Harry said quickly. Everyone turned to look at him.

"You don't want it?" McGonagall asked.

Harry shook his head. "No—no, I'm Quidditch captain already; give it to someone else. Someone who won't get in trouble, I'd say."

Hermione snorted and McGonagall looked like she wanted to laugh—Dumbledore did laugh. "Very well, Mr Black," Dumbledore said, and Harry noticed that he was being very careful not to call him by his first name as he usually did when it was just the two of them.

"How about Longbottom?" Nott spoke up. Harry and Hermione turned to him quickly. Had a Slytherin really just suggested that they make Neville the new Gryffindor prefect? It was unheard of! But then—Neville would probably be delighted, and surely his grandmother would be as well.

"Neville would be perfect," Hermione agreed. Dumbledore smiled and turned to McGonagall.

"Minerva, would you fetch Mr Longbottom? He should be on his way to lunch, if I'm not mistaken." McGonagall nodded briskly and strode out of the room. "How are your studies coming, Mr Nott?" Dumbledore asked when she was gone.

Nott cocked his head to the side. "Fine, thank you, sir."

Dumbledore nodded. "I'm sure your grandparents are very proud of you." Harry's ears perked up; did Nott live with his grandparents now that his father was in gaol? Or maybe, since his father was a Death Eater, Nott had always lived with his grandmother. Harry didn't know, but if his mother was dead or gone, then it was possible. Harry suspected that at least some of the Death Eater parents had no desire to do any parenting. It was very interesting.

"They are, sir," Nott nodded. "My grandmother was Head Girl when she was at Hogwarts."

Dumbledore nodded sagely. "Yes, I remember Kathryn very well. She was an excellent leader."

"I'll tell her you said so, Headmaster," Nott replied politely.

Dumbledore smiled and turned to Hermione. "And you, Ms Granger? How are you finding your duties? Satisfactory?"

"Yes, sir," Hermione answered immediately. "My parents were ever so pleased to hear it. As dentists, they would not have been able to send me to public school, so they never imagined that I would be offered such an opportunity."

Harry noticed that Nott's attention perked up when Hermione spoke, but he couldn't figure out why. He shrugged, figuring it unimportant, just as McGonagall reappeared in the doorway with Neville right behind her. He looked nervous—as if he knew he had to be guilty of something to be called to the Headmaster's office, but couldn't think of what he'd done wrong. He was certainly thinking of what his grandmother would do if she were to find out he'd gotten into trouble.

"Mr Longbottom!" Dumbledore welcomed happily. He conjured another chair—this one thick and comfortable looking—and Neville sat warily, looking around at the occupants of the room.

"Hello, sir," Neville said shyly. He put his school bag in his lap as if he were trying to shield himself from them and sunk back into the chair. "Hi Harry, hi Hermione. Nott," he added, as an afterthought. They nodded back to him and McGonagall resumed her stance by Dumbledore's desk.

"Mr Longbottom," McGonagall said without preamble. "You have been nominated to take over Mr Weasley's prefect duties for the remainder of your time at Hogwarts."

"What?" Neville squeaked.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Yes, Mr Longbottom. Do you accept, or would you prefer we seek a different candidate?"

Neville's eyes went wide. "No—no, sir," Neville said quickly. "I'd love to do it. My gran would be so proud."

McGonagall smiled. "I'm sure she will be, Mr Longbottom." Neville grinned, coming out of his shell. "Now that that's settled," she continued, "here are your badge, your handbook and a schedule of rounds. You, of course, will be taking over Mr Weasley's. Any questions you have can be answered by either Mr Nott or Ms Granger." The two in question nodded at Neville and he smiled back at them—even at Nott.

"Thank you," Neville said softly, staring at the shiny prefect badge. He pinned it reverently to the front of his robes and stared at it some more. "Thank you," he said again, this time louder and with more conviction.

McGonagall nodded and dismissed him, along with Nott, to go over rounds schedules and any questions Neville might have. "Now," Dumbledore said, once Harry and Hermione were the only students left in the office. "I believe you were concerned about Mr Weasley."

Hermione leaned forward. "Yes," she said quickly. "Where is he? He wasn't in class. He's not been expelled has he?"

Harry jerked to attention. Surely they wouldn't expel Ron for something so silly would they? Just a few detentions, surely?

"Of course not, Ms Granger," McGonagall said. "Mr Weasley will be serving a month's worth of detentions with Mr Filch. He's in the Infirmary with his parents right now."

Harry winced in sympathy for his friend. "Why's he in the Infirmary?" he asked. "He's not sick, is he?"

"Not as such," McGonagall answered. "But Mr Weasley's parents felt that he should understand what he nearly got himself into. I believe Madame Pomfrey is using scare tactics to show him the consequences of overindulgence as we speak."

Harry frowned. How odd. "Can we see him?"

McGonagall exchanged a look with Dumbledore and he nodded. "I think that will be acceptable."

Harry and Hermione stood immediately. "Thank you," Hermione said quickly. Harry gave them a smile and they slipped out of the Headmaster's office without another word.

-x-

"What do you think?" Harry asked once they were off the spiral staircase and walking towards the Hospital Wing.

Hermione looked at him sharply. "I think that the both of you are idiots," she said plainly. "And I think that Ron is going to be in a whole lot of trouble."

Harry bit his lip—he knew she was right. He didn't even want to imagine what Mrs Weasley had said to Ron when she found out. The sad, disappointed look that Mr Weasley had probably given him would have been just about as bad, Harry thought. Desperate not to think of that until he absolutely had to, he cast around for another topic.

"What do you think of Professor Sinclair?" he asked. He knew she was a Death Eater, but he wasn't particularly worried about her hurting anyone this year. From what he understood, she was only here to gather information, and he didn't care about that really. He wasn't going to help her certainly, but he wasn't going to try to stop her either. He figured that if anyone was stupid enough to give away information around her, then they were probably too stupid to lead a war as well. He didn't think Dumbledore would be talking.

Hermione looked at him askance and tossed her school bag onto her other shoulder. "I think her husband's pathetic."

Harry snorted. "Yeah—but it's kind of funny."

Hermione rolled her eyes but Harry could tell she was fighting back a smile. "Perhaps," she allowed. "Today's lesson was rather interesting, I thought," Hermione continued in a much brighter voice. "Did you read the chapter?"

Harry looked down at his shoes, muttering, "I might have skimmed it."

"Honestly, Harry!" Hermione exclaimed. "It's a really interesting book. I finished it the first week back. That chapter's really just an overview, but it's an interesting overview. You should read it."

"Well, what did it say then?" Harry asked.

"Well," Hermione said. "Chapter one was about the Ten Wars, like we talked about in class. And then the subsequent chapters discuss each of those wars in detail and various spells, potions, techniques and stratagems that were used—how they're all similar and how they differ. It's very interesting."

Harry gave her an amused look. "Is it?"

"Of course," Hermione answered immediately. "Those wars were very important for the wizarding world. Each of them affected the wizarding world in such a profound way that normal life was forced to alter—people had to change the ways that they lived, Harry…the foods they ate, the magic they used, the languages they spoke in—just about anything you can think of was affected by one or more of those wars in one way or another."

Harry hummed in a detachedly-interested sort of way. He could not remember a time when war of any kind had ever been remotely interesting to him. He supposed it was the effect of being at the centre of a budding one for over six years.

When they reached the Infirmary, yelling could be heard from inside. Harry paused and exchanged a nervous glance with Hermione. It would be Mrs Weasley giving Ron a ferocious tongue lashing: apparently she had been giving it to him all morning and it was lunch time now. With more bravery than he was actually feeling, he pushed the door open and they stepped inside.

Ron was sitting on one of the hospital beds with his head bowed in his hands as Mrs Weasley stood shouting beside him. Mr Weasley had a definitely disappointed look to his face, but he remained calm.

Ron looked up when he heard the door opening and the barest hint of a smile passed his lips as he saw Harry standing there, but it immediately vanished when he noticed Hermione as well. He, obviously, knew that she would be no better than his mother.

Mrs Weasley paused long enough for them to approach the bed: Harry could see the dried remains of Ron's grief on his cheeks and his eyes were as red as his hair. He politely ignored it.

"Hey, mate," Harry said.

Ron nodded shallowly. "Hi Harry…Hermione," he added quietly. Hermione had not started in on Ron yet, but she would probably wait until Mrs Weasley was finished anyway.

"Hello, Harry dear," Mrs Weasley said, giving him an uncharacteristically brief hug. She turned and did the same to Hermione before slipping down into the chair next to Mr Weasley. Harry and Hermione took up post on the end of Ron's bed.

"I just don't understand why," Mrs Weasley said plaintively.

Ron shrugged, looking miserable, but did not speak. Hermione carefully reached out to place her small hand on top of Ron's in a comforting gesture, but Ron didn't even seem to notice it.

"You still won't speak?" Mrs Weasley continued flatly. "Still have nothing to say for yourself, do you?"

Ron shrugged again and Mrs Weasley hoisted herself from the chair with alarming speed.

"Very well," she huffed. "Your father and I need to speak to Madame Pomfrey and the Headmaster anyway. You're very lucky that you weren't expelled, Ronald. I just don't know what to do with you—even Fred and George have never caused this much trouble." Ron flinched at this and his head dipped even lower back into his hands. Mrs Weasley gave one final desperate huff of resignation and directed Mr Weasley out of the hospital wing.

Harry cleared his throat when they were gone and felt Hermione shift on the bed next to him. "All right, Ron?" he asked lowly.

Ron was still for several seconds before nodding mutely. "All right, Harry," he sighed. He cleared his own throat and then said, feigning casualness, "Have they replaced me yet?"

"Neville," Hermione said softly. "Neville's going to take over your duties for the rest of the year."

Ron nodded into his hands. "Neville will do a good job, I expect."

Harry and Hermione nodded, though Ron didn't see it since his face was still mostly hidden by his hands.

"Do you think they'll take me off the Quidditch team?" Ron asked.

Harry shrugged. "Don't know, mate. I'm postponing tryouts anyway. I suppose it'll depend on whether or not you can make it to practises—what with your detentions for the next month," he added lamely.

"What were you thinking?" Hermione finally asked the question she had been saving while they got the pleasantries out of the way. It didn't sound as accusing or condescending as Harry had expected it to.

Ron shrugged again. "You ever have the feeling you've got little Dementors living in your head?" he asked.

Harry looked at Hermione. "What do you mean?"

Ron finally looked up at them. He shrugged. "Like you'll never be cheerful again," he explained. "Like everything you do is still not enough to accomplish whatever you need to accomplish, but you don't even know what you're meant to be accomplishing in the first place so you're confused too. Like you've got no purpose except finding a purpose and even if you do it's just a never-ending circle of finding a purpose so you can have a purpose but once you've found it, you're just as bad off as before because your only purpose was to find a purpose in the first place. Does that make sense?"

Oddly enough, "Yes," Harry said slowly. "I think so."

Hermione nodded slowly. "It does," she said. "But what brought this on?"

Ron shrugged again. "Does it matter?" He looked at them fiercely, and added, "Are we even going to live through this war? Does it matter what we do now?"

Harry inhaled sharply and thought of Ginny and Sirius and his mother and…Voldemort. "Yeah, Ron," he said, almost smiling. "We are."

"Are you sure?" Ron asked.

Harry nodded immediately. "Yeah. Even Trelawney couldn't have predicted this one. We're going to make it." Hermione looked at him oddly, but Harry's statement had served its purpose: Ron laughed—feebly, but a laugh all the same.

"That's not helping much," he admitted.

Harry favoured him with a bright smile. "Don't worry Ron," he said. "I promise everything will be fine."

Ron sighed. "What am I going to do? I'm such a fuck-up."

"Ron!" Hermione said. "Don't say that!"

"The language or the sentiment?" Ron asked sullenly.

"Either!" Hermione said. "You're not a…well, you're not one, and Harry and I are going to make sure you get better, aren't we, Harry?"

"He's not sick, Hermione," Harry said.

"Well, just the same," Hermione said stubbornly. "I'm going to go look some things up. From what you've said, it sounds like you might be suffering from depression, though I don't know what would have caused it…and, well, I better be off," she finished in a rush, and then she was gone from the Infirmary and Harry was left staring at Ron.

"My parents are so disappointed," Ron said to Harry.

Harry cuffed him playfully. "I'm not though."

Ron chuckled. "Yeah, but you didn't raise me 'to be better than that'."

"And thank Merlin for that," Harry said. "It's not so bad, Ron. You just shouldn't have done it at school. You just gotta know when to stop."

Ron shrugged. "I suppose. The way Madame Pomfrey was going on, I might as well have been dying. She's a scary woman."

Harry nodded. "Yeah, she is." He pulled his legs under himself and leaned back on his hands. "So, what really caused all this?" he asked seriously.

Ron looked at him sharply. "I told you," he said.

Harry shrugged. "But was it the truth?"

"What's the truth but what everyone believes?" Ron asked instead.

Harry studied him carefully. "Fine," he said, and then added, "but what if you wanted everyone to believe something else? What if you wanted to change the truth?"

"Get a strategy and do it, I reckon," Ron answered.

"Like chess," Harry added helpfully.

Ron nodded. "Like chess," he affirmed.

"You were always really good at chess," Harry said.

"I still am."

Harry grinned. "I know." A clock chimed somewhere and Harry looked up. "I gotta go. I've got Potions next and I need to get my books first. Are you going to be in classes tomorrow?"

Ron nodded and stared down at his lap. "Yeah."

"Fancy a game of chess tonight then?"

Ron looked up at him and his lips quirked slightly. "Yeah—yeah, that would be good."

ɤɣɤ

Sometimes—often, actually—Slytherins enjoyed teasing each other to a degree that was equal to or worse than the teasing they offered the other (lesser) houses. Theodore Nott, though he tended to stick to himself, was no exception to this rule.

He was on his way to Potions Monday afternoon when he saw Malfoy—who was a disgrace to House Slytherin in Nott’s opinion—snarling and sneering with Crabbe and Goyle—who should have been Hufflepuffs. They were too loyal for their own good. He sidled up next to the blond, put on his most condescending smile, and said casually, “Disappointed?”

Malfoy turned away from whatever amazing stunt he was about to pull to give Nott a disinterested look. It was feigned, of course, Nott knew. He was better at reading people than Malfoy would ever be; Malfoy had so much trouble controlling his emotions that he spent most of his time hiding his own reactions instead of looking for others’ reactions.

Nott hoped, for the sake of the wizarding world in general—and not muggleborns or house-elves or any other creatures wizards of the light favoured—that Malfoy didn’t know too much Dark Magic. He was a liability if he did.

"With what?" Malfoy asked.

Nott shrugged as they walked towards Professor Snape’s class. "Oh I don’t know; I just thought Daddy might be upset that you didn’t make Head Boy."

Malfoy sneered. "And you’ve come to rub it in, have you?" he asked and then laughed harshly. That, too, was feigned. "Well, since Father is currently residing in Azkaban, I’d imagine that he neither knows nor cares whether or not I made Head Boy."

Nott chuckled. "Don’t pretend to be daft, Malfoy," he said. "It doesn't suit you. Your father is as much in Azkaban as I am, and you know it."

Malfoy’s mouth twitched and Nott realised that Malfoy had not known that anyone knew of his father’s release. It was still not in the papers. He smiled patronisingly.

Malfoy sneered at him, showing a row of white teeth and Malfoy’s one noticeable physical flaw—other than being too pointy: his canine teeth were crooked and pushed further forward than the rest of his teeth. When Nott was younger, his teeth had been crooked too, but his own father wasn’t such a muggle hater that he refused muggle treatments.

There was no wizarding equivalent to a dentist, so when Purvis Nott discovered a little family owned practice called Granger & Granger Dentistry in London when Theodore had been ten, he’d immediately set out to have his son put in braces. Several hundred galleons (converted to muggle pounds) and a year later, Theodore’s teeth were perfectly straight. And Malfoy’s weren’t.

In first year, when the other Slytherins had asked why Nott had such straight teeth, he’d told them all that it was just good blood. Nothing had ever pissed Malfoy off quite so badly, not even Potter.

Later, Nott had learned Granger’s last name, and he’d wondered if the same muggles had been her relatives, but then remembered the way her teeth had been before she’d had Pomfrey correct Malfoy’s jinx, and realised it was impossible; muggle dentists would not have let their child walk around with teeth like hers had been.

But—then he'd heard Granger say her parents were dentists today, and it really wasn't all that important, but it made Nott realise what a small world it was—even including the muggles. There really weren't enough pure-bloods to continue the magical race without new blood. It was a shame that Malfoy had never gotten his teeth fixed—he might have known that otherwise.

“What is it, exactly, that you want, Nott?” Malfoy finally asked. They were very close to Potions now and Crabbe and Goyle were trailing slowly behind them, even though they didn't have Potions.

Nott took a moment to delight in the fact that Malfoy kept glancing at his Head Boy badge, and was probably now wishing that he’d paid more attention to Theodore when he had the chance. He had not known, due to his own inability to notice things, that Nott’s marks had almost always been equal to Granger's, and thus, several points higher than Malfoy’s.

“Nothing,” Nott said blandly. “How was your summer?"

Malfoy sneered at him and continued walking towards potions. "About as exciting as yours, I'd imagine, Nott."

Nott shrugged noncommittally. "Mine was fine, thank you for asking. My grandparents and I travelled."

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Exciting."

"We met Zacharias Smith's aunt in Belgium. She's an auror. Small world."

"Smith the Hufflepuff?" Malfoy asked disdainfully. "Honestly, Nott."

"He's a decent bloke," Theodore said. "You should expand your contacts. I'd imagine even you would like him. A bit like you, actually: blond, wealthy and too arrogant for his own good."

Malfoy sneered just as they reached the potions classroom. "As opposed to you, Nott, who is plain, non-confrontational and disgraced aristocracy?"

"Not having so much gold that it'll never be spent in three generations is not the definition of disgraced, Malfoy."

Malfoy stopped in the doorway. "We all have our own beliefs, Nott."

"Of course," Theodore said easily. "Only it's a shame that some of us are so simple-minded that we can't form our own beliefs and thus have to plagiarise the beliefs of our parents." He gave Malfoy a barely polite smile and brushed past him into the mixed-house classroom, taking a seat next to Granger because she and Potter were less annoying than Finch-Fletchley.

He could feel Malfoy scowling at his back, and knew that his scowl only increased when he realised that the only seat left was with Justin Finch-Fletchley and Hannah Abbott.

ɤɣɤ

Harry came very close to rolling his eyes when Theodore Nott—the Slytherin who associated with muggleborn students just because it pissed Malfoy off— took the vacant seat on Hermione's other side in Potions. He had seen him eyeing her inconspicuously a few times since classes had started back.

Theodore’s father was a Death Eater, but he was still in Azkaban as far as Harry knew, and Harry was pretty sure that Voldemort hadn’t sent Nott on a mission to seduce and kill his best friend, so he decided not to threaten Nott just yet. He could look all he wanted as long as it didn’t bother Hermione, but he did glance up and give Nott—who was staring—a look that said he would threaten him, and follow through with those threats, if he wasn’t careful.

Nott raised an eyebrow at Harry, and then set about retrieving his cauldron, brown hair tipping into his eyes as he leaned over to light a fire under it.

Snape swooped in then and began the roll call, which Harry thought was a total sham. Snape had a very keen memory, and to think that he would forget who should and should not be in any of his classes was absurd to the point of irrationality. Snape's eyes lingered only for a moment on Harry when he sneered out 'Black, Harry' and put a little check next to his name.

The Potion Master's eyes scanned the classroom maliciously. It was a very small class—so small, in fact, that it combined all four houses and still had less than twenty students. Snape, of course, was not bothered by this. In fact, he only allowed students who had scored an O on their OWLs to take the class, and when Harry had walked in the first day back in sixth year, with a letter from Headmaster Dumbledore, Snape had not been best pleased.

Harry had only scored an E on his Potions NEWT, and had only gained admittance with a petition to the Board of Governors. Even then it had been iffy. He had slid into the class on a loophole: it was not written anywhere in the school charter that NEWT level students were necessarily excluded from a class because they had not scored an O. A student could take a class so long as they made a passing mark in that subject on their OWLS—other than that, it was up to the school, student and professor to decide.

Harry had never been happier to have Dumbledore at his back and a member of the Board.

Other than Harry, Hermione, Nott, Malfoy, Finch-Fletchley and Hannah Abbott, the class included Zabini and Parkinson from Slytherin, Ernie Macmillan, Padma Patil and Anthony Goldstein from Ravenclaw and Dean Thomas. Snape looked at all twelve of them disdainfully.

"Pass up your essays on the healing properties of Norwegian Nettles and get out your cauldrons," Snape said. "We're starting an advanced form of potion making today that relies on your skills with Arithmantic equations." Here, he smiled nastily, and added, "I do hope that each of you harbour at least a passing talent with that study; otherwise, you will fail this term."

He gave Harry a significant look, but Harry didn't react. On a whim, he had decided to finally take up Beginning Arithmancy this year after four years of Hermione prodding him to do so.

The beginning class had been so small that it was combined with the Advanced class, and Professor Vector had given all the new students a basic run-down on the study and loads of homework over the past two weeks. Harry knew the basics and whatever he didn't, he was pretty sure Hermione or Professor Vector could explain to him.

He passed his essay to Hermione, who passed theirs to Nott to pass up to the front, and got out his cauldron. He would pass this class—he was not about to let Snape ruin his chances of being an Auror, if he still wanted to be one after leaving school, anyway. Sixth year, he had barely scraped an A for the class, but he was determined to get an E this year, and Snape would not goad him into less.

"Now, before we begin the actual brewing, can anyone tell me what an Arithmantic Potion is and its three bases?"

Hermione's hand shot up.

"Anyone?" Snape asked, ignoring her. Hermione stubbornly kept her hand in the air. "Fine—Granger?"

"Arithmantic Potions," Hermione said, "are potions that require the use of Arithmantic equations to brew properly. The three bases, at least one of which is used in every Arithmantic potion, are Hellebore and Norwegian Nettles, Mugwart and apple seeds, and Liverflowers and frog eyes. These three bases are the only possible ones because no matter what proportions are used to combine them, they always magically result in a pH of zero. No other ingredients will produce that result."

Snape sneered at her. "I didn't ask you to tell me why those are the only possible combinations. Five points from Gryffindor for your impetuousness, Granger." Hermione pursed her lips but did not comment. Snape continued.

"Who, besides Granger," Snape added, "can tell me the effects of adding different quantities of Hellebore and Norwegian Nettles to a potion, and the significance of this as it relates to Arithmantic Potions?"

Hermione scowled and gripped her quill tightly. When Snape directed his eyes around the classroom, she leaned into Harry and said, "I just answered that question." Harry held back a snicker—for Hermione to admit she didn't know something was hilarious, but that Snape had expected her to answer anyway was just too ironic.

Padma Patil raised her hand, but she was the only one to do so. "Different proportions of ingredients in Arithmantic potion bases can decide whether or not the potion is volatile and to what degree. In Arithmanic Potions, this variance follows Salazar's Supposition, a theory by Salazar Slytherin that says that if A equals B but does not equal CD then A equals DC when B is irrelevant or non-existent."

To muggles, Harry thought, that would not have made any sense at all. Hermione made a little 'oh!' sound next to him and started scribbling furiously in her potions journal. Harry had never heard Salazar's Supposition before, but even though it sounded paradoxical to him, he reminded himself that this was the magical world and things often didn't make sense.

Snape gave her a blank look. "And what does this mean?" he then asked the class. Theodore Nott's hand went up; even though Hermione probably knew what it meant by now, she was refusing, on pure stubbornness, to give Snape an opportunity to degrade her. Snape acknowledged Nott.

"It means, sir," Nott said plainly, "that if one combination of ingredients biologically equals the combination of other ingredients but does not equal the combination of two sets of combinations, then the first combination equals the possibility of a fourth set of ingredients when the possibility of the third set is not biologically possible."

"Excellent explanation, Nott," Snape said. "Five points to Slytherin." Malfoy grinned maliciously, but Nott only nodded and wrote a few things down in his journal. Harry stared at his own journal. Perhaps he'd gotten in over his head. That had made no sense to him, and he wasn't sure it, logically, made sense to anyone else either, though the students who had already taken Arithmancy seemed to accept it readily enough. He wrote down the equation and the explanation anyway.

Maybe Hermione would define it in 'muggle mathematics' terms for him after class. Having grown up in the muggle world, he still accepted that he could not divide by zero, among other 'ridiculous' notions. He wondered if it was just as hard for the muggleborn students.

"The potion we will be beginning today is called the Draught of Derbyshire. It was used to end the Derbyshire Devastation in 921, a battle that began in Derbyshire and escalated across the Isle until it resulted in total war for magical Great Britain. This potion renders the drinker full and satisfied for one month.

"We are only starting the base today, so you will need Hellebore and Norwegian Nettles. Instructions are on the board. You will be working with those at your table, as the ingredients are expensive and I do not wish to spare more than is necessary while the idiots among you fail attempt after attempt. Begin."

Harry looked at Hermione in faint amusement. "Do you think," he whispered, "that Snape will ever actually give us a lecture instead of expecting us to teach ourselves?"

Hermione sighed and closed her potions journal. "I've never held with Divination, Harry," she said flatly, "but I suspect even Trelawney could predict the answer to that." Harry snorted, and to his surprise, Nott did too. They both looked over at him and he shrugged, unconcerned.

"I agree," is all he said, and then he stood up and went to the supply cabinet to gather their ingredients. Harry felt his surprise mount. Had it been Malfoy, or any other Slytherin really, they would have insisted on Harry or Hermione gathering the ingredients. Nott had done it without even being asked.

Nott came back several minutes later and Harry and Hermione stared at him as he set them on the work table. "What?" he asked when their eyes had not left him after a reasonable amount of time. Harry exchanged a glance with Hermione and then they looked back at Nott. "What?" he repeated, looking up.

"You're interesting," Hermione said slowly. Nott's eyebrows rose slightly. "No one ever notices you, but you made Head Boy, so your marks had to be exceptional."

"Gloating is for the weak," Nott said, and perhaps even pointedly. "For those who cannot obtain what they want with their own power."

"But definitely a Slytherin," Harry added, mostly to Hermione.

Nott shrugged and they put away their cauldrons. They would only need Nott's since his was the biggest and they were only making one potion. "I never said I was sorted incorrectly."

Hermione copied down the directions from the board and looked at the two piles of Hellebore and Norwegian Nettles, deciding not to comment further. Harry followed her lead.

"Why doesn't it say whether to chop, cut, dice, slice, tear, powder or pulverise?" Harry asked suddenly.

"It doesn't matter," Nott answered. "With Arithmantic Potion bases, the shape and size of ingredients only matters to which type of potion you are trying to make. Since we'll be making an anti-hunger potion, we should cut the ingredients larger than usual, as larger things are more filling."

Hermione nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, but the nettles are too big for the cauldron, so we should at least chop them."

"Exactly," Nott said. Harry looked at them, sighed in resignation, and pulled a few nettles towards him. This would be good for him, he thought. He was never very good at getting the ingredients the right shape and size. He started chopping haphazardly, and delighted in the fact that this base was so imprecise that he could safely let his mind wander.

Hermione and Nott followed suit and Harry lost himself in chopping. His mind filtered to the dream he had had the night before—the laughter and the strange time changes in it. It had been like watching something on fast-forward. He ran out of nettles a few minutes later, dumped them in the simmering cauldron and started on the Hellebore. It was already fairly small.

"Should we cut these at all?" Harry asked, gesturing to the Hellebore. Hermione looked up at him just as she and Nott dumped their nettles in.

"No, they're small enough. Let's just put them in." Harry tossed them in and sat back, satisfied. With Nott and Hermione working with him, he probably wouldn't have to completely understand the Arithmancy at all. It was going to be a much better term than Snape had hoped for.

Their cauldron had been simmering for nearly ten minutes when Nott suddenly jumped up. Harry looked up and saw him landing on Malfoy. Hermione was levitating something away from their cauldron with a frown on her face, but Nott was much more interesting. He was straddling Malfoy with the tip of his wand pressed into his pale neck and scowling fiercely. Apparently, Malfoy had had the notion to sabotage their potion. Harry was a bit surprised that he would do it to another Slytherin.

"Do you know what kind of reaction that would have caused, Malfoy?" Nott sneered, still sitting on Malfoy's chest.

Malfoy spat in his face.

"You suicidal wanker," Nott said. "You aren’t that stupid, are you?"

"Mr Nott!" Snape growled. "Please remove yourself from Mr Malfoy's person immediately."

Nott didn't even look up. "He levitated a sprig of mint leaf over our cauldron, Professor," he said calmly. Snape paled and stopped his advancement on Nott. Several in the class gasped. Harry frowned in confusion.

"What would that have done?" Harry whispered to Hermione.

Hermione was very pale too, now that he really looked at her. "Mint leaf has an irrelevant pH—" she began.

"You would have blown up the entire classroom, Malfoy." Nott was growling. Malfoy stared back at him defiantly. "That means you would have been nothing but blood splatters on the wall just like the rest of us."

"Mr Nott," Snape said again, his voice much lower and shallower than before. "That will be enough." Nott growled and slowly stood up, though he kept his wand levelled at Malfoy. "Mr Malfoy," Snape continued, "direct yourself to the Headmaster's office. I am not up to dealing with you at present."

Malfoy shot Snape a strange look, sneered, grabbed his bag and left the classroom. Snape stood motionless for several moments before shaking himself out of whatever his thoughts had been and facing the class. "Place your cauldrons on the simmering shelf and leave. You are dismissed for the day." As an afterthought, he added, "Your homework is forty-five centimetres on the effects of adding an irrelevant pH ingredient to the base of an Arithmantic Potion. Due Wednesday."

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Reconnaissance: (n) An inspection or exploration of an area, especially one made to gather military information.

ɤɣɤ

Ron showed up at dinner that night looking tired and shame-faced. There had been a prefect meeting after Arithmancy to inform the other prefects of the situation and introduce those who didn't know him to Neville. He was received warmly by most, only Malfoy giving him a hard time.

Malfoy's actions in Potions, according to Hermione, had also been discussed, but he had only been given a warning and a stern talking-to by Dumbledore. Harry didn't think this was very fair, and neither did Hermione, so they both refrained from alerting Ron to what had happened. He would probably learn about it himself eventually anyway. News travelled very fast at Hogwarts.

This meant, sadly, that it had only taken a few hours for the entire school to know what Ron had done to be stripped of his badge. A silence settled over the Great Hall when he entered, but it picked up again when Ron sat himself across from Harry and Hermione and started filling his plate.

"Ron!" Seamus exclaimed, jumping up and slapping him on the back. "Glad to have you back, mate."

Ginny pursed her lips at her brother, but other than that, his welcome back at the Gryffindor table was genuine and excited. He gave everyone a fake smile and started in on his bangers and mash.

"You missed a really good story in Defence," Harry said, trying to brighten him up.

“That woman,” Hermione began, looking up from her book only at the mention of the class, “has a crass sense of humour. Honestly! I can’t believe she tells students about how her ‘lovely husband’ tried to skin a live rabbit and ended up shaving his own head instead.”

Ron snickered genuinely. "Did he really? Poor old Vlad," he mourned, smiling.

Harry nodded enthusiastically. “You have to admit, Hermione, that you sort of pity a man who’s tried his whole life to use dark arts and only managed to hurt himself in the process. It’s kind of sad.”

“It’s not sad!” Hermione huffed, slamming her potions book closed, which she had been referencing for her essay. Harry saw Nott, sitting at the Slytherin table, mouth ‘feisty’ from the corner of eye and barely restrained a sneer. Nott was fairly decent, but Harry still didn't trust him. “It’s one less dark wizard we’ll have to fight in the war,” Hermione added quietly.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Do you honestly think every dark wizard joins Voldemort? Or that only dark wizards do?” Harry asked her, ignoring Ron’s melodramatic shudder. Hermione gave him a look that clearly said she did, and Harry decided then that it would probably be best if she never found out what he had done over the summer.

“So what did you do in the hospital wing all day?” Harry asked suddenly. Ron looked wistfully at his half-full plate and slumped.

"After you guys left, Pomfrey ran a whole bunch of tests on me to see if I'd developed a dependency on alcohol, and then she told me some more gruesome stories that only kind of related to drinking at all, and then she asked me about my home life. It was horrible. And boring," he added.

"Oh!" Hermione said suddenly, rummaging through her school bag. "I did some research after I left the Infirmary and wrote to my parents asking for advice. Their owl came this afternoon, and—" she huffed in frustration and then triumphantly pulled out a huge stack of papers, pamphlets and parchments. "Here," she said, shoving the stack at Ron.

"What's all this?" Ron asked warily.

Hermione beamed at him. "I think you might be depressed," she explained. "These pamphlets and notes will help you identify whether or not you are, using a series of well-researched and statistically proven question-and-answer guides, then depending on what kind of depression you have if any, will show you the best steps to take to eliminate or control the problem without resorting to binge drinking."

Ron looked at her incredulously. He cleared his throat, and said, "I didn't binge drink. I drank all the time."

Hermione shrugged. "It could be really severe. Look over it, will you?"

Ron looked at Harry instead, then, but finally nodded. "Yeah, alright. I'll read them." Hermione beamed again.

ɤɣɤ

After dinner, Harry and Ron settled in for the promised game of chess while Hermione went up to her room to study. She had her own room this year since she was Head Girl and this was something that Ron greatly resented. Secretly, Harry thought it was because Hermione had had a private room for two weeks and had not yet invited Ron up for a bit of 'independent study'.

They had only been playing for fifteen minutes or so, but Harry was already losing spectacularly. He moved his last knight a few spaces and sat back, arms crossed, frowning. He had looked the board over carefully and had not seen any possible threats for moving his knight there, but Ron always managed to find one.

Harry didn't even bother trying to check Ron's king anymore: it was useless. Nowadays, he just moved his pieces around to whatever spot looked good at the time. He liked to see how long he could last before Ron beat him as opposed to actually trying to beat Ron. Ron was unstoppable: if anyone could beat Ron at chess, Harry would like to meet them, and possibly get a few tips from them.

Predictably, Ron's queen came out of nowhere and demolished Harry's knight. Harry was down to a bishop, his queen—which he tended to hide near the back of the board—a few pawns and his king, of course.

"I don't want to be black anymore," Harry sighed dramatically, dropping his head in his hands. He was absolutely dreadful at chess. He had no sense for strategy. "Black's going to lose."

Ron snorted, "Only because you're playing black."

Harry scowled. "I'd like to see you do anything with the pieces I have."

"I wouldn't have lost so many," Ron retorted, amused.

Harry gave him a mocking look. "Of course not," he sneered, "because it's obvious you're so much better than me. I don't see how you can stand playing all of us. You beat us like it's nothing—me especially—it's got to get boring."

Ron shrugged. "It does."

Harry crossed his arms. "Then why do you do it?"

"I dunno," Ron said. "I figure that if I play you enough you might get better, and then I'd have a decent opponent. It's a challenge for me."

"I've got a challenge for you," Harry said sarcastically. "I'd like to see you beat me playing this side."

Ron frowned. "After you've backed yourself into such a corner?"

Harry nodded smugly. "Yeah. Think you could win it from my side?"

"Of course," Ron snorted. "Let's switch then. I'll still beat you playing black."

Harry looked at the board dubiously. Ron's white pieces were all there, save for a pawn or two, and were looking much more appealing than the measly few black pieces on the board. Ron was an excellent strategist, but Harry didn't think even he could pull himself out of this one. "Okay," Harry said eagerly.

They stood and switched chairs, and Ron moved the black queen forward three places. Ten minutes later, he sat back in his chair smugly, and declared, "Checkmate."

Harry closed his eyes very slowly.

ɤɣɤ

Harry held Quidditch tryouts the next day. He wanted to replace Kirk and Sloper if he could because they were absolutely dreadful, but he didn't want to single them out, so he held full-tryouts with every position available—even his own. Ron would again be trying out for Keeper as Professor McGonagall had not barred him from the team, which Harry was fairly happy about. Ron would never be as confident as Oliver Wood had been, but he was still pretty good. His confidence had soared during sixth year and he had helped them to secure the Quidditch Cup that year.

The turn out was great, Harry decided, as he looked over at all the hopefuls gathered around the pitch. It was a Tuesday afternoon and all classes were over for the day so everyone had the opportunity to attend.

"I want everyone trying out for Chaser over here," Harry said loudly, "and everyone for Beater over there," he pointed to the opposite end of the pitch. "Everyone trying out for Keeper or Seeker stay where you are for now."

"What if we want to try out for more than one position?" Seamus called from the back of the crowd. Harry grinned and hoped that Seamus didn't embarrass himself too badly this go round.

"You and Dean want to try for Beater and Chaser?" he asked. The two in question made their way forward, dressed in standard-issue Quidditch robes and looking excited.

"Yeah," Dean said. Both he and Seamus had brand-new Radio Flyers flung over their shoulders—bright, shiny red brooms from the new Radio Broom Company that had only released their first model over the summer. Harry hadn't seen any before, but Ron told him that they were midline brooms with no bells or whistles, but quite aerodynamically sound.

"Get with the Beaters," Harry said, deciding. "You can switch up afterwards. I want to run a few drills to see how the potential Chasers work with the potential Beaters."

Seamus nodded and they hurried off to the other end of the field, joining Sloper and two third year girls. Harry frowned—Kirk was nowhere to be seen; maybe he didn't want to play anymore anyway. Oh well.

The group of prospective Chasers was much larger, Harry noticed. Ginny had played the last two years and done an excellent job so Harry was fairly sure he would keep her around, but he still needed two more Chasers to make up for Alicia and Katie, who had left the year prior. There was a petite girl with black hair that Harry couldn't remember seeing before standing next to Ginny, a few fourth years and a fifth year also.

Harry saw Ron standing awkwardly with the two other people trying out for either Seeker or Keeper and called him over.

"You're better at this than I am," Harry said when Ron jogged up. "Fly up with me and help me pick."

Ron grinned at him and mounted his broom. "Chasers and Beaters on your brooms," Harry yelled and immediately all of the potentials soared into the air. Harry released the Bludgers and grabbed the Quaffle. He and Ron drifted up and stopped in the middle of the gathered flyers.

"We'll be scrimmaging, but there won't be a Keeper guarding the goal posts yet because I just want to see how well your throw is and how well you balance one-handed on your brooms. I'll let Ron divide you into teams and we'll play when I blow the whistle."

He nodded to Ron and soared up a bit higher to get a better view. He wasn't exactly sure how to hold a Quidditch tryout, so he hoped he was going about it the right way. Ron joined him a minute later and Harry watched as the players spread out on the field.

"Ready?" Harry asked. Ron nodded and gave him another grin. Harry dropped the Quaffle straight down and blew the whistle.

The black haired girl that had been talking to Ginny earlier was the first to it. She swiped it up and swooped under the opposing Chasers instead of going around them to the side, as many other Chasers tended to do. Harry gave her credit for that: it saved time and was effective; the other Chasers had not expected it.

Ginny flew over them, using the same tactic and then flew under the black-haired girl who dropped the Quaffle straight down into Ginny's hands, again confusing the other Chasers who had obviously expected her to toss it to the Chaser on her left. Ginny threw the Quaffle into the goal and scored.

Everyone watching in the stands cheered and Ron smiled smugly. "I think Ginny's still a good prospect," he said to Harry.

Harry nodded. "Yeah, and that other girl, too—what's her name? I've never seen her before."

Ron shrugged. "I dunno," he said just as the black haired girl feinted to Ginny and scored again. The third Chaser on their team swooped in to catch the Quaffle and tried to toss it back to her team-mates, but was blindsided by a Bludger from Seamus on the opposite team. "Damn, Seamus is rough."

Harry frowned. "She looks okay. Keep playing 'til someone bleeds," he decided.

Ron snorted. "Yes, Wood."

Harry cuffed him and directed his attention back to the game. The other Chasers had finally managed to score a goal, but were nowhere near as good as Ginny and the black haired girl. More importantly, they seemed to work exceptionally well together, as Angelina, Katie and Alicia had once. That was very important.

Ginny had possession of the Quaffle and was zooming back down the field again but Dean and Seamus zeroed in on her and blocked her path with their bats, as the Bludgers were on the other side of the field at the time.

"That was clever," Harry said to Ron.

Ron nodded quickly. "Yeah—they didn't have time to locate a Bludger so they just used their bats."

"And it's not a foul—" Harry said.

"Unless they actually touch her with their bats," Ron finished with him, grinning.

"Very clever," Harry repeated.

Jack Sloper was Beating for the other team, and holding his own, but tended to catch and throw the Bludger instead of hitting it. Being so heavy, and having a mind of its own, it rarely went where he intended it to, but he did have a good arm, Harry thought.

"I think that's enough," Ron said despondently. "Ginny and the black haired girl should Chase, and I like Seamus and Dean as Beaters, but I don't see any other Chasers that are really good enough."

Harry nodded towards his left. "Watch Sloper," he said. Ron followed his gaze just in time to see Sloper accidentally drop his bat, take a Bludger to the stomach, and then, in his rage, hurl it back where it came from. It soared through the goal post.

"Damn," Ron said bluntly. "That takes a bit of strength."

Harry nodded silently and blew his whistle. The scrimmage stopped and the players all flew up to meet Harry and Ron while Hermione, who had been watching in the stands, charmed the Bludgers back into the box. Harry grinned, even though he was too high for her to see it. He hadn't even known she was there.

Sloper had a definite sheepish look about him as he took his place with everyone else. He was rubbing his stomach and looking at everyone but Harry.

"I think I've made my decision for the positions of Chaser and Beater," Harry said without preamble. "Beaters are going to be Dean and Seamus."

"YES!" Dean and Seamus exclaimed simultaneously. They high-fived each other and did a few unsportsmanlike loops on their brooms. Seamus gave Harry a smug look that clearly said 'I told you so', and Harry snorted. Sloper's face fell and Harry, feeling sorry for him, decided not to let him suffer any longer.

"Oh don't start whinging, Sloper," Harry said, "you're still on the team."

"Yeah, as a reserve," Sloper mumbled.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, I'm going to keep you as reserve Beater, but I think your real talent lies with Chasing. You've got an amazing arm, so you'll also be one of our starting Chasers."

"What? Really?" Sloper asked incredulously. Harry nodded.

"Yeah, you throw better than you hit, and Ron and I both saw you put that Bludger through the goal without a bat. That was pretty good."

Sloper grinned smugly and ducked his head, probably blushing.

"Ginny," Harry said, turning to Ron's little sister and trying to ignore the leer she sent him. It was entirely discomfiting, and she didn't seem to care at all. Harry was sure that if she didn't stop looking at him like that very soon, everyone—most importantly, Ron—was going to know what they had done. He didn't like the thought of that. "You're still on the team, you hag," he added playfully. She laughed and fluttered her eyelashes at him, laughing even harder when Ron hit Harry on the head.

"What was that for?" Ron asked indignantly. "Why are you calling my sister a hag?"

"She was leering suggestively at me!" Harry said defensively, rubbing his head. Ron made a disgusted face and apologized.

"Sorry, mate. She deserves it then." He sneered at Ginny and added, "Gross."

"Alright, you two," Harry said, pointing to two fourth year girls, "are Reserves." They nodded, only looking slightly disappointed. He scanned the players for the black haired girl and finally found her drifting slightly apart from the rest of the group in the back.

"You," Harry said, calling the girl. She looked up, staring at him emotionlessly. He gestured her closer and she drifted over to him without much fanfare. "I've never seen you before. What year are you?"

"Sixth," the girl answered quietly. Harry didn't think anyone but him could hear her, not even Ron. "My family transferred me because of, ah, complications in France. This is my second day at Hogwarts." Harry, suddenly, knew exactly who she was. It was unmistakeable now that he looked closer at her. She had black hair and grey eyes like his father.

"You're one of the Lestrange girls, Alsace or Lorraine?" Harry asked. And then, "You were sorted into Gryffindor?" he asked incredulously.

The girl scrunched up her nose. "It's al'-zas," she said, stressing the pronunciation. "And yes. You are one of my cousins, Harry Potter."

Harry frowned. "I go by Black now, actually," he said. Alsace shrugged. No one else seemed to have heard them talking, which was probably good as Harry wasn't looking forward to Ron knowing that one of the Lestrange sisters was going to be on their Quidditch team, though he figured Ron would find out anyway momentarily.

"Is your sister in Gryffindor, too?" he asked.

"No," Alsace answered. "Headmaster Dumbledore sorted her into Ravenclaw. She's very smart."

Harry wondered if she meant that Dumbledore had actually picked their houses instead of the Sorting Hat, but decided not to ask. It was odd, but not really important.

He turned to face the rest of the team. "This is Alsace Lestrange," he said, ignoring the gasps he heard, mostly from Ron. Many people were still unaware of the names of most of the Death Eaters so it didn't cause as big of a stir as it might have, and Ginny didn’t seem overly surprised. "She'll be our third starting Chaser."

He paused, looked down at the ground where the other Gryffindors and Hermione were watching curiously and then said, "I want starting and reserve players to stay in the air. Everyone else is dismissed. Thank you for trying out."

Ron tried to corner him, but Harry was having none of it. He wanted this tryout session over with, and then—maybe—he, Ron and Hermione could discuss this further in the common room—away from listening ears.

"Harry!" Ron hissed.

"Not now, Ron," Harry said. "We'll talk about this after practise. You're first up. Get at your goal."

Harry watched the rest of the tryouts with only half a mind. Ron saved all but two of his goals and did much better than the other two players who were trying out. No one wanted to tryout for Seeker, which was fine with Harry because he didn't want to sit through any more than he had to, so he blew his whistle a final time and watched as everyone gathered around him.

"Ron, you're still on. You," Harry said, pointing to one of the others who had tried out for Keeper, "are reserve. Ginny, you're reserve Seeker, and that's it," he said bluntly. "First practise is next Saturday at ten. I expect everyone to be here, dressed and ready on time."

Harry flew down to the ground, followed closely by Ron and Ginny and landed roughly on the stands next to Hermione. "We need to talk," he said to her, and then flew off towards the changing rooms.

Something caught his eye on the way though, and he paused to look more closely. Someone was sitting under the stands. Upon closer inspection, Harry was not surprised to see that it was Malfoy. He frowned, looked over his shoulder to make sure the rest of the team—old and new—was headed towards the showers, and flew down to the ground, landing feet from Malfoy.

"Doing a bit of reconnaissance, Malfoy?" Harry asked archly. Malfoy didn't seem at all chagrined to have been caught. He shrugged.

"Know thine enemy," Malfoy said dully. He looked altogether exhausted, and for a moment, Harry wanted to take pity on him and be nice, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Malfoy was probably evil, after all, and whether or not Harry was willingly working with Lord Voldemort, he wanted nothing to do with evil. He was trying to get rid of it, anyway he could, not encourage it.

Harry pursed his lips and tossed an errant lock of hair back from his face.

"What were you really doing here—other than sulking of course?"

"Can't a member of a rival team watch his enemies' tryouts?"

"I wasn't aware that it was encouraged," Harry responded. "I'm actually surprised that you're still on a rival team—what with you having just tried to blow up half the dungeons yesterday. Isn't attempted murder grounds for taking you off a Quidditch team?"

"The Headmaster doesn't think so," Malfoy said, and the grin that he gave Harry—fake and condescending or not—did very strange things to the Gryffindor's stomach.

Harry raised his eyebrows, trying to cover his sudden dizziness with nonchalance. "So you were trying to kill us all then," he deduced.

"Of course," Malfoy said, rolling his eyes. "Don’t you think I live for suicide missions like some raving Gryffindor?"

Harry suddenly grinned. "You weren't!" he crowed. "You had no idea what the mint leaf would do, did you?" He chuckled, shaking his head. "So what did you think it would do?"

"Of course I knew what it would do!" Malfoy said indignantly, but Harry didn't buy it. He could tell Malfoy was flustered by the look on his face; it was obvious he hadn't expected the conversation to turn this way, and it was obvious that he really hadn't had any idea what the mint leaf would do. Harry smirked. "I knew it would cause an explosion," Malfoy said a moment later.

"Maybe," Harry allowed, still grinning, "but you didn't know it would cause a big explosion. I bet you thought it would just cover us in some nasty gunk didn't you? You just don't want to admit that you didn't know how it would react."

Malfoy sneered, showing his teeth, and stood up. "Fine, Potter. I thought it was just going to singe your stupid face."

"Black," Harry said.

Malfoy was almost in a spitting rage by now. He glared at Harry, his mouth twitching as if he wanted to say something more but couldn't think of anything, so instead he bent down and gathered up his things, which had been sitting on the grass. Harry watched him silently, enjoying the way Malfoy's entire body trembled in anger. Something shiny next to Malfoy's school bag caught his eye.

"So you do have a sweet tooth," Harry laughed. "All those packages your mummy sent you really were chocolates. It's kind of funny to think you're actually human enough to like sweets."

Malfoy growled and snatched up the sweet wrapper, refusing to look at Harry. “Of course,” he said. “Only self-righteous arseholes like you can like chocolate, is that it?” His hands were shaking and he was having trouble picking up his things because of it. Harry bent down, picked up a second Chocolate Frog wrapper and studied it.

"You know," he said casually, as a piece of parchment slipped through Malfoy's shaking fingers, "Ron's finished his Chocolate Frog card collection. He's thinking of sending in a list of new ones for the company to make so that he can collect more. I suggested a Death Eater collection. What do you think of that, Malfoy?"

"You can't have my picture, Potter," Malfoy hissed, finally stuffing the last of his things into his bag.

"Oh, I don't want your picture, Malfoy. You're not a Death Eater."

"How would you know?" Malfoy snarled, looking up.

Harry smiled blandly at him. "But if you want to give us a picture of your father…a short bio—things he likes to do, favourite foods, pet names, et cetera, that would be lovely."

Malfoy flung the other Chocolate Frog wrapper at Harry. It fluttered to the ground in front of his feet. "Fuck off," he said, and stormed away, leaving Harry grinning underneath the stands. He started off towards the changing rooms when Malfoy was out of sight.

Everyone was already in there when Harry walked in and started to undress. Dean kept casting speculative looks at Alsace as she stripped out of her Quidditch gear and Seamus kept casting speculative looks at everyone who wasn't Ginny or Alsace, but mainly Harry.

"I think I like the idea of these changing rooms," Seamus said loudly when Harry pulled his t-shirt over his head. Harry stared at him blankly, daring him to continue, and Seamus did. "Think they ought to separate the girls from the boys though."

"I don't," Dean and Sloper said at the same time.

Ron turned around from his locker just in time to see Ginny un-strapping her shin guards and shuddered. "Oh god, I do," he said, turning back around quickly. Ginny sneered at him and retreated to one of the shower stalls to finish undressing.

Harry, Ron and Ginny showered in record time and were meeting Hermione by the fire in the common room before they knew it.

"What's this all about?" Hermione asked.

"I don't want to talk about it here," Harry said.

Hermione frowned at him. "Fine, we can go to my room," she said and led them over to the stairs leading to the girl's dorms. She tapped her wand against the wall in a complicated motion and gestured for them to follow her. Ginny did, but Harry and Ron, remembering the time Ron had slipped down those same stairs, hesitated.

"We can't go up there," Harry said.

Hermione frowned. "Honestly," she said. "Seven years and you think I haven't figured out the counter-charm yet?" Ron frowned.

"You didn't tell us when you did?" he asked indignantly.

"If I had, I would have had to deal with the two of you in my room at all hours," Hermione answered. "Now let's go!" she said.

Harry and Ron bustled to follow.

Hermione's Head Girl room was about the same size as Harry and Ron's dorm, but since it only had one bed, wardrobe and desk, it was much roomier. There was a sitting area near the fireplace with comfortable looking chairs and a thick rug that Ginny sprawled out on. On the opposite side there were two doors, one of which Harry assumed led to a private toilet.

"Where's the other door go to?" he asked Hermione as he sat down in one of the chairs. Hermione took the other one and Ron laid down on the bed right next to it.

"The main hall," Hermione answered as if Harry should have known that. "Students need to be able to reach me at anytime, you know. Not just Gryffindors. That door is for students from other houses."

"Makes sense," Ron said. Everyone ignored him.

"Now what's going on?" Hermione asked.

"One of the Lestrange sisters is in Gryffindor," Ginny said. Hermione frowned.

"Since when?"

"Yesterday, apparently," Harry said tiredly.

"I can't believe there's a Lestrange in Gryffindor," Ron said harshly. "She doesn’t belong in Gryffindor!"

"Dumbledore sorted them. The other one's in Ravenclaw."

"But she didn't sleep in my room last night," Ginny said.

"And Harry let her on the Quidditch team!" Ron roared. "I can't believe you, Harry! She's a Death Eater's kid! She's probably one herself! And if you let her on the team she'll have all that time to watch you! She could turn you over to You-Know-Who!"

"Ron, shut up!" Hermione said. Harry was very thankful for that. There had been entirely too many people talking at once and it had begun to give him a headache—even if Ron was the main one talking. He was doing entirely too much of it, and it wasn't solving anything. "Now," Hermione said when Ron finally quieted, "is that true, Harry?"

"Yes," Harry said, daring her to argue with him. Alsace Lestrange was an amazing Chaser and there was no way he was going to take her off the team. Ron had liked her, too, before he knew who she was. He didn't see what the problem was. She couldn't help her name or her parents, but Harry had other reasons to keep her around as well. Of course, he couldn't tell anyone else those reasons, but he had them nonetheless.

"Well," Hermione said.

"Well what?" Ron asked. "There's no 'well' about it, Hermione. She's got to go."

"Ron, you said she was good, too," Harry reminded him. "And she works well with Ginny."

"Well, what if Ginny doesn't want to 'work well' with some Death Eater?" Ron snarled.

That was a fair point, Harry decided—though he doubted he would change his mind just because Ginny didn't want to be on the same team as the Lestrange girl anymore. He turned to look down at Ginny sitting on the rug and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Ron and Hermione followed his gaze. "Well?" Harry asked.

Ginny shifted uncomfortably. "She is a good Chaser," Ginny allowed. "And she seemed nice enough."

"See?" Harry said.

"Harry," Hermione sighed. "Ron does have a point."

"And so do I," Harry said, frowning. "She's good. She and Ginny were the best out there. I'm not compromising my Quidditch team because she might sell our game strategies to Voldemort."

"Harry, that's not funny," Hermione said fiercely.

"I'm not laughing," Harry pointed out flatly. "But this is Quidditch."

"It could be your life, if you aren't careful," Hermione said.

Not really, but Harry hadn't considered how to argue that point. Alsace Lestrange was no threat to him, he knew, but he was the only one who knew. "She's not a threat," Harry finally said.

Hermione looked at him blankly. "How do you know?"

Harry fidgeted. "I just do," he said.

Ron flopped back on the bed in exasperation, but Harry saw, out of the corner of his eye, both Hermione and Ginny giving him speculative looks. He was becoming very uncomfortable in this room. It seemed like it was getting too hot, but he couldn't be sure.

"I'm not taking her off the team, and that's that. I only brought it up so you would know," he said and stood. He looked at everyone in the room firmly, then turned and walked out, taking the door that led to the main hall instead of the one that led to the Gryffindor common room. He needed some space to think.

ɤɣɤ

It was getting dark, but Harry didn't care.

He had been walking aimlessly around the Hogwarts grounds for an hour when the owl came. It was big and grey with huge orange eyes and Harry had never seen it before, but he knew exactly who it was from judging by the handwriting on the envelope. His father had written him.

Harry grinned as he untied the letter from the owl's leg, patting it on its head since he didn't have any owl treats with him. "Sorry," he told it, shrugging. The owl gave an indignant hoot and soared off to the owlery for a rest. Harry watched it go, smiling. Finally, something to take his mind off everything that he didn't want to think about.

He felt like a fraud. He felt like he was doing something he really shouldn't be doing, but he couldn't see any way around it. He could very well be both saving and damning the world at the same time. It wasn’t a comforting thought, but it was what most of his thoughts were lately, and he hoped that this letter would offer him a reprieve. He just didn't want to think about Lestrange sisters or Death Eaters or Malfoy anymore. Ever.

Carefully, Harry pried off the wax seal and withdrew the letter. It was written on a very fine, very smooth piece of parchment with an engraved letterhead that depicted the Black family crest. Harry frowned; he was certain that Sirius hadn't had any stationary like that before. And surely he didn't need to use it to write a letter to Harry; Harry knew where he lived, their floo address and certainly Sirius's full name. He rolled his eyes, deciding not to worry about it.


Harry,

Not that I know much about parenting, you know, but I had hoped that it was customary for children to write to their fathers at least once every two weeks. As it's been that long since you left for Hogwarts, and I have not yet received a letter from you, I have decided to be the bigger man.

How are classes? Do you like Arithmancy? I was always pants at it—I only took it three years, but I got an A on my OWLs, so Professor Vector probably wouldn't have let me continue to NEWT level anyway. Is he still teaching that class? I would think so since the year I took it was only his first year. He can't be that old…

How's Snivelly Snape treating you? Are his classes just awful? It was bad enough having to be in the same class as him in school, but I just can't even imagine having him teaching me—or anyone really. I bet it's dreadful.

This is an awful letter, I know. I'm sure you can tell I'm skirting the real issue here, which is that I would really, really like to know what's going on with all that…stuff. You know. Harry, I'm really worried. I keep getting these little thoughts that are saying that this is just like the Tri-Wizard Tournament, only without an actual tournament, Barty Crouch Jr, or dragons.

What I mean is, I'm worried that you're being led into a trap or something and I'm not going to be around to watch over you. Maybe I should relocate closer to Hogwarts. There's probably a room to rent in Hogsmeade—I could look into some investing, maybe. I still haven't decided on anything…

Are you sure you're okay? Harry, maybe I should talk to Him—you know, just to ease my nerves. I don't think I'm overreacting, but that might be a sort of suicide mission. I keep trying to think of what James or your mother would have done in my place. James, definitely, would have locked you up in your room and not let you out until Voldemort died of old age. I doubt that's going to happen.

Lily, on the other hand, would probably have gotten so pissed off that you were being targeted in any way that she would have marched right up to Voldemort and slapped some sense him. I'm not sure how he would have taken that. I wouldn't have been surprised if she walked away from it. She could charm just about anyone.

What I'm saying is, that I'm an awful father that I think James would have been too overprotective that I'm not as charming as your mother I don't have either of those options. Harry, I don't want to say too much in a letter, but I want you to remember Regulus. I would have done it to protect him, and I'll sure as hell do it to protect you, but the problem is that I think you wouldn't even need my protection—what I could offer anyway. I doubt it would have helped Regulus much either. I'm not happy about this, but then again, I don't see either of us having any other options.

River House is too noisy without you. I know most parents say that the house is too quiet without their kids, but they don't have Ginger…and Morty, who's a real wailer. Harry, this kid's got lungs the size of the Channel, and without you around, Ginger thinks it's okay to be as loud as she wants. Fred and I are building a men's retreat in the back garden to take up time and get away from Ginger. It's kind of like a tree house fortress. I think Fred slept in it last night. You can see it when you come home for holidays. We'll do manly things like puff cigars in monogrammed smoking jackets.

When's the first Hogsmeade weekend? If you're not too cool to spend a Saturday or Sunday with your new-old man, I'd like to join you. And your friends of course. It might take my mind off these weird dreams I've been having again. I'm going to try to send another letter to Moony now; this owl seems to be getting confused, so I'm going to try renting a falcon from the post office.

Love,
Sirius Your Dad Father
Dad

Harry folded up the letter and tucked it in his pocket. Well, he thought, it certainly hadn't taken his mind off anything, but it had added new things to think about. Looking at his watch, he realised that it was nearly time for dinner. He had been outside for entirely too long. He sighed and headed back towards the castle, deciding that he could still put this off. Maybe if he just ignored everything long enough it would go away.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Cold War (n): A state of rivalry and tension between two factions, groups, or individuals that stops short of open, violent confrontation.

ɤɣɤ

Hermione was already at dinner when Harry got there, but Ron was once again nowhere to be seen. She frowned at him when he sat across from her and stuck her nose in a book, successfully ignoring him. Harry cleared his throat hesitantly.

"Where's Ron?" he asked with a decent interpretation of cheeriness in his voice.

Hermione glanced up briefly. "He already ate. He had to start his detentions tonight."

"I thought they weren't starting until next week," Harry said, trying to keep the conversation going.

Hermione narrowed her eyes at the interruption; she had been working all week on a lengthy essay for Ancient Runes. "Professor McGonagall changed her mind because Filch decided he needed some filing done immediately."

"That doesn't sound too bad," Harry said.

Hermione sighed harshly and closed her book. She obviously didn't want to talk to him right then. He couldn't blame her: he hadn't been exactly chipper last time he'd seen her. He supposed that people got fussy when other people stormed out of their bedrooms, but he was smart enough not to bring it up.

"He's got to alphabetise all the student records dating back to the 1500s."

"Ouch," Harry said with feeling. Hermione harrumphed and opened her book again. "Sorry," he added.

"As you should be," Hermione said. "That was very rude of you, and you could at least have listened to what we had to say."

"I did," Harry insisted. "Plus, Ginny agrees with me."

"Ginny doesn't count right now," Hermione said. Harry frowned at her. "What I mean is," Hermione continued, "this is something that seriously upsets Ron. You know how his family is."

"Ginny's part of his family," Harry added helpfully.

Hermione narrowed her eyes again. "Harry, you're being contrary just to be contrary."

"I'm not!" Harry said.

"I know," Hermione stressed, "that just because she's Bellatrix's daughter doesn't mean that she's automatically a Death Eater, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful, Harry."

Harry came very close to blurting out something that he shouldn't have, but caught himself just in time. "I know," he said.

"Good," Hermione said.

"Good," Harry said. They looked at each other for several seconds, and then Harry ventured, "So are we okay?"

Hermione smiled at him after only a moment of hesitation. "We're okay."

"Good," Harry repeated. The chattering of all the students in the Great Hall suddenly faded out, and Harry looked up to the front of the room to see what was going on. Professor Dumbledore was standing up behind the Head Table waiting complacently for silence.

"Good evening," Dumbledore smiled when everyone was quiet. His blue eyes were twinkling merrily, which probably meant he had something up his green-striped sleeve. Harry frowned at the thought; there was no reason for him to keep feeling so disgruntled when the Headmaster didn’t tell him everything. Dumbledore wasn't bad, he was just enigmatic, and Harry knew he had everyone’s best interests at heart. He wasn’t evil for having something up his sleeve. If anyone was evil, it was Voldemort, and Harry still associated with him.

He cringed internally. The thought of it sounded so much worse than the reality of it.

He was sure, now that he thought about it, that Dumbledore had a very good reason for keeping whatever secrets he had from Harry, and just because his father thought he'd been sent on a suicide mission didn't mean it was true—and anyway, Sirius had been given an opportunity to say no.

But it also didn't mean that Harry wasn't determined to find out what the hell was going on.

Sirius was known for overreacting—even Harry could admit that, and Harry would never get anywhere if he alienated himself from the leader of the Light side. He wanted to help unite the wizarding world—and he was sure Dumbledore did, too.

Harry smiled to himself and murmured 'Good evening' back to Dumbledore along with the rest of the students. This war was over before it had even begun—the rest of the world just didn't know it yet. The thought left him with a happy little smile on his face, and he turned it towards the Headmaster as he made his speech.

"Yesterday evening, Hogwarts welcomed two new students," Dumbledore continued happily. "They arrived late last night from Beauxbatons and will be finishing their sixth and seventh years here with us, as their family has relocated from France. I would like everyone to give Alsace and Lorraine Lestrange a very warm welcome."

Dumbledore gestured behind Harry, and Harry turned to see Alsace and another petite girl who looked exactly like her walk hesitantly into the Great Hall side by side. They made their way to the front of the hall and stopped in front of Dumbledore. The students clapped politely, and though it had only been two years, Harry realised that most of the students had forgotten that Lestrange was a Death Eater name. He chuckled humourlessly to himself and clapped along with the rest of the hall.

"Alsace," Dumbledore said, and Alsace gave an elegant wave, "has been sorted into Gryffindor. Her sister Lorraine will be in Ravenclaw, according to the Sorting Hat." The Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables erupted into applause.

Dumbledore raised a hand for silence again and the students complied. "Alsace has also just informed Professor McGonagall, who informed me, that she was made Chaser for the Gryffindor team this afternoon, and Professor Flitwick tells me that Lorraine has made second piano accordian chair in the Hogwarts orchestra. What wonderful starts for our two new students!”

"I expect all students to help the misses Lestrange familiarise themselves with the nuances of the castle. Should you see either of them wandering the wrong way or lost, please give them a hand. You may join your tables now, ladies, and your prefects will show you to your dorms after dinner," he added to the two girls.

They nodded, hugged briefly, and separated to join their tables. Harry looked at Hermione stubbornly and waved for Alsace to sit next to him. She slid into the empty space next to him and smiled faintly.

"Hi," Harry said. Hermione smiled at her, but said nothing, which Harry couldn't really argue with. Hermione usually tried to welcome everyone, but he wasn't surprised that she was wary of the Lestrange sisters. Bellatrix had tried to kill them in fifth year, after all—and she'd certainly killed someone, though neither Harry nor Sirius knew who, yet.

"Hello," Alsace said. She stuck her hand out to Hermione and said, "I am Alsace Lestrange, and you are?"

Hermione couldn't very well ignore her, and Harry grinned into his hand as she was forced to take Alsace's hand and introduce herself.

"Hermione Granger," Hermione said primly. "I'm Head Girl." Harry bit into a roll to keep from grinning.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Alsace said. Harry noticed, belatedly, that Alsace didn't have even a hint of a French accent.

"I heard you live with your grandmother," Hermione said. Harry tried to kick her shin, knowing exactly where that line of questioning was going, but Hermione deftly moved her leg out of the way as if she knew what Harry had been planning to do. He scowled at her across the table and chewed harshly on the roll.

"Yes," Alsace said. "And our grandfather as well. Our parents are in Azkaban," she said bluntly. Harry looked at her out of the corner of his eye and saw that her jaw was set determinedly, daring Hermione to say something derogatory. Harry pulled his foot back. Alsace could handle herself. Several students scattered around them turned and looked with undisguised surprise.

"Oh," Hermione said, chagrined. Harry would have loved to see this moment continue, but he suddenly sensed someone standing behind him and turned around. Theodore Nott was there, tall and gangly, with his hands clasped in front of him and his lips pursed as if he were nervous.

"Granger," he said. Hermione looked up and frowned.

"Nott," she said.

Nott shifted uneasily and transferred his attention to Alsace. He stuck his hand out gracefully and she took it. "Theodore Nott," Nott said, lightly kissing her fingers. "Head Boy." Alsace smiled in amusement and introduced herself to him.

"Anyway," Nott said, redirecting his attention to Hermione with a sudden burst of—possibly—bravado. "I need to speak to you."

"About what?" Hermione asked suspiciously.

"Prefect business," he said.

Hermione gathered up her things immediately. "I'll just get Neville then," she said.

"No need," Nott said. "Just Head Boy and Head Girl."

"Oh," Hermione said. "Well, all right." Nott nodded and walked out of the hall, Hermione hastening to follow.

Alsace looked at Harry when they were out of sight. "I have not been at Hogwarts very long," she said, "but even I know that Heads never meet without their prefects."

Harry frowned, watching the empty doorway. "What do you suppose he wants?" he asked, and then frowned again. Why was he asking Alsace? As if she would know what went on at Hogwarts already.

Alsace snorted delicately and said nothing.

ɤɣɤ

After seeing something truly horrifying enough times, one's reactions become blunted to them, as Theodore well knew. It skewed your perceptions and the line between good and bad, right and wrong, would become so grey that one wouldn't be able to tell it from the white or the black. That might've been one of Malfoy's problems, having been raised mostly by his stern, possibly now-deranged father with only minor influence from his mother, who Theodore, admittedly, knew hardly anything about.

This was also true for less radical situations, and even though Theodore's father had been absent enough of his life that Theo had been forced to suffer through only a few truly macabre experiences, he was still hardened enough to not react when Granger gave him a wholly suspicious look upon arriving at the old Charms classroom he had chosen to hold their discussion in.

Slytherins, as a rule, were always looked upon with suspicion and even though Theodore had never done anything even remotely vulgar or camp in recent years—save for, maybe, not putting Malfoy out of his misery—he accepted this constant lack of trust as a true Slytherin should. That didn't mean that the awkward, chagrined feeling he felt at Granger's hard eyes was easier to bear, though.

The old Charms classroom was hardly ideal for chatting and planning, but Hogwarts didn't have a prefect's study, so it was all he had. Perhaps he should suggest such a room to the headmaster—it wasn't as though the school didn't have room to spare.

"Well?" Granger asked. She had positioned herself on an old rickety-looking desk and was looking at Theodore expectantly. He wished that he could explain why he felt so inferior under her gaze. He was raised to be better than that—surely a hard look from some girl shouldn't rattle him so much. His face remained expertly blank, and he prided himself on this, as Malfoy, had he been in a similar situation feeling similarly, would surely have defaulted by now. "What's going on?"

"Your parents are muggles, aren't they?" Theodore asked. He wanted to slap himself right afterwards because it was such a stupid question to ask. Everyone knew Granger's parents were muggles. His grandmother had taught him to better handle strange situations. She would have pinched him for such a pitiable opener.

Granger narrowed her eyes. "If you've only brought me here to insult me for being muffleborn, then you can save your breath. I don't care what you've to say."

"No," Theodore said hastily. "Not at all. I don't have anything against muggles."

"Really," Granger said. It was not a question. More, it couldn't have been more obvious that not only did she not believe him; she thought his entire existence beneath her. Theodore wanted to scowl terribly, but that wouldn't get him anywhere with Granger, and he wanted her assistance.

He suddenly had the odd feeling that it was vital to not only his plans for Head Boy, but also for something that he couldn't explain just yet, that she believe him. He showed her his teeth. "Look," he said gawkily, with his lips still spread in an uncharismatic grin.

Granger looked at him strangely. "At what?"

"My teeth," Theodore said through them. "They're straight." He was very glad that none of the other Slytherins were around for he would surely be ostracised at great length for such a display. What in Dagda’s name was wrong with him?

"And?" Granger prompted.

Theodore closed his lips in frustration. "Teeth usually aren't naturally this straight, Granger," he said flatly.

"So what?" Granger asked rhetorically. "So you used a spell to straighten them. How does that prove you don't have anything against muggles?"

Theodore wondered, for one agonizing moment, if she was mocking him or if she truly didn't understand. He didn't think it was all that hard to figure out—especially for a muggleborn girl who had dentists for parents. He really didn't want to say it though; there might be more questions and then he would be forced to go into great detail about the whole process, which, undoubtedly, would end up with him telling her he had suspicions that it had been Granger's own parents that fixed his teeth.

He heaved a great sigh and sat down on a desk opposite her. "There are no spells to change bone structure, which, technically, is what fixing teeth would be. I had brackets when I was ten."

Granger's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "How interesting."

He was seriously starting to regret inviting Granger to talk by now. This was not going at all how he had planned it to go. "Quite."

"I would think," Granger continued carefully, "that someone with parents of certain, ah, affiliations, would protest such measures."

Theodore had to give her credit for how she had worded that statement. It was said like a pureblood, with a perfect mix of tact, careless small talk and veiled insult. The delivery needed work, though.

"If you're saying that you didn't think that my father, since he’s a Death Eater, would use muggle remedies to fix his son's teeth, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. More important than alienating muggleborns to my family is the illusion of perfection. I cannot help my ungainly stature," he said wryly, "but my teeth were fixable. It was a logical solution—even more pleasing as it frustrates the other Slytherins to no end."

"Why?" Granger asked curiously.

This time, Theodore did roll his eyes. Sometimes, the cleverest were also the most oblivious. "Because their teeth aren't perfect, obviously. Don't you think that would cause a bit of jealous contention?"

"Not at all," Granger said. "But then, everyone has their own values."

Theodore took a moment to consider what life would be like without the constant pettiness that surrounded him. He imagined it might be nice for a while—until he got terribly bored of everyone being so cheerful.

He cleared his throat. "Regardless, I didn't go to all this trouble just to show off my teeth—" especially since he found subtle mockery more effective than obvious boasting "—so if you are now sufficiently satisfied that I am not here to insult you, then could we continue with the intended discussion?"

Granger studied him with calculated eyes, and then asked slowly, "And that would be?"

Theodore barely restrained from sighing in relief. He pulled a magazine from his school bag and held it out to Granger. "My grandmother subscribes to Witch's Home Journal," he explained, "and I nicked this from her sitting room."

Granger flipped through it curiously, but found nothing that explained why Theodore was showing it to her. Theodore moved to sit next to her on the desk, checking first that it would hold both of them, and then reached over to flip a few more pages. "There," he said, pointing at a particular article. "It's the October issue and this year they wrote something up about how muggles celebrate All Hallows and the night before. Halloween, it says."

"I'm familiar with the term," Granger said dryly.

Theodore huffed. "I would imagine that you are, Granger, granting that you were raised as a muggle." He peered at her, eyebrows raised in amusement. "What I was actually doing, as you would know had you been raised to be a Slytherin," he admitted ruefully, "was checking to see if I had the name right without actually admitting that I don't know for certain."

Granger, surprisingly, laughed. "Is that how your lot works?" she asked. "I had wondered. How much work and extra stress it must be to dance around subjects all the time."

"Quite," Theodore said blandly. "Anyway," he gestured back to the magazine, "this is what I wanted to show you. They've got this elaborate write-up on what muggles do to celebrate this 'Halloween', and I thought it was really interesting because it's so different from the way we celebrate it when we're with our friends and families."

Granger perked up, but Theodore, knowing what was probably coming, waved her off. "I'm not explaining it right now. I was thinking that we could organise a gala."

"A gala," Granger said slowly. "Don't you think that would be a bit over-the-top?"

Theodore scrunched up his nose. "A fancy-dress party then," he amended.

"So what's this got to do with me then?"

"Well," Theodore said slowly, "I was thinking that this party could be muggle-themed…you know, to make things a bit more interesting. Our celebrations are usually based much more on our religion. Not here at Hogwarts, of course—since there are so many muggleborn students that the Board of Governors doesn't want to offend—but when we're with our families. Dumbledore tends to keep things simple with sweets and pasties."

"I, also, was aware of that," Granger said, "having eaten those same sweets and pasties myself."

Theodore rolled his eyes, not even noticing that in the time since he had been talking to Granger, he had almost completely relaxed—something he would have never done around the other Slytherins.

"The point is that we've never been able to have traditional celebrations while we're at school, and, frankly, I'm a bit board of feasts. Since we can't risk offending the muggleborn students, we can't do a traditional party—but we can try to have a muggle-themed one. It might offend people like Malfoy, but most of the other students would be intrigued enough to give it a go."

"I'm surprised that you're not worried about offending Malfoy," Granger said.

Theodore scoffed. "A house divided cannot stand, but a dungeon with factions only weakens the foundations," he said philosophically.

"It would be better to have strong foundations, I would think," Granger noted.

Theodore couldn't argue with that, so he only shrugged. "I don’t lay claim to the quote; you can attribute it to Wendell Wiggins, fifteenth century Master of Charms. At any rate, would you be interested in trying to organise this? I question the reliability of this article—I'm not wholly convinced that muggles are strange enough to go to great lengths to scare and steal pumpkin pasties from other muggles on Halloween. I'm hoping that you can help make this as authentic as possible. We could work out all the details then submit a proposal to the Headmaster."

Granger laughed again. "The article's not that far off," she admitted, scanning the rest of it. "It's not as commonplace as it used to be, but we—that is, muggles—do dress up and go begging for sweets."

"Ghosts and everything?" Theodore asked, directing her to one particular line: 'costumes including those of ghosts, muggle Aurors, princesses and witches.'

Granger nodded.

"How do they make themselves translucent without the magic then?" Theodore asked curiously.

"They don't," Granger said. "They put white bed sheets over themselves."

"That's outlandish!" Theodore exclaimed.

Granger gave him a wry look. "No worse than the outfits they come up with for witches," she said. "When I was six or seven, I dressed up as a witch, and my costume was quite different from what we actually wear."

Theodore looked at her curiously. "What was it like then?"

Granger smirked. "A big, black rimmed hat with a long, warty nose, and green skin. I also had a black Victorian era mourning dress on and carried a kitchen broom and a plastic cauldron."

"You can't make potions in a plastic cauldron!" Theodore said, outraged. "I've seen this plastic stuff before. It melts when it gets too hot. You're just asking for trouble."

"Of course," Granger said dryly. "But muggles aren't often found making potions. It was a prop—not real. I carried the sweets I got in it."

Theodore leaned back on the desk looking thoughtful. "Muggles are strange," he said slowly. "Interesting, but strange."

Granger shrugged. "We seem strange to them, I assure you. When I got my Hogwarts letter, my parents were a bit thrown. Diagon Alley that first year was a nightmare—my father was jumpy the whole time and my mother was astounded that people still dressed like muggles used to in the 1500s."

"We don't dress like we're from the 1700s," Theodore said.

"Cravats?" Granger asked dubiously.

"It's improper to go without a cravat at certain social functions," Theodore said plainly. Granger merely looked at him. "So—what do you say, Granger?" Theodore asked at last. "Do you think it would be a good idea?"

Granger shrugged. "I'm sure all the muggle-born students would appreciate it—might remind them of their childhoods. If you think the purebloods won't be angry with it then by all means, let's do it."

Theodore smirked. "Bugger the purebloods."

Hermione giggled, and said, "Language, Nott!"

ɤɣɤ

It was very late when Lucius arrived at Ard-Mhéara looking very pleased with himself. Voldemort had been staring at the spot on the cliffs where the fading sunlight hit the rocks and made them glow bloody red, but the rocks were black now and he could see nothing from his window except his own hideous reflection.

Edward Yaxley, an old friend who was not an old friend because Voldemort did not have friends, had left only moments before. They had gone to school together when Voldemort had been Tom Riddle, though he had only known Yaxley through his sister. He'd been in Ravenclaw and two years Voldemort's senior, but they had gotten along well enough.

Yaxley would—and had, on occasion—follow Voldemort to the ends of the earth. Not because he was especially fond of him—even if he had been before Voldemort had gone mad, but because he was old now, just like Voldemort, and he had nothing else to live for without the Death Eaters. And because he didn't give a damn about other people, anymore. He cared only for his beasts.

Voldemort couldn't blame him. He had no illusions about himself; he knew that he was cruel and heartless and that he had disposed—horribly—of more people than he cared to remember, but he wasn't the only person—was he even a person anymore?—to do that. What were people, when it came down to it? Nothing but an insignificant blip on the timeline of the world.

At one time, Voldemort had had a plan. It had been a plan that he and Yaxley thought up themselves, would carry out themselves, and dispose of the evidence themselves. By then, Voldemort had already removed his father from this world and had no compunctions about murder. The problem was—and he might be hypocritical for this, but he didn't particularly mind—that he had compunctions about someone else murdering someone that he happened to be fond of.

He had ever only been fond of one person. Perhaps two, if one was willing to get into a semantics argument about it, but Voldemort didn't think anyone—other than the Brat-Who-Lived—would be willing to do so.

Somewhere along the line, the plan had gone pear-shaped. Voldemort didn't remember when, but he did remember that when he first realised it, Edward Yaxley hadn't said a word. He had always been too complacent for his own good—he never minded taking the long way, so long as, eventually, he got results.

Yaxley had been waiting over forty years for results. He had no dreams of immortality or power like Voldemort did, but Voldemort admitted to himself that he wasn't too excited about staying alive forever either. He couldn't even remember now why the notion had caught his fancy to begin with. More time, he finally remembered; he had wanted more time to do what he needed to do.

He had got distracted somewhere along the line.

Two years ago, that wretched fool Dumbledore had said something profound about love to him. He hadn't been listening at the time; he couldn't remember what it was. Just as well; Voldemort had no interest in profound statements anyway, but he did wonder if it had been true. Dumbledore was wont to wax poetic about love all the time; the only problem was that Voldemort couldn't remember what love was. He found that he didn't particularly care; the last time he had remembered, it had been a gut-wrenching feeling.

Voldemort didn't have time for gut-wrenching feelings. They were troublesome and distracting—he would know, of course: they had distracted him. It was better that he didn't remember. He was old, he had never been too terribly fond of life—for himself or anyone else—and he just wanted to be able to tell himself when it was all over that he had accomplished something noteworthy.

It didn't have to be anything anyone liked, but he was owed at least a paragraph in the history books. He'd earned that at least. He didn't have to worry about that. Yaxley had been by only moments before: the Dementors were restless, and he would have his paragraph.

"And I can die when I'm done," Voldemort murmured to himself.

The apparition wards sounded in Voldemort's head and he turned slowly, knowing that no one without a Dark Mark would be able to apparate inside, but not knowing which of his Death Eaters was foolish enough to show up unannounced at a time like this. It must have been well past midnight.

"Lucius," Voldemort said flatly. Unlike his obnoxious little rival, he did not offer Lucius tea. Sometimes, Lucius infuriated him so much that he knew he would not be able to still his hand from actually dropping cyanide in it.

He was arrogant, and he was infuriating, but he was heartless as well—especially when it came to defending his family—and heartless was necessary sometimes. Lucius was necessary sometimes. “What do you want?"

Lucius bowed quickly and rose, looking flushed and overly excited, which, in Voldemort's memory, either boded very well or very badly—depending on the circumstances. He was in no mood for games; it had better bode well for him tonight or he just might offer Lucius a cup of tea.

"It’s done, Milord," Lucius said proudly.

Voldemort's face twitched and his eyebrows would have risen had he had any. "Indeed?" he asked. "After all this time—I have given you a year and you have finally finished your assignment. Very good, Lucius," he sneered.

Lucius's face tensed in either indignation or fright; it was always very hard to tell with him. He was so proud that even condescendence from his master angered him. How very unfortunate that it had been bred into his brat of a son. Voldemort put up with a lot from his Death Eaters—much more than many would expect—but he was loathe to add another presumptuous little brat to his ranks. But perhaps—yes, perhaps Harry could do something about the boy. He did seem to have a certain affect on him.

He was getting entirely too old to deal with it, and his original mission was so far from being accomplished that sometimes he came very close to forgetting what it was. He never did—completely—but he had strayed and he had become mad from it. That he knew he was mad changed nothing—at least he knew it now. His sanity was slowly returning to him, though he did not know why, and now each of his cruel decisions was made with clarity instead of mind-fogging anger. He should not have been able to regain his clearness of mind, all research agreed. This sanity is how he realized how replaceable Lucius actually was.

The problem with having followers, he thought, was that you had to offer them something in return for their allegiance, and oftentimes, the prices were radical.

Payable, but radical.

"I would like a debriefing before you take me to them," Voldemort finally said. He sat down at his desk and poured himself—not Lucius—a cup of tea as Nagini slithered into his lap.

Lucius remained standing even though there was an available chair across from Voldemort's desk. He would have offered Severus a seat, even though Severus was a traitor, if only because Severus knew enough to at least act humble in front of him.

Lucius cleared his throat arrogantly. "Milord, I apologise for the delay, only not having an artefact similar to the book Hogwarts uses made it difficult—"

"The important parts, Lucius," Voldemort interrupted.

Lucius nodded. "Very well, Milord. There are two-dozen total—all of them under the age of two."

"All confirmed?" Voldemort asked.

"Yes, Milord," Lucius nodded. "Narcissa and I confirmed them personally."

Voldemort leaned back in his chair and absently stroked Nagini's scales. They were cold to his touch, but then, his own skin was usually cold as well. Twenty-four children, all magical, all muggleborn; it was an exciting thought. Twenty-four magical children who would be raised as wizards and not muggles—twenty-four magical children less who would enter the wizarding world at eleven not knowing anything about their lives—like him.

"And the appropriate people?" Voldemort asked. "All the muggles that were aware of their existence? Documents?"

"Narcissa and I researched thoroughly, Milord," Lucius said. "We have followed these same mudbloods for the past year—making sure they were magical, studying their families and the places they ventured. All of the muggles have been Obliviated and all of their documents destroyed. They will never know that they had mudblood children at all."

"Acceptable," Voldemort decided. "Where are they now?"

Lucius breathed a quiet sigh of relief. It almost brought a smile to Voldemort's face. "The Manor, Milord. We have collected them over the past fortnight. The house-elves are tending to them now."

Voldemort nodded slowly.

"Milord?" Lucius ventured slowly. Voldemort looked at him expectantly. "If I may be so bold—" Voldemort wanted to roll his eyes; Lucius was often too bold for his liking "—what will you do with the mudblood children?"

Voldemort considered him. He wondered what Lucius expected him to do with them. Surely, Lucius didn't think he would waste so many resources only to kill off two-dozen magical children? It was insane even by Voldemort's standards. Possibly amusing, but still insane.

"Two will be delivered to the families of two Death Eaters. Their wives are barren." How charitable of him, Voldemort mused to himself. He frowned as he realised that he would be providing happiness to others, when he himself knew none. A small price, in the end. "A ritual will be performed which will make the children blood-family. They will be raised never knowing that anything is amiss."

Lucius was obviously fighting back a grimace. He had not expected that. "And the others, Milord?"

"The others will be left at the British Wizarding Orphanage in Derbyshire. As you well know, Lucius, there are actually no orphans there," he smirked, "as so many pure-blood families find themselves childless." He chuckled darkly and then added, "I'm sure they'll be snatched up in no time."

"But they're mudbloods," Lucius said, finally allowing his grimace to show. "Milord," he added belatedly.

Voldemort cocked his head slightly to the side. "Not if the adoptive families choose to perform the blood-relation spell."

Lucius looked like he wanted to argue. Voldemort would be very surprised if he did—Severus was the only one who had ever dared to do so, other than Yaxley, but Yaxley had always been a special case.

"I would like to see them," Voldemort said when it was clear that Lucius still did not have the fortitude to dispute him. Lucius nodded, and they apparated to Malfoy Manor.

Various house-elves hustled to take their cloaks, and Narcissa rose from the settee she was perched upon and curtsied when she saw him. He nodded to her as she led him and Lucius through a door and into a mass nursery.

Voldemort stared at the children. They were all being tended to by a hoard of flustered house-elves. Most were sleeping, but a few whimpered or cried. It was a new experience for the Dark Lord. He had not been around crying children before unless he was about to cast the Killing Curse at them.

The last, actually, had been the Boy-Who-Lived, and Voldemort was amused to recall that he hadn't cried at all. Lily Evans certainly had, but he had given her a chance and she hadn’t taken it. Pity. The boy called Harry Potter had stared at him with big green eyes, shaken his rattler and then lifted his arms to be picked up. Nothing had ever pissed Voldemort off quite so much.

"Here they are, Milord," Lucius said uselessly. Voldemort walked slowly around the room, looking over each child and testing—just to make sure because Lucius was sometimes an idiot—that they were all magical. When he was satisfied that Lucius hadn't for once cocked everything up, he nodded.

"That one," he pointed at a little blonde girl with light hair that looked close enough to the barren wife of one of his Death Eaters, "and that one," he pointed to a boy that fit similarly, "will stay here. Someone will be by to collect them and take them to their proper places within the week. The others will be taken to the orphanage. I don't care how you do this or who you have assist you, but you will not be seen doing it. Is that understood, Lucius?"

"Of course, Milord," Lucius said quickly. Sometimes, Voldemort had to admit to himself that he grew tired of all of this 'milord' business, but he only had himself to blame for it. Yaxley, of course, would have a good laugh over it if Voldemort ever told him, but he had no plans to do so.

He nodded, dipped his head politely to Narcissa, and dis-apparated.

ɤɣɤ

Ron was studying his pamphlets dejectedly when Harry went up to bed the next night. He was beat, having spent all afternoon and evening in the library finishing his Potions essay on mint leaf. Who would have thought that such an innocuous little plant could be so deadly? Aunt Petunia made sweets with mint leaf at Christmas—it was just unheard of.

In fact, it was unheard of. The more time Harry spent reading up on Arithmantic potions and the effects ingredients with irrelevant pH values had on them, the more he was certain that Malfoy hadn't known what he was doing. Mint leaf in particular was usually used to negate the properties of an improperly made potion. In many potions—excluding Arithmantic ones, of course—mint leaf would only revert a base back to water. How it did this, Harry didn't know, but magic did a lot of unexplainable things.

He had, during his research, only found one mention of mint leaf in regards to Arithmantic potions. He had also only found one mention of mint leaf having an irrelevant pH value. Odds were that Malfoy was just trying to sabotage their potion, not kill them all—or even singe his face, as he’d claimed.

This, fortunately or unfortunately, did not hold to what Harry had thought of Malfoy at all. He had to hand it to him though; Malfoy didn't do anything by halves, even his mistakes.

That Hermione and Nott had known what mint leaf would have done only said that they knew more than they probably should have. Harry found that after all that, Malfoy just seemed more pathetic than ever.

"Alright, Ron?" Harry asked, flopping down on his bed.

Ron looked up and grimaced at him. "These are horrid," he said, gesturing hopelessly at the pamphlets. "I don't know what Hermione expects me to learn."

Harry leaned over the empty space between their beds and glanced at the pamphlets. There were moving diagrams of livers and kidneys, and several charts. He shrugged. "Who knows," he said. "Just read them so you'll be prepared if she quizzes you."

Ron snorted. "Will do," he said. "Ginny came by looking for you earlier," he added, picking up a different pamphlet and skimming it disgustedly. "I told her I didn't know where you were."

"What did she want?" Harry asked absently.

Ron shrugged. "Don't know, mate." He rolled over on his side and stared at Harry. "Lavender was with her," he added.

Harry's eyebrows shot up sleepily. "Yeah?" he asked with no little amount of amusement. "What did Lav Lav want?" he teased.

Ron tossed his pillow at Harry and then growled when Harry wouldn't give it back. "She asked if we were going to Hogsmeade next weekend. Apparently, Parvati's going to be studying. She wanted to come with us."

Harry snorted. "What did you tell her?"

Ron rolled onto his back and shrugged. "I said I reckoned she could if she wanted."

Harry was silent for several minutes. "What's Hermione got to say about this? She's not very fond of Lavender, you know."

"Don't know," Ron admitted. "Things have been…tense. She didn't really talk to me today."

Harry hummed noncommittally. "She'll come around," Harry finally decided.

He heard the rustling of sheets as Ron settled in and shut the hangings around his bed. "Maybe," Ron said after several minutes.

Harry closed his eyes and slept.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Open Conflict (n): 1. an active, often violent, fight, battle, or struggle 2. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles

ɤɣɤ

Hermione had not taken well to Ron inviting Lavender along to Hogsmeade the following week, and, strangely enough, had an unexpected project come up that just couldn't wait. She would have to miss Hogsmeade. Perhaps another time, she told Ron apologetically the following morning.

What was even worse, Harry thought as he shoved his essay on mint leaf into his school bag along with his DADA and Arithmancy books, was that Seamus and Dean wouldn't even be there for comic relief. Harry was going to be forced to spend an entire Saturday with only Ron and Lavender—because if he backed out, too, then that would be a date, and Ron had pleaded with him that morning to not let it be a date.

Harry cursed Seamus and Dean for back-talking Professor McGonagall. Sure, they could spend a day doing lines in detention on Saturday, but he was going to have to suffer Lavender Brown.

Professor Sinclair covered the Roman Occupation of Great Britain in Defence Against the Dark Arts class. Harry grudgingly admitted to Hermione after class that it was rather interesting, even if they weren't learning any new spells yet. He sat between Hermione and Ron at a desk in the back and watched Zacharias Smith sneer at Justin Finch-Fletchley while Sinclair told them about Hadrian, a wall that wasn't very tall at all, and how the British wizards didn't take too well to it being put up.

Apparently, it had disturbed some national wards and every qualified wizard in the UK had to come and help reset them. It had been time consuming, but one good thing came out of it: new wards. That was why it was noted as one of the Ten Wars: after seeing what a disaster the national wards became, British wizards re-styled them and came up with new theories that could conform to new, big architectural developments, and it had even led to the formation of Diagon Alley, in a roundabout way.

Professor Sinclair's theory on defence was that in order to fight a war—and she had given Harry a pointed look when she said this—then you needed to know the history of wars. He didn't know how wards would help him, but the theory was interesting.

In Potions, Harry turned in his essay to Professor Snape and he, Hermione and Nott continued brewing the base to their Derbyshire Drought. It was a very slow process, and even though Malfoy kept to himself the entire class—most likely due to quelling looks from Professor Snape—Harry was antsy. After writing an entire essay on mint leaf, he now knew more than he ever would have wanted to know about the plant. And it was a whole lot more frightening to brew an Arithmantic potion when he knew that one wrong step could blow up the entire school.

Perhaps, even more frightening than the actual brewing process, was that Malfoy wasn't the only one getting piercing looks from Snape. It wasn't as if Harry were a stranger to those kinds of looks from Snape, but the ones he received that day shook him up down to the bone and sent strange, coursing little shivers down his spine whenever he noticed them. He was very thankful at those times that he was partnered with two exceptionally good brewers—otherwise, there was no telling what would have happened every time Harry caught Snape staring in his peripheral vision.

After lunch, he had Arithmancy. He had been moved into the advanced class at the beginning of term because there weren't enough new students in the beginning class. It was hard, and he wished that he hadn't taken the class after all, but it was too late to drop it now. The bright side was that he had Hermione in that class. The gloomier side was that Theodore Nott and Malfoy were in it, along with Zacharias Smith and Blaise Zabini. Nott seemed to be everywhere he looked nowadays, which was odd to Harry since he had gone seven whole years without ever noticing him.

That Theodore Nott suddenly became a fixture around Hermione as well over the following days did nothing to help matters. Ron, in a moment of clarity, actually noticed this. He didn't follow the three of them around, but occasionally Harry would look up and notice Nott staring at them, or Nott would call Hermione away to talk about prefect business, and none of the other prefects would be required. It made the days counting down to Hogsmeade with Lavender Brown even more unbearable.

Ron was cranky and Hermione crankier. Harry felt like he was being pulled into two different directions, and no matter how often he told Ron that Hermione and Nott were just organising a Halloween party together, Ron still refused to get over it.

He set his bag down on the desk in Arithmancy class and flopped into his chair with a sigh. Ron was in Divinations right now—suffering through Professor Trelawney—and Harry admitted, if only to himself, that he was thankful for the break. He was so tired of playing go-between.

Hermione sat down next to him a few minutes later with a tired smile. "How are you doing in the class?" she asked him.

Harry shrugged. "We haven't really done anything difficult yet," he said. "So far, it's just like maths in muggle school."

Hermione beamed at him. "Isn't it interesting how the two correlate so flawlessly? But don't get too comfortable. After we finish reviewing, Professor Vector will have us starting on higher Arithmancy, and not only is it difficult, it's illogical! I was reading chapter ten last night in our book and some of the formulas were just so odd. They made absolutely no sense."

Harry grimaced. "If it's anything like Salazar's Supposition," he said, thinking back to Monday's Potions class, "then it's going to be a nightmare."

"That's not even the worst of it," Hermione said, biting her lip.

Professor Vector came in then and put his valise on his desk, sufficiently stopping Hermione in her lecture-tracks. He was tall, stout man with short, greying hair and thin lips. "Afternoon, class," he said plainly. Vector wasn't exactly harsh, but he was bland—everything he said was concise. He didn't smile much, but he didn't sneer either which made him a sight better than Snape.

"We're starting a group project next week, so today we will be reviewing the basic equations you will need to complete it. You'll be paired with someone from a different house for today’s work." He glanced down at the roll and added flatly, "Because the headmaster thinks unification is the key to success after school."

Harry looked at Malfoy and prayed that they didn't end up together. Of course, their options were limited. There were only sixteen students in the entire class—none of which were Ravenclaws, as they had all been placed in the Advanced-Squared class, which Professor Dumbledore had probably thought was a clever name for a really advanced maths class.

Professor Vector looked down at his roll again and then shrugged to himself. He called out a series of names, ending with, "Black and Nott, Granger and Zabini, Malfoy and Smith. There you go—change seats."

Harry looked heavenward and smiled. Out of all the options, he supposed Nott wasn't too bad. Malfoy and Smith would probably tear each other apart before the end of term, but Zabini, fortunately for Hermione, didn't seem too bad either. Harry never saw him hanging around Malfoy or Parkinson so that had to count for something.

Harry, feeling magnanimous, picked up his stuff and moved it over to Nott's desk. "Nott," he greeted, watching with glee as Malfoy and Smith both refused to move to the other's desk.

Nott nodded his head once. "Should be interesting," he said, gesturing towards the two boys. They were still glaring at each other.

Harry hid a snort behind his hand. "They can both be such ponces when they want to," he said.

Nott smirked. "Malfoy wants to all the time," he noted, as if it were a personal joke. "It's really nice having a room to myself this year; at least I don't have to share with him."

"What are the other three like?" Harry asked. "Crabbe, Goyle and Zabini."

Nott raised his eyebrows. "Zabini's not so bad when he's not trying to get into someone else's bed, but Crabbe and Goyle are entrepreneurs and I grew weary of them always trying to sell me stuff long ago."

Harry looked at him sharply. "What?" he asked incredulously. "Crabbe and Goyle? I was under the impression that they weren't the brightest galleons in Gringotts."

Nott rolled his eyes. "They're not," he said. "They're both mildly autistic. Can't tie their shoes, but they can pick your stocks for you. Why do you think they spend so much time around Malfoy? Malfoy's daddy's been paying them to arrange his investments since they were seven."

Harry looked at him dubiously. "What are the odds that they can both manage money that way?"

"Pretty decent," Nott said shrugging. "They're cousins." When Harry made no understanding gesture, Nott continued. "Inbreeding, Black. Their parents were first cousins. Most families stick to second or third cousins."

Harry hadn't thought that it was as bad as that. It was a little bit nauseating, actually.

"When Misters Malfoy and Smith have decided which desk will be more appropriate for their continued learning, we will begin," Professor Vector spoke up blandly. He didn't seem at all perturbed. Harry looked behind him at Hermione, sitting complacently next to a grinning Zabini, and smirked. She gave him an amused look back.

Finally, Malfoy picked up his stuff and huffily moved it over to Smith's desk. Smith sat back, folded his arms across his chest and smiled smugly. Malfoy pretended not to notice.

"Is it true you tried to blow us all up, Malfoy?" Smith asked loudly.

Malfoy sneered at him. "Only you and Potter," he said.

"Mr. Malfoy," Professor Vector interrupted blandly, "I must ask that if you desire to eliminate one of your fellow students that you refer to them properly, as student deaths require a multitude of paperwork—signed in triplicate—and proper identification will speed those matters along. Efficiency is key."

Malfoy looked at him incredulously while the rest of the class snickered.

"If any of you read the paper this morning—which I doubt," Vector continued, "you will know that, last night, twenty-two magical children, assumed muggle-born, were delivered to the Derbyshire Orphanage."

"What?" Hermione asked quickly.

Professor Vector raised his eyebrow in her general direction and ignored her. He clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing slowly around the classroom. "Yes, it's true. Twenty-two of them.

"I suspect," he continued, "that this was not the result of twenty-two muggle parents all deciding they'd rather not have children after all, thanks. In fact, if you will look at the board, you will see that I have offered several equations dictating the odds of this."

Harry looked at the board, down to his book and back up at the board. Beside him, Nott was furiously copying down the equations, but Harry didn't even know where to start. There were signs and symbols that weren't used in muggle maths and there were numbers written backwards and upside-down and cross-ways—some of them going so far as to merge with other numbers and signs to become strange things like the cosine of 'sevenine'.

"Bloody hell," he whispered.

Nott looked up. "Problems?"

Harry shook his head. "No, fine thanks," he said casually. "Only, none of this makes a bit of sense."

Nott looked like he might want to smile. Instead, he only pushed his book aside and leaned over Harry's, pointing out everything and actually explaining it the muggle way. It was as if he actually understood why it was so difficult for Harry to grasp all those concepts. By the end of the class, Harry grudgingly admitted, if only to himself, that not all Slytherins were wankers like Malfoy. Or Voldemort.

ɤɣɤ

That night, Harry went up to the Astronomy Tower to write a letter to his father. The common room was crowded that time of night and he didn't want to chance anyone walking by and seeing something they shouldn't.

The only problem with this was that Malfoy was already there when Harry arrived.

He was ripping sheets of paper from his journal, balling them up, throwing them over the balustrade and setting them on fire with his wand as they fell. Harry slowly walked over, trying to catch the words that Malfoy was muttering to himself, but realized it was futile. Malfoy was muttering in French, and Harry didn’t understand a word of it. He wished just now that he’d had parents that forced him to learn a second language when he was younger, even if he never would have used it except to swear in.

“I didn’t know you spoke French,” Harry said by way of greeting—since neither he nor Malfoy ever really greeted one another anyway. The Slytherin started, and dropped the journal on the stone floor.

Malfoy, it was obvious to tell, was torn between making a sarcastic reply and ignoring him completely. In the end, he settled on “I learned French before I learned English. All Malfoys do.”

Harry cocked his head sideways, and studied Malfoy for a moment before replying. “My dad says Blacks learn Welsh, though it seems stupid to me since they haven’t lived at the property in Wales in centuries. It would have been interesting to have grown up learning all that stuff, though.”

Malfoy turned around and sneered at him. “All the sudden you’re a specialist on Black family history, are you?” he scoffed. “How bourgeois of you. My mother was a Black, and she passed her history on to me; I’m sure I know more of your family than you do.”

Harry shrugged. “Probably,” he said. “I’ve only had a summer to learn about my family; your mother’s had at least forty years. You probably know more about the Potters than I do, too.”

There was a silence that was neither comfortable nor awkward after that. Malfoy went back to muttering in French, and after a long moment, Harry lay down on the stone floor, tipped his head back, and stared at the stars. He wondered, with amusement, how a certain tilt of the earth on its axis could bring a change that allowed him and Malfoy to spend five minutes alone together without drawing wands.

Finally, when the curiosity became too much for him, Harry lifted his head back up to look at Malfoy and said, “What’s got your knickers in a twist anyway?” Malfoy was still muttering.

“Excuse me?” Malfoy asked incredulously. Maybe no one had ever said anything like that to him before and he was rife with astonishment, or maybe he was just always indignant. Harry allowed himself a small smile. He hated Malfoy, yes, but he could be such a riot sometimes.

One day, maybe Harry would learn to tolerate him enough to fight on the same side of a war with him. He swallowed a laugh—and one day, maybe Zacharias Smith would admit he used bleaching charms on his hair.

Harry shrugged. “You're obviously hacked off,” he said. “Letter from home?” he ventured, nodding at the stationary journal.

Malfoy scowled. “Oh yes, I’m sure the great Harry Potter—”

“Black,” Harry corrected.

“Whatever,” Malfoy said.

"Not a letter then," Harry decided.

Malfoy rolled his eyes and Incendio'd a wadded-up paper ball of rejected words.

"How are you doing on that Arithmancy project?" Harry asked, pulling out a sheet of parchment and self-inking quill. He supposed writing a letter in front of Malfoy was better than a whole common room of Gryffindors.

Malfoy tensed. "Zacharias Smith is a fool," he growled. The parchment in his hand spontaneously caught fire and he dropped it hastily. Harry pretended to ignore it; Malfoy would have to be seriously pissed off to have accidental magic at this age.

Harry grinned down at his blank letter. "I think he's a lot like you actually," he teased. "Blond and snotty."

"And wealthy," Malfoy muttered to himself.

"What was that?"

"Piss off, Black," Malfoy said louder.

Harry shrugged and turned back to his letter. It was a lot harder to write than he was expecting—and he had been expecting it to be quite difficult to begin with. What did you say to a man you had only recently found out was your father? And only met him not long before that? He struggled with the greeting for several long minutes. It was still strange to think of Sirius as—not Sirius...as ‘Dad’.



Dear Dad,

Classes are fine. I was moved into the advanced Arithmancy class because the beginning one was too small—which is good, I guess, because Hermione's in it too, and she can help me with my homework. I reckon it's really good that I decided to take the class this year because we're doing Arithmantic potions in Snape's class. Did you ever take NEWT potions? I don't suppose you did.

Anyway, it's kind of hard because the formulas don't make any sense, but it's better because they're not as exact. I don't have to chop my ingredients just right for the potion to work. And they take a long time to brew so I have plenty of time to make sure it’s right before I melt my cauldron.

Speaking of potions, Malfoy almost blew up the entire school on Monday. He tried to add mint leaf to our potion, and it would've reacted badly to the base or something—you'd have to ask Hermione—and caused a huge explosion. Dumbledore didn't do anything because he didn't think Malfoy knew what he was doing.

I don't think he did either. The more I watch him, the more I realise what an idiot he is. He's pretty smart, but he's as reckless as a Gryffindor...no common sense. I don't know how he made it into Slytherin, really.

I haven't heard from Him since I got to Hogwarts, which is probably good because I'm feeling really weird about everything. I'm wondering if I can really help people this way or if I'm condemning them. I feel selfish because one of the biggest reasons I decided to do it was so I wouldn't have to fight anymore. Does that make me selfish?

I'm safe now, but is everyone else? Hermione and Ron—I reckon they're part of the package. I think they're safe too, and you, of course, as well, but what about everyone else? Between you and me—sometimes I don't really even care anymore, and it scares me. I'm tired of feeling like everyone else is my responsibility.

And I guess that's what worries me. But, you know, the wizarding world needs to grow up. Even muggles don't rely so heavily on other people like wizards seem to. If this were happening in the muggle world, it would be over by now. Muggles wouldn't have sat back and watched. Or maybe I'm just bitter.

The big thing, I guess, is I don't really have a plan. I have no idea what to do. I'm just kind of floating along hoping everything will go away if I ignore it long enough. I set myself a task That Night, and I'm trying to follow through with it, but it was a spur of the moment thing...I didn't really put any thought into it. I was just pissed off at Malfoy—well, maybe I just wanted to have something to hang over his head. Or to put my mind off everything else.

I reckon I do now, but I'm not even putting a lot of effort into it. Mostly, I think I'd just like to get through school. Maybe everything will just go away by then.

Anyway, I miss River House and Ginger and Fred and you, of course. Ron's lost his prefect badge—he got caught drinking firewhiskey behind the greenhouses, but I imagine you've already heard that from the Order. Neville took his place, but Ron and Hermione are kind of tense with each other right now.

In fact, she's not coming to Hogsmeade with us Saturday because Ron invited Lavender to come. It's going to be horrible. You should come out with us for a bit. Lavender's real fond of Professor Trelawney so we can predict things with her.

Ron wants to talk to the people at Honeydukes and see what it takes to get new Chocolate Frog cards made. I asked Malfoy if I could get a picture of his dad the other day and he didn't take that too well. Maybe you've got pictures of Bellatrix at Grimmauld Place.

Snape's a nasty git as usual, but he hasn't said much to me this term. I think he's waiting me out.

That's about it, I think. I hope to see you on Saturday.

Harry

"What are you doing, Black? Writing in your diary?" Harry looked up from re-reading his letter and offered Malfoy a condescending look. Malfoy was staring down at him with his hands on his hips and what looked like a blood-flavoured lollipop in his mouth—if the thick, red, gelatinous fluid on his lips was any indication. Harry wanted to gag.

"Of course, Malfoy. I was writing about my crush on you. Do you want me to read it to you?" Harry asked sarcastically.

Malfoy gave him an odd look and removed the lollipop from his mouth. "Really," he said flatly.

Harry rolled his eyes, and ignored the niggling reminder of how his body had reacted to Malfoy after Quidditch tryouts. "No, not really, Malfoy." He looked at the pile of ashes at Malfoy's feet and then to the glowing red tip of Malfoy's wand, still hot from his run of curses and hexes. "All finished then?"

Malfoy sneered. "I'm out of paper—unless you're offering your love diary."

Harry laughed. "You just want to see if I really wrote about you, don't you?"

Malfoy's eyes flashed and he thrust his wand out towards Harry, angry. "I do not!"

Harry's wand was out just as fast, aimed directly between Malfoy's eyes. "Dare you," Harry said. "Dare you to do it. You've always wanted to."

Malfoy was breathing heavily, half crazy as usual lately. He's mad as a box of frogs, Harry thought. That Malfoy might just be angry or intimidated never even crossed his mind—he'd seen the crazed look on the Slytherin's face over the summer, and no other explanation seemed valid.

"Come on," Harry said, stepping forward. The tip of Malfoy's wand pressed against his forehead, warm and sharp against his skin.

Malfoy snarled. His mouth opened and his lips began forming words, maybe of the Killing Curse, but no sound was coming out, and Harry wondered if maybe Malfoy was too mad, even for himself.

He punched Malfoy instead, just as a precaution. A fierce, wild right hook that caught Malfoy right in the jaw. Malfoy tumbled and Harry followed him down, straddling his stomach and knocking both of their wands across the stones in the process.

They rolled, punching and kicking. Malfoy managed to gain the upper hand several times, but Harry, with a bit more bulk from a summer of actually eating, always regained it. It was when Harry, furious out of his mind, hauled Malfoy up by the collar of his robes and shoved him that things took on a decidedly more dangerous turn.

Malfoy stumbled backwards, thighs hitting the balustrade, and flipped over it. His hands gripped the ledge below just in time, but it was a near thing. Harry's heart was beating quickly—thinking that it was quite possible he'd just killed someone—and he was never so thankful that Malfoy had seeker skills.

He rushed over and stared down at Malfoy—warring with his mind over whether or not to reach down and help him. Malfoy was hanging over the edge of the tower, holding on with both hands and glaring up at Harry with flashing grey eyes. It was familiar even as it was unfamiliar. He wouldn't put it past Malfoy to pull them both over, but he couldn't just leave him hanging over the side of the Astronomy Tower like that; he'd fall to his death, and Harry would be sick with guilt for the rest of his life...and probably in Azkaban to boot.

Harry had no idea what to do, but his anger and his instincts carried him on, urging him to do as he eventually did. He braced himself and leaned over, stretching his arm out.

"Come on," he said, but Malfoy—in his fear or humiliation, or both—looked at the outstretched hand like he had no idea what to do with it. "Malfoy," Harry said, heart racing, "come on, you're going to fall."

"Fuck you, Potter," Malfoy snarled in a breathless voice. He tried to spit at Harry, but the angle was all wrong, and his shallow, frightened breathing kept him from putting much force behind it anyway; the spittle hit the stones or was picked up by the wind. Harry watched the little droplets zoom out of sight, and his heart gave a lurch to think of Malfoy doing the same thing.

"Malfoy," he tried one more time, stretching to reach even further. "Please, grab on." The Slytherin sneered at him, but his fright finally overcame him, and he carefully pried one white-knuckled hand from the ledge. Harry took his hand quickly, and they both watched, stunned as the very rock Malfoy had been holding broke away and tumbled to the ground—seven or eight storeys below.

Harry pulled, but their hands were sweaty with adrenaline and fear, and if he didn't get the Slytherin up soon, he would slip away. Malfoy's feet struggled to find purchase, to help push himself up; one wrong move, and Harry would be following him over. His wand was only four or five feet away, but there was no way he could get it now.

"Come on, pull yourself up," Harry said, gritting his teeth. “All that Quidditch has to be good for something.” Malfoy's struggling and swaying would soon make it impossible for Harry to hold on.

"Trying," Malfoy said, gritting his teeth. At last his foot found purchase in a small crevice and he pushed, and Harry hung his other arm over the edge for him to grab—he was staying on top of the tower by sheer determination now, and the sweat sticking his hair to his forehead proved his own fear.

"Pull," Malfoy said then, and Harry did—clenching his abdominals for any extra support, he was never so thankful for the both of them to have been athletes. Malfoy's teeth were bared in exertion and the look on his face was fiercer than any Harry had ever seen before, but his determination was a gift right now, because it finally got him over the edge. Malfoy pushed up with his toes and the momentum carried him over.

They landed sprawled and heaving on the floor. The stones were cold in the autumn chill, but they shivered for a different reason entirely. Above Harry, Malfoy struggled to regain his breathing, even as his arms wobbled and threatened to give out completely. Harry clenched his sweaty fists and tried to ignore the realisation that death was a lot closer than even he thought. Malfoy could've died, he thought. He nearly did.

"Thought—," Malfoy finally said, voice breathless and shaky, "I thought that was about it." He took another deep breath and rolled off Harry, arm draped over his eyes and chest heaving.

Harry tried not to notice the absence his body left, and said instead, "Me, too."

Malfoy glanced at him from beneath the cover of his trembling arm. "I thought you would have let me fall," he said hesitantly. "One less Death Eater to contend with when it gets personal."

"It's already personal," Harry said.

Malfoy shrugged. "He refused me anyway."

Harry was silent for a moment, thinking. He thought that Malfoy had just told him something extremely personal, something that left him vulnerable and exposed, and he wondered why. "Do you know why?" he finally asked.

Malfoy tried to laugh, but it turned into a coughing fit instead. "He thinks I'm mad," he finally said, then shrugged as if it made no difference to him. Harry wondered if it did.

“I’ll tell you why,” he offered. “You can't handle the responsibility. Being a Death Eater isn't just about going around terrorising muggles and mudbloods—there's a point behind it all, and you've got to believe in it and be able to control yourself before you can be a Death Eater. Otherwise you'll just be another Bellatrix Lestrange—mad as a hatter and respected by no one. How would you expect to win people over to your cause if you can't even function in society?”

“You just said ‘mudblood’,” Malfoy said slowly. It seemed that that was the only thing he was able to understand. It was strange the way Malfoy's mind worked.

Exasperated, Harry heaved himself up from the cold floor, and walked over to their discarded wands. Picking them both up, he returned to Malfoy and stared at him for a moment. "One day, Malfoy," Harry said, looking down at him, "you'll figure it out. One day, you'll realise that you can't get your way by being a little pissarse all the time, and when that day comes, I expect you'll be initiated."

Harry bent down and dropped Malfoy's wand on his lap. "Sometimes I think you're pretty smart, but then you always go and say something stupid. I wish you'd try to figure out how to be a person…a better person," he amended. He left the Astronomy Tower without a backwards glance. He could have been wrong, but Harry thought he might've seen a flicker of understanding flash across Malfoy's face.

Was Malfoy finally catching on? Harry couldn't be sure, but he hoped so. It was getting a little lonely having no one that he could talk about everything with, and he thought that maybe if Malfoy would only grow up a little bit, he could be that person. Maybe.

ɤɣɤ

This was a place that Sirius had hoped to never see again. Just crossing to the island on the ferry sent shivers down his spine; the first time he'd made that trip felt like a hundred years ago and yesterday all at once. His fingers twitched and he hoped that would be the extent of his breakdown—at least until he made it home.

At the gates, Sirius pressed his hand against a flat, square stone and waited, wrapping his cloak tighter around him and doing his very best to ignore the way the wind seemed to scream in his ears. Everything was so surreal and frightening here. How had he survived it for all those years?

A bland, automated voice rang out, "State your name and purpose, please."

Sirius opened his mouth and tried to speak, but his voice came out cracked and hoarse. He cleared his throat. "Sirius Black. I have permission from the DMLE to visit a prisoner." A prisoner, he thought with a shudder. It hadn't been that long ago that he was one himself. He was starting to regret asking Kingsley for permission to speak to Peter. What would it accomplish anyway?

Sirius shook his head; he didn't need to do this. It would serve no purpose. He turned to go.

"Access permitted. Step through the wards."

He felt an opening manifest in the wards and the magic urging him forward; he began to panic—they were going to lock him up again, he just knew it.

"Step through the wards immediately, please," the automated voice continued, giving him a magical push.

Sirius twisted and struggled against the magic pushing him through the gates, but it became agitated with his indecision. He was given a rough shove and found himself on his hands in knees, coughing up the filthy dirt from his lungs.

Sirius heard a creak and looked over his shoulder just in time to see the gates bang shut behind him. The opening in the wards closed with a sucking, whooshing sound and then all was quiet except for his ragged breathing and the screaming wind. He was still for several minutes, trying to catch his breath.

"Nothing for it," he whispered to himself. He was a Gryffindor. He could do this. He was just overreacting. Sirius picked himself up from the ground, dusted off his business robes, and walked forward on shaky legs.

The path up to the actual fortress was agonizingly long and dismal. It didn't curve, but continued forward in a strict, straight line that led directly to the huge iron doors. He walked very slowly, but it seemed to take even less time than it had the first time.

Of course, the first time he had walked this same path, he had been manacled and escorted by three Aurors—all of them former colleagues that he had gone to Auror Academy with. Derek Abbott had been a friend of his; the grim, sad look on the blond man's face at the time had not affected Sirius at all. At the time, he had not known what Azkaban was like; he had been resigned, sad, but not frightened. It was only later that he understood and became scared.

He was frightened now, and Derek Abbott was dead, he'd heard: killed in a Death Eater skirmish only days after escorting Sirius through those gates. He had a daughter, Sirius seemed to remember. He wondered if Harry knew her, or if she even really existed. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him.

At the iron doors, Sirius didn't even have to knock. They swung open with a grating sound that echoed through the stone walls of the prison like an omen. A bad one, without a doubt.

Someone stepped from the shadows—there wasn't much there except shadows, Sirius noted—and lowered their hood. He forced himself not to panic—not to go for his wand just yet.

"Black, Sirius," a woman said dully. Sirius tried to make out her face, but it was almost blurry, as if her features had dulled so much that she barely looked human anymore. He wondered how long she had worked as an Azkaban guard—if she had a family, or if her life existed only in this depressing, overwhelming prison. "Please surrender your wand."

Sirius handed it over hesitantly—handle first as his father had once taught him—and fidgeted. He was defenceless in this place.

The woman conjured a box and placed his wand inside it before banishing it somewhere. He couldn't help it—Sirius began to panic then. Where had his wand gone? What did she do with it? How was he ever going to get back out of this place?

"Your wand," the woman said, "will be returned to you when you exit the prison doors. You will request it by stating your name once the doors have closed behind you." The automated voice, Sirius suddenly realized, had not been automated at all. It was this woman—this dull, lifeless woman in front of him—who had spoken to him at the gates. He cringed.

"Th-thank you," he managed, nodding slightly.

"Prisoner ANI-5391-P is located on floor three." She handed him a small, square tablet and stepped back again. "The key will direct you to his cell and back out again once you've finished. You have thirty-five minutes," she continued, and with a short, dull nod, returned to the shadows and someplace Sirius could not see.

He looked down at the tablet in his hand and it began to heat in his palm. On instinct, he muttered "Peter Pettigrew" and stumbled as the tablet jerked him forward by his arm. It led him through corridors and hallways—each of them darker than the one before—up stairs and down again. Every time the air around him began to rapidly cool, the key would jerk him in another direction, and he was very thankful that it was keeping him away from the Dementors. He wasn't sure he wouldn't faint should he happen upon one, and unconscious and wandless was no way to be around a Dementor.

What might have been ages later, the key jerked him to a stop and cooled in his hand. Sirius looked up, seeing the plaque above the cell: ANI-5391-P. It was Peter's cell. There were no bars on this cell like there had been on his, and Sirius suddenly understood why when he glanced up and down the corridor. This was the animagus section of the prison.

All of the cells were enclosed in thick glass with only small slot at the bottom to admit food. Sirius could feel the wards on it: should anything living ever pass through it, they would not make it far. He shuddered, imagining what a horrible end it would cause and very thankful that no one had known he was an animagus at the time of his own imprisonment.

The cell looked empty, but it wasn't, Sirius knew. He looked around him for some place to sit and was surprised when a stool appeared. Hesitantly, he sat.

"Peter," he mumbled. "It's me, Sirius." There was no movement from the cell. It looked much as his own had—dim and grey with only a ratty grey mattress on the floor in one corner, two dirty basins in the other: one for water, the other for waste, and a crumpled thin blanket on the floor.

Sirius cleared his throat and pulled several things from his pocket. "You liked word games in school," he said. "Crossword puzzles…encryptions…jumbles." Why was he even saying all of this? It made no sense. "I was never very good at them." He laughed suddenly, but it was not a happy laugh. "Good thing Fudge didn't know that, or else he never would have handed over that Daily Prophet several years ago."

How grim his thoughts were, Sirius realized. "I found a large book of them at the bookstore near my father's family's house. You remember that place—the four of us stayed there over Ostara one year, when my mother was visiting family in Spain."

Still no movement from the cell. Maybe this would be easier if Peter never responded anyway.

"I brought it for you. And a few pens," he added hastily, slipping them carefully through the door for food. "They’ll last longer than a quill and ink, I think, and since your father was muggleborn, I'm sure you know how to use one."

Sirius cleared his throat again, looking at everything he had extracted from his cloak. "And a few magazines," he added. "Um, and I remember the food being especially…um, bad here, so I brought you some sandwiches. Corned-beef. You liked those," he said, nodding. "I remember."

He passed everything through the door, closed it again, and rubbed his eyes with his fingers. "I've been having these dreams," Sirius said, hands still covering his eyes. He spoke into his knees, not even sure if the sound would make it to Peter's ears, but having to say it anyway.

"They're about Lily, I think. I can never see her but I can always hear her. Do you remember when she would sing to Harry when he was a baby? No matter how loud he cried, a few words from Lily and he would be calm…staring up at her with those big green eyes. James never could get him to stop and neither could I.

"Remus was always too afraid to try," he added with a chuckle, "but the thing is, when you talked to him, he would stop crying then, too." Sirius asked. He looked up when he heard movement.

Peter was sitting in front of the glass, chewing one of the sandwiches and flipping through the word games book. He picked up a pen and un-jumbled a word half-way through. Sirius stretched his neck to see: GORE MUSE to GRUESOME.

He shuddered.

"Why was that?"

Peter looked up. "Why was what?" He sounded like he hadn't spoken in a month, and he probably hadn't.

"Why were you able to make Harry stop crying?"

Peter shrugged. "Good with kids," he said, and unscrambled TERMITE URN. It was TIME TURNER. "Good with spellings, too," he added, almost to himself.

"You knew, didn't you?" Sirius asked.

"Knew what?" Peter asked obligingly.

Sirius looked at his hands again. "Knew about me and Lily."

Peter smiled, and it looked a bit wistful. "Everyone knew about you and Lily," he said.

Sirius' blood ran cold. "Surely not every—"

"Maybe not everyone," Peter amended thoughtfully as he changed SEANCE SPOOK to SNEAKOSCOPE. Sirius let out a relieved breath. "But Jamie probably knew," Peter added. "Don't know for sure, but I'd say he did."

"What?" Sirius asked breathlessly. "What makes you think so?"

Peter shrugged and bit his sandwich. His mouth was still full when he answered, "Jamie was pretty clever."

"Did you know Harry was mine?" Sirius asked after a few minutes of mostly silence—filled only with occasional pleased sounds from Peter as he unscrambled yet another word. His heart was beating so rapidly that he thought it would explode any minute now.

Peter shook his head. "Nah, not for a while anyway. Always looked so much like James, you know, but I had my suspicions after a while. Never knew for sure until recently, though."

Sirius stared at him. He was very close to asking if Peter knew anything about Sirius falling through the Veil and the circumstances around it, but something stopped him. He didn't know what, but it wasn't like Peter would have those answers anyway. He really had no prepared questions, he just wanted to talk to Peter, and he didn't know why.

He supposed he really was a Gryffindor.

"Why did you do it?"

Peter didn't ask what he meant this time, but he didn't answer immediately either. "I felt like it," he said at last.

Sirius scoffed. "You felt like it." It wasn't a question.

Peter shrugged. "I had my reasons," he said. "And they're my reasons."

Sirius wanted to punch him. His fists clenched and his nails dug into his palms, and he thought the only way to make his anger go away would be to leave or at least get the conversation away from the people he loved and had loved, but he could do neither. Stubborn, stubborn Gryffindor, he thought to himself.

"I'm worried about Harry."

"I would be too, if I were you."

Sirius' blood, which had never quite warmed since stepping inside the fortress gates, froze in his veins. "What?" he breathed.

Peter shrugged. He seemed to be having trouble with one of his jumbles. He was sounding out various words under his breath and making notations on the side of the page.

"Harry's in a very precarious situation, isn't he?" Peter said absently, scratching his chin. "All of this could easily go very wrong. Consorting with a madman, straddling two sides of a very steep fence, seemingly giving up his morals, dealing with the news that his father wasn't really his father…makes one wonder how long it'll be before he cracks…or someone else cracks him." Peter mumbled a few more words under his breath and then added, "And of course, the Dementors are breeding, too."

Too stunned to reply to anything else, Sirius said, "The Dementors won't start breeding until this summer."

Peter shrugged and scrunched up his nose in frustration. Whatever word he was working on was giving him a lot of trouble. "So says you. They seem a bit restless to me, but then again, who am I to judge?" He looked up and flashed Sirius a mocking grin.

"Who indeed," Sirius muttered.

Suddenly, Peter started laughing. "Oh my!" he exclaimed, still laughing. He was clutching his stomach and chortling in a high-pitched rat-like squeak. "Oh my, indeed! How ironic!"

"What?" Sirius growled. "What's so damned funny to you?"

Peter scribbled something in his book and turned it to face Sirius, who leaned over enough to read: DEEM TORN: DEMENTOR.

Sirius shuddered, but before he had time to process anything else, Peter was standing and pressing himself against the glass as if he were trying to attack Sirius. "They're coming," he said. His sticky breath fogged the glass and he grinned slowly, showing all of his yellowed-teeth.

Sirius stood up very quickly and backed away. "Who?" he asked.

Peter started laughing very softly. "They'll be here much sooner than you expect," he said. The words sent chilly tremors through Sirius' body and he unconsciously hugged his cloak tighter to his body, trying to fight off the coldness they caused. "Much, much sooner."

"Who?" Sirius asked louder. "Who will be here? Be where?"

"Does it frighten you to think that I'll be much safer here than I would have been out free in the wide world?" Peter murmured. "Are you frightened yet?"

"Of what?" Sirius begged. "Who's coming?"

Peter laughed darkly. "How quickly you've forgotten. I imagine that once they're here, you'll remember soon enough."

Sirius shivered and screamed, "WHO?"

"The Dementors," Peter answered softly. "They're coming, Sirius, and when they do, it'll be such a massacre," Peter said, and Sirius screamed.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

No Man's Land (n): 1. An area between opposing armies, over which no control has been established. 2. An area of uncertainty or ambiguity.

Friday night, Harry didn't get much sleep. He was more shaken after the confrontation with Malfoy than he let on. After, somehow, making it back to Gryffindor Tower, and then to his dorm room, he collapsed on the bed, pulling the curtains shut but neglecting to remove his clothes. He was shivering and his heart was still beating frantically even hours later.

Malfoy had nearly died. Died, Harry's mind exclaimed. He didn't give a toss about Malfoy in general, but to see someone—someone else, he amended—die in front of his very eyes was more than he thought he would be able to take. He was so tired of death, and Malfoy's near-death made his very blood run cold.

It bothered him so much that he tossed and turned for hours before he fell asleep. But even then, he was to get no rest. He should have cleared his mind before he went to bed. He should have practised his Occlumency; he should have learned it. If he wanted to get any sleep this year, that was.

But the Occlumency wouldn't have helped him much from his strange, surreal dreams that night. They weren't from Voldemort anyway—Harry just didn't know who they were from. He was to get very little sleep that night, and so, on Saturday morning, when Harry woke to the feeling of something sharp and pointed prodding his back, he was rightfully annoyed.

He grunted and tried to swipe at whatever it was that was poking him, but it evaded his capture. He rolled over onto his stomach with a mumbled 'hmmphno', tugging his blanket up around his neck.

He was poked again.

"Stop't," he whined. Poke. Poke-poke-poke. "Stop't!"

"Harry," Ron said, far too loud for that early in the morning. It couldn't have been later than ten. "Harry, get up. Hogsmeade today."

"No," Harry said, burying his head in his pillow. "Dun'wanna."

"You promised," Ron said. "C'mon, Harry. I told Lavender we'd go with her."

Harry harrumphed and rolled onto his back to glare at Ron through bleary eyes. Ron poked him in the stomach with his wand. "C'mon, Harry. Get up."

"I don't wanna go to Hogsmeade with Lavender," Harry said, trying to roll back over again. Ron caught his shoulder and tugged him back. "Ron," Harry pouted, trying to focus his sleep-addled eyes, "it's early."

"It's eleven," Ron said. He stepped back, smiling mischievously and yanked Harry's blanket off the bed. "And besides," he continued as Harry yelped and scrambled to find warmth somewhere amid all the chilly air, "Rosmerta's got a new gimmick: buy one get one butterbeers on Hogsmeade weekends when you participate in the new 'Hogsmeade in Hog Heaven Shop-Off'.

Harry stared at Ron incredulously. "What are you, an Owl-vertisement? You sound like one of those 'happy-housewitch' voices that come in the Sunday edition Prophet selling cleaning charms."

He gave up going back to sleep with a sigh and rolled out of the bed, vaguely searching for some clean trousers. Harry cast a glance out the window: it looked pretty cold—maybe a jumper and his frock coat, too, he decided. "Besides," he added, sticking his leg into a pair of trousers—he wasn't even sure if they were his, and checking the tag in the back…yes, they were Neville's—he pulled them on anyway, "what's this 'Hogsmeade in Hog Heaven Shop-Off' you're yammering about?"

Ron had retreated to his trunk to rifle through it for something or other. He looked over his shoulder at Harry and shrugged. "Dunno. Dean told me about it this morning when he got back from breakfast. Said it was in the paper—something about the Hogsmeade shops coming together to raise money for the orphanage…now that it's actually got orphans in it sometimes."

Harry zipped up Neville's trousers and pulled his newest green Weasley jumper on. "And?"

"And you get discounts," Ron said excitedly. "All of the shops are participating. For every ten knuts you spend in any shop, you get two knuts off your purchase, you know? So, basically, ten knuts worth of Chocolate Frogs or Bertie Bott's only costs eight; get it? And then another three knuts goes to the orphanage."

Harry found his frock coat stuffed under his bed—when had he put it there?—and shook the wrinkles out before pulling it on over his jumper. His hair fell into his eyes as he was buttoning it up, and he thought, not for the last time, that he was being pretty hasty when he wouldn’t let Sirius cut more of it off. It was a bloody nuisance.

"But I thought all the babies were already adopted out?" Harry asked as he popped the last button in the hole. "A waiting list or something. I thought they were all gone within a couple of days."

Ron made a muffled 'aha!' sound and finally retreated from his trunk, holding his autumn cloak in his hand. He shoved his arms through as he replied, "Oh yeah! You were already asleep last night when the special edition paper came in…what's with you sleeping so much, by the way?" In his excitement, Ron continued without waiting for an answer, "twelve more came last night! Isn't that crazy? The orphanage is already processing applications for them, but they're cautiously optimistic that more will show up, so, since they didn't have a lot of money for baby necessities lying around, they appealed to the communities and Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, Fairyfield and West Elfshire all came up with fund-raising ideas."

Harry stared at him. "'Cautiously optimistic'?"

Ron grinned sheepishly. "That's what Dean said. He said that's what his step-dad says that about things at work. He's an actuary, whatever that is," Ron finished with a shrug.

Harry exhaled forcefully, not entirely sure what to think about all of these children appearing at the Derbyshire orphanage seemingly out of no where. He had his suspicions, and he just hoped that he and Ron could make it off the grounds before Hermione found them. They would never hear the end of it—especially Ron, since they weren't exactly speaking at the moment.

"Well, let's go then. If Hogsmeade's having a sale, I want to go look in all those shops we never went to before."

Ron gave him a disgusted look. "But they're mostly book and robe shops."

Harry rolled his eyes. "You got me up when I was having a really good sleep, I've got to spend a day with Lavender Brown, and you want to deny me this?" he asked with a raised eyebrow. "Maybe I should let you go to Hogsmeade with Lav-Lav alone…"

"No, no!" Ron said hastily, slapping Harry on the back cajolingly. "Don't be so hasty there, mate. Won't be a problem. We'll spend all day in Hubbard's Haberdasheries if you want."

Harry gagged. "The day I start knitting with Hermione is the day that I let Colin Creevey photograph me snuggling with Gilderoy Lockhart."

ɤɣɤ

Lavender was waiting for the two of them at the foot of the stairs in the Entrance Hall wearing a lavender frock with a caraco over it. Harry rolled his eyes, thankful that they were still high enough up that Lavender wouldn't be able to see his expression. When she did see them, she beamed in Ron's direction, patted her coifed hair, and rushed over to the landing.

"Ron! …Harry!" she added belatedly. Harry wasn't all that insulted over it, and he gave her a vacant smile, wondering how long it would be before he ran into the other boys so they could whisk him away from this nightmare. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and absently looked the other way as Ron and Lavender exchanged exuberant greetings.

When they finally set off down the road to Hogsmeade, Ron had his arm draped over Lavender's shoulders. It took forever for them to finally make it to the little town, but that may have been due to Harry's extreme reluctance to spend any amount of time in the company of Lavender Brown. Thank Merlin his father would be joining him today.

"What about you, Harry?" she said, effectively cutting him off from his thoughts.

Harry looked up, startled and entirely uncomfortable. "What about me what?" he asked warily. There was no telling with Lavender.

Ron cleared his throat. "Lavender's my new partner in Divinations, you know—now that you aren't taking it any more," he added, somewhat accusingly. "Trelawney switched us up so that we could 'learn to read'," he finger-quoted, "new subjects. Anyway, we were reading palms last week and I actually read Lavender's correctly, and she started telling me about all the interesting predictions she'd made over the years."

Harry furrowed his eyebrows, wondering how he could voice his next question at least somewhat politely. He gave up quickly: "So?"

Lavender rolled her eyes and Ron gave him a playful nudge in the ribs. "Lavender was asking if you'd ever made any correct predictions."

Harry gave Ron a look that clearly said 'You know quite well what my predictions were', but, seeing Ron's pleading look, decided to play along. He affixed a beatific grin to his face and said, "Oh sure!"

"Really?" Lavender asked, bunching up her skirts to huddle closer. "What was it?"

Harry leaned in conspiratorially. "It was in the beginning of fourth year," he said. "Ron and I were using the Ouija board and when I asked if Ron was a natural redhead, it spelled out 'As above, so below'—then, the next morning, Seamus had stolen his clothes while he was in the shower and Ron had to get back to our dorm with only a loofah, and sure enough—

"Ow! Hey!" Harry laughed.

Lavender was pursing her lips, but it looked like she wanted to laugh too—and was maybe a little bit intrigued. Ron, on the other hand, was still trying to whack Harry on the head, as he was wont to do lately. Harry stuck his tongue out at him and bounded off towards Hogsmeade, yelling over his shoulder, "You'll never catch me, Red!"

To Harry's utter relief and astonishment, Ron didn't even try. When Harry finally made it to the edge of the little town, he looked over his shoulder once more only to see Lavender leaning in towards Ron's ear and grinning maniacally while she whispered something in his ear. Ron was blushing madly and Lavender hitched her skirts up just a little bit more as she delivered the final assault. Whatever she was saying, Ron was definitely more interested in it than he was in chasing Harry.

No skin off his back, Harry thought. He wanted to meet up with his father anyway, and the less time he had to spend with Lavender the better. He stuck his hands into the pockets of his coat and wandered through the streets, easily bypassing the other students as he tried to decide where he wanted to go first.

It was just as he was staring into the window of Hubbard's Haberdasheries—the shop where Mrs Weasley got all of her supplies for making Weasley jumpers—and wondering if maybe he should start knitting after all—just to throw the boys in the dorm off—when he felt a heavy hand land on his shoulder.

Harry tensed, and prepared for a fight until he realized that he recognized the way that hand felt on his shoulder and the strange scent that went along with it: sort of earthy with undertones of expensive cologne and wet dog.

He turned, grinning brightly. Seeing his father after a month at school made him realize exactly how much he had missed him. "You came," he said to Sirius.

Sirius was grinning back at him with—and here, Harry jolted to realize it—Harry's own smile. So, he'd gotten his smile from his father too, not just his nose. The thought sent a warm tingle up his spine. "Of course," Sirius scoffed.

He was dressed like a pureblood wizard—or at least a pureblood wizard who was just recently starting to act the part—in navy blue robes with his hair tied at the nape of his neck, but Harry was relieved to see that the same mischievous aura Sirius usually had was still there. He had no idea why his father was going through so much trouble to act like this, but Harry thought he was okay with it so long as he was still the same person underneath.

Sirius nodded behind Harry. "Going to start making your own Black jumpers?" he asked cheekily. "With a big red H on them?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "Maybe. I was thinking of starting off with something easy though—like a choke collar for you." Sirius cuffed him lightly and they started walking absently.

"I've missed you," Sirius said, looking like he might blush any minute now. "Little Morty is getting pretty big, too. I think Fred's close to an aneurysm, but he seems resigned to his fate. Maybe even welcomes it."

Harry laughed, wondered why they were having small talk, and pulled his father into the next shop. He didn't even know what was sold there, but maybe if they got away from the crowds his father would tell him what was on his mind.

Harry let his father guide the conversation, filtering through his new Quidditch line-up, the Lestrange sisters' strange after-term appearance, classes and his friends before Sirius finally cleared his throat meaningfully.

Harry continued to study the gaudy little globe in his hand while, at the same time, he pretended not to notice the way the atmosphere had suddenly tensed very sharply. Harry turned the little trinket in his hand, watched the way the dusty light filtering in from the windows made it look like it would gleam if only it weren't so tarnished, and waited.

"Been having any strange dreams lately?" Sirius asked.

Harry looked over his shoulder only to find that his father was staring fixedly at an old oil landscape. He shrugged, trusting that his father would sense the gesture because even if his back was turned, Sirius was very aware of Harry right then, and said, "I always have strange dreams."

Sirius glanced at him and then returned to the oil painting. It was a scene of rocky crags at sunset and St Elmo's Fire danced along the tops of them as each wave hit before starting the sequence again. "Not the…you know…not those."

"The visits?" Harry asked pointedly.

"Yeah—not those…Other weird dreams."

Harry set the little globe back down and turned fully around. "Weird how?" he asked.

Sirius sighed, looked up, cast a speculative glance at the shopkeeper and ushered Harry out the door. As soon as they were back amongst the crowds, Sirius swept his wand in an inconspicuous circle around them, casting a silencing charm, and said, "We're much less likely to be noticed in a crowd, ironically enough."

"What's this all about?" Harry asked as his father forced them to maintain a leisurely stroll through the streets.

"I went to Azkaban," Sirius said.

Harry rolled his eyes. "I know; everyone knows."

"No—no, I mean I went back. I visited Peter."

"Wormtail?" Harry said furiously, looking around to make sure no one was paying attention to them. They might have a silencing charm around them, but that didn't mean he wanted people watching them right now.

"Yeah," Sirius said, nodding. "Yeah—I just had a feeling, you know? So I went to visit him and he talked."

"I imagine he would," Harry said tersely. That damned rat was probably desperate for company.

"Well, I imagined that he wouldn't," Sirius said pointedly. Harry raised his eyebrows, silently questioning. "Peter never talked unless he wanted to; I didn't think he'd speak at all."

"So?" Harry asked.

Sirius grimaced. "I've been having these dreams," he said, not looking at his son. "Every night the same one. Over and over and over again."

Harry was suddenly a bit more interested. "What about?"

Sirius glanced at him quickly. "Your mother."

Harry grimaced. "I don't think I want to hear about these dreams," he said, barely refraining from gagging.

"Be serious," Sirius barked, and it startled Harry so much that he was tempted to say something stupid like 'How can I? You're Sirius' just to take the edge off. He swallowed instead, and waited for more of an explanation.

"Look," Sirius said, stopping them in the middle of the street and completely ignoring the frustrated shoppers who then had to walk around them. "I am about to tell you a very condensed version of what I know, and then I'm going to tell you a very condensed version of what I think, and then I want a very condensed version of what you think, is that clear?"

"As a bell," Harry muttered. He had to admit, if only to himself, that his father's mood swings made him uncomfortable sometimes.

"I had a brother, your uncle Regulus, who was two years younger than me. When I was about thirteen, we had a falling out and by the time he joined the Death Eaters when he was seventeen, I hadn't spoken to him in two years. Six months after he joined, I got an owl from him that said one word: 'Sorry'. He disappeared a week later and that was when I had 'that conversation' with Lily. Lily started acting shifty, told me not to worry, and then you were born and I couldn't worry about much else with all the jealousy I was trying to fight.

"My parents declared Regulus dead when his name faded on the family tapestry—which is spelled to respond to the blood of a certain person, so it's pretty hard to fool. If the blood tied to that name disappears—or dies, in other words—then the name fades. So, Regulus is dead, right?" Sirius said, all in a rush.

Harry opened his mouth to respond, but his father started speaking again, as if he were trying to get everything out before he forgot it or lost track or something. Harry snapped his mouth closed and tried to keep his eyes from widening.

"Right, so a decade and a half passes, I'm out of Azkaban, working with the Order again, and in your fifth year, I'm sent on a mission to help recruit the New England Light Wizards. The problem with this? Someone was there. Someone was at Grimmauld Place with you and the rest of the Order, learning their secrets and maybe passing them on, maybe not, but the point is, someone was there. And that someone wasn't me."

Harry frowned, just as a snooty witch and her two small children glared at them for standing in the middle of the street. He tugged his father's cloak until they were standing in an alley between two shops.

"And this is what you know?" he asked.

Sirius nodded, jaw tensed and looking determined. "I've been trying—subtly, well as subtly as I can—to figure out what was going on, but no one's talking. All anyone says—and everyone says this—was that I was at Grimmauld Place two weeks after Christmas until 'I rushed off to save you at the Department of Mysteries'."

"Then what in Merlin’s beard is going on?" Harry asked.

"I see you've been trying to ignore it as well," Sirius noted wryly. Harry glared at him.

"Who was there?"

Sirius sighed and glanced at the shoppers again; no one was paying attention at all, so caught up were they in the Hogsmeade in Hog Heaven sales. "This is where we get into the speculation."

"Go on," Harry said.

Running a hand through his hair and thoroughly messing up his neat ponytail, Sirius said, "Grimmauld Place was under a Fidelius which means that only those who were told the Secret could have gotten in."

"So it was an Order member?" Harry said.

Sirius grinned, looking feral and very much like his animagus form. "Or," he stressed, "unless it was their home. You can’t hide a home from its family. That's why no one ever had to actually tell me the Secret. It was my home—the place I considered Home even if I'd rather not have."

"That means it could have been Bellatrix or Narcissa Malfoy! They're family."

“No. They never lived there. It was never their home. The only people who could have benefited from that caveat were me, my mother, my father or my brother."

"But they're dead," Harry said. He wanted to stomp his feet; everything was always so complicated. Why couldn't, just for once, he forget about all the strange things that happened to him and his and just live? Why couldn't anything ever be simple?

"Corpus delicti," Sirius said.

Harry did roll his eyes then. "Hippogriff shit. You said yourself that Regulus' name faded from the tapestry. He's dead."

"He is now," Sirius muttered, looking thoughtful.

"What do you mean by that?" Harry said.

Sirius looked up sharply, as if Harry's sharp words had torn him from some important contemplation—they probably had. "Well, someone fell through the Veil in the Department of Mysteries, Harry, and it sure as hell wasn't me."

The strength of Sirius’ words startled Harry enough to shut up for a minute and think about it. "You're certain you were in America at the time?" he asked. "You weren't Obliviated or anything?"

"Hadn't thought of that," Sirius admitted, "but if I had been, my memories of that time would be fuzzy and disjointed—and they certainly aren't; I remember everything clearly. Plus, if I really was at the Department of Mysteries, how am I still alive?"

Harry bit his lip, trying not to think of how torn up he'd been in the months following that night. He shuddered, and then forced himself back to the present. "I don't know," he admitted.

Sirius nodded, but he didn't look all that excited to have proved his point. Instead, he looked weary, and Harry knew the feeling.

"So you think it was…somehow…Regulus," Harry said, even though he already knew that was what his father was thinking.

"Fits," Sirius said with a shrug. "The only things I can't work out are where he's been all this time, why he looked like me, why he bothered looking like me, and why he went after you at the Ministry."

Harry shuddered. "You don't think he was trying to capture me?"

Sirius' eyes narrowed. "Maybe…"

"But?" Harry asked.

"It was just something Ginger said the other day—probably nothing."

"What?" Harry insisted. They'd been standing under a silencing spell in the middle of a busy Hogsmeade for entirely too long. Someone was bound to notice them sooner or later. Probably sooner.

"She said there had been house elves at River House not long ago—maybe as recently as two years ago."

Harry's eyebrows shot up. "So Regulus was hiding out at River House? What of it?"

"I don't think he stayed there for very long, but I bet that if he was there, he visited the tapestry." And figured everything out for himself, Harry added to himself. Was that how Voldemort had known?

"Why would he do that?"

Sirius shrugged. "Regulus was sentimental like that, once. He used to like to sit in the drawing room at Grimmauld Place and stare at that tapestry. He always wanted to know more about his family."

"So why would that mean he wasn't trying to capture me for Voldemort?" Harry asked.

"Because you would have been family," Sirius said as if it was obvious, and, Harry realized, when he thought back, it was obvious. At the very beginning, his father had told him how important family was. It would have been more likely that Regulus—"Was probably trying to save you, if it was him," Sirius finished Harry's thought.

Harry shuddered.

"But he looked just like you," Harry said. "At the Ministry…that time. I swear it; it was you! I know what you look like and it was you. I would have bet my last galleon on it.

"And don't even say Polyjuice," Harry added quickly when his father opened his mouth. "The Order was around that place all the time. They would have noticed if you were gone or were constantly brewing or…or, even, where would he have gotten the ingredients?"

"I wasn't going to say Polyjuice," Sirius said. Harry frowned at him, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he noted that their tempers were nearly exactly the same. "I was going to say—"

"Harry!"

They both looked up quickly. Ron and Lavender were standing just outside the confines of the silencing spell, eyebrows raised and obviously thinking that Harry had done something naughty and was getting a thorough dressing down. Sirius sighed and removed the spell.

Harry smiled sheepishly at Ron and Ron, in turn, waggled his eyebrows, laughing at Harry’s apparent punishment.

"Hey, Sirius," Ron said. "How's it going? Harry acting up?"

"Always," Sirius said dryly. "Who's your friend?" he asked, successfully turning the conversation away from them. Ron blushed down to his elbows and mumbled something that might have been 'laundry' or 'Gallagher' or, if you stretched it, 'Lavender'.

Harry snorted. "Dad, this is Lavender Brown. She's a Gryffindor in our year. Lavender, Sirius Black."

Lavender was blushing just as much as Ron by now. She produced an unexpectedly perfect curtsy and held her hand out for Sirius, who took it without a thought, and kissed it lightly. Harry rolled his eyes and Ron nodded in agreement.

"Nice to meet you, Mr Black," Lavender said. Harry wanted to gag. Ron looked like he might want to punch something.

"And you, Lavender." He paused, looked around, and added, "Who's up for ice cream? I hear there's a sale on today to raise money for the Orphanage. On me."

ɤɣɤ

It wasn't until Harry made it back to the castle that he realized that his father never had really explained the dreams and how they related to anything at all.

ɤɣɤ

Voldemort’s drawing room was lined with framed parchments all notarized with the Ministry Seal. Sometimes, when he was frustrated or irritated or covered in blood and just dying for a cup of tea, he would retreat to his drawing room and stare at the walls and the framed papers they held.

Tom had never taken a fancy for art. But these documents and notices—they were different; they were art to him. They were like awards—certificates—that he treasured. He wondered, sometimes, if that was insane of him.

Request for Registering of an Animagi Form;
Request for Registering of a Dark Gift: Parseltongue;
Request for Registering Practice of a Dark Gift: Possession;
Request for Registering Practice of a Dark Gift: Necromancy;
Request for Registering of an Animagi Form, Second Notice;
Third Notice;
Seventh Notice;

Et al.

But he treasured one above all else.

Permission for use of an Unforgivable Spell

The way he saw it, if a governmental body would stamp 'approved' on an application like that, they deserved what they got. It had been a passing fancy to apply in the first place; he hadn't expected to be approved, but his sense of humour worked in strange and pithy ways.

What was even more amusing was that he had applied using his birth name, taking care to fill out the application in full and with utmost care. The small print at the bottom declaring 'Any deliberate omissions or misrepresentation on this application will result in immediate denial or revocation of license' had given him several hours of amusement.

So, Voldemort filled it out, taking care to make his handwriting legible and his answers truthful and detailed. Name: Tom M Riddle. Date of birth: 31 December, 1926. Occupation: None.

That had given him pause. He remembered thinking, at the time, that he certainly hoped having no paying vocation would not result in his application being dismissed. He then remembered how heartily he had laughed after he thought so.

Have you ever been convicted of a violent crime? If yes, please explain. No.

Which was the truth, of course.

Please explain, in detail, your reasoning for applying for this license.

In 1966, Tom had gone through a bit of dire straits, being at once feared and spat upon by the general populace. He was not so much a threat then that his name was both anathema and evocation on the tongues of wizard-kind, but he did not dare venture out very often. He was biding his time, arranging alliances and gathering followers.

The result of this had been his house-elves, having been acquired by gifting from various devoted servants, raising the livestock that they would cook for meals. Explaining that he was a hermit who needed food to survive and rarely ventured out into the cities had not, actually, been a lie. It must have been one hell of a pity story, but Voldemort couldn't recall the exact wording he'd used. He remembered that the Ministry bought his husbandry story without so much as a check up, and that had been that.

The permit arrived via owl-post two weeks later. Voldemort was so pleased and shocked that he Avada Kedavra'd two muggle backpackers traipsing too close to his property line that very afternoon. Their bodies turned up on the shores of the Orkney mainland a week later, which had baffled Voldemort to no end. He had no earthly idea how the currents could have taken them there, much less so quickly.

ɤɣɤ

Since Harry didn't get much sleep Friday or Saturday night, he wasn't very surprised that Sunday was the same. If it wasn't Malfoy keeping him up at night, it was those strange dreams, and so it was with little optimism that he fell into his bed Monday night.

When he, quite world weary and distracted, materialized in front of Voldemort that night, he was overcome with a sharp, lingering sense of bitter amusement. Of course, when he most needed some sleep and some time to come to terms with everything on his mind would be when his subconscious mind decided he needed to speak with that madman the most.

He had been back at Hogwarts for barely a month, and already, Voldemort was haunting his dreams again…or would have been if Harry could only sleep instead of projecting himself out like this all the time. He sighed to himself and looked about the room.

It was different from the usual room Harry found himself in. This one was more of an office, and there were certificates and placards on the walls. Dozens of them, Harry noted with twitching lips. Voldemort's study looked like a Head Healer's office with all of these framed papers.

Voldemort, facing one of the walls with his hands clasped behind him, had not noticed his arrival. He seemed to be more and more distracted as time went on. Harry cleared his throat.

"I know you're there, boy, you need not announce yourself."

Harry's lips twisted into a sneer and he contemplated making faces at the back of Voldemort's head, but he decided he didn't want to push his luck. His heart still beat rather frenetically whenever he found himself near the dark lord. He took a deep breath and waited.

It was many minutes later before Voldemort, running his finger absently over one particular certificate, spoke again.

"Have you seen the newspaper recently?"

Harry rolled his eyes, but only because Voldemort was still facing the other way. "Some of it, yeah."

"The cover story?"

Harry scratched an itch on his thigh and shrugged. And then he wondered how he could feel an itch on his thigh to begin with; he wasn't even really here—or there, as the case may be, so what—

"I cannot hear you when you shrug," Tom said pointedly.

Harry jumped. "Then you, er…how did you know I did, then?"

Finally, Voldemort turned around, but Harry wished that he'd stayed the way he was. He'd almost forgotten the red eyes. They blinked at him slowly, like a snake's, and Harry bit his lip, waiting.

"They're calling it the Derby Dozens," Tom said, ignoring Harry's question. "Three dozen magical children between the ages of three months and three years have shown up at the British Wizarding Orphanage in Derbyshire." He paused for a moment and then added, almost as an afterthought, "There've been no orphans to spend more than a few weeks there since the Derbyshire Devastation of 921, after which it was opened, incidentally."

Harry looked around until he found a place to sit, and then flopped down tiredly. "I heard about that from Ron this morning. I thought there was only thirty-four total, though."

Tom smirked. "There were twenty-four to begin with; then twelve more. Two have been dispatched elsewhere."

"Dispatched?" Harry asked, a little warily.

"Adopted," Tom clarified.

Harry shuddered, wondering just who had adopted them. "So there really were thirty-six, then? That's really going to upset Professor Vector when he finds out. It'll ruin all his equations."

"He won't find out," Voldemort answered, sounding almost amused. "I'm sure they've already undergone the Blood Rite." Harry gave him a blank look, which was not uncommon. Voldemort sighed and explained, "It is a form of ritual which merges the blood of a person with the blood of one or more people, essentially making them family. If done at an early enough age, the child who the Rite is performed on will take on the physical traits of the people adopting it. For all intents and purposes—both magical and otherwise—the child will be a blood relative."

"Why would someone do that?" Harry asked. It seemed absolutely absurd.

"Because," Voldemort hissed, becoming impatient, "The magical race is dying out and purebloods are finding it harder and harder to conceive. They want children and they want the children to be theirs."

Several things were starting to click into place for Harry. He stood up very suddenly and began pacing. "So you're—basically—admitting that you stole these children from somewhere, and I'm guessing they were muggle-born because no pureblood is going to give up their child," he snarled to the floor, hands gesturing jerkily.

Voldemort hummed an acknowledgment, not seeming guilty or upset at all.

"You can't just take kids away from their parents!" Harry said. "It's not right!"

"They won't notice they're gone."

"Of course they will," Harry said. "They're muggles, not ducks! They don't just forget that they've had a child!"

"They've been Obliviated," Voldemort said. He rocked back and forth on his feet slowly and unperturbedly, having expected this outburst from the beginning. He would teach this child to understand that the world is not black and white, and he would be patient—as patient as he could be—while he did it. Voldemort was determined. "And the families, too, of course," he added.

Harry snarled. "What about the mothers? They carried the child, went through labour, loved them…you can't take that away! It's not right."

"Not everything good is right."

"That doesn’t mean anything!”

Voldemort smiled—slowly, like a predator. "Exactly, my child. You have such fierceness in you that I sometimes worry you will never learn, but it is times like this that remind me why I began this game, and it is times like this that I know we will not fail.

"The world is not black and white, poppet. Sometimes you seem to understand that, and sometimes you don't. One day, you will learn, and one day, you will know." Harry opened his mouth to yell something else, but Voldemort held up a hand and tsked him into silence, like a bad dog. He gritted his teeth and waited.

"These children, had you read the papers, have already been adopted by families that have been on waiting lists for years. Every family that received one of these children has passed numerous exams—mental health, physical health—and proven that they are both financially and emotionally capable of raising a child.

"And now," Voldemort continued, "those children will be raised by parents that have desperately wanted them, be well-fed, well-clothed, well-educated. They'll grow up knowing not only our culture, but foreign languages, mathematics, logics, philosophy. How can you say it is not right to give these children this opportunity when they had little or none before? All but two of these children came from lower class families, but even if they hadn't," Voldemort added, "they are still better off."

He stepped forward to make sure he had Harry's full attention, and finished in a low hiss, "And furthermore, they will be loyal to our world. They will not be divided between our world and the muggle world. They will never be a risk.

"And now that you've heard this, you will ruminate on it until you understand."

Voldemort stepped back quickly and Harry felt himself shoved back into his own body. He woke with a gasping inhalation and jerked up in his bed. All around him, the dorm was silent, but Harry shivered as a chilly wind hit his chest. Seamus had left the window open again, the stupid wanker. Harry got up to close it, and then climbed back into his bed, hoping he'd be able to get some sleep this night.

At least he hadn't dreamed of that chilling voice.

ɤɣɤ

Over the next three weeks, as summer finally gave way and mid-October brought autumn to Scotland, seventy-two presumed-muggle-born children were left at the doors of the British Wizarding Orphanage in Derbyshire. Except for the first lot, they were always delivered in groups of twelve, and they were always left with no note and no traceable magical signature.

The Ministry tried to trace them back to their muggle-born parents, but it was a futile effort: all documents and memories had been erased or destroyed. It was a very thorough job. And furthermore, the Blood Rite—one of only three legal blood magics—had been begun on every one of them, making their DNA impossible to trace. The only thing left for the adoptive parents was to add their blood to the ritual and finish it off.

There was simply no way to give the children back, so they were given forward, as it were. The magical community was somewhat divided on the subject, though the factions were uneven and pithy in their numbers. The populace vacillated constantly. On the one hand, these children had been kidnapped, but on the other hand, they would, if all went well, be joining the magical world at age eleven anyway.

And if they didn't—if their muggle parents forbade it—then they would only become an exposure risk when their magic remained untrained. And then there were all of the pureblood couples who had longed for children and been given none. They wanted to be parents.

Even Mrs Weasley had written Ginny saying that she'd spoken to Amos Diggory just the other week and he'd told her he'd just finished filling out an application. He and his wife had spent two years mourning Cedric before they decided that they were ready for another child. When Mrs Diggory found that she could bear no more, they'd been heartbroken once again—but then all those children had started showing up, and 'wouldn't it just be the cat's pyjamas if there was one left for them?'.

Harry began to admit, if only to himself, that he hoped Mr and Mrs Diggory received one. The children were hardly in the door of the orphanage before they were out again, though, and the Diggorys had been placed on the waiting list.

Voldemort showed no intentions of stopping the deliveries, and Harry started to wonder just how many muggle-born children there were in Britain. Already, a whole year's worth of children had been adopted out; how many muggle-born children, exactly, never got to come to Hogwarts?

It was astonishing to Harry, who hadn't thought there were that many. In his year alone, there were only about a hundred students, and only a quarter of them were muggle-born. Ninety-four children had been adopted out within the last month—all between the ages of three months and three years—and all of them had been muggle-born.

That meant that there were loads of muggle-born children in Britain alone who were not receiving their magical education. Harry shuddered at the thought. He didn't want to know what his life would have been like without Hogwarts.

So, in the end, the Ministry gave it up as a bad job, thinking, basically, que sera, sera. They stopped trying to trace the children back to their rightful parents, and they stopped trying to interfere in the adoption process.

Hermione read the paper religiously every day during this time, and surprised Harry quite astoundingly when she waffled over whether or not she approved of this.

"It’s horrid to take them away from their families," she said at lunch one day, "but still—it would have been fascinating to grow up in the wizarding world. I would have had the opportunity to learn so much more, and if I'd never known I was adopted—well, there's no use thinking about it." She had seemed very guilty and upset about saying this, but stuck her chin out stubbornly just the same. Harry had hidden a small smile.

It was the Saturday before Halloween when Harry ran into Malfoy again. He was just finishing up the second Quidditch practice of the season, quite delighted with the way his team was turning out, when he caught site of Malfoy's cotton-blond head beneath the stands. Harry rolled his eyes and followed the rest of his team into the changing rooms.

Ron had taken to dressing and undressing in the back corner because Alsace and Ginny dressed on either side of Harry near the front and he didn't want to accidentally see his sister's bits. Somehow—women's intuition or something—Alsace had figured out Harry's preferences and decided that she'd rather him see her naked breasts and groin than Sloper, who always tried to sidle up next to her but never managed.

Harry didn't much care. He was just glad that the other boys in the dorm didn't care. If he'd been in the muggle world, he wasn't sure that he would have fared as well. All the same, except for Jack Sloper and Alsace, there were no problems with the co-ed changing rooms. And Harry appreciated this more than ever on that day.

After showering, the rest of the team trudged back to the castle, but Harry'd nicked his broom on a stray Quaffle during practice and he wanted to patch it up before following. The thing about that was that broom caulk tended to catch lint from clothing and so over the years, Harry had learned that it was best to do it wearing as little clothing as possible.

So it was probably a very good thing that Alsace somehow reasoned out his sexuality. She might've been offended otherwise when she stepped out of the shower only to find Harry sitting naked on the bench polishing his broom.

Ron would have cracked some lewd joke here.

But instead, she only raised an eyebrow, grabbed a towel, which Harry belatedly realized she hadn’t had before, and started drying off.

"You chose a good team," she said as she was scrubbing her hair. "I like playing with this team much better than my team at Beauxbatons."

Harry looked up, still stroking his broom stick suggestively; it couldn't be helped, he thought with a mental eye roll. Brooms needed to be polished immediately after patching. He was very glad this wasn't Hermione standing in front of him. She would have been as red as a Weasley.

"Did you have houses there? At Beauxbatons?"

Alsace shrugged and started drying off her body. Harry nearly choked when he saw her partially dried hair. It was sticking up everywhere; she looked like she'd just been electrocuted. He wondered if she would teach Hermione whatever spell she used to make her hair straight because it was obvious that it wasn't that way naturally.

"Of a sort," she finally answered. "We were grouped by ages, but there were four Quidditch teams. You had to try out, but the Quidditch instructor placed you randomly." She snorted and then added, "I was on les Cygnes."

Harry looked at her questioningly.

"The Swans," she translated. "All of the teams were named after pretty birds."

Harry laughed and began dressing as he finished up with his broom. His own hair was still wet from his shower and he gratefully caught the slightly damp towel Alsace tossed at him—with perfect aim, no less.

They both dressed in silence, but began chatting again as they were leaving the changing room. Both Alsace and her sister missed their grandparents back in France, but they were adjusting well enough. The food, she said, was the most difficult thing to get accustomed to. The food at Beauxbatons had been much better.

Harry laughed at this, thinking it strange. When he first came to Hogwarts, he had never tasted anything quite as good as the food here. He was just telling Alsace so when a flurry of movement caught both of their eyes.

"Cousin," Alsace said as they walked by the stands. Harry snorted and greeted Malfoy the same way. It was true, after all. Malfoy, apparently, didn't like to be reminded though. To be honest, Harry didn't like seeing Malfoy. It made his stomach turn just remembering what had almost happened.

"Don't call me that," the Slytherin said, stepping out from behind the stands and sneering down at Alsace. "Nor you," he added, turning his attention to Harry. Harry shrugged, breathing slowly to ease his nausea, and moved to walk around Malfoy, but Malfoy stepped back in front of him.

"Mr Malfoy," Alsace relented in a patient, yet highly bored voice, "Harry and I were on our way back to the castle to discuss our Quidditch strategies in greater detail. Now, laissez-nous tranquille, s'il vous plait."

Malfoy smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. "Non."

Harry, who had no idea what was being said, bit his lip and watched warily. Alsace, for all she spoke perfect English, apparently spoke perfect French, too. It wasn't surprising; she'd lived her entire life in France. But she was getting a little bit angry now, Harry could tell.

"Tu me gonfles…" she said.

Malfoy shrugged, looking smug. "Have you told the Golden Boy here what your mummy does for work?" he asked her instead. It was obvious, by the way he switched to English, that he wanted Harry to hear this part.

"Harry knows who my mother is," Alsace said, reverting back to English as well. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and said, "He nearly put her back in Azkaban himself. At any rate, he gave her enough of a fight to slow her down."

Harry nodded. Bellatrix Lestrange had been picked up by Kingsley Shacklebolt not long after the fight at the Ministry.

"Then you better watch your back around him," Malfoy warned. "Before you know it, he'll be asking for pictures of her to put on his Chocolate Frog cards."

Harry couldn't help laughing when Alsace turned to him with raised eyebrows. "It's for Ron—you know, our Keeper?"

"I am aware of our team mates' names, Harry," Alsace said.

Harry shrugged. "Well, anyway," he said, "He's collected every Chocolate Frog card ever made, and now he doesn't know what to do with himself, so I suggested that he put some together and send them in to see if the Chortling Chocolate Company would make them. You know…so he can collect more."

"And you suggested Death Eaters," Alsace said.

Harry shrugged again. "All the famous people are already on cards; why not the infamous people?"

"Or the people who need to be caught?" Alsace added with a raised eyebrow. "Like my father?"

"Your father's in Azkaban," Malfoy said. Harry had forgotten Malfoy was even there, but he was grateful for his outburst all the same. He had just been about to say the same thing, and seeing how much of an idiot Malfoy looked by saying so, Harry was glad he had been beaten to the punch.

"So is yours," Alsace said archly. Harry snorted. Everyone but the press seemed to know that Lucius Malfoy was out of Azkaban.

"Well, it doesn't matter," Harry spoke up. "If they're in Azkaban, we have to have a release signed by an adult family member to put them on cards, and if they're not in Azkaban, no one's going to send out pictures of their family, so it's pretty much a wash."

Alsace looked back at him with another of her sharp raised eyebrows. "Are you so certain?" she asked. "I have only met her a few times, but I imagine that nothing would please my mother more, and my father wouldn't care either way. Come, Harry," she added. "We'll go to my room and you can pick out some pictures for these cards of yours, and then I will tell you their favourite puddings."

"But—we'd need the release form," Harry said, confused. Was she really going to do this? How strange. Alsace only grabbed his hand and tugged him around Malfoy.

"No matter," she said over her shoulder. "I'll owl it to my grandmother. She'll sign it. It will give her a laugh."

Harry followed, only turning around once to see that Malfoy was still standing exactly where he had been, staring at the ground and worrying his lower lip. He was thinking about something. Harry didn't think he'd ever seen anyone look quite so innocent as Malfoy looked right then, and that thought set the nausea rolling back into his stomach full force.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Logistics (n): 1. The aspect of military procurement, distribution, maintenance, and replacement of material and personnel. 2. The management of the details of an operation.

ɤɣɤ

Theodore Nott stood just inside the Entrance Hall with his hands in his pockets because it was a bit draughty near doors and windows in the castle. He supposed that was one reason he liked living in the dungeons so much. Everyone assumed they were always damp and cold, but they weren't.

Underground rooms tended to stay roughly the same temperature year-round, and that meant the Slytherin dormitory was always moderately temperate. Of course, they used warming charms and cooling charms occasionally, but there was never any shivering or sweating.

There were also no windows. And because of this, there were no drafts. Theodore felt rather stupid actually, and that wasn't something he felt very often. He should have remembered that the Entrance Hall would be colder than the dungeons. He should have brought gloves.

He shouldn't have to be waiting, he amended irritably. She should be here by now. Theodore tapped his foot once against the stone floor and stopped; it echoed too loudly.

The door opened behind him, and he turned his head over his shoulder to see who was entering the castle. Eyebrows rising, Theo watched Harry Potter—as most everyone still called him—stomp in, looking bemused and rather detached from reality in general.

"Black," he nodded. Theodore had been raised to have at least some manners, after all.

Potter looked up sharply, just as a tiny waif of a girl followed him inside. One of the Lestrange girls, Theodore realized. Potter blinked several times behind his glasses and then smiled very slightly as the Lestrange girl stopped next to him.

"Nott," he said, stopping a few feet away from him. "What are you doing here?"

Surprisingly, it didn't sound too suspicious, maybe only curious. Nott always knew Potter had more sense than Malfoy gave him credit for. Not too much more, but a bit at least.

"Waiting for your housemate," Theo answered, craning his neck a bit to see if Granger would possibly be following them in. Where was she, anyway? She didn't seem like the type to be late. Theo narrowed his eyes; perhaps she wasn't what he thought at all. Perhaps he'd misjudged her. He felt disappointment settle into his bones at the thought. Was there no one who wouldn't disappoint him?

"Hermione?" Potter asked curiously. "Why?"

Theo looked back in time to see the Lestrange girl—Alsace, most likely, if she was around Potter—rolling her eyes. He gave her a warning look and turned back to Potter. He didn't like the way such an obvious Slytherin was in Gryffindor—it felt like he had those Heebey Jeebey things that Lovegood always talked about crawling underneath his skin to think that she could so easily give away all their secrets.

"The Halloween party we've been planning is this Saturday. Haven't you heard? Everyone's talking about it."

"Really?" Potter asked, looking genuinely surprised. Theodore wondered what rock he'd been under for the past month.

"Really," Theodore answered just as he was about to give in to the urge to tap his foot again. "There are some last minute—"

"Theodore!"

Theo looked up and quickly fought off a relieved smile. Granger was rushing over, and from the looks of it, had just come from the library. That still didn't excuse her tardiness, but Theo would let her have a chance to explain before he wrote her off.

"Sorry," she muttered as she slid to a stop. "Madam Pince wouldn't let me check out the books I needed until I returned some of the other ones I had out. She said I was over my limit."

"But the limit is fifty…" Theodore said dubiously. So, she was late, and then she was going to lie to him. His respect for her was dropping by the minute.

Granger looked distraught. "I had fifty-one out; Madam Pince said she had no idea how I snuck the extra one past her, but she wasn't very happy, any case."

Potter snorted; Theo had forgotten that he and his Lestrange girl were even there, and was relieved to be reminded before he said something he wouldn't want anyone but Granger to hear.

"What?" he snapped.

Potter smirked at Granger. "You managed to get fifty-two past her in third year."

"I know," Granger said in dismay. "That rule is silly anyway."

So she wasn't lying, Theo realized. The disappointment he'd felt earlier faded away and he was very ready for Potter and Lestrange to make their exit, so he quickly changed the subject.

"So are you coming to our Halloween party?"

"Oh, yes!" Granger added excitedly. "You have to come, Harry; it'll be fun. Fancy dress, you know. I've already picked my costume out."

"I, er, don't have a date," Potter said sheepishly.

"Well, you could just ask—" Granger started.

"I don't really want to ask, Hermione," Potter said pointedly. Granger seemed to catch on, and Theodore did only seconds later, and he had something to say before Granger could offer herself up as a pity-date.

"So you're like Malfoy then?" Theo asked casually.

Potter scrunched his eyebrows up in confusion. "What?"

"You know," Theo said. "Like Malfoy."

Potter opened his mouth to ask another stupid question, but the Lestrange girl spoke up, just as Theo hoped she would.

"Gay," she said. "Queer as a sixteen-sickle coin."

At that word, Potter had a sharp coughing fit, which Granger efficiently ended with a couple pats on the back. "Er, thanks," he muttered to her. She beamed at him, and that smile, with all of those perfectly straight, white teeth sealed the deal for Theodore. He had to get Potter and his Lestrange away immediately—

"Good. Harry will be my date then. He has already seen me without clothes and I know that he will keep his hands to himself," Lestrange spoke up. Theodore gave her an appraising look just as Granger made a small sort of relieved, sort of shocked sound.

"Very good!" she said. "Harry, you can come with Alsace. Now you don't have an excuse. You should start planning your costume right away—and speaking of which, Theodore, if we don't get finished with the planning, there won't be a party at all!"

"—Er, right," Theodore said quickly, and then mentally slapped himself for his verbal fumbling. Why was it that he couldn't speak straight around Granger? "Well, it was lovely seeing you Black, Lestrange; but Granger and I must be off."

When Granger grabbed his hand and started tugging him away to the Prefect Lounge, he was so shocked that he almost missed the acknowledging nod from Alsace Lestrange. His respect for her jumped up several notches. It was still no where near the respect he had for Granger, but it was some just the same.

ɤɣɤ

"Somehow," Harry said as he and Alsace began climbing the stairs, "you manipulated that conversation—the one with Malfoy as well, now that I think about it. I'm not sure how, but you did just the same."

The sudden thought of Malfoy again nearly sent Harry into a panic—or maybe just a fit of pique. Malfoy was gay? Could Harry do nothing that Malfoy could do as well? Was there no end to their strange backwards similarities? It was almost offensive to Harry that he couldn't even have this one thing without Malfoy having it as well, as absurd as the thought was.

"There is no such thing as manipulation," Alsace answered. "Only people overly susceptible to suggestion."

"But you didn't make any suggestions," Harry pointed out.

"Of course I did," Alsace said. "I just did not phrase them as suggestions."

Harry wanted to say something stupid like 'oh', but he wasn't sure what good it would do, as he already looked seven times a fool today. Fortunately, they were approaching the Fat Lady as he mulled this over, and Alsace never seemed to need a response to anything she said. She asked very few questions, and even those that she did ask, it seemed as though she weren't expecting a reply.

"Mimbulus Mimbletonia," Harry said when they reached the door. The password had been that since two days after Neville was made prefect. It was decided—after he'd forgotten the password twice in two days—that it should be something he would always remember.

'After all,' McGonagall had said, 'it was absurd to have a prefect who couldn't get into his own common room'. Neville had then been given carte blanche to pick the new password—something he wouldn't forget. His original choice of 'Snape is a git' lasted two full days before McGonagall tried to enter the common room and had to utter it. That she was trying not to laugh as she finally stepped through was telling. Harry, who had been lounging on one of the couches at the time, still wondered if she really said it or had it changed before she entered. Nevertheless, it looked as though Mimbulus Mimbletonia was the password for the rest of the year. Harry hoped Malfoy didn't find out.

Since Hermione had shown him and Ron how to avert the jinxes on the stairs to the girls' dormitories, Harry was able to make it up to Alsace's room with no difficulties. Almost everyone was at Hogsmeade now that Quidditch practice was over—something Harry was quite thankful for—so the room was empty when they entered.

"I have some pictures in here," Alsace was saying as she dug a small jewellery box out of her trunk. She flopped rather gracelessly on the bed and gestured for Harry to join her as she opened it. "I only have a few," she added, handing a stack of photos over, "but I'm not really partial to any of them. You can take whichever ones you want."

Harry looked through them, trying not to wince every time he saw Bellatrix Lestrange's leering face looking back at him. That was, of course, until he came across one particular picture. It must have been taken right before his parents were killed, as it showed Bellatrix and Rodolphus, each holding one of their infant daughters, and sort of—smiling. Not really a smile, Harry thought to himself, but they looked…happy…ish, he amended.

It was several seconds before he realized he was staring too long, and he quickly flipped to the next photo, a portrait-style photograph of Bellatrix that looked to have been taken around the same time, but was recognizable enough to be used. The one following was a similar style photograph of Rodolphus and Harry pocketed them both, careful not to crease them.

"You sure you don't mind?" he asked again.

Alsace shrugged. "No. I would like them back if it's possible, but if it's not, I won't be upset."

Harry nodded. "Alright then. I'll give them to Ron so he can get started designing the cards…maybe the distraction will keep him out of trouble," he muttered to himself.

Alsace quirked her lips and stood from the bed. "He's probably getting into trouble right now, you know," she said, looking at the clock on her wall. "We still have four hours to spend in Hogsmeade; do you want to see if we can find costumes? I can tell you about my parents on the way—for your cards, of course."

Harry agreed with a nod, unable to think of anywhere else to be, even though he still felt awkward after having seen a picture of Bellatrix Lestrange that was so incongruous with his impression of her. She was still a cold-hearted murderer, he knew, but it was strange to see proof that she loved—or had once loved—someone. He could still see her strange half-lidded eyes blinking smugly up at him, as if to say: 'These two are mine.'

By the time he shook himself out of those thoughts, Alsace had successfully manoeuvred both of them down the stairs and half-way to Hogsmeade. He cleared his throat, realizing now that he wasn't so deep in his musings that the silence felt awkward.

"So—their favourite foods?" Harry asked. He wasn't exactly sure what kind of information he should get for a Chocolate Frog card, but all of the others that he'd seen listed noteworthy achievements and ventures along with random trivia. Being a Death Eater certainly wasn't something to be proud of, but it was certainly noteworthy to an extent. At least to the Ministry. Probably.

Alsace laughed next to him. "I've no idea."

Harry was floundering with this conversation, and it had only just begun. How was he supposed to ask questions like 'So, how many people has your father done away with?' Alsace, ever the manipulator, saved him in the end.

"I don't know much about them, actually," she said. "I do know that both of my parents joined the Death Eaters the summer after they left school. That was in 1962 or 1963, I think. To be honest, I don't even know their birthdays, but my calculations show they were roughly ten years older than Lucius Malfoy, which matches what I know of Nariccisa Malfoy." She shrugged and focused her attention forward as she continued.

"During the last visit my father was able to manage without being followed by the Aurors, he told me he didn't really know my mother all that well until five years after they joined. He said they were partnered together for their first mission—which was, incidentally, a mission to Alsace & Lorraine to meet an informant. Back then," she added in explanation, "Death Eaters had to prove themselves competent before they were allowed to participate in important matters. It usually took about two years, he said, but both he and my mother were apparently rather stupid when it came to things like blood and gore, and—"

"What?" Harry interrupted incredulously. "How is that possible?"

Alsace shrugged. "They were sheltered."

"Sheltered," Harry repeated dubiously.

Rolling her eyes, Alsace said deliberately, "Yes, sheltered. Your father's branch of the Black family was much more…astute than my mother's side. My mother's family was the black sheep of the Black family, really. They were less wealthy, less politically inclined and less intelligent in general. Nothing was expected of them so they never bothered, as my father will tell it. And as for him, his parents were on temporary exile from the French Ministry at the time of my uncle Rabastan's birth. Something regarding illegal farming practices. They were being closely watched at all times during his adolescence."

"Oh," Harry said, deflated. "Right. Go on."

"Well—this is sort of humorous in a tacky sort of way—they both did so well during the raid that Voldemort, in a fit of good humour, declared that they worked better together than any other two of his Death Eaters and married them that very night."

"I'm sorry?" Harry sputtered.

Alsace shrugged. "It might not be true, but both of my parents told my sister and me the same thing. Apparently, Voldemort collects licenses and certificates; it's quite possible that he is the most legal man in Britain. He, apparently, has a license or a permit for just about everything, marrying included."

Harry opened his mouth, but couldn't think of a single thing to say.

"As for hobbies," Alsace continued, smiling at his befuddlement, "my father held the title for Snooker Champion of England three years running in his early twenties, scored nine O's on his NEWTs, speaks seven languages—English, French, Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, Latin and Hebrew—and was offered a spot on the Quiberon Quafflepunchers at the age of eighteen, but turned them down because he didn't want to wear bright pink robes. He ended up working for a now-defunct broom-making company as a test-flyer.

"As for my mother," Alsace added, "she was an over-achiever, I've heard. Apparently, she was so disgusted by her family's status she spent the early years of her life trying to prove everyone wrong. In her fifth year, she applied and was selected for a foreign exchange program with the Salem Institute in America. The program, incidentally, only lasted a year because of something that happened while she was there. I don't know any of the details, only that it was a huge mess.

"When she returned, she befriended Severus Snape, a second-year at the time, and the two of them developed a potion that was able to multiply the effects of spell-casting, so that if it was used over and over, it could make an absolutely perfect spell. It won the Young Potioners Award in 1973, but was rather useless in everyday dealings since it was so cumbersome, so never gained much popularity.

"Two years after leaving school and joining the Death Eaters, her parents died, both of Tuberculosis, which is curable if you actually bother to see a Mediwizard, and she inherited their chair on the St. Mungo's board, ironically. That position deferred to me, as older daughter, at her first incarceration.

"She speaks two languages—English and French—is passable at wandless magic, often wandlessly levitates herself instead of walking—I don't know why—smokes muggle cigarettes, owns eleven percent of Honeydukes, scored ten O's on her NEWTs, is an accomplished ventriloquist and recites Shakespeare when she's nervous."

"…That's…that's pretty interesting," Harry mumbled.

"They also changed our nappies and fed us in the middle of the night for a year."

They were real people, she meant to say, Harry thought. She was trying to tell him that her parents were people, and if he were honest with himself, Harry would have admitted that they sounded like pretty stand-up characters, until you learned their names. Until you learned that—

"They also killed people. A lot of people."

"Yeah," Harry agreed quietly. They also killed people. They sounded alright until you learned their names and realized that they also killed people. It was a stunning thought. These people, who had daughters and a hell of a lot more NEWTs than Harry would ever get himself, would rather kill people than raise their children.

It was one of those times that Harry hoped he was looking at the problem with too Gryffindor an attitude to see everything clearly. He hoped that he was overlooking something important that would make him realize that he was wrong about the Lestranges because right then it was just too tragic to think the way he did. He cleared his throat, intending to say something reconciliatory or witty, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

"Don't bother," Alsace said, looking only slightly sad. "We're here anyway, and look, there are your friends." She pointed to a group of Gryffindors a ways off. All of the boys in his year except for Neville, who would be joining Hermione and Nott for the Halloween part briefing, and several of the girls were there. He narrowed his eyes when he saw Ron's bright red hair, wondering why his friend didn't bother to invite him along, and then felt guilty for thinking it, as he hadn't thought to invite Ron either.

"Right," he said stupidly.

"You should join them; I can find something for us to wear myself—oh! I never even thought to ask if you minded. Do you?"

"About the Halloween party?" Harry asked, blushing slightly. "Not really. I would never have asked anyone else, you know, and you're not so bad."

"For the child of a Death Eater, you mean," Alsace said shrewdly.

Harry, even though he'd spent the last thirty minutes listening to her talk about her Death Eater parents, hadn't really ever thought of her as the child of a Death Eater. Even now, when he did, he was ashamed to realize that he didn't hate her on principle. It felt like he was betraying Gryffindor House, even though they must have had a different driving force before Death Eaters came about.

His thoughts were now so muddled and abstract—thanks to Voldemort's strange and confusing manipulations—that he waffled over his feelings about dark lords, Death Eaters and wars so often that his most common feelings were of indifference. He wondered then if that had been Voldemort's initial plan—if he'd wanted Harry so overwhelmed that he couldn't think straight. If that was so, then he'd won already.

That thought wasn't as chilling as it should have been. In fact, it wasn't chilling at all, and that was worrisome. He was making excuses in his head all the time regarding Voldemort and even now his brain supplied him with a new one: So what if Voldemort's won? He's really not so bad, so long as you don't get in his way. And he seems to like me. Sort of.

It sounded cheap, even to him.

"Or maybe not," Alsace spoke up musingly. She favoured him with a calculating look, nodded once, and then started walking towards the village. Over her shoulder, she called, "I'll pick out something suitable for you and have it delivered by next Saturday. Go have fun with your friends."

So Harry did.

ɤɣɤ

When he reached the group of seventh year Gryffindors, the first thing Harry noticed was that Seamus was far too excited and Dean far too resigned for any good to come of the afternoon.

Ron was holding Lavender Brown's hand, and that only served to solidify Harry's assessment of the situation. He studied them for nearly a second before Seamus, in all his exuberance, noticed him.

"Harry!"

And then all eyes were turned to him, including Ron's, who had the grace to look sheepish. Harry gave him a look that said they would be discussing it later and turned an easy smile back to Seamus.

"What are you lads up to?" Harry asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets to mask the discomfort he felt at seeing Ron so cosy with Lavender. Seamus ambled over and threw an arm over his shoulder, suddenly reminding him of that time at the beginning of term when they had played Levitating Leap-Frog and Ron had screwed up pretty badly. He hoped history wasn't about to repeat itself.

"Dean says if I went as a Leprechaun it would be too predictable," Seamus said in a dramatically dour voice. "Tell him he's wrong, Harry. Tell him Leprechauns are as good as anything for fancy dress parties."

Harry fought a grin. "I'd be lying."

"Wanker," Seamus said, smacking Harry on the head. "What are you going as then?"

Harry shrugged. "Don't know. My date's picking something out," he said to a chorus of Atta boy, Harry and Who's the lass? He ignored both.

"Typical male," Lavender sniffed from Ron's side. "Ron and I are goi—"

"Ron asked you to go with him?" Harry interrupted, and then immediately felt sorry for doing so. But damn, Hermione was going to be hacked off.

Lavender narrowed her eyes and said deliberately, "Yes. And we're going as Guinevere and King Arthur." She paused and then turned to Seamus, adding, "Finnigan, you can be Lancelot."

Seamus scoffed and waved his leprechaun costume around. "Like I'd want to sleep with you, Guinny. I'd rather be short and stingy any day."

"Shall we have a butterbeer?" Harry interrupted before Lavender could start screeching.

"Not a chance, Harry, my boy!" Dean exclaimed, throwing his arm around the shoulder Seamus wasn't currently occupying. "We're all seventeen now, and we're having a real drink." He stopped and looked around the town speculatively, nodding when he'd decided on a location. "At the Red Lion, which is, if I say so myself, suitable enough for the lot of us."

"But, erm…" Harry said, tilting his head slightly towards Ron. "You know."

Ron grinned. "No worries, mate. I won't touch a drop. I'm not that stupid. McGonagall said she doesn't care how old I am; if she catches me again she's having me expelled and I'm not risking that for a game of Snap."

Fifteen minutes later, Harry found himself staring down a glass full of bubbling red liquid, knowing this stuff wasn’t going to be a thing like brandy or firewhiskey and hoping he didn't make too much a fool of himself. On either side of him Dean and Seamus were counting down from three with devilish smirks. Harry shot Ron an apologetic look as he fought to keep the forlorn look off his face as he watched even Lavender getting excited by the drink in front of her.

"One!" Everyone yelled and Harry tipped his drink back with the others, wincing as it tickled his throat going down. Anything that felt that nice would be something to regret later. Even as he swallowed the last of the funny drink, he felt his eyes get a little heavier and his mood go from neutral to listlessly delighted. The drink bubbled in his belly and he rubbed it absently.

"It tickles!" Lavender giggled, poking at her own stomach. "It's like a little Puffskein's pawing at my insides."

Harry had to agree, even though he felt a little silly about it.

"Tis nothing," Seamus declared. "We've got to try all ten of the specialty shots, so keep your head on. It's tradition."

"Whose tradition?" Ron asked.

Seamus swivelled his head to give Ron a properly disappointed look, and said only, "Honestly, Ron."

"Right, next one is the Lion's Mane," Dean said as he skimmed the list on the far wall. "Think we should just buy all of them now so we don't have to keep getting up? If the rest are anything like this one was, I bet none of us are going to be talking so well in a bit."

Seamus pulled a handful of gold from his pocket, removed a coin from the pile and said, "Here's me. Pony up, lads." Lavender coughed, and he added, "And lasses."

When Ron and Dean returned with the drinks for everyone a few minutes later, Harry had to take a deep breath before he was able to breathe properly. There were now thirty-six little glasses of liquid in varying shades of red sitting among them at the table. No way in muggle hell that he'd be able to finish them all. Seamus slid one in front of him with a strange, heretofore unseen leer, and Harry decided he was going to give it a sporting try.

"Matches your mouth, mate," Seamus said. It sounded stupid even to Harry's pleasantly tingling ears, but it sent a jolt of something as fiery as the first drink coursing through his body and he shivered. "All together now," he added to the rest of them.

As the countdown progressed, Harry watched Seamus from the corner of his eye and couldn't help the second shiver that ran down his spine when Seamus yelled 'One!' and his red tongue darted out to the rim of the glass. Belatedly, Harry tossed back his drink, seconds behind the rest of them. Six glasses later, Harry's fingers were shimmying like snakes in front of his eyes. He watched them with detached interest and wondered if Seamus' fingers were doing the same thing. It was a thought worth pursuing.

"A sickle says Harry's the first to drop," Ron spoke up from across the table. He grinned ear to ear as he added, "Even Lavender's looking better."

Harry held up two of his snake-like fingers and gave Ron the two-fingered salute, but it looked so funny with wiggly fingers that he couldn't stop the giggles. "Easy, mate," he heard Seamus say from his right, and then everything went sort of fuzzy and purple and nothing made much sense.

ɤɣɤ

"What do you think about the orphans?" Sirius asked. He was standing by the window in the Headmaster's office looking down at the grounds and trying to figure out which questions to ask. The problem was that he had so many of them; he couldn't seem to ask a single one of them. At least they had already gotten the lemon drop formalities out of the way.

Dumbledore sat behind his desk, leaning back in his chair and watching his former student idly. He said, "What do you think about them?" and waited for an answer.

Sirius turned and leant against the window sill. "Sort of undecided, you know? I mean, everyone knows where these kids are coming from, but we can't exactly give them back, and…"

"And?" Dumbledore prompted.

"I don't know. It's true that the children are all magical—what was the final count this morning? A hundred-forty-two, I think—and if the families have been Obliviated, which they obviously have been…" Sirius shrugged.

"You think that because no one will miss these children, but since so many magical families want them, that it is okay."

"Not so blunt as that," Sirius replied with a slight wince. "But, you know, I'd reckon these kids have a right to be here more than they have an obligation to be there, you know?"

Dumbledore sighed and leant forward. "What is it, Sirius, that is really on your mind?"

Sirius huffed and sought a chair to sit in. When he found one, conveniently comfortable, chintz and directly across from Dumbledore's desk, he flopped down sulkily.

"Am I real?"

Dumbledore laughed. "Are you real?" he asked with a chuckle. "I should hope so."

Sirius huffed again. "You know what I mean, Professor."

Dumbledore threaded his fingers through his long beard and twirled them as he thought. Finally, he looked up and said with a regretful look, "I must admit that I am not certain." Sirius sunk into his chair and Dumbledore continued, "Professor Snape and I have conducted every test available, and all results prove that you are, in fact, alive and who you claim to be.

"The problem with this is that I was quite sure you were, this time last year, dead." He chuckled again, and Sirius sulkily remarked in his head that it was not funny.

"You certainly didn't put up much of a fight when I got Harry this summer," he said instead.

Dumbledore frowned sternly. "Do not think, even for an instant, Sirius, that the situation was not closely monitored by myself at all times. And that includes, I might add, some of your more questionable activities." Before Sirius could even have a chance to worry about the consequences of some of the spells he performed over the summer, Dumbledore continued with, "Furthermore, after several weeks—I assume after your parentage was acknowledged by Harry, and let me add here what a surprise that was—the wards that protected Harry at Privet Drive were suddenly and permanently transferred to your estate. I needed no further proof."

"Really?" Sirius asked, eyebrows up to his hairline with surprise. "I had no idea."

"Surely you felt them?" Dumbledore asked.

Sirius shook his head. "No. And I even keyed Harry to the main wards. We spent a week on them—we should have felt something like that, especially since we were paying so much attention to them."

"I wouldn't worry over it," Dumbledore replied easily. "It is quite possible that the transfer happened during a moment of extreme emotion on the part of both of you. You could have quite easily missed the transfer during such a time.

"What is more intriguing," the Headmaster added seamlessly, "is that several hours after the wards went down at Privet Drive, I received an owl, of all things, from one Mrs Petunia Dursley, who stated, quite frantically, that 'something was wrong. She could feel it in her bones.'

"And strange even further," Dumbledore continued, leaning forward and raising his eyebrows, "is that if Petunia Dursley—a woman with no magic whatsoever—could feel the fall of the wards, then certainly Voldemort could feel it. Which brings to mind the question of why the Dursley house is still standing."

Sirius had a fair idea of the answer, and concentrated on keeping that thought as far away from the front of his mind as possible. He cleared his throat and said, "How did that woman come by an owl?"

Dumbledore smiled in amusement. "I should imagine Arabella Figg loaned her one."

"Right," Sirius said. He coughed and then took a deep breath, preparing to explain something he only half understood. "Professor, I've been thinking about all of this, you know, me apparently dying and coming back to life, and I've got a sort of theory…"

"Yes?" Dumbledore asked with out-of-character interest. Sirius took a moment to study his old headmaster, wondering exactly how much this problem was bugging him. Dumbledore had a tendency to pretend he thought a problem of no consequence until he had a reasonable explanation. Sirius supposed this was a defence mechanism of sorts—something to keep his enemies from thinking him flustered.

"Well, you remember my brother Regulus, don't you?"

"I've never forgotten a student," Dumbledore said proudly. "Although I think there was this one girl that I quite fancied when I was still a boy, but—"

"Anyway," Sirius interrupted, ignoring Dumbledore's disappointed frown, "he disappeared right after leaving school, and we all knew where he went, but—"

"Your brother is dead, Sirius," Dumbledore said consolingly.

"Yeah, now he is," Sirius huffed. "Hear me out. If Regulus really was, somehow, alive, he could've walked right into Grimmauld Place. You know that he wouldn't have needed the Secret if it was his home. He could have been following me around that house for months—studying my habits and routines—and when you sent me on that mission, he could have followed me there, figured out that I wouldn't be returning for a long while and decided to be me for a bit."

"If he was Polyjuicing himself into you, Sirius, Mad-Eye—"

"I'm not suggesting Polyjuice, Dumbledore," Sirius growled, frustrated. He stood and began pacing back and forth across the room, thinking. "There's other ways. And besides, we always looked a lot alike. It wouldn't take much to make him look exactly like me—I'm not sure exactly what it would take, but it wouldn't take much of it."

Dumbledore folded his hands in his lap and followed Sirius' circuits with his eyes. "And where are you suggesting he's been all this time?"

"I told Harry yesterday," Sirius answered, "that the house-elves mentioned that other house-elves had been at the house within the last two years."

"Not the original family house-elves?" Dumbledore questioned.

Sirius shrugged. "Perhaps, but my house-elf said that their presence disappeared abruptly. Not as if the whole lot of them died. As if they just left, and house-elves don't just leave without instruction to do so. You know that."

Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully, nodding to himself. "Supposing you're correct," he said, "how do we explain the problem of Regulus' name fading from the tapestry? If memory serves, that only happens when one dies."

Sirius shook his head. "Only when the blood dies."

Dumbledore's eyebrows went up expectantly. "I admit that I am not as learned in that area as I would like to be," he hinted.

Sirius stopped at the window he was previously looking out of and exhaled loudly. "He could've been someone else. He could've become someone else."

"Such as?" Dumbledore prompted.

"Well, me," Sirius replied, as if it should have been obvious.

Dumbledore sighed. "And why would Regulus wish to be you, Sirius?"

Sirius shrugged and said pointedly, "Maybe he wanted out."

"That still doesn't answer the question of how, exactly, he would have become you."

"That's what gets me, too," Sirius admitted, frustrated. He tugged on the ends of his hair, as if it would somehow make his brain start functioning properly, and said, "I can think of a dozen rites and rituals and spells and sorceries that would make him almost me—including that damned blood rite that's being performed on all those orphans—but none that would make him exactly me—or exactly not him, either."

Turning and looking directly at the Headmaster, Sirius asked, "You never noticed that it wasn't me in that house? Never thought anything 'I' did strange?"

"I thought everything you did strange," Dumbledore admitted with an enigmatic smile, "but nothing you did seemed out of character."

Sirius grimaced half-heartedly at the jibe. "And that mission I was on?"

"What about it?" Dumbledore asked.

"Was it a suicide mission?" Sirius asked bluntly.

"Certainly not," Dumbledore replied immediately. "You knew and accepted the risks before you left. We needed someone to do it and you were the only one available. I gave you numerous opportunities to say no, and you never once took them. I suspected, however, that if anyone would be able to complete it, it would be either you or Professor Snape, and both of you have used dark magic."

"And what about when I supposedly came back from it?"

Dumbledore narrowed his eyes slightly at the hint that he had been negligent. "You proceeded to give me a full report which, if I might add, included names, dates, places and a lengthy contract signed by two members of the Light Wizards who promised aid if we so required it."

"What?" Sirius asked incredulously.

"Indeed," Dumbledore said with a satisfied nod. "I've since contacted both wizards and confirmed their alliance. It is legitimate."

Sirius slumped back against the window. "Who in all seven hells would've been able to do that?"

"Not your brother?" Dumbledore asked, unwrapping a lemon drop and slipping it into his mouth.

Sirius pursed his lips. "He's done just as much dark magic as I have. They wouldn't have let him near them. And besides, why would he bother?"

"Perhaps he wanted to present a good case. Coming back empty handed might not have looked so good to him. And as I said before, just because those wizards abhor dark magic doesn't mean they can't also feel intent. Your—or Regulus'—presence would have made them physically nauseous because of the dark magic residue, but it wouldn't have been unlikely that they tolerated you if you caught their interest. They are not as ruthless as rumour would have everyone believe."

Sirius narrowed his eyes at the headmaster. "Are you playing Devil's Advocate with me?" he asked shrewdly. "You seem to have jumped on my theory quite quickly."

Dumbledore shrugged. "You've thought it out well and I can see how it would be possible. Additionally, it is the only theory we have to go on right now, and I prefer something to nothing," he said with a carefree grin.

"Right," Sirius said, for lack of anything better. "So, er…should I be doing anything in particular then? About all this?"

Dumbledore studied him critically for several seconds. "Have you reassured Harry?"

"Yes," Sirius said immediately. "I've told him everything."

Dumbledore nodded, satisfied. "Then I suggest you let me see if I, or any of my contacts, can solve the riddle of your continued existence. I do, however, have something else you can help me with."

"I'll not go to America again for all the galleons in Gringotts," Sirius said right away. "Dreadful place."

Dumbledore chuckled. "I shouldn't think that this mission will lead you there."

Sirius waited. Dumbledore did not continue, so, rolling his eyes, Sirius bit: "Alright, where will it lead me?"

"Hopefully," Dumbledore said, "to your friend Remus Lupin. He's missed his last rendezvous and no one in the Order has been able to locate him as yet."

Sirius' blood ran cold. "What?" he stuttered. "He's not dead, is he?"

"No, not dead," Dumbledore said with a shake of his head. "After your interesting reappearing act, I had charms made for every Order member. They are not as useful as I would like, however, because they only report whether or not one is dead or alive and which public house, if any, they are at in Britain. Works devilishly well for locating Mundungus Fletcher, but not so much for everyone else."

Dumbledore nodded to a shelf across the room that housed thirty or so little purple stones, all pulsing light gently. "Which reminds me that I will need to make one for you as well."

"Of course," Sirius said, "but what about Remus?"

"Hopefully, you will find him," Dumbledore said. "It is almost time for dinner now, but if you could meet me here in the morning, we can get started. It should only take about twenty minutes to brief you, and then you can be on your way."

"Right," Sirius said, nodding. "Good idea. Maybe I'll just have dinner with Harry tonight while I'm here."

Dumbledore chuckled and tilted his head towards the window. "I do not believe that he will be making it to dinner tonight, I'm afraid. Possibly not even breakfast."

Following Dumbledore's gesture, Sirius looked out the window and narrowed his eyes at the sight of his son and four friends stumbling merrily back towards the castle. "That little beast," he muttered under his breath. "He should know better than to stumble around the grounds like that."

"Indeed," Dumbledore said with amusement. "Wonderfully good thing that it's Minerva's turn to supervise the Flying Club on the other side of the castle at exactly this time today, wouldn't you say? Terrible business if she were to catch them."

Sirius frowned in a fatherly sort of way. "Is that Ron Weasley? Isn't he on probation for this very thing?"

Dumbledore craned his neck slightly to look. "It seems to me as if he's the only half-sober one of the bunch."

"Devilish little bugger," Sirius muttered as he watched Harry sling his arm over another boy's shoulder and open his mouth widely for what appeared to be the chorus of an Irish drinking song. Sirius shuddered, remembering how badly his son sang. Definitely didn't inherit his mother's talent. Shame.

"I think this is one of those moments that I would have let Lily handle, had things turned out the way I would have liked them," Sirius said to himself, only a little sadly. He sighed and turned back around to face the headmaster. "Right, well I suppose I'll be on my way then. I'll come by tomorrow at half-nine."

Dumbledore nodded. "Splendid."

Nodding as well, Sirius turned and made his way for the door. He was just turning the handle when Dumbledore spoke up again.

"Oh, and Sirius," the headmaster said. "Perhaps you should teach Harry Occlumency. I never knew you were so proficient, and he could certainly do with a proficient instructor in the field."

"Interfering old man," Sirius muttered as he slid out the door.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Ceasefire (n): 1. An order to stop firing. 2. Suspension of active hostilities; a truce.

Harry woke with a start and the echoing ring of that strange singing still reverberating in his ears. He groaned and absently rubbed at his scar, even though he knew, subconsciously, that it wasn't the cause. He hadn't gotten much sleep at all, and his head was pounding—from what, he didn't know. Surely, it was too early to be awake.

Sighing heavily, Harry rolled over, landing squarely on top of something that was very definitely not his mattress. He cracked an eye open warily.

And only saw his hair, doing a fine job of covering his eyes. Huffing from the throb of his head and frustration at being awake in general, Harry angrily swiped it from his face and focused sleep-bleary eyes on the offending object. The offending Seamus, he realized with some puzzlement.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Harry asked, throat scratchy and strangely raw.

Seamus mumbled incoherently, and Harry noticed two things in quick succession: Seamus was drooling onto his pillow and the both of them were undoubtedly naked. Completely. Realization crept into Harry's mind about the same time that he figured out why his throat hurt, why his head hurt and why his bum felt not unlike it did several times over the summer after a night of watching Aurors in Love. Harry poked Seamus urgently.

Eyes cracking open slowly and then immediately closing again, Seamus rasped a pathetic "Morning," and then immediately rolled over to hide his head under the pillow—far away from the harsh sunlight.

Harry took note of his headache—obviously the result of being so thoroughly drunk the night before—the intense morning sunlight and the fact that he wouldn't be sitting well for some time, and asked huffily, "What's so good about it?" There was no need to ask what they did the night before; Harry was well aware. Seamus had been openly bisexual—supposedly leaning more towards gay—for three years now, and with Harry not exactly secretive about the magazines in his trunk, there was no surprise that they had ended up in bed together after some heavy drinking.

Moreover, he found he wouldn't mind a repeat performance—only, maybe without being hung-over the next day. He'd never considered Seamus as a possible boyfriend, or even lover, but after the fact, it didn't seem like such a raw deal.

That Seamus was gay was just another fact of life; the wizarding world was so strange sometimes: their numbers were dwindling rapidly, and that seemed to Harry like something that would make homosexuality looked down upon, if only for the lack of offspring.

If the scramble over the orphans was anything to go by, Harry should have been terrified of being gay, but as it was, it was very well tolerated—if not exactly encouraged. There had been half a dozen boys in Harry's class alone that were openly gay, and he'd never thought a thing about it. No one had, really; if he'd been in the muggle world, while he most likely wouldn't have been ostracised for it, he certainly wouldn't have been given this much acceptance.

And to be fair, it wasn't even really acceptance; it was on the same par as heterosexuality—it just wasn't given any thought, so normal was it considered. If he wasn't beginning to feel so nauseous, he might have smiled at his rare good fortune.

"Didn't say it was good," Seamus mumbled from beneath Harry's drool-covered pillow. "Just said it was morning." He pulled his head out and stared down the bed, at the general location of his bum. "Good gods above, below and in-between, Harry. My arse hurts like nothing else."

Harry snickered softly, momentarily forgetting his own aches and pains. Unfortunately, there were echoing snickers from outside the curtains around his bed. Harry sat up quickly and reached for his glasses on the bedside table. He had found that he was unable to break the habit, even if they weren't exactly necessary any longer; it was a defence mechanism.

"Ron?" Harry asked cautiously. "Tell me it's just you out there." Sure, there was nothing wrong with being gay, but being caught after a shag by the lads was never a good thing—Harry would have been just as embarrassed if he'd had a bird in his bed.

"Try again!" Dean crowed from outside the curtains.

Harry groaned. "You, too?"

Seamus lifted himself all the way up and stuck his head out, saying, "C'mere, you wankers; there's blokes trying to get some fecking sleep, and you eejits are nattering on like me mam. Fecking hell," he added once he'd pulled his head back in, "I got Harry in the nip."

The snickering started again, even as Harry fought to control his blush. "Shagged out?" Dean asked with a laugh.

Seamus rolled his eyes and replied, leering at Harry, "More'n one way."

"Shut your gob," Harry said, tossing the drooly pillow at Seamus' face in embarrassment and irritation. "And keep your spit in your mouth when you're in my bed."

"Invitation to return, is it?" Seamus smirked.

"Hate to interrupt this—admittedly touching—moment," Ron teased loudly, "but afternoon classes start in ten minutes, Harry, and you've got Snape today."

"Fucking hell," Harry yelled, tumbling out of the bed and sparing no time to be embarrassed over being found in bed with Seamus. The other boys didn't seem to mind, and he could fret over them hearing about the sex later—perhaps in Potions, when he would be floundering to brew his Arithmantic Potion. He scurried around, trying to find his pants. "I missed DADA?"

Ron, who was sitting on Dean's bed, watching with amusement as Harry scrambled to dress, nodded smugly, and said, "Hermione wasn't pleased."

Harry looked over as he was zipping up his trousers and asked just as smugly, "Speaking to you, is she?"

Ron scowled as Dean laughed and said, "Not hardly, but she was pretty vocal about your absence. Said she was going to cast the inebriating and the sobering spells on you over and over in rapid succession until you figured out that hangovers were more than drinking was worth."

"Didn't say anything about my not drinking, though," Ron added sulkily.

"Probably 'cause you were not-drinking with Lavender Brown," Seamus added from Harry's bed. He'd made no move to get dressed, and was instead lounging there with the curtains pulled open, watching the proceedings.

"Shut it, Finnigan," Ron said. Seamus shrugged as much as he could with his arms crossed behind his head.

Harry was buttoning his shirt when something else occurred to him. "Does Neville know?"

"Nah," Ron said. "He was up and out before the sun this morning—working on his thesis for Advanced Herbology today."

"Good," Harry said with a relieved sigh. The last thing he needed was Neville having a moral conundrum over whether or not to report them, given his new status as a prefect.

"Nine minutes," Ron said loftily.

"Fuck!" Harry said again, running for the door.

"Good luck with Hermione!" Ron yelled as the door was closing. The snickers started again from inside the dormitory and Harry only barely avoided tumbling down the steps when he realized just how much luck he would need with Hermione today. Fucking hell, indeed.

ɤɣɤ

The first thing Snape said when Harry skidded into the Potions classroom was 'Oh, fabulous: Potter's here,' in a wholly out-of-character voice. As the class snickered, Harry could only focus on how he hoped to Merlin that Snape hadn't somehow used Legilimency on him when he came in and seen what he and Seamus had done the night before.

He kept his eyes down on the way to his desk, partially to prevent Snape from reading his mind and partially because he'd seen Hermione's death glare from the corner of his eye and, with it, he wasn't wholly convinced that she didn't have a little Basilisk blood in her.

Harry slid gingerly into his aisle seat next to Hermione. He never would have thought that he would prefer sitting next to a Slytherin, but Theodore Nott was on the other side of her and of no use to him as a battlement. Even worse, Malfoy was sitting in the aisle seat directly across from him. If he'd only arrived sooner, he could have possibly avoided all of this entirely. But he would have had to have made it to DADA for that to have happened.

Harry quickly scanned the area to make sure no one was paying any attention to him any longer before he whispered to Hermione, "Have I missed anything?" She turned her nose up and scooted a little closer to Nott on the bench.

Frustrated with how bad the day was already turning out to be, Harry pursed lips, whispering louder, "Wouldn't it be terrible if all three of us failed this assignment for lack of cooperation?"

"It would indeed, Potter," Snape breathed into Harry's ear. Harry jumped, having not even noticed the professor coming up behind him, and scowled. "Five points from Gryffindor for unnecessary chatter—now get to work."

"I would, sir," Harry gritted out, "only I have no idea what I should be doing."

Snape straightened up and sneered down at Harry in one go. Raising his eyebrows considerably, he said, "I am unsurprised. Five more points for coming to class unprepared." He walked away without a backward glance, but the Slytherins all snickered quietly. Even Nott—the prat.

"I can't believe you, Harry," Hermione hissed as soon as Snape was back at the front of the classroom. Harry rolled his eyes; better they get this over with immediately so that they could possibly work on the potion. He really needed to pass this class—if only to piss Snape off.

"Sorry," he muttered.

Hermione was unimpressed. "Where were you this morning?" she asked, as if she didn't already know the answer. Harry answered, if only to get the conversation moving.

"Sleeping."

"And why were you sleeping so late?" she whispered back.

"Hung-over," Harry said. Nott snorted, and Harry leaned around Hermione to glare at him. "As if that's not something you and your Slytherin mates don't experience often enough."

Nott gave him a serene look. "Certainly not on school days," he said, and then added, "and certainly not without having plenty of hangover potions on hand. Really Potter."

Defeated, and unable to think of anything suitable to reply as his headache seemed to have returned with the mention of a hangover, Harry sat back on the bench.

"What kind of messages are you sending Ron, drinking like that when you know he's recovering from it himself?" Hermione added in a low hiss. Harry wanted to say something about not broadcasting Ron's business to all and sundry like that, but no one was really in hearing range except Nott—who already knew—and Malfoy—who had found Ron to begin with.

"He didn't have any," Harry replied sullenly, and it was true—so far as he remembered anyway. But the truth of that was that he didn't remember much at all after six or so drinks. The night before with Seamus was only returning to his mind in vague, disjointed snatches of memory, but it seemed like it had been fun none-the-less. His lips quirked slightly as he thought he would definitely like to try it sober. He'd like to fully remember it, anyway.

"What are you smirking at now?" Hermione whispered furiously.

"Seamus," Harry replied without thinking. Immediately, he blushed bright red—it was entirely possible that Hermione—and certainly Nott and Malfoy—had not known about that. He glanced to his left to make sure Malfoy hadn't heard their conversation, and was relieved to find him working diligently on his potion.

Hermione's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "I seem to recall Seamus also not being present for DADA this morning." When Harry looked over at her, he was chagrined to see that Nott was leaning forward, eagerly listening to this bit of the conversation, even as he continued to crush ingredients for the next part of their potion.

Harry cleared his throat. "Er—I wouldn't know. Wasn't there, you know."

Hermione narrowed her eyes even further. "I do know—so where, exactly, was Seamus this morning?"

"Asleep?" Harry tried.

"Where?" Hermione volleyed back.

Harry winced, and that was all the answer she needed. Nott snorted again and went back to giving his full attention to their potion, obviously satisfied with the information supplied.

"I can't believe you didn't tell me that you and Seamus were seeing each other," Hermione said. Her eyes flicked to the front of the class, where Snape was beginning to walk the room, and then back again. "We'll discuss this later, but I hope that one of you at least remembered to cast a protection charm."

Harry sighed and tried to remember if they had or not. He was pretty sure Seamus had, but he couldn't be certain. "So what are we doing today then?" he asked, gesturing to their potion.

Already Hermione was back to ignoring him, so Nott answered quietly, without even lifting his eyes, "Continuing the Draught of Derbyshire, of course. Today we have to add the second layer of the potion, which will float on top of the base for two weeks. After fourteen days—if made correctly—it'll congeal, and then we use a specific Arithmetic formula to combine them. Once that's done, we'll have fifteen minutes to determine the new Arithmantic formula created and apply it before the potion is ruined."

Harry gaped. "No one ever thought to write it down?" he asked, terrified at the prospect.

Nott and Hermione rolled their eyes together. "Of course not," Nott answered. "It's different every time because of the different proportions used when brewing bases."

Harry frowned. "Then why couldn't we all just use the same proportions, since it doesn't matter for the bases?" he asked.

"Because," Nott answered slowly, "humans make mistakes. It would be impossible to get the exact same proportions on any two potions. You can get very close, but never exact. That's why we use maths."

Harry's mouth made a little 'O' and he felt himself blush again. He would never understand potions. Or magic in general, probably.

"You should be helping," Hermione added, and passed a pile of moonwort to him. "This layer, unlike the base, must be very precise. Powder the moonwort until it's a fine, shimmery powder and don't let any of it touch your hands. The oils from your skin will ruin it once it's powdered."

"A fine task for me," Harry muttered as he scooped some into his mortar. His headache was intensifying with just the thought of focusing so much on such a mundane task.

Hermione only glared. Harry set to work. He'd only been working for a few minutes when he got the feeling of being watched. Odd how that happened, Harry mused as he surreptitiously tried to figure out who was watching him. It was strange that one could feel something intangible like being watched. Nevertheless, he could, and it was making him nervous. He cast his eyes upwards without raising his head.

It was Snape.

The professor was staring at him, head still bent slightly from where he had been marking essays. Their eyes locked for several seconds, and Harry was startled enough by the blank look on Snape's face that he forgot to not make eye contact. In the end, it didn't matter—Snape never tried to enter his mind. Harry wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not, but as he saw Snape's eyes flicker over his face, he could do nothing to look away.

A knock on the door drew Snape's eyes away and a sneer immediately fell over his face. "Enter!" he barked.

Zacharias Smith, the only seventh year prefect not taking potions, came in, not at all looking as if Snape intimidated him. He probably didn't, Smith being such a cocky bastard. "Professor," Smith said politely. Harry, whose eyes were still flicking back to Snape every second or two, noticed that Snape was very close to rolling his eyes. Harry didn't blame him; Smith might have been passably polite, but the arrogance still rolled off him in waves.

Snape remained at his desk, the raising of an eyebrow the only response he offered.

Smith began to fidget, much to Harry's amusement. Clearing his throat, he finally said, "The headmaster has asked the Head Boy and Girl to his office immediately, sir. There's to be a meeting."

Snape was not in the least impressed. He cast his eyes sardonically towards Harry's table and then back to Smith. Harry glanced at his partners and cringed. Gods above, if he were left alone to work on this potion, none of them would make it out of the dungeons alive. From the looks Nott and Hermione were giving him, they agreed.

"We are in the middle of a rather complicated potion, Smith."

Smith's chin lifted slightly. "I understand, sir, but it's quite urgent."

"And what could be so urgent as to require two of my students during class time?"

"Ministry official," Smith said with a slight edge to his voice.

Snape smirked. "Your mother's come to visit? How lovely." He stood, cast another glance around the classroom, lingering a moment longer on Harry, and came to a decision. A surprising one, at that. "I expect she's here to discuss educational matters; as it happens, my budget for the coming year is prepared and I should like to speak to her myself."

"But sir—"

Snape glared nastily at Smith. "Mind what you say, Smith. You're taking one of my students to speak to a Ministry official—your mother or not—and as head of his house, I've a right to be there. I assume Professor McGonagall will be there for Ms Granger, yes?"

"Yes, but—"

"Very good," Snape said and then turned to the class. "All of you, apply the appropriate stasis charm to your potion and return your cauldrons to the shelves. Class dismissed."

"What the…" Harry muttered incredulously. They still had over an hour left of class. Snape had never once dismissed them early. He glanced at Hermione, only to find her looking back at him already. He whispered, "What's going on?"

"I don't know," Hermione admitted, but she didn't sound very worried. "Yasmin Smith works for the Department of Education at the Ministry. I'm sure it's just a yearly check in."

Nott grinned. "Hardly," he put in. "She's here to scout."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked.

Nott shrugged, looking slightly amused. "Think about it Potter. You've met her, or so Smith has said. Said his family came to your house over the summer for dinner."

"Yeah, so?"

"I'll tell you one thing," Nott said quietly as he applied the stasis spell to their potion. "Yazzy Smith loves nothing so much as her son, but she loves every one else's children almost as much. She's devoted her entire career to ensuring that students learn as much as they can at school; now you tell me who's going to need schooling in the years to come."

"The orphans," Hermione whispered suddenly. Nott nodded, smiling at her, which Harry thought was odd to see—even if he already knew they were friends of a sort. "But won't the families adopting them be able to ensure they're properly educated?"

Nott gave her a look. "Well of course, but not every family who adopted one of them is absurdly wealthy. Some of them already had a child or two before the adoptions. Many of the families have been on waiting lists for years, and many of those families are middle-class. Working families. Who's going to educate the children before they come to Hogwarts?"

"Lots of people's parents work," Hermione pointed out.

"And those children are usually taught by their grandparents. I've lived with mine for most of my life, but some of the families being granted adoptions don't have that option for one reason or another. We don't have pre-Hogwarts schooling in Britain…yet. While places like Southern Europe and America have day schools for working families—and for the children to learn social skills—England is very traditional; we've maintained a home-schooled environment, until the age of eleven, for centuries."

The three of them were now putting the last of their supplies back in their bags. "So what does Smith's mother expect to accomplish?" Harry asked.

"A day school," Hermione inferred, glancing to Nott for affirmation. He nodded and she grinned. Turning back to Harry, she said, "I'll bet she wants to establish a primary school now that England will have so many children in need of one in the next few years. She's here to get ideas."

"And advice," Nott added. "Word has it that she's not very fond of Dumbledore, but she respects him and thinks him quite wise, if a little too old-fashioned for the good of things."

Harry gaped. "Dumbledore's not old-fashioned. Isn’t that what makes him so unpopular sometimes?"

Nott laughed softly as the three of them hefted the cauldron up and began walking it towards the back of the classroom. "Hardly. Dumbledore's philosophies—especially the ones pertaining to this situation—have been around for centuries. Wizards have been angling to get muggle-born children into our world before Hogwarts for nearly a century, but Dumbledore maintains that they should be allowed time with their families."

"They should!" Harry hissed, looking around to make sure no one was following their conversation. He looked to Hermione for confirmation, but she seemed to be thinking about something.

"And then once they've finished school," Nott said, somewhat sarcastically, "they'll be torn between this world and their other. That's not very safe. That's why we have magic restrictions when we're not at school."

Harry remembered his father mentioning something like this over the summer. Everything, lately, was all coming back to the beginning.

"And we'll feel like we're betraying our families if we want to stay here," Hermione added quietly.

Nott looked at her fondly, if a little sadly. "Yes, exactly." They stared at each other for only half a second, but it was enough to make Harry uncomfortable, especially as he still had a huge cauldron in his hands. Nott cleared his throat and added, "But you belong here."

The words were said as if to generalise all magical people, but from the way Nott was still looking at Hermione, it was obvious whom he was speaking to.

Harry cleared his throat as the three of them hefted the cauldron onto the shelf. "Well, I guess it's a good thing that at least these kids won't have that problem," he said hesitantly.

He was still a little unsure how Hermione felt about the whole orphan thing, even though she seemed to be a little wistful about it—as if she'd wished she had been one of those kids—one of those kids who wouldn't have to make the same decision she would eventually have to make—and one of those kids who wouldn't feel so out of place when they eventually got to Hogwarts.

"Yes," Hermione agreed softly. "At least they'll—"

"If you're quite finished," Snape interrupted from the front of the classroom. All three of them jumped, startled.

"Yes, sir," Nott called back. "Sorry, sir." The other students were already filing out the door, and Nott and Hermione hurried to follow. Harry walked slightly slower, contemplative and unsure yet again.

Something he'd thought to be morally questionable, if not despicable, was turning out to be a relatively good thing. He wondered if children born as squibs would eventually come to be secretly…traded, of a sort…back to the muggles. He wondered if wizarding families, who wouldn't be Obliviated like the muggles had, would willingly give up their magic-less children if it meant they could possibly live a better life—without all of the stigma attached to be a squib—if wizards would switch children out, perform the blood rite on both of them so there were no questions. He wondered, even more, if squibs would stop being born if there weren't so much inbreeding.

He was so lost in thought that he had not even realised he was the only student left in the classroom, and furthermore, he didn't see Snape waiting impatiently for him by the door. His schoolbag was slung over his shoulder, and he nearly dropped it in shock when the professor's cold hands gripped tightly to his shoulder.

"Sir?" Harry asked, eyes wide.

Snape narrowed his eyes at him, and leaned down from his considerable height to hiss quietly in his face. "What, exactly, are you up to, Potter?"

For the first time, Harry had no idea what Snape was referring to. His mouth worked, but he thought of nothing to answer, save for a rather pathetic, "I don't understand…"

Snape sneered and leaned in even closer, "You are playing a very dangerous game, Mr Potter."

He had to lean back just to focus on Snape's face, the professor was so close, and as he did, he fought to maintain not only his balance, but his head. He only vaguely understood what Snape was talking about, and even then, he had no idea why Snape had decided to bring it up then—in a doorway in the dungeons of all places—anyone could hear them.

Maybe that's what Snape wanted, Harry suddenly thought. It wasn't as if Voldemort were unaware of his probable treason; Voldemort himself had told Harry of it—there was no reason, really, for Snape to fear being called a traitor. He walked a fine line—weaving his way into both sides so that he would be victorious no matter which side was; his only saving grace being that Voldemort believed—and even more so now that he'd struck something of a deal with Harry—that he would win. The Dark Lord, really, had nothing to fear from Severus Snape because so long as it looked as if Voldemort had the upper hand—and it most certainly did to those aware of such things, such as Harry—Severus Snape would lean more heavily on his side.

It disgusted Harry. He would rather Snape be one or the other, and right now, he didn't particularly care which. In fact, he didn't really care about what side anyone was on because it wouldn't matter in the end. All that would matter was their world, saving it, protecting it, ensuring that it survived and having the wherewithal to help do it.

So who did Snape want to hear their conversation? Harry had no idea, but he also had no time to consider it because Snape's glare was getting colder and colder by each passing second of unfulfilled silence.

"Like you, sir?" Harry asked, not quite sarcastically, but still with a sharp edge. He wondered, belatedly, if a professor could take points for his impudence when talking about such things.

Snape smiled a sinister smile that was wholly incongruent with the soft voice he answered in. "I have less to lose than you, child."

Harry inhaled slowly, trying to process everything all at once—the conversation, Snape's strange demeanour since the beginning of term, the fact that someone was probably listening—that this had been orchestrated.

"What would you have me do, then, sir?" he asked.

Snape straightened up, but his glare remained. "What are you trying to accomplish?"

Harry gaped again. Was Snape offering advice? He wanted to answer, but he didn't know how to explain all the many rushing thoughts and ideals that swam in his brain at any given time—many of them only half-formed ideas for a better world, many of them desperate questionings of his morals, but all of them unfulfilled and unanswered.

"To save the world?" Snape prompted with a sneer.

Yes, Harry thought, but then retracted it before it made its way to his mouth. He didn't want to save the world, he realises with crushing comprehension. Instead, he said, slowly, thinking carefully, "No, sir, I—I want to help the world save itself…and I want to save myself in the process, and…and I want to understand the difference between good and evil and the states in between that, and I want—I want there to be…" he paused, searching for the right word, and finally settled on one with amazing alacrity and conviction. "I want there to be balance—because, because I don't really think that there is a difference between good and evil anymore; I'm not sure that those extremes are always real."

Snape's eyebrows rose minutely, but enough was said with that small gesture for Harry to realise that he'd not only shocked Snape, he might have impressed him—even slightly—as well.

"How did you get yourself into this situation, Potter?" Snape asked, sounding exasperated.

Harry didn't even bother to try correcting people about his last name anymore. It had lasted for about a week before everyone—save a few—reverted back to Potter. He found he didn't mind it much. At any rate, he still didn't feel pure-blooded or noble or any of that other rot that went along with the surname 'Black'.

"I, erm—I have that link," he answered, pointedly pushing the red fringe from his forehead. "When you're so exhausted you can't be bothered to try blocking Voldemort from your mind any longer, sometimes you just give in, let him rant, and try to get some sleep."

Snape smirked slightly. "And is that what happened?"

"No, sir," Harry answered wearily. "He never did rant; he just talked—like a person, you know? Like a human being."

"That's hardly a reason to let a dark lord continue to infiltrate your mind," Snape chastised harshly.

"I know," Harry snapped. "But I was always so exhausted, and—and sometimes he said interesting things—things that I didn't know, or wouldn't have even thought about, but when I did think about them, they made sense, and—and I got tired of fighting. So I listened."

"And you learned?" Snape queried.

"Maybe," Harry answered, not even sure himself. Just because he knew new things, did that mean he had learned anything? He wasn't sure.

Snape crossed his arms over his chest, the glare completely gone from his face. "Have you spoken to the Headmaster about this?"

"No," Harry answered quickly—probably too quickly.

Snape raised his eyebrows again. "And why, pray tell, have you not?"

Wincing, Harry wasn't sure how to answer, but he figured, somewhere deep in the recesses of his brain, that if anyone understood why he hadn't, it would be Snape. He wasn't sure if that was a comforting thought or not.

"I don't know."

The answer seemed to be all Snape needed, for he smiled—smirked—and nodded sharply. "Then I suggest, if you are, in your infinite wisdom, open to advice, that you continue to see that the Headmaster knows naught of what you are doing."

"Right," Harry said, nodding vaguely.

Snape sneered at him once more, lifted his head, and barked into the shadows, "Mr Malfoy, you will desist lurking at once," before turning and stalking off towards the Headmaster's office for the meeting with Yasmin Smith.

ɤɣɤ

Harry was still a little confused when Snape's last words registered. Malfoy? It was Malfoy who had been listening. Of all the people for that slimy git to—Harry stopped his mental ranting abruptly. Why not Malfoy? He wondered. He'd been trying to work on Malfoy since the beginning of term. Perhaps—perhaps if Malfoy knew a bit of what he was up to then it would be easier. Or perhaps harder.

And come to that, why did he even care what happened to Malfoy? He didn't have very long to contemplate it, though, because already his eyes were searching his surroundings for platinum blond hair. Malfoy took the initiative and stepped from his hiding place, startling Harry so much that he jumped. Slightly.

"Rather friendly, you and Snape, a moment ago," Malfoy prompted disinterestedly.

Harry stared at him, refusing to answer an indirect question. There were numerous things that Malfoy could be trying to weasel out of him; Harry didn't want to tell him more than he had to—or could feasibly get away with and still make some progress with Malfoy. This was too dangerous a game; even Snape agreed with that.

There was a wait—impatiently by Malfoy and warily by Harry—until Malfoy finally gave in and stalked forward, stopping a few mere feet from Harry. He narrowed his eyes and said lowly, "I want to know what's going on."

"Going on with what?" Harry asked.

Malfoy gestured angrily. "With you…and Snape. With those unveiled threats and cryptic messages you keep imparting on me like ancient wisdom." He stepped even closer and added, "I want to know what Dumbledore doesn't."

Harry shrugged. "Nothing's going on."

"Rubbish!" Malfoy hissed. "I know you, Potter," he sneered. "You may be family now, but you'll always be Potter to me, and I know how you work. I know how you react—what you look like when you're lying, or nervous, or confused, or cocky or just pissed off. You weren't confused when Snape was talking to you just now; you were nervous. Wrong reaction. You knew exactly what he was talking about, and from the way it sounded, he's letting you get away with something you shouldn't.

"Anything Snape lets you get away with is cause for suspicion. And furthermore," Malfoy continued in a deadly whisper as he stepped right up to Harry's face, "There have been things happening that I suspect you know about, and you aren't reacting correctly."

"How am I reacting?" Harry asked in confusion.

"Like you know more than everyone else. Like you've inside information—information that Dumbledore's side wouldn't have, or wouldn't feel comfortable with even if they did," Malfoy answered immediately.

"What are you trying to say?" Harry asked slowly. He didn't think that Malfoy had figured any of that out. He didn't think Malfoy was capable of figuring that much out; if truth be told, Harry didn't think Malfoy was worth much more than mindless cruelty, ignorance and arrogance.

Additionally, Harry wasn't sure he was prepared for Malfoy to be quite so intuitive. Had he read Malfoy completely wrong from the very beginning? He began to wonder if Voldemort, whom he suspected had by now reasoned out his self-proclaimed mission regarding Malfoy, had let Harry continue, in order to teach him something.

Harry had no idea where that realisation came from, but it seemed to fit. The only thing he couldn't work out was what he was expected to learn from it. That anyone can surprise you? That was rather cheap as far as life lesson went.

But it begged the question, was Malfoy really as bloodthirsty as Harry—and everyone else, really—suspected? Was Malfoy already fit to fight a war? Mentally? Was he as cunning and intelligent as his house was originally meant to be?

The year before, due to a cryptic conversation with Voldemort, Harry had contemplated the Sorting Hat, and how accurate it was with its sortings. The conclusion he came to regarding the Slytherin students was that it was very possible that they weren't sorted into their house because of their families, but because of the way their families raised them. Were Slytherin parents more likely to impart teachings that resulted in their children being more ambitious, more cunning, more likely to think things through from several perspectives and create a contingency plan for all of them? A simple game of Hide and Seek could be vastly different—mentally—for a Slytherin-raised child than for a Hufflepuff-raised child.

It hit him hard: Malfoy really was a Slytherin. Malfoy was infinitely more layered than anyone had given him credit—probably even more than his own father had; that made Malfoy markedly more dangerous than before, even if he wasn't really as vicious as believed.

Abruptly, he was pulled from his musings.

"I'm saying," Malfoy answered slowly, "that you know my father's not in Azkaban, even though it's not been reported in any of the papers and there are no rumours of it. You knew that before Lestrange said it, and you've had plenty of time to alert the Aurors, Dumbledore or even your little friends. You haven't done it and there are only a handful of reasons why you wouldn't have—none of which look good for someone on the Light Side."

Harry shrugged, feeling stupidly cornered. It wasn't like Malfoy could or even would do something if he figured out the rest of it. "That doesn't mean anything."

"Maybe not what you expect," Malfoy said, almost fondly. "But what it does mean is that someone told you that he was out of prison. The only people who know only make your case all the more incriminating."

"Incriminating by whose terms?" Harry asked incredulously.

Malfoy chuckled. "See? There you go; surely not by my terms: I love my father; I'd never turn him in. Not by his colleagues' terms: he's a friend. Not by his superior: he's been a very valuable asset." The blond cocked his head, slightly mockingly, and added, "Whose terms, indeed."

"I have to get to class," Harry said abruptly.

Malfoy fell into place next to him as he turned to walk. "I'll walk you," he said with a sinister smile. "I've Arithmancy, too."

"People will talk," Harry hissed, trying to dislodge Malfoy from his side. "Stop it."

"They already have something to talk about," Malfoy said with a careless shrug. "There's orphans who're no longer orphans all over the place, and besides, we've a project together for the class, or have you forgotten? You can always tell your little Gryffindors that we were planning for it."

"What about the orphans?" Harry asked, and knew immediately he'd walked right into another trap. He gave up on trying to out-walk Malfoy, and instead focused on looking pissed off and surly about Malfoy's company, which wasn't all that hard to do.

"Well," Malfoy drawled slowly, swinging his arms back and forth in a mocking, childish manner. "How about the fact that even you could figure out that not just anyone's going to abduct Mudbloods and give them to wizards?"

Harry's ears burned at the mention of the word 'Mudblood', but kept his lips tightly pressed together. If he let himself rant at Malfoy now, there was no telling what he might say—what he might give away.

"It takes a—" Malfoy paused and waved his hand philosophically, "—a, hmm, a special kind of person, wouldn't you say, to do that. Someone with different opinions than your run-of-the-mill Hufflepuff."

"You're playing with me," Harry muttered furiously.

"No," Malfoy immediately denied, expression no longer musing, but hard and determined. "You're playing with all of us, and I want to know what's going on."

"No way," Harry said. "I wouldn't trust you as far as I could kick you—as much as I'd like to do just that."

"You listen here," Malfoy hissed, grabbing Harry by the shoulder and stopping him in the middle of a busy corridor. There were several passing students inclined to watch and see what kind of brawl they would get into this time, but Malfoy sent them along with a vicious glare. He erected an unnoticeable silencing charm around them with a twitch of his wand before continuing.

"There is a war about to happen, Potter. A fucking war, and I don't know how much your little brain can comprehend, but some of us would like to have a life on the other side of it. If you've got information that will tell me where I need to be and when, I want to fucking know it."

Harry scoffed. "You'd pick your side based on expected outcome?" That was utterly disgusting.

Malfoy sneered right back at him. "As far as I'm concerned, the lesser of two evils in this situation is the one that's going to fucking win. Neither of them sounds that incredible to me right now, but it's pretty obvious that you've already put your money down. My bet is that your odds are fucking outstanding."

Harry's eyebrows shot up. "Really," he said. Malfoy only sneered more forcefully in reply. He tugged on Malfoy's arm to get him walking again; there was no reason to cause even more of a scene, and if they could blend in with the other students, the more the better.

"You want to be on my side, then?" Harry asked to clarify. What he thought Malfoy was suggesting just seemed too outlandish to be believed. "Not Voldemort's or Dumbledore's, but the one I'm on?"

"Don't spread your feathers just yet, Potter," Malfoy replied snottily as he fell into step. "I'm not saying it because I like you. I'm saying it because I suspect you're walking a fine line, and fine lines often end up having the most room to spare. Your conversation with Snape only adds to my conviction."

Harry couldn't have done it any better. Malfoy, oddly enough, had just thrown himself into his hands without Harry having to do any prompting at all. The only problem with this was that he hadn't thought it all through. For some reason, he'd wanted Malfoy on his side from the beginning—consciously or not—whichever side he was on, but he'd always wanted Malfoy on his side because he thought it was the right side to be on, not because it was the winning side.

Still, even knowing that, Harry wanted Malfoy to be with him in this unlikely war. Sometimes, you knew something wasn't right, but you wanted it anyway. Once, Malfoy had told Harry not to make friends with the wrong sort; well, Malfoy would always be the wrong sort, but that didn't seem to lessen Harry's pathetic obsession with him any.

And maybe Malfoy would change some of his ideals. Harry almost snorted at the idea. Not likely.

As the silence began to stretch, Harry decided that if Malfoy at least had it in him to be a decent person, then that would be enough for him. Harry was certainly no one to judge, but he still had the ability to pick his friends, just like he'd had in first year. He didn't have to accept Malfoy if Malfoy didn't agree with anything he agreed with—however unlikely it was that Malfoy would want to be his friend anyway. Why was he even thinking about being friends?

Taking a deep breath, Harry finally asked, "What do you think about the orphans?"

"The orphans?" Malfoy asked, off guard.

"Yeah," Harry said. Rolling his eyes, he played one of his few remaining cards. "You know, the kids your dad's been dropping off in Derbyshire."

Malfoy smiled slowly. "I knew it," he said, almost to himself. "Pansy said I was being an idiot, but I knew this was the best option."

"I haven't agreed to anything yet," Harry reminded Malfoy sharply. They were nearing the Arithmancy classroom by now and time to get an answer out of Malfoy was running short. "The orphans?" he prompted again.

Malfoy laughed delightedly, as if he were in his own little world. It was a strange thing to see him so pleased, and Harry noticed uncomfortably that the way his face softened in laughter was more pleasing to him than it should be. He pursed his lips.

"I don't mind them," Malfoy finally said with a shrug.

"What do you mean by that?" Harry asked.

Malfoy shrugged again, still smiling slightly. "You're testing me," he said easily. "That's alright; I don't mind. I'll even go you one further and answer the real question you're asking me: How do I feel about Mudbloods.

"The answer? I don't give a shit about their blood. Magical blood is all the same; Pansy and I researched it in third year when I was on bed rest. Would I ever want to be a Mudblood? Certainly not, and for several reasons: one, there are positions of authority that can't be held by wizards not raised in a magical household—the Wizengamot, for example. Two, I love my family; I love my home and I like knowing that I'm a wizard, not a muggle, not someone who never knows for sure which world I belong in. I can trace my genealogy back to the days of the founders.

"The Dark Lord's idea regarding the orphans was the best I've seen from him. It's logical, something that I didn't see much of in his previous endeavours. That they thought far enough in advance to begin an irreversible blood rite on them is even more impressive; it means they can't be given back to their original families—it means they really are purebloods—because they're blood's been mostly replaced—and that they'll always be wizards."

"What if their adopted parents are muggle-born?" Harry asked. It was true what Malfoy had said; he really had meant to figure out what Malfoy would think about all the orphans being muggle-born. If he were honest with himself, he would admit that he'd expected Malfoy to rant about them tricking the rest of society.

"You're either a wizard or not," Malfoy said with disdain. "Two magical parents make you pure-blooded. One makes you a half-blood. None and you're a Mudblood." He shrugged.

"If you don't think there's a difference in blood," Harry finally said in exasperation, "then why do you still say 'Mudblood'?" He wanted to stomp his foot. Malfoy was such a contradiction.

Malfoy's eyebrows rose, not expecting Harry to actually say the word. "Just a general insult," he said with a shrug. "Like you'd call me a git, I'd call you a half-blood. There are wizards who really believe muggle-born blood is of lesser quality than pureblood—my father probably included—but the only thing that concerns me is ignorance of our culture—Tracey Davis is muggle-born, but I've never called her a Mudblood. That's because she acts and thinks as a witch should act and think—not like a muggle-born transcended into a new world."

They reached the Arithmancy door just as Harry remembered to say, 'Oh'. He stood there, unsure of what to do or say next, when once again, Malfoy made it easy for him.

"I've told you my part," the blond said. "It's your turn next. You've got Snape on your side, and he's an arse even to Slytherins in the privacy of our common room; there's no reason for you to reject me now. Especially because you just don't like me."

"I still don't know what exactly you want," Harry prevaricated, momentarily shocked with what Malfoy had said of Snape. There was no way Snape was on his side.

Malfoy scoffed. Good-naturedly, even. "Your information."

"My information is worth far more than your views on magical blood," Harry answered disdainfully.

Malfoy narrowed his eyes. "Believe me, Black," he said, deliberately using the name, "you'd rather have me on your side than the other, no matter what you think. And besides," he added jovially, as he opened the door and cancelled the silencing spell, "I might even be persuaded into throwing in a picture of my father for your little project. I expect we have a truce now."

Harry, stunned, followed him into the classroom. He looked around the room, seeing only two empty seats—

"Oh look," Malfoy added to him in a quietly mocking voice. "We'll have to sit together this class, shan't we? No time like the present to get started on our Arithmancy project, is there, old boy?"

Harry groaned, rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses, and hoped that he just hadn't landed himself into more than he could handle.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Subterfuge: (n) 1. An artifice or expedient used to evade a rule, escape a consequence, hide something, etc. 2. A deceptive stratagem or device.

ɤɣɤ

Sitting next to Malfoy for another Arithmancy class was just as infuriating as Harry would have expected it to be. Malfoy found a way to turn nearly every part of the lesson into an opportunity to wrestle information from Harry; Harry, in turn, found it increasingly more difficult to not fall into the traps.

Malfoy could just be so subtle sometimes—asking seemingly innocent questions and garnering information from the most innocuous of answers. By the end of class, Harry had received three dirty looks from Professor Vector for shushing Malfoy and had learned nearly nothing of Arithmancy.

As he was already behind, having been moved into the advanced class due to no other fifth- to seventh-year students taking the beginners' class, it was starting to look dire for his grade in not only this class, but for this term's Arithmantic potions in Snape's class.

The reason Malfoy offered for this, when Harry once muttered a complaint about Snape assigning work that not all his students had a prerequisite class in, was that all magical-raised children had a basic understanding of Arithmancy, like all muggle-raised children had a basic understanding of mathematics. Even Ron, Malfoy had sneered, would have been able to fumble through the advanced equations without having to take the class. More than ever, Harry hated that he'd been denied the opportunity to grow up in his world.

And that, even, was a new thought to him. Hogwarts had always been home to him, but over the course of the last year, he'd come to realise that the wizarding world in general was home to him as well. He held no remorse for his lost time in the muggle world. It was a startling realisation, forcefully interrupted with another smooth question from Malfoy.

By the time class had ended, Harry was exhausted from having to guard his conversation so much. Hermione never made it to class; Harry presumed she was still meeting with Smith's mother, so he was able to ditch Malfoy quickly when Professor Vector dismissed them.

He should go back to the common room, he knew, but Ron would be getting back from his Monday Divination class and he just didn't feel up to hearing about it. He felt guilty for the thought, but his exhaustion outweighed it.

The Arithmancy classroom was on the first floor and Harry made a split decision to go left, out of the castle, instead of right and up the stairs to the tower. It was late October, only five days until Halloween, and the air was crisp and chilly. Harry wrapped his Gryffindor scarf tighter around his neck and mouth and headed out onto the grounds, towards the lake and away from the bustle of student life.

It was a good time for flying, Harry thought, with the wind blowing gently. It would be a perfect time to practise that new move Gwydion Fionhwyr—the up-and-coming new Seeker who was predicted to lead the Welsh Greens to the World Cup in a year or two—had done in his first professional game last season.

In a dire-looking game against the Harpies, Fionhwyr had avoiding an impending crash with three other players by doing a back-flip on his broom underneath one of the Greens' Chasers, catching the Snitch on his rebound—still upside-down. He and Ron had spent hours during sixth year trying to master it, and surprisingly, Ron had done better than Harry, but they both could have used some practise.

With a sigh, Harry abandoned the idea. His broom was in his room and all of the windows were locked up; there would be no end to McGonagall's wrath if he broke one trying to summon it to him. He chose a tree to settle under instead, in hopes that he could get some studying done. He needed to at least reread the last chapter in his Arithmancy text since he'd missed so much of the lesson.

The only problem with this plan was that Harry didn't understand a damned bit of it. He thought of Theodore Nott and Hermione—the only two who had been able to explain any of it to him—and wished that they were around, but then remembered that he still wasn't sure if he approved of Nott or not.

It wasn't long before he drifted off, and, with that, he found himself staring straight into red eyes.

"Do you often fall asleep so unprotected?" Voldemort asked him with a curious cock of his head. "Had I known, I would have waited for you to drift off in the park near your muggles' house," he added with a smirk.

Harry, awake even as he was asleep, needed no time to come to his senses like one often did when waking up. He blinked at Voldemort in mock confusion. "Why would you want to do that?" he asked innocently.

He didn't know what was prompting this indifference to the Dark Lord, but the more this happened, the more amusing he found it. After all, how many others could say they experienced visions from Voldemort and remained sane enough—or alive enough—to tell it? Or not tell it, as the case may be.

Voldemort smirked at him and made a show of looking around at his surroundings. It was at this time that Harry realised they weren't in the old drawing room wherever Voldemort lived, but in the exact spot he'd fallen asleep. "Are you really here?" he asked, somewhat fearfully.

He'd always known the other meetings were not conducted in the physical world since he always came to Voldemort, but Voldemort had come to him this time, and it worried him, as it rightly should have.

"Not in the way you expect," Voldemort answered. "Do you really think I could have made it onto the school grounds without Dumbledore knowing of it?"

Harry shook his head, but his doubt remained. "You're quite powerful," he offered. "I wouldn't be as surprised as I once would have been."

"Quite," Voldemort replied, and it almost seemed as if he were preening.

When he said nothing else, only stared, Harry cleared his throat and added, "How is it that you knew when I was asleep?"

"Your mind is wide open," Voldemort obliged him chidingly. "I wanted to speak to you, so I merely opened our link and waited."

"Oh," Harry said, and then, "What did you want to talk to me about?"

"You have no manners whatsoever," Voldemort said instead, and then conjured a wingback chair to settle into—right on the school grounds. Harry felt like blushing, and forced his face to cool before it became too hot. How absurd that he would feel discomfited for neglecting to be hospitable when in audience with Voldemort.

"It has come to my attention," Voldemort began after he was comfortable enough, "that the Dementors have outsmarted us."

"Pardon?" Harry asked, bewildered.

"The Dementors, you stupid boy," Voldemort said with a roll of his eyes. "My colleague, Yaxley—you know the one," Voldemort gestured vaguely. "He deals with magical creatures."

"Oh, him," Harry returned with his own eye roll. "What's he have to say about the Dementors then?" Both of them, Harry suspected, were being overly casual for this sort of conversation, but defence mechanisms were like that.

"Yaxley swears they've begun the breeding process," Voldemort said. "That shouldn't have started until the summer equinox. The whole thing is terribly overwrought with Arithmancy and whatnot—it's incredible that they've changed their schedule."

"Incredible wouldn't be the word I'd use," Harry admitted slowly. "More like 'horrifying' or 'disastrous'."

"Those as well," Voldemort admitted pointedly. "It'll be months before the Arithmantists figure it out and report it to the media. By then, the Dementors will have moved on to the second stage of the process, which, as you might fear, is the pre-feeding."

Harry shuddered. His heart was beating madly in his chest, pumping adrenaline throughout his body in response to his sudden fear. He couldn't think of anything more frightening than the Dementor breeding season.

Swallowing, he asked the important question—the one he would have avoided at all costs before Voldemort became this much of a fixture in his life. "How many…erm, people will it take to feed them?"

"Not as many as you would think," Voldemort answered. "For all of the European Dementors, it will take five hundred souls; a full soul isn't needed, and all of the Dementors used to administer a Kiss before won't need to feed."

"And what about everywhere else?"

"The Asian wizards have been using convicts for this purpose for the last three breeding seasons. They'll do the same this time and I imagine the Americans will as well after they do some research and realise what a disaster it was for the Europeans last time—when they tried to ignore it and ended up with thousands of dead. I believe they called it a plague."

"But with all this breeding," Harry said quickly, "won't the Dementor population skyrocket? We can't simply let them multiply so quickly."

"Certainly not," Voldemort said. "The Dementors have always been static in their numbers. Their race is sacrificial in that for every Dementor that will be born, not only does a human soul have to die, but another Dementor must die as well, so that all his consumed souls may be released again."

"So there will be dead Dementors lying everywhere?" Harry asked.

Voldemort smiled grimly. "Creating quite a stench of death, I imagine. Their bones are highly valued in the potion market, however."

"So what are you going to do about it?" Harry asked.

"What am I going to do about it?" Voldemort asked, eyebrows raised. "Surely you don't think this a job for one person."

"I was hoping, at least, that I wouldn't need to be involved," Harry admitted, feeling slightly nauseated.

Voldemort laughed cynically. "We shall see," he said. "Yaxley is currently drafting a list of possible Azkaban inmates to evacuate for the process. There are roughly two thousand prisoners in Azkaban right now, many who've been there for sixty years or more."

"So you're just going to do…what?" Harry asked, now getting angry. "A lottery or something? Grab a few of the ones who're insane anyway and feed their souls to a Dementor? They'll never reincarnate if you do that! If you do that, then it'll mean that these people—who've spent most of their lives in that wretched place—won't get a chance to have a new life. That's not on."

Voldemort's eyes narrowed in displeasure. "Did I not say a list?" he asked mockingly. "I believe I said Yaxley was making a list. In deference to you," he sneered, "and your ethics, we will be choosing inmates based on their accused crimes."

"What right do you have to play God and Executioner?" Harry asked.

"I will gladly surrender the right of judgement to you, should you so request it," Voldemort replied easily.

Shuddering, Harry shook his head and backed off; like most people, he'd rather just not know anything about it. "How will you get them out of Azkaban without the Ministry finding out?" Harry asked, thinking of Lucius Malfoy.

"That, I'm afraid, is a trade secret," Voldemort replied. "Were you more adept at Occlumency, I might've told you, but as you are not…" he trailed off, then seemed to remember something. "Have you been called to Dumbledore's office at all this year?"

"No," Harry said, shaking his head. He and Dumbledore weren't as close as they had been before fifth year. He tried not to think ill of the Headmaster, but, if only to himself, he had to admit that he was still upset about the events of that year. The real Sirius might be alive, but someone else was dead, and then there was that whole prophecy, which frightened him when he had enough time to think of it.

Voldemort nodded, looking thoughtful. "Be sure that you don't make eye contact if he does happen to do so, but for the love of Merlin," he added, "don't make it obvious that you are avoiding it. Be meek if you must. Or sullen, as is more fitting of a teenager."

Harry sneered. "I'm not sullen," he said, but took the advice to heart. He really should learn Occlumency, he thought. Even if he had to beg Snape to teach him.

Voldemort smirked slightly. "Of course not."

Feeling sullen and disgruntled because of it, Harry tugged on the grass next to him and began systematically tearing it apart. "Draco Malfoy approached me," he said a minute later. "He suspects I'm up to something and wants to know what it is."

"I assumed he might," Voldemort replied. "He's a clever child; much cleverer than his father, I dare say." This last was accompanied by a wry twist of the lips.

Harry pursed his lips. Why was it that no one would tell him anything?

"There was nothing to tell," Voldemort answered, pointedly looking at Harry's forehead. Grimacing, Harry tried to block his mind, but gave it up as a bad job after only a minute or so of trying. When he was done, Voldemort continued, "I have simply known him longer than you, and better than you. I know his ways. You know most of my plans, theories and ideas, and those you don't know are because they are too sensitive to be stored in an un-blocked mind."

"And if I could?" Harry countered, frustrated.

"Then you would know," Voldemort replied, then amended, "most of them."

Rolling his eyes, Harry knew he'd never win this one. Instead, he brought the subject back around to Malfoy. "What's he up to?"

"Draco?" Voldemort asked, as if he couldn't read it right out of Harry's head. "He's saving himself, of course."

"Can I trust him?"

"Certainly not," Voldemort answered with a strange laugh. "That is, until you give him a reason to trust you." At Harry's confused look, Voldemort obliged him. "While most Slytherin children are brought up by their parents to behave in a Slytherin manner, Draco was not. His mother was a Ravenclaw and his father wanted little to do with him, the only ideal instilled into him by a parent was to enjoy learning. His nannies and tutors were all Hufflepuffs or au pairs—certainly not the type to preach ambition and cunning. But instead, he has a strange, corrupted sense of learning, determination and loyalty."

"Then why was he sorted Slytherin and not another house?" Harry asked. He had to temporarily disregard the information on Draco's background. Though it wasn't especially revealing or interesting, it was more than he'd previously known of Malfoy. Loyalty indeed.

Voldemort was contemplative before answering, "I truly believe that Draco was born Slytherin; it cannot be any other way—he is Slytherin, to be sure, but only by nature. You could say that he is perhaps a raw, unrefined Slytherin. It is perhaps why he is so brash at times."

Harry nodded, soaking it all in and trying to apply it to the Malfoy he knew. "So what would it take to make him trust me enough that I could trust him?"

That he even wanted that was a shock to Harry, but now that he'd admitted it to himself, he realised that it was true. Voldemort, perhaps out of some skewed sense of fondness for him, refrained from commenting on it.

"That, I cannot answer," Voldemort replied with a shrug. "I've not found it myself, might as I have tried."

"Is that why you said nothing when I refused him the Mark before school?" Harry asked. He had thought that Voldemort, wrapped around his shoulders in his animagus form, would have hissed a reprimand to him and made him give Malfoy the Mark anyway.

"Partly," Voldemort answered. "And partly because he's not mine to Mark. He never has been and he never will be, no matter how much he does or does not agree with what I do."

That didn't make much sense to Harry, but hardly anything Voldemort said ever did, so he just accepted it. Like with Dumbledore, oddly enough, Harry would probably understand Voldemort when the time came. Strange how two people so unalike could have such startling similarities.

He did, however, need a direct answer for one question, so he voiced it quite plainly. "So, what should I do?"

"Tell him what he wants to know," Voldemort replied.

Harry scoffed. "What? Just like that? You just said only a minute ago not to trust him."

"I said that you couldn't trust him," Voldemort replied dryly. "I didn't say not to trust him."

"It's the same thing!" Harry exclaimed. The only response he received was two raised eyebrows—and, Harry wondered, had Voldemort always had eyebrows? He seemed to remember the Dark Lord not having any at all.

"Fine—so I should, what?" Harry said. "Trust him with this information but nothing else?"

"With this information certainly," Voldemort said, shrugging. "Anything else at your discretion, I think."

"Why?"

"Because," Voldemort answered slowly, as if he were speaking to small child, "Draco is loyal to his family. He won't outright betray them, though he might disobey them. There is no way that he could bring anything about the two of us to light without also condemning his father. He knows this."

Harry scoffed. "Everyone still thinks Lucius Malfoy's in Azkaban. They already know he's a Death Eater."

"Perhaps," Voldemort allowed, "but this time you have me on your side, and Lucius Malfoy is my current ransom."

"Malfoy would never consider that; if anything, he'd think it would gain him favour with you to turn me over."

Voldemort chuckled. "You give him too little credit, Harry. He'll figure it out soon enough. Additionally, you've done nothing that warrants trial or arrest."

"Right," Harry said. He looked around him and saw that the sun was beginning to set, and that his arms were covered in goose-flesh. When had he gotten cold, and how had he not even realised it?

"Anything else?" Voldemort asked. Harry shook his head. "Very well. I came merely to warn you of the Dementors. I fear that you will notice strange things in the Prophet and felt I should warn you; now I must be getting back. Lucius is due by and wouldn't it be terribly embarrassing if he were to find me slumped over my writing desk, possibly drooling?"

Harry tried for a laugh, but it came out weak. He was suddenly tired.

"Oh, and Harry," Voldemort said, almost softly. Harry looked up expectantly, exhaustedly. "See that you don't get hurt on Saturday. You should know that the veil between the living and the dead is quite thin on All Hallow's Eve; you wouldn't want to make it easy for the unrestful to…find a new home in you."

Voldemort's disappearance was sudden—a moment he was there and then the next he wasn't. Tired and irritated, Harry flopped back against his tree. This was getting to be entirely too confusing—perhaps more confusing than his Arithmancy homework. Not to mention the stupid project he would be doing with Malfoy; that alone would take the better part of the year to complete and they hadn't even started yet. He didn't even know what Voldemort meant by that parting comment.

"Harry?"

Harry sat up very quickly and looked wildly around the area. Hermione was standing several feet away, partially hidden by the overgrowth around that side of the lake, looking frightened, but as if the final piece of an elaborate puzzle had just fallen into place without her having to do any work at all.

"It's not what you think," he said quickly, which, he realised, was probably the worst thing he could have said. It, probably, was what she thought, and on top of that, the stupid thing he said was almost always a dead giveaway.

He had no idea she'd seen anything at all, anyway. Voldemort would probably have been invisible and inaudible to her and he'd just said the one thing that would have raised her suspicions. It was likely that she'd just been worried about not being able to find him. Damn it, he thought.

"What do you think I think?" Hermione asked shrewdly.

Harry winced. "I don't know."

Hermione's lips tightened into a thin line. "You were talking to someone," she said.

"I wasn't," Harry insisted. "Only myself."

Hermione scoffed. "You've never talked to yourself." Harry—remembering times in his cupboard as a young boy, when he'd been so lonely he could have sworn he heard his mother speaking to him—begged to differ. He'd certainly talked back sometimes, desperate as he was for human—or even ethereal—contact. "Who were you talking to?"

"No one," Harry repeated. "I was talking to myself."

Hermione laughed shakily; she was scared, Harry could see, but she was standing her ground. How Gryffindor of her, he thought. No wonder she wasn't put in Ravenclaw. She took a step forward, arms wrapped around herself, whether from the cold or something else, and said, "You often talk to yourself about Dementors?"

Harry didn't like that she was afraid because she was afraid of him right then. She was afraid of what she'd heard, and he realised with a sinking feeling that she'd heard a lot. Too much. Maybe enough, with what she might have heard back at Grimmauld Place, before school, to put it all together.

He was starting to get scared himself. Would he lose one of his best friends over this? The thought had floated into the back of his mind once or twice, but he'd always put it off, thinking, for some reason, that they would never need to find out. That the war could be won—even avoided—before they ever had to find out. He pulled his legs to his chest and wrapped his arms around his knees.

"They're about to breed," Harry replied. "You know that."

Hermione nodded slowly. "Yes," she said. "But not for a few more months—and Dumbledore's got a plan to avoid any loss of life."

"That's impossible," Harry muttered before he could stop himself. "Europe tried that last time, and it didn't work. Thousands of people were Kissed when only a few hundred needed to be. You can't starve a Dementor—they'll need three times as many souls to be satisfied when they finally do eat."

"What?" Hermione asked. "Says who?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."

Hermione was nearly on top of him in three long strides. "I do," she said icily. "What's going on?"

Harry stubbornly remained unhelpful. "No. I'm not talking about with you."

"Then who were you talking about it with?" Hermione insisted. "Who would you have to talk to about Death Eaters and Dementors and Draco Malfoy? Who would you be asking advice from, about what you should and shouldn't tell Malfoy? What shouldn't you tell him?"

"A lot of things," Harry said. He was getting angry now and his voice reflected it. What right did Hermione have to demand this of him when she could see that he didn't want to talk about it? "He's a Slytherin and a little Death Eater; there are lots of things I shouldn't tell him."

"Apparently," Hermione grit out. "And yet, you seem to be contemplating telling him something quite important. And tell me this, Harry," she added in a low voice, "Who are you afraid Malfoy would turn you over to?"

"No one," Harry answered immediately. At least he could give Hermione one honest answer. Even if Malfoy turned Harry over to Voldemort, he wouldn't be harmed. He knew that, somehow, and even his lingering fear of Voldemort was based only on surprise and wariness, not true fear for his life or those of his friends.

Hermione took a step back. "That's what I was afraid of," she said, breathing shakily. "There's no one you're afraid of anymore. You said it yourself after the Order meeting before school—when you were talking to Sirius in the kitchen. You said, 'I’d never be a Death Eater, but you can’t tell me you still trust Dumbledore completely, can you?' And you said you'd have power to veto…veto what, Harry?"

"You heard that? You said you didn't hear anything."

"I said I didn't hear much," Hermione corrected. "And at the time, even if it was a strange thing to say, I didn't think it meant anything. I didn't think it meant you were consorting with…with Voldemort!" she hissed.

Harry looked around them quickly to make sure there was no one else around. "Shh!" he hissed back. "I'm not!"

"Where did that chair come from then?" Hermione asked shrewdly.

Harry followed her line of sight to the leather wingback chair still sitting in the dying grass and inhaled quickly. Fucking Voldemort, he thought. He stood, not bothering to shake the dead leaves from his cloak, Vanished it with a wave of his wand, and stepped toward her. She hastily stepped back, and Harry's heart sunk.

"Hermione—Hermione, no! I'm not going to hurt you," he pleaded. "Just—just wait. Listen."

Hermione's eyes were wild, and her hand was reaching into her cloak for her wand even as he spoke, but she remained where she was—tensed and ready to strike, but she still remained.

Hastily, Harry erected the same silencing spell Malfoy had used when they were walking to Arithmancy together. He reached out to touch her arm, but she jerked it away, so he settled for looking at her pleadingly. "I'm not a Death Eater," he said.

"I know," Hermione said. She nodded once to his arm. "I've seen you in short-sleeved shirts. I know there's no Mark."

"Then why are you scared?"

"Because!" Hermione exclaimed. "Because you've been talking to Voldemort—probably through that link in your scar—and you've…you've been planning with him, or…or, I don't even know! But I know that it doesn't sound right. Why shouldn't I be scared?"

"To save people!" Harry insisted.

Hermione scoffed, showing her bravery again. "Voldemort doesn't save people," she said.

"I know," Harry said quickly. "I know, but I do, and sometimes he's willing to take another route—one that'll keep people from dying—to get what he wants done, and when I talk to him, I can convince him sometimes. Sometimes, I can get him to do what he wants to do another way."

"And when he doesn't listen to you?" she asked nastily.

Harry shook his head in frustration. "I don't know. It's never happened. Whenever I've argued enough with him, he's always compromised."

"Compromised?" Hermione asked incredulously. "Compromised? You can't compromise with people's lives!"

"I know!"

Hermione paused, mouth already open to retort, and looked at him. "What are you doing?" she asked instead, voice strangely calm.

Harry ran his hands through his hair and felt more than ever like the red dye on the end was blood on his fingers. "Trying to save the world," he said in exhaustion. The self-mockery of the statement did no escape him.

Hermione glanced around them then, as if she, too, were afraid someone would spy on them. "From who?"

Harry bit his lip. From who, indeed. He, honestly, was no longer worried about Voldemort destroying it or its people, and he still, even with their disagreements, thought Dumbledore was doing what he thought best. And Dumbledore's ideas were usually sound—to be honest, he would have thought the headmaster's idea for the Dementor breeding season was a good one. It was only that he'd heard the horror story from Voldemort first, and that he'd secretly looked it up in the library afterwards: Voldemort hadn't been lying; it really had been as bad as he'd said the last time the Dementors bred.

And how could Dumbledore not have known that? Harry couldn't answer that, but he still thought Dumbledore had everyone's best interests at heart. So who did that leave him to save the world from? The answer wasn't as surprising as it should have been.

"From itself," he finally answered.

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked.

"We're dying out," he answered. "Or—maybe not dying out, but our numbers are falling. We need to not only stop that from happening, but also to increase the number of magical children. How can we do that when some pure-bloods—and even some half-bloods—are refusing to marry muggle-born wizards?"

"They should overcome their prejudices," Hermione answered immediately. "They—"

"Do you know, Malfoy told me something earlier today," Harry interrupted. "He said he's not prejudiced against muggle-born, he—"

"That's absurd!"

"He said," Harry continued, "that Tracey Davis is muggle-born and he'd never call her…you know. That word. He said that he doesn't mind muggle-born students so long as they don't hold back the rest of the class, and so long as they accept their magic and the culture that goes with it."

"Muggle-born shouldn't have to accept a whole culture just to go to school at Hogwarts!" Hermione insisted.

"And should the pure-bloods and other magical-raised students have to relearn Levitation charms and other first- through third-year spells just because the muggle-born students don't know them?" Harry asked.

"No," Hermione admitted. "But," she added, "if the muggle-born students would have studied like I had, they would have been able to catch up with the other students in no time."

"Maybe," Harry allowed. "Maybe not. And what about the wizarding culture? What right do muggle-born wizards have to come in and try to overhaul magical traditions and customs that have been in place for centuries?"

"They don't all do that," Hermione said.

"Some do," Harry said. "And what about the no under-aged magic rule? How fair is that to the magical-raised children that they can't learn basic spells under the supervision of a parent before Hogwarts?"

Hermione narrowed her eyes. "You just said that the magical-raised students were already ahead of the muggle-born students when they came to Hogwarts."

"Not all of them," Harry said. "Ron wasn't. Ron didn't know any spells, remember? Remember that first time on the train when he thought that terrible poem might be a spell to turn Scabbers yellow? He didn't even know the basics of spell-casting…he didn't even know the theory, when, only fifty years ago, he would have been able to do most household charms, several defence spells and a couple of trick jinxes."

"And how is Ron different from other pure-bloods?"

"Parents," Harry said with a shrug. "There are some parents who are willing to remove the magic-tracking charm the Ministry requires on all new wands. Then, there are some, like the Weasleys, who aren't, and who—no matter how good their intentions—are only holding their children back."

"The Weasleys are good people, Harry," Hermione firmly said. "The laws are in place for a reason—you can't just ignore them."

"I can't, no," Harry said. "And neither can you, but that was because we lived with muggles—which was why that particular law was put into the books half a century ago."

"Then what can you expect to do about it?"

"Right now?" Harry said. "Right now I'm doing nothing—but someone is." Hermione, by the look she gave him, didn't need to ask who that someone was. At least she didn't look scared anymore. She'd calmed herself by now, and she was actually listening. Harry had no hopes that she would immediately agree with him, but if he could get out of this conversation and still have his best friend, that was enough for him.

"I know you've been following the articles on the orphans," Harry said slowly.

"Every day," Hermione affirmed. "It's probably the only series of unbiased reporting in the Daily Prophet in years."

Harry neither agreed nor disagreed with that. It was irrelevant. "And I know that, even if you didn't at first, you are beginning to think that it's a good idea."

Hermione looked at her feet. "I feel terrible—it's not right that children are stolen from their real parents, but…but there are so many wizarding families who want them…and who'll take good care of them and teach them well. It's like—this really is one of those rock and hard-place situations. On one hand, I want them to be given a choice, and on the other, I can't help but wish the same had happened to me…that I won't eventually have to choose between this world and my…my family."

Harry nodded. Even though he wouldn't have to make the same choice—he had no love for his muggle family—he understood what she meant.

"And whose idea do you think that was?" he finally asked. "Something like that—that takes a lot of magical power—do you realise how exhausting it would be to begin a blood rite on a dozen children every week? This wasn't something done on a whim, I'm sure you've realised. Something like that—it takes a lot of planning, a lot of research to make sure that no muggle-born child is remembered by any muggle. Dumbledore's not doing it—or sanctioning it—so who do you think is?"

Hermione looked away. "I don't want to agree with anything He does," she said in a small voice. "I don't want to agree with anyone who thinks I'm a lower life-form than you or Ron."

"You're not," Harry said shaking his head. "And he doesn't think you are. He fears you—he, and most of his Death Eaters, are afraid that one day you'll go back to the muggle world and take all of our secrets with you…that maybe we'll get exposed, and we'll have nowhere to hide any longer."

Hermione was quiet for several long, terrifying moments. Harry didn't know whether she was thinking over what he said or thinking about what the easiest way to stop him would be. Or worse—what if she were thinking about telling Dumbledore? There was nothing—legally—that could be done to Harry. He hadn't done anything wrong—unless the Ministry wanted to try him for being an accomplice, but even that was shaky since Voldemort had been so inactive, and besides, they had no proof, or even evidence.

What if Hermione wanted nothing to do with him after this? She'd accepted a lot about him over the past year, starting with his, admittedly uneventful coming-out. Harry had not worried about most of his friends being upset over his sexuality, but as Hermione was raised as a muggle, he'd worried, at first, that she might not approve of it. She'd thought nothing of it, though, and a load had been taken off Harry's shoulders. Even the Daily Prophet had only mentioned it in passing when they heard of it, but Hermione had also easily accepted Sirius—both being alive and Harry's father—and various other minute little things that had happened recently.

Would this prove to be too much for her? Two years ago, it would have been too much for him, too—even a year ago, he would have had a few doubts.

Hermione surprised him again when she finally looked up at him and said, with determination, "You can't tell Ron."

"I know," Harry said, fighting a smile. They were going to be okay; they—

"I mean it," Hermione said. "Ron can't know about this. It would devastate him; it would—I don't even know, but he's not ready for this. Maybe—Harry, I'm not fully comfortable with this; I'm still not sure what to think, but I'm going to think about it and consider what you've said—"

"Thank you," Harry said emphatically.

Hermione pursed her lips. "I'm not saying I agree with any of this, just that I'm willing to think about it, and should—should I have more questions, I expect immediate and honest answers."

"Of course," Harry said. Any minute, he was going to break out into a huge grin.

"In addition, should I decide in your favour, I want to be a part of this. You can't keep trying to, as you say, 'save the world' without help, and I want to be there to make sure…Harry, most of the time, I trust your judgement, but this is something I think you'll need help with. You could make a mistake so easily, and a mistake in this could be disastrous."

Harry nodded. "And if you decide against me?" he asked.

Hermione looked at him sadly. "Then I want you to Obliviate me."

"What?" Harry asked, aghast.

Hermione shook her head. "You're my friend, Harry, always. I don't want to resent you for doing something I don't approve of, and I don't want to be in danger because I know too much about something I don't approve of."

"You wouldn't tell Dumbledore?"

Hermione shook her head again. "I won't be the reason for your downfall, Harry, if you ever have one."

Harry's eyebrows shot up and an icy chill went down his spine. He didn't even know what to think, but the grin that had been waiting to show itself for the last few minutes disappeared and was replaced with the desire to look away from her. "Right," he said, desolate.

"We'll talk about this later," she said. "Right now, we need to go. I was sent down here to fetch you; Zacharias' mother wants to see you, and Professor Dumbledore has asked to speak with you afterwards."

"Both of them?" Harry asked. "Why?"

Hermione shrugged and began walking back towards the castle. "Mrs Smith asked to speak to an assortment of twenty students, and your name was drawn from the Sorting Hat. I've no idea why Professor Dumbledore wants to see you."

Harry grabbed his school books and hurried to catch up, once again noticing how cold it was getting. He wrapped his cloak tighter around himself as he fell into step with her. "Oh," he said. "Um, Hermione—are…are we okay?"

She looked at him briefly, and then returned her gaze forward. "Yes," she said. "Either way, I expect we'll be okay."

Harry smiled, and decided that a change of topic was in order. He wasn't much for gossip, but there was one thing that had been bugging him. "You and Nott seem to work well together," he said.

He saw Hermione smile out of the corner of his eye and then quickly hide it. "He's very intelligent—and pragmatic. Not hard to get along with."

"Yes, but you seem to get on especially well with him," Harry insisted. He grinned and elbowed her lightly. "Aren't you even going to the Halloween party with him?"

Hermione huffed. "I waited for Ron to ask, but he seems to be with Lavender again, and I didn't want to go alone…"

"Right," Harry said. "Ron can be an idiot."

"I know," Hermione said.

"Erm, maybe," Harry suggested, "maybe you'd be better off with someone not prone to fits of idiocy?"

Hermione glanced at him again. "Are you…giving your blessing?"

"Is there anything to give it for?" Harry asked cheekily.

"No," Hermione said immediately. Then, "Maybe. He's not exceptionally handsome, I admit, but Theo—"

"Theo?" Harry asked with a laugh.

Hermione slapped his arm and bit her lip to hide a smile. "Theo," she emphasised, "is attractive in a boyish way, I think, and his intelligence more than makes up for the lack of well-developed biceps."

Harry laughed. "I never knew you were into well-developed biceps," he said. They were approaching the steps to the castle now and he couldn't wait to get back into the warmth of indoors—even if it did mean he had to go to a meeting or two.

"I'm not," Hermione said, and then turned the conversation around on him just as they entered the castle. "And what about you? Going with Bellatrix Lestrange's daughter—I suppose I can see how that wouldn't bother you now," she added softly, and then forced herself to perk up, adding, "but—still, she's a girl."

Harry shrugged. "I would've gone stag otherwise, if I went at all." Hermione gave him a sharp look at that. She was very insistent that both he and Ron participate in all major school functions. Harry cleared his throat. "I wasn't really interested in anyone."

"What about Seamus?" Hermione asked shrewdly.

Harry blushed. "That—I don't know. I'm not sure if that's going anywhere, and Alsace had already asked…or, rather, told me I was going with her."

Hermione smiled. "I think I heard Seamus was going with Romilda Vane, anyway," she said, shrugging. "She, apparently, has a fetish for gay men."

Harry shuddered. That was possibly the most disturbing thing he'd ever heard, and, having been more than casual acquaintances with Voldemort for nearly two years, he'd heard some very disturbing things.

"Here we are," Hermione said and stopped. They were in front of the gargoyle hiding the entrance to Dumbledore's office. "Blood lollies," she said with a grimace and it slid back, revealing the spiral staircase. "I have to go now; Theo and I have several last-minute details to sort out for Halloween on Saturday."

With a timid smile, she turned and walked back the way they came. Harry took a deep breath; at least they would be okay. He didn't want to think about how he would feel if he had to Obliviate her, so he just focused on the fact that everything seemed to be looking pretty positive. Now, all he had to do was face Yasmin Smith and Dumbledore. Yasmin, he could handle; she liked him fairly well.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Subterfuge: (n) 1. An artifice or expedient used to evade a rule, escape a consequence, hide something, etc. 2. A deceptive stratagem or device.

ɤɣɤ

When Harry entered Dumbledore's office, he found it to be in total jovial chaos. Not only was the headmaster and Mrs Smith there, but, oddly enough, so was his Defence teacher, Mrs Sinclair, and another man, who looked to be of Germanic descent. The headmaster, along with the two women, was holding his stomach and laughing so hard his face was red and his glasses were falling down his nose as the foreign man spoke rapidly in a harsh language, gesturing to his head and face as he did.

It died down as Harry stepped into the room, clearing his throat, and Professor Dumbledore wiped his eyes with his hands. "Harry," he said with a smile. "Have you met Professor Sinclair's husband, Vlad? He's here visiting his wife and, apparently, the two are quite good friends with Zacharias Smith's mother, Yasmin, whom I believe you've met."

Harry returned a nod and smile to Mrs Smith before looking back to the Germanic man. It was hard to identify this harsh, broad-shouldered man with the silly, lovable idiot Professor Sinclair often prattled on about.

His head, on the other hand, confirmed it: He was bald, hair just growing back from what looked to be a bad trimming charm, and one of his hands was bandaged. Remembering the story about Vlad's faulty rabbit-skinning spell, Harry fought to contain a smile. He lost.

"I've heard a lot about you," he said as he extended his hand. Vlad huffed sullenly as they shook.

"I expect you have," he said in faultless English. "My lovely wife loves to air my dirty laundry."

Harry laughed. "Always in a nice way," he admitted, glancing at his petite teacher. She was grinning back at him.

"We were just catching up with an old friend," Professor Sinclair added, nodding at Mrs Smith. "But we'll be going now, and leave you to your interviews, Yazzy."

"Nonsense," Mrs Smith said, standing. "Mr Black here is the last one; we can afford to all take a walk together. I'm sure Harry would love to hear Vlad's latest story," she added, nodding at Mr Sinclair's bandaged hand.

Harry couldn't deny that, but he was loath to say it aloud. He simply nodded. Having no idea what Zacharias' mother wanted to ask him, he really didn't want to be left alone with her. He would have enough to worry about with Dumbledore afterwards.

"If you're sure," Professor Sinclair said.

Mrs Smith nodded. "Of course. Headmaster," she said, turning to him, "we'll have Mr Black back to you within the hour, and then I'll be out of your hair."

Dumbledore waved her off. "You are always welcome here, Mrs Smith."

She smiled and led them to the door. "Thank you," she said. "Harry, if you will?"

Harry followed her out the door, followed himself by the Sinclairs, and rode the staircase back to the bottom. Mrs Smith wasted no time; she started walking towards the staircases, and Harry walked with her, hands in his pockets, waiting for her to speak.

"How do you like school?" she finally asked, smiling. "What's your favourite class?"

Harry glanced at Professor Sinclair, who was walking on the other side of him with her husband. "Defence has always been my favourite," he admitted, blushing for some reason. "Even though in the past, the teachers have been…erm, not good."

"So I've heard," Mrs Smith said with a frown. "It's why I recommended my good friend Mercy, here, for the post. I've known her since we were both little girls at Beauxbatons and with Vlad here," she added with a grin, "she's had plenty of experience defending against the Dark Arts."

Vlad rolled his eyes, accepting the jibe good-naturedly, and ran his bandaged hand over his bald head. Poor guy. "You went to Beauxbatons?" Harry asked the two women. "What was that like?"

It was his professor who answered. "More organised than Hogwarts," she admitted. "Less rivalry as well, but the education is roughly the same."

"Otherwise," Mrs Smith said, "I would never have sent Zacharias here. I did want him to attend my alma mater, but Xavier—you remember my husband, Xavier, Harry—insisted he continue the tradition at Hogwarts. He alleges that the Smiths are direct descendants of Helga Hufflepuff, but I've never bothered to confirm it," she said with a shrug.

Harry exhaled heavily, wishing he'd had parents to fight over where he went to school when he first came to Hogwarts. It was an empty thought, though, and he quickly gave it up.

"Don't bore the boy with your admittedly superior mother-henning and get to the point, Yazzy," Mr Sinclair added with another eye-roll. "I'm sure he has better things to do than listen to you prattle on about Zacharias, lovely boy though he is."

Mrs Smith narrowed her eyes. "I'm afraid I feel little remorse for your unfortunate outcome in the one-on-one Quidditch game with my son two years ago. You deserved everything you got for trying to use that hand-removing curse on him while he was on a broom."

Vlad rubbed his wrists subconsciously, and Harry could see that there was a faint scar all around the un-bandaged one. He snorted.

"He deserved it," Vlad insisted sadly. "The little brat blagged me, damn it, and that's illegal, any one you ask!"

Yasmin harrumphed. "He was only a boy having a bit of fun."

"What did you do to him?" Harry asked Mrs Smith eagerly, biting his lip to keep from laughing. He could just see Smith blagging someone, even if he'd never tried it in a Hogwarts game. "For trying to take off Zacharias' hands, I mean."

"Nothing," Yasmin admitted. "But I did let Zacharias reattach the detached one. He was only fifteen, you understand, and had no experience with healing spells, but I thought it as good a time as any to learn. Xavier and I were quite pleased when it only took him eleven tries to get it right."

Vlad shuddered. "One of these days…" he said ominously, and gave Yasmin a pointed look. She raised an eyebrow and then turned back to Harry.

"So, Mr Black—"

"You can call me Harry," he said as they reached the first staircase and began climbing it. "You're a friend of my father, after all."

Yasmin smiled warmly. "Thank you, Harry; Xavier and I quite liked Sirius. He seems to be doing a rather good job of parenting, especially given how little experience he has, and there is always time to learn."

Harry nodded; really, just about any father was better than none, but he thought he and Sirius were coming on all right anyway.

"So, Harry," Mrs Smith started again, "I'm sure Ms Granger explained to you why I was here. With all of the magical children being adopted, the Department of Education at the Ministry feels that there may soon be a need for a pre-Hogwarts school for some of them—those with working parents and such. I'm here to research everything that will be needed to make this happen. What do you think about this idea?"

Harry pushed his glasses up his nose while he thought. "It sounds like a good idea to me," he finally said. "What would you teach them?"

"Ah," Mrs Smith smiled, and led them off the stairs at the fourth-storey landing. "That is something I wanted to discuss with you, and have already discussed with some other students. We at the DoE are drafting a bit of legislation that would overturn, to an extent, the under-aged magic law. It would allow children to own a learner wand at the age of three, and after passing a written and practical exam at age eleven, use—with parental supervision, of course—a real wand outside of school.

"This is very exciting, as you may imagine, and already we have support from nearly a third of the Wizengamot. But the passing of this legislation is the foundation of the day-school. It will be of no use to us if the children can't have learner wands, but the Wizengamot will need a syllabus of intended lesson plans for each age-level before they even consider accepting the bill.

"What I'm here to find out," Mrs Smith concluded, "is which areas we need to focus on and which areas the students would like to focus on most, as, perhaps, an elective of sorts."

Harry nodded, thinking. "Someone told me in Arithmancy today that most magical-raised children, before that law was passed anyway, came to Hogwarts already knowing basic cleaning charms, a couple of trick jinxes and minor defence spells."

Professor Sinclair nodded. "Yes, my oldest sister—Yazzy, you remember my sister Grace—was allowed to have a learner wand before that law was instituted. I admit I was pleased for the first few months, when the hype was still there and she was too scared to charm my hair into snakes."

"Yes," Yasmin said, nodding. "I showed Zacharias the Hide-and-Seek spell when he was five, to use in case he was ever approached by anyone…unsavoury. But I had to show him with my wand, since learner wands are still prohibited here, and a lot of good it would have done him," she added with a slight growl.

"They're still allowed learner wands in Romania," Vlad spoke up. "I had one before I went to Durmstrang."

Everyone nodded as they approached the library. "Anyway," Mrs Smith continued, "We're planning to start the three- to five-year-olds with basic potion theory—maybe teach them a few fun elixirs to get them interested in the subject—and add in basic Arithmancy, house-hold charms and age-specific defence spells at age five. Of course, all ages will be taught the theory of magical sport and have Quidditch for play time, to encourage social skills and physical fitness. Field trips, also, were something I was hoping to squeeze in."

"Field trips," Professor Sinclair mused. "That's a good idea."

Harry nodded. "I would have loved a field trip. I've never been anywhere, really."

"Yes, I think so," Mrs Smith said. "Xavier and I took Zacharias to all sorts of places when he was young. It encourages a curious mind."

"Where are you going to build the school?" Harry asked.

"Assuming everything goes as planned, you mean," Mrs Smith said with a smile. Harry nodded. "Well, that's something else I wanted to speak with you, specifically, about, Harry. Your father came to dinner a few weeks back, and after I told him about it, he volunteered a bit of land, opposite the river to your home. It's about ten acres—perfect for a small day school."

"Really?" Harry asked. That was kind of exciting, actually, to him. Perhaps, when he got out of Hogwarts, he would be able to help out until he decided what he wanted to do with his life. Being an Auror didn't sound all that great any more.

"If we can get the bill finished, we can have it—hopefully—approved by the Ministry by the end of November, and begin construction immediately. The DoE's proposed plan expects construction to be complete by mid-April, ready to open for preliminary summer classes and day-care in May."

"What about tuition?" Harry asked. "Will everyone be able to afford it?"

They entered the library, everyone automatically lowering their voices to avoid Madam Pince's wrath, and settled into a group of chairs near a window where the students rarely went.

Yasmin frowned. "That is something that my colleagues and I are having a bit of a disagreement over. They want proceeds to filter back to the Ministry, but, as everyone knows, a school should never fund its government; the government should fund the school. It might take the calling in of more favours than I am owed, but with the donation of twenty to twenty-five house-elves, and the initial costs for construction, livestock and vegetables, we can be a wholly self-sufficient school with lunch included.

"The only thing left would be the salary of teachers. It wouldn't take much to fund that if we had at least one-hundred students, and I'm sure that many prominent families will donate for endowments and scholarships."

Harry nodded. "I'll donate. I've got money from my Potter vault, and to be honest, I don't feel comfortable spending it on me."

Yasmin smiled, and strangely, reached out to pat his hair. "Harry, I'm sure that James Potter would not have minded, no matter whose son you are. From what I understand, he was quite fond of Sirius, and of you as well. He would have loved you no matter what; it's just what parents do."

"But still," Harry insisted. "I want to help. I think it's a great idea."

Yasmin smiled even more. "Thank you, Harry. I will keep you updated."

"Lovely," Vlad spoke up, checking his fingernails for dirt. "Now you've got this one enamoured with you, too. What is it with impressionable young minds and your grand ideas for the future of all children, I ask you."

"None of that, Vlad," Professor Sinclair said fondly. "If you're to be jealous, why don't you enamour him yourself, with the story of how your left hand came to be bandaged."

To Harry's surprise, Vlad blushed. "He's much too young for a story like that," he said.

Harry shook his head. "I'm seventeen," he said eagerly.

Vlad eyed him, and then finally, with a small nudge from his wife, and a grinning nod from Mrs Smith, began his story. "Well, it's like this," he said in resignation. "I'm a Lodger back home in Romania, and the lads have an annual Beasting—which is when we all put on fancy dress and pretend to be from Aurthurian legends—and we go in search of the Beast of the year.

"This year, it was to have been a Questing Beast—terrible creatures; like large, scaled, many-teethed dogs with floppy ears—"

"And the disposition of a puppy," Professor Sinclair added teasingly. Vlad glared at her.

"Terrible beasts," he reiterated. "And, as it was my turn, I was to be the main Beaster this year. Unfortunately," he added wryly, "the only known way to fell a Questing Beast is to use a bone-disintegrating spell on its legs, to immobilise it, and then bridle it to prevent it from biting you in self-defence. It's said that once bridled, they are easily tamed."

"If you can subdue them first," Professor Sinclair said quietly. Harry exchanged a smirk with her.

"Anyway," Vlad continued pointedly, "we'd mounted our Granians, located the Beast with trained Crups, and had him cornered. He was ferocious, I tell you. Wild-eyed and tensed for strike. The other lads secured the area so he couldn't escape and I moved in, wary.

"Just as I was about to cast the spell, an augury in a brush nearby let out an unholy wail, startling me, and I accidentally cast the spell on myself, only instead of disintegrating my bones, it turned them all the wrong way. They had to be re-set by hand," he shuddered. "And then it started raining…damned auguries."

"If I'm not being too bold," Harry asked, smiling, "why do you keep trying if you've never been successful in all these years?"

Vlad huffed. "I'm a stubborn old bastard—there's got to be at least one Dark Arts spell I can do. In all fairness, had my spell actually hit the Beast, it would have worked just as well as a disintegrating one."

Professor Sinclair, still chuckling, checked her watch and then stood abruptly. "I'm terribly sorry, but I've forgotten all about the time. I've a class in fifteen minutes and I have to show Vlad the way to my rooms before I do. It's been lovely seeing you again, Yazzy. Harry—try not to miss any more of my classes."

Harry blushed, remembering why he'd missed one to begin with. "Sorry. I'll be there next class."

"See that you are," the professor said, and nodded to him. They exchanged goodbyes with Mrs Smith and hurried from the library.

"There was one last thing," Mrs Smith said when they were gone. She cast a privacy ward around them and leaned in, reminding Harry of a muggle conspiracy film.

"Yeah?" said Harry. He was quite curious as to what she would want to speak with him about that would warrant such privacy.

"It has come to my attention that you are aware of certain events my husband and I attend in our free time."

Harry's eyes went wide. She wasn't about to threaten him, was she? Certainly not—she'd known something was up with his and Voldemort's…relationship…before they even came to dinner during the summer.

"Very good," Mrs Smith continued after his confirmation, "I have been told that your education is of the utmost importance. Should you require anything at all that might assist you in such a way, or should you—and your father, if he's interested—ever wish to join us, you may contact me, or my husband, at any time via owl.

"Are we on the same page, Mr Black?"

Harry nodded, relieved. "Of course."

"Good," Mrs Smith said. She stood, ready to cancel the privacy charm.

"Wait," Harry said.

This was none of his business, really, but he couldn't help wanting to know. He'd been wondering about it for the longest time, but had never found an appropriate time to ask—and really, he could use as many allies as he could find. Or, at least, he would feel better knowing who would take his side if it ever came to it. Much as, Zacharias was a little bastard at times, any friend at all would be helpful if something…unexpected happened. Mrs Smith looked at him expectantly.

"Does—does, erm, Zacharias go sometimes? With you and your husband?"

Mrs Smith smiled at him in a very motherly fashion. "I believe that I have raised my son to be not only intelligent and intuitive, but capable of independent thought. I have not wanted him to follow the same paths that my husband and I chose all those years ago, but were he given satisfactory information, it is quite possible that he would like to come with you, should you ever invite him."

Harry made a face. "I'm not sure he likes me that much."

"Zacharias likes very few," Mrs Smith replied. "But he does not have to like someone in order to affiliate with them. I believe, Mr Black, that you—with your carefully balanced morals and aspirations—would be someone that he would be pleased to affiliate with."

"And not…the other alternative?"

"Of which do you speak, Harry?" she asked, reverting to his given name. "There is more than one alternative, always."

"The one you chose," he clarified, nodding subtly at her forearm.

"Ah," she said. "Zacharias is not a fighter. He believes what he believes, but dislikes…getting his hands dirty, so to speak. The last two years have been relatively smooth, but…my alternative's past history makes it hard for him to reconcile. You, as the balance, are capable of earning his respect, not only his tolerance."

Harry nodded, considering. He had one last question. "You've never tried to get him to follow in his parents' footsteps?"

She shook her head. "Zacharias must make his own decisions. It is the key to a great mind—now, if that is all, I believe it is time to return you to your headmaster."

ɤɣɤ

For the second time that day, Harry found himself in Dumbledore's office. It still brought back memories of their one-time closeness, and now that he had the time to think, it made him ache just a little bit. As he settled into a chair opposite the headmaster, he focused on not making direct eye contact, as Voldemort had warned him. Why he bothered, he didn't know.

He wanted to—and to an extent, did—trust Dumbledore. No matter how tricky Dumbledore might be, Harry held firm to his belief that it was for the good of everyone. Sometimes, though, Dumbledore could misjudge the good of everyone.

When he was settled, and the obligatory offer of candy and tea past, they regarded each other in silence for several moments. Not uncomfortable by any means, but considering.

"Harry," Dumbledore finally said, pulling a thick ring with a large stone set into it off his ring finger and passing it over. "What do you think of this? Bought it at silent auction just yesterday."

Harry studied it. "It's a bit, erm, a bit grand for my tastes…sir," he said, hoping he hadn't just inadvertently insulted the headmaster. That was the last thing he needed right now. To his relief, Dumbledore only chuckled.

"Not to everyone's taste, I'm afraid," he replied jovially, "but I think I should like to wear it anyway." Leaning back in his chair, Dumbledore continued to study Harry studying the ring and added, "It has come to my attention that you have been…hmm, up to no good, perhaps."

Harry turned bright red, knowing that Dumbledore was referring to all of the recent Malfoy incidents, but only because Hermione had forewarned him. "Sir, I didn't—"

Dumbledore waved him off gently. "Of course not, Harry. But perhaps the reason you and Mr Malfoy seem to find yourselves at odds so often is because you've not enough to keep you occupied."

"Sir?"

"I am thinking," Dumbledore said slowly, "that we could fix both of these problems in one go."

"I, erm…I don't understand. What's the other problem, sir?"

"Silly me!" Dumbledore exclaimed. "Forgive an old man his memory lapses. This ring, as I came to find, is cursed quite marvelously. I've spoken to Professor Vector, and he has told me that he recently set a partner-project for your class—I believe it is to use Arithmancy to reveal and hopefully break the curse on an object?"

Harry nodded.

Dumbledore smiled further. "Good! As you have no doubt been learning in the class, when the time is permitted, Arithmancy can be used to reveal any curse on any person, place or thing. He is planning to distribute a collection of cursed knick-knacks that he's collected for this purpose, but has agreed to allow me to contribute this ring for you and Mr Malfoy to use.

"If you agree, of course, I would like for you and Mr Malfoy to figure out how to remove the curse for me; then, I will have a new ring and you will have something other than scuffles with Mr. Malfoy to focus on."

"Of course," Harry said. He was mildly confused—couldn't he and Malfoy just use any old object for their class? Wouldn't their focus on that be just as good of a deterrent as some ring? He wanted to know more, but knew nothing else would be forthcoming, so he didn't bother asking.

"And, of course, your project will be all sorted out." Dumbledore considered, and then added, "Well—the part about getting your assignment, anyway—are you quite sure you'll not have a lemon drop?"

"No thanks," Harry said again, fighting a smile. Dumbledore shrugged and popped another into his mouth.

"There was something else," he said once he'd sucked on it for several seconds. Isn't there always? Harry thought, somewhat sarcastically. "Two somethings, really," Dumbledore added, "but they are somewhat interconnected."

Harry nodded. "All right, go on."

"It has been two years since I first required that you learn Occlumency, and while I relented after the initial…fiasco, I still find myself concerned that you've not learned it. You've not complained of any visions—granted, however, that lately there seems to be mercifully little to have visions of—I feel it is better that we err on the side of caution—"

"Surely you're not suggesting that Snape teach me again!" Harry interrupted, forgetting himself. It did, however, give him the perfect excuse to cut his eyes away from Dumbledore and focus on his hands.

Dumbledore grumbled good-naturedly. "Even I know when to give up a fight," he said, sighing. "No—in fact, I believe I've found a more suitable instructor. He's not, to my knowledge, ever actually taught anyone Occlumency, but I think you will have a much better experience with him, and he is quite adept."

"Who?" Harry asked.

Dumbledore looked quite like the cat who'd gotten the cream. "Your father, of course," he said with a grin. His eyes were twinkling madly behind his glasses, and Harry wanted to roll his eyes in fond amusement, but there were more important things at the moment.

"I didn't know he knew it," Harry said.

"Neither did I!" Dumbledore admitted, not at all uncomfortable with the fact. "It is probably something that comes reasonably naturally to him, and as that sort of thing is often found to be hereditary, with the right instruction, you should pick it up easily."

"Oh—so…so how is he going to do it? Wouldn't it seem strange for him to be at the school so often?"

Dumbledore frowned. "That brings us to the second thing I wished to discuss with you."

"We haven't even finished discussing the first," Harry added helpfully.

Dumbledore gave him a mock frown for his cheekiness. "I am not quite so forgetful, yet, Harry," he said. "Yesterday, your father came to speak with me about a theory he had—one he says you are aware of…?"

Harry nodded.

"Very good," Dumbledore said. "While he was here, I expressed my worry that Mr Remus Lupin has—hopefully—forgotten to check in with his Order liaison. He agreed to undertake an assignment in locating Mr Lupin, and left this morning."

"What?" Harry said, frowning. "He didn't even tell me!"

"I believe," Dumbledore said in amusement, "that you were having a lie-in this morning. I told him that I would relay the information to you at the earliest opportunity, and provide you with a postal code, should you wish to owl him at any time."

Harry blushed. "Thank you. When do you expect him back?"

"Mr Lupin has met with every other contact thus far, and thusly has left a decent trail for him to utilise. I have hopes that your father—and Mr Lupin—will return within the month—just in time for him to teach you Occlumency over the holidays."

Harry nodded sombrely. He couldn't help it, but he was worried. He'd only just gotten Sirius back—in any capacity—and he didn't want to risk losing him again, but it was a done deal now, so he would have to wait.

He would have liked to have had more time to discuss the Regulus theory with his father, but finding Remus was altogether more important. After all, it didn't much matter how his father was alive, just that he was, and there was a possibility that Remus might be in danger…

Although, Harry reasoned, Voldemort had been lying low—at Harry's own insistence—and he'd said nothing at all of the werewolves in general or Remus in particular. It was probably just forgetfulness—even if that didn't sound like Remus at all.

ɤɣɤ

Zacharias had heard that his mother was at the school through Ernie and Hannah, Hufflepuff's seventh-year prefects, but he hadn't really expected to see her. As director of the Department of Education at the Ministry, she stopped by the school at least once a year, and corresponded with the professors frequently. It wasn't anything unusual, and he'd written to her only last week.

He was on the pitch when she found him, training up his team for the first Quidditch game of the year. He'd been made captain this year, as last year's captain had been a seventh-year. Surveying his team, Zacharias was unimpressed. Their first game, against Gryffindor incidentally, was on Saturday, and in addition to his team's lacklustre performance in past practises, he was superstitious of doing anything remotely hazardous on certain holidays—All Hallow's being one of them.

Of course, that wasn't something he would ever admit; he prided himself on his logic and intelligence. Superstition was highly illogical.

Sometimes.

Still, though they'd never said as much, he had a feeling his parents felt the same way, and if his mother—as smart and rational as she was—was wary of All Hallow's…well, that said something. Of course, he couldn't be sure that this wasn't just a subconscious way of rationalising it all.

To his right, Cadwallader hovered on his broom; looking for all the world as if the Quaffle would just fall into his hands if he waited long enough for it. Statistically, it was possible, but when playing against Gryffindor, Zacharias was loath to allow his team to give only their second best.

"Get a move on, Cadwallader!" he yelled. "You're supposed to be practising, not fantasising about your girlfriend!" Cadwallader sneered at him in reply, but at least he picked up the pace.

The problem with Hufflepuff, Zacharias thought, is that we are often happy to merely play the game—outcome be damned.

Zacharias believed in fair play as much as the rest of them, but damn it if he wanted to beat Gryffindor just once. Diggory had done it; he'd waffled over it for weeks afterwards, but, really, it had been a legitimate win. They could certainly do it again.

The problem, unfortunately, was that Gryffindor had a handicap, and that handicap was Potter—Black…whatever. He looked at his own seeker; he'd chosen Megan Jones because she was small, light and quick on a broom, but he doubted she'd be quick enough to beat Black to the Snitch.

He would have to improvise, he supposed. Weasley had certainly gotten better at Keeping, but he was still no Oliver Wood—even Zacharias could appreciate talent like that. He should spend less time training his Seeker—since, honestly, there was little hope there—and focus more on the rest of his team.

If he could get his other two Chasers and his Beaters to work in tandem, then he would have a shot. His Keeper was already up-to-snuff and needed little help from him, save some encouragement, which was never amiss with Hufflepuffs. He even liked it himself, sometimes.

It was when he was just setting up his Beaters to do a few drills together that he heard his mother calling up to him from the ground. She was in her office robes looking up at him with a hand shading her eyes. Zacharias smiled at the interruption, instructed his team to keep trying, and headed for the ground.

"Hullo, Mum," he said. He was always in good spirits around her. Unlike many of his peers, he had no complaints about his parents. He didn't think they were over-bearing or over-protective, and he didn't worry that they would embarrass him. Honestly, he wondered why others did. Parents were just parents.

She smiled at him affectionately and wrapped him in a hug. It had only been two months since he'd last seen her, but already she looked shorter than she had in August. Was it strange that he was the one feeling nostalgic about growing up?

"How are your studies?" she asked him, and he smiled. That was always the first thing she wanted to know.

"I could be doing better in Ancient Runes," he admitted.

She frowned. "You've been taking that class for two years; how have you fallen behind?"

"I haven't," he said. "I could just be doing better. I'm only fourth in the class. I plan to spend next weekend revising."

She nodded, satisfied. "You don't have to be first in the class," she said to him. "I just want you to learn, and be happy to be doing it."

"I am," he assured her, and it wasn't a lie. Zacharias liked learning new things.

She hooked her arm into his elbow and said, "Walk with me?" to which he followed automatically, slowly cutting a path around the stands and aimlessly wandering from there. When they were a reasonable distance from the pitch, she spoke.

"Should I plan for an extra setting at the table during the holidays? Have you found a nice girl? Or boy?"

Zacharias shook his head. "You know I would have told you."

She smiled. "I know, but a mother can hope that there have been developments since her son's last letter."

Zacharias blushed. "If there are, I'll tell you straight away."

His mother hummed in acknowledgement and they continued to wander around the grounds. As chilly as it was, and as sweaty as he was, Zacharias figured he'd be getting cold soon, but he wasn't worried about it. It was always nice to see his mum.

"Harry and his father live nearby," she said. "Perhaps we could have them over sometime."

Zacharias raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps," he said.

"They're very nice people," she continued, hinting.

Zacharias couldn't help it; he laughed. "I believe," he said, "that Black is currently courting Seamus Finnigan—Marion O'Malley-Finnigan's son," he said. "So you will have to let die that scheme right away."

"Really?" his mother asked. "I've heard nothing of it from Marion."

Zacharias shrugged. "And I wouldn't go telling her, if I were you. Last I heard, she wasn't fond of Black—or Potter, as he was then—and it's only rumour, anyway. I could be wrong."

His mother huffed. "They're still very nice people. I quite like the both of them, so it is possible that we could have them over for no other reason than to have them over."

"He's all right," Zacharias affirmed. "Annoying, at times, but I can tolerate him."

"He hinted to me that he would like to be more than tolerated by you," she said.

Zacharias' eyebrows went up again. "Really," he said.

She waved her free hand vaguely. "As a friend, I assume, if he is indeed courting Mr Finnigan."

"He's made no mention to me," Zacharias said.

"Nor to me," his mother said. "Only hinted. I only bring it up because I think that an alliance with him—in some form or another—could be stimulating for you."

"In what way?" Zacharias asked. They neared the lake, and he saw Malfoy, with a couple of his Slytherins, walking in the opposite direction. He gave him a stiff nod, and continued, not bothering to see if Malfoy returned it. Sometimes he did, sometimes he did not; it was as if Malfoy respected him, but didn't like that he did. It was no matter to Zacharias either way.

"He's very handsome," his mother said, nodding to Malfoy. "And the girl—she's quite attractive, too."

Zacharias craned his neck; Daphne Greengrass. She was pretty enough, but he didn't think she would interest him beyond that. He shrugged, and with a sigh at his indifference, his mother answered his question.

"He's taken a special interest in the recent adoptions," she said.

"Really," Zacharias said immediately. That was news to him, and if what he thought his mother was saying were true, it threw a totally different light on Harry Black completely. "What view has he taken?" he asked.

"He quite approves, if I'm not mistaken," she answered. "Indeed, he seems to have the publicly desired knowledge of who, exactly, is bringing them to Derbyshire."

"Really," Zacharias said again. This would require serious thought. Though they had never directly said so, he knew full well what sort of extraneous affiliations his parents held. He had, after all, seen them both working in the gardens during the summer with their shirt sleeves rolled up. It was just something that never needed explaining.

And to hear that Black knew of it—well, it hadn't taken long for Zacharias to figure out who, exactly, was taking the muggle-born children from their muggle parents and offering them to wizarding families. If Black had inside information—and it would have to be inside information—then…well.

Perhaps it was time to finally speak candidly with his parents about their activities. No, he decided. Perhaps it was time to finally speak candidly with Harry Black about his activities. If someone with such ridiculously Gryffindor morals were consorting with people whose morals…lay elsewhere, then it was quite possible he was missing something important.

Zacharias didn't like to miss important things. Tides seemed to be changing. Which way was still unknown.

He led his mother around the Whomping Willow and began their return to the pitch. He needed to either get back on his broom or into a hot shower.

"And your school?" he asked as they approached. "How are things looking for it?"

His mother smiled happily. "So far, very good. I think we'll get it…and the learner wand bill should sail right through."

Zacharias nodded. He was glad that his mother had something to focus on like that. If she didn't have someone to care for, she could get antsy. "I'll help you, over the summer, if you like."

She beamed. "That would be lovely. Oh—and I forgot to mention in my last letter, but it will be very close to home for us; Sirius Black has pledged ten acres across the river from their house for the school's use."

"We'll definitely have to invite them for dinner over the holidays then," Zacharias grinned. "As a thank-you."

"And you'll bring someone home, maybe," his mother said.

Zacharias laughed. "I'll look into it," he said as they reached the pitch. "But first, I have to beat Gryffindor on Saturday."

She reached up and ruffled his hair, but it didn't bother him since it was already in complete disarray from practise. "Be careful," she said, and it seemed to him that she had just reaffirmed his superstitions. After that, he would definitely be careful—but that wasn't to say that he wasn't going to give it his all on Saturday.

"I will," he said instead, and leaned down—only slightly—to kiss her on the cheek. "I have to get back to practise," he said, and she nodded.

"Don't forget to write."

"I won't." He never forgot to write.

ɤɣɤ

After leaving the headmaster's office, Harry just wanted to return to the Tower. Mimbulus Mimbletonia was still the password, as it had been since two weeks into the school year, and Harry thought absently of Neville and how he was doing as a prefect as he gave it to the Fat Lady.

She let him in with no hassle, which was an unusual thing since her friend Violet had taken to spending long amounts time with a rakish portrait on the second floor. Harry supposed she was bored.

He didn't see any of his friends in the common room, so he headed for his dorm. Maybe he should just take a nap. Hermione was probably still meeting with Nott and the prefects, which explained Neville's absence, and there was really no telling what the rest were up to.

He wasn't sure he wanted to know—ever since Ron had sworn off alcohol, Dean and Seamus had made it their personal mission to entertain him in other ways. In his dorm, he stumbled over no less than three articles of clothing and, with the lights off, as he couldn't be arsed to light the torches, fell directly onto Seamus' bed. It was still bunked under Dean's, and Harry wondered amusedly just how much longer Professor McGonagall would allow it.

It did add a bit more space to the room, but you'd hardly be able to tell with the mess of it all. There was a huff as he landed, not on the bed, but on another body.

"Sorry, Shay," Harry muttered, trying to pull himself up. He was hopelessly tangled in the bed curtains, though.

"Can't breathe," Seamus gasped, but from where, Harry didn't know. There were entirely too many covers and curtains between them. "Harry—Harry, you oaf, I can't breathe. Move your arse."

"Sorry! Sorry!" Harry said as he struggled. He only managed to untangle himself from the curtains; the blankets were still wrapped around his feet. Somehow, after even more struggling, Harry found himself not free of the blankets, but under them, lying directly on top of Seamus, who was looking up at him drowsily.

"Can't let a bloke sleep, can yeh, Harry?" he said. "Got to have a go whenever you feel like it."

Harry blushed. Though he'd never admit it, he liked the way Seamus never thought to control his accent when he'd just been woken up. "Sod," he said, "directly off." He tried to push himself up, but Seamus reached up and held him there, smiling crookedly.

"No need to rush off, now that you're here," he said. Harry blushed even harder. "Aw, c'mon, Harry—don't be shy now."

"M'not," Harry mumbled.

Seamus grinned. "Yeah, you are." He pushed his hips up, and Harry bit his lip to hide his gasp. In all of his struggling—and how was it even possible to get so hopelessly tangled?—he'd not noticed that.

Seamus wanted him. Bad. He'd thought it was a one-off; the other boy hadn't mentioned anything afterwards, hadn't said that he cared either way, but—he certainly cared right now, if his cock pressing into Harry's thigh was anything to go on.

"I was drunk last night," Seamus admitted. "I was still drunk when I woke up—maybe we should see if it's really as good as my drunken mind thought it was."

"You thought it was good?" Harry asked, voice low. He could feel himself responding to every tiny little movement Seamus made, and it was driving him crazy.

Seamus' eyes narrowed. "You thought it was bad?" he countered.

Harry shook his head quickly, still blushing. "Don't think so," he said. "Was my first time with another boy, though, so I could probably use a second to compare it to."

Seamus had a feral grin on his face now. "I can still feel you from last night," he said.

Harry inhaled sharply, and before he could think better of it, leaned down and covered Seamus' mouth with his own. Seamus gasped, arching up into him and returning the kiss with enthusiasm.

Seamus' hand slid up his thigh and gripped his arse, bringing their hips even closer together. God, this was entirely too good. If just snogging Seamus made him this hard, it was probably a good thing he didn't remember much of the first time. They should lock the door or something—

"Someone could walk in," Harry gasped amid his attack on Seamus' neck. The hand on his arse slid between them and Seamus grabbed Harry's cock through his trousers, squeezing with just enough pressure.

"Got a nice cock, for being such a girl," Seamus hissed and then flipped them over. Harry let him; he had no idea what he was doing anyway. Somehow, in all of this, he hadn't noticed his shirt being removed or Seamus' hands sliding up his bare chest until his right nipple was being pinched. Fuck.

Harry scrambled to pull Seamus' t-shirt over his head, and God, the feeling of smooth, hard skin was almost too much for him. Putting Seamus on the team had been the best idea Harry ever had—Quidditch did amazing things to the body. He was probably whining and moaning like a little trollop right now, but he didn't particularly care. As Seamus started tugging on his flies, Harry had the vague thought that McGonagall could walk in right then, and he would still be struggling to help Seamus get their cocks out.

"Ah, fuck," Seamus panted and reached over Harry's head to do something unknown. "Lube—goddamnit, Dean, where'd you put the fucking lube, you wanker!" Harry had no idea where Dean kept his lube—didn't particularly care so long as Seamus found it—and occupied his time with wrapping his fingers around Seamus' cock, stroking it like he did his own, and hoping to god that Seamus found the fucking lube. He was entirely too worked up, and if they didn't get on with it he was going to come all over himself before they even got started.

At the feel of Harry's hand on him, Seamus gave a throaty little moan and pushed his hips down—"Ah, shite!" Seamus was whining and panting just as much as Harry now, which was satisfying, especially since Harry didn't really know what he was doing. He pulled himself further up Harry's body in his continued search for some sort of lubrication—anything!—a move that put his cock right in Harry's face.

Harry didn't bother to think twice, only braced one hand on Seamus' hip and lifted his head to take as much in of him as he could. Seamus tasted brilliant—like boy—and Harry had no idea if they'd actually done this to each other or not the night before, but it was amazing all the same.

"Oh god!" Seamus whined, and Harry continued to lick and suck at the head of his cock, inordinately pleased with the breathy sounds the other boy was making, and how his hips started to tremble, even as he continued his search for lubrication. Why they didn't just use a spell, Harry didn't know, but he couldn't think of one right then anyway, and he wouldn't have taken his mouth off Seamus' cock right then for anything.

"Fucking finally!" Seamus said, and then, "Stop, Harry." Harry groaned in displeasure, not wanting to stop in the least. "Harry, stop, or I'll come."

Harry pulled his mouth away slowly, and Seamus wasted no time scrambling back down and slamming his mouth onto Harry's once more. One of his hands laced through Harry's hair and grabbed while the other tried valiantly to unscrew the cap on the lube from Dean's bedside table.

"How d'you want…?" Seamus prompted between kisses. Harry shook his head; he didn't give a damn, so long as it happened right then.

"God, just fuck me," he whined, since, with their current positions, that seemed the quickest way to something. Seamus groaned, finally getting the cap off, and coated his fingers with the lube before running them up his thigh, teasing his cock and then—

Harry moaned. Memories of the night before were flashing back now and he could remember this happening almost exactly the same way—Seamus' slick fingers circling his entrance before one slipped inside, stretching him, then another.

And now he could remember the initial discomfort from the night before, but he was still a little stretched from it, and this time he only felt how brilliant it was that Seamus was doing this to him.

Seamus pushed another finger into him, and Harry decided that that was good enough. He was so hard he was throbbing, and he didn't want to wait any longer. "Do it—fucking do it."

Groaning, Seamus pulled his fingers back and situated himself between Harry's legs. "You better not forget it this time, I swear," he said as he pushed in. Harry arched his back, realising that three fingers were quite a bit different from actually having Seamus' cock in his arse, and thought that there was no way in Merlin's name that he would ever be able to forget this.

"Won't," he said and Seamus grinned, eyes bright and blue above him. His hair was sweaty, sticking to his forehead, and Harry thought it was the sexiest thing he'd ever seen—way better than watching Aurors in Love or the Queer Quidditch series.

Harry wrapped his arms around Seamus' back and pulled him down to kiss him. The other boy's mouth was hot and wet and Harry loved every second of it, every thrust and every swipe of Seamus' tongue. And then, Seamus adjusted his angle and hit that spot that Harry had spent so much time abusing over the summer.

It was brilliant, utterly brilliant. He gasped and tightened his arms around Seamus' shoulders. Seamus noticed the change and maintained his position, pounding Harry's prostate relentlessly. "Like that?" he said.

Harry nodded, unable to speak. At least until Seamus took one hand and wrapped it around his cock, as Harry himself had done earlier to him. "Oh fuck!"

Seamus whined at the feeling of Harry tightening around him. All of his muscles were tensed and he could already feel the heat of orgasm approaching.

"Gonna come soon," Seamus panted. And then, "Come for me, Harry."

That was all it took; Harry arched his back as wave after wave of pleasure rolled through him from his belly to his toes and back again. Hot, white strands of come were shooting out of his cock, all over him and Seamus' stomach.

Seamus' eyes were fixed on the sight, mouth parted, and it only took another thrust before he was stilling, eyes closed, and coming, too.

He fell limply on top of Harry, who couldn't be arsed to care, and panted. "Good show," Seamus finally said when their breathing had evened.

Harry laughed weakly. "I know." He was sweaty, with come on his stomach and dripping from his arse, but everything was brilliant. Everything.

"I remembered all of it," Seamus admitted casually a moment later. "Suppose it's in my genes or something—being able to remember something even when I'm completely pogloaded."

Before Harry could reply, the dormitory door opened. "Smith's not got a chance," Dean was saying. "We should have another practise before Saturday, but really, it's in the bag."

"Yeah, probably a good idea," Ron agreed. "I'll tell Harry later and he can call—oh, fuck, not again."

Harry tried to refrain from hiding his red face against Seamus' sweaty chest, but in the end, he gave it up as a bad job and burrowed himself as far away from Dean and Ron as he could. One day, he resolved, one fucking day, I'll have sex and none of my friends will hear or see it.

"Bugger off," Seamus yelled, throwing his pillow at them. "I just pulled with Harry; I'm going to fucking enjoy the afterglow."

Dean and Ron left just as swiftly as they had arrived.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Counter-Intelligence: (n) 1. The efforts designed to prevent enemy intelligence organizations from successfully gathering and collecting intelligence. 2. The classification and control of sensitive information or the active spreading of disinformation to mislead the enemy.

ɤɣɤ

Sirius didn't like to admit it—even to himself—but he was worried about Remus. It wasn't like Mooney to just…disappear. It wasn't like him not to check in with someone; he was so…conscientious.

That was a word Mooney had taught him when he'd started to ignore his first girlfriend, Belinda Firkins, in favour of staring at Lily's arse. Sirius remembered that because he'd blushed and told Remus not to say a word to James—who started staring at Lily's arse about a month later.

Well, he didn't truly learn the meaning of the word until Belinda slapped him in the middle of the Great Hall one day when she caught him doing it. Fortunately, James never caught Sirius staring—or feeling Lily up in a broom closet in sixth year—because he'd become conscientious after that. He hadn't wanted to lose his best mate over a bird, of all things, but…well, he hadn't wanted to lose Lily over his best mate, either. Mates before dates, and all that; and, conversely, dates before mates.

That was a long time ago, though; that was before he'd ever gotten anyone's knickers, much less Lily's...before he'd become a father. It was before he'd ever disregarded the Cardinal Rule of Mates, which was pretty obvious, if unspoken, that said, in gold probably: 'Thou shalt not seduce your mate's girl, especially if you've already ruined it with her and it's his turn to have a chance now.'

Sirius bit his lip and hoped that wherever James was, he wouldn't knee him in the groin as soon as Sirius got there. He'd never been afraid of dying before he found out about Harry, but if James could see what had been going on down here, then Sirius might as well say goodbye to a happy afterlife and resign himself to an everlasting existence of pain in his crotch.

He deserved it, he knew. He had, after all, had an affair with his best friend's wife—had, after all, been the father to his best friend's son. Darkly, he wondered if that was possibly why Voldemort was so afraid of dying: had he, perhaps, screwed around on someone?

Sirius shuddered and looked down at his map. This was no time for self-pity and regrets—mainly because Sirius didn't regret it at all, and that had always been something anyone but his own mother would have classified as a character flaw.

Dumbledore had given him as much information as he knew, along with the standard debriefing. Sirius knew that one well enough.

Mooney had last checked in with Hestia Jones in Calais, France, but had missed two subsequent check-ins with Hestia and Tonks. He was supposed to be getting chummy with a migratory pack of French werewolves in order to try to counteract the werewolves already on Voldemort's side. Apparently, the French werewolf contingent considered unprovoked violence gauche, and were no trouble to the French Ministry or population. Usually.

There was a more pressing problem, though, and that was that disturbances had recently been reported by several French wizards and witches; they were suspected to be werewolf related, and Dumbledore admitted that he worried Remus' new pack may have accidentally stumbled across another pack—possibly one that sympathised with Voldemort.

The map Sirius was given marked all of Remus' successful check-ins along with his two unsuccessful ones. Now all he had to do was find a pattern. But that was the problem with migratory werewolves—especially French ones: they did what they pleased. They could be anywhere…in France. Sirius thought it highly unlikely that a Frenchman would willingly travel outside his own country. Had he been French, he probably wouldn't have.

He was in Calais now. That seemed to be a good enough place to start. There was a small magical community here, and Dumbledore had given him instructions on how to enter it. Entering the community, le marché, Sirius stepped into a small café there and looked around for someone who might know something of this particular pack.

It was, probably, a good thing he knew French already because the wizards here could tell he was English just by looking at him, and, really, no one liked the English except the English themselves. Or so his mother had told him, but she was a Londoner, and no one liked them either.

With a sigh, Sirius decided that the twenty-something witch behind the counter—making cow eyes at him—would probably be his best shot. Besides, he could use the flattery right now; it wasn't looking like it would be a good week.

ɤɣɤ

Harry would never admit it to Ron—or anyone else, in case it got back to Ron—but he'd woken up on Saturday morning having no idea that the first Quidditch match of the season was today—Gryffindor against Hufflepuff. Or even that it was Halloween. His mother had been dead for sixteen years today, and he hadn't even remembered it.

Sure, he'd known it peripherally; he'd known the day before that the game was today. It was just that when he woke up, he wasn't excited about Quidditch, which he usually was on game days. It was possible that this was because Seamus was in his bed for the fifth morning in a row and his morning wood was pressing against his backside.

It was also possible that it was because of the dream he'd been having—the one that had woken him up with a start only moments before. He could only remember snatches of it now, which wasn't all that unusual, but he couldn't shake the feeling of restlessness he got from it. And, for some reason, he had a notion to hum.

"Morning," Seamus grinned, rolling over to face him.

Harry jumped and looked over at his bed-mate. Seamus was already dressed for breakfast. Harry had no idea how he had gotten out and back in the bed without waking him up. "What are you so excited about?"

Seamus cut his eyes down to the obvious bulge in Harry's pyjamas and back up again. Harry tried not to blush; it was well past the appropriate time for that. "Quidditch," Seamus said. "My first game today, you know."

"Shit," Harry said, and quickly jumped from the bed, thoughts of possible sex quickly forgotten. He cast a quick Tempus charm and saw that he only had an hour to have breakfast and be out on the pitch for warm-ups. "Why didn't you wake me?"

Ron laughed at him from the other side of the room. "Don't know about him, mate," he said, hooking his thumb back at Seamus, "but I didn't want to see anything."

Harry scowled at him as he pulled his clothes on and tried to locate his trainers in the mess of their dorm.

"Dean and Neville are already at breakfast," Seamus added. His hair was still bed-mussed, but that wouldn't matter much once they were in the air with the wind blowing every which way.

Harry, having finally found his shoes, slipped them on and laced them. "Someone could have woken me," he said. Ron shrugged and Seamus laughed, finally deciding to get up from the bed.

"Ready then?" Ron asked. Harry nodded and they all grabbed their brooms—Seamus' mum had sent him a new Cleansweep only the other week. "Right, let's go. I'm starved."

ɤɣɤ

Breakfast was efficient, as Harry liked it to be on game days. Hermione had worked out a system the year before to save time on game days where she filled their plates with a balanced meal before they got to breakfast, and then put extras on her own plate for Ron—since he would probably take some of hers anyway. After the appropriate greetings and thanks were grunted to her, she left them to stuff their bellies as much as they could handle, quietly ignored Ron as his fingers slipped onto her plate to snatch a kipper, and wished them luck when they were done. This sort of anti-manners was allowed only when Gryffindor had a game, though, and Ron always managed to make the most of it.

"Good luck," she said when Harry stood. Seamus followed suit, and with a last bite of toast, Ron did, too.

"Thanks," Harry said. He was finally feeling his usual pre-game excitement and couldn't wait to get out on the pitch. Down the table, Ginny, Sloper, Dean and Alsace all stood as well.

"Got your banner?" Ron asked her.

Hermione held up a red and gold blazon without removing her eyes from her morning reading.

"Good. We're going to crush them," he said, nodding at the Hufflepuff table. Zacharias Smith looked up and Harry and Ron both saluted him, smiling. It was another little tradition he and Ron had picked up the year before: to smile and salute the other team while pepping each other up with comments about how thoroughly they would destroy them on the pitch.

Still smiling at Smith, Harry said, "Wanker doesn't have a chance." Smith nodded back to them politely and returned to his meal. "Right. Let's go Gryffindor." As if trained—which they most certainly had not been—the Gryffindor Quidditch team lined up and marched out of the Great Hall, creating quite a ruckus with their strangely synchronised steps.

It didn't last long, though. As soon as they were past the doors, every one of them broke into a warm-up run down to the pitch, with Harry and Ron leading. In the locker room, the team changed and were quickly back outside, ready for pre-game sprints.

Harry drilled them all on their strategies, and after about twenty minutes, he was satisfied, except with his Chasers. "Ginny," he called to her across the pitch, "run your Chasers through that play one more time."

She nodded at him and directed Sloper and Alsace into position. Ron threw the practise Quaffle to her and she passed it to Sloper, who drop-passed it to Alsace, who, in turn, threw it through the hoop.

They were good, Harry knew, but they really should have worked on that play a bit more. Biting his lip, he checked his watch and saw that it was time for Hufflepuff to get the pitch for their warm-ups. "Come on," he called to them and flew back down to the locker rooms again.

Inside, they all gathered around and Harry let Ron lead the pre-game speech, go over their strategies one last time, and generally put the fear of Merlin in them, should they screw up out there. He was way better at that sort of thing than Harry was.

When Ron finished, Harry checked his watch again. "We've got about two minutes, so I want to add one more thing," he said. "Ginny—you're nearly perfect with that formation we practised, but you've been accelerating too far ahead of Sloper when you catch the Quaffle, and that leaves you vulnerable on your right side. Try to tighten it up in the game." She nodded, determined and serious.

"Right. Everyone ready?" There was a collective nod. Outside, Luna Lovegood's voice welcomed everyone to the game.

"—the gregarious Gryffindors versus the hellsapopinish Hufflepuffs!"

Harry took a deep breath; everyone else followed. "Ready?" he asked. They nodded stoically, even Seamus, who would be playing on a Quidditch team for the first time today. "Let's go."

The first game of the season was always a riotous affair. No matter who played, it was always attended by nearly everyone in the school—probably because the students were still not ready for school to be back in session and would take any opportunity whatsoever to escape the castle.

Even the Ravenclaws and Slytherins were cheering—not necessarily for either team, but in excitement over getting away from their homework for a couple of hours. Harry led his team to the middle of the field amidst screaming from every direction and stopped in front of Zacharias Smith.

"Captains, shake hands," Madam Hooch said.

Harry stuck out his hand, shook Smith's once, and gave him a cheeky grin. "Good luck, mate," he said, releasing Smith's hand. Hufflepuff didn't have a prayer.

Smith gave him a cool nod. "And yourself."

"On my whistle," Madam Hooch continued, after giving them the preliminary 'No fighting and no cheating' spiel. Smith and Harry stepped back and mounted their brooms, each of their teams following immediately. Madam Hooch blew her whistle and Harry pushed himself off the ground with as much force as he could, trying to get the best vantage point before Hufflepuff's new Seeker could grab it.

Harry didn't know the name of the new Hufflepuff Seeker, but it didn't really matter right then. She was obviously nervous, and he couldn't blame her. It was her first game. She looked at him a bit wide-eyed when she finally levelled with him, but then pursed her lips in determination and set off on a slow circle of the perimeter.

Harry nodded approvingly and set off in the opposite direction. He had a good view of the game from this altitude, and hoped to maintain it for as long as possible. It wasn't standard to have a Seeker as captain since they were usually so far away from the rest of the game, but he'd been the senior player on the team and Ron had refused it. Harry had no idea why.

It really would have been better if Ron was captain. He had a clear view of the game from his Keeper position and he was a far better tactician than Harry could hope to be.

"Gryffindor's star Keeper and King, Weasley One, easily deflects the first attack by Hufflepuff captain and Chaser, Smith—tosses the Quaffle to Weasley Two and appears to have suffered a second attack by the mysterious Netherthall, known for assaults against the nether-regions and causing extreme itching. He easily dispatches the Netherthall with a well placed scratch—"

Harry snorted and shot a grin at Ron, who was still re-adjusting himself. Ron glared at him, then at Luna, and returned his attention back to the game just in time to block another shot.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. There was probably another thirty to forty-five minutes before the Snitch would show up, and he had plenty of time to keep at least one eye on the game. As it was, everyone seemed to be in top form.

Unfortunately, everyone included Hufflepuff as well. Smith must have really worked them, Harry thought. They were playing hard and giving his team a good show for it. Even as he watched, Smith and his other veteran Chaser—Cadwallader or something—executed a perfect steal of the Quaffle from Alsace and aimed another shot at Ron. It went through, but that was okay; the game had only just begun.

Ginny took the Quaffle on the rebound and darted between the Hufflepuff Beaters to score a quick goal and they were even again.

"—against Smith—majestic in his yellow and black kit—just in time to deflect the Bludger—"

Harry passed the other Seeker, quirked a grin at her, and looked back down at the game just to see Ginny direct the other two Chasers into the play they had been working on earlier. Harry grinned, excited to see it in action.

It was a play Ginny had seen the Holyhead Harpies perform, only simplified to their skill-level, and Harry expected it to really throw Hufflepuff for a loop. On another rebound, Ron threw her the Quaffle and she dropped back, allowing Sloper and Alsace to flip and turn in front of her.

They sped over the pitch towards Hufflepuff's goal with Alsace and Sloper guarding Ginny on either side. Hufflepuff's Keeper positioned himself in the centre ring, expecting the attack to come from Ginny, but at the last minute, she sped in front of them, dropped the Quaffle to Sloper, and—

Damn it, Harry thought. She still left that side open.

She hadn't managed to tighten up her form after all, though it was a bit better. Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough because at that moment a Hufflepuff Beater, in the right place at the right time, aimed a Bludger directly at her. It slammed into her side just as Alsace tossed the Quaffle through the left ring and she tumbled from her broom.

"Weasley Two has nobly taken a hit for her team, as Gryffindors are wont to do—"

"Time out!" Harry called, diving for the ground. Madam Hooch blew her whistle and play stopped, but Ginny was still falling. She landed hard, and didn't move.

Alsace was the first to the ground, followed immediately by Ron and Harry.

"Holy shit," Ron said, dropping to his sister's side. She was lying awkwardly, mouth slightly open, but breathing steadily enough. "Ginny—Ginny you okay?"

She didn't respond. Professor McGonagall and Hooch arrived then, bustling forward with worried looks on their faces.

Ginny was still lying on the ground, still unconscious. Madam Hooch called her name again, tapped her cheek with her hand, but she still didn't respond. Dropping down beside Ron, Harry grabbed her shoulder and shook her, and when that didn't work, Ron, panicked, slapped her across the face. Harry would have laughed any other time.

Ginny's body arched off the ground, bending almost unnaturally, jerked once, and then she fell back to the grass, still.

Harry exchanged a look with Ron. He'd never seen anything like that before. Especially from just a fall. He'd fallen from his broom more times than he could count, and he'd never done that—at least that he knew of. By the confused way Ron was looking at him, he was pretty certain on the matter.

"What was that?" he asked Ron.

Ron shook his head. "Don't know…maybe I shocked her a bit when I slapped her?" He looked back at his sister again, who was now beginning to blink open her eyes, and added, "Looks like it worked."

Dean pushed through on the opposite side and leant over her. "You all right?" he asked her. Harry and Ron exchanged another look, this one of amusement now that the panic was over. It appeared that Dean still held a torch for his old girlfriend, no matter how little interest she showed him.

Ginny nodded drowsily and tried to sit up, but her arms were a little unstable. "I'm fine," she said, even as she tried to stand, only to fall back down with a cry. "Think…I think my ankle's broken," she said, biting her lip. "And I sort of feel a little disoriented now."

Harry and Ron swore, just as Hermione made it down from the stands and pushed through them to check on Ginny. She gave them a stern look for their language and bent down over Ginny's ankle. "It's starting to swell," she said. "She needs to go to the Infirmary."

McGonagall tsked and levitated Ginny from the ground.

"We'll have to put in the reserve," Ron said, frowning. Harry sighed, watching Hermione and Professor McGonagall float Ginny off the pitch and up to the castle. This was no good at all—the game had just started and their reserve had only showed up for half of their practises. And furthermore, the reserve didn't know how to work with Alsace and Sloper like Ginny did. And since Ginny was their lead Chaser, they reacted to her moves; the reserve would have no idea how to lead them. It wasn't looking good.
"All right," Harry said. "Call her in." He re-mounted his broom and took to the air, determined to find the Snitch as soon as possible.

In the end, it didn't matter much. Smith had taken advantage of his position and directed his Beaters to focus only on Gryffindor's Chasers. With Dean and Seamus having to play the defensive, Ron was left wide open for attack by Hufflepuff's Chasers. By the time Harry caught the Snitch—effectively mercy-killing the game—the score was 270 Hufflepuff, 100 Gryffindor. They lost by twenty points, but as far as Harry was concerned, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

ɤɣɤ

Afterwards, the entire team trooped up to the Infirmary, still in their sweaty Quidditch gear. Hermione was waiting for them beside Ginny's bed, reading her Arithmancy text.

"Did you win?" she asked, but she didn't look like she had much hope for it.

Ron flopped down on the chair next to her, sighing. "Not even close." Hermione patted him on the back consolingly.

Two years ago, Ron would have thought the whole thing his fault—he had let the Quaffle in twenty-seven times, after all—but he'd learned, throughout his play, that it took an entire team to play Quidditch. Without Beaters to keep the other team's Chasers from the scoring area, it was one shot after another, and no one could have been expected to handle a rapid attack like that. Even Oliver Wood would have been tearing his hair out.

Harry nudged Ron over and sat down beside him on the edge of his chair, running his hands through his sweaty hair. "Is it broken?" he asked.

Hermione nodded, frowning. "Three hairline fractures," she said. "Madam Pomfrey's given her Skele-Mend, but she'll be asleep for the next twelve hours while it works."

"When will she be able to play again?" Dean asked, sitting between Alsace and Seamus on the next bed.

"Madam Pomfrey said she should be able to return to practise next week," Hermione said. "But she doesn't need to put a lot of strain on it before then. Just to classes and such for the first few days."

It wasn't long after that that Madam Pomfrey bustled in, exclaiming angrily over how many un-injured students were in her Infirmary and rushed them all out. Ginny would not be waking up before the Halloween party, she'd told them, so there was no use waiting around for her.

Of all of them, Dean looked the most upset by this. "Why'd she have to get hurt today, of all days?" he muttered, hands in his pockets as Harry and Seamus accompanied him back to Gryffindor. Ron had followed Hermione to the Great Hall to set up for the party, and there was really no telling where Alsace and Sloper had gone.

"Don't worry about it, mate," Seamus said, easily throwing an arm over his taller friend's shoulder. "You can go with me. We'll have loads of fun."

Harry had not known that Dean was to be going to the party with Ginny, but it certainly helped explain why he'd seemed so hopeful lately. Poor guy. Instead of saying that, Harry asked, with a shudder, "I thought you were going with Romilda, Seamus."

To his amusement, Seamus shuddered as well. "She asked me, originally, and I figured what the hell, you know? But, apparently, she got a better offer last week and gave me her regrets." He shrugged. "Can't say I'm all that upset over it."

Dean cracked a smile. "I wouldn't be. That bird's barking."

No one could disagree with that. "So, what about you, Harry?" Dean continued. "Thought you and my mate here were trying it on, and now I see you're taking the Lestrange girl tonight."

Harry and Seamus glanced at each other quickly, sharing a small, shy smile. "She's stubborn," was all he said.

Dean chuckled. "What are you going as? I'm going to be a pirate—Ginny was going to be my wench, but I suppose it'll have to be Seamus instead," he added with a nudge. Seamus barked a laugh and did not seem at all opposed to the idea.

"Didn't have a costume anyway," he said. "Was going to lift some of Ron's Chudley Cannons gear and go as an idiot."

Laughing, Harry said, "I don't know what I'll be. Alsace picked something up on the last Hogsmeade weekend and the package's in my trunk somewhere." He stumbled, suddenly realising something. "I've just made a huge mistake, haven't I? I should've known better than to let a girl pick out a costume for me. What if—what if she's got me dressed up as a goblin—or the back half of a centaur?"

Seamus cuffed the back of his head. "It'd fit you, wanker."

"You calling me a jackass?" Harry asked, eyebrow raised.

"Nah," Seamus said as they reached the portrait of the Fat Lady. "Called you a wanker, didn't I?—Mimbulus Mimbletonia—And a wanker you are," he added with a leer.

"Excuse me!" the Fat Lady exclaimed, scandalised.

"Sorry!" they said.

The Gryffindors already in the common room were of the desolate sort. It had been quite some time since they'd lost to Hufflepuff, and before the game with Cedric Diggory, it had been years. Butterbeer that had been smuggled in prior to the game sat unopened, and the students focused on their homework with less than enthusiasm.

To Harry's appreciation, their reserve Chaser sat in a corner looking quite chagrined, even as she studied her Transfigurations text.

"Oh come off it," Seamus said to the room at large. His hands were on his hips and he looked quite displeased. "It was one game! We've got plenty of time to win the Cup, and we only lost by twenty points—that's nothing, really."

The younger students bit their lips, but it seemed to perk them up a bit anyway. Enough, at least, for one particularly daring second-year to pop the cork from one of the abandoned Butterbeers and take a large swig.

Harry rolled his eyes. "I'd like to see this pirate costume of yours, Dean," he said as they mounted the stairs. "Actually, I think I'd like to see the wench costume even more. Seamus?"

"I am agreeing to this humiliation," Seamus proclaimed as he bounded ahead of them, "on the grounds that you will promise to play Levitating Leap Frog with me afterwards, when we are both drunk off spiked-punch and preferably naked."

Harry and Dean laughed. "And if McGonagall, on her nightly check-in, saw us naked and jumping over each other on the stairs?"

Seamus shrugged and opened the door to their room, pulling his shin- and wrist-guards off as he spoke. "It'll be the best sight she's seen in years. She'll love it."

Dean rifled through his trunk, saying over his shoulder, "She'll love it enough to give you private detentions with her for the rest of the year—ah, here we go…" He stood and tossed something in Seamus' general direction. "You'll be a lovely wench."

"I reckon so," Seamus said, inspecting the garment with an air of distaste. He turned it over in his hands, frowning. "Doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it, this kit?"

Harry inspected it over Seamus' shoulder, noting the lace-tied corset and fluffy canvas skirt. "You'll get to have a dagger, though—maybe a pistol."

"Definitely not a real one," Dean said with a shudder. He pulled out two practise foils from his trunk and tossed one to Seamus. "Flitwick let me borrow these, but if anything happens to it," he said ominously, "you'll be helping me earn the galleons to pay him back over the summer."

Seamus turned it over in his hand and parried clumsily, grinning. "Not to worry, mate," he said. "So long as I get to play with this, I'll be your calm, loving, obedient wench of the evening."

"See that you are," Dean said, mock pompously.

Meanwhile, Harry was sitting on his bed after having retrieved the package Alsace had previously given him, and looking through its contents. The first thing he removed was a rather ordinary—if somewhat high-quality—black robe. The second, however, was something Harry was all too familiar with: a very recognisable white mask. He gaped and quickly hid it underneath his disarrayed sheets before either of his friends saw it.

What in Merlin's name was she thinking? Harry wondered, heart beating quicker than usual. There was no question; he couldn't—and wouldn't—go as a Death Eater, of all things. Below where the mask had been, there was a note.


Harry,
I hope you remembered to open this alone, as I told you to do, but you seemed preoccupied at the time, probably with whatever it was that Draco Malfoy had just said to you, and I would not be surprised at all if you forgot. It was a joke, you see. I hope you laughed, but even now, as I am writing this, I suspect that you probably won't.

Do not worry; I don't mean for you to attend as a Death Eater—though imagine the stir it would cause!—but as a necromancer. Much less interesting, I know, but the subject intrigues me. I will be your Guiding Spirit, something all necromancers acquire when they first begin the Path to their calling.

The Guiding Spirits are always women, always dead, and always invisible to all except the necromancer apprentice. There are, however, enough records to describe them, so I had no trouble coming up with a suitably matching costume. Most wizarding-raised students will know what we are, so we won't have to spend a lot of time explaining.

The spells at the bottom will finish the effect for your costume by giving you the appropriate deathly pallor, translucent skin, and effect of wind constantly blowing your cloak in several directions at one time.

Please meet me outside the entrance to Gryffindor at seven forty-five.
-Alsace E Lestrange

Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

"So—back end of a centaur, is it?" Seamus asked. Harry looked up to see his...lover? Boyfriend?—decked out in his wench kit, practise foil dangling from his fingers and hair—magically extended—wrapped partially with a red scarf.

He snorted and held up the black cloak. "Nah—necromancer."

Dean rolled his eyes as he strapped his belt over a white tunic. "She's almost as strange as Romilda Vane."

Harry grimaced. "Hardly."

"No, really," Dean said, applying his eye-patch. "She's…odd."

"I want an eye-patch," Seamus said excitedly.

"Wenches keep both eyes," Dean replied, still focused on his conversation with Harry. "It's only polite…and really, who would want to go as a necromancer?"

Harry shrugged. "At least I'm not half a centaur."

"Point," Dean said. "I'd much rather be a necromancer than any part of a centaur."

Neville rushed in then, looking like he was only moments from a panic attack. "I never knew being a prefect was so much work!" he said, rushing over to his bed. He opened his trunk and started tossing his things everywhere, but it didn't make much of a difference, since their dorm was already a disaster area.

"Hermione got you working like a house-elf?" Seamus asked.

Harry snorted. "Don't let her hear you say that."

Neville looked up from his trunk only long enough to say, "Worse!" before returning to the task at hand. "She levitated me to the ceiling so I could hang all the streamers—she's mad! Surprised all my bones are still in one piece."

The other three boys exchanged a look. Hermione's magical prowess was all very well and good in theory, but it would be a cold day before any of them allowed her to levitate them anywhere, much less up to the ceiling of the Great Hall.

"Found it!" Neville said happily. He quickly shucked his school robes and began pulling on something entirely different. Something that looked suspiciously like an Indiana Jones kit to Harry, and, by the amused look he was getting, to Dean as well.
"What are you going as?" Harry asked, biting his lip. Oh, how he hoped Neville said he was going to indeed be Indiana Jones.

"Snorkack hunter," Neville said. "Luna's going to be the Snorkack." His eyes took on a strange, dreamy quality before refocusing. "I'm supposed to hunt her all through the party."

Seamus guffawed loudly. "I bet," he said. "And when you catch her?"

Neville blushed. "Snorkacks have never been caught before—what makes you think I'll catch one?"

"Never know," Dean said, shrugging.

Neville glanced at the clock in their dorm room. "Oh no! I've got to meet Luna at the Ravenclaw common room in ten minutes! Hermione's had me working since the end of the Quidditch game—" he paused, frowning a bit, and said, "better luck next time, right?"

Before they could even open their mouths to answer, Neville was out the door. Seamus looked back down to his outfit, specifically the full skirt. "Dean," he said. "Suppose you were a lad and did me—your forever best mate—a favour."

"What kind of favour?" Dean asked suspiciously.

Seamus removed two full bottles of Firewhiskey from his trunk and held them out. "Transfigure me a garter or two to hold these on—at least until I make it to the punch bowls."

"Not a part of this," Harry sang, covering his ears. "If I have any previous knowledge and Hermione finds out, I might as well be the back end of a centaur, since she'll have me gelded before I can properly cover my bits."

Seamus shuddered dramatically. "We'll just take this out of hearing range then, since I don't want you to be able to identify me if she asks." With an arm thrown over Dean's shoulder, Seamus led him from the room, muttering in a low, conspiring voice.

The last thing Harry heard before they shut the door was Dean hissing, "I knew you took it, you twat! I couldn't even have a decent wank last night, thanks to you!"

Harry snickered and lay back on his bed. He still had another hour before he was supposed to meet Alsace, and he could use a nap. There was something digging into his back, though, and with a growl, Harry dug through his sheets until he found it: the Death Eater mask.

His breathing hitched only once before he pursed his lips in determination and studied it, unbiased. He'd seen masks like this one more than once, and usually in frightening situations. The last time, however—well, the last time he'd seen one had been an altogether different experience.

He didn't even want to think about it, really. The mask was rather plain, actually. Unassuming. It was a dull white—not even shiny—with slanted holes for the eyes, an under pronounced ridge over the nose, and no opening for the mouth. It was plain, but maybe that was what made it so frightening—not the mask itself, really, but the knowledge that it could be anyone's face underneath.

Curiously, Harry put it on. He had no reason to do it, really, but…he shrugged. Why not? It stuck to his face, feeling as though it had actually become part of it, and the only indication that he was even wearing it was that he could still feel it with his hands. A shudder went up his spine and he removed it just as quickly as he'd put it on.

Where to put it? he thought. He would have to give it back to Alsace soon, but it needed to be put away before then. He couldn't even imagine the sort of trouble it would cause if anyone found it. Trouble, actually, was too mild a word. With a decisive nod, he slipped it under the mattress.

It was definitely time for a nap, and it took him no time to fall asleep. He dreamed, but the dreams were different from his latest ones—they were normal. They moved from playing Exploding Snap with Hagrid to kissing Seamus, who turned into Ron, to studying for Arithmancy. There was no singing and there were no voices calling his name. Absolutely normal dreams.

And then Ron woke him up with a shake of his shoulder. "Up you get, mate,” Ron said. "It's half-past."

Harry sat up groggily, rubbing his eyes. "Sorry, haven't been able to sleep lately."

Ron gave him a sharp look. "You didn't say—was it…?"

Harry shook his head. "Nah, reckon I've just been out-of-sorts…you know, a lot's been happening."

Ron nodded his head. He was already dressed in his King Arthur costume, but he didn't look quite as excited about going with Lavender as he had before. "Right…gonna be a necromancer then?" he asked, nodding to Harry's rumpled cloak.

Harry nodded, retrieved the note from Alsace, and mouthed through the spells before actually risking them on himself. "Yeah."

"Weird girl," Ron said, shaking his head. "But then, with parents like hers…" he trailed off, frowning.

"She's only even met them a couple of times, Ron," Harry said.

"I know—I know," Ron conceded. "It's just…I can tell that things are changing, you know. It's getting down to the line, here, and even I can see that everything's not so black and white anymore. It's just…hard," he finished. "Wasn't raised to think this way."

Harry acknowledged the statement with a nod and let it pass. Taking a deep breath, he attempted the first spell and watched as his cloak was gently lifted from the ground, floating and undulating as if caught in a varying wind.

"Nice trick," Ron said, grinning.

"Bet Snape uses a form of it," Harry replied. Encouraged that he still had all of his limbs, Harry quickly cast the remaining two spells and watched as his skin became paler and thinner, and the veins on his wrists stood on in stark contrast. "Ugh—I look like I'm dead."

Ron shrugged, unconcerned. Harry supposed this was due to his being raised in a magical environment. "At least you don't smell like you're dead, and besides, you still look better than Snape."

Harry grinned back at him. "Professor Sinclair said in class the other day that all of the teachers would be coming and dressing up, too. What do you think Snape'll be?"

Ron snorted. "A boggart."

Harry laughed. "Reckon it's time to meet our dates…where's Hermione by the way?"

Ron frowned as they walked to the door. "She was going to change in the antechamber. Said she didn't have time to come up here, so she brought her kit to the Quidditch game."

"Shame Ginny's got to miss it," Harry said as they thumped down the stairs. He, actually, quite liked the effect on his twirly robes. It was nothing on his favourite frock coat, but still fun.

"Yeah," Ron said. "Bad luck." They ducked through the portrait hole and found Lavender waiting, somewhat uncomfortably, next to Alsace. Harry went over to his date and gave her a quick smile.

Alsace did indeed look like some sort of spirit—whether she was guiding, or where she would guide, was still undisclosed. She'd used the same three spells on herself, but had also used the robe spell on her hair, making it, too, look as if it were caught in a slow-motion wind-storm. She was dressed in a gauzy, old fashioned, white dress and the veins in her neck and arms stood out, but not nearly as much as her eyes—looking quite ethereal—did.

"Shall we?" Harry asked, offering his elbow. She accepted without a word. With Lavender chatting non-stop on the other side of a half-interested Ron, the four of them descended to the Great Hall.

ɤɣɤ

Oh, how he had tried to get out of this.

He'd made excuse after excuse—using everything from religious grounds to the possibility of being summoned by the Dark Lord to, when all else failed, a fucking violent stomach flu—and yet, here Severus was: standing in front of his mirror and adjusting the last detail on his costume for that damned Halloween party.

After this little stunt, Granger would be asked her hand in marriage by one of his Slytherins before he let her pass his class. But, on the other hand, Severus reflected with a sneer, the odds of that were looking better by the day. Damn Nott and his damned grandmother's contemporary ideals. What had she been thinking, instilling such…virtues in him?

Severus Snape was not a baby-sitter. He was not a day-care service—no matter how much it seemed that he was at times—so why in all hells had Dumbledore insisted he chaperone this insipid event? There were plenty of chaperones already; Minerva, Pomona and Filius would already be there—along with Vector and Sinistra. That was chaperones enough.

And furthermore, Severus seethed, why was it so important that he 'partake of the festivities'? He held little affection for holidays of any sort, and even less for holidays which required something of him. All Hallow's had managed to retain a neutral stance with him until it became Halloween and he was forced to make a fool of himself. He'd never held well with fancy dress.

At least he had the early shift; he would go in, oversee the prefects as they made the final touches, find a nice corner to observe from, and stay exactly two hours. Not a minute longer. Theodore owed him for not making a fuss over this; granted, he'd not suspected he would be required to attend then, but the very idea of this get-together offended him to the very core, anyway.

House-unity indeed.

Growling in frustration, Severus flipped his cowl up and decided, at the last minute, to add one last touch to his costume. His wand swished, and everything was in place. If Dumbledore wanted him to get into the spirit of the thing, then he damned well would. Perhaps it would even keep the students away from him while he suffered this nonsense.

His shift started in ten minutes, and it would take that long to make his way to the Great Hall, so, with a final huff, Severus exited his rooms. This night had long held a tradition for tomfoolery, and even though he didn't think anyone would be stupid enough to try anything on him, he doubled-warded his doors, just the same.

Dumbledore was chatting with Minerva at the top of the stairs, and Severus stalked quietly towards them, hoping to slip by without being noticed. As he drew nearer, Minerva gave a little yelp, hand over her heart. They both turned, and Severus sighed in resignation. Lovely.

"Severus!" Dumbledore said merrily. "I thought I felt you coming."

"Good evening, Headmaster," he said, nodding. "Minerva."

"Severus, you can't use a spell like that around the children!" Minerva said. Severus barely refrained from rolling his eyes. "It will frighten them!"

"Good," Severus said sourly.

Dumbledore chuckled. "I, for one, think it could be a valuable learning experience."

Narrowing his eyes, Severus asked, "What do you mean by that?"

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled behind his spectacles, and he adjusted the red cap upon his head. "Nothing whatsoever," he said. "I must say, your costume is quite ingenious, Severus."

"Fitting," Minerva said with a frown.

Severus cocked an eyebrow. "Thank you. And who, might I ask, are you supposed to be?"

Minerva pushed her shoulders back and said, "Mary, Queen of Scots."

"Tragic," Severus said blandly. Minerva narrowed her eyes.

"I'm St Nicholas," Dumbledore said. He cleared his throat and added, "Ho, ho ho!—How does that sound?"

Severus shared a rare moment with Minerva, who was equally distressed by the headmaster's chosen character. "Like you were raised in London," he said, with no small amount of distaste.

Dumbledore frowned, stroking his beard. "I was raised in St Helens, actually." At their blank looks, he added, "In Merseyside."

"Excuse me," Severus said after a long pause. "I must attend to my duties." And he swept past them into the Great Hall, almost wishing he'd stayed around for Dumbledore's odd machinations once he saw the state of the room. It was disastrous; everywhere he looked there were orange and black streamers, live bats flying everywhere—no telling what kind of mess they would leave—gourds with faces carved into them...disastrous.

Granger was standing at the head table, discussing something—somewhat intimately—with Theodore. Severus made his way over.

"Oh my!" Granger exclaimed as he drew closer, and turned to face him, wand extended. Severus sneered.

"Put it away, Ms Granger."

Granger frowned, looking very much like she wanted to argue. Severus dared her in his head. At the last moment, she subsided, taking a deep breath. Nott was now standing a little closer to her—looking almost protective—and pursing his thin lips fretfully. Snape wanted to smirk; the poor boy didn't know what to do about it. On the one hand, there was Nott's wench, and on the other, there was every free weekend until he left school. Would standing up for Granger's skittishness really be worth all those detentions?

"Mr Nott," Snape said, "I would like a moment of your time."

To his disgust, Theodore glanced at Granger—as if to get her permission, the pathetic boy—before he followed. Severus led them to a corner relatively free of bats, produce and orange.

"Theodore," he said very slowly, and then changed his mind. He'd been planning to make Nott aware of just how much he owed Snape for putting up with this, but, something interested him further right then. "What are your intentions towards Granger?"

Nott shrugged and focused his gaze over Snape's shoulder. Theodore was one of very few students who came close to matching his height—Weasley and a sixth-year Ravenclaw being the only others. Severus thought it quite unfortunate for him, as it only made his otherwise lanky form look even bonier.

Add that to the fact that he was utterly plain in appearance—brown hair, brown eyes, with a nose, teeth and ten fingers—and Severus couldn't really blame him for setting his sights so low, but, honestly, Granger? Of all people…Severus didn't even know what to say. The Brown girl was less irritating than Granger.

"I like her," Theodore finally said.

Severus pursed his lips. That was an entirely unsatisfactory answer. And he hated prompting. He did it anyway, saying, "You could do much better,"—even if he didn't particularly think it true. Nott was a lot like he was as a child—standoffish and watchful, with few friends and even fewer prospects.

"She's Head Girl," Theodore said, eyes flashing for only a second.

"She's friends with Potter," Severus said.

Theodore narrowed his eyes. "Black's not so bad," he said, deliberately using the name.

"And Weasley?" Snape asked.

Theodore shrugged again. "Don't know him well; he's not in any of my classes this year."

"I imagine you will get to know him better if you move in on his…territory," Snape said.

Nott sneered. "He's had six years to move in himself, and he's not only made no effort to do so, but he's balked at Hermione's attempts. He had his chance and he lost it; I like her and I want her, and it'll be a cold day before I let a blind wanker like Weasley get in my way. If I don't get her, it'll be because she doesn't want me, not because I'm afraid of stepping on Weasley's toes."

Severus raised his eyebrows. "You seem quite passionate on this subject."

Theodore took a step back and stared right at him. "I know that you're less than fond of Hermione, Professor, but neither of us is blind and both of us know that I'll never get another chance like this. Hermione's gorgeous to me; I know that other people may see her as plain, but I'm plain, too. Blokes like me—we don't get second chances; if I've got a shot, I'm damned well going to take it."

With one last look, Nott turned and walked back to Granger, who greeted him with a toothy smile and immediately started chattering at him. Severus watched them only for a moment—seeing how Theodore subtly changed when he was talking to her. But that could possibly be due to his getting away from the effects of Severus' Unhappiness spell. It wasn't enough to make it obvious to just anyone, but for those who knew what to look for, it was.

Fine. He would leave Nott to this…potential disaster, if only because the boy's words had hit a little too close to home for him. He was certainly right: boys like them didn't get second chances. Severus knew that all too well; Theodore was much like he had been as a young boy, after all, and she had not given him a second chance.

A fifth-year Hufflepuff prefect waved her wand at a book of sheet music and three different festival songs all began playing…loudly and at once. Sneering and refusing to cover his ears, Snape decided it was time to retreat.

Right before he turned to stalk off to a nice, deserted corner, Severus saw Granger put her hand on Theodore's shoulder and lean up to tell him something over the noise. His hand automatically rested on her waist as he leaned down and that was when he noticed it. That—when Granger's gaudy muggle jewellery caught the light—was when Snape remembered that Headmaster Dumbledore had not been wearing the ring the Dark Lord had asked Snape to keep an eye on.

Dumbledore was no longer wearing the Gaunt ring, and that was of a definite concern to Severus' continued well-being.

"Fuck," he said, and slid quickly from the hall. Damn the infernal party—he needed to get an owl off as soon as was earthly possibly, and no amount of chaperoning would keep him from it. After all, Dumbledore's displeasure was considerably easier to bear than the Dark Lord's.

ɤɣɤ

"I have to go get changed," Hermione said, leaning up on her toes so he could hear her over the sudden noise. Theodore would have sneered at the Hufflepuff girl, but anything that got Hermione leaning up to him, and allowed him to put his hand on her waist in order to steady her was all right in his book.

"Of course," he said, leaning down as well. Hermione's hand was on his shoulder, and it was a nice feeling—he couldn't wait to dance with her. And he still couldn't believe she'd agreed to go with him, but Weasley's bad luck turned out to be his good luck. He was her second choice, he knew, but at least he'd been a choice.

"You've got your kit?" she asked.

Theo nodded. "Yes—I'm going back to the dungeons to change."

She smiled again. "I'll meet you at the doors then, in twenty minutes?"

"Of course," Theodore said again. The Hufflepuff finally fixed her faulty spell and the music settled into a quieter, lively beat. Hermione stood down again, and he fought a displeased frown. He'd quite liked her in that position.

"This was a great idea, Theo," she said as she stepped back and picked up the bag with her costume in it. "I think it's going to be a success."

"Well, of course," he said easily. "It's not often that I have a less-than-spectacular idea."

Hermione laughed. "Prat," she said, then turned and hurried over to an antechamber she'd set aside for changing in.

Theodore watched her go, knowing that there were very few people he allowed to make such disparaging remarks about him, and that she was definitely on the list. At least Weasley had already left to change; he wasn't about to give Hermione back to him without a fight, but he still didn't want to cause any excess trouble, and that little display, no matter how innocent it was, would have. He sighed; he was in over his head.

Or over his heels, perhaps. He couldn't decide which was worse.

Taking a last, cursory glance around the hall to make sure everything was in place, he made for the exit. Professor Snape had disappeared somewhere, and Theodore couldn't help but smile at that. It was no small secret in the dungeons that Snape was not in good spirits about this entire do.

He was surprised, actually, that Snape hadn't made mention of a debt, and Theodore owing him, for putting up with the thing when he'd spoken to him. Professor Snape was not one to let a debt slip by unacknowledged. Oh well.

He slipped through the milling prefects and their friends, and headed for his room. His Head Boy room could be accessed from the main hall, and while he usually preferred to use the Slytherin common room entrance, he was short on time tonight.

"Cognesce te ipsum," he said to the portrait guarding his door.

Hermione had insisted that he change his password from the default one assigned to his room by Snape, which was 'Up Slytherin'. It was, she said, in bad taste for a Head Boy to be so openly biased for his house, except for at Quidditch games. He should be, she'd said, someone that the younger students—from all houses—could talk to, and to have a password like that wouldn't make that easier for them.

Whatever. Theodore didn't care what his password was, so long as he knew it. And anyway,
only two students from another house had sought him out. The first had been a Ravenclaw fourth year girl who was questioning her sexuality, and had chosen to come to Theodore—as opposed to Hermione or his own prefects—because she didn't want to be analyzed…just given advice.

The other had been an overly plucky first-year Gryffindor who'd been given green and silver hair by a first-year Slytherin. He'd come to Theodore, he'd said, because he wanted retribution, and he figured another Slytherin—especially one with so much power—would be the best place to start. Theodore had wondered if the boy weren't placed in the wrong house, but the Sorting Hat was never wrong… At any rate, he'd liked the boy, and given him the first-year Slytherin's class schedule. The rest, he'd told him, was up to him.

A week later, the first-year Slytherin—a normally blonde girl by the name of Pandora—was sporting red hair and freckles. Incidentally, two weeks after that, Theodore caught them holding hands underneath the Quidditch stands, but that was neither here nor there. Every now and then, she would show up with the red hair, though. He supposed she was feisty, and that their young love was sprinkled with a healthy dose of quarrels.

He entered his room with a tired sigh and shut the door behind him.

"Long night?"

Theodore rolled his neck backwards, staring at the ceiling. "Can I help you, Malfoy?" he asked in resignation. All of the Slytherins had the password to Theodore's room with the understanding that they were not to abuse the privilege, but Malfoy probably assumed that this didn’t apply to him.

As long as he hadn't gone through his things, Theo would let it slide. After all, this was the first time this year that Malfoy had bothered to come to his room at all. If he was here, then it was probably at least moderately important.

Malfoy sat at his desk, backwards on the chair; arms perched on the back of it and legs straddling it. He looked bored, which wasn't all that unusual. It took a lot to keep Malfoy's attention for very long.

"What are your intentions towards the Mudblood?"

Theodore frowned, as Malfoy undoubtedly knew he would. It was a test, but as of yet, Theodore didn't know which answer was the correct one. No matter: Malfoy would tell him eventually. Most likely before he even left the room. He smiled, showing his crooked incisors.

Theo ran his tongue over his own teeth and fought to contain a smirk. "Fine—what are you planning to do about Granger?" he relented easily. And that, in fact, was not a manipulation from Malfoy. It seemed as though Theodore had passed whatever test he'd taken.

Theodore turned his back to get his costume out of his wardrobe. Their alliance was shaky, at best. They had never really liked each other overly much, but—except for sometimes—they didn't really dislike each other, either. And Slytherin loyalty was a strange thing; Theodore trusted Malfoy enough to turn his back on him.

"You're not the first to want to know tonight," Theodore said. Hermione had wanted to go as a muggle fairy-tale—something she'd explained further to him a couple weeks ago—and after hearing the story of Cinderella, Theo had decided that one was the best. After all, what was more ironic than two of the class's plainest-looking students going as a prince and his consort?

"Snape asked too, did he?" Malfoy asked. He'd reverted to the West Country dialect he'd had when they were kids, as he usually did when surrounded only by Slytherins. Everyone played a role, it seemed; it was such a small world.

Theodore glanced over his shoulder, eyebrow raised. "Of course," he said.

Malfoy laughed and propped his chin on the back of the chair. "You going to try to pull?"

Theodore shook his head, even though he was beginning to get an odd feeling of camaraderie between them because of this conversation. His other Slytherin friends talked about girls—and boys—all the time, but this was the first time he'd ever been a contributing part of the conversation.

Locating his costume for the evening, he began pulling his clothes off to change. "I'm going to try," he said, fighting a blush. "Why do you care?"

Malfoy shrugged. "Don't, really. Just wanted to know what steps I need to take next."

"For what?" Theodore asked. That was the big question. That was the question he'd been tested for, and he knew he'd passed it, so that only left the answer. What was Malfoy planning?

"For Potter," he answered.

Theodore shrugged his tunic over his riding pants and said, "Not his name anymore."

"Yeah—I know." Reaching into his pocket, Malfoy pulled out one of those damned blood-flavoured lollies he was so fond of, and stuck it in his mouth. They didn't, Malfoy claimed, actually taste anything like blood. He apparently knew this because he'd tested it once when he cut his finger in Potions. Just sort of salty, Malfoy said of them.

"So what are you doing with Po—Black?" Theodore asked as he laced his shirt. "And what does that have to do with me fancying Granger?"

Malfoy removed the lolly from his mouth with a smack. "If you're keeping Granger busy, it'll be easier to learn what Potter's up to—"

"You noticed that?" Theo asked. "He's been acting differently, and I don't think it's all to do with suddenly knowing who his biological father is."

Malfoy nodded distractedly. "Yeah—not only that, he's pretty much confessed as much to me. I think he's been testing me all year, though, for what, I've no idea. He knows something—is part of something—and I've got to find out what."

Theodore nodded. For as much of a brash idiot as Malfoy could be, sometimes he was truly intuitive as only a Slytherin could be. "What do you think it's got to do with?"

Malfoy sneered, but it wasn't at him. "Something he definitely doesn't want Dumbledore to know about, I know that. After all, he knows my views on muggle relations—he's got absolutely no reason to think I'd join him in a fight against wizarding ideals…and even I don't think he's stupid enough to think that."

Theodore could neither agree nor disagree with that. Black seemed to be changing, very subtly, but that didn't necessarily mean that he was any smarter. Carousing as he did with Weasley, Theodore didn't have much hope for him, honestly.

"So you think he's changed sides?" Theodore asked sceptically.

Malfoy shook his head. "No—I think he's…collaborating. In such a Slytherin way, in fact, that I question my own sanity for even thinking it."

Theodore laughed, as Malfoy had meant for him to. That was enough of an alert for him to change the subject. "Well, let me know how it turns out," he said, and Malfoy knew exactly what he meant. Casually, even though it wasn't necessary between Slytherins, Theodore added, "You coming tonight?"

Malfoy nodded, standing from the chair and stretching his back. "Yeah. I'm going with Pansy since she just broke it off with that Ravenclaw bint. I told her—I said, 'Pansy, you're not homosexual; what are you trying to prove?' and I was right, wasn't I?"

Theodore laughed again. "She was trying to reconnect with you, probably."

Malfoy shrugged, grinning with his crooked teeth. "Rubbish," he said. "Just because I don't want in her quim doesn't mean that I can't appreciate her. She knows that."

Theo wasn't so sure about that, but he let the comment slide with a quirky grin. Malfoy had such a trashy mouth. And also, a taste for bad jokes. "Black's a fairy, too," he said.

Malfoy smirked. "I know," he said. "Doesn't mean you'll be setting us up, though. He's not to my taste. Don't get any ideas, Nott," he added, and left through the Slytherin common room door. Theo was left wondering what, exactly, would be to Malfoy's tastes. He'd lived with the boy for seven years, and still didn't really know what Malfoy liked.

How strange was that? Especially for a Slytherin? It was then that Theodore realised that Malfoy might be brash, but if he could conceal parts of himself like that so thoroughly, it was quite possible that he was the best Slytherin of them all. The thought left him feeling a little blindsided. With a shake of his head to clear it, Theodore put the gaudy gold circlet crown on his head and left to meet Hermione.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Counter-Intelligence: (n) 1. The efforts designed to prevent enemy intelligence organizations from successfully gathering and collecting intelligence. 2. The classification and control of sensitive information or the active spreading of disinformation to mislead the enemy.

ɤɣɤ

The Halloween party itself was nothing to get excited over, really. Sure, it was a nice change, and the food was good, but Harry didn't really have much muggle experience with the holiday to speak of, and he knew little of the way wizards celebrated it. As it was, he felt like he was caught in-between the two worlds.

They went up to check on Ginny again before finally arriving, just as the party was starting up. She was still asleep, of course, but it was a shame she would miss it. It was even more of a shame the way Smith was giving Harry such a cocky look as he entered.

As far as fancy dress parties went, this was Harry's first, but even he could tell that it was a success. Students were dressed in both muggle and wizarding costumes, and even the professors were participating. Harry looked around for Snape, wondering what he'd come as, but didn't see him.

"You think he managed to get out of it?" Ron asked, reading his thoughts. He seemed to be having some trouble with his sword, cumbersome as it was.

Harry shrugged. "I don't know, but would you look at Dumbledore!" he added with a laugh. "He's got the wrong holiday."

Ron gave him a confused look, but was soon redirecting his attention in another direction. Hermione, dressed in a pink ball gown, was rushing towards them. Her shoes, Harry noticed, had been charmed to look like glass, and she seemed to be having trouble running in them. Harry couldn't really imagine anyone not having trouble running in things like that.

"It's great, isn't it?" she asked breathlessly. "Isn't it great?"

"It's great," Ron said. "I think—only we just got here. Where's the food?" Lavender, resplendent with her dark blonde hair set into waves and a pretty cream coloured dress, huffed.

"We're not here for the food," she said. "You just ate at lunch."

Ron shrugged. "That was hours ago."

No matter how much she complained, Harry reckoned that Lavender—from the way she looked at him—was smitten with Ron, and it was a terrible shame that he was so hung up on Hermione, who had obviously—to him, anyway—moved on.

Nott walked up then and nodded hello. "What do you think, Black?" he asked. Harry was shocked that he'd bothered to ask him, but after their lessons together, he supposed that a certain amount of sociability wouldn't be amiss. Especially considering Hermione. Harry wondered how long it would be before Ron figured it out that he'd lost her—this time, probably, for good.

He made a show of looking around the Great Hall before answering. "You went to a lot of trouble. And everyone seems to be enjoying themselves."

Nott nodded, smiling. "Hermione had wonderful ideas."

To his left, Ron muttered something unintelligible under his breath, but Harry chose to ignore it in favour of forgoing the hostility. "She's very clever," he agreed.

Hermione blushed and turned her face away. "Well, we have to go. We're two of the chaperons until nine o'clock."

Harry nodded and followed as Alsace tugged on his hand. She'd waited patiently while they spoke, and it was her turn to do what she wanted. Waving, Harry left Ron and Lavender to do what they pleased, and allowed himself to be led.

"This is my sister," she said when they stopped. The girl that Alsace pointed to was exactly like her in appearance, only her eyes were more demure, more calculating. She was lounging against another Ravenclaw girl that Harry didn't know by name, but as they approached, she stood.

"Lorraine," she said politely, holding out her hand. She, too, had no hint of French in her accent.

Harry smiled as he introduced himself, but was quickly left out as the conversation between the two sisters became more and more excited. They switched to French about five-minutes in, and Harry, rolling his eyes, excused himself.

This was his payback, he assumed, for being such a berk to Parvati in fourth year.

Grabbing a cup of punch and a couple of biscuits, Harry retreated to the north wall, where a haunted pumpkin patch scene had been set up. He propped himself on one of the overly large pumpkins—definitely from Hagrid's patch—and leaned against the wall, sipping his drink.

It had, Harry found, definitely been 'seen to' by Seamus. There was a strong flavour of Firewhiskey; so strong that it almost overpowered the original taste. He took another sip, grinning to himself.

"What's so funny to you?" a voice asked from above.

Harry looked up at Malfoy and took another sip. "Nothing."

Much to his dismay, Malfoy took a seat next to him on an adjacent pumpkin. The Bloody Baron drifted by, looking ominous, and Malfoy gave him a wave, which was returned with a nod.

"Theodore's going after your bird, you know," Malfoy said.

Harry snorted. "She's not my bird," he said.

"Right," Malfoy said easily. "I forgot. You don't go for the fairer sex, do you?"

"No more than you," Harry said bluntly.

Malfoy's eyebrows went up, but that was the only indication that he was even remotely surprised by Harry's words. "All right then," he said, nodding in acknowledgement.

Harry, becoming uncomfortable, shifted on his pumpkin. "What is it, exactly, that you want, Malfoy?"

"You know what I want."

"I know," Harry said, "but you don't know what I want."

"And what's that?" Malfoy asked. Harry only raised his eyebrows, making a show of looking around at all the people in the room. Malfoy sneered. "I doubt anything you're up to is of any interest," he said, but Harry could tell he was bluffing.

Harry laughed. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

Malfoy pursed his lips. "You would be surprised what I'm willing to believe, concerning you."

Harry glanced at him, downing the last of his drink. "I'm not telling you anything here—with so many people around."

"Smart move, Potter," Malfoy said, deliberately using the name. Harry rolled his eyes. "Shall we go elsewhere?" Harry rolled his eyes.

"Don't be such a toff, Malfoy," he said. "Everyone knows you're from Wiltshire." It was a joke, yes, but Harry had expected it to rile Malfoy up—to make him jump to his own defence, but instead, all it served to do was make Malfoy's lip quirk ever so slightly.

Malfoy stood, making a show of looking around. "Right," he said in an eerily perfect West Countries accent, "Pansy's run off with some Ravenclaw trollop; what say you and I get out of here, and take this somewhere you can answer my questions."

Harry stared at him for only a second before laughing. "All right, Malfoy," he said, standing. "All right. I'll go."

Slipping out of a side door, they exited the castle, walking, but not paying much attention to where they were going. It was cold out, and both of them found themselves casting heating charms around their persons simultaneously, which led to strange looks being exchanged.

"So," Malfoy said, once they were both wrapped in their little cocoons of warm air. He'd reverted to his usual poncy accent. "What are the terms?"

"The terms?" Harry asked, bewildered.

"The terms," Malfoy repeated snottily. "We have a truce now; I'd have thought that was enough."

"This truce," Harry said, "was a bit one-sided."

Malfoy scoffed. "It stands, nonetheless--for the time being, we’re at a ceasefire."

"Right," Harry said, fighting a smile. Malfoy was seriously batty. "What do you want?"

"Information," Malfoy said. "What do you want?"

Harry bit his lip, deliberating. To be honest, there wasn't much he wanted from Malfoy, if anything at all. Finally, sighing, and knowing that he was probably leaving something important out, he said, "I just want you to stop being such a git to me, and I don't want to have to worry about what I tell you to get into the wrong hands."

"Oh, you shouldn't worry," Malfoy said. He was grinning almost sinisterly.

Harry corrected himself: "I want you to swear, on your magic, that you'll never use what I tell you against me, or any of the people I care about."

Malfoy frowned. "It's quite rude," he said, "to demand something like that from me."

Harry shrugged. "Then I suggest you think carefully about how much this is worth to you."

After many long minutes, Malfoy finally nodded, albeit reluctantly. "All right." Harry narrowed his eyes and folded his arms in front of his chest, waiting. "Fine," Malfoy relented, "I swear, on my magic."

Harry grinned maliciously. "And I want that picture of your father you offered the other day. For Ron's Chocolate Frog cards. It'll look great with the pictures Alsace gave me of the Lestranges."

Malfoy sneered, but he didn't seem too bothered by it. "This had better be damned good, Potter," he said. Harry shrugged. He had no idea, really, how good Malfoy would think what he had to say to be.

"So—you swear, plus I get the picture, and I'll answer any of your questions. Fair?"

"Nothing's ever fair," Malfoy said. "But it's acceptable."

"Good," Harry said and took off at a run for the broom sheds. "Come on." He didn't check to see if Malfoy followed him; he was sure that he would, and if he didn't? Well, Harry wouldn't mind much. Fancy dress parties weren't exactly his thing, and he had to get away from the party whether Malfoy came or not.

Sliding to a halt in front of the shed, he dismantled the locks and wards with a few swipes of his wand, and pulled the door open.

"How'd you know the ward passwords?" Malfoy asked.

Harry smirked at him over his shoulder. "Every year since third year, Ron and I have made it a point to watch Madam Hooch set them. She likes to do it at 4:23 in the morning on the second of September, every year."

While the school brooms were nothing he would ever want to ride in a game, they had been refurbished in sixth year, and worked well enough for situations like this when he just wanted to fly, and didn't have time to go get his own broom. If the window wasn't open in their dorm room, summoning it would be a bad idea.

He pulled the only two Stargazer 1850s from the rack and tossed one to Malfoy. Malfoy caught it one-handed and stared at it incredulously. "These are a hundred and fifty years old," he said. "I can't believe we still have them."

"These don't shake, though," Harry replied. "Brooms were—"

"A lot sturdier back then," Malfoy finished. Harry frowned. "My mother collects old brooms," he said with a shrug. "I've listened to her chatter about the falling standards in broom-making for years. I was eight before she let me ride a new model; all of my early years were on antique brooms."

"Right," Harry said, looking at Malfoy strangely. He would have never guessed that Malfoy was the prattling type—nor, for that matter, would he ever have guessed that Mrs Malfoy was a broom aficionado. "Anyway, I don't want to talk about any of this on school grounds, so we need to get off them."

"Not scared?" Malfoy asked him, but he wasn't taunting; he was quite serious. "There're a lot of people out there that don't like you much, and on top of that, it's dark. No one would know you've left except me—do you trust me that much?" He still had that calculating, studying look on his face, and it made Harry justifiably uncomfortable.

"No," Harry said, just as seriously. "I just think you've overrated the current market value of my head."

Malfoy's eyebrows slid up slowly. "There are only a couple ways that you could know something like that," he said.

"Which is why we need to get out of here now," Harry said and hopped on the old broom. "Let's go south, but don't fly over Hogsmeade—McGonagall would never let me out of detention if she found out I left the grounds. There's something I've been wanting to see anyway."

ɤɣɤ

Draco considered himself a reasonable person. Really, he did, but when Potter constantly presumed to call all the shots, he admitted himself a trifle perturbed. It was one thing for Potter to decide the rules for this little game they were playing—after all, Potter had more to lose from it, and if Draco were honest, he would also admit that it was very nice of Potter indeed to even consider telling him—but when Potter expected to be able to make every decision during this small ceasefire, well, Draco did find some fault in that Gryffindor logic.

And it was certainly Gryffindor logic—so trusting. Potter hadn't even hesitated to explain about the brooms, and that was information that Draco would be hard-pressed not to find a use for before the school year was out. Even if it was only minor mischief.

As it was, though, Draco was also a very pragmatic person—even if he was a bit brash on occasions. He could admit that to himself, at any rate—especially since he was so pragmatic, and that pragmatism was all that kept him from opening his mouth and telling Potter exactly where he could shove that broom of his. And come to think of it, he'd probably already done so. Draco had briefly entertained the idea himself once before.

And anyway, Potter apparently had something interesting that he was actually willing to say to Draco. That was temptation enough for him to keep his mouth shut, at least for a while. After all, how often did Potter willingly speak to him? Civilly, at least? Draco couldn't actually remember it ever happening.

He removed a lollipop from his pocket and unwrapped it before following Potter onto a broom.

"What are you waiting for, Malfoy?" Potter asked him, exasperated, when he realised that Draco had not followed. Potter eyed the lollipop dubiously as he slid it into his mouth and Draco tried not to sneer around it at the inspection. The blood-lollies had never been a Hogwarts favourite, even in Slytherin, but Draco's mother had gotten him hooked on them as a child, and it was a guilty pleasure that he always indulged himself in these days—especially since Michael Corner dumped him for the Weasley bint several years back.

"I will return from this alive, right?" Draco asked after a moment, just to be certain.

Potter huffed loudly and swivelled his broom away. "Of course, you ponce. Get on the damned broom."

Draco narrowed his eyes at Potter's back, but got on the broom just the same, kicking off with enough force to make Potter duck as he levelled with him. "After you, Princess," Draco said with an elaborate gesture.

Potter refrained from spitting on him as he flew off, and Draco appreciated that like a parent would appreciate an infant not pissing in his face as it was changed.

They flew for a very long time it seemed—until the rolling countryside of the Scottish highlands became flat and the temperature, which was chilly to begin with, turned cold enough for Draco to start shivering on his broom. By the time they landed, his nose was running and he'd completely finished his lollipop; he was not in a good mood.

"What the fuck was this all about, Potter?" he snarled as he dismounted from his broom. They were in the middle of a big field surrounded on every side by ancient trees. The place looked as if it hadn't been disturbed in many years.

Potter was not in any rush to answer as he surveyed their surroundings, something that Draco did not approve of at all. Potter might not have many manners, but even Draco could see that Sirius Black had at least attempted to beat some into the brat.

Potter finally looked up at him, and Draco could see that the boy's face was just as wind-chapped and his nose just as runny. He grimaced as Potter wiped it on his sleeve.

"My dad donated this land to Zach Smith's mum…for her orphan project," Potter finally said. Draco was nonplussed and unimpressed. Surely Potter didn't think he'd come all the way out here just to hear about the goings-on with that twat Smith's mum.

"Come again?"

"Zacharias Smith," Potter clarified, looking around. "His mum works—"

"In the Department of Education at the Ministry, yes, I know," Draco finished for him, ignoring the odd look he got for it. "What does that have to do with the price of ice mice in Hogsmeade?"

"What do you want to know?" Potter asked him then, head cocked to the side. It seemed, that for the first time in his entire life, Draco had Potter's full attention. It was a strange, heady thing. "Do you even know exactly what it is that you want to know?" Potter continued. "Or do you just want to know something, anything?"

Sounds about right, Draco thought. He said instead, "What made you care? About the orphans? The politics of all of this? What do you hide from Dumbledore?"

Potter started walking, brushing his hands over the tips of the overgrown grasses, and Draco followed without thinking.

"Do you know who's behind all of this?" Potter asked. "The orphans, I mean?"

"Of course," Draco said, glancing at him. "We both know who's behind it. I want to know how you know it."

"Your dad," Potter said with a sideways look, apparently judging Draco's reaction to his words, "is the one dropping them off there. Your mum does the research and makes sure all necessary spells are cast before and after the…erm, relocation?—to make sure that no one ever notices or misses the baby."

Draco could feel his blood pounding in his veins, and he was no longer all that cold. Potter knew entirely too much; if any of this surfaced, his mother would never stand a chance against the courts…unless, of course, public favour swayed in her direction, but with his father's past incarceration, that was unlikely. The Malfoy name was not as prestigious as it once was.

"How do you know that?" he asked, because, after all, it was the reason they were there—so far away from Hogwarts and in some pasture who knew where. Potter continued to run his fingers over the grass, deep in thought.

"Over two years ago," Potter said, "there was a battle of sorts at the Ministry. I'm sure you remember it," he added wryly. Draco sneered at him. He certainly remembered his father being locked up. "And during that battle," Potter continued carefully, "I was possessed by Voldemort."

Draco rolled his eyes, completely over the snide remark and wholly focused on how completely—completely bonkers—Potter seemed. "You don't expect me to believe that you're still possessed, and that you're really the Dark Lord, having taken over Harry Potter's body two years ago, yet with the same terrible fashion sense?" Draco gestured at the ridiculous red stripe in Potter's hair and then at the frockcoat that Potter had taken to wearing, which would have been a lovely coat if it weren't so obviously part of a militia uniform. Potter seemed affronted, but said nothing of it.

"Of course not," he said instead, rolling his eyes. "You never listen, Malfoy. I was going to say that it intensified a link between our minds—created by this stupid scar—and that the result of this was that I—hmm…" Potter trailed off, looking very closely at Draco. That strange feeling he got from having all of Potter's attention was back, and he fought not to let it show.

Draco raised his eyebrows, waiting.

"Well," Potter said. "The end result was that one day over the summer, a particularly bad day actually, I was lying in bed thinking about Voldemort—" here Potter paused to fend off the smirk Draco was giving him, "—and when I fell asleep, I woke up right in front of him."

Draco laughed. He couldn't help it. "If only that would happen to me whenever I fall asleep thinking about someone I fancy."

Potter gagged, but he was fighting a smile. "No, thank you. And additionally, sod directly off, Malfoy, you stupid fuck. It wasn't a dream, erotic or otherwise. It turns out that when I fought him out of my mind, intensifying this link we have, it also gave him some twisted sort of respect for me. He tried to use the Killing Curse on me a couple times when I appeared in front of him, and I think he's even tried to poison my tea, but—"

"He offered you tea?" Draco asked suspiciously. This was ridiculous; Potter was a loon.

"Poisoned," Potter said defensively, as if that should've resolved all questions. "Well—at first anyway. I was always only partially corporeal, you know, so it never worked, any of the attempts on my life."

Draco rolled his eyes: when had an attempt on Potter's life ever worked? "So, you're talking about astral projection, then," he said to clarify. Potter nodded. "And how do you know that you're not just mad?"

Potter grinned very slowly. "I was there that night," he said. "That night you were denied the Dark Mark…"

Several things occurred to Draco right then, not the least of which was that Potter knew something that could get him put away in Azkaban for the next ten years. His entire body was stiff with tension, and it took him several long seconds to focus enough to recall that night, and when he did, one thing stood out more than any other.

He remembered feeling wild and feral with fear as his father, half-crazed from his stint in gaol, pushed him towards the Dark Lord—the Dark Lord he'd never before seen until that moment. He remembered that his eyes were wide with fright, but he couldn't see anything clearly, except those red eyes and that crooked, horrifying grin. He remembered the wariness he felt when he was denied the Mark—how he was so unsure whether to scream 'thank you' or look disappointed.

But what he remembered most clearly were the words, hissed at him and crackling with menace: “You are not ready, Draco Malfoy. You don’t know what you’re fighting for. But do not fret. I will make sure you know. When you return to Hogwarts, you will be given the opportunity to understand, and if you have the ability to think for yourself, you will take that opportunity and learn from it. If you do not, then you are not useful to me.”

He had been confused then. Now, though, he'd returned to Hogwarts a month ago, and yes, he'd noticed Potter's strangeness, even ignoring that he wasn't really a Potter. He'd had moments where he even suspected that Potter was the one the Dark Lord spoke of, but they were always mere moments. Never fully-formed thoughts. Never thoughts worth real consideration.

If I'm ready to be a Death Eater, then I have to find some esoteric meaning out of it all…and if not, then—then I don’t even have to do it. Yet, either way, the temptation to find out something new was strong, and whether or not he wanted to be a Death Eater, he wanted to know what Potter knew.

"What are you offering?" Draco asked. It was so windy there that he almost thought his words wouldn't be heard.

Potter seemed to understand exactly what Draco wasn't asking. "Tradition," he said, brushing the red stripe of hair out of his eyes, "requires wizards of sixteen or older to give support to the faction they advocate during civil wars."

"And if the wizard believes in neither?" Draco asked, even though he knew the answer already from growing up a Malfoy: to not help end a civil war was unacceptable; if the young wizard did not believe in either side, then he must fight for his father's side, so that one day he might fight for his own. Civil wars were terrible things in the wizarding world, where one lost life could be the end of an entire family line. But that wasn't what was important to Draco right then; what was important was that Potter was offering what the Dark Lord and Dumbledore weren't offering—he was offering peace, stability, and something new, yet traditional.

"Then one day, he will fight for his own," Potter replied.

Draco remembered looking at the Dark Lord warily, afraid that he was being set upon a trap. “How will I know who it is?” he had asked, and the only answer he'd received had been, “You will know.”

Behind them, a nest of Auguries started whimpering; Draco paid them no mind. "What are you offering?" he asked again. The traditional answer to that question repeated was—

"My family for yours," Potter said.

Draco bowed his head. He knew now; there was no room for doubt whatsoever. Harry Potter was indeed the one he'd been told to expect—he was the one meant to train him, meant to teach him how to be a good Death Eater…however Potter might do that. And furthermore, he'd just offered Draco something so important, so—

As a little boy, he'd dutifully learned all the wizarding customs and proper etiquette for every possible situation. But the older he grew, the less he was permitted to use these lessons: it seemed that with each passing year, another wizarding colloquialism or a certain handshake or vow was replaced with something to make the increasing numbers of muggle-born wizards more comfortable.

There were just some things that should never be done away with, Draco thought. History was one of those things, and for every muggle-born who found offence in the name of a god or God or gods, and was thusly rewarded when celebrations of sabbats and season changes were banned in public places, more of their—of Draco's—history was lost.

"I believe in the old ways," Draco finally said. "And in tradition—it builds magical strength and keeps our kind closer to the god of all things."

Potter nodded carefully. "You should," he said. "You were raised to, and you should fight to keep those practises in place."

"But?" Draco asked wryly. There was always a 'but'.

"You know the answer to that," Potter said. "There are practises and traditions that are already long gone from contemporary memory by now and you have no more right to re-enforce them than anyone else has to prohibit you from practising them.

Draco frowned. "But just because I don't have 'the right' to do it—"

"Doesn't mean it doesn't need to be done," Potter finished with him, nodding.

Draco smiled slowly. "Exactly."

It was then that the whimpering of the Auguries became cries and wails, and could no longer be ignored. Draco looked at his watch, saw that it was nearly one in the morning, and jumped on his broom.

"We have to go," he said. "It's going to rain."

Potter was already on his broom and kicking off. "I know—Hogwarts is north, north-west—maybe forty-five minutes."

"Why did you want to come here anyway?" Draco asked him as they slid above the clouds, almost in time to avoid the sudden outpour of rain. Potter was shaking his head to get the water out and casting drying charm after drying charm on himself. He wasn't terribly good at them, and Draco, feeling suddenly lighter than he had in years, pointed his wand and dried Potter in a single swish. The flabbergasted look he received in return was better than a hex, he supposed.

"Erm—thanks," Potter said. Draco merely waited. "Well," Potter continued, apparently returned to his usual state of confusion, "I just think it's a really good idea," he said. "What Mrs Smith is doing, you know. Most of us have grown our magic well before we're eleven—we should be learning to use it before then."

"So?" Draco asked. "That's was tutors and parents are for."

"But not everyone can afford tutors or stay home from work to teach—and really, not every parent is knowledgeable or even capable of teaching their kids. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to see where the school would go…try to imagine how it'll look or something."

Draco shrugged. He couldn't care less, really.

Potter gave him a wary look, as if he knew he'd just said too much to an enemy. Draco would've agreed under normal circumstances, but right then he was still light-headed from the decision he'd made. So Potter was a sap? So what? If there were more sappy wizards in the world, it would probably be a better place—in fact, it was a shame that Michael Corner hadn't been.

"Race you back," Potter said as they crossed over Perth.

Draco looked up from his musings just in time to see Potter speeding off. "Fuck—Potter! Potter, you twat!" he yelled, trying to catch up. It was almost a lost cause on these brooms, they definitely had a max speed.

Potter looked over his shoulder at him, stupid hair flying into his eyes and mouth and grinning like a Hufflepuff.

"Potter!" Draco yelled again. He was finally gaining some ground, and it was only another moment before he pulled even with the stupid boy. They followed the M90 to Perth, and angled northeast. By Braemar, they were still even, and Draco was beginning to freeze again; thank Merlin they were nearly there. Potter glanced at him from the corner of his eye, almost maniacal in his competitiveness, and at that moment, Draco felt like they might have something real in common, he just didn't know what it was just yet.

Hogwarts came into view just as Draco banged his shoulder into the other boy's, sending him swerving to the left. He pulled ahead with a laugh.

"I think I swallowed a Midge!" Potter yelled, gagging into one hand and trying to hold onto his broom with the other.

"It's the wrong season for those," Draco said. He was breathless from the racing, but wasn't stupid enough to fall for that trick.

"No, I'm serious," Potter said with another hacking cough. "It's biting my throat!" Draco glanced over his shoulder in time to see Potter spit a mouthful of blood into the hand that wasn't holding onto his broom.

"Oh good Mer—are you having me on, Potter?" Draco asked, still zooming ahead of Potter, but slowing down some just the same. "Potter, I swear if you're—"

Potter wiped his bloody hand on his pants and stuck his tongue out at Draco. "Just bit my tongue, actually," he said with a grin. "See you at Hogwarts!" and then he was ahead again, diving down towards the Black Lake and skimming over the surface, even as a tentacle slid out and provided a ramp to swing him back into the air.

"Potter, I hate you, and I hope you die on that stupid broom!" Draco yelled as he followed as quickly as he could.

Potter cackled jovially. "When I do," he yelled over his shoulder, "I'll make sure my epitaph says 'Did it for Malfoy'."

Draco laughed, genuinely—something he didn't do all that often. He took a forty-five degree dive and cut the other boy off near the Quidditch pitch. They were shoulder to shoulder to again now, and Draco could almost hear Potter's heavy breathing over the rush of the air past his ears.

When they—both too stubborn to pull up—skidded into the grass, scraping elbows and knuckles and knees, Draco was still laughing: something that he would be thinking about all weekend, and something that would confuse him for even longer.

ɤɣɤ

Lavender looked very pretty, Ron thought. He had always thought she was pretty, but tonight, when he walked out with Harry to meet her, he thought she looked exceptionally pretty. She wasn't bad at kissing, either.

"Are you having fun?" Lavender asked him, and Ron was jolted from his thoughts. He smiled at her shyly—why was he still shy around her?—and nodded.

"Yeah," he said. "You?"

Lavender giggled and grasped his hand underneath the table. They were sitting with Neville, Luna, Parvati, Padma, Zacharias Smith and Justin Finch-Fletchley. Ron didn't care much for Smith or Finch-Fletchley, but he honestly didn't think anyone cared much for Finch-Fletchley, so he didn't feel too bad about it.

Poor Padma, he thought. She had to spend the rest of the evening with him. He suddenly felt anxious—Lavender didn't think he was annoying like Finch-Fletchley, did she? He looked at her quickly, to gauge her interest, and just in time to hear her answer. He'd half-forgot that he even asked her a question.

"Of course," she said. "I always have fun with you."

Ron smiled smugly; he couldn't help it. It was times like this that he completely forgot about Hermione. Sometimes, Lavender would say something that made him feel on top of the world; Hermione never said things like that to him. Absently, he turned to search for her among the other students.

She was talking to McGonagall and Dumbledore, who both looked a little upset, and seemed to be questioning her. 'I don't know,' he saw her say, shaking her head. McGonagall pursed her lips and frowned at the Great Hall in general while Dumbledore said something undoubtedly witty and shrugged it off.

It was then that Ron saw that lunatic Nott jog up to them and stop next to Hermione, joining the conversation. He sneered at him, even though he knew Nott couldn't see him do it. It was the thought that counted.

"No one cares!" Smith suddenly hissed, and Ron turned back to his table. Smith was glaring daggers at Justin Finch-Fletchley, hands balled into fists and pressed hard into the table.

"Well, they should!" Justin returned just as angrily. He surveyed the entire table, eyes coming to rest on Ron, and added, "Shouldn't they, Ron? Even you have to admit that it's important."

"No idea what you're talking about," Ron replied easily. "Wasn't listening." Smith snorted and Lavender giggled, and Ron felt on top of the world again. Poor Padma, he thought again. She looked extremely embarrassed by her date.

"Ronnie," Lavender said. Ron looked up, only moderately more satisfied with this nickname than the one that had come before it. "I'm thirsty—would you get us some punch?"

"Course," he said. He needed to stretch his legs, anyway—maybe see how Harry was doing with his date. Ron suppressed a shudder as he rose from the table; he just couldn't understand how Harry could stand to be around someone whose own mother was responsible for Sirius'…well, alleged death.

He took one last look at Lavender before heading off; she was already engrossed in a rapid-fire gossip session with Parvati, and wasn't likely to miss him any time soon. He could go see how Harry was holding up, find out the latest Quidditch scores, and be back in time to suffer through a couple more dances. He really should have taken a leaf out of Neville's book and gotten those dance lessons, but Lavender didn't seem to mind how bad he was.

Sliding his way through the throngs of students—even some of the Slytherins looked to be having fun—Ron made his way to the refreshment table in search of punch. He found it at the end, near where Pansy Parkinson was talking to a Ravenclaw girl that Ron didn't know. He sneered and then busied himself pouring two goblets.

He didn't like any of the Slytherins, but he could keep his mouth shut tonight at least for Hermione. She'd put a lot of effort into this House Unification nonsense, and he wasn't going to be the one to cock it up; he'd leave that to someone else. And then, perhaps, when Hermione saw how mature he was being, she'd consider it a success and leave it alone.

"…have to stop," the Ravenclaw girl said in a hushed tone. "You can't keep doing this." Ron smirked as he gathered his two drinks and quietly slipped away before he was seen. Of course, leave it to a Slytherin to be constantly up to something. He had to hand it to the Ravenclaw for standing up to Parkinson like that.

Ron glanced over his shoulder one last time to see that Parkinson was glaring at the Ravenclaw girl and her eyes…looked a little bit shinier than usual. He snorted and continued on his way. He had to find Harry and tell him; it was hilarious: someone had actually called Parkinson out on her most-likely-evil deeds and Parkinson was playing the Guilt Card. Priceless.

Judging by the crowd, Ron suspected that the entire school had shown up for this event—which was really brilliant—but it meant that he couldn't see Harry anywhere. He was probably moping in some corner trying to think of something to say to his crazy date. After three circuits of the Great Hall, Ron still couldn't find him, so he just decided to go back to Lavender. She was probably really thirsty by now.

And come to think of it, Ron was too. Absently, as he was trying to find a way through the dancing students, he took a sip of his punch. He paused. And then he took another sip. This—did not taste like punch; in fact, it tasted like…Ron pursed his lips. Someone had spiked the punch.

Hermione needed to know immediately. If he were to bring something like this to her attention, it would certainly get her off his back about 'depression' and 'addiction' and other stupid things like that. He changed his course, backtracking to find her. He'd last seen her talking to Dumbledore and McGonagall, and he could see Dumbledore's tall red hat from here.

She wasn't there, though, which was a little annoying. He'd already spent twenty-minutes looking for Harry; he didn't want to spend another twenty looking for Hermione. He was about ready to give up when he noticed that the door to the antechamber Hermione had been using to store party decorations in was slightly ajar.

Of course. She was probably restocking sweet bowls or something.

He slipped inside, and took a look around, craning his neck over the various boxes in the room. She was no where to be seen, and Ron, frowning, stepped further into the room. There was the sound of movement behind one stack of boxes, and he smiled, knowing he'd found her.

Still grinning—Hermione was going to be so proud of him—he stepped around the box, saying, "Hermione…" And stopped dead in his tracks, dropping both cups of punch. They splattered all over the floor—little red rivers like watered-down blood—but he barely noticed.

He only noticed one thing, actually: that Hermione was pressed against the side wall between two stacks of boxes and…Theodore Nott. Theodore Nott, whose hair was messier than Harry's on a bad day, whose face was shocked and red, and whose body was pressed against Hermione's back and whose hand was tangled in her curly hair. Hermione gasped and her eyes opened, and locked with his, but not before he noticed that her lips were swollen and red and that she was breathing far heavier than he'd ever seen her do.
"Ron!"

"I uh—I was going to tell you," Ron stuttered, "I was going to tell you someone spiked the punch…maybe you'd want to know…fix it or something," he said, and ran from the room. He didn't stop when he got back to the Great Hall; he kept running, passing the table he'd been sitting at and ignoring the worried call of his name from Lavender. He didn't stop until he made it all the way back to Gryffindor Tower, and when he got there, the Fat Lady didn't even ask him for the password.

At the time, he thought nothing of it, but when he finally threw himself down on his bed, out of breath and panting, he realised that his face was soaking wet, and maybe she'd been too startled by that to even bother.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Counter-Intelligence: (n) 1. The efforts designed to prevent enemy intelligence organizations from successfully gathering and collecting intelligence. 2. The classification and control of sensitive information or the active spreading of disinformation to mislead the enemy.

ɤɣɤ

On Monday, over a week after Harry and Malfoy had flown together, he walked to Arithmancy with Hermione and Nott, while Malfoy skulked along behind them, arguing with Zacharias Smith about something inane. They were always arguing, though; usually about things that Harry didn't understand—such as the proper way to formulate an Ancient Runes table or what a constellation meant, depending on where it was at what time. Only now they argued around Harry, being as he was friends—of a sort—with each of them.

The walk was quiet and awkward, something that Harry had never experienced with Hermione. She was strangely reticent, and he still hadn't been able to get her to tell him what had happened between her and Ron. Even more strange, he hadn't been able to get it out of Ron, either. All he knew was that they were fighting—he was pretty sure, anyway—they weren't talking, and he was caught in the middle. He rolled his eyes; it was like fourth year all over again, only without Krum lurking about.

"Did you finish your homework?" she asked him. Well, Harry reconsidered, she was talking to him, but it was stilted—small-talk, really.

"Yeah," Harry said. "We just had to answer the questions at the end of the chapter, right?"

Hermione nodded. "Have you finished your Transfigurations and DADA essays for tomorrow?"

"Yeah."

"What about Potions?" she continued. "Do you understand what we've been doing in class?"

"Sort of," Harry said. He glanced over at Nott to see what he thought about all of this, but Nott was looking straight ahead and saying nothing. He'd been quiet in Potions, too, now that Harry thought about it. Harry narrowed his eyes; Krum might not be around, but Nott was, and he'd certainly had his suspicions about the two of them—

"Well, if you need me to go over it with you—"

"Did Ron find out?" Harry interrupted her, bluntly. Nott looked up quickly. So, he had been paying attention. Harry pursed his lips. He didn't care who Hermione dated, but if he was going to have to deal with Ron sulking over it, he wasn't going to be very happy.

"Find out what, Harry?" Hermione asked. She was terrible at evasion.

"Don't insult him, Hermione," Nott said quietly. "You know what he's talking about." Harry nodded in affirmation.

"How did you know?" she asked with a sigh.

Harry shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not completely oblivious, you know."

Hermione grimaced, glancing around her. "We haven't really discussed it, you know," she started. "Theo and I, I mean."

Nott raised his eyebrows. "I assumed it to be understood," he said to her. When she gave him a blank look, he added, "What? You want me to ask you to be my girlfriend?"

Hermione snorted and slapped his shoulder. "Nothing quite so frivolous," she answered.

Harry cleared his throat. "Ron?"

"Weasley saw us kissing," Nott said with a shrug. Harry winced: poor Ron. "It wasn't the way I would have wanted him to find out, but what's done is done."

"He's being ridiculous about it," Hermione added angrily. "I tried to talk to him yesterday, but he's acting like…like a git! He just sneers at me and leaves the room."

"He's pretty besotted with you," Harry said frankly.

Hermione rolled her eyes, but it was Nott who spoke, saying with a cheesy grin at Hermione, "Small world." Hermione slapped him again.

"Ron's just going to have to get over it," she said matter-of-factly. "I gave him innumerable opportunities, and, I'm sorry Harry, but I'm just not interested in him any longer." She shrugged, unrepentant.

It was then that Malfoy loped up to them, falling into step next to Nott and pounding him on the back cheekily. "Good for you, Nott," he said. Nott pointedly brushed his shirt off and gave Malfoy an arched look.

"Nice to see you again, Malfoy," he said. "It's been ever so long."

Malfoy ignored him, instead focusing on Hermione, who looked entirely uncomfortable with the attention. "So, landed one, have you, Granger?" he asked. "Nott's a respectable catch—decent standing, and his Gringott's vault isn't entirely empty."

Hermione looked disgusted, and really, Harry wasn't far from it himself. Nott, on the other hand, looked quietly amused.

"Malfoy, you disgusting insect," Hermione said. "I'm not after his money. Don't ever presume to insult me in such a way again, or I'll make that pretty little face of yours look like the back-end of a flobberworm."

"You little—"

"Malfoy," Harry and Nott said simultaneously. Malfoy sneered at both of them and then turned back to Hermione.

"I don't like you, Granger," he said instead. "I think you're a pretentious little bitch, actually, but I have some small amount of respect for Nott, so I'll temper my tongue when in your presence, but I promise you: raise your hand to me even once and I'll raise mine right back. I have no compunctions about hitting a woman—or a girl, as the case may be. Furthermore," he added, "fuck off. It was a joke, you toff."

The awkward silence from before returned; Harry wasn't sure whether to defend Hermione or laugh at Malfoy's fucked-up sense of humour. Judging by Nott's look, he didn't know quite what to do, either.

He should have known that Hermione could take care of herself, though. She proved it with her next words.

"Given that I'm unaccustomed to your admittedly lacking sense of humour," she said archly, "you'll forgive me my breach of etiquette. Also, bugger off, this is a private conversation."

"Not anymore," Malfoy said easily. "Potter's my Arithmancy partner."

"Black," Hermione and Nott said together. Harry shrugged, unconcerned. Malfoy was determined to ignore his parentage, for whatever reason, and Harry really didn't care anyway.

"Oh, and here we are!" Malfoy said, ignoring them as well. He stopped in front of the open door and turned to them with a sarcastic grin. "Here's to hoping Potter and I get the best cursed item, and you two have to deal with a jinxed bidet."

"Fucker," Nott muttered under his breath as they followed him into the room. Hermione obviously agreed, since she didn't chastise him for language.

"Actually," Harry said, as he sat down next to Malfoy at their table, "I already know what we're getting."

Malfoy gave him a blank look.

"Our item," Harry clarified, rolling his eyes. "For the project." Malfoy was so utterly frustrating, even when they had a…truce. Or whatever.

"You would," Malfoy said.

Harry waited. "Don't you want to know what it is?"

Malfoy pulled one of those terrible blood lollies from his pocket and unwrapped it. "I like surprises."

Harry sat back in his chair, disgruntled.

"Good afternoon," Professor Vector said as he entered the classroom, arms laden with papers and books. "Pass up your chapter questions, and Mr Zabini, if you would come hand out last week's marked essays?"

Harry passed his homework up with a sigh. He hadn't been lying to Hermione; he really had done his questions, but he wasn't altogether certain that they were correct. He glanced at her sitting next to Nott across the aisle, wishing that they could switch seats; Nott was really the only one who could explain this stuff to him.

"As Mr Zabini is passing back your essays," Professor Vector continued, "I'd like to take a moment, before we discuss the project you'll be properly beginning today, to discuss my thoughts on your comprehension of this chapter.

"As a whole, I was disappointed," Vector continued just as Zabini handed Harry his marked essay. Harry didn't blame the professor; he was disappointed, too. He thought he would have got an A on that essay, but he'd only scored a P.

"Our two new students this year, Mr Black and Ms MacDougal, I can understand: they were moved into this class when the upper-year beginning class was cancelled. The rest of you?" he said blandly, "Terrible. Not a single O out of the whole class."

Harry glanced over at Hermione and Nott, who were both staring so incredulously at the marks on their papers that he doubted they had even heard the professor speak. Beside him, Malfoy scoffed, muttering, "I knew I should have triple-checked the equation…such a fucking stupid mistake."

"What did you get?" Harry asked him, craning his neck to see.

Malfoy glared at him and covered his mark, but he still answered, "An A; can you believe that? It's hippogriff shit! Use the wrong formula on one single question and he takes off two whole letters!"

"I got a P," Harry said with a shrug. "Better than a Troll, I suppose."

Malfoy scoffed again. "You haven't been taking the class for four years. Also, you're an idiot; it's expected of you."

Harry rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to Professor Vector, who was still droning on about how utterly appalling the scores were.

"And so," Vector said at last, "I feel it prudent to reinstate a program I used when I first started at Hogwarts. Working with your project partner, you will be required to log three hours per week studying the worksheet Mr Zabini will now be handing out."

Zabini sighed and stood back up to collect the worksheets.

"These worksheets are similar to the ones you received in your second year. They include a study guide listing all known Arithmantic theorems and formulae plus irregular formulae and suspected theorems. The worksheet attached contains solvable and insolvable equations, which you must, as a team, complete each week. After you have spent the required three hours working on them, they will copy to your file for me to mark; if you finish the equations before your three hours are up, more will appear. Working on your partner project will not count towards the time limit. Are there any questions?"

There was a collective groan from the class, but no questions. Harry scanned the packet that he and Malfoy were given and chuckled bitterly to himself. "It would have been brilliant if he'd bothered to give this to me before. Might've made this nonsense a little more understandable."

Malfoy was not amused. "Most of these are noted in the textbook, Potter. If you'd really given a damn, you might have actually read it."

"I did read it," Harry insisted. "I just don't understand it. I mean—how can twelve to the fourth power equal a 'Middle Magic fire charm'?" he asked, waving his hand at one of the corrected answers on his paper.

"Easily," Malfoy said blandly. "All Arithmantic equations have to be worked backwards before they can be worked forwards, right? So, in the information you were given, it said that the original spell included four waves and three swishes, thus, multiplied, twelve. You got that far, right?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah."

"You were multiplying an odd, prime number by an even number. Whenever you multiply odd by even, it will always be Middle Magic. Even by even is Old or Dark Magic, so odd by odd would be…?"

"Light?" Harry guessed.

Malfoy shrugged. "New Magic, really, but they've started calling it Light Magic within the last few hundred years."

That was news to Harry, but at least it sort of made sense now. He could now see where the 'Middle Magic' part of the answer came from, but he still didn't understand the fourth power part. He'd guessed on the answer and arbitrarily come up with a 'Spell to Make Apples into Orchards'. "And the rest?" he asked.

Malfoy gestured at the parchment. "Then, it goes on to say that the outcome was twelve to the fourth power, but originally, the spell lasted seven heartbeats and two breaths, and that there were ten variations. So you start with your time indicators—the heartbeats and breaths—and you multiply again. Seven heartbeats times two breaths is fourteen. Subtract the ten possible variations and you get the fourth power, see?"

"No," Harry said bluntly. "I see where the four came from, but I don't understand how you got a fire charm."

"Oh, well that's easy enough," Malfoy said. "If your heart has beaten seven times in the space of two breaths, you can deduce that it is an adrenaline-affecting spell since the average spell is performed with the same amount of heartbeats as breaths."

"Okay," Harry said dubiously.

Malfoy gave him a look and then continued. "So, you know it's an adrenaline-affecting spell, that it's Middle Magic and that there are ten variations. That's when you would consult your supplementary text, assuming you haven't memorised all the spells as you would have been required to do, had you taken the first two years of Arithmancy."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I did sign up for the beginning class; I can't help that I got moved."

Malfoy shrugged. "Not my problem, but if you didn't understand, as most wizarding children would have," he said pointedly, "you should have asked for help from Vector." He reached into his bag and pulled out a thick book, tapping it with his wand and saying: "Middle Magic, ten."

The pages flipped and rustled, finally stopping near the end. "See?" Malfoy said, pointing to the text. "It's a voice-activated text. You can state the type of magic and the amount of variations, and it will bring up all known spells that fit."

He ran his finger down the page, searching. "This part is a little time-consuming sometimes, but there's always only one answer—at least until you get to the Advanced Squared stuff—so if you've done your equations right, you should have no trouble…and see—here it is: Middle Magic, ten variations, Fire Charm: 'An adrenaline-affecting spell'."

Harry looked over Malfoy's shoulder. "That's it?" he asked incredulously. Malfoy hadn't been lying; there were at least twenty spells on the page, but only the fire charm was listed as 'adrenaline-affecting'. "That's all I had to do?"

"Pretty much," Malfoy said.

This was absurd. This whole time, Harry had thought that, really, Arithmancy involved a little bit of skewed math and an educated guess, but here Malfoy had explained it—even better than Nott had!—all in the span of five minutes.

"So," Harry said slowly, looking at his other missed questions. "In number three, where it says the outcome is six to the negative second power…that would be…erm, let's see. It says the original spell was two flicks and three stabs, so…Middle Magic because one's odd, one's even?"

Malfoy nodded.

"And then, two heartbeats and two breaths, and six variations, so a normal spell. Two times two is four, minus six is negative two, so that's where the negative second power comes from, right?"

"Yes," Malfoy said with a pleased sort of smirk on his face. "But what kind of spell is it?"

Harry pulled his own book from his bag and said: "Middle magic, six variations." The pages flipped to the middle and stopped. "Erm…a fever-reducing spell?" he asked.

Malfoy grinned, and Harry noticed that his teeth were pink from the lollipop. "Yes, exactly. And why isn't it a wart-remover or fabric-dying spell?"

Harry glanced back at the text. "The wart-remover spell is ‘a negative adrenaline-affecting spell’, and the fabric-dying spell is 'an assumed irregular count spell'—what's that?"

"Something too complicated to explain right now," Malfoy said.

"Oh," Harry said. "But—I was right, then? That's all I had to do?"

"Yeah," Malfoy said. "That's it; of course, in the Advanced-Squared class, it gets more complicated, but you can use that formula or a longer variation of it for almost everything we'll do this year."

"Mr Malfoy, if I may have your attention, I think that what I'm saying may be of some small interest to you," Vector said loudly.

Malfoy sneered at his desk and said, "Apologies, sir. I was explaining something to Potter."

"Mr Black may ask me any questions he has after we've discussed the project, Mr Malfoy. Please refrain from making excuses."

"As you wish, sir," Malfoy said contritely. Harry didn't buy that act for a minute, though; Malfoy was still sneering at his desk.

"As I was saying," Vector continued, once again monotone and bland. "Mr Zabini"—here, Zabini rolled his eyes as he yet again got up from his desk—"will be passing out various cursed, hexed or jinxed items, according to your skill level, for your term project.

"You will be given an information sheet pertaining to your item that lists three known factors. Your assignment for the project is to not only determine the type of spell adversely affecting the item, but also to discover a way to remove it. Points for creativity, efficiency and your physical health at the end of the project. This project will count as forty percent of your final mark, so I suggest you do not take it lightly. Assignments will be due after the holidays; that gives you two and a half months to complete it. Any questions?"

There were, again, none. Zabini stopped at their desk with his box full of items and pulled out the tacky ring Dumbledore had shown Harry the week before. The little tag hanging off it, Harry saw as Zabini set it on their desk, said 'Black, Malfoy'.

"Don't lose a finger, Black," Zabini said, walking away.

Harry rolled his eyes.

"That's it?" Malfoy asked, looking at the ugly ring. He, apparently, was so surprised that their item was only jewellery, that he'd actually taken the lollipop out of his mouth and set it on the desk. "Jewellery? Jewellery curses are always so…so mundane!" he hissed. "Surely my skill level more than makes up for your lack, Potter…why are we getting a ring, when Nott and Granger are getting a dagger?"

Harry shrugged, disappointed for some reason. "I don't know—Dumbledore wanted us to do this. He seemed to think that it would keep us occupied."

Malfoy pursed his lips. "There better be a really outstanding curse on this ring, Potter."

"I'm not the one who picked it," Harry said defensively. The bell signalling the end of class chimed, and they started packing up.

"Slytherin has Quidditch practise tonight," Malfoy said as he stood. "Meet me in the library after dinner on Thursday to start on the project."

Harry didn't even have a chance to reply before Malfoy was out of the room. He watched him hurry through the door with a scowl on his face. Malfoy might not be acting like such a git around him right now, but that didn't mean he wasn't one.

Hermione and Nott stopped at his desk on their way out, waiting for him to finish packing everything up. He started to put the ring on his finger for safe-keeping, but stopped at the last moment. Surely, it was insanity to wear a cursed item. He stuck it in his pocket instead.

"What did you get?" Hermione asked. "We got a ceremonial dagger."

"A ring," Harry said, noticing the telling looks that Hermione and Nott gave each other. Really, how boring could removing a curse be? So what if it was just a ring; it was still a curse to remove, and that sounded pretty interesting to Harry. Sort of, anyway.

"Oh—well, I was just going to say that Madam Pomfrey said she was going to let Ginny out about this time today, so maybe you should go help her carry her things back to the Tower."

"Aren't you coming?" Harry asked, as he slung his bag over his shoulder and walked with them out of the classroom.

Hermione pursed her lips. "I think," she said slowly, "that with you and Ron, she'll have enough help."

"Oh," Harry said. He sighed. "All right then, I'll see you at dinner."

Hermione nodded as they parted ways and called, "Bring your Arithmancy book and I'll help you study."

Harry turned around, walking backwards so she could see the full effect of his grin as he said, "No need! Malfoy explained it; it's so simple, now!"

Hermione's mouth dropped, but Harry paid it no mind as he turned back around and jogged to the Infirmary.

ɤɣɤ

Ron was already waiting on the floor by the door with his Divination book propped on his lap when Harry got there. The overly bright smile that Ron gave him was obviously fake, but if Ron was trying at all, then Harry knew that he certainly didn't want it brought up, so Harry played along, smiling right back.

"What are you doing here already?" Harry asked. "Divination's on the other side of the castle."

Ron shrugged, his smile turning a little more genuine as he answered. "I skipped," he said smugly. "Trelawney told me I was going to be terribly unwell, so I asked her if I could go ahead and come to the Infirmary before I got sick all over her fluffy poufs. She sent me down straight away."

Harry laughed. "What time is Ginny getting out?"

Ron stood, stretching. "Pomfrey said she'd let her out after the last class today, so I reckon right about now."

"Brilliant. I bet she's been really bored," Harry said. Madam Pomfrey gave them a stern look as they entered, but allowed them through the doors anyway, nodding them in the direction of Ginny's bed.

"Nah," Ron said. "Mum and Dad have been up here fussing over her all weekend, and the twins sent her some…questionable sweets. Yesterday, she told me that a rainbow-coloured one made everything all swirly and sparkly for hours, and that she found the meaning of life or something after she ate it…but she won't tell me what it is." Ron grinned at him, shrugging.

Harry raised his eyebrows. He wasn't sure if those kinds of sweets were legal, much less safe for giving one's little sister, but he didn't say anything. What bothered him more, actually, was that Ron had apparently been spending a lot of time up here as well over the weekend. He felt terrible: he'd been so busy—mostly trying to figure out his Arithmancy chapter questions—that he'd neglected Ron all weekend.

And it had been a weekend that Ron probably needed him around. He hadn't known at the time, of course, but…if he had been so smitten with Hermione, and then seen her kissing Nott, he probably would've wanted Ron around…if for nothing else, than just to have someone to smash things with. Or a distraction—which was probably what Ginny's hospitalisation was for Ron, actually.

Ginny was standing beside her bed at the far end of the room, muttering as she tried to stuff things into her overnight bag.

"Want some help?" Harry asked.

Ginny turned to them absently, then back to her bag. "Merlin—I know I didn't come in here with all this stuff!" she said. "Honestly, it was just a broken ankle…"

Harry glanced at all the little trinkets around her bed—a big stuffed dragon, probably from Charlie, a dangerous looking gift-basket from the twins, cakes from her parents, Ron's Chess board, and several vases of flowers. "How come I never got any of these things when I was hurt?" Harry asked archly. "I'm in here all the time, and no one ever sends me flowers!"

Ron cuffed him. "Don't be a prat, Harry," he said with a laugh. "You're not pretty enough for flowers."

Harry huffed.

"You two can carry all this, if you want," Ginny interrupted with a grin. "I'll get the dragon."

"Of course you will," Ron said indulgently. "Wouldn't want to put any stress on that ankle."

"Absolutely not," Harry affirmed. "You're much too delicate." Ron nodded.

Glowering at them, Ginny plucked the dragon from the bed and started out of the Infirmary. "Indeed," she said as she was walking away. "Luckily, I have two big, strong idiots to carry it all for me."

"We walked right into that one," Ron bemoaned as Ginny flounced ahead of them; no more delicate than Hagrid. "Should've seen it coming."

Harry chuckled. "Lots of things we should've seen coming—we never learn, do we?"

Ron shrugged, attempting to reposition his load; he was carrying the shady-looking basket from the twins and trying to keep it as far from his person as humanly possible without dropping it—which might also be detrimental to his continued health. "Might one day. I'm holding out hope for it, anyway." This statement was accompanied by a strange, faraway look that Harry chose to ignore, in favour of changing the subject.

"We should probably have an extra practise this week and next week," he said. "It was bad enough losing to Zach Smith, but I don't think I'll be able to stand it if I have to listen to Malfoy gloating for the rest of the year."

Ron grimaced at the reminder of that terrible game, but asked, "What d'you mean? Just punch the git and walk away."

Harry frowned as he pushed his hair behind his ear. "Can't—the git's my Arithmancy partner."

"Rotten luck," Ron said sympathetically.

Harry opened his mouth to say that Malfoy wasn't quite as bad as they'd always thought he was, but changed his mind at the last minute. Ron wouldn't believe him, and even if he did, hearing that all Slytherins weren't bad was the last thing he needed after the whole business with Nott. Instead, as they reached the top of the stairs, he said, "Yeah—you think Ginny'll be fine for practise next week?"

Ron shrugged. "Madam Pomfrey just said to stay off it for this week. She didn't say anything about next week—and besides, if you're on a broom, you're not really on your ankle, are you?"

"Guess not," Harry said with a grin. He paused to readjust the huge load of stuff he was carrying, and added, "We're gonna kill 'em." By which he meant Slytherin.

Ron nodded. "They don't have a chance."

ɤɣɤ

The first night after she got out of the Infirmary, after the four other girls in her year had been asleep for hours, Ginny stared up at the canopy of her bed, unable to close her eyes. She was anxious and restless and if she stayed in that bed a moment longer, she was going to go insane. But she didn't know why, and it was making her even more anxious.

"I swear to Merlin…" she muttered as she flung her blankets off and stood from the bed. Immediately, she was shivering, but she made no move to wrap her dressing gown around herself as she walked over to the window. She looked out; nothing.

Ginny scowled. "Fine—" she muttered to herself, not even caring if she woke her dorm-mates. "We'll go walk around the courtyard once, and then maybe I'll be able to sleep."

She quickly changed into warmer clothes, grabbed her cloak and slipped out of her dorm, closing the door behind her with a soft snick. It had been almost a year since she'd needed to go for a walk before she could sleep, but it would only take a quick stroll around outside and she'd be asleep in no time.

Slipping out of the portrait hole, Ginny hugged the shadows as she hurried down the stairs. At this time of night, she could go out through the side door near the Muggle Studies classroom on the first storey without anyone being the wiser.

It was even colder outside, but Ginny paid no mind to it; she was only interested in calming her strangely anxious mind so that she could get some sleep before class. After a week out with nothing to do but sleep, there was no way her professors were going to be very forgiving if she was feeling tired.

Her shoes clacked on the steps as she hopped down them, favouring her uninjured ankle as Madam Pomfrey had instructed. "At least I'm a good patient," she said.

It was very still outside: she hadn't expected it to be otherwise, but the stillness was so heavy that her anxiousness intensified. She pursed her lips and pulled her cowl up. It was only midnight, Madam Rosmerta would still be serving, and a warm butterbeer might be just the thing she needed for sleep. And perhaps the newspaper: she hadn't been able to keep up with the Derby Dozen—as they'd come to be called—since her injury.

The path around the lake and into Hogsmeade was one she'd never before taken when it was a Hogsmeade Weekend, but she thought nothing of it as she walked along. Everything was dark and still, and she could barely see two feet in front of her, but she knew the way by heart, and did not misstep. Even as she stepped through the gates and felt the protective wards ghost over her like warm fingers—something she'd never even given much notice to—did she question her actions.

Ginny's mind wandered; she didn't notice it, and when her ambling took her not to Rosmerta's pub, not even to the Hog's Head, but to a bar that—had she been paying attention, she would have not recalled having ever seen—she didn't notice that, either.

The barman had black hair, blue eyes and a clever smile. He said, "What'll you have?" without bothering to hide the look he was giving Ginny.

"A butterbeer," she said, and when he raised an eyebrow at the choice of drink—like ordering a glass of milk in a strip-club—she added, "Warm."

"Sure thing, doll," he said.

Ginny narrowed her eyes. "Piss off."

The barman frowned, straightened up from where he'd bent to retrieve her butterbeer, and looked at her intently. "What pretty eyes you've got," he said slowly as he tapped the bottle with his grimy wand to warm it up. "Don't see a too many pretty-eyed girls in here."

"It's the décor," Ginny offered blandly. "It wants updating." She hadn't bothered to look around.

The barman smirked. "I'll be sure to let the owner know."

Ginny shrugged. "Makes no difference to me," she said, and reached her hand across the counter. "Nice to have met you."

Having already begun to resume his previous activity, the offered handshake did not immediately register to him. When it did, he paused, looked up at her intensely with his blue eyes and said, slowly, "Have we met before?"

Ginny stared at him, calm, and no longer restless. "Obviously not." Her hand remained out, a pointed gesture that the barman was unable to ignore, though he looked as if he wanted to. She glanced at her still hovering hand and then back to him.

Finally, he took it—his fingers surprisingly soft and warm and clean as they twisted around hers. Her right thumb brushed over the meaty flesh of his hand, and her last two fingers crooked up into his palm. He responded, and his fingers quickly tapped something that, to some people, translated into two words: River Styx.

She pulled her hand back slowly. "Thank you."

The barman ignored it. He said, "That'll be eight knuts, for the beer, miss."

Ginny handed it over without question, grabbed her butterbeer, and slid back out the door, unnoticed by anyone except the barman—just as she had been coming in. She'd turned seventeen in August, right after Harry, but her mother had said she couldn't take her Apparating test until Christmas—this made no difference to her as she stepped and turned and found herself standing on the edge of a river.

Not the River Styx, but a river of no particular interest except that it was full of salmon, and on one side of it, there lived an old woman by the name of Mrs Stanley Whittle who put a few sheep in an area she fondly called the Elysian Fields. On the other side of that river, the side that Ginny now stood on, there was a cottage with purple smoke coming from the chimney.

A generation prior, Mrs Whittle and her Fields had been a very tongue-in-cheek joke among the more educated—and cynical—Death Eaters. After all, one must first die before Charon would ever ferry them across the River, and what better way to die than to abdicate your soul for someone else? That was why, nearly twenty years ago, the little cottage across the river had become one of twenty-five possible locations for a monthly get-together among certain Death Eaters.

It was also the place one came if they were looking to be 'interviewed' for a place in the ranks and they had no connection otherwise—what happened if the hopeful recruit didn't pass was unspoken, but understood. Needless to say, the Death Eaters spent most of these nights relaxing, drinking scotch and talking about their wives, or lack thereof. Few witches and wizards were brave enough to present themselves for such interviews; what they didn't know—that the rumours were far worse than the truth—was immaterial.

Of course, Ginny had no way of knowing this. Which was why when she walked up to the cottage door and knocked the previous noises from inside all stopped immediately—the raucous laughter, the music, all of it.

It wasn't a moment later that the door was jerked open, and she was snatched inside by the neck of her cloak and tossed unceremoniously to the floor. There were at least five people standing over her—both male and female—with hastily thrown-on masks and hoods. Two of them noticed strands of their brown hair hanging loose and quickly tucked it inside their hoods. Another still held a smoking cigar between his knobby fingers; he coughed as he fiddled with it.

"Why are you here?" The voice was unfamiliar to her, but that didn't really say much.

"I'm here," she replied simply, pointedly. She didn't raise her head to look at them more closely; she was much smarter than that. The identity of a Death Eater was usually known only to a select few other Death Eaters, and to make an effort to discern the identity of one was at the very least rude, and at the most possibly fatal.

Her reply was accepted about as warmly as she expected it to be.

"What's your name?" the same voice asked.

"Ginny Weasley."

At this point, there was an uproar of commotion: there were people voicing both the opinion that she should be killed straight away for she was surely spying, and, conversely, that she should be taken to the Dark Lord immediately because wouldn't it be fine to have a spy so close to Harry Potter?

At the same time, however, Ginny was beginning to realise where she was, or perhaps, just that she wasn't at Hogwarts. The realisation came to her slowly, almost like she was waking up from a particularly good dream. She'd not had many of those lately—in fact, during her stay in the Infirmary, she'd dreamt every night that someone she loved was looking for her, but never able to find her. It had left her feeling, every morning, as if she'd been kicked in the—

She wasn't at Hogwarts.

She wasn't in her dorm room.

These weren't her year mates; this wasn't Quidditch. Someone grabbed her arms and hefted her from the ground, and as Ginny looked up only to see two dark eyes looking at her from behind a deathly white mask, she screamed.

"Let me go!"

"You came to us," said a particularly bemused voice to her left. Ginny shook her head and started struggling, but the fingers wrapped around her biceps only tightened.

"I didn't! I didn't! Let go of me!"

"What the hell's wrong with her?"

"She's mad!"

With each new bout of struggling, the grip on her arms got tighter and tighter; Ginny heard everyone around her speaking as if she were five different people—each of them listening to a different conversation—but none of it made sense. Hot tears were beginning to stream down her face, but it wasn't until she felt the sharp jerk of Apparation that she really began to cry.

ɤɣɤ

Draco couldn't sleep, so he paced.

Of course, Draco often couldn't sleep, but this time, it was different. He wasn't sure exactly what it was, but something about the nonsense Potter had told him the week before made him uneasy. He'd left the subject alone in their shared classes—relishing in the knowledge that Potter was anxiously waiting for him to bring it up—but he needed to do...something. Talk it out, perhaps.

It didn’t feel right. Potter had pledged 'his family' for Draco's—it was a monumental thing to do. Why hadn't Draco noticed the incongruity of it all then? He'd been too caught up in the moment—too excited over all the possibilities to care. His mother had always told him that he was too much of a dreamer, and here he was, proving her right.

He'd let Potter talk a whole slew of nonsense to him, and he'd barely batted an eyelash. What he needed now, he realised, was someone to set him straight. It had started off well: he'd known Potter was up to something, and he'd found out what it was, but it still didn't fit.

He remembered the night his father has expected him to be Marked; he remembered it because he'd expected to be killed. He hadn't been—and he hadn't felt any relief when he wasn't because he'd been given a…a prophecy of sorts. Someone would be sent to 'teach' him. Someone would teach him what it 'meant' to be a Death Eater. And that person was Potter.

"Rubbish."

He believed it; he believed that Potter had been truthful, but it still didn't mean that it was the truth. The whole truth anyway. So Potter had decided to join forces with Voldemort to bring about some ultimate ideal—so what? Draco didn't care. Something much bigger was going on. Draco suspected that even Potter wasn't aware of it—but really, was anyone aware of everything?

But there was one person who was likely to know more than Potter—or Draco—and he was going to find out what that person knew. Now was as good a time as any. Glancing over at the two lumps in the beds on the opposite wall, he assured himself that Vince and Greg were asleep before leaving their room. There was no telling where Blaise was.

There was a light coming from beneath the door to Nott's room, but it was no matter to Draco. Slytherins tended to stick to their own business—even if they were fully aware of everyone else's. Nott wouldn't bother him, even if he did care where Draco was going.

 

He probably already knew, anyway: the year before, Draco had become notorious for leaving the common room at nights to go talk to Professor Snape. There had even been a joke among his house-mates about the two of them and a questionable student-teacher relationship. Professor Snape had borne it with infinite patience, but he did roll his eyes whenever it was mentioned behind closed doors.

Draco had not been as opposed to the idea as he'd let everyone believe.

He hadn't even taken off his school robes from class earlier, but he still felt the chill of the dungeons as if he were in his flimsiest pair of pyjamas. Hurrying down the dark corridors, Draco was grateful to see that the torches were lit in Professor Snape's workroom.

He entered without bothering to knock, and perched himself on a stool across from the table Snape was working at.

"Don't speak."

"I haven't," Draco said.

"You just did. Don't speak again."

Draco opened his mouth to say that he wouldn't, and then shut it again. He glanced at the scene in front of him. His professor was bent over a cauldron, staring a thick, gelatinous fluid—something that wasn't entirely unheard of for him. His dark brows furrowed in concentration as he silently mouthed a count for each stir. At one-hundred, he stopped and looked up at Draco, waiting.

"Explain what's going on with Potter to me," Draco said without introduction. It wasn't necessary with men like Snape—men who hated talking in general and superfluous talking specifically.

Snape cocked an eyebrow, smiling in obvious amusement. He reached behind him to pull forward a stool, and sat, arms crossed, staring back at Draco. The cauldron continued to simmer. "No."

Draco frowned. "But you know?"

Snape gave him a look. "I know what you want to know—more than that, I'm not sure."

"But you won't tell me," Draco said. It wasn't a question, more of a confirmation.

Snape shrugged his shoulders, at the same time stretching his back from the time he'd spent brewing. Very few ever saw the professor like this—all of them Slytherins, so far as Draco knew. "It's a quite a lot of information. The idea of explaining so much to you right now is unappealing."

Draco tapped his fingers on the table and used the other hand to push his hair out of his face. After a moment, he asked the question that he would have eventually got to, had Professor Snape played along from the beginning. With Snape, it was sometimes necessary to show him that you've already discerned the answer yourself before asking him how to solve the problem. It showed him, Draco thought, that you were capable of understanding, and that he wouldn't be wasting his time.

"Who's going to win the war?"

Snape grinned, and raised his hands up in a mockery of all the muggle-born who always gestured when they said 'I don't know'. "What war?" he asked, with obvious amusement. "I see no war."

Frowning, Draco propped his elbows on the table and studied his teacher. "This all sounds very anti-climatic, what you and Potter have postulated."

"And you don't approve?"

Draco shook his head. "There's no denouement. There must be denouement—otherwise, it's not really over."

"And thus," Snape said mock-philosophically, "the reason why Mr Black—the younger—isn't Slytherin." At Draco's attentive look, Snape sighed, and relented. "Fine. Do you truly wish to hear my opinion on the matter?"

"Of course," Draco said, rolling his eyes. "Otherwise, I'd have fallen asleep by now."

"Yes, I'm sure," Snape replied. "At any rate, you've asked for it, and you'll sit there and pay attention until I feel that I have sufficiently provided it.

"I first learned of Potter's involvement with the Dark Lord over the summer. It was brought to my attention, by the Dark Lord to be exact, that he had been conducting a series of metaphysical meetings and brainstorming sessions—if I may be so crude—with Potter over the course of the previous year and a half.

"He spoke frankly that Potter's stubbornness had grown on him—that he'd begun to appreciate several of the little brat's ideas. Naturally, I thought he'd gone batshit insane."

Draco snorted. "Wasn't he already?"

"Hardly," Snape replied. "Cruel and vindictive does not equate insanity. In fact, the opposite. But I digress; as it happened, Potter began, some time ago, to think that everyone was redeemable. I have no idea what brought this school of thought on, but I can assure you that it's complete hippogriff shit, and that Potter will be very disappointed when he finds out it isn't true. In the time since these intangible meetings began, Potter, apparently, forgave or forgot his one previous driving motive: that of the Dark Lord disposing of James Potter and Lily—Gods rest her soul."

Draco raised an eyebrow, but Snape only shrugged. "She was once a good friend."

"Do you suppose it's because James Potter wasn't really his father?" Draco asked. "That Potter got over it, I mean?"

"Certainly not," Snape said. He sounded disgusted when he added: "It is merely the fact that, as a Gryffindor, he feels compelled to forgive, after the appropriate amount of grieving, anyway. You must also remember that he has no memory of either of them: they were, the both of them, very impersonal ideals to him. He knows nothing of their personalities, and so it separates him from them."

Draco grimaced. "That sounds very empathic, coming from you."

Snape shrugged again, looking vaguely disappointed in Draco. "It's how he thinks—how he rationalises it—though even he is unaware of it most times, and as a Slytherin, you should have noticed it yourself."

Draco huffed. "I have done," he said petulantly, almost pleading. "I've watched him since school started back, and I still don't understand—it's like…it's like I see what he's doing, and I vaguely comprehend his reasoning, but I'm two steps away from assimilating all of the information…it's like I almost understand, but it's right there…waiting. Even when Potter told me everything himself—"

"He told you everything?" Snape interrupted. "Everything?"

Draco shrugged in annoyance at being interrupted. "How am I supposed to know if he left anything out or not? The thing is, it sounds incomplete, but I think that he thinks he's told me everything…so maybe what I'm asking is 'What doesn't Potter know that I should?'"

Snape nodded approvingly, checked on his potion, and turned back to Draco just in time to see him scratch the final line of a lightning bolt into the top of the work table with a slicing knife. Snape slapped his hand. "You know better than that, idiot: you'll contaminate my utensils."

Draco gave an appropriately abashed look. "Well?" he prompted.

Snape frowned harshly—such an impertinent little beast. "Potter isn't being swindled or led into a trap. Not by the Dark Lord, at least—he, for one, finds the boy to be 'refreshing' and has been honest with him. If he has not told Potter everything—a wise move on his part—then he has neither misled him nor lied outright."

Draco snorted again. It wasn't something he'd do outside of the dungeons, but Professor Snape knew full well of his opinions on most things, Potter especially. As he opened his mouth to further that line of questioning, Snape inserted, "Whatever it is that the Dark Lord has yet to tell Potter, he has also neglected to tell me."

Disappointment flittered across Draco's face for the briefest of moments. Then, he smiled slyly, and said, "But, Professor, why would the Dark Lord tell you anything of importance, when practically everyone knows what a turncoat you are?"

Snape was neither amused nor annoyed. He stared blankly at his pupil. "The Dark Lord was once a Slytherin himself, if you remember, boy, and as such, he knows well the price of my loyalty. When he can pay the price, he will have it."

"What makes you so sure that he'll ever need it?"

Snape's eyebrows lifted. "If you need to ask that question, Mr Malfoy, then you are unfit for Slytherin House. I suggest you re-evaluate the priorities of a Slytherin—you have the foundation for it, yes, but in so many areas you are unrefined…like copper and tin when your classmates have been smelted into bronze."

It wasn't an insult, and Draco didn't take it as one. He knew as much himself—perhaps if he'd been raised by a proper Slytherin, he would have been a better one, but his mother had been a Ravenclaw, and she'd encouraged him to question everything—to think about everything. And where she did not know enough to instruct him he was tutored, by Hufflepuffs, or Beauxbatons' equivalent of such. He nodded, accepting the unsolicited analysis of his character, and continued with his questioning.

"I question everything," he said with a shrug. Snape nodded; he knew as much. And then, "Potter intrigues me; would you think it foolish of me to consider his offer?"

Snape didn't have to ask what that offer had been; he'd been at the meeting after all. He smiled, looking almost sinister. "Mr Malfoy, I suspect that at this point, it could not hurt. Perhaps you might even teach him something, as well."

Draco nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I already did—I explained basic Arithmancy to him in class today." He scrunched his nose in distaste and added further, "We're partnered for the yearly project, and Vector gave us a ring! Can you believe it? Nott and Granger got a ceremonial dagger! But stupid Potter got me landed with a tacky old ring—I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to wear it. It's hideous!"

"Indeed," Snape said, humouring him. "Not the same ring your father wears to business meetings, is it? That hideous ring?"

Draco's jaw dropped, incredulous. "The Malfoy signet ring?" he asked, terribly affronted. "The Malfoy signet ring is an heirloom! It's not tacky!"

Snape cackled unashamedly. "Not the same one, then?" He was obviously enjoying having got in that little jibe.

Draco closed his mouth and narrowed his eyes, only partly joking. "No—as a matter of fact, it was bigger than the signet ring—and made cheaply: a carnelian stone, or perhaps jasper."

Snape's amusement faded quickly. "Really?" he asked slowly. "Would the band be a thick, hammered gold?"

Draco nodded. "Very tacky—do you know of it? Is it very cursed? It better be exponentially cursed. I won't suffer a boring project—especially if I have to spend it with Potter."

Snape pursed his lips. "I wouldn't know," he said bluntly. "But I've seen the Headmaster wearing it once or twice."

"Hmm," Draco said, beginning to get a little more interested. He was interrupted from his internal musing when Snape turned the burner off under his cauldron and rose from his stool.

"I have somewhere I must be, Mr Malfoy, and you must return to your common room. Whether or not you sleep, however, is of no concern to me. I imagine you will stay up well into the night mulling over the entire situation."

"Most likely," Draco agreed absently. He was already rising from his stool as well, completely unconcerned that he was being kicked out. "Good night, Professor. See you in class."

"Good night," Snape said, shutting the door behind him. Draco stood in the corridor for several seconds, staring at nothing in particular. He wondered why the ring was important to Professor Snape, and why he felt the need to rush off to the Dark Lord over it, but it was only a casual interest. What really intrigued him was Potter.

Was it terrible that he couldn't wait for class in the morning so he could talk to Potter more? Surely not—this was, by far, the most interesting thing that had happened in a really long time. Still happening, even.

He sighed as he started back to his common room: he definitely wouldn't be getting any sleep this night.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Call for Fire: (n) 1. A request for fire containing data necessary for obtaining the required fire on a target. 2. An order to begin battle.

ɤɣɤ

Edward Yaxley stared at Voldemort, unimpressed.

"We've lost two more werewolves in the past two days, Tom," he said blandly. His wrinkled forehead was shiny with perspiration, even though it was cold enough to see his breath in front of him. He pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and swiped at it once. "It's not working."

Voldemort frowned, also unimpressed. "It will," he said.

Yaxley rolled his cloudy blue eyes. "Fuck off; it won't," he said in exasperation. "You need to call them back; at this rate, we'll wipe out the entire werewolf population before the year's out."

"There's an idea…"

Edward gave him a very pointed look; he was so protective of all his magical creatures and beasts and such. Sighing, Voldemort leaned back in his chair and let his hand fall to Nagini's head, resting in his lap. He stroked her slowly, contemplating the situation as she hissed to him in little soothing intervals, almost like a purring cat. "What a lovely girl," he hissed back to her.

Yaxley was still waiting for the command to pull the werewolves, but Voldemort wasn't entirely sold on the idea yet. Certainly, no one knew more about magical creatures than his old friend Yaxley, but when it came to strategy, Yaxley had nothing on him.

"They've made no progress whatever?" Voldemort asked.

Yaxley pursed his lips. "Minimal," he answered sullenly. "It is possible that they could at least partially succeed," he allowed, "but I think it will be a Pyrrhic Victory, if at all." He leaned forward in his chair quite suddenly, nearly upsetting the fine teacup by his hand, and said solemnly, "I've got friends out there, Tom, and neither of us have got many of those left. Pull 'em back."

There was a split second where Voldemort nearly remembered the common bond they once shared, many years ago, but he pushed the thought away before it could fully form. "Pull five werewolves of your choice from the assignment," Voldemort finally decided, "but the rest will remain until the end of November. I'll re-evaluate the situation at that time."

Edward nodded, standing. The decision was good enough for the time being. "Of course," he said. He removed his cloak from the back of his chair and swung it around his shoulders, saying as he buttoned it, "It is a good idea, Tom, but I've had enough of wasting my own men. Waste someone else's men instead."

"Is it really a waste if the end result is a victory?" Tom asked, though he wasn't really interested in an answer.

Yaxley gave him one anyway: "Not if the ones who're fighting don't ever know they've won it." With that, he was gone from the room, as solemnly and quietly as he'd entered. Voldemort only had a few moments of silence before there was another interruption.

Severus entered without aid of a house-elf or courtesy of a knock, as was custom. Voldemort had never bothered to chastise or punish him for it: Severus was afraid of very few things, and Voldemort was not one of them. He raised his eyes, waiting, as the man crossed the room.

The professor slid himself easily into the chair Yaxley had recently vacated, and drawled, "Remind me, Milord, how much you need me."

Nagini lifted her head, giving Snape a look that said she would be rolling her eyes if she could. "There now, pet," Voldemort hissed to her, patting her head. "He is only trying to be amusing, though I find it lacking as well."

To Snape, he said, "I wasn't aware that you'd done anything of note lately, Severus. Why, I believe that my good friend Yaxley has even been brewing the Wolfsbane potion for my howling friends since Hogwarts resumed classes. Perhaps you should remind me of your worth."

Snape's eyelids fell nearly closed; he accepted the taunt, but found it not to be amusing. After a moment, wherein Voldemort tried not to smile in vicious victory, Severus settled back into his chair and said only: "Potter and Lucius' son are planning to destroy that ring of yours."

Voldemort lifted an eyebrow—something that had been slowly growing in over the past three years. They were still rather faint. "Indeed?" he asked. He couldn't help the laugh that escaped him: he would like to see them try. "Whatever for?" Although, he did wonder...

Snape shrugged minutely. "The Headmaster has convinced Varian Vector to assign the de-cursing of it to them as their quarterly Arithmancy project."

"My young friend is taking Arithmancy?" Voldemort asked with interest. "And he's been paired with young Malfoy?"

Snape nodded in answer to both questions. "Yes, and whatever little games you and Potter planned for Draco are working: that determination to solve a mystery that Narcissa put into the boy is working in your favour. He's infinitely curious about the whole ordeal."

A house-elf popped in with Nagini's weekly meal and he watched idly as she slithered off his lap, unhinged her jaw, and swallowed the otter, which had been stunned prior. "Incidentally, I understand, through Ms Parkinson's parents, that your lesson plan currently involves some amount of competency in Arithmancy."

"To my utter chagrin," Severus admitted dryly, "Potter is making acceptable progress in my class, though he is partnered with the Mudblood Granger and Nott's son, Theodore."

Voldemort smiled as he watched his snake. "Young Mr Black appears to be very bright."

Severus said nothing, but his expression said everything that words could not. Seeing this, Voldemort chuckled and turned his attention away from Nagini, who was still swallowing the otter. "Perhaps if you only opened up to the boy—"

"I'm not amused," Snape spoke up, in case it were unclear.

Voldemort returned to the matter at hand; he'd gotten under Snape's skin twice for the night—that would have to do. "Have you any idea what Dumbledore has planned regarding the ring?"

"Only that he would have it de-cursed, Milord," Severus replied dutifully. Voldemort appreciated the fact that he always understood when impertinence would not be acceptable.

"And what gives Dumbledore the impression that the ring is cursed, Severus?" he asked curiously.

Snape's eyebrows rose slowly. "Is it not?"

Voldemort cocked his head to the side and did not answer. After a moment, Severus sighed and replied, "I know only that Dumbledore believes it to be cursed. He wore it on his finger until the night I owled you that he'd removed it.”

"On All Hallows," Voldemort interjected, to make sure everything was clear.

"Yes," Severus confirmed. "That was the night that I first saw him without it."

Voldemort hummed and turned again to watch Nagini with her dinner. She'd nearly swallowed the entire otter by now. "All Hallows is a dangerous night," he mused. "One must be quite careful on a night such as it."

"And May Day, of course, Milord."

"Yes, but not nearly as dangerous as All Hallows can be."

Voldemort noticed it when Severus began fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. He'd not intended to give up so much information, especially to someone as easily bought as Snape, but he was not worried that he had. Even if Snape understood what was not being said, there was still more that he would never even come close to guessing. He sat back, and sipped at his tea, which he'd neglected for the duration of Yaxley's visit, and was thusly now cold.

"It is the spirits that are dangerous on All Hallows," Snape said, watching.

They both looked up when a loud crash echoed from below. A moment later, Horvitz, Voldemort's premier house-elf, popped in, looking both proud and uncharacteristically unconcerned for a house-elf. "Master," he said, bowing. "Horvitz is being sent to tell Master that Death Eaters is brought you something."

"What've they brought?" Voldemort asked in mild interest. He could see Snape sneering at the interruption from the corner of his eye.

"A girl," Horvitz replied. "Death Eaters is saying it's a Weasley, Master." Nodding in thanks, the Dark Lord dismissed the elf, and turned back to his guest, frowning slightly in thought.

"Milord, that's my student," Snape said quickly. "She was in the Infirmary just this morning—I've no idea why or how she was brought here."

"You're sure?" Voldemort asked as he was standing. Snape nodded, following him. "How very interesting." Nagini was resting peacefully in the corner now, so he left her where she was. He started for the door, but turned back to get his tea—from the ruckus below them, it sounded like he would need it. A whispered word heated it once again, and he sipped it as they walked.

It wasn't until they reached the stairs that Voldemort realised that he had a head-ache, and had so for several minutes. There was a great deal of talking going on downstairs, and it was only adding to the throb. His good-temper faded with each advancing step he took.

At the bottom, there was a collection of his Death Eaters—each masked, but he saw them as if they were not: he could tell them apart without thought. Elliot Parkinson crouched next to the Beauvais brothers, who were each holding the arm of a young, red-headed girl. Elliot finished checking the stability of the knots around her wrists, and then rose from the apparent Weasley girl. She was gagged, and the Dark Lord could not even make out the colour of her eyes, so red and swollen from crying were they.

Unimpressed, Voldemort lifted his gaze from the wretch on his floor and snarled at his Death Eaters as a whole: "What's the meaning of this?"

Snape, who'd heretofore remained equally unimpressed beside him, hung back from the confrontation as he noticed the change in Voldemort's mood. Voldemort noticed, though he did not care, that Severus had catalogued the abrupt change and would be considering it later, along with his new information about the ring.

"Milord," Elliot spoke for them, his dark eyes unperturbed behind his mask. "She arrived at the house on the River Styx tonight, asking to see you—calm as you please…the crying came suddenly; we don't know what's come over her."

Voldemort returned his gaze to the child once again, barely refraining from killing her on the spot for the head-ache she was most assuredly the cause of. It had been a decent night until all of this, and where was his damned house-elf to refill his tea?

"Horvitz!" The elf popped into sight in front of him, bowing slightly. The Dark Lord thrust the empty tea-cup into his hand. "A fresh cup, Horvitz—and this time, I should like it very hot; I've got a head-ache."

Horvitz nodded and disappeared again, leaving Voldemort to stare once again at the young girl sprawled across his foyer. She blinked up at him and something rushed through him—a feeling of instinct that he couldn't quite decipher, but he knew better than to ignore. "Leave," he instructed.

His Death Eaters nodded, exiting the house one by one. He could hear the sounds of their hasty dis-apparations outside the wards. Only Severus remained behind, as Voldemort expected him to. With a nod of his head, the child was lifted from the ground and floating behind him as he crossed to the sitting room. Snape remained by the door.

He left her hanging in front of him as he sat. She swayed lightly, as if caught by a breeze, but she was no longer crying, he noticed, and, in fact, had not been since he'd seen her—though it was probably due to the fact that she had been stunned since he first saw her. He wondered why he'd thought her to be crying the whole time. It was the head-ache, he knew—it was preventing him from thinking properly.

He banished her gag with a wave of his wand. She remained silent, floating. With a pop, Horvitz returned with his tea, and Voldemort held the steaming cup close to his face as he studied the girl. It was several moments before the low-grade stunning spell wore off and her eyes focused again.

Her mouth opened as if she were about to scream, and Voldemort prepared himself to cast a blood-thinning curse on himself to ward off his headache—but, at the last moment, she appeared to change her mind, and only stared at him, wide-eyed.

Behind her, he could see Snape watching, trying to show only vague interest. It was no use: Tom could readily tell how intrigued the man was; he was intrigued himself, after all. Why had this girl—this…blood-traitor—come looking for him? And what had caused her apparent delusions?

He knew from Horvitz's initial report that she was a Weasley, though she could have just as easily been a Bones or a McArthur, judging by the hair. Still, he asked her her name.

"I…don't know," she replied, looking just as stunned by the revelation as he was himself. Snape shifted forward slightly, craning his neck to better hear. "I think my—," she said, and then paused, eyebrows scrunching in something not unlike fear.

"—Name is Lily," she said suddenly, and this time when she spoke, she sounded sure and confident, but also quite brash, and there was a melodic nature to the undercurrents of her voice. Her lips pursed, and her eyes narrowed in concentration, and then the levitation spell was gone, and her feet were thumping against the floor. She stood in front of Voldemort, wholly unconcerned.

This time, Severus made no effort to conceal his shock, and he moved forward and around to see her face as a snake after prey. His long, white fingers grasped her shoulder firmly and twisted her, roughly, towards him. She bore his scrutiny with a strange patience, maybe even impartiality.

"You're dead," Severus said quietly. Voldemort nearly jumped at the sound of his voice, low and sombre, something he'd never heard from the professor before. He strained to hear her reply.

She said, "Yes," and nodded.

Voldemort could not see his face from this angle, but he could see the way the man's shoulders tensed at her response. He shifted on his feet, and now he could see her face again; it was calm and serious and looked very little like the girl who'd been tossed on his foyer floor. She stared up at Snape soberly, and only looked away at the sound of Voldemort's teacup rattling against the saucer as he set it down.

"Evans," he said, when she looked at him. It was a question, but he already knew the answer, as unlikely and impossible as it was—No, not impossible, he thought. He thought back to All Hallows, and the warning he'd given to his little protégé. He asked Snape: "What did you say this child was in the Infirmary for?"

Snape, reluctantly, looked away from the girl. Voldemort felt a burn in his veins, and wondered what had caused it; he'd long since given up begrudging his Death Eaters of their vices, though he had always resented those of love or adoration; they tended to interfere.

"A broken ankle, after a fall from her broom," he said.

The redhead added, almost defiantly, "On All Hallows."

Voldemort wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I thought I was done with you." Snape looked at him sharply, but he ignored it.

The girl said, boldly, "You never told me."

Oh, Voldemort thought bitterly, the many little and large secrets you could be referring to. He wondered which she meant—whether she suggested that he knew of her erstwhile lover, or of her husband, or any one of his other little games. Or maybe she was really speaking of the other Black brother—and, oh, how he had so enjoyed keeping from her that information when she'd been a young girl, nearly twenty years ago. It had kept him cruelly satisfied for months.

He had known, through various sources, why she'd finally agreed to join him. Just like with the deceitful professor standing across from him, she'd had a price for basic obedience, and another for loyalty; he'd never needed the loyalty.

Nagini slithered into the room, looking fat around the middle, and he sat back, allowing her to curl in his lap and digest. He motioned for the both of them to sit, and they did, though his potions master seemed to have little room in his mind for discussion at the moment; his attention was focused solely on the redhead.

"You never asked," he said, then amended: "directly."

Her face remained impassive; she accepted this evenly. "You have my son."

Tom nodded. "I do," he said.

"Potter's at school," Snape interrupted, masking his confusion.

"That does not mean I do not have him," the dark lord said. Severus' lips pursed slightly. He had known this, at least theoretically, of course.

She nodded, and said, "You took him away from me." He made no reply, and she added, disdainfully, "for a prophecy." The last word was spit from her mouth like an anathema. Her lips curled in disgust for a school so inaccurate and indefinite as Divination.

He chuckled; it had not taken long for her distaste for Divination to become apparent. She had been the epitome of Ravenclaw, if a little brash. But that was many years ago, and not something to bother thinking of now.

Voldemort shrugged. "Leave nothing to chance."

Her lips quirked into what might have been a smile, at another time, but was now only a cruel smirk. "And look where that got you."

Voldemort felt his frustration, which had been building since the debacle began, reach a pinnacle. His face was hot with anger, and he lifted his hand, almost without thought, and slashed it through the air. The force of the magic, as it was too wild to be a true spell, hit her like a slap, and she jerked backwards, gasping. "Look where it's got me, indeed," the dark lord hissed. "I live and breathe, and yet there you are, a poltergeist in the body of a child."

The Weasley girl's brown eyes flashed green in Evans' rage for a moment. She stood, reached up to finger the red welt on her cheek, and spat at his feet. She was cautious enough not to do it on his person.

"I want my son back," she said. "You have the power to give that to me."

"I wouldn't," Voldemort sneered. In truth, he knew not what she spoke of. He had never been able to bring anyone back from the dead, though he had tried…but that was something he didn't like to think of. It made him feel something he'd rather not feel.

She smiled again, a smile that echoed the ethereal beauty of her life. "You will. I've got something you want, even if you don't know it yet."

Voldemort rolled his eyes, unimpressed with the histrionics of a dead woman. But it was at that moment that a great thundering head-ache returned in his skull, more powerful than even before. He was momentarily staggered by the force of it, and had to close his eyes against the light of the room, though it was only lit by candles to begin with.

"Milord?" Snape asked cautiously from somewhere to his left. He waved him off with one hand and rubbed his temples with the other.

"Professor Snape?" a small voice questioned. It was not the same voice as before, and Tom risked opening his eyes to make sure that he wasn't hearing things. Something strange and frenetic rushed through his veins as he did so; it was still the Weasley girl sitting there, but somehow different. He didn't know what to make of it, only that the pressure in his head was absolutely unbearable.

"Get out," he hissed in Snape's general direction. Snape obeyed immediately and without question, grabbing the girl and walking her quickly towards the front door, from which he would apparate her back to Hogwarts.

He waited until he heard the pop of Severus taking the girl away to call for Horvitz to bring him a pain potion. It was not until he actually removed the cork from the bottle that he realized that the head-ache had dissipated, and he felt totally fine.

Voldemort narrowed his eyes in thought, and barely even noticed when Nagini slithered off his lap to investigate a squeaking sound in the corner.

ɤɣɤ

Albus decided that the best time to visit would be during the Slytherin-Ravenclaw Quidditch game on Saturday. He did try to remain impartial with all of his students, but it was fair to say that he usually fell short of that goal. It would not, unfortunately, seem odd if he failed to show up for a Slytherin—or Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff—Quidditch game.

Thinking about this, Albus winced, but it was true: he attended all of the houses’ Quidditch games when he could, but some errands could only be taken care of on a Saturday, and it wasn’t as if he was required to go to every game; in fact, he gathered that the other three houses didn’t care whether or not he showed up.

They, unlike the Gryffindors, felt little need of him. Slytherins didn’t trust him, Ravenclaws didn’t have time for him, and Hufflepuffs were just fine without him, thank you very much.

Albus huffed. Now that he thought about it, he might be a little affronted about the slight, but—well, he was skipping their game anyway...and in regards to a Gryffindor student, no less! He chuckled to himself, enjoying the irony. There was a knock at his office door as he was rechecking his mental to-do list.

He said, “Come in, Minerva,” and rechecked his pockets for his favourite quill. It was from a lyrebird; he’d gotten it on an ill-fated apparition that ended up plopping him in Sydney, Austrlia. He’d meant to go to Salzburg, Austria, and he’d been hours late to the International Dragon-Slaying Association’s Annual Meet and Greet for New and Rising Members, but that had been years ago, in 1922, and his lyrebird quill was still holding up.

He checked the tip with his finger, and upon finding it to be to his satisfaction, placed it back in his pocket, patting it affectionately.

Minerva opened the door and walked stiffly in. She gave him a stern look from which he did not flinch; he’d been working with Minerva since she was eighteen and Professor Millyboggin’s teaching-aide, in 1945, which, incidentally, had been the year he defeated Gellert Grindlewald (and himself in the process), and he’d had ample time to become accustomed to the old Scot’s ‘stern looks’, even though, there had been that one time in 1947, right after she had become his adjunct professor—

“Albus!”

“Yes, Minerva?” he replied easily.

“Albus, have you been listening to me whatsoever?”

“Indubitably,” he said. She gave him—well, it was a stern look, so he amended: “Not a word, no, Minerva.”

Albus believed that the strange depression of her lips meant that she was fighting a smile. He moved behind his desk to sit, situated a benign smile on his face, and retrieved a lemon drop from his Never-Empty Jar, which he’d purchased at the Weasley twins’ shop the previous July.

Minerva didn’t bother to sit: she was kitted out in her Gryffindor Quidditch robes from her stint as a Chaser from 1940 to 1944, and probably didn’t want to wrinkle them. From the awkward crease, he guessed she’d had them spell-cleaned.

“I say, Minerva,” Albus said, “have I become befuddled? I was under the assumption that Gryffindor was not playing this afternoon.”

“They aren’t,” she said, icily.

The Headmaster chuckled. She had become quite prickly since the unfortunate game against Hufflepuff. From his perch, Fawkes cooed, so Albus unwrapped a second lemon drop for the phoenix and placed it in his beak.

“Albus,” Minerva started again, this time seeming very tired. “Are you quite sure that this is necessary? It’s unseemly for you to miss a game, especially for such a frivolous errand.”

“I’ll not be dissuaded,” he said.

She sighed, and changed course. “I’m sure, in your endless omniscience, you have noticed the outlandish companionship developing between Potter and Malfoy, and, no doubt, you will also have noticed the ostensible separation among Potter and his two usual friends.”

“I have,” Albus admitted. There was a series of whizzing sounds from the widget on the far wall. He really would need to be on his way soon; it was nearly half-two.

“And?” Minerva prompted. “What have you to say on the matter?”

“I think it will do the boy some good.”

“Which boy?” Minerva asked.

Albus shrugged. “All three of them, I should imagine. Harry needs to trust more, or maybe less, and Mr Malfoy needs a friend, or maybe a good influence.”

“And what of Weasley?”

Albus pressed his lips together. Yes, he’d concerned himself with Mr Weasley a great deal lately. The boy seemed to be on a downward spiral, and nothing was getting him out of his rut. “Mr Weasley needs to make his own decisions.”

“I don’t like the way this is progressing, Albus,” Minerva insisted, leaning forward slightly. “At this rate, Weasley’s going to get himself expelled. I’m sure you remember that I was forced to strip him of his prefect duties only two weeks into the school year.”

Albus frowned. He remembered. On the bright side, however—and there always was a bright side—Neville Longbottom had taken over and was doing a marvellous job...except, maybe for the whole password situation. Albus wasn’t sure how safe it was to use Mimbulus Mimbletonia for three months in a row, but it wasn’t as if the Gryffindor Common Room were a fortress, so he would let Mr Longbottom continue as he pleased.

“Minerva, what would you have me do? Mr Weasley is experiencing a Crisis,” he said, stressing the word. “I’m sure you remember one or two from your own teenage years; I understand there was an Edward MacDonald in your year who—“

“Albus!”

“Quite right,” Albus said, nodding. Fawkes chirped inquisitively, and the Headmaster stood. “I’m afraid I must be going now. As Fawkes has so kindly reminded me, I have an engagement in twenty minutes.”

Minerva huffed and stood. “I still say you should attend the game.”

Albus looked up from transfiguring his hat into a fedora and his robes into an overcoat. “And I still say you should wear that lovely shawl Sybil gave you for your birthday.”

“It’s striped!” she said, aghast.

The Headmaster eyed the shawl she was currently wearing over her old Quidditch kit: it was tartan. He then looked down at her boots, which were spelled red and gold tartan to match. “I really must be going; I’m dreadfully sorry, Minerva.” He ushered her out the door with him. She narrowed her eyes, but went along with it nevertheless.

“See that you make it to the next game. It’s Gryffindor versus Slytherin.”

“Is it really?” Albus asked, feigning surprise. “Won’t that be interesting.”

ɤɣɤ

Dumbledore arrived at the doorstep of number four, Privet Drive at exactly five minutes to three in the afternoon. The house was exactly as he remembered it from 1981—which had been a good year for lemon drops, as he recalled—right up to the absence of any wards whatsoever.

He removed his spectacles, polished them on his sleeve, and returned them to his nose: yes, he had the right house. Albus rang the bell.

“Just a minute!” came the reply.

The woman who came to the door had a pleasant smile—at least until she noticed his beard, which he had forgotten to spell shorter. Such were the ailments of old-age, he noted.

“Albus Dumbledore,” she said flatly.

Albus beamed. “Mrs Petunia Dursley,” he said, dipping his head and hat in greeting. “A pleasure, as always, to see your radiant face.”

She lifted an eyebrow, unimpressed.

“May I come in?” he asked after a short pause.

Petunia stepped back from the doorway with another flat look. He removed his hat and proceeded to be awed by her exceptional taste in home decor, and, Oh my goodness, what a lovely chintz print this is on your sofa, Petunia—may I call you Petunia?—is it original?

“It’s a sofa cover,” Petunia replied. “I ordered it from a home wares magazine after Dudley spilt roast beef on the original.” She crossed her arms over her chest and followed him into the sitting room, watching him peruse her curios with resignation. For any other guest, she would have hurried into the kitchen to put on a kettle of tea, but she didn’t want to leave this one un-chaperoned around her breakables, and she suspected he would ‘magic’ something if he wanted it badly enough.

Albus sat down, setting his hat in his lap. “Lovely weather.”

Petunia sat as well, crossing her legs primly before she said, “It’s Surrey.”

Albus cleared his throat. Honestly, this woman was such a—he’d forgotten how difficult she could be. “Oddly enough, that actually brings me to the point of my visit. I had wondered if you had noticed a difference—“

“I felt the magic stop on the thirty-first of July,” Mrs Dursley interrupted. “I said as much in my letter to you that day.”

Dumbledore leaned forward, deciding to forgo the pretence of small talk whatsoever. “Mrs Dursley, I apologize for intruding on your home, but I’m afraid that the reason for my visit is quite grave.”

She blinked quickly, confused and apprehensive. “He’s—not dead, is he?”

“Oh, no,” the Headmaster replied quickly. He actually found himself quite shocked that she looked upset about the prospect, even if it was only slight. “Harry is doing quite well. He lived with Sirius Black over the summer—outside of Edinburgh; the Blacks have an estate there.”

“Oh,” Mrs Dursley said. She pursed her lips together and looked away for a moment. When she looked back, she asked, “Well, what is it, then?”

“I’m afraid that I need to ask you a few more questions about the wards. You remember from my original letter that those wards were the only thing between the Dark Lord and you. Now, my concern is that since we are both quite aware that there are no longer wards guarding this house—“

“Are you trying to tell me that you suspected someone, this—this Dark Lord—to have come and—and attacked my family when—“

“Mrs Dursley, please,” Albus pleaded gently. “I assure you that I stationed several guards around your home for the week preceding and succeeding the day the wards fell. You were in no danger whatsoever.”

“Oh,” Petunia said faintly.

Albus fought against rolling his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “My concern was that there were not even any attempted attacks, Mrs Dursley,” Dumbledore stressed. She looked confused. Albus sighed. “I am concerned because of the possible explanation for this; if Lord Voldemort has discontinued his manhunt for your nephew, then I need to know the reason why. This is imperative not only for his safety, but for the safety of England—wizard and muggle alike.”

“Oh my,” she said, pressing her hand to her mouth. “What are you suggesting?”

Dumbledore sat back again. “Nothing whatsoever; did you, by any chance, notice Harry acting strangely this past summer? Did he spend a lot of time alone?”

Mrs Dursley rolled her eyes. “Harry always spent his summers alone. It’s not as if any of us had much to do with him. He spent the summer in his room, reading mostly, when he wasn’t doing chores. He had no neighbourhood friends.”

“Did you perchance see what he was reading?”

“That JD Salinger book,” Mrs Dursley replied.

Franny and Zooey?” Dumbledore asked in confusion.

Mrs Dursley scoffed. “No, the other one. Catcher in the Rye.”

Dumbledore hummed in thought. “Did you ever see him talking, seemingly to himself?”

“Certainly not,” she replied immediately. “Vernon wouldn’t have held with that.”

Dumbledore sighed again. He wanted to take a look around Harry’s old room, but there was another matter on his mind that he wanted to question her on first. When he’d first received her owl on the thirty-first of July, he’d been surprised—not only that she’d had the forethought to have Arabella Figg post a letter to him for her—but also because she had actually noticed the falling of the wards around her house.

Yes, it was true that she had lived with the wards for sixteen years, but she was a muggle. Or a squib, rather. The point was that she shouldn’t have been able to feel wards dropping—even strong ones. All research—research that spanned hundreds of years—suggested that squibs, though descended from wizards, were almost biologically identical to muggles. The differences were completely inconsequential.

He cleared his throat, and asked, as delicately as possible, “Mrs Dursley, I understand that you descend from a wizarding line; have you ever experienced—“

“Mr Dumbledore,” she interrupted harshly, “I have suffered your presence and your questions about my nephew, not to mention your interference in our lives, and the constant presence of your people from your world for nearly two decades of my life.

“Do you know that I couldn’t even go to my own parents’ funeral, after they were killed? Do you know that I wasn’t allowed through security by your Ministry because I didn’t have a wand to weigh as identification for ‘such a high-profile event’? I was their daughter, and I was forced to read the newspaper clipping, and attend a ‘memorial service’ held by their mundane neighbours.

“You people have excluded me from your world for my whole life; whether or not I can feel wards fall, or find things that my husband loses, or know who it is before my telephone rings, or get set-in stains out of my son’s school uniform just by touching them does not—does not, Mr Dumbledore—mean that I would tell you, or that I have any wish—whatsoever—of being part of your world in any way.”

At that, she stormed out of the room, leaving Albus feeling wrong-footed. This was certainly not how he had expected this conversation to go. He glanced around the room, taking in the family photographs—none of which included Harry—and gathered his hat.

He had expected her to, if not be delighted by his suspicion, to at least be pleased. Who wouldn’t want to hear that they had magic, after all? Even if it was only a little bit. The problem was that she seemed to already be aware of it, and yet—yet she didn’t want it. It was rather pitiful. Well, he thought, that’s that.

It was only a second later, as Dumbledore was reaching the door to see himself out that Mrs Dursley returned. She slammed a cardboard box down at his feet. There were papers spilling out the top.

“You can take this to my nephew if he wants it. He was rifling through it the night that Sirius Black came to retrieve him, and I certainly don’t want it; I want nothing to do with you or your people, and I want no reminder of my other family—any of it.”

Dumbledore picked up the box. There was a newspaper clipping on top that mentioned the Evanses. No doubt nothing he hadn’t read at the time.

“Good day, Mr Dumbledore,” Petunia said harshly. She was standing with the door open, mouth pursed and waiting for him to leave. Dumbledore tipped his hat to her on his way out.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs—“

The door slammed shut.

ɤɣɤ

Harry wondered if he was the only one who had noticed how strangely Ginny had been acting. It had been a week since she’d been released from the Infirmary, and she had become increasingly more awkward around him. Once, he had been sure that she’d run the other way as he was walking up to her.

It was Wednesday, five after nine, and Professor Sinclair was just shutting the door when Ron ran in, looking rumpled. Harry grinned at him as rushed to find a seat next to him; so of course Ron had failed to notice anything amiss with Ginny—he’d looked rather harried himself since the Halloween party. Harry didn’t blame him: these days, Hermione and Theodore Nott had been looking especially sappy around each other. It was faintly nauseating, so Harry tried not to think too much of it. He could only imagine how it was affecting Ron.

The problem, Harry realised, as Ron sat down next to him, was that he wasn’t going to have to imagine it. Ron reeked—of sweat and alcohol and tobacco, which Professor Sprout grew in the greenhouses in such cases as students were stung by Billywigs or Bumblebees. Professor Sinclair gave Ron a disapproving look for being late.

Ron turned to him, maybe to say ‘good morning’ as he’d been absent from the dorms when Harry woke—which was not at all unusual lately—and Harry immediately noticed his bloodshot eyes and the batch of acne that had broken out on his forehead, probably from not washing his face or hair in a few days. He cringed, unintentionally.

Ron gave him a questioning glance.

“Mate,” Harry whispered, trying to hide his faint disgust, “you smell like the barman at the Hog’s Head.” Which was to say that Ron smelt like a goat.

Professor Sinclair said something that made the class burst into laughter, and Ron lifted an arm and sniffed at his arm pit. “Eugh—you’re right,” he admitted, then added, “Haven’t had much time to shower lately.”

Harry lifted an eyebrow, and started to ask what in Merlin’s name Ron had been so busy doing, as he’d obviously not gotten any of his homework assignments done or, in fact, made it to all of his classes lately, but the professor interrupted before he could. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Ron was relieved when Professor Sinclair told them to start paying attention or she would be forced to use disciplinary hexes to ensure their cooperation.

Harry winced, hating, for some reason, to disappoint his DADA professor. Across the aisle, Seamus caught his eye and made a vulgar gesture. Harry blushed and quickly turned his attention forward. After the Halloween party, Harry hadn’t felt the same attraction to Seamus as he had before, and he couldn’t understand why.

Looking at Seamus still gave him the same sense of desire as before, but feeling that desire made him uncomfortable. He felt guilty, but for no reason at all. Relationships, he was beginning to decide, were far too complicated for his taste.

“We’ll of course be continuing our discussions on the Ten Wars this week, but before we get started, I do want to offer up an idea for you to mull over as a class,” Professor Sinclair said.

“As you will no doubt remember discussing back in September, the Roman Occupation was the first ‘war’ to be considered a defining battle in Wizarding History. It created the desperate need for more ambitious, more encompassing, more defined wards—can anyone tell me any of the important magical advances that were made in response to the Occupation?”

Justin Finch-Fletchley raised his hand. “Many of the pure-blooded wizards of today live in family homes with ward systems based on the original Hecatomb Ward, which was developed sometime between 100 and 150 AD.”

Across the room, Zacharias Smith rolled his eyes, sneering, and Professor Sinclair looked like she was near it herself. After several seconds of silence, Smith decided he had more to add. Sinclair nodded for him to speak.

“Indeed,” he began snottily, “the paternal line of Smiths, of which I am descended, along with several satellite branches of the family, do employ the Hecatomb Ward or a derivative of it. I would like to point out that prior to the invention of the Hecatomb, the only ‘wards’, as such, that were available included the likes of the Abra Cadabra amulet, which muggles continued to use well into the plagues, and we see how well that turned out.”

He gave a patronizing smile to Justin, and continued. “And, Professor, is it not true that our very own school founders quickly disposed of one hundred various and sundry lives to hide this castle? I, for one, took in the stories of how the Hecatomb saved Hogwarts during the War of Muggles with my mother’s milk. I’m sure I was not the only one.” Several other students around the classroom were nodding in agreement, Ron included.

Professor Sinclair was looking at Zacharias fondly, which Zacharias seemed to find quite strange. He gave her a guarded look as she said, “Well done, Mr Smith. Have twenty points for Hufflepuff.” Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see Justin fuming over this development; Honestly, Harry wondered, what is it with those two? They were always competing.

“Mr Smith is correct,” the professor said, leaning against her desk. Her black hair was piled messily on top of her head, as if she’d gotten dressed in a hurry, and she seemed wholly relaxed in front of the classroom.

“The Hecatomb Ward was the original ward set to Hogwarts and its environs, and it remains today as the most powerful and protective ward on the school, though others have been added for other purposes—such as to prevent apparation.” Harry still sometimes found it odd to reconcile her as a Death Eater, which he was pretty certain she was; she would have to be with the company she kept.

Not for the first time, he wondered what her placement here in the school was meant to accomplish; he found it hard to believe that she really just liked children, or teaching, or both.

“Mr Smith is also correct in that the construction of the ward required the sacrifice of one hundred lives. This is true for all homes and buildings that employ the ward,” she added seriously. “In most cases, oxen or cattle were used, sometimes sheep—sometimes people, both muggle and wizard alike.”

By now, the class was listening with rapt fascination. Even those who, as Smith said, took in the stories with their mother’s milk paid attention. Most, Harry guessed, had never considered the exact toll much of their Old Magics had required. He knew from his father that all of the Black residences—and the Potter ones as well—used this particular ward, but he’d not known the cost of creating it then, only the name of it. Now that he tried to work it out in his, admittedly, limited Latin, he wondered why he hadn’t been suspicious of it before.

“Nowadays,” Sinclair continued, “there are viable alternatives to the Hecatomb that require fewer sacrifices—or none at all—and many New and Establishing Lines choose to use these instead. While they aren’t as powerful as the original, they are no doubt protective.

“Now—to my original point. I would go so far as to say that none of you have ever performed a Hectomb Ward; most buildings that need protection have already been warded by your ancestors generations ago, but you are all young adults—who is to say that one day you will not need to ward a home of your own? Or a business? Or...a school?” she added, glancing quickly at Harry. So quickly that perhaps he had imagined it.

Harry looked around the classroom, taking in the various expressions on his fellow classmates. They were utterly fascinated by the suspected development in their syllabus. To his right, Ron, oily-haired and faintly ripe-smelling, had his lips parted in enraptured disbelief. In front of him, Hermione sat next to Susan Bones, both of them whispering furiously to each other about what they guessed the professor to be proposing.

Justin Finch-Fletchley looked pale. Harry could no longer understand the reasoning for that. Two years ago, when he’d been as good as muggle-born himself, he’d been frightened and angered by magic like this, too. Now—now, he felt very detached from it. It was strange.

Sinclair said the next part in a very serious voice. “Professor Llewellyn of Ancient Runes and I have created a proposal for a field trip for our two classes. It will be an all-day event which includes a trip to Stonehenge in Wiltshire and the creation, as a class, of one Hecatomb Ward. This is not something to be taken lightly; the creation of any ward can be a dangerous process, never mind what’s involved with the Hecatomb. I have already had the proposal approved by the Headmaster.

“I would like you to take the rest of the class to think about this, and if you believe it would be a valuable learning experience,” she continued, and here, Harry saw Hermione nodding slightly, “then we will go forward with the proposal. The trip will be for all seventh years in my and Professor Llewellyn’s classes, and if you choose to go, you will be required to bring one live sacrifice.”

There was a collective gasp. For the most part, the class was too stunned to speak—especially the Hufflepuffs. Even after all that talk about the ward, they still hadn’t connected actually making one of the wards with having to see something die.

It was Ernie Macmillan, sitting next to Hannah Abbott—about whom rumours said had been on-again off-again with Ernie since fourth-year—who voiced the question on all of their minds.

“What kind of live sacrifice?” he asked warily. Ernie was a good sort—a ninth generation pure-blood, as he liked to remind everyone good-naturedly—and no doubt had a Hecatomb on his family’s estate.

Professor Sinclair smiled prettily, her pink cheeks flushed faintly with anticipation for the trip. It was quite obvious that this was something she was pleased with; most likely, she had never created one of the wards, either. “Nothing big,” she said. “You will of course be allowed to pick the sort of sacrifice you’re comfortable with. There is a catch, however, and I’m afraid it will be something that will prove difficult for you to reconcile: the sacrifice must be alive, and it must be something that is...well, a sacrifice. You can’t just offer up a midge you would have slapped just the same.”

“Right,” Ernie said slowly. He was nodding to himself, considering. Hannah grasped his hand beneath the desk, worrying her lip, but like a true Hufflepuff, she seemed quite determined.

“May we bring more than one?” Hermione asked, unexpectedly. Ron gave her a curious look, as if he’d only just recognized her. Indeed, they had seen very little of each other lately. They made a point of avoiding each other whenever possible. They probably spent so much time arranging not to meet, that Ginny’s strange behaviour was easily overlooked.

“Of course,” the professor said. She was obviously shocked by the proposal as well. She cleared her throat and added, “If you’re up to it, you are all welcome to do the same. I’m sure some students will abstain from participating—and that’s fine—but there will need to be one hundred sacrifices exactly; those that students can’t provide, I’ll provide myself.” She seemed a little saddened by this, though it was difficult to tell.

After that, Professor Sinclair tried to turn their attention back to the war of the week, but she had little success. Everyone’s questions returned to the Stonehenge field trip, and she gave up the lesson plan after another forty-five minutes. She let them out of class then, and the decision regarding the trip was firmly in its favour, though most, understandably, did not think their stomachs would be up for it.

They had one month to prepare. They would need their sacrifices collected, wand movements memorized, ritual simulated, and chaperones—which both professors and Headmaster Dumbledore had established were necessary—agreed upon. It all seemed very profound for a group of fifty or so seventeen-year-old students to handle.

ɤɣɤ

Draco had just about had enough of waiting on Potter. Black. Whatever.

He was busying himself with reading the letter from his mother that he’d got earlier that morning, but there was only so many times one could read about some orphans before one got nauseated by the sentimentality. He’d not known his mother was so easily moved by babies.

He had learned, however, that the Diggorys, who lived in Devon, had finally been approved for an adoption, and received a two-year-old boy, whom they named Quentin. The child’s original name, according to his mother, was Martin. Narcissa had read about it in the Society pages of the Prophet, and confirmed that the Diggorys were very pleased with the child and had finished up the blood rite to make Quentin their biological heir last Friday.

Draco snorted to himself. Turning to Pansy, who was sitting across from him revising for Ancient Runes, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about your parents getting an orphan?”

She looked up, eyes red and weary from ten straight hours of reading, or so he assumed; she’d been in an off-mood since after the All Hallows party, and he had no idea why. He felt a little sorry for her, but she liked to leave her assignments for the last minute, and it wasn’t his fault she wasn’t finished yet.

“I thought I did,” she said. She pushed her long dark hair off her face and gave him a curious look. “Didn’t I? I was sure I did.”

Draco waved his letter at her. His mother had written, also, about how wonderful it was that Elliot Parkinson had finally agreed to let Pansy’s mother, Eloise, pick one of the orphans. Ms Eloise had been angling for another child for several years—which Pansy had always found to be rather humorous when she wasn’t so tired from revising.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Draco said, gesturing to the letter. “Mum says your mum got one two days ago.”

“Yeah,” Pansy said, nodding. She didn’t seem at all upset with the interruption. “She’ll be three-years-old sometime around Yule hols; I forgot the exact day, but I’m sure Mum’s got it all memorized.” She paused suddenly, pulled out her wand, and cast a subtle silencing spell around them.

“You know, Draco, your parents are going to a lot of trouble to get all this done—your mum especially. Did you know that all of the orphans, even the ones left at the orphanage, come with full medical and personal histories?

“Well, it doesn’t include the birth parents or any other identifying information like that, but your mum researches their birthdays and original first names—in case the adoptive parents want to keep it. Ms Narcissa even watches them for a few weeks before taking them, so she can find out what each child likes to play with, what scares them and calms them down, what magical specializations they might take to, based on their personalities—it’s really quite amazing.

“My parents, for example,” Pansy continued, now completely absorbed in the conversation, “wanted a girl since they already have my stupid brother Patrick to take the Name, you know, and they wanted someone else they could marry into a new alliance, or something.

“So Mum finally picked this toddler with blue eyes and dark hair, so the blood rite wouldn’t be too stressful on her with a big change. Her original name was Laura, but my parents didn’t think that was suitable for a Parkinson, so they changed it to Posie,” Pansy said, quirking a grin. “According to Mum, Posie likes the colour pink, doesn’t like to get dirty, and came with a plush unicorn that she insists on sleeping with.”

Draco’s eyebrows had risen during that speech, and they stayed lifted as he continued to look at his friend incredulously. “Are you serious?”

“Of course, Draco,” Pansy said, rolling her blue eyes. They looked much brighter than they had when she’d still been revising. Pansy never had held much stock in studying. Draco’s mother, on the other hand, had been a Ravenclaw, and actually enjoyed the research part of any project. He’d not known that she put so much effort into this whole orphan project.

Draco considered Pansy’s words for a moment before deciding, “She sounds like she’s going to be prissy.”

Pansy flipped her hair back over her shoulder and replied, “Of course she is, Draco. Would you expect anything less?”

Draco snorted again. “Not at all. I suppose I’ll get to find out first hand over Yule; I expect your parents will be bringing her along for Mum’s dinner party?”

“I imagine so,” Pansy guessed, nodding. She grinned, and added, “I can’t imagine that the Dark Lord would sit for her.”

It was at that time that the library doors opened, and Potter walked in, talking in a low voice with Granger. He seemed to be rather pleased, while Granger looked to be like she was preparing herself for her friend to do something extremely stupid. Business as usual, then.

Pansy saw them come in, too, and she wasted no time gathering up her books. Draco stared at her wide-eyed. “I thought you were going to stay, Pansy!”

She gave him a wry grin and shook her head. “I’ll never get done with this Ancient Runes project if I stay here and listen to you and Black bicker. Besides, I’ve still got to write my mum to see if she’ll chaperone the field-trip—“

“Your mum’s coming?” Draco asked. Pansy was carefully packing her good quills into her bag. “Why?”

Pansy shrugged. “Because Morag McDougal’s mother’s coming and I’d sooner eat my own nose before I let that Ministry cow tell me what to do—see you later, Draco.”

Draco shuddered. Morag’s mother was definitely a piece of work. He supposed he’d write to see if his mother wanted to come as well. Pansy waved goodbye to him and he glowered, noticing that Potter and Granger were nearly upon his table, and he would have to deal with both of them alone. “Bye Pansy,” he sighed. He supposed he would just have to accept his fate; as it stood, he would be spending a lot of time with Potter from now on, anyway.

ɤɣɤ

Harry practically slammed his school books down on Malfoy’s table, quills scattering and an ink bottle rolling into the Slytherin’s elbow. Hermione sighed; she could, honestly, understand why Malfoy had always hated Harry. After all, Harry was so thoughtless so often.

Fortunately, while Hermione didn’t think that Harry had been exactly attentive when Lord Voldemort—the Dark Lord, as Harry had, unfortunately, begun to call him—brought him over to the ‘dark side’, so to speak, she didn’t think that he’d been too terribly naive. They had discussed again today Harry’s continuing alliance with Voldemort, and she was becoming more comfortable with the idea, though she was still quite utterly and truly frightened of the wizard. She thought that was reasonable: the man killed people...possibly for fun.

If she weren’t so certain of her facilities, she might question whether she’d gone crazy.

And honestly, the only reason she was going along with this nonsense was because of the orphans. After having time to consider all the angles, she’d become wholly—well, mostly—supportive of what she’d come to learn was Voldemort’s idea.

It was, in a twisted way, such a noble and considerate endeavour, and she appreciated that, while his motives were mostly self-serving, he had also considered that it would be much easier on the children to grow up in this environment. These kids, Hermione knew, were going to grow up knowing where they belonged, and they would start Hogwarts with an advantage she’d never had. She could admit to herself that she was jealous.

And, Oh, how wonderful it would have been to have grown up in wizarding society. She sighed, setting her bag carefully down next to Harry’s. He was already bickering, although only half-seriously, with Malfoy.

It was Yasmin Smith, probably, who had finally won Hermione’s support for Harry. He had explained her many positions—including the less favourable ones—and it was her quick action to start a school for these children, though she herself was a Death Eater—and in Voldemort’s Inner Circle, no less!—that swayed Hermione.

It seemed to Hermione that any person who could be such an educated, well-rounded and quick-witted woman, not to mention such a protective and doting mother, couldn’t be all wrong. In fact, when she first met Mrs Smith, she’d been quite impressed with her good sense and logical reasoning.

On the other hand, there was Harry’s flippant and unconcerned mention of Voldemort thinking it possible to give magic to squibs to consider. She wouldn’t mind being part of a project like that. It seemed to Hermione that the other side, the anti-Voldemort side—the Light Side, as some called it—was far less interested in working to better society with research and new discoveries, as ironic as that was, and Hermione was fully in support of discovering new things and solving terrible problems.

Hermione settled into her chair next to Harry and pulled out her Ancient Runes homework. Theodore was supposed to meet her later in the evening to finish up their de-cursing project, but it seemed as if Harry and Malfoy were only getting started. Obviously, Quidditch was more important.

“Right, Hermione?”

She looked up to Harry, eyebrows raised questioningly. “What, Harry?”

He frowned at Malfoy, who looked quite frustrated, then turned back and said, “Malfoy’s still being a git about de-cursing a ring. Tell him it’s just as good as the dagger you and Nott got so he’ll stop being a priss.”

Hermione winced slightly, and Malfoy snorted. She fought a laugh: somehow, Malfoy always seemed too proper to snort. “Typically,” she said slowly, “the only curses on jewellery is to protect a woman’s maidenhood or to keep her from...straying. The curses were usually aimed at male genitalia.”

Harry winced; he was not to be deterred. “That sounds bad enough to me.”

“But it doesn’t mean they were hard to de-curse,” Hermione said apologetically. “Young suitors are hard to deter; desire can breed cleverness...among other things.”

“Oh, honestly, Granger,” Malfoy exclaimed. He picked up the gaudy little ring sitting on the table between him and Harry, turning it over in his hand. “I can’t even feel a curse on it,” he said flatly. “A general air of malevolence, sure, but what family heirloom wouldn’t have that after having to stay with the same sort of people for generations? Jewellery, especially, gets prissy after a couple decades.”

Hermione reached over and plucked the ring from Malfoy’s fingers, ignoring his outraged look. “No, it doesn’t feel very cursed to me, either,” she agreed. “But you’re right, Malfoy, it feels a little malicious.”

He snatched it back from her with a sneer. “Thank you, Granger, for your insight.” He dismissed her easily, and turned back to Harry, though she wasn’t overly concerned. She’d rather be revising for Ancient Runes or figuring out what on earth she was going to offer as her Hecatomb sacrifice.

“Potter,” Malfoy was saying, “I’m telling you, we need to first establish the nature of the curse—though I’m still sceptical there even is one.”

“Malfoy,” Harry said, somewhat petulantly, “I might not be a prodigy at Arithmancy—“

“Obviously,” Malfoy interrupted.

Harry glowered at him, which Hermione thought to be less severe than it merited, and in fact looked rather fond and adoring. Actually, Hermione thought, it looked a lot like the glowers Harry used to give Seamus, at the beginning of the term.

“As I was saying—” Harry continued, and now Hermione could definitely see it. Harry wasn’t upset with Malfoy at all—and...was he flirting with the Slytherin?

She couldn’t tell if Malfoy noticed or not, but he seemed like a reasonably intelligent boy; he’d certainly always given her a run for her money as far as marks went, and he’d figure it out soon enough.

A pair of hands came around and covered her eyes. She smiled. “Theodore.”

“You didn’t even let me say ‘Guess who’ first,” he pouted.

She turned around in her chair, “Who taught you that vulgar muggle nonsense?” she teased.

Across the table, Malfoy laughed, and Harry looked to be fighting a smile and a sneer at the same time. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about her boyfriend, but Theo wasn’t too sure how he felt about her friends, either, so it all worked out.

“Nott, you’re witch-whipped,” Malfoy said with a laugh, and Theo gave him two fingers in reply, which Hermione slapped his hand for, and for which Malfoy laughed even harder.

“I may be,” Theodore agreed, flashing his white teeth in a pleasant smile. He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “I don’t mind.”

Hermione smiled again, but as she turned back to gather her books, she noticed red hair rushing from the library. Damn it, she thought. He’s never going to get over this, is he?

ɤɣɤ

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

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. Pyrrhus was an ancient general who, after defeating the Romans, told those who wished to congratulate him, “One more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone.”

ɤɣɤ

Sirius arrived in Saint-Jean-de-Luz sometime after sunset, but the town was alive with activity even then. He ambled through the streets, glancing into shops and pubs, not exactly sure what he was looking for, but knowing that if it presented itself, he would know. He had written to Harry that a werewolf had directed him here, and that was true, but he had little hope that he would really find Remus here, as the were had thought he might.

He thought maybe that he would find Regulus here, though. Or, if not Regulus, then something that would explain what happened to Regulus—if he had fallen through some Veil in the Ministry, or if he’d orchestrated not one fake-death, but two.

The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that his brother was alive. Or at least had been in the past three years.

A French werewolf pack was supposedly here, looking to chase some birds. Sirius doubted that Remus would have held with that, even for a mission. Remus had been too pragmatic for that sort of thing. But—what if it had been metaphor? What if Remus and some other werewolves really were somewhere in this little city, not to catch tail, perhaps, but to catch something else?

Sirius paused, and a group of rowdy young wizards walked into him, stumbling and slurring various French obscenities as they picked themselves up from the cobblestones. What was there to catch out here?

Regulus? But there was no reason a group of werewolves would have any interest or inclination to find Sirius’ long-lost little brother; or even that anyone would expect him alive. No, he was being sentimental, and it was possible that he’d read too many of James’ muggle ‘defective novels’—or whatever they were called—back at Hogwarts. He was projecting.

And it was actually kind of cold, now that he thought about it. He shivered, and cast a quick warming charm on his cloak. For November, it was unnaturally chilly, really. ‘Colder than a Dementor’s tit’, as his mum would’ve said.

If Remus had been here, Sirius thought humourlessly, he would’ve teased him about being such a ninny when it came to cold weather. Stupid Remus and his stupid ability to withstand ridiculously extreme temperatures. If it weren’t for him, Sirius wouldn’t be out here, anyway, when he could be back in England making sure his son didn’t cock something up beyond repair—

Oh Merlin, Sirius thought suddenly. He stopped again in the middle of the street, but this time no one walked into him. What if someone else had remembered how useful werewolves could be in regards to Dementors?

If the Dark Lord—or Dumbledore—was using his friend as Dementor bait, he was going to pitch quite a fit, damn it. Remus probably didn’t even know he was alive, but that was no reason he had to go frolicking about on some bloody suicide mission for The Greater Good or whatever it was Dumbledore prattled on about.

He remembered from his time here after Azkaban that there was an incredibly old pub near the wharfs that boasted ‘Est 986: Alive and kicking back ale for two deadly seasons!’. It was called, Sirius remembered with a grin, the Happy Dementor, and if there was anywhere that would have trivial information on the Dementors in the area and their habits, it was there.

ɤɣɤ

Albus had conjured a tartan armchair in his office, and Minerva wasted no time sitting. Her shoulders slumped minutely, and for a moment, it caught even Albus off his guard. He’d never before seen her look quite so defeated, and he couldn’t blame her, of course. He felt like he’d been defeated as well. It was nearly midnight, and the weariness of a long day showed of both of their faces.

“Never—not in my forty years of teaching have I ever—!” She stopped abruptly; her mouth moved for a moment, as if she were silently completing the sentence, and then she shook her head. The anger melted away from her quietly, and Albus was left staring at a woman he’d never seen before in all of his one-hundred-plus years.

“Not even the Weasley twins,” she continued stubbornly. Her voice sounded frank, and confused, and sad.

“Perhaps you would have got around to it, had they not made the decision themselves,” Albus said, trying to bring some levity to the situation. Minerva gave him a stern look in reply, and the headmaster decided it was worth it, if only to see some of his usual Deputy Headmistress in her.

“Albus, you know I can’t ignore this,” she said, and it sounded like a plea. “He must be expelled.”

The Headmaster dipped his head once in assent. “It is as you say,” he affirmed, though, had he been the one to catch young Mr Weasley, he wasn’t sure that he would have been able to make the same decision. Of course, throwing Mr Malfoy into the mix changed things; Minerva’s hands were very close to being tied with him having seen.

Call him old-fashioned, but he’d never been able to bring himself to expel anyone, not even Sirius Black when he’d most certainly deserved it, and not even young Tom Riddle, which might one day equate to one of the bigger mistakes he made in his life.

From his perch, Fawkes trilled sadly, and Albus nodded, reaching over to stroke his ugly bald head; he’d just had a burning day. On the shelf behind him was the box of effects given to him by Petunia Dursley nearly two weeks ago. He still hadn’t made the time to go through it all, and resolved to do so soon. Perhaps. If he was able to find the time.

“Perhaps this will be a valuable experience for Mr Weasley,” Albus offered.

Minerva said angrily, “Without his NEWTs he’ll never find a decent job!”

Albus smiled enigmatically, and said, “But surely he can join the hundreds of other home-taught children completing their NEWTs by correspondence—“

“He’ll need the practicals, too, for Ministry jobs or any sort of affluent position, Albus,” she said sourly.

“Nothing a tutor couldn’t—“ Albus began, but was cut-off.

“I dare say,” Minerva said slowly, “that the Weasleys will be hard-pressed to afford a private tutor for one rebellious son.”

Albus dared a small smile again. “Molly and Arthur will do right by their son—or should I say sons? What better opportunity for Molly to ensure her twins get their NEWTs as well, when she’s already committed to seeing one through them?”

Minerva reluctantly pursed her lips in thought. It was not so different from her normal look, and Albus was again pleased by the momentary transformation. Or should he say transfiguration? He chuckled to himself at the joke.

“Please do share the joke, Albus,” Minerva said, again looking sour. “I fail to see the humour of the situation.”

Immediately, he smoothed his expression back into one of passive soberness. “I was merely reminiscing,” he said, “of a particularly impressive prank committed by the Messers Potter, Black, Lupin and Pettigrew, which reminded me in turn of the Messers Weasley, which reminded me in turn of the—“

“Yes, I understand,” Minerva said. She inhaled deeply and stood, composing herself. “It must be done,” she said, more to herself than to him.

He nodded along anyway, running his fingers through his beard to detangle it. One of these days, he should have it trimmed. If he happened upon a free moment, that is, and if he were able to decide on a blunt trim or some nice layers—

“I’ll contact the Weasleys in the morning then,” she said at last, and Albus was startled out of his musings. “Shall I have them floo to your office at nine?”

“Nine would be quite acceptable,” he affirmed.

“Very well,” she said. With a final decisive nod, Minerva turned towards the door of his office and made to leave.

He stopped her as she reached the door handle, saying, “Minerva?”

She turned expectantly, like he knew she would, looking for some answer that she knew he was capable of giving, but which he refused to give because it would do none of them any good. He knew this, and it saddened him, but he said anyway, “This will not be the last trial of Mr Weasley’s life; though it pains us to do so, it is often necessary to allow those we care for to suffer, so that they might learn from it.”

She gave him a hard look, and said nothing more as she left. He could hear her heals snapping on the stone steps. She had always ignored the spell that moved the staircase, choosing instead to walk it herself. He couldn’t blame her for that; pride was often a difficult burden to bear.

ɤɣɤ

“My first friend,” Severus said quietly.

Ginevra Weas—no, Lily—glanced up at him. Even in this body, he knew her, knew all of her flaws and failings and adored them just as her triumphs. Severus had come to notice, over the past week, that when Lily was there, was in control, he could see her.

With her red hair and slender body, Weasley was not so different, but sometimes, when Severus was lecturing his sixth year class, he would catch Weasley looking, and her eyes would flash green, her hair flare brighter, and her freckles would fade into translucent-white skin, and Severus would know. Ginevra Weasley, for all her escapades, had nothing on Lily Evans, who was beautiful in her quietness, in the way her mouth looked when she was this-close to figuring out some profound theory.

“My last,” he amended a moment later.

“Surely not,” she replied. She was sitting on a student desk, swinging her legs back and forth slowly, and Severus could not help but watch the muscle and sinew undulating under her skin.

They were not Ginevra Weasley’s legs anymore, though Severus had been assured that the girl was somewhat aware of what was going on. Severus remembered that patch of freckles right above her right knee from a spring study session their OWL year. It had been the last time they studied together, and somehow, he’d known this in advance, and made certain to memorise every curve and freckle of her, shamelessly stolen in glances revealed by her pleated skirt.

It was just there: above her right knee. It showed as her skirt rid up and back down again with every swing. Everything about this body was Lily.

He paused in marking his second year essays, looked up at her slender jaw and pretty eyes: “Why would I lie to you?”

She pursed her lips and looked away, as she’d always done when he’d said something that upset the feminine part of her—the part that cried and ached over hurt animals and broken hearts. She’d not been as fierce and uncaring as the Gryffindor boys had believed. Severus knew; he’d seen her cry. He’d made her cry.

“Why did you suffer like that?”

He clenched his quill in his fist and sneered at her, saying, “It was not something that could be helped.”

She, too, was accustomed to his responses when he was defensive or frightened: she ignored the sneer and said only, sadly, “You should have made friends, Sev. I was nothing special. Certainly not now; not when I’m dead.”

He wanted to say that she was; she was everything to him, and always had been, even when he’d pushed her former existence to the farthest place in his mind. “We are not all so vivacious as you once were.”

She laughed—not the girlish giggling that Ginevra Weasley made whenever she was with a beau or among friends, but the trilling, head-turning laugh that had first attracted Severus to the swing-sets all those years ago. He had known her to be a witch then because he had known the meaning of a laugh like that—of a voice like that, that was at once lyrical and tragic as it was blending and unobtrusive.

She’d had the Cadence Magic, as the old wives called it. He’d recognized her dulcet voice because his mother had had one almost as pleasant. His own smooth voice was a remnant of such a desirable talent, but he’d never been able to spell-craft with it, like Lily had.

Severus didn’t reply. He wondered, so he asked instead, “Do you—the last time I saw you, you sang—“

“The blessing,” Lily interrupted. She smiled at him softly. “I remember; I prayed for your soul.”

He laughed suddenly, a rare thing. “I’d forgotten that your family was Catholic.”

She gave him a wry look. “It is not so uncommon in the States, this strange religion.”

Severus nodded. In truth, the year after Lily’s death, her birthday had fallen on a Sunday, and he had attended a Catholic Mass in some misguided hope of easing his suffering. It had only made it worse.

He couldn’t—wouldn’t—think of that anymore, so he said instead, “Your son wears your wedding ring.”

She nodded, unsurprised. “I’ve seen it on him.”

“You do not seem so saddened by the loss as I would have expected.”

She laughed again, but this time with less cheer. “You don’t sleep when you’re dead. I’ve had a lot longer than sixteen years to get over a marriage that was a farce to begin with.”

“But, I always thought—“ Severus began uncertainly. “After fifth year, when you took up with—it seemed—“ he couldn’t finish the thought aloud, and felt embarrassed by the strange way his voice had sounded in the emptiness of his potions classroom.

Lily said softly, “What a terrible mess I have made of all your lives.”

Severus knew of whom she spoke: the three men who had loved her and revolved around her like a frightened doe, each one watching the other circle and waiting for the first opportunity to snatch her away or at least get one of the other two out of the picture. Sirius Black had been the most aggressive of all of them—the Alpha Male—the one who’d nearly had him killed over her. He remembered the encounter with Lupin the Wolf clearly, even now, and he wondered if she’d ever learned the whole story about that, but dared not ask.

“What happened?” he asked instead.

She propped herself on her hands and regarded him strangely, worrying her lip in a way that reminded him of the terrible levitation charm she’d cast in first year. “You don’t really want to know that, Sev,” she said.

“I do,” he insisted calmly. There was so much confusion centred on Lily’s various romances. Like everyone else, he had always thought the Potter marriage to have been a happy one, if unexpected. Wandpoint Weddings were not uncommon in the wizarding world, but he had known of her affairs in school with Sirius Black, even if James Potter had not, and hearing of it had caught him by surprise, even then. Even when he hadn’t spoken to her in three years.

“Do you remember Regulus Black?” she asked, non sequitur.

He nodded; Regulus Black had been a subtler, cleverer version of his older brother: affluent and snobbish, but with a penchant for melodrama that rivalled Draco Malfoy’s. That was not to say that Severus had disliked him, though; truth be told, he’d not had much of an opinion of him at all.

“He did something he shouldn’t have done, and Sirius wanted to save him, but we both know he would have royally botched it.”

Severus frowned severely. “I don’t understand,” he said plainly.

She said, “I never saw Regulus Black die, but they say he’s dead.”

“Of course he’s dead,” Severus said, shocked. “The Dark Lord said so himself.”

“Did he?” Lily murmured. It wasn’t really a question, even if she’d phrased it as one.

It was a moment before Severus thought to say, “And why would you have seen him die, anyway? That’s ridiculous; do you know that I always hated when you spoke in riddles—“

She laughed suddenly, a melodic thing. “Oh, Severus,” she said, “you’re one to talk.”

He ignored her. It was nearing midnight and his temper shortened with every passing moment. “Why would you have seen?”

“Why, I was there, of course,” she said. “I’d been summoned to witness the act. I’m sure you remember, Severus; you were there, too.”

“You stood next to me,” he said in dawning comprehension. “I remember smelling your perfume, and thinking myself mad.” Shock paled his face even further, making him look ghostly and ill. “Why were you there? Why were you at a Death Eater meeting?”

Her brows furrowed, and she dipped her head in some negative emotion. He could see the play of regret and something else on her face, even in the darkness of the room. She didn’t look up when she said, “I wanted Regulus to live—because Sirius needed it, but I wasn’t able to hold up my end of the bargain, so the Dark Lord didn’t hold up his.”

“That makes no sense!” Severus said harshly. “What would you have had to bargain with the Dark Lord over? And...you! With your endless righteousness and your fretting and anger at me for the people I associated with when you were too busy with Sirius Black to give me the time of—“

“Severus!” Lily said angrily. He stopped, familiar with the tone, and looked at her sourly. “If you’ve forgotten, these insults you tend to throw out when you’re angry are the very reason I stopped speaking to you to begin with. If you want to speak to me like an adult, then you may certainly ask me anything you like, however, if you’re going to continue to be a twat, I’m leaving.”

“You haven’t called me a twat since third year,” Severus said, grudgingly abandoning his ire; she was right, of course, and he absolutely hated it.

She raised one eyebrow, smiling a bit. “You deserved it then, too.”

He rolled his eyes. “What was your end of the bargain?” he asked.

She huffed in that little way she’d always done when she had to explain something more than once. “To bring Narcissa Black with me.”

“Narcissa?” Severus asked incredulously. “What would the Dark Lord want with her?”

Lily raised her eyebrow again. “I suppose, since we had already stopped talking, and you cared little for people outside of Slytherin, you wouldn’t have heard about the spell she crafted in sixth year that won two international awards. CEMU ended up buying the rights to it in seventh year.”

“Indeed,” Severus said. He glanced down at the exams on his desk that he’d yet to finish marking. At this rate, he never would, but he couldn’t bring himself to kick Weasley out when Lily was in there.

He looked at Weasley’s face and he saw Lily there, as if it really were her, but then he would blink, and the illusion would dissolve; he would be left looking at Ginevra Weasley, and hearing Lily’s voice come out would shock him once again.

The more he talked to her, the more he missed her. He had thought that his mourning was over, and yet it seemed that it had just begun. He looked up at her again, saw Weasley’s face, and said, “You were merely required to bring Narcissa into the fold to save the life of Regulus Black?”

Lily nodded. “Yes; one servant for another.”

“Why didn’t you just do it?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I asked; Narcissa would have none of it. She thought the Dark Mark was tacky.”

Severus grinned severely. “I never would have expected Narcissa Black to be the kind to let one of the Family die for her appearance.”

“I never told her what was on the line,” Lily said, affronted. “That wouldn’t have been fair.”

“A Hufflepuff now, are you?”

“Certainly not,” Lily said. She yawned, and glanced at the clock on the wall. “I have to go,” she said, frowning. “Ginny Weasley has to finish her Muggle Studies homework.”

She hesitated, and then added, “Sometimes I want to tell her why she’s so attracted to my son and the Dark Lord, but then I think of a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t. It’s a terrible thing, watching her suffer through it every day.” She shook her head, and hopped off the desk. “Goodnight, Severus.”

“Wait—“ he said suddenly.

The girl in the doorway looked nothing like Lily—everything like Ginevra Weasley—but he couldn’t help himself. He had to ask—

“What is it, Sev?” she asked. Then it was still really her.

“Can you—that prayer,” he said, stumbling over the words. “Do you remember it?”

“Of course,” she said. “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.” She paused, smiled softly at him, and added, “Amen.”

Severus turned away as she shut the door, and did not look up again for some time.

ɤɣɤ

Molly and Arthur Weasley arrived at Hogwarts the following morning at ten ‘til nine, and walked soberly towards the Headmaster’s office. Minerva caught Arthur just as he was leaving for work at eight, and both he and his wife were still in a state of shock.

Albus was waiting behind his desk when they came in; Arthur held the door for Molly, as always: still a gentleman to his wife after all these years.

“Good morning, Molly, Arthur. I’m sorry that we must meet like this,” Albus said. He retrieved a lemon drop from his never-empty jar and slid it into his mouth.

Molly flipped her patched travelling hood back from her face; Albus was quite surprised to see that her eyes were red-rimmed, and she was sniffling even now. He had expected the anger first, the crying after. Arthur Weasley didn’t sit, but stood behind her chair with a heavy hand on her shoulder. He was solemn; his eyes darted, focusing on nothing as he frowned.

Arthur cleared his throat. “Hello, Albus,” he said. Molly nodded, and didn’t meet his eyes.

Albus looked towards the door, and soon after, Minerva pushed it open. She stood aside, and young Mr Weasley walked nervously into his office. He was downcast; his eyes were quite red and the circles surrounding them quite dark. Albus felt a moment of pity; the boy had spent the whole night fretting over this moment, and at this point in time, there was nothing Albus could do about it, Headmaster or not. It was a terrible shame that the school Governors had such control over certain matters; extreme and repeated impropriety on campus being one of those matters.

Molly burst into tears. “I don’t understand,” she cried, “we raised him to be a good man.” Arthur patted her shoulder, and poor Ronald watched, frightened and ashamed. Turning to the boy, she begged, “Why, Ron?”

He shrugged, at a loss for words. Blinking quickly, he turned his head towards the window. “’M sorry,” he mumbled. Molly only cried harder.

“Won’t you sit, Ronald?” Dumbledore asked, and the boy did. He was still in his school robes from the day prior, and they were stale and wrinkled from him having slept in them. It was a terrible shame that this was the last time he would ever be wearing them.

Before the Weasleys arrived, Minerva had confessed to him that she suspected Mr Malfoy would not have turned Ronald in, after all, but by then, the school governors had already been informed and there was nothing that could be done. Only the paperwork was left now. And anyway, Albus was afraid that his Deputy Headmistress was only feeling guilty, and trying to assuage guilt like this was a difficult thing. He pitied her for the first time in all their years working together.

“Lemon drop?” he asked. Ronald shook his head mutely, as the headmaster knew he would. He settled back in his chair and tried to look only at the youngest Weasley. Molly and Arthur’s combined grieving was entirely too much for him at the current moment, he was sad to admit.

“Mr Weasley, you understand what is happening, don’t you?”

He was silent for a moment, but finally whispered, “Yes, Headmaster.”

“Do you wish to file an appeal?”

Ronald shook his head silently, surprising everyone in the room.

“Ron,” Arthur said, bemused, “son—why not?”

“I can’t,” Ronald said, still not looking at anyone. He stared at his hands in his lap instead. “I deserve this.”

Molly sniffled loudly, saying, “Ron, you could at least try! Don’t throw your future away like this!”

“If I may,” Albus interjected smoothly, “young Ronald is not out of options as yet, Molly. There are oodles of opportunities available to a young man of his aptitude. And of course he may certainly take his NEWTs by correspondence, with the help of a tutor.”

“Oh Arthur,” Molly wailed, “we can’t afford a tutor; what are we going to do? We can’t let Ron go without his NEWTs—“

“I’ll pay for it,” Ron spoke up. He glanced at his parents, then quickly back down to his hands. “I’ll get a job.”

Arthur’s face took on a pained expression, and Molly sniffed loudly. “Son, you’ve just made the next few years of your life so much more difficult than they had to be.” He shook his head sadly and wiped inconspicuously at his eyes. “Your mother and I wanted so much for all of you to have a good life—an easier one than ours sometimes was.”

“I’m sorry—“ Ronald said again, but Arthur cut him off.

“No,” he said sadly. “Don’t be sorry; be decisive. Your mother and I can be sorry enough for you.” He turned to Albus and said, “Ron won’t be appealing.”

Albus nodded solemnly. “Very well.” He reached into his desk drawer and retrieved a stack of parchment. Adjusting his glasses, Albus scanned it quickly, initialled here and there, and slid it across the desk, where Arthur read over it before handing it to his son.

“Sign at the bottom if you understand what it says, Ron,” Arthur instructed.

It was only a moment before the young Gryffindor finished reading and signed his name messily on the line provided. Immediately, his robes and tie, once embroidered in scarlet and gold, faded to black. The boy noticed, and the sound that he made upon realising what it meant was so heartbreaking that Albus didn’t think he would be able to stomach food for several days.

Ronald took a moment to compose himself, then carefully set the Notice of Expulsion back on the headmaster’s desk. He made to stand, but Albus stopped him, saying, “Molly, Arthur, if you wouldn’t mind, do you suppose I might have a word alone with Ronald before you depart? Minerva?”

“Of course, Albus,” Arthur said, then gathered his wife and her pocketbook, and followed Minerva, who had watched the whole ordeal in a strange, stunned silence, out the door.

“How are you feeling, Mr Weasley?” Albus asked, once they were alone. The silence left behind from Molly’s sniffling made all of the whirring gadgets in his office sound like thunderstorms.

The boy snorted derisively and looked away, saying nothing. He fiddled with his now-black tie, and upon closer inspection, Albus noticed that his hands were trembling.

“You may be frank with me, I assure you,” he continued, as if he’d never heard.

Finally, Ronald looked up, pressed his lips together harshly, and said, “Frankly, I feel like utter shit, sir.”

Albus attempted a smile. “I will send you by Madam Pomfrey for a headache potion before you depart with your parents.”

Mr Weasley laughed, but it dissolved into a cry. “What am I going to do?”

Albus rummaged in his desk and found a single Chocolate Frog. He passed it over to the boy and sat back in his desk, hands folded in front of him. “What would you like to do, Mr Weasley?” he asked.

He tried not to find humour in the fact that this was the first time any of his students had ever accepted sweets he offered. Ronald was carefully tearing the packaging open; he examined the card for a moment, reached to lay it upon Albus’ desk, and then pressed the frog into his mouth.

The Headmaster leaned forward and examined the card upside down. He chuckled; it was his own card.

“I don’t know,” the boy said plainly. His mouth was still half-full with chocolate. “How am I—Harry, and Hermione: I won’t see them. I’ll never be an Auror wi—”

“It is only a few weeks until holidays,” Albus offered when it was plain that Ronald would not finish his sentence. “I’m sure your parents will allow them to visit.”

“Why would they even want to?” he asked. Albus frowned; had he missed something? It seemed to him that Ronald’s mourning process was off, though he couldn’t say in what way.

“You are a bright young man, Mr Weasley,” the Headmaster said. “You have much to offer.” After a moment’s consideration, he added, “We must all travel our own paths; what we think of as a divergence may in fact be our own shortcut to greatness.”

Mr Weasley looked at him as if he were barmy, but that was quite okay. Albus was accustomed to that sort of thing, and anyway, there was a certain look of comprehension about Mr Weasley now. Albus suspected that he had understood.

“What would you like to do?” the Headmaster asked again.

This time, Ronald answered. He licked the remainder of the chocolate from his fingers speculatively and said, “I don’t know. Make sweets?”

“A splendid aspiration,” Albus declared. “Might I suggest you speak to your very industrious elder brothers on the matter? Perhaps they could offer some sage advice—and, oh! If I recall, your mother is quite the pastry chef. Several years before you were born, in fact, she sent me a lovely holiday cake. If you happen to go into her sewing bag looking for the cobalt blue yarn to repair last year’s holiday sweater, and stumble upon a collection of very secret family recipes, then subsequently try your wand at baking a certain triple chocolate truffle, I would be very delighted if you remembered to send me a small piece to sample.”

“Right,” Ronald said. Slowly, a grin spread across his face, though the expression underneath was still sad. “Of course, sir—Headmaster. Thank you.”

“For what?” Albus asked, scrunching his eyebrows in confusion. Just then, before the boy could reply, there was a knock at the door, and he lifted his voice enough to say, “Please do come in, Ms Granger, Mr Potter.”

The door burst open and Hermione Granger rushed in, crying perhaps harder than Molly had, and launched herself at young Mr Weasley. “Oh Ron,” she said, “you’re such an idiot.”

He wrapped his arms awkwardly around her, and patted her back. “I know,” he said. Albus, though he had not meant to watch, could not fail to notice the tragedy of the situation, and how very much it was costing Ronald not to squeeze her much tighter. His eyebrows rose of their own volition; this was an unexpected issue, but if the rumours regarding Ms Granger and Mr Nott were true, then the separation would benefit both of them.

Behind them, Albus saw Harry lingering. He beckoned him in with a slow nod of his head, and tried to make himself inconspicuous during this terrible goodbye.

“Harry told me last night,” Hermione continued, sniffling. “I can’t believe you; you said you’d stopped. I just don’t understand what could have been so bad that you had to go and do this, you big berk.”

Harry and Ronald’s eyes met knowingly for a moment, but as Hermione was still fiercely hugging her friend, she missed the exchange, and her only response was when Ronald cleared his throat and said, “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Harry finally stepped forward, saying, “We’re both coming to visit for hols. We saw your mum downstairs and she said it was okay.”

“Good,” Ronald said, nodding. Slowly, he unwrapped himself from Hermione’s grip and stepped back from her. “Maybe you could use the downtime to work on your Chess moves. Maybe you could surprise me over Yule.”

“Maybe,” Harry said, grinning. “Probably not.”

“Probably not,” Ronald agreed.

Albus cleared his throat. “I believe your parents are waiting for you, Mr Weasley.”

Ronald nodded quickly. “Of course, sir.”

“Wait,” Harry said quickly. He reached into the hand-warmer pockets on his jumper and pulled out a stack photographs. From this angle, Albus couldn’t tell what they were of. “I’ve been collecting these for you, mate,” he said. “Use ‘em for your, erm, project.”

Glancing at the top one, Ronald choked out a laugh, and stuffed them in his pocket. “Where’d you get these?”

Harry shrugged. “No worries.” He stepped forward decisively and hugged his friend hard. “Gonna miss you, mate.”

“You too,” Ronald replied, hugging back. The stepped apart, and the redhead turned to nod at the headmaster. Awkwardly, he reached forward and retrieved the Chocolate Frog card from his desk. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to keep this after all.”

Albus smiled serenely. “As you wish, Mr Weasley.”

The three Gryffindors—for even expelled, he was still a Gryffindor at heart—left as one, and as the door shut behind them, Albus reflected that they had entered together, and they would be leaving together, even if it was only metaphorical. He felt very sad for the rest of the week.

ɤɣɤ

It was Professor Sinclair who gave them the letter.

“I knew her, you know,” she said, smiling slightly. “Many years ago when we were younger, before—you know.”

Next to her, Lorraine nodded, staring at her lace-up lady’s boots, in the same style their mother had worn in a picture they had of her from her Hogwarts days. Lorraine was sympathetic and sentimental in such ways. It was possible, Alsace thought, eyeing the scratches on them, that they were even the very same boots.

“Did you join at the same time?” Alsace asked her professor, and Sinclair nodded. Neither she nor her sister had known their teacher prior to the school year, and they were not close, but it was still the professor who had been given the letter to give to them. Of course, they were no closer to Professor Snape, either, and in fact, to none of the professors or students for that matter, so perhaps whomever sent it had just expected it to be easier to hear from another woman.

“About, yes. Within a few months, or thereabouts. Your mother,” she said, hesitating again with the weight of it all. “Your mother was a beautiful woman; you both look so much like her.”

“We know,” they said.

A moment later, it was Lorraine who thought to ask, “Why did she go mad? In Azkaban? Our father didn’t.”

Alsace cocked her head to the side. She had always assumed it was from her stint in gaol, and that their mother had just been more delicate, mentally—but Lorraine was usually very circumspect, and asked only relevant questions. “I never thought...” Alsace said in wonder.

Professor Sinclair was giving them a pitiful look, and both girls, embarrassed, turned their faces at the same time.

“You’re so alike,” Sinclair sighed. She propped herself on the edge of her desk and glanced out the window. Being on the east side of the castle, the Defence professor’s office was nearly dark already, even though the sun had just begun to set. The torches on the walls were already flickering on. “Azkaban is a terrible place,” she said.

“But,” Lorraine questioned, “were both of our parents not there for the same amount of time? Should they not both have gone mad, if one did?”

“Your mother isn’t a weak woman, in any sense of the word,” Sinclair reassured them. Though they weren’t looking at each other, Alsace knew that her sister’s mouth would be curving into the same small, comforted smile as her own.

“There are several reasons that that terrible place could have affected your mother more so than your father, one being her genes. It’s common knowledge that the Black family has always been an Old Magic family; not being able to relieve that wild energy often enough can drive one mad; it’s one of the reasons dark magic has become so reviled in the past few centuries. Do you not yourself feel irritable or anxious when you’ve gone several months without performing some sort of Old Magic? It’s like a physical ache, if left alone too long.”

Alsace shrugged; she had never thought to stop using dark magic spells: she had never seen a reason to.

“It hurts,” Lorraine said, and Alsace looked at her sister curiously. Seeing it, Lorraine said, “I wanted to know if what Grandmother said was true. Remember?”

Alsace nodded. Grandmother had always said they should never cast ‘Cold Spells’, as she’d called them—spells without emotion. Alsace had always thought she was just being sentimental, saying that young ladies should do everything with feeling, but apparently she had been serious in quite a different manner.

“Another reason,” Professor Sinclair said, startling both of them, “could have been her guilt. No one but your mother knows what was on her conscience when she was arrested, but the heavier it was, the more it would have eaten away at her.

“Had I been in her place, I imagine that I would have regretted being separated from my daughters. I expect she mourned the loss of seeing you both grow up. Family has always been very important to most archaic lines, the Blacks included.”

“Wouldn’t our father have felt the same way?” Alsace asked, brows scrunched. She’d spoken to her father only a few times; he had been in prison for most of their lives, but when she’d first met him, he had seemed like, given the chance, he would have loved them very much. She didn’t want to think that her sister and she had not meant as much to their father as to their mother.

“Of course,” Sinclair said sympathetically, “but you must understand that men feel emotions in different ways than women. Your father would have been grateful that they’d had the forethought to make living wills, naming his parents your guardians. He would have been relieved that you wouldn’t become government wards.

“I imagine that while your mother was grieving over not seeing you grow up, your father was thankful that he knew you would be safe, and cared-for and well-loved by his own parents. Men are often more pragmatic in their grievances.”

The sisters nodded in unison, mulling the professor’s words over in their minds. Plucking the letter from Lorraine’s hand, Alsace read it over again, though she doubted she would ever forget the words. Her fingers brushed over the words and letters, and she felt the indentation on the parchment from the weight of the quill that wrote it.

“Will we get to see them?” she asked. “Before it happens?”

Professor Sinclair sighed sadly. “I’m not sure, dear. I was told that time is of the utmost importance. I can...I’ll see what I can do. I’ll see if I can get Professor Snape to get you there for a few hours, if there’s time available.”

“What were their numbers again?” Lorraine asked. Alsace turned her head away; she remembered the numbers, and she didn’t want to think much about it anymore.

Sinclair replied, “Your mother is 31, and your father is 517.”

“So maybe our father...” Lorraine started to say, but stopped. Alsace appreciated it: though they knew little of their father, she did not want to get her hopes up that Rodolphus Lestrange might not be needed.

The professor knew what she was asking anyway. She said, sadly, “I have been informed that there are 489 known Dementors in continental Europe and the British Isles combined. It will be dependent on how many rogues are discovered.”

“Of course,” the girls replied blandly. Alsace unfolded the letter one last time, though it had already become worn from their continued handling of it. Lorraine took one corner of it, and they read it together.


Alsace Babette Lestrange,
Lorraine Axelle Lestrange,
aux bons soins de
M Severin Lestrange, III
Chaponost Chateau
Lyon, France

17 November

Alsace and Lorraine,

Please forgive me for having not written you before, but I have never before been allowed to send a letter, and even now I am only allowed one—I am sorry that I was unable to write you both individually.

Your mother and I have been selected from a lottery to take part in what is to be our last mission for the Dark Lord. We were informed this morning, so that we may settle our affairs, such as they are. You both are my only affairs, and your grandfather has already been elected executor of my will, though through my own errors and mistakes, much of it will most likely be seized by the Ministry in restitution.

Before you were both born, however, I opened several bonds and trust funds in each of your names, and purchased stock for you from an up-and-coming shop that I had expected to take the both of you to quite regularly. Combined, you own six percent of Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour, though I’m not sure how much it will be worth by now. At my last foray into the free world, I was given to understand that it’s become quite popular. At any rate, you should be well taken care of, even after.

I am afraid that this will be my last communication with you, and I want you to know that I have loved you, always, and that given the opportunity, I would have liked to get to know each of you better. I have spent nearly half of my life in gaol, though, and even this, to me, seems like an escape.

I’m not worried, and you should not worry for me—or your mother. She’s on the other side of the prison, in the women’s division, so I don’t know if she was given the same opportunity to write to you as I have been, or even, I’m saddened to say, if she would understand enough to be able to write.

Please forgive the both of us for not being there for you. Be respectful to your grandparents, and be sure to ask your grandfather about your trusts; he will be able to give you more information on how much is there, your accumulated interest, when you can begin making withdrawals from it and et cetera. In addition, you will both inherit various and sundry seats and titles—Alsace, you will remember that you’ve already inherited your mother’s seat on the St Mungo’s board; look into those things and use them for everything you can.

Je t’aime,
Papa
Severin Rodolphus Lestrange IV


ɤɣɤ

While Harry wanted to lie in his bed and feel sorry for himself and Ron all afternoon, Malfoy wasn’t having it. He went so far as to waltz himself up to Gryffindor, bang on the Fat Lady’s bosom—much to her ire—and demand that he show himself immediately. Hermione, who had recently become a conniving, evil woman, came up to his room to announce the Slytherin.

“Malfoy’s down in the Common Room. You’d better come see what he wants before the first years wet themselves.”

Harry, lying on Ron’s bed with his hands folded behind his head, grunted in a negative fashion. “Tell him I’ll meet him after class tomorrow. I don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Harry,” Hermione said, “I don’t think it’s healthy for you to lie about like this. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you should go with Malfoy.”

“I don’t feel like it,” Harry repeated.

Hermione frowned. “Ron’s not dead, you know; he’s just at home.”

“I know,” Harry said.

“You need to occupy yourself so that you don’t dwell on this. Look—if you don’t want to entertain Malfoy, you could come with me. Ginny’s been wanting to see that gruesome diary from your dad’s library, and I was going to go read it with her so she didn’t have to be by herself.”

Harry glanced up at his friend, who was still hovering near the doorway. “I’d forgotten about the book,” he said. “Did you ever find anything interesting in it?”

“Other than it having been written by one of the founders of Hogwarts?” Hermione asked archly.

Harry shrugged. He wasn’t in the mood for this. He missed his friend, and even worse than that he hated himself for not spending enough time with Ron lately. Maybe he would’ve seen this before it became such a problem. Maybe if he hadn’t spent so much time fucking around with Seamus or trying to be Malfoy’s friend, he would have—Harry paused in thought abruptly. Had he been trying to be Malfoy’s friend? Or was it a subconscious slip of errant thought?

There was a sudden, loud thump from below, followed by Malfoy’s sharp voice yelling, “Potter! Potter, get your arse down here post-haste!” The sound of feet stomping up the steps alerted them to the Slytherin’s approach.

Hermione rolled her eyes as she was unceremoniously pushed out of the way. “Potter,” Malfoy said straightway. “Come along; I’ve made a major break-through.”

“I don’t want to, Malfoy,” Harry said. Ron’s bed felt entirely too comfortable to get up right now, especially if his alternative was spending time with Malfoy.

“Break-through on what?” Hermione asked. “It’s just a simple de-cursing.”

Malfoy looked at her without speaking. He turned back to Harry. “Hurry up, I don’t want to be in here if Finnigan comes back; my skin might crawl off from the thought of what you did in any one of these beds.” He shivered dramatically.

Harry’s lips quirked. “You thought about it?”

“Potter,” Malfoy warned. “You can doff your Irish Creampuff all night long for all that I care, but I don’t wish to be in the room it happens in, and we have things to do.”

“Malfoy, my best friend just got expelled,” Harry sighed, “I really don’t feel like doing much of anything, and that includes doffing, Irishmen or otherwise.”

Hermione cleared her throat. “I’m still here,” she said sternly. “And Harry why haven’t you and Malfoy finished your Arithmancy project yet? You’ve had weeks to get it done!”

“As I’ve been saying,” Malfoy chimed in, “we need to get on with this. I told you once before, Potter, and I still mean it: I’m not getting an E in Arithmancy just because you want to have a lie in. Or have you forgotten that it’s NEWTs year?”

“I haven’t,” Harry said, eyes narrowing, “but I still don’t feel like doing anything about de-cursing Dumbledore’s stupid non-cursed ring!”

“What do you mean, non-cursed?” Hermione wanted to know. She looked from one to the other, adding, “That’s what the whole assignment’s about. Surely you don’t mean to say that you don’t think there’s a curse on the ring?”

Malfoy sighed dramatically, and finally acknowledged her, saying, “It’s a signet ring, Granger. It’s not cursed.”

From the bed, Harry could see Hermione’s eyebrows go up. “Oh my,” she said slowly, bemusedly. “Well, what on earth’s the matter with it then?”

“Don’t know,” Harry said.

Malfoy pursed his lips, and added, “I’ve made a breakthrough,” he reminded them harshly. In his obvious frustration, Harry could hear the sharp Wiltshire accent breaking through as he continued. “And if Potter could spare a moment of his self-righteous fucking moaning to give a fellow a hand with it, we might just finish this fucking stupid project—or I will, rather, seeing as Potter hasn’t yet felt a need to contribute anything—and who knows?—maybe he’ll be a little bit more interested in whatever mad game Dumbledore’s playing when I tell him that the fucking ring is fucking alive, Potter, you stupid shit.”

The silence following Malfoy’s angry diatribe was heavy with shock. Hermione gripped the doorframe with one hand as she stared wide-eyed at the Slytherin, too shocked to chastise his choice of language. “Alive?” she muttered weakly.

Malfoy’s chest rose and fell heavily. He turned, gave her an inscrutable look, and nodded sharply. “Yes, alive.”

Harry, a bit confused, pulled himself up straighter on the bed. He regarded Malfoy oddly, glanced at Hermione, but found no answers there. “How can it be alive?” he asked.

“Oh dear,” Hermione said, hand moving to cover her mouth. “Malfoy—are you quite certain?”

“Absolutely,” he said with a sneer.

Hermione frowned, but didn’t let it deter her. She moved hesitantly forward, further into the room, and said, “But how do you know?”

“It has a heartbeat,” Malfoy replied matter-of-factly.

“Not just a—“

“No,” Malfoy interrupted. “It’s not spell reverberation...nor New Magic energy return. I checked for those. And it’s sentient, I think. When I was casting the revelation spells, I felt...anxious, worried. It wasn’t me; the ring was projecting.”

“Oh,” Hermione said. She appeared at a loss, but Harry was still stuck.

“How can a ring be alive?” he asked.

Malfoy shrugged. Looking at Hermione, she seemed unable to come up with anything either. “We should check the Restricted Section,” she said decisively, seeming to have forgotten that neither she nor Malfoy cared much for the other. “Harry get your things; we can all meet in the library in fifteen minutes.”

She left without a backward glance, already absorbed in this new, astonishing mystery. Malfoy turned back to Harry, looking both annoyed and pleased with himself. “You heard her,” he said. “Get going.”

ɤɣɤ

Draco had come to understand that when the Mudblood Granger said for Potter to get his ‘things’, she meant that he was to get something specific. An Invisibility cloak, as he came to find out, standing next to the entrance of the Restricted Section. Potter stood next to him, craning his head anxiously around the Restricted aisles, looking for anyone who might be lingering nearby as book after book floated from the shelves and disappeared under the cloak.

If he were honest, Draco was a bit impressed with Granger’s quick and quiet navigation of the Restricted Section, even under Madam Pince’s nose, as there were several hours before the library would be closed for the evening. She seemed to know exactly which books to grab, and where exactly they would be.

Several moments later, Draco felt an invisible someone brush between Potter and him, and he knew that she’d gathered all that she suspected they would need. He followed Potter back to their selected table in the dark corner that housed the periodical journals. It was always deserted, due to the bad lighting necessary for such fragile documents.

Granger appeared out of nowhere, arms full of at least a dozen books, which she placed charily on the table, careful to make sure none of the titles were visible to anyone who might walk by.

Draco wanted to be indignant about the Mudblood helping them, but at this point, after having realised how ridiculously unconcerned Potter was about the whole thing, he was actually a little relieved. He’d done quite a bit of work on his own, from discerning that the ring wasn’t cursed, to—accidentally—finding out that it was a signet ring and that it couldn’t be cursed, to going through all of the books his mother had sent trying to find out why it felt cursed, to speculating on what Dumbledore meant to do with it anyway. And what had Potter done, Draco wanted to ask.

Granger sat down, and immediately pulled the first book to her. “I grabbed all the books on Reverse Transfigural Animation and on Heirloom Magic, and, erm, I also saw a Necromancy book, so I picked that up, too.”

Draco raised his eyebrows at these choices. “RTA?” he asked sceptically. He had already considered Reverse Transfigural Animation when he first heard that ghostly heartbeat, and dismissed it just as quickly. Signet rings weren’t usually susceptible to that sort of tomfoolery. “You think someone turned the ring into a rhino and botched the reversal?”

Granger shrugged, passing a book to Potter before handing him the one on Heirloom Magic.

“That wouldn’t happen,” Potter interjected unexpectedly. Unexpectedly because Draco didn’t think him capable of forming any such opinion without the direct assistance and possible literal hand-holding of Granger to help him along. In his mind, he imagined her petting Potter’s head and telling him to play dead.

“Why not?” Draco asked, less because he really expected Potter to have a theory to back up his assertion, than to keep the boy occupied and less likely to have a fit.

Potter looked at him as if he were crazy. “Because it goes against one of the four laws of Transfiguration,” he answered slowly.

“Oh of course,” Granger said, closing her book decisively. “Harry’s right of course. It’s the fourth law, Malfoy: no transfigured thing can maintain life without life granted by focus.”

“I know what the laws are,” Draco said snidely. In truth, he did know them, but he was miffed with himself for not remembering such when Potter did. Though, Granger seemed to have forgotten in her own haste as well, and that mollified him somewhat. “So that leaves Heirloom Magic and Necromancy,” he said.

Potter was flipping through the Heirloom Magic book disinterestedly, paying no special attention to the delicacy of the old pages. “What about possession?” Potter asked. He paused, and tilted his head sideways to take in a gruesome illumination of a blood rite being performed on a child, which, upon closer inspection, Draco suspected to be the very one his parents began on all the orphans before shunting them off to the orphanage.

Granger was considering, though Draco dismissed it out of hand. “Impractical,” he said. “This ring’s been in our possession for several weeks, and in Dumbledore’s longer than that. The kind of energy and stamina it would take to maintain a possession that long would be physically and magically draining. I doubt anyone would stay sane long enough to do it.”

“What if they were dead?” Granger offered.

“Possession by ghost?” Draco asked. “Possible, but you forget the heartbeat.” He pulled the ring from his pocket—he didn’t feel comfortable wearing it—and set it on the table for Granger to inspect. “I casted Madam Pomfrey’s pulse-checking spell on it.”

“What on earth made you do that?” Potter wanted to know.

Draco shrugged. “Goyle’s brother sent him a hamster by post this morning, but unfortunately, it came to be at odds with its carrier along the way. He was terribly upset when I pronounced it dead. Not even the Prophet’s Business section could cheer him up, and it was the Sunday Stock Review special, as well.”

He received twin looks of horror from his table mates, and wanted to laugh, but it had been a true story, and he still felt a bit sorry for Goyle—and his stupid brother—who had been looking forward to a pet for his birthday. Draco was still considering whether or not it would be a good idea to let him pick out a new puffskein or something next Hogsmeade weekend.

“But...?” Granger began, then, “I’m not quite certain how that related to the ring.”

“Oh,” Draco said suddenly. “The ring was on my finger when I was holding the hamster. I felt the pulse as soon as I cast the spell, unfortunately not from the hamster.” He’d been terribly shocked when he felt it, and not a little frightened, but he said none of that. Still, he was wary of the ring touching him at all, even if he did suspect possession to be unlikely. He handled it with great care.

So did Granger, as she picked it up with the tip of her quill to look at it more closely. “How do I see the coat-of-arms?” she queried.

Potter cast a quick Lumos and angled it at the ring; the resulting hologram was broken along the bookshelves, but it shone so brilliantly that Granger appeared to have no trouble seeing it. She made a small sound of surprised pleasure, even as she watched the macabre assault of the unicorn.

“It’s quite lovely, isn’t it?” she said, smiling. “Even if it is a bit...well, ghastly.” She sighed, and pulled another book towards her; this time, it was The Necromancer’s Companion, and she didn’t look at all pleased to be handling it.

“Do you suppose someone’s using it to spy on Dumbledore?” Potter wondered.

“More likely, Dumbleodore’s using it to spy on us,” Draco said cynically. “He’s probably figured out some way to be in two places at once.” He eyed the ring warily, and resolved to stop Crabbe from discussing his father’s tradings in the ring’s presence. There would be no end to his father’s rage if his stocks were tampered with.

Granger didn’t even look up as she said, “Impossible. Wizarding sentience is focused on the soul; it would have to be moved to the object and without the body, it would have limited movement—in all senses.”

Draco shuddered. “Maybe not then. I would hate to be stuck in some gaudy old ring just to find out what dark secrets Potter was keeping.”

Granger shot him a sharp look, but they both forgot it in favour of Potter’s next, unknowing comment, “Maybe someone’s trapped inside, and Dumbledore wants us to get them out.”

“Their soul, you mean?” Granger asked quickly. She seemed cautiously excited. “Do you think so?”

Potter only shrugged, unaware of the possible enormity of his comment. “Could be some dark wizard was trying to get revenge and trapped someone in it,” he said. Then, suddenly, he seemed more interested in his own suggestion. He sat up quickly. “Maybe it’s Regulus Black!” he said, excited, but careful to temper his volume. “I bet Dumbledore thinks he might’ve been put in here when he defected the Dark Lord’s service—I bet he thinks he’s really here, but he just doesn’t want to get my dad’s hopes up, so—“

“Harry!” Granger whispered harshly. She looked furtively around them, but there was no one nearby, so she said, “Careful what you call Him in public.”

“What?” Potter asked, confused by the interruption.

“You called Him the...you know. That’s what the Death Eaters call him,” she reminded him.

Draco nearly choked; looking from one to the other, he was forced to ask, “Potter—Granger...knows?”

“Don’t be absurd, Malfoy,” she replied immediately. “Of course I know. Harry’s not terribly good at keeping secrets from someone who sees him all the time.” It was obvious that she was careful not to mention Weasley’s name here, though Draco suspected that he had not caught on as she had.

“Still here,” Potter said. They ignored him.

“But you’re a Mudblood,” he said frankly. He’d not meant to insult her, it was only habit. Still, it didn’t prevent the slap across his face. He snarled, rubbing it to lessen the sting. “Go fuck yourself, Granger. It’s just a word. This time, I meant no offense.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Neither did I.” Potter smothered a laugh and Draco glared at him, too.

“He’s not so terrible as all that,” Potter added a moment later, when the tension of Draco’s staring contest with Granger still had not lessened. Neither of them had to ask Potter to whom he referred. “About the muggleborns, I mean. Hermione’s not in any danger from him.” A fierce, protective look crossed his face for but a moment, and he added, “I’m certain of that.”

There was a small silence, broken soon enough by Granger’s predictable return to the research at hand. “If there really is someone stuck in here,” she said, pointing to the ring, “then how do you suppose we’re to get them out? Before hols?”

Draco shrugged. He had no idea.

Potter cast his Lumos again and angled the ring towards the table, so that the blazon projected at such close range was tiny, and striking in its detail. Draco watched the snakes flickering back and forth, watched the unicorn thrashing, as if caught by surprise, as if he’d not expected it, not from these two snakes, and wondered if it was symbolic, or if he was reading into things.

He pulled a blood lolly from his pocket—sent just the other day with his Mum’s letter—and slid it into his mouth. Neither Gryffindor noticed, which he thought was just about par, but then Potter looked up at him, and the snakes were reflecting purple in the black of his eyes, and Draco wondered if maybe one of the snakes in question was not the Dark Lord after all, and if the unicorn were not...

Someone else entirely. He did not know. Potter flashed him a grin, strange and ethereal in the weird light, and Draco licked his lips, dry from the changing weather. He felt himself trembling slightly, and fought to restrain it. Potter looked very near to wicked at the moment, and as Draco recalled the current situation, and Potter’s role in the Dark Lord’s life, he felt as if he had finally found the causes he could give a damn about, though squibs and orphans and Mudbloods weren’t any part of it.

It was at that moment that Draco realised that he was ready to give his devotion to Harry Potter, and not only because of the sinister appeal of his eyes, or because he wasn’t so trusting of Dumbledore anymore, but because Harry Potter had found a way to get a Mudblood to sympathise for the Dark Lord, and he’d done it without subterfuge or dissimilation, and had maintained his stupid bloody morals in the meantime.

Draco thought that maybe he’d been waiting for this moment for a long time, for this moment when Potter would finally realise the potential and the opportunity he had to do great things—even if those great things weren’t always the right things—and when Draco could finally see more than just Gryffindor in the Boy Who Lived.

Under the table, he pressed the heel of his palm into his erection, hoping to relieve some of the pressure. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Theodore Nott that Potter wasn’t his type: he wasn’t—but Black was.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Auxiliary Unit: (n) 1. A civilian organization which supports the resistance movement through clandestine operations by providing the guerrilla force with food, clothing, shelter, arms, ammunition, early warning, intelligence, replacements, funds, medical supplies, and moral support.

ɤɣɤ

“I think I know where Rowena went wrong,” Ginny said. It was one of the first full sentences Harry had heard from her in over a month. She had been studiously avoiding him for some time now, though he could not figure out why.

Next to her, Hermione gasped. “Ginny! I thought we decided we wouldn’t try to fool around with Ravenclaw’s Arithmancy.”

Ginny shrugged her shoulder. “You decided. I said no such thing.”

The light from the common room fire glinted off her coppery hair, and Harry twisted the tiny wedding ring on his pinkie, thinking of his mother.

“It’s dangerous,” Hermione insisted.

Harry couldn’t stand the back and forth any longer; he took the opportunity to interject when Hermione paused pre-diatribe. “What on earth are you talking about?” he wanted to know.

Both women looked at him as if he were mental. Privately, he agreed: he would have to be to encourage any sort of argument between these two fiery women. Ginny waved Ravenclaw’s skin-bound diary in his face. “Hello, Harry, are you there?” Ginny asked, as Hermione muttered,

"Honestly!"

Ginny shared a glance with Hermione, then said, “Harry, we’ve been talking about Ravenclaw’s diary for weeks, now. Have you no ears?”

Harry shrugged, perturbed with her for calling him out. “Why are the two of you still so hung up on that bloody diary?”

“Harry!” Hermione gasped. “Are you quite mad, or has it escaped you that this is handwritten by Rowena Ravenclaw, not only a founder of this very school, but also the creator of handfuls of magically-revolutionary theorems, spells and hypotheses!”

“It’s an amazing book,” Ginny interjected.

“We know so little about any of the founders,” Hermione said. “She talks about her life in here.”

“I did skim through it,” Harry said defensively.

“Well,” Ginny said, “I think it’s a wonderful book. It should be published. We should—I mean, Harry, you should have it printed. It brings life to the founders, makes them more real. Rowena talks about the other founders like they’re no one special.”

“It’s dangerous,” Hermione said again, but with less force.

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Parts of it could be censored, and anyway, it’s our civilization’s history; it needs to be shared with whoever wants to read it.”

“It spans quite the breadth of history,” Hermione added, relenting. “Did you read the entry where she officiated Godric Gryffindor’s second wedding, or when she and Helga Hufflepuff mid-wifed each other’s children?”

Harry shook his head. It seemed he’d only come across the bat-shit insane entries.

“And we may be the only people living who have a first-hand account of what really happened to—“ Ginny paused to lower her voice and lean in before continuing, “of what really happened to Salazar Slytherin!”

Hermione’s eyes went wide. “It’s true,” she whispered. “I bet we really are the only ones who know of it. How have I forgotten such a thing...?”

Harry was beginning to see their point, yet, “Doesn’t everyone have things like this?” he asked, looking to Ginny. “Even your parents have something of Merlin’s on their mantel—it’s been in the family for generations, your dad told me.”

Ginny scoffed. “It’s not real though, is it?” she said. “These days, people aren’t even sure Merlin really existed. Why, just the other day that stupid boy Zacharias Smith was arguing with Justin-Finch-Fletchley over it.”

Hermione pursed her lips, looking thoughtful. “There has been an influx of questionable evidence lately,” she admitted.

Ginny waved her off, saying, “Forget Merlin. Who cares if he’s real or not? I believe in him, and that’s all that matters to me. The important thing is that we know the school founders existed. We have letters written about them, portraits of two of them—but they were painted before the reanimation spells were created, so they never even came to life. We’ve never had anything written by them, it’s outstanding!”

“Right,” Harry said, for lack of anything better. Both girls harrumphed, and he coughed to hide a laugh. They continued to stare at him, unimpressed. Floundering, he said, “So what are you going to do with the book?”

“It’s your book,” Hermione said quickly, though it was obvious she wanted to say anything but that.

Ginny was not so subtle. “I want to correct Rowena’s mistake—I think I know where she went wrong. It was her Arithmancy, like she expected it would be, and—“

“Ginny, you can’t go trying to raise the dead!” Hermione whispered furiously. She looked around, but no one in the common room was looking at them. It was a wonder they weren’t, Harry thought.

“Well I don’t see why not,” she said petulantly. “It doesn’t have to be anyone important, you know.”

Harry looked at her incredulously, but somewhere deep inside he thought of Cedric Diggory, of...of his mother, and James Potter. Those were foolish thoughts, though. There was no way to bring anyone back from the dead; not really, not wholly or truly.

“Are you mad?” he asked.

Ginny pursed her lips angrily, turned to Hermione. “Well, don’t you think it’s worth it?” she asked. “Don’t you want to know if it can be done?”

Hermione hesitated. “Well, I...”

Harry gawked at her.

“Well, I don’t want to do it myself, nor for anyone else to do it,” she said. “But, academically...” she shrugged. “I wonder if it really was Rowena’s Arithmancy...if we have the knowledge and the means today, in modern times, to correct her mistake.”

Ginny smiled triumphantly. “Told you,” she said to Harry.

“But,” Hermione added, “I’d rather study another of her theories.”

Ginny rolled her eyes again. “Oh, not that silly thing about how to eliminate the four transfigural laws,” she said, sighing. “Hermione, you know that’s not possible. And Rowena only thought it might be possible because that was when there were only three laws!”

“No,” Hermione said archly. “Not that one. I meant—well she mentioned once that she thought she’d figured out why muggles don’t have magic.”

Harry perked up, and tried very hard not to show how his heart had suddenly started beating at a much faster rate. “What d’you mean?” he asked quickly. “Did she say?”

Hermione nodded, and even Ginny looked interested. “She caught a muggle once,” she said, grimacing. “Before she and Helga came up with the first generation of the Hecatomb ward to keep them out.”

Ginny shuddered. “Bill told me about that once,” she said. “How they stumbled across that little spell.”

Thinking of the seventh years’ planned fieldtrip to Stonehenge, Harry tried to block all the morbid thoughts that statement brought to mind. “But what did she reckon?” he asked. “Ravenclaw, I mean.”

The girls gave him matching looks of sardonic pleasure. “Knew something would catch your fleeting interest,” Ginny muttered. “There had to be something extraordinary that you wouldn’t find dull.”

“Well,” Hermione said, “it was only a series of three entries, and her notes were a bit...scattered, as they tended to become later on, but she mentioned that she was harvesting some stormed-yew during a thunderstorm and a muggle approached her, hostile, but just as his hand connected with her forearm, lighting struck the yew tree—something she was quite familiar with, having harvested stormed-yew before—but this time, instead of the hot, burning sensation she’d always felt before, this time, she felt a pulsing, burning shock that travelled through her whole body and left her breathless.

“When it stopped,” Hermione continued, “he was dead, like the stormed-yew she was harvesting, but she was energized, and she began to wonder if muggles were made of lightning, or if lightning was a different, subtler sort of magic that the muggles had instead of the magic she knew—because it seemed to her that he’d overdosed on lightning. She said he looked the same as her brother had when he’d been shocked by the heavy unrestrained magic around their home one Solstice.”

Harry stared at her flabbergasted, because—damn it, if that wasn’t the same idea he’d told Voldemort about. He’d been sceptical himself, but Voldemort had latched onto the idea: Harry thought him insane for that, if not for all the incredible, cruel things he’d done in the past.

“Well what do you think of it?” he asked Hermione.

She beamed at him. “I think it’s wonderful!” she said. “What if that explains why there’re squibs? What if we could give them magic?”

It was an eerie feeling, Harry thought, to hear her echoing those same thoughts he’d had over the previous summer. “You would be loved by the entire wizarding world, Hermione,” he said faintly.

She frowned suddenly. “No, I wouldn’t,” she said. “Some would hate me for it, would think I was trying to do it only so I could give magic to my family.”

“Purebloods would think it was a diabolical plot,” Ginny said knowingly.

“Which is why I couldn’t be the figurehead of such a study,” Hermione continued.

“Not me!” Harry said, seeing where this was going. “They wouldn’t accept it from me, either. One minute they love me; the next they hate me.”

“Not you,” Ginny said quietly.

“No, not you,” Hermione agreed, taking him aback. She was cut off from saying anything further by the sound of the portrait swinging open, the Fat Lady’s painting slamming against the wall. Lavender Brown fell in, eyes red and swollen.

Dean and Neville rose to attend to her, but she brushed them off. Her eyes scanned the room, and alighted on their small group, huddled in a corner near the fireplace. Ginny quickly stuffed Ravenclaw’s diary underneath her bum, but it didn’t matter: Lavender Brown was distraught enough that she wouldn’t have noticed it even if it’d been left out. She saw Hermione’s pitying look, and stumbled over.

“I’m sorry,” she said hoarsely, “but—please. Has he written to you? I’ve waited in the owlery all day, and nothing’s come from him.” She turned to Harry, pleadingly said, “Please, tell me, Harry. I thought he’d write.”

“Ron?” Ginny asked, confusion etched across her freckled face. It had been two weeks since Ron’s expulsion, and in that time, only Ginny had received a letter—short and terse, but loaded with big-brotherly threats to any unsuitable suitors—from him.

Lavender nodded and fell onto her knees in front of Ginny. She reached out, and wrapped her slender fingers around Ginny’s. “Did he write you?”

Ginny nodded.

“Did he say anything about me?”

Ginny opened her mouth, and Harry knew she was going to say no. She had let him read the letter, after all. Hermione knew the same thing, but she had a mind to stop it: subtly, she pinched Ginny’s arm, and Ginny quickly smiled at Lavender. “He asked how you were,” she said.

Lavender’s smile was quivery, but at least she was smiling. “Did he? And did he say anything else? Would he like me to write him? I waited for him to write first, because it’s only proper, but he hasn’t and I thought maybe he’s frightened I won’t still care for him?”

“Oh, certainly write him,” Ginny said, nodding. “He’d love to hear from you. Of course you’re right; he’s such a cocky bastard,” she added. “Thought you’d think he was a loser.”

“He’s not!” Lavender insisted. “I’ll write him!” she declared, nodding. “I’ll do it tonight.”

“Say, Lavender,” Harry said, just as she was standing to go. She looked down at him, expectant. “Do you know how to bake?”

“You mean pastries?” she asked, obviously confused.

“Yeah, pastries, sweets, truffles—that sort of thing.”

She stuck her nose in the air. “Of course I know how to bake, Harry,” she said. “I’m a woman.”

“Mention it in your letter,” Harry advised.

It took a moment, but Lavender finally caught on, and realized that he was giving her an in with Ron. She leaned forward and hugged Harry tightly. “Thank you.” He would’ve responded, but she’d already disappeared down the hall to the girls’ dormitories.

“I’m a woman,” Hermione mocked under her breath. “Honestly. Lavender is so traditional. It nauseates me, truly, to see a woman with such potential devoting herself to a life of housekeeping and pregnancies.”

“Yes, but Ron’s quite traditional, too,” Ginny said. “They’re really a good match, if only Ron would quit mooning.” Hermione glared, and Ginny added, “No offence Hermione. I just think Ron would be happier with someone like our mum. Like Lavender.”

Hermione sighed. “You’re right of course; and I’m much happier with Theo, I admit.”

Harry looked away for a moment because he wanted to say that he still didn’t much like Theodore Nott. When he looked back, he changed the topic quickly, asking Hermione about their latest Potions assignment. Ginny quickly bored of the conversation and announced that she was going to finish her homework upstairs, which was what Harry had expected.

“She’s acting a bit strange, wouldn’t you say?”

Hermione nodded immediately. “I’ve never seen her so studious. And she’s become more manipulative than she was before. She doesn’t think I’ve noticed it.”

“For a while, too,” Harry said, thinking back. It had been at least couple weeks, and they were now in the first week of December. Outside, it was snowing heavily, and had been for three days. Even Herbology had been cancelled.

“I can’t think of anything that happened around then, though,” Hermione admitted. She scrunched her brows in thought, but shook her head after only a few moments. “No, nothing I can think of that would’ve upset her enough to create this change. What do you think it is, Harry?”

He shrugged, thinking of her sad connection with Voldemort. He wasn’t quite ready to mention it to Hermione, yet. And he didn’t think Ginny would appreciate it anyway, especially since she hadn’t wholly grasped it, hadn’t totally figured it out herself. “Could be anything. Maybe she just failed an exam, and she’s trying to make up for it.”

Hermione didn’t buy it.

“Listen,” Harry suddenly said. He glanced around the common room: there were still students milling about, but they weren’t paying attention. Just in case, he cast Muffliato on them to keep anyone from overhearing. “Is it that you want the Dark Lord as the figurehead for your study on giving squibs magic?”

“Well, I—“ Hermione faltered, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. She visibly steeled herself. “I think it’s quite obvious that he is capable of charming wizards. I think that if anyone were able to get the purebloods behind this, it would be him right now. I think if he weren’t known for such cruelty, he would’ve swayed the rest long ago. Even the families that don’t support bigotry sympathize with his original purpose, to cut off this society from the muggle one.”

“They’re afraid,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure if he was defending Hermione or the wizards who were afraid of people like her.

She nodded. “I know. Which is why I think that you can do great things with this opportunity, Harry. I want to be a part of this, if you’ll let me...if He will allow it. I want to help people, but I realize that to do good, you sometimes have to do things you don’t like. Like accept Voldemort.”

He had been manipulated, he reckoned. She’d planned to tell him she wanted in, and here were her terms. They weren’t difficult to accept, so far. “What would you have me do, to have your support?” He wanted nothing more: to have Hermione fully on his side, committed and passionate about it would be a godsend.

She looked away. “I have been thinking about everything in the news a lot lately. How can I not with stories on the orphans multiplying by the day? I know what’s happening, Harry. I see what Voldemort’s doing, and I understand his reasoning behind it. Soon, in a decade, there will be no more muggle-borns. All magical children will be magically pure-blooded, or half-blooded, if you count the muggle-borns reproducing. In a decade, we will be, for all intents and purposes, wholly separate from the muggle world.”

She met his eyes evenly, determinately. “I just—I can’t leave my parents out there; I can’t just forget about them. If it turns out that this theory holds any truth, if it’s possible to give magic to squibs...or, or to muggles, I want to give some to my parents. I want them to be able to be with me, to not be cut off from their only child. They haven’t got any other family, and neither have I.”

Harry was floored. “That’s a huge ambition,” he said faintly. “How would they survive here, though? They wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it.”

“They wouldn’t need to know much,” Hermione insisted. “They’ve lived their whole lives as muggles, all they would need is enough magic to see past the muggle worlds, and to travel, maybe enough for simple spells—barely any magic at all, really. It’s not as if they would be duelling, or using magic for every little thing like we do.”

“But how would they even get this magic?” Harry wanted to know.

Hermione looked away again. “Anything of such a high calibre requires a sacrifice,” she said.

“Surely not your magic!” Harry said.

She looked back at him fiercely. “Not all of it, not even enough to notice,” she said. “And anyway, in all likelihood, it’ll regenerate over time, anyway.

“Hermione...” Harry said desperately.

Hermione ignored him. She said, “There’re no dentists in Hogsmeade, and they could open up a shop there to earn their living. I’ve already looked into a storefront to lease. I’ll teach them all the little basic spells they need to know, maybe Mrs Weasley would help me with those I’m not familiar with—“

“Hermione, are you sure?”

“These are my terms,” she said firmly. “I will help you, will help Voldemort. I can offer only my research capabilities, knowledge and quickness to learn, but you’ll have me on your side, Harry, and you’ll have Theo, too.”

“Nott!” Harry exclaimed. “You’ve told him about me? About the Dark Lord?”

Hermione waved her hand dismissively. “As if he didn’t already know. He’s not stupid, you understand. And his father’s a Death Eater anyway. He’s sympathetic, even if he doesn’t particularly care for Voldemort’s special brand of persuasion.”

Harry sighed. “Hermione, you know that I want nothing more than to have you on my side.”

“Then just agree to it, Harry,” she said. “Have Him agree to it.”

Harry shook his head. “He doesn’t bow to my will,” he said tiredly. “Voldemort is—he’s not as mad as we’d all like to think him. I’m not sure if I’d be able to persuade him.”

Perhaps it was the desperate, sad look in Hermione’s eyes as she thought of being forced to one day choose between her parents and her magic, both of which were deeply ingrained in her, part of her. Perhaps it was just that she was his best friend, more than ever now that Ron was no longer at Hogwarts, but when she reached out and grabbed his hand to plead her case one more time, he wished that he could make this decision himself, wished that Voldemort would acquiesce without complaint.

The connection in his scar mistook his wish for the Dark Lord’s cooperation as a wish for the Dark Lord himself. It transported him to Voldemort, as it had done so many times before, but to his horror, it had taken Hermione as well.

Her eyes were wide and she took a step back, but Harry held her hand tightly. “Don’t let go,” he said, knowing immediately how she’d been drawn along with him. He didn’t even want to think about what might happen to Hermione if she let go of him and was trapped somewhere in the astral nothingness, instead of sent back to her body at Hogwarts.

“Indeed,” Voldemort said, walking forward. He had an intent, curious look in his eye as he studied Hermione. Her fingers clamped Harry’s so tightly that he could actually feel it in this half-way state.

“Where are we?” Harry asked. They weren’t in Voldemort’s castle on the northern coast of Scotland. They were outside, somewhere not quite as cold and blustery as it was at Hogwarts. It was dusk here, where it had already been dark in Scotland, and people were building something.

“France,” the Dark Lord said flatly, offering nothing more. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” From behind him, Nagini slithered up, flicking her tongue out and through Hermione’s ankles. She jumped, but relaxed when she saw that she was not corporeal, that neither the snake nor Voldemort could hurt her here.

Harry cleared his throat, looked at his friend. She nodded, determination written across her face. “Please, Harry?”

“Do you remember,” Harry began, “when I told you about an idea to give magic to squibs?”

Hermione stared at him wide-eyed. He’d not said anything when she mentioned Ravenclaw’s theories.

Voldemort perked up. “Ah, yes!” he said. “I’ve been pondering the idea ever since you mentioned it, and I think you’re right. It’s a matter of wavelengths that separates magic from electricity.”

“Wavelengths!” Hermione repeated in dawning comprehension. “Of course!” She nearly let go of his hand in her excitement, but Harry held tight to it.

“Hermione’s thought of the same idea,” he said. “You see, I found something over the summer; a book.”

“A book,” Voldemort said, unimpressed.

“Rowena Ravenclaw’s personal diary, to be exact,” Harry clarified, and this certainly got the Dark Lord’s attention. “It’s a scientific journal as well as a memoir, and it seems to me that her main purpose in keeping it was to keep track of her notes regarding an attempt to resurrect Salazar Slytherin.”

Voldemort conjured three chairs, and gestured them to sit. “I admit you’ve captured by attention, Harry,” he said. Nagini slithered into his lap, and he stroked her absently, entirely focused on the story of the diary.

Hermione shocked both of them by speaking up. “She was much cleverer than even we thought. Her Arithmancy, mostly taken from Slytherin’s notes, was nearly flawless, even by today’s standard, and had this book been found earlier, by anyone of curiosity, our grasp of the subject would have accelerated at an outstanding rate. It’s a fascinating story to read, if a bit gory.”

Voldemort stared at her for a long moment, and she began to fidget. “Lord,” she added.

Harry laughed. “Don’t call him that; it’ll go to his head.”

Hermione looked up and saw that Voldemort, more human now than even Harry remembered him, was amused as well. “Sorry,” she said.

“Tell me, Ms—?”

“Granger,” Harry and she said simultaneously.

“Ms Granger,” the Dark Lord said. “While necromancy is indeed very exciting at both an academic and a practical level, what does this have to do with squibs?”

Hermione blushed. “Oh! Well, most of the journal followed her studies on resurrecting Slytherin, but she also devoted three entries to a notion that muggles were ‘made of lightning’. She thought that it was the key between our differences with muggles and squibs.”

Voldemort hummed in thought. “Yes, I’d like to see this journal.”

“Of course,” Hermione said. She paused to gather her nerve.

“Hermione would like to devote herself to studying this further,” Harry interjected, if only to save both her and Voldemort’s pride. “She wants to eventually save some of the squibs today, by converting their electricity to magic.”

“Very altruistic of her,” Voldemort said, though he probably thought nothing of the sort, and was merely waiting for the catch.

“If we made a breakthrough,” Hermione said steadily, “I would want to attempt to give magic to my parents.”

Voldemort’s eyebrows went up. They were thick and black now, like they had been when he was a young man in the horcrux-diary. Even his lips were returning, the once grey, flat skin shaping into a handsome mouth, if still a bit on the greyish side. “Magic?”

“They’re muggles,” she clarified, less resolute than before.

A light went on in Voldemort’s face. “Oh, yes, I remember hearing that.” Then, just as incredulously, “Magic to muggles?”

Hermione straightened her shoulders. “I know what you mean to do with all these orphans,” she said, surprising the Dark Lord with the candid mention of her knowledge of his part in the scheme. “In ten years, there won’t be any more muggle-borns, and some law will come along restricting access from the muggle world. I’ll be cut off from my parents. I want them to be able to find me whenever they want; I want to give them enough magic to live here, in this world, and nothing more.”

“It’s reasonable,” Harry said, a bit hopefully.

Voldemort glanced at him, expression neutral. At last, he said to Hermione, “If I were to allow you to do such a thing, would not every other muggle-born request the same thing?”

Harry thought of Dean, and was washed in conflicting thoughts, but Hermione held her ground. She’d thought this through; he knew it with more and more certainty, and once she made her mind up on something, she rarely changed it.

“They won’t find out,” she said. “This, if successful, is the kind of knowledge that shouldn’t be widely known...like how to bring someone back from the dead.” The last was added knowingly, dangled in front of the Dark Lord like bait he couldn’t resist. Hermione knew it, Voldemort knew it, and Harry knew it.

Voldemort took it. He leaned forward in his chair, regarded her steadily. His eyes were pupiled now, and those red pupils flicked back and forth as he searched her face for any sign of trickery. “Ms Granger,” he said slowly, “do you mean to tell me that you can resurrect the dead?”

She bit her lip, wondered how far she could take it. Harry wanted to step in, to tell her to be quiet before she got herself committed to something she couldn’t follow through on, but he couldn’t. She knew what she was doing. He couldn’t stop her now, not when she had Voldemort’s undivided attention, not when he’d even forgotten to continue stroking Nagini, not when she had such a perfect opportunity to make her case.

“I have noticed a very big, very easily missed, flaw in one of the last steps of Ravenclaw’s attempt to resurrect Slytherin. I don’t know if it’s the only one, but the rest seems, at a basic level, to be sound.”

Voldemort leaned back. After a moment, he said, “Both of the topics discussed tonight are avenues I would like to consider further. I will agree, conditionally, to your request to give magic to your parents.”

Hermione gasped, stunned, but Harry squeezed her hand, attempting to ground her. “What are the conditions?” he wanted to know.

Cocking his head to the side, Voldemort seemed to consider, but all three of them knew he’d already made up his mind. “Ms Granger will submit herself to me for a period of five years, at which point, if these riddles have not yet been solved, she will have the opportunity to re-evaluate her desire to continue the research. During such time, she will obey me, and assist in my plans where needed. In turn, I will give her unlimited access to any reference printed, painted, dead or alive that she so desires.”

“No,” Harry said. “She’s not going to be a Death Eater.”

Voldemort shrugged. “I am sorry, Harry, but you of all people understand that I cannot let her run around with no loyalty to me. She could change her mind at any time, and if she knows too much, she could take all of us down with her.”

“I’d never betray Harry,” Hermione insisted. She looked sick, and he felt sick as well at the thought of Hermione with a big black tattoo.

“It is not only Harry you would be betraying,” Voldemort reminded her. “It is not unheard of for the righteousness of the mind to convince one that betrayal is for the better...is for the greater good,” he added, sneering the last bit. It was something Harry could remember Dumbledore saying, and he wondered if there was a connection there to Voldemort’s bitterness.

“Five years?” Hermione asked, and Harry gaped. She was actually considering it.

“Don’t, Hermione,” he said, but she gave him a look that clearly said, ‘shut up!’

“Five years,” Voldemort agreed easily. “I think that’s long enough to come to some sort of conclusion regarding the two matters. If you finish earlier, you’ll still be obligated. If you haven’t finished, we will work out a fair deal to continue or abort the research.”

“And after that time, if I so choose it, you’ll release me from my bonds? You’ll remove the Dark Mark?”

“I will even go one step further,” Voldemort said magnanimously, “and bind you inconspicuously, like I’ve had to do with several of my other...assistants.”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked.

“The Dark Mark doesn’t have to be on the arm,” he said, shrugging. “It’s easiest, of course, but it can be near any main artery...or on the heart itself.” He grinned cruelly. “To have me on your heart,” he said, “I would never be far from you.”

Hermione turned her head, thinking. She studied the people hammering and sawing, and directing stones to their proper places, and thought she saw a face she recognized, but couldn’t be sure. “I want time to talk it over with Theo.”

“Ah!” Voldemort said. “I’d heard young Mr Nott was dating a muggle-born.” Harry was relieved that he’d not said ‘mudblood’. “I will allow you time to do so, though you will of course understand that I’ve hexed our conversation, and you won’t be able to speak of it to anyone else, save your Mr Nott, Harry and me.”

Hermione nodded. Harry, unable to think of anything more to refute this outlandish idea, kept his mouth shut. For now.

Suddenly, Hermione stood up, jerking Harry with her, as they were still holding hands. She didn’t seem to notice as he was dragged along behind her to the build site. “It is!” Hermione said, turning back to them. “That’s Fleur’s sister, Gabrielle Delacour!”

Harry saw her, now that she was pointing. Little Gabrielle couldn’t have been more than thirteen, even now. They were only a dozen feet away, but he knew she couldn’t see them. “What’s Gabrielle Delacour doing here?” Harry asked Voldemort.

“Obviously she’s helping to build the Dementor feeding arena.”

This time, it was Harry who felt his eyebrows rising incredulously. “You’re really doing it,” he said in wonder.

The Dark Lord nodded succinctly. “It must be done; your Dumbledore is suggesting we all stay indoors while they breed. I’d like to see that happen—especially when his precious muggles don’t know to do it.”

Hermione said nothing, but Harry knew she was putting everything together. “Why is Gabrielle helping?” she asked, attempting to be polite, though her suspicious showed.

Voldemort was unconcerned. “The Society of French Weres has agreed, along with their Ministry, to assist in this crucial endeavour.”

“She’s a werewolf!” Hermione gasped, looking to the Dark Lord for confirmation. He nodded. “How on earth did that happen? Why did Fleur never say anything?”

“Ms Granger,” Voldemort said, “I do not make a habit of learning the back-story of all the minor players in my various plans.”

She nodded, accepting if not cowed, but it was Harry who now looked as though he’d seen a ghost. He gripped Hermione’s hand extra-firmly and dragged her through, literally, a crowd of people working. Voldemort followed them more sedately, and as he was corporeal, was forced to move around them, or have them move out of his path, which was more common.

At last, he stopped, and when Hermione gasped again, he knew she’d seen it, too. “Where are we?” he asked again.

This time, Voldemort answered, ignoring the strange looks he got from the workers when he said, seemingly to no one, “Saint-Jean-de-Luz.”

In particular, one person, the one closest to the three of them at the time, looked up questioningly. “My Lord?” Remus Lupin asked, wand raised as he lifted a perfectly cut stone to the men waiting on the scaffolding above.

“There was someone who wanted to know where you are,” the Dark Lord explained in his emotionless, drawling voice.

Professor Lupin looked around, but of course could not see them. His expression was a mix of apprehension and curiosity. “Who, my Lord?”

Voldemort glanced at Harry, saw his desperate look, and turned back to Lupin, saying, “Harry Potter.”

Eyes wide, Lupin took a stumbled step backwards. He was afraid, Harry saw, but he couldn’t be sure if it was only because he feared for Harry’s life in the hands of the Dark Lord. Looking closer, Harry thought he could see in Lupin a genuine, if delicate loyalty to Voldemort—in the deferent way he addressed him, or the passionate way he did Voldemort’s work here.

The men above Professor Lupin called down for him to give them the bloody stone, and he levitated it quickly, thoughtlessly, as he stuttered over his reply. “Harry Potter, my lord? Have you, have you—obtained him?”

Voldemort smirked cruelly, equally aware of the professor's soft-spot for Harry, for Harry’s parents, for all three of them. “Harry Potter has been mine,” he said. “Or should I have said Harry Black?”

“Harry Black?” Lupin asked. Confusion warred with a suspicion suppressed long ago, and he, in his furious thought, forgot to be properly subservient to Voldemort, forgot to say, ‘my Lord’. Voldemort forgave him, something Harry could tell Hermione had not expected.

It was painful to watch this, knowing how sad Professor Lupin had been after ‘Sirius’ died. It was terrible seeing him, and knowing he could not see him and Hermione—seeing Voldemort play this cruel little game, and being unable to intervene, to stop Lupin's confused suffering.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Voldemort said, “He and his father found out his true parentage from a family tapestry.”

“Sirius is dead,” the professor said. He choked on the words like they were painful to say.

Voldemort smiled and Hermione did not like it. She said, “Please! Stop it; you’re being cruel.”

The Dark Lord turned to her, said, “I am known for my cruelty, Ms Granger.”

Lupin's knees wanted to buckle, if his wobbly posture was anything to go by. “Hermione? You have her? Where is she, Lord?”

“Touch him,” Harry demanded. “You’re taking this too far. Let him see us.”

Rolling his eyes, Voldemort reached out his long, skeletally thin hand and, ignoring the werewolf's frightened look, encircled his wrist. Lupin was overcome with a burst of dizziness as Voldemort’s power flowed through him, but when his eyes properly focused, they went wide with fright.

He was torn between saving the two of them, and feeling an unwilling, guilty hope that they would accept him.

“Harry,” Professor Lupin said. “Hermione.” He stepped forward, reached out to touch them, but his hand went right through. “What’s going on?”

“So much,” Harry said. “My dad’s been looking for you. And Dumbledore, too. He sent him to fetch you when you didn’t make your rendezvous—and you’ve been here this whole time—“

“Slow down, Harry,” Hermione said, seeing the professor's panicked look. She turned to the werewolf and said, “Sirius has been looking for you. They were all worried.”

Lupin shook his head to clear it. His voice cracked when he said, “Sirius is dead, Harry. You saw it—I saw it ha—happen.”

“He’s not really,” Harry said quickly. “It wasn’t him that—fell. It was someone else. Sirius was in America the whole time, and he found me this summer, and then we saw the tapestry.”

“So have I,” Lupin said. “And you’re not on it—neither is Sirius, for that matter.”

“Not that one,” Harry insisted, seeing the werewolf's belief in the story waning drastically. “The one at the River House in Edinburgh—the one from his dad’s side of the family. The Grimmauld Place tapestry’s broken—has been ever since the first blasting hex broke the Eternal Updating charm on it.”

Professor Lupin was unconvinced, but had pulled himself together and apparently warded off any painful memories. “Who fell through the Veil then?” he asked pointedly. His face was a strange mix; emotions crawled over it one after the other, only some of which Harry could identify: compassion, anger, distrust. Hope. It was terrible to watch.

“My dad could tell you,” Harry said, and struggled not to react to Lupin's flinch. He ploughed on, and said, “He’s here in France looking for you. Been tracking you since September.”

Professor Lupin's eyes widened. He lifted his hand as if about to wrap it around his forearm, but aborted the move at the last minute. It was too late: both Hermione and Harry followed the movement with their eyes, and she gasped. “Professor!”

Voldemort laughed suddenly, drawing all eyes to him. “My poor friend,” he said, addressing the werewolf. “Please do not tell me that you are hesitant to return to Dumbledore.”

“I—I serve...” his eyes cut to Harry, Hermione, and back to Voldemort before flitting madly around the compound. “My Lord,” he said, “I am loyal to you.”

“I know,” Voldemort laughed. “I know quite well, Mr Lupin. I know also how your desire to serve me wavers now that you know of your old friend’s continued existence, and have seen Harry here in person once again.”

Professor Lupin looked pale.

Hermione jumped in, and said, “Professor, just owl Sirius and meet him. I’m sure he’s close enough by now to be found, and then you could just meet up with him, and work everything out, and I’m sure he could answer your questions.”

“Owl him?” the professor repeated, dazed. “Yes, I think I will. I’ll just owl my dear dead friend, Sirius, who’s followed me all the way to southern France, and who will be delighted to cart me back to Scotland where I can discuss my wayward activities with him and Albus Dumbledore over tea with three sugars and a bowl of sherbet lemons laced with Veritaserum.”

“My, but you are a bit on the psychotic side, aren’t you?” Voldemort drawled.

Harry tended to agree. His face showed it.

“Professor, it’s quite all right,” Hermione said, glaring at Harry, and—bravely—also at Voldemort. “Just owl Sirius; he’d be delighted to see you again, and if you tell him not to tell Dumbledore straight away, he won’t. Besides, he’s—more understanding than you’d think.” Here, she nodded at Harry, and the final piece clicked into place for the werewolf.

“Harry!” Lupin exclaimed. He looked at Voldemort, who was grinning sadistically and winced at the way his fingers began to dig into his skin.

“My friend,” Voldemort said, “Harry is such a bright young man. I’m sure he can make his own decisions.”

“Professor, it’s alright,” Harry said soothingly. “The Dark Lord’s right—“

“The Dark Lord?” Lupin whispered incredulously. He’d noticed the other workers, but his lowered voice was the result of shock, and not any fear that they might overhear. “Harry, what’s going on?”

“My, would you look at the time?” Voldemort said. “I expect you should get on with that letter, Mr Lupin,” and with that, he unwrapped his fingers from the werewolf’s arm, one by one, as if he were disgusted with the whole ordeal.

Harry and Hermione disappeared to him immediately, and while they still looked on at Professor Lupin, open-mouthed in shock at Voldemort’s cattiness, the professor looked around him in despair and saw nothing but the other werewolves waiting for him to resume helping, and his lord, who did not look back as he walked away.

Harry dragged Hermione with him; she couldn't help the painful throb she felt as she stared back at poor Professor Lupin, looking more lost than anyone had a right to. “Where are you going?” he demanded angrily. “That was awful of you.”

Voldemort rolled his eyes. “I do not have time for your pitiful miseries,” he said as they approached the pen being built. He stopped to address an old man with a world-weary look about his face, said: “How long?”

“Thirty-six hours,” the man said.

Voldemort nodded, continued walking. “As you can see, Mr Black, I’m quite busy. In two days, the preliminaries to the feeding will begin, and if you thought you knew fear before, wait until the weekend when the waves of ravenous Dementors start gliding through the towns and cities.” He stopped abruptly, turned to face the both of them. “And it will not be just one paltry weekend feast; Dementors are quite hungry, you see,” he purred. “They eat, and eat, and...eat.”

Hermione shivered. “What are they eating?” she asked quietly.

Voldemort grinned. “They only eat souls, you see, Ms Granger. And who has souls but human beings?”

“No,” she said hoarsely.

Voldemort ignored her, turned to Harry. “Harry, do you think your friend Mr Longbottom might be pleased to receive any remnants of Mrs Lestrange? I understand they were family friends—“

“What’s wrong with you?” Harry said. His teeth were clenched with anger, and he squeezed Hermione’s hand so hard that she squirmed. “You’re not like this!”

“Aren’t I?” Voldemort said sarcastically. He leaned down, put his face into Harry’s. “In less than a week, number one will be led into this arena behind me: into the waiting mouths of hundreds and hundreds of Dementors, where he will be torn, literally, apart. Have you ever seen a Dementor feeding, Harry? No? Let me enlighten you: it starts with a great unleashing of fear; imagine five-hundred Dementors. Do you remember what it feels like when a Dementor is around? Now imagine that they’re hungry, not merely curious, like those you’ve met before. Imagine that they’re releasing a certain pheromone that blocks all types of Occlumency, bypasses all charms, hexes, Obliviations—unleashes all of your greatest fears, and creates new fears for you to be afraid of, to improve your taste, to make you more satisfying.

“Now, think about five-hundred Dementors at the same time, falling upon you, and eating your fears, fighting over your soul so fiercely that your body is torn apart.”

He stood up, glanced at Hermione, white as a sheet. “Then number two is dragged in; there is no Imperius strong enough to lead anyone to that fate, nor anyone of such weak-will to not be able to fight it off—that is how frightening it is.

“I do apologize for my mood, Ms Granger, but you see, number one happens to be someone I was nearly fond of, and it is his continuing bad luck that has led him to be in this situation to begin with. It is unfortunate, but I do try to practise fairness in all of my dealings, and it would be decidedly nepotistic of me to remove him from the lottery simply because he amused me once.”

“My Lord!” someone called from the build site. Voldemort turned to see that it was the same old man as before. “You’re needed!”

Voldemort turned back to them one last time. “I am going to be very frank with you, Harry. It is in your best interest to keep your distance from me until this is well on its way to being over. I advise you to follow Dumbledore’s orders and stay inside as much as you can. I’m sure it will be all over the newspapers within a few days, but no sense in being reckless. As for you, Ms Granger, you will forget this conversation in its entirety if you have not reported back to me in seven days. I urge you to consider—“

“No, I’ll do it!” Hermione said quickly. Harry gaped, and squeezed her hand punishingly. She squeezed right back.

Voldemort looked annoyed. “This is not something to be taken lightly.”

“I know,” she said. “Just—just let me tell Theo, and, and—I’m sure he’ll know how to get in touch with you, and if not, then Harry will.”

“I don’t want any part in this,” Harry ground out.

She pursed her lips angrily, turned back to the Dark Lord before her. “I’ll be back; in two days at most.”

“That will be a very busy day for me, Ms Granger. I won’t have time to dally.”

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “Just—we are clear, aren’t we?” she asked. “You will help me give my parents magic if I can figure out how to do it?”

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said absently. “I really must go,” and with that, he waved his arm sharply down, as if hacking through the air, and Harry found himself back in the Gryffindor common room, disoriented from the abrupt and angry end to their conversation. Hermione was breathing heavily, but at least she was breathing. At least she’d made it back into her body. She looked determined.

“I have to go,” she said, standing. “I need to speak to Theo right away.”

“Hermione—“ Harry started, but Hermione cut him off angrily.

“No, Harry, this is important to me, and this is a sacrifice I’m willing—and happy—to make if it will keep me from being isolated from my family.” She was gone before he could think of anything else to say.

ɤɣɤ


Dear Harry,

I got a letter from Lavender Brown today, can you believe it? Unfortunately, Mum did, too. Or rather, Mum got a letter from Lavender’s mum, who wanted to gush over how darling it was that their two children were getting along so swimmingly. Apparently, Lav’s told her mum about us, and since they live just over in Somerset, Mrs Brown’s proposed that she and Mum meet each other over hols. Can you imagine??

I don’t know what to do, you know. Lav said she’s ‘terribly sorry about being so forward’, but she had been hoping I was doing well, and would I like for her to bring me one of her famous trifles, or perhaps a fresh Lavender Pudding—her version of Plum Pudding. It’s lighter, she said. Airier? I think that’s the word she used. I don’t know. I still haven’t figured out why she thinks it’s so clever, but you know me, I’ll not turn down any form of afters. Even befores.

Anyway, Mum seems delighted that someone might be interested in me even after this. Well, she didn’t say so, but by the speed at which she whipped out the Prewett Family Cookbook, I know she’s excited. Doesn’t bother me, to be honest: I’ve been sampling Mum’s ‘no, this won’t do’s for three hours now, and it’s not a hardship. Suppose I could send you and Hermione some bread pudding, but there probably won’t be any left once Dad’s through with it.

How is Hermione by the by? I’m not sure if I want you to tell her I asked after her or not. Probably best that you don’t. I miss her, but I’ve had a couple weeks with no contact whatsoever from her, and her face is starting to blend in with Susan Bones, if that makes any sense. Since Susan had curly brown hair, you know, and I can’t seem to recall which nose belonged to which face. And what does it sound like when Hermione laughs? Because every time I think about that joke I told her last year—the one that made her burst out laughing—it’s like there’s someone else laughing instead. I can’t remember what it sounds like.

So what I guess I meant to say is that I’m getting over it. And I told Lavender that I’m particularly fond of all kinds of pudding. It’s a moot point; Mum’s just told me that Mrs Brown sent her a recipe for a ‘Brown’ Apple Cobbler by owl, and they’ll probably become fast friends before they even meet.

I started working with Fred and George at the shop the other day; they’re none too pleased with me. Turns out that Mum’s taken it into her head to have them be tutored and take their NEWTs with me, since she and dad are already fronting the expense. I’ve been cleaning lots of really smelly black stuff off their laboratory walls.

Write back soon. It’s boring here. Could use with the gossip. Even if it’s just about Potions. Or Dumbledore. Or Lavender.

Your friend,
Ron


ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Auxiliary Unit: (n) 1. A civilian organization which supports the resistance movement through clandestine operations by providing the guerrilla force with food, clothing, shelter, arms, ammunition, early warning, intelligence, replacements, funds, medical supplies, and moral support.

ɤɣɤ

Theo Nott rubbed his neck with a fond smile. It was beneath his collar, at the sensitive spot just above his clavicle; when he pressed down, pain bloomed out, slowly and with an aching throb. He pushed it with his thumb, and jumped when Hermione slapped his thigh beneath their shared desk.

Stop it, Theo. Someone will see.”

He grinned at her; he couldn’t help it. She made him feel so foolish and flighty sometimes. “I can’t help it. I keep thinking about it.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, muttering “Men!” under her breath, but he could see the blush creeping up her neck, and knew she was remembering it, too. He felt giddy, a bit—remembered the way she had blushed the night before, and those thoughts led him to thinking further. There was a reason he was so scatter-brained this morning.

He had to turn away because looking at her was causing problems in his lower regions. It was as if now that he’d seen her without clothes, he could no longer see her clothes at all. She was wearing her school robes but it was as if they weren’t even there. All he saw was the delicate expanse of her skin—pale where the sunlight never touched, and scattered with freckles in occasional places.

Her robes were voluminous and a bit frumpy, but she breathed, and he saw her breasts rising—heaving, in his mind—and imagined that her pretty pink nipples were erect, as they had been last night in the chill of his Head Boy room. He’d tried, before, to forget that they existed, in a bid at gentlemanly behaviour, but now that he’d seen her naked, all he could think of was how no one would ever have guessed how large, and perfectly round, her breasts were. They went perfectly with her tiny waist and her round, seductive hips.

Theo did not think any woman had ever been formed so perfectly.

Even after she’d said what she came to say: that she had spoken to Lord Voldemort—that she’d agreed to a heinous span of servitude just to maybe give her parents magic. Theo hated the idea; hated that it might hinder, or altogether prevent any plans he might’ve had for a marriage bond. He hadn’t said it, though.

She was right to plan for such eventualities. It was entirely possible that her seemingly far-fetched fears of one day being cut off from her first world were possible. Probable. And Theo didn’t fear for her safety, per se. Not from the Dark Lord, whom he found to be crass and dramatic, but about on par with a crazy, homicidal uncle, as he’d spent considerable time at the Notts’ home when Theo was very young, and he’d once given him a kneazle kitten, though it didn’t last long around the hellhounds his father hunted with.

No, what worried Theo was that he’d written his Nan inquiring as to whether or not she’d be willing to send his late mother’s wedding ring to him. Hermione was strong and determined, and likely wouldn’t be too interested in marriage right after school anyway—but she might, Theo reminded himself, and he wanted to be prepared for the eventuality at all times.

Now he fingered the ring in his pocket. It was cut in the traditional style, similar to the one he’d seen Black wearing around and had assumed to have belonged to the late Mrs Potter. The Nott ring was one of his family’s few extravagances: the males of the line had long been proponents of simplicity and pragmatism, but their wives were something they tended to splurge on. This particular ring, one of several being passed down through the generations, was the most graceful in Theo’s opinion. He recalled, as a young boy, how lovely it had looked on his own mother’s hand, and knew that when the time came it would look just as lovely on Hermione’s.

It was strange how in such a moment as the night before, he’d forgotten everything he’d ever learned in those barmy sexual health lessens they were required to attend in third year—how just the hint of her shoulder as she shrugged her cloak off could be so enticing to him—and he admitted, to himself at least, that he was worried he might’ve gotten her up the duff.

He had forgotten to perform a protective charm. She’d said nothing of it, had not performed one either, and how in the world was he supposed to have remembered when she was slithering onto his bare lap, sliding down on top of him. She’d thrown her head back almost immediately, and he’d dug his fingers into the small of her back as he fought simultaneously to resist burying his face between her breasts or coming immediately.

He would have to propose soon, just in case. Otherwise her parents might come demanding wreath money from him, and their family couldn’t afford that sort of careless expenditure.

He smiled to himself, wondering how any of that could be a bad thing, and Hermione gave him a suspicious look.

Snape entered the room in a bluster, and Hermione averted her attention directly ahead. Theo took the moment to study her speculatively.

“Ms Granger, a word after class,” Snape said as he passed their table. Theo gave her a questioning look, and she responded with a gesture he took to understand meant it had something to do with their conversation last night. He supposed he read her well.

She tore off a corner of her parchment and wrote: ‘& I’ll tell you more when I know’. He nodded.

Potions passed quickly after that; they would be finishing their Arithmantic potions soon and, if Snape deemed them safe for ingestion or at least topical application, they would be testing them. Malfoy had been readmitted to the class several days after his blunder at the beginning of the year and he still sat with Harry Black, though they seemed to conspire and smirk at each other more than do any actual work.

Snape lectured for near twenty minutes, discussed—and re-discussed—several important and often overlooked points to consider when brewing an Arithmantic potion, and then allotted the remainder of the class for brewing. Hermione pulled out their cauldron, held in stasis with more than one heavy-duty spell, and began chopping.

“Do you want me to wait for you while you talk to Snape?” he asked her quietly.

She glanced at him, smiled quickly in that harried, surprised fashion she had when she was pleased. “If you want to,” she said. “Though your nosiness is noted.”

He grinned at her, ducked his head. “You know it’s about...that, don’t you?” he admitted. “What else has Snape got to talk to you about? Privately? If, Merlin forbid, you’d scored an E on something, he’d tell you in front of everyone else.”

She passed him a knife and a pile of thistles. “I expected so, yes,” she said, then quieted as Snape neared the desk in front of them, where Crabbe and Goyle were responding to business letters, and reassuring worried traders that their stocks were in perfectly good shape—fluctuations in the market were normal.

Snape paused at their desk, bent to sniff delicately at the bubbling potion, and continued on without a word. Theo sieved his thistles into the potion slowly, waited to make sure it turned the appropriate colour, and said, “Have you told your parents at all?”

“No,” she said, frowning. “I don’t really want to get their hopes up about it. It’s perfectly plausible that...that it won’t work. Or that they’ll refuse. I want to have everything set in place before I even bring it up.”

Theo hummed softly. Then, hesitantly, he said, “Do you think your parents would like me?”

She turned, looked at him from beneath her pile of hair and he felt his stomach drop at how gorgeous she looked. “They’d love you,” she said. It was only a moment later that she added, “Because I do.”

Theo grinned. “Liar,” he said.

She slapped his thigh. “Shut up, you know I do, you heathen.”

Snape called for everyone to finish up, and dismissed the class. They packed their things slowly as the other students scrambled to leave for lunch. Finally, there was no one left but the two of them and their professor, who sat behind his desk staring at them blandly.

“I believe I instructed only Ms Granger to stay, Mr Nott,” Snape said.

Theo said, “Sir, with all due respect, if this is about what I think it is, I’d like to be present, assuming you and Hermione don’t mind.”

“I don’t,” Hermione said too quickly.

Snape raised an eyebrow. “Knowledge is death, at times, Mr Nott,” he said. “The more you know, the more someone can get out of you, but it is on your own head, as I’m sure Ms Granger will tell you everything directly anyway.”

“I know,” he said, nodding.

Snape hummed softly, stood and flung several quick spells at all the possible entrances, exits and vents to the classroom. He paced around to the front of his desk and leaned against it, regarding Hermione with his arms crossed over his chest. “Ms Granger, I will get straight to the point,” he said.

“As I have been informed you are aware, there will be a very special event tomorrow morning that will involve many high security prisoners being released from Azkaban into the hands of the Dark Lord for an even worse fate in several weeks’ time.

“You may further be aware that more than a dozen of those prisoners are the family of students here, including the Lestrange sisters. I have been charged with escorting them to the new holding cells so that they might see their parents once more, and was given to understand that you would be interested in accompanying me.”

“To see Voldemort?” she asked.

Snape merely looked at her.

“I would,” she said then. “If you think it will be safe to take me out of the castle.”

“Safe is not the word I would choose,” Snape said.

Theo interrupted, saying, if respectfully, “Professor, exactly who’s side are you on?”

Snape shrugged lazily, grinned. “Your guess is as good as mine, Mr Nott.”

“Professor, I only meant do you think Headmaster Dumbledore would notice I was gone?” Hermione clarified.

“I’m certain I can arrange it so that he doesn’t,” Snape said, “as I will be doing for the misses Lestrange.”

Hermione nodded, but before she could say anything further, Snape continued, “Ms Granger, are you quite sure you understand what you’re getting into?” He pulled up his sleeve and held out his forearm for their observance. The Dark Mark twisted angrily over his skin, empty eyes staring, snakes writhing.

“There is the possibility,” he continued, “however infinitesimal, that the Dark Lord would renege on his promise to release you from this bond after your time is served. And what if you are arrested for public drunkenness one weekend and are found to be carrying the Mark? Or, perhaps you would like to enter into a bond-ship with our Mr Nott; have you discussed the limitations of this Mark with your future lord? There are variations to the Dark Mark, Ms Granger. If you are determined to follow through with this, I urge you to consider all possibilities and reach an arrangement that is suitable for all involved—as I see it, that includes Mr Nott, here.”

Hermione’s lips parted, and she was unable to come up with a response for a moment. Theo was relieved that Snape had had the bollocks to say to her what he’d been too nervous to bring up. She glanced at Theo, eyes wider than normal, and that blush began to creep up her neck again. Finally, she cleared her throat, and said, “I’ll make a list of points tonight, to take with me in the morning.”

There was an awkward silence. It was finally broken by Snape, who said, “Very well,” and dismissed them from his office without further ado. They walked to lunch in silence, barely noticing as they entered the Great Hall, but Theo fingered the ring in his pocket again, and felt relieved.

ɤɣɤ

With as cranky as Potter had been these last few weeks, what with Weasley being gone and something evidently happening earlier this afternoon, Draco was surprised he’d bothered to show up at all, truth be told.

It was getting quite late, certainly going on eleven o’clock as he approached the Black Lake, and he’d had to put two third years in detention on his way out here to keep up appearances. Potter was sitting back to the Forbidden Forest—one of his stupider moves—and appeared to be sulking at the lake, which Draco found to be entirely normal. His approach went unnoticed, and he sat down across from Potter with little fanfare.

“On time, for once,” Draco observed, perhaps less caustically than usual.

To his surprise, Potter chuckled; lifted his head and even cracked a grin at Draco, who was momentarily stunned, but recovered quickly enough. “Ready to be done with this bloody ring,” Potter said. “I’ve had about enough Arithmancy for one lifetime, thank you. Should have never taken it in the first place; don’t know what I was thinking.”

Draco laughed. “I admit to being surprised to see you in my class the first day,” he said. “But it’s good you’ve taken it; you can’t really expect to get by in life without at least a basic understanding of wizard maths.”

Potter said nothing, so Draco continued curiously, “Are you going to drop it at halves? Or do you reckon you’ll take it through the end of the year?”

Potter shrugged, reached into his pocket and retrieved the blasted ring for their project. “Don’t know yet. I certainly don’t want to go back to Astronomy or Divination; maybe I’ll take Muggle Studies.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “So, have you made a breakthrough since the other day? Or has Granger, I should say.”

He found himself being punched—lightly—in the arm, and wasn’t sure if he was offended by the contact or not; for the moment, he let it slide. He grabbed the ring, held it out so he could better examine it in the moonlight, and frowned. He had no utterly idea what to do with the blasted thing. Neither did Potter, apparently.

“Hermione’s so stupid,” Potter said suddenly.

Draco glanced at him quickly. “Pardon?”

Potter stood suddenly, paced back and forth. “She’s going to take the Dark Mark,” he whispered, as if anyone were around to hear them. But the words brought a sense of foreboding to Draco, and he glanced behind him out of instinct. No one was there, but he’d known no one would be.

“She...followed me today, to Voldemort. I don’t know how it happened, but that connection I have with the Dark Lord flared up today, and when I got there, she was there, too, can you believe that?” he ranted.

Draco couldn’t, but he declined in saying so, as it seemed that Potter had not expected an answer. He continued on, voice rough and low, “She’s made a deal with the Dark Lord, Malfoy. It’s utterly insane; she thinks she’s figured out how to give magic to squibs and muggles, and she’s going to take the Dark Mark so that he’ll...I don’t know—finance the research for her and promote it, and help her with...whatever ceremony or...I don’t even know. It’s mad, Malfoy! She’s a complete nutter! I don’t know what to do.”

Draco took a moment to grasp the words, and even after he did, he couldn’t come up with a fathomable reason why any sort of thing had happened. The Dark Lord consorting with any sort of mudblood was beyond him, even one who offered to find the missing link in a great and terrible piece of magic like giving magic to the non-magical. It was something that Draco had never considered—that his cousins the Heffleby’s had never considered when all three of their children had turned out to be squibs.

“How is it even possible?” Draco wanted to know. “You can’t just give people magic,” he said. “It’s got to come from somewhere. Has she thought of that?”

Potter nodded grimly. “Yeah, she has. She’s going to use her own.”

“Pish!” Draco scoffed. “She won’t have any left.”

Potter shrugged his shoulders and flopped back onto the grass, just a dark silhouette now that he was out of the moonlight. He looked bitter. “Maybe since she and the Dark Lord have become such good friends, he’ll keep some of the Kissed prisoners around for her to use.”

“What Kissed prisoners?” Draco asked. Something was digging into his bum, and he adjusted enough to pull his last blood lolly from his back pocket, unwrapping it briskly. “There hasn’t been a formal Kissing in a decade at least; not since Gerald Hockflayer was executed in 1987.”

Potter looked at him askance. “Where do you come up with all this useless trivia?”

He shrugged, mouth full of the sweet. “My father was on the jury; anyway, what are you talking about?”

Potter seemed hesitant. “I’m surprised your mum didn’t tell you about it,” he said. “The Dementors are going to start breeding soon. In June, if I recall—but Voldemort says they’ve got to eat first, to get their energy up, I suppose. It’s supposed to start in a couple days.”

He felt his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline as a coldness ran down his spine and made his heart seize up in fear. “Beg pardon? Did you just say that it was coming up on Dementor breeding season?” He ran a series of dates through his head, trying to calculate if it was possible, if indeed it was the right year for it, but the math was too intricate to be done in his head—to be done in a day, really—and he gave up in time to hear Potter affirm his fears.

“Yeah, I did. First one in about 500 years, the Dark Lord says. And Dumbledore, too.”

“Dumbledore knows?” Draco asked, angrily. “He hasn’t alerted the papers or provided any means for people to prepare or protect themselves?”

“I don’t know,” Potter said. “I think the Order of the Phoenix is going to try to contain them until the season passes. He doesn’t want to panic the communities.”

“Panic the communities!” Draco exclaimed. “They need to be warned! They can’t suppress Dementor breeding! It’s too powerful; the magic they use is...is massive. I—It’s just beyond words how insane that is! How has no one figured this out earlier? We’ve got magical theorists that spend their entire lives determining this sort of thing, and you mean to tell me that Dumbledore knows about it, and expects his little troupe of do-gooders to prevent a frighteningly overwhelming event like Dementor breeding? You’re out of your mind, Potter! People will die all over the country. I don’t even like Muggles and I think something should be done!”

“I know,” Potter said testily. “Which is why I’ve kept my mouth shut so far about Voldemort’s premeditated mass murder; it makes no difference if they’re Death Eaters or rapists or not, that’s a cruel fate to force on anyone. I wouldn’t have wished it on even him, even before we came to terms.”

Draco’s eyes widened, and he removed the lolly from his mouth, flinging it somewhere near the lake. “What do you mean, Death Eaters? The Dark Lord’s...feeding Death Eaters to the Dementors? My father’s a Death Eater...and what about Granger? You said she’s taking the Mark.” He felt his pulse racing, and his body nearly thrummed as his blood pounded through his veins. He couldn’t remember ever feeling fear like this.

“No, no,” Potter hastened to say, and for a moment, Draco was thrown by the sympathetic look he thought he saw in the boy’s eyes. “Your father’s safe, Malfoy. Unfortunately, the Lestrange sisters aren’t so lucky. Both of their parents are in Azkaban, and both of them were selected from the lottery.”

“My mother’s sister?” Draco asked. “My mother—she’ll be devastated, and...oh, Merlin, Rodolphus, too? He’s my uncle—I...he took me flying when I was three. I remember it. Are you serious, Potter?”

He nodded, watching Draco carefully. “Snape’s taking Alsace and Lorraine to say goodbye tomorrow, and Hermione’s going with, to get her Dark Mark.” Here, his lip curled in distaste.

“But what about everyone else? Kevin Whitby’s aunt’s in gaol, and Eddie Carmichael’s brother was arrested over the summer with a Mark; what about Crabbe and Goyle? And Nott? Are their father’s meant to be sacrifices, too?”

“I—I don’t know,” Potter said. “I haven’t heard of anyone’s family being selected except the Lestranges. But I’m sure Hermione would’ve told me by now if Nott’s dad was on the list.” To himself, he added cynically, “Maybe she wouldn’t be acting so foolishly if he were.”

Draco put his head in his hands and took a deep breath, trying to slow his frantic heartbeat. “Theo wouldn’t’ve told her,” he said quietly, then: “Fuck this; I don’t want to think about it anymore. Let’s finish this bloody ring so I can be done with it.”

Potter laughed hollowly. “Wish that we could just toss the fucking thing to the Dementors instead, and let them have whoever’s inside it. Maybe it’d be one less parent dying for the rest of us.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then, “I could kiss you,” Draco said suddenly. He jumped up, ignoring the stunned, thoughtful expression now filtering over Potter’s face, and grinned maniacally. “That’s it!”

“What?” Potter said dumbly.

“You’ve finally come up with a good idea, you pillock!” he said, reaching down to pull Potter up with both hands. The boy came slowly, like an awkward, lumbering fool, but Draco didn’t mind because he’d just solved their mystery, and possibly saved his mark in the class.

Draco danced excitedly around, taking Potter with him. “I’ll talk to Snape tonight,” he said, still grinning. “What time is Granger leaving in the morning?”

“Five,” Potter said. His face showed confusion, but he’d not pulled his hands away yet, and Draco was beginning to realise it—was beginning to realise what stupidity he’d committed in his excitement. It was only that Potter did not seem adverse to it, and Draco wondered if they could get away with something like this without either of them getting hurt. He slowed until they were completely still and facing one another. His face melted into a look of complete seriousness, and Potter’s had never strayed from it.

His heart began to race again, slowly at first, and then with mounting speed until he felt it in his neck and ears and that vein in his wrists. His face became hot; he managed to say: “Then you’ll come along with her in the morning, and I’ll meet you there with Professor Snape.”

“For what?” Potter asked hoarsely. He swallowed, and Draco watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed slowly.

“To feed our ring to a Dementor, of course,” he said.

“Is that really a good idea?” Potter said lowly.

Draco shrugged. “Better than some of the other ideas I’ve got right now,” he replied.

Potter’s fingers twitched in his hands, and Draco squeezed a little harder instead of letting go. Potter said, “Like what?”

This was it, Draco knew. And when it came down to it he was frozen with anticipation and, quite possibly, also fear. He swallowed, and said, “Like—“

“Like this?” Potter interrupted, and leaned in. Their mouths collided sharply, and not at all like seductions normally went. And in fact, Potter advanced with such force that Draco was knocked backwards, and they landed on the cold, brittle grass, with Potter sprawled all over him, and undeterred.

Draco wrapped his arms around Potter, feeling one press against a hard shoulder blade and the other tangle into thick, black hair. He pulled Potter’s mouth down to his until their lips pressed together, and Potter made no efforts to resist when Draco slid his tongue into his mouth. He moaned, and adjusted himself over Draco, propped on his forearms as he ground his hardening erection into Draco’s.

Potter pulled back, pushed Draco’s chin up until his neck was stretched out before him. He descended, licked a long stripe from Draco’s clavicle to his ears, and as the cold air blew over it, he shivered, not from the cold. Potter latched onto his earlobe and nibbled. “Definitely a bad idea,” Draco gasped.

“A great one,” Potter rasped, and moaned when Draco’s other hand grabbed his bum and ground their cocks together even harder. “Fuck—a fantastic one.”

Draco tended to agree. He flipped them over when Potter was distracted, and found himself in turn distracted by the tan expanse of skin exposed between the hem of Potter’s jumper and his trousers. He couldn’t help slipping his hand underneath, running it along Potter’s ribs.

Potter yelped and twitched beneath Draco. “Cold hands!” he said, laughing, and Draco pitied him enough to bother whispering a warming charm on both of them. “Better,” Potter said; he grinned, a completely at-ease, vulnerable expression that made Draco feel at once powerful and powerless.

“Could get even better,” Draco purred, leaning over him to slide their mouths together again. His hand changed directions, and slid slowly down the boy’s abdomen until he reached Potter’s trousers. He felt the other boy tremble underneath him and gasp into his mouth.

“Wanna suck you,” Potter gasped. “Want your come in my mouth.”

Draco groaned, dropped his head to rest against Potter’s to try and collect himself, but he couldn’t because Potter took the opportunity to reverse their positions again. Draco found his back once again on the cold grass, but it did nothing to ease the hot throbbing he felt all over his body, not least in his prick, now harder than he remembered it being in some time.

The wind blew harshly over them, but it did nothing to cool Draco’s burning skin. Potter’s face was intense, like when Draco caught thinking about something profound, but it was the look in his eyes that did him in, in the end. Potter was too passionate; he invested too much into everything, and Draco felt a moment of regret for allowing this to continue as far as it had; it would certainly end in someone getting hurt, but only if it didn’t end with both of them doing so.

The warming charm helped only moderately. Potter’s hand slipped agilely beneath Draco’s waistband, and when his cool fingers wrapped around his prick, Draco felt certain that Potter knew what he was doing. His eyes slipped closed.

“What about Finnigan?” he asked raspily, and then wanted to slap himself for it.

Potter was undeterred. “Broke it off with him,” he said. “Or rather, we dissolved when he started fooling around with some Ravenclaw.”

“Oh,” Draco said stupidly. Nimble fingers worked at the buttons on his trousers, and seconds later, they were off, and his cock was springing free—hot, and throbbing harder with each cold burst of wind or trembling touch from Potter’s hands.

He arched into it, but it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough; he reached up and grabbed the other boy’s hip, holding him still while his shaking fingers struggled with the buttons of his trousers. All the while, Potter jerked his cock like a professional.

It felt like millions of minutes had passed before Draco finally reached his goal, wrapped his fingers around Potter’s hot prick, and gripped it tightly. Above him, Potter was trembling, eyes closed, supporting himself on one wobbly arm, as his other continued with Draco. He didn’t last long, but neither did Potter, and only milliseconds after Draco felt his orgasm ripping through him, he also felt Potter’s, landing thickly on his stomach in hot, wet waves.

Potter’s arm finally gave way, and he collapsed on top of Draco. It was many minutes before Draco remembered to shove him off, and many more before he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be attracted to Potter.

ɤɣɤ

The following day, Severus roused himself earlier than usual in order to play escort to three sombre women in a foolish outing that, admittedly, had Severus somewhat worried that the Headmaster might notice their absences. It was not something he found himself doing often, and even less so something he particularly looked forward to.

Nevertheless, the potions master found himself stepping into the brittle cold of a December morning in the dungeons at half-four in the morning. He found himself dreading the even colder chill he would face at their arranged meeting place: the north castle entrance, only used for dramatic first-year entrances, as it was cumbersome, generally, to travel to Hogsmeade by rowing boat. It was fortunate that he did not plan to take the girls through Hogsmeade, and instead planned lead them to a nearby staff exit from the grounds, where they would be able to apparate, hopefully unseen.

The Lestrange sisters were already waiting for him, probably having slept together in one or the other’s dorm last night. They huddled under a thick, woven blanket, and their cowls were drawn tightly around their faces, but their cheeks were still red from the cold. Severus removed his pocket watch and checked the time, though he found it difficult to read in the darkness of early winter. It was a quarter-to-five in the morning, and he would give Granger fifteen minutes before leaving her behind, without the coordinates to their apparition point.

“Good morning, Misses Lestrange,” Snape said, voice still low and raspy from sleep. They nodded to him; Lorraine even went so far as to give him a fair imitation of the half-smile she normally wore in class.

He busied himself by going over the schedule of events that were expected to happen over the next few days, assuming everything went to plan. He could admit to himself that he was...vexed; anything could go wrong, not least of which could be the Dark Lord’s arena failing, or their bait—which he did not, admittedly, wholly understand—not working. If the Dementors never came to their arena in France to feed, then what would they do instead? If the Dark Lord’s bait was not alluring enough to encourage them to travel from all over continental Europe and the British Isles to eat, what would they eat instead? He imagined the carnage, and it caused even him to shiver. The Lestrange sisters noticed nothing; it was cold enough, at least.

Dementor feeding, Severus thought, ought to be a...frenzied activity. Suppose that, in their pleasure, the Dementors weren’t satisfied with their rationed prisoner? No sooner had Severus begun to construct rudimentary plans of action for such eventualities, than the heavy wooden door creaked open, and a dark figure stepped through.

It was, Severus noticed, five-til-five, but it was not Ms Granger that had entered, he noticed with a start: the figure was much too slender—though, if Severus was fair, the Granger girl was actually quite thin if it weren’t for her well-apportioned chest and hips—and moved with well-bred grace. He knew, even before Draco removed his hood, who it was.

“Mr Malfoy,” Severus hissed, careful to keep his voice down—Minerva was a notorious early-riser—“What are you doing here? I should not have to remind you that your own father is warm and safe in his feather-down bed in Wiltshire and does not require a visit from you.”

Alsace and Lorraine watched with interest, but said nothing.

“I know, Professor,” Malfoy replied easily. “Potter and I have an idea about de-cursing our silly Arithmancy project.”

“The ring?” Severus asked with some suspicion. He’d nearly forgotten about it; the Dark Lord’s blasé reaction to its mention in October had effectively moved its importance to the back of his mind.

Draco nodded, said, “Yes, it’s alive you see, and we should like to have a Dementor eat whatever bit of soul is inside it.” He shrugged.

The door opened once again, this time to finally admit Ms Granger, who was really pushing it by showing up two-minutes-to-five. Unfortunately, Potter, unmistakeable with his loping walk, followed her in. His eyes were rimmed darkly, and Severus took a moment to find pleasure in the fact that he was not the only one sleep-deprived.

“Ms Granger,” Severus said straight away, “I did not say you were to bring friends.”

She gave him a helpless look, and said, “He was waiting by the portrait-hole when I made to leave this morning; I couldn’t deter him, I’m afraid. That’s why I was so late.” She glanced at Malfoy, as though just noticing his presence. “I didn’t know Malfoy was coming.”

“He’s not,” Severus said curtly.

“Sir, please!” Potter begged. Granger shushed him and, abashed, he continued more softly, “We need to feed a Dementor with our ring, sir. It might be the only way to pass Arithmancy.”

“How tragic,” Snape replied. “Yet, I fail to see how accompanying any of us would solve your dilemma.”

“Won’t there be Dementors there?” Draco asked. The Lestranges nearly hid their winces at the mention, but not quite, and Malfoy noticed enough to look embarrassed.

“Have you thought this through, either of you?” Severus wondered. “How, upon completion of your project, will you explain to Professor Vector, or even the Headmaster, how you came upon a Dementor while at school? As Dumbledore is well-aware, the Dementors are currently in an extremely agitated state, and it will be only a matter of days before experts alert the media as to what’s happening. By then, it will be too late, of course, but the point I am endeavouring to make is that you will alight yourselves with some suspicion if you successfully, and without prior warning, remove a—as you say—‘bit of soul’ from your ring.”

“Soul?” Granger repeated. “Harry you didn’t say that—“ she broke off suddenly, thoughtful. Severus followed her train of thought without meaning to.

He’d never heard of any such magic that could put a living person, or even just their soul, in an inanimate object for an extended period time. It was certainly the reason the Dark Lord had asked him to look after the fate of the ring, but still, he wondered. Who could it possibly be inside it? Regulus Black? Or...no, it wasn’t Lily. Severus knew exactly where she was.

He made a note to mention this development to his lord at the first available opportunity, but for now, it was important to maintain a neutral countenance, and after years of practise, this was not difficult.

Potter seemed at a loss. “What should we do then?” he wanted to know.

Severus shrugged, and flippantly suggested, “Perhaps you should ask the Headmaster if he would have you along on his attempt to corral the Dementors, so that you might attempt it.”

To Severus’ extreme consternation, Potter appeared to be seriously considering this. He nodded. “Alright, I’ll see if I can talk to him later.”

ɤɣɤ

Hermione did not in the least bit approve of Harry’s idea, which was probably why he’d been so reluctant to tell her about it before she led him to her meeting place with Professor Snape. Yes, it was a bit scary to think that there was something living in a piece of jewellery—ugly jewellery at that—but it was even scarier to think that Harry would be willing to get it out by force.

Who in the world would be living in a ring, though? And it wasn’t like they wouldn’t, if necessary, be able to free this person after they were...extracted. Hermione recalled a book she’d nicked from the Restricted Section which detailed such a thing, and while it involved the—gruesome—death of the Dementor, she doubted anyone would miss such a miserable creature. If Dumbledore really meant for Harry to save whomever was stuck inside, it would be possible this way, even if a bit—a lot—frightening for everyone involved.

And anyway, how would one even go about putting himself in an un-living object? She’d never heard of such magic, and it was against the Fourth Law of Transfiguration to boot.

She came back to herself as the wooden doors leading back into the castle snicked shut, cutting off the last draft of warm air from the heating charms inside. She shivered, and wrapped her heavy woollen winter cloak more tightly around her—it had been a birthday gift from her parents, owl-ordered from the posh Witches of Britain catalogue, and it made her even more sure that she was doing the right thing: her parents constantly reached out to her, constantly did their best to stay part of her world, the best that they could.

Professor Snape spoke quietly: “We will row to the north dock, and exit there. There is an apparition spot just beyond, for faculty who do not wish to be seen travelling to Hogsmeade to do their business.”

It occurred to her that one couldn’t apparate to or from Hogwarts, but it was probably wise that Hogwarts, a History, said as much since no doubt Harry would have taken advantage of such a loophole before.

Still, she couldn’t help thinking of how dangerous such a thing, and she wondered, “Professor, can you apparate into Hogwarts at that spot as well?”

His answer was curt as he untied a rocking boat from its moor. “No, you must floo or walk.”

Hermione stepped into the boat behind the twins, and sat down at the far end. Snape followed her, and they each took a set of oars. This time there was no giant squid to propel their little boat through the Black Lake, and as it lapped roughly against the stones of the castle wall she struggled to push it the other way.

If only things were still as easy as they’d been in first year, the last time she was in one of these boats.

Snape was surprisingly strong; he displayed no discomfort, and it wasn’t long before they were docking, and Hermione found herself tying the boat to the pier so that the Lestranges could exit. They remained silent as the grave.

“We will be travelling,” Snape said when they were all removed from the boat, “to the Dark Lord’s estate. Ms Granger, I am not able to apparate more than two extraneous persons, so you will need to understand me quite clearly.”

Hermione nodded. “I understand.”

“Not yet, you don’t,” Snape said. “Please be advised of the pronunciation when I say that we are travelling to the Bloody Foreland, and you will be arriving, hopefully, inside the Greeting Room at Ard-Mhéara.”

“Ard-Mhéara,” Hermione repeated slowly. She inhaled deeply; she’d never before performed a blind-apparition before. This would be a terrible day to splinch herself, and her nerves—already poor from a night of over-analysing her current situation—were not helping a bit.

Snape interpreted her distress. “Would you like to see it first?” he asked, and she felt a momentary flash of gratitude to him before she realised that such a thing would require an invasion of her mind. It was a small price to pay, she decided, to keep herself physically intact. She nodded.

Legilimens,” Snape said, and she felt herself thinking of all sorts of things—all her thoughts flew up like so many papers in a whirlwind—but it was over quickly, and then she felt her thoughts being pushed back, inside, and something forcing its way in after them.

There was a promontory with a dreadfully steep drop, and a small stone castle sat on the edge, just like in those mediaeval romance novels her mother read. Water slammed against the cliffs, and when it ebbed, there were rocks below—sharp, and tall, and terrifying. The castle was so close to the edge that one hard wave could send it toppling down, and surely only magic had kept it there so far. Then the scene changed, and she was in a gloomy foyer, with a large, gaping-mouthed fireplace on one side, and nothing on the other but a circular design on the floor, made with intricate tile-work and worn from years of existence.

“That,” Snape said, withdrawing, “is where you are to go.”

“I’ve got it,” Hermione said, this time with confidence. Snape nodded once, and directed the Lestranges to him, where they each wrapped one arm around his thin waist. With a bit of fumbling, and an excessive flourish, they were gone—all of them, fortunately. Hermione hoped she would fare just as well.

She closed her eyes, and concentrated on the three Ds. A second later the air rushed from her lungs and she felt herself implode and explode all at once, but then it was over, and when she opened her eyes she found that she stood on the same tile-circle Snape had shown her.

Hermione exhaled, relieved.

“This way, if you please, Ms Granger,” Snape said from the doorway. The Lestranges stood behind him, sombre. He disappeared around the corner at a brisk pace; his familiarity with the house allowing him to navigate it easily, even in its imposing gloom. Hermione stumbled behind him, hands out around her as she tried, and failed, to keep from bumping into cloth-covered furniture in the dark, and scaring herself whenever she came upon a mirror reflecting her image, but in a ghastly, unnatural way.

Further back, Hermione saw light escaping from behind two large double doors, and as they approached, there were many voices, seemingly in argument. Professor Snape turned the handle, pushed the door open, and the sound amplified so that Hermione flinched.

The house was a decoy, Hermione realised suddenly. There was an entire separate house attached on the back, likely using wizard space, and the main manor hid it from anyone with a notion to explore. Snape directed the Lestranges to the side as he ducked in, and Hermione followed at a cautious pace.

A sudden jolt of magic struck her at once: her breath rushed from her lungs at the same time as her skin burned and stung and throbbed with a pain she would not have ever been able to imagine without having experienced it herself. She struggled to breathe, but a hand came down on her chest and shoved her backwards, choking her further.

She landed hard on her bum, and it was over. “W—what?” she choked out. Hermione raised her hand to her chest as she struggled to regain her breath.

“Stupid girl!” Snape snarled down at her. “Weren’t you listening? I told you to wait outside the doors.”

“I—I didn’t hear,” she gasped. Her breath was coming easier now, but her body still trembled from the aftershocks. There were five or six more faces looking down on her now, most hooded, though she recognised Voldemort and the old man who’d spoken to him in France. “Sorry,” she mumbled as she stood.

“I’d imagine so,” Voldemort drawled. “You see, you must have a Dark Mark to pass through the doors, Ms Granger. That can be easily fixed, though. I presume you have decided to proceed?”

Hermione nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Yes, my lord, in a moment,” Snape said, sneering unkindly. She pursed her lips and ignored him, knowing it was his way of saying ‘Are you really quite certain, you moron?’

Hermione raised her chin. “Yes, my lord.”

“Very well,” Voldemort said, raising his wand.

“Wait!” Hermione said. All of those anonymous faces were still looking at her, and she felt exposed, not to mention that she’d come with a list of questions to ask beforehand. “In front of all these people?” There was a smattering of quiet laughter from the hooded Death Eaters.

“It’s a ceremony,” the old man said, bored with the whole ordeal.

“Meant to be seen,” Snape added viciously.

Hermione glared at him, said, “Well, I’m not letting you see me undressed!”

“Oh, I see,” Voldemort said. “You wished to take advantage of a less prominent Mark. Very well. We shall retire to a more private area.” To the hooded men, he added, “Yaxley, please see that our guests are comfortable; Severus, you may direct the misses Lestrange to the main library to wait until their parents arrive.”

He turned back, and studied her face for just a moment. Then, he nodded, and set off back the way they came, turning down a side corridor where there was a closed door. He unlocked it with a whisper, and the oil lamps lit as the door swung open. Hermione stepped inside, suddenly feeling cold.

Hermione reached into her robes and pulled out the Ravenclaw diary. “I brought this for you to read,” she said, handing it over. “It’s Harry’s. You’ll give it back to him, won’t you?”

Voldemort flipped reverently through the pages. “Of course,” he said, without looking up. After a moment, his forehead creased in perplexity, and, without a wand, he cast a series of spells over the book. Suddenly, he laughed. “The late Rowena was quite clever indeed, was she not? It appears that even you have partially succumbed to the hex she placed on this diary.”

“So, it is authentic, then?” Hermione asked. She’d thought so—all of her diagnostic spells had confirmed as much—but, absurdly, she found she trusted Lord Voldemort’s conclusion more so than her own.

Voldemort looked at her strangely. “Perhaps it has affected you more than I thought,” he murmured. “Yes, Ms Granger, the book is authentic. It is something I once longed to have in my possession, but I was never able to locate it. And that is perhaps because of the very nature of its defensive spells. Ravenclaw hexed this diary to seem most uninteresting to all that read it—most likely the reason I’ve never been able to get wind of its location; no one was bothered enough to remember it.”

Voldemort slipped the book into his pocket. “Now, I believe we have business to attend to. I really must be getting back before the prisoners start arriving.”

“I was wondering,” Hermione said without preamble, “how this might affect any future...engagements I might like to enter into?”

“How many do you expect to have?” Voldemort asked dryly, shutting the door behind him. It echoed loudly in the empty room.

“Just one,” Hermione said, blushing. “I mean—perhaps. He hasn’t said.”

The Dark Lord smirked. “For all you’ve learned,” he said softly, “you know so little.”

“Pardon?” Hermione asked. She was quite unsure as to whether she should be insulted or not, but was leaning heavily towards offended.

“I, too, did not understand the nuances of wizarding social practises when it was most important. I urge you to endeavour to learn and understand such things, Ms Granger, or you may find that you end up alone. It is a mistake I am very familiar with, and it has, regrettably, haunted me for me ever since.”

“Pardon?” Hermione said again, but she was waved off. Voldemort did not look directly at her, and she began to feel awkward in the following short silence.

“To answer your question,” he said a second later, “your Mark will not hinder any marriage plans, unless you wished to complete the Last Marriage bond—which I strongly recommend against,” he added, eyes narrowed. “No matter what he or his family might tell you, Ms Granger, marriage bonds are not necessities, and are frowned upon in polite society.”

“I—well, I don’t recall Theo ever mentioning any sort of thing,” Hermione said. “What’s wrong with it, that bond? Is it dark magic? I’ve never heard of it.”

Voldemort laughed, and it echoed faintly in the tiny room. “Not as such,” he said, and said no more of it. “Have you decided upon a location?”

She remembered the Dark Lord’s chilling words from the other day, and held back a shiver. Her wand was heavy in her sleeve, and she knew many spells, but none of them would do her any good here, against Voldemort, anyway, so she tried not to worry overly much.

In a few moments, this would be over with, and hopefully Snape would tell her how to get back to the castle right away; she didn’t think she’d been able to wait for the twins to conclude their visit. She wanted to get this over with—to get away from this terrifying, towering wizard who could perform Legilimency without a wand—she’d felt him probing subtly around ever since he’d made eye contact with her—and who knew what else he could do?

She’d considered the placement carefully; his suggestion was not even considered. In the end, as she’d slipped out of Theo’s bed early this morning—only to go through the door into her room, and then the door into the Gryffindor common room from there—he’d smiled at her sleepily, and she’d remembered his claim of having had brackets put on his teeth by her parents.

“The roof of my mouth, please,” she said at last. No one would ever have a chance of seeing it there except her parents, and she could easily hide it from them—though they wouldn’t even know what it meant.

Voldemort’s eyebrow hitched up. “I was given to understand you wished it somewhere more private.”

“I don’t show just anyone the inside of my mouth,” Hermione said, and instantly regretted it. Her hands flew up, covered her mouth, and her eyes went wide. “I’m sorry, sir, I’m just nervous.”

“As you should be,” Voldemort said, lips pursed. “Ms Granger, may I remind you that I am extremely busy today? I’ve got free men breaking into a prison at this very moment to put port-keys in breakfast porridges. Once inmates start porting into my drawing room, I’m going to be even busier ensuring my men make it safely back out of Azkaban, and corralling hundreds of frightened, panicked, desperate murderers, rapists, thieves and, more importantly, Dementor dinners. For the foreseeable future, until every last Dementor in Europe eats and breeds, I will have not a single free moment. What, Ms Granger, may I ask, has prompted you to take up so much of my time if you do not, in fact, need to remove any clothing to complete this procedure?”

Hermione, by now, had backed up several steps. “I—didn’t want Snape to know where it was; I don’t trust him.”

“Don’t trust him!” Voldemort exclaimed nastily. “My dear, sweet mudblood, I assure you, Severus Snape is on your side! No matter what side you, yourself, are on, in fact! It matters not to him!”

“I figured,” Hermione said. She stood her ground, though she was shaking all the way through, and she ached more and more with each passing moment to retrieve her hidden wand. “But I’d rather not anyone know, just the same. Not even Harry. Or Theo.”

This gave the Dark Lord pause. “Hmm,” he said. He waved his hand between them and a series of glowing blue symbols appeared in the air. They counted down in no discernable manner. “Very well. Let’s do hurry, Ms Granger, as you can see, time is of the essence. Open your mouth.”

Hermione did. She closed her eyes, too, but it only made her more aware of how cold and calloused the Dark Lord’s fingers were when he pressed them against the roof of her mouth. His nails were long and they scraped against her throat. She coughed, surprised and frightened, and struggled to move, but Voldemort used his other hand to hold her head still. She whined, but he spoke, and his voice drowned hers out with ease.

The words he spoke were not English and not Latin, nor any form of Romance language at all. Nor were they Slavic or Germanic, or, in fact, any recognisable Indo-European language, which made their harsh vowels and scraping consonants even more frightening when she was restrained and a dark wizard was casting a spell on her.

Then she was on fire. Her whole body burned and burned and burned. It reached to her fingers and toes and burned, and when it had burned them up, it travelled inwards, flared in her belly, then her heart, up her neck and converged on her mouth with a final burst of agony. She screamed; it was muffled around Voldemort’s fingers, and then it was over. She collapsed.

“Not my first mudblood Death Eater,” Voldemort said as he, ironically, reached down to help her up, “but certainly the most refreshing. Welcome to the fold, Ms Granger.”

Hermione steadied herself on wobbly legs. She tongued the top of her mouth, but could feel nothing—no raised, scarred mark, no heat, no pain—nothing. “Th—thank you, Lord.”

Voldemort looked at her speculatively. “I have made something for you,” he said. He retrieved an object from his robes and handed it to her. “You may use it to further your research during these trying times, where I will most likely be unable to assist you.”

“What is it?” Hermione asked warily. It was very unassuming, but she knew better than that. It was round and flat—metallic and heavy like brass.

“A fetch-key,” he said. “And quite an intelligent one, if I may say. You need not even know the name of the reference you wish to fetch, only the information it could provide. It will work on any book in existence or once-archived, and if you press it to an empty painting, it can temporarily retrieve portraits as well.”

Hermione’s eyes went wide. What a magnificent gift. “It’s just like a port-key, then?” she asked. “I just say ‘fetch this’ or ‘fetch that’ and it will come?”

“Yes,” Voldemort said. “And in addition, it will take you to me when I summon you, and return you to Hogwarts when you’re finished. ‘Port’ to me; ‘Port Hogwarts’ for the school—you will be returned to an empty, unmonitored part of the castle—I dare say you will learn your way about the more disused portions of the castle in no time at all.”

Hermione nodded. “Thank you.”

“Do not lose it,” Voldemort said harshly. “Now, be on your way. I have much to do.”

She did not need to be told twice. Hermione cleared her throat, and said shakily, “Port Hogwarts.” She hoped that Theo would be at breakfast by the time she got there; she needed to speak to him right away.

ɤɣɤ

The breakouts were made early enough that the Daily Prophet scrapped their front page exposé on Drusilla Fudge’s vicious divorce from former Minister, Cornelius, and instead had a field day with the fact that an Azkaban guard had handed Bellatrix Lestrange her morning sludge, and she’d taken a bite, and disappeared right under his nose. The Auror office was unavailable for comment.

Harry folded the paper up—it had arrived for Hermione a few moments earlier, but she wasn’t back yet and he was beginning to worry. It had been three hours now that she was gone.

“Where’s Hermione?” Ginny asked, sitting down next to him.

Harry shrugged, and passed the paper to her. “She probably shacked up with Nott last night,” he said, stalling.

Ginny shook her head as she scanned the front page, a look of shock forming on her face. “No, I saw Nott this morning in the library. Alsace wasn’t in our room when I woke up, either. Do you think it’s got anything to do with this?”

Harry grimaced. “I don’t know.”

Ginny turned to him, and hissed, “Harry, are you saying you didn’t know this—,” she stabbed the front page, “—was going to happen? I thought you had a connexion.”

Harry frowned. He’d forgotten about that in his worry. “Well, yeah, but it’s not like he tells me everything, is it?”

Ginny’s eyes narrowed to slits. “You’re up to something, and what’s more, you don’t trust me enough to tell me, or even keep your stories straight. Well, that’s fine, Harry; you keep your stupid secrets,” and with that, she stomped off to sit next to Dean, who was not in the least put upon.

Hermione walked in at that moment, quite composed, if one ignored the harried expression on her face. She glanced towards the Slytherin table only for a second, and then hurried towards Harry. Fortunately, Dumbledore and the other professors were absent from breakfast to see this unusual event—probably due to the grim affair all over the papers.

“Harry,” Hermione said, taking Ginny’s empty spot. She paused to glance over the newspaper in front of her, and then made a tiny little noise in the back of her throat. Her fingers clenched.

“Did you really do it?” Harry interrupted. He couldn’t even look at her because his stomach was so knotted up over it.

She nodded briskly; his stomach tightened, but he forced himself to calm down. It was done with now. Nothing he could do about it for five years or more. “Those poor Lestrange girls are still there,” she said quietly. “I can’t stand it. He was awful, Harry—and it hurt. So badly. I—,”

“You shouldn’t have done it,” Harry said tersely.

Hermione glanced at him, and he looked up, caught by surprise. She was crying. He grabbed her arm, and said, “Let’s go.”

She followed easily, and when, across the hall, Harry saw Nott stand up and crane his neck towards them, a confused expression on his face, he nodded, and Nott followed. Outside the Great Hall, Hermione slumped against a wall.

“Are you okay?” Harry asked.

“Hermione!” Nott called, running up. Malfoy was behind him, and Harry was surprised to find he was thankful for it. He needed the easy camaraderie they’d developed lately to take the edge off the strangeness of Hermione with a Dark Mark. It was so absurd—he wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t because right now, tears were running down Hermione’s face, and she was refusing to tell even Nott anything.

“Malfoy,” Harry said, nodding. Malfoy nodded back, brows scrunched and arms crossed as he watched Hermione. Seeing Nott with his hands all over Hermione made Harry remember the night before, and he shivered, thinking of how different Malfoy had looked sprawled out on the cold grass.

“Hermione,” Nott was saying frantically. He towered over her, but the way she was hunched in on herself made him look that much bigger, and her, that much smaller. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” she was saying.

Nott looked so frantic and panicked, that Harry couldn’t help but notice: Nott really loved her, Harry realised, and felt a bit sad that he’d not seen it sooner, or that he’d didn’t have anyone who felt that way about him. Hermione still wouldn’t answer; Nott stopped, at a loss, and turned to Harry. “What did you do?” he asked desperately.

“Nothing!” Harry said.

Nott snarled; his fists clenched. “The greatest weapon a Slytherin has is his loyalty, Black. You’ve had mine so far.”

Harry’s mouth parted slightly. “What?” he said, confused. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy’s face contort with shock. The blond cast a Notice-Me-Not around the four of them, and Harry’s sense of disorientation intensified. “I didn’t do anything to her!” he said again. “Hermione’s my best friend. I told her not to do it.”

Nott snarled, but Hermione intervened, “Theo! Harry didn’t do anything,” she said, sniffling. “It’s not that.” Nott turned back to her immediately.

“Then what, Hermione?” he begged.

Hermione shook her head quickly, and took off down the hall, towards the nearest of her suite entrances. Harry made to follow, but Nott cut him off quick enough. “No,” he said, “leave her alone until I find out what’s wrong,” he said, and took off after her.

Harry found himself left standing with Malfoy. They regarded each other. After a moment, Malfoy smiled at him, though it was cautious. “Why’s she upset?” he asked.

Harry shrugged. “I already said I didn’t know. She did it, though,” he added pointedly.

Malfoy frowned. “She’s going to have a hard time hiding it during Herbology,” he said.

“I don’t think she got it there,” Harry said, recalling their conversation with Voldemort in France. “He offered her other options.”

Malfoy’s eyebrows hitched up. “Generous of him,” he said. “He must think quite highly of her for that; to wear the Mark is an honour for Death Eaters, and he doesn’t usually allow it anywhere else. It’s supposed to make you a better Death Eater by increasing your awareness of your surroundings—since you’re always careful to hide it.”

“Right,” Harry said. He pursed his lips. Malfoy starting walking towards the dungeons and Harry followed. “What do you think of the breakouts this morning? I was surprised the newspapers were able to get it out so quickly.”

Malfoy shrugged. “Mum wrote this morning; she’s been so busy taking care of those orphan brats that they can’t get to the orphanage that she hadn’t even known about it, like I suspected. She’s upset about her sister, but I’m relieved that she’s taking it as well as she is.”

“I’m sorry for your mum,” Harry said.

“But not for my aunt, I reckon,” Malfoy added, smirking a bit.

Harry shrugged his shoulders, unrepentant. “Sorry, no. I don’t care for your aunt much.”

Malfoy sighed. “To be honest, I don’t either. She’s not right in the head, not anymore, and I think my mum mourns the sister she grew up with more than the woman dying soon.” He shivered suddenly, and added, “But it is a gruesome way to go, isn’t it? My father said that the Dementors will be so hungry after not having eaten for so long that they’ll probably tear the first hundred apart in the frenzy.”

Harry grimaced. “Thanks, Malfoy.”

Malfoy grinned over at him. “Anytime, Black.”

“Not Potter?” Harry asked, surprised. “You always call me Potter.”

Malfoy smirked. “I feel like I should call you by your proper name after yesterday.”

“That would be Harry, then,” Harry said, grinning. They were stopped in front of an unused potions classroom, and he took a step forward, backing Malfoy into the room.

“I’ll never call you that,” Malfoy said then. He was smiling, and Harry noticed that his lips were redder than normal. “Wouldn’t be right, after all these years.”

“After all these years?” Harry said with a laugh. He had Malfoy pressed against the desk now, and he leaned forward, pressing their lips together. Malfoy’s mouth tasted sweet, and metallic, and Harry moaned to taste him again. Now that he’d had him once, he realised he wanted him even more. He pulled away, gasping. “So we can change enough to mess about in each other’s trousers, but not enough to call each other by our first names?”

Malfoy’s eyes were half-lidded and wicked—almost the same look he’d had on his face in Potions at the start of term, when he’d nearly killed everyone with a sprig of mint. It wasn’t a murderous expression, though; it was something like nervousness, and a little bit of lust. Malfoy was so strange with his emotions, Harry thought, and he hid them well, because he’d learned early that he couldn’t keep his face blank, so he’d trained his expressions not to match his feelings.

After a moment, the blond said, “No one that knows me calls me Malfoy unless they’re angry with me, but you’ve always called me Malfoy, no matter what.”

Harry understood straightaway. He grinned, and leaned in to kiss Malfoy again. “All right,” he said, and that was all that was said for a long while.

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

Psychological Warfare: 1. The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behaviour of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives. 2. Attempts to influence the mind of the enemy rather than destroy its military..

ɤɣɤ

It was several days later that Harry received a summons to Dumbledore’s office, presumably to talk about his and Malfoy’s progress with de-cursing the ring, but when he got there, Malfoy wasn’t anywhere to be found. Dumbledore motioned him to a chair.

“Sherbet lemon, Harry?” he asked. Harry declined. "How are you and Ms Granger getting along without Mr Weasley? Professor McGonagall mentioned to me that you escorted her from the Great Hall the other morning after she burst into tears. I hope that she’ll be alright.”

Harry looked away, unable to meet the Headmaster’s eyes. “She’s taking it harder than I thought, but we’re going to visit over hols. I think she’ll be fine once she sees Ron’s still okay.”

Dumbledore nodded, and clasped his hands together on top of his desk. “And how are you, Harry?” he asked. “You have always been so close to Mr Weasley.”

Harry shrugged. “I’m okay. I wrote him several times, but he didn’t write back ‘til the other day. I think he was embarrassed—didn’t think I’d like him anymore, but he was wrong. He’ll always be my best friend.”

Dumbledore nodded, smiling slightly. “You seem to have resolved most of your differences with Mr Malfoy, as well. The faculty reports that your disturbances in their classes have nearly disappeared.”

Harry felt his cheeks heat. “He’s not as stupid as I figured,” he allowed, and Dumbledore gave a short burst of laughter. “He figured out that the ring’s not cursed, too. It’s got a pulse.”

The Headmaster’s bushy eyebrows lifted quickly. “How did he discern that?”

“Accidentally,” Harry said. “He was wearing the ring when he was trying to see if Goyle’s hamster was alive. He cast a pulse-checking spell on it, but the heartbeat came from the ring instead of the hamster.”

Much to Harry’s annoyance, Dumbledore did not seem as shocked and impressed by the news as he would have hoped. A niggling little thought in the back of his mind told him that the Headmaster had expected as much, but he stomped it down.

"And have the two of you come up with any ideas as to how to...hmm, disenchant it? I hope that you are being cautious; I myself fiddled with it over the summer and got quite a nasty shock on my hand. Fortunately, Professor Snape was nearby with some dittany—I really don’t know what I would do without his excellent services. I then decided that it would be better left to a young, fresh mind.”

Harry fought a smile. Batty as ever, Dumbledore was. Just as casually, Harry said, “We’re going to feed it to a Dementor. I expect there will be some around soon enough,” he added, this with a darker tone.

Dumbledore frowned. He looked weary all of the sudden, and Harry felt a sudden pang of sympathy—the Headmaster meant well, and he was doing all he could to prevent a Dementor massacre; it was just that this was not a problem he should have been handling. It required a stronger stomach, and weaker morals. Harry wanted Dumbledore’s plan to corral the beasts to work—but he didn’t think it would, and Voldemort would be there when it failed.

“I never would have thought of that,” Dumbledore said after some moments. His eyebrows twisted thoughtfully, and he sighed. “It is gruesome, isn’t it, Harry?”

Harry shrugged. “Whoever’s in there has probably been in there long enough that they won’t even realise it. If they aren’t insane, they will be soon.”

“Still, a terrible fate to push on a soul,” Dumbledore said. “I admit I am not aware of what sort of experience eternity inside of a Dementor provides.”

Harry shrugged, feeling guilty all of the sudden. “Hermione says that studies have shown that only the actual Kiss is painful, and once you’re inside, you don’t even know it...and anyway, she said that all the souls are released when the Dementor dies so that they can be reborn again. We could just kill it afterwards.”

The Headmaster frowned again. “Kill it? They are indeed terrible beasts, but is it our right to take their lives for behaving as nature intended them?”

“Oh,” Harry said sheepishly. “I—I guess I just don’t like them much,” he said. All of the sudden, his feet looked very interesting to him. He could feel Dumbledore’s heavy gaze on him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look up.

“You still hear your mother?” Dumbledore asked softly. Harry shrugged. He hadn’t been around a Dementor in several years; he had no idea what he heard. The Headmaster sighed, said, “I think that your idea, gruesome as it is, is the best one we will have, Harry. It is my opinion that we act upon it as soon as possible. With your consent, we will make plans to do so when the Dementors...begin.”

“Really?” Harry said, looking up. He knitted his brows together, confused. Now that Dumbledore had pulled it apart, he felt like it was a terrible idea, and his stomach churned guiltily just thinking about it. Even at the beginning, Harry had suspected this ring was more important that Dumbledore made it out to be, but now he was sure of it. A simple school project would not have warranted such a reaction.

Dumbledore might as well have been reading his mind—though Harry knew for certain that he wasn’t—for his next words were, “I’m sure you have realized by now that I put this project to you for a purpose.”

Harry nodded. Dumbledore continued, “I believe that this silent stand-off we have with Lord Voldemort will soon come to an end. It is entirely unlike him to be so quiet, and I believe that we can expect something from him soon.”

Harry bit his lip, remembering the prophecy and the painful, sticky situation it put him in. “And I’m going to have to fight him,” he said dully. Dumbledore mistook his bland response for fear or apprehension, and Harry did not labour to correct him.

The Headmaster’s look was sad when he said, “I am afraid it will be so.”

“But—I haven’t even been trained to fight,” Harry exclaimed. He was suddenly angry; he was expected to kill a madman—Voldemort’s actual level of madness notwithstanding—and no one had thought to teach him any standard dueling spells or strategies. What if he'd really needed to kill Voldemort? What if his life had really depended on it? He would have been a sitting duck, he realized, and the realization made him furious. Again, Dumbledore mistook his reasoning.

He smiled, though it was barely visible behind his beard. “You already have the power to defeat him,” Dumbledore said. “And you’ll soon have the knowledge.”

“And what knowledge is that?” Harry asked shortly.

“How to destroy something evil without letting it destroy you,” Dumbledore said. He waved his wand once over his hand, and showed Harry his palm. The image of healthy skin melted away, leaving nothing but black and blistered sores—dead and decaying as if taken over with gangrene. “When the ring first came into my possession, there was an actual curse upon it, and its removal required a sacrifice,” he said steadily.

“I considered removing the soul inside it myself; I thought that perhaps it was too dangerous for you to handle; after all, look what it did to my hand...and what it will continue to do until it has consumed me utterly—but then I remembered what happened last year, and I realized that you are already strong enough, and that it won’t do to shelter you from this storm.

“Knowing how to free the soul from this ring will give you all the knowledge you need to defeat Lord Voldemort, Harry.”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said. He thought briefly that the soul inside was somehow Voldemort’s, and that Dumbledore meant killing it would kill Voldemort, but he quickly brushed that idea aside—Voldemort’s soul was obviously inside his body; how could it be inside the ring as well? “Someone evil’s inside the ring?” he asked instead. He remembered, vaguely, Hermione mentioning something about Dumbledore, and asked, “Is it Grindelwald?”

Dumbledore chuckled, but the sad twist of his mouth was not hidden by his beard, and Harry knew there was more to it. “No, I’m afraid not. Gelert Grindelwald is quite dead, and never to return.” He replaced the glamour over his hand with a careless wave, and leaned forward intently. “I told you that I would not shelter you, Harry, and I do mean that, but you must understand that I cannot say any more until you have mastered Occlumency. Your father tells me that he talked with you about it, and that you’ll have it mastered after the holidays. When I am satisfied that Voldemort cannot break into your mind, I will tell you the rest.” The look on his face was hopeful, and Harry, in a grand attempt at being mature, nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll practice really hard,” he said earnestly. Then added, “My dad’s got to be a better teacher than Snape. I bet it’ll be easy.”

Dumbledore laughed again, and when he reached into the little glass dish on his desk to retrieve another sherbet lemon, Harry knew that everything would be okay. “I think that you may return to your studies now, Harry. I appreciate you allowing me to take up your time.”

“Sure,” Harry said, standing. He felt a lot better about the whole ordeal than he had before. “So, you’ll just let me know...when it’s time?”

“Most certainly.”

Harry nodded, and headed towards the door. “Oh!” Dumbledore called out. “One more thing, Harry.”

“Yes, Headmaster?” he asked.

Dumbledore looked at him earnestly. “I want you to remember, Harry, that you have one great thing that Voldemort does not—love. He has never known love, and so he can never truly win. Remember to keep love around you, Harry, and you will never be defeated.”

Harry nodded and smiled, but as he descended the spiral staircase, he thought that that wasn’t true. Dumbledore was wrong. Voldemort had known love; once, he had loved someone, and even if she hadn’t loved him back, someone else did. Because the truth of the matter was that in some tiny, careless, hidden part of him, Harry loved the Dark Lord—because he understood him and was understood in return. The truth was that love was often stupid and reckless, and it disregarded fears and ethics, and often even common sense.

He wondered—could Voldemort ever truly be defeated, then?

 

ɤɣɤ

Sirius’ hands shook as he turned the door handle at the Happy Dementor. Inside, Remus was waiting for him. After all this searching, Remus had found him first. After all these months, Sirius had found Moony only by the werewolf’s shabby owl finding Sirius first.

The pub was mixed muggle and wizarding, which was a bit strange since the walls were covered in still pictures of actual Dementors, all tinted bright, happy, pastel colours and swirling around as if they hadn't a care in the world. What couldn't be seen, however, was the terrified, stupefied, bound and chained person trapped underneath them, and the strange foggy smoke rising from an unseen location below the photo wasn't just a campfire underneath a cloudy sky—it was a soul, being consumed by a monster.

Sirius shivered. Harry's latest letter had left him feeling twitchy just being in France. If he never saw another Dementor again, it would be too soon, and he'd just as soon portkey back to England.

It was dark inside with a heavy layer of cigar smoke lingering near the ceiling. A barman was polishing a glass with jerky twists of his wrists, and didn't seem to notice Sirius enter. He had to wave at the man twice before he even bothered to look, but after that it was only a matter of pouring Sirius his ale.

Beer in hand, Sirius took a deep breath and turned around. And Moony was there—at a table in the far corner, frozen between sitting and standing, as if he couldn't make up his mind. His gold eyes were wide and feverish, and about the only thing Sirius could even make out in the late afternoon gloom, but then his mouth parted slightly, and he glanced down for only a second, and when he glanced back up again, a second pair of eyes looked up, too.

Sirius stood frozen, stuck between fear at being caught—by whom? By Death Eaters? By his last friend? By anyone; he didn't know, anymore—and the guilt he felt all the time, and he couldn't decide on just one reason.

He heard a chair being shoved roughly back, and then his eyes focused properly, and he saw that the second pair of eyes belonged to a body, now standing, but still obscured by the shadows.

"Sirius," Remus whispered. His voiced was choked, and the poor chap looked nearly overcome with nausea. "You're really alive."

"I am," Sirius said, grinning cheekily, though he didn’t feel the bravado he showed. He rushed forward—bugger being so nervous and nancy, he thought—and wrapped his friend in a hug. Moony was strong, though, and Sirius was verily squashed by the force of the werewolf's arms around him. He wondered how many more times they would reunite like this before they finally got it right.

But then the second person removed himself from the shadows, and Sirius felt like crying and fainting all at the same time—because he'd spent the better part of two decades grieving over the death of his little brother, and now, here the bastard was, in the flesh. His cold grey eyes maybe a bit warmer, but that was probably the effects of whatever strange, devilish magic the wanker had used to keep himself alive. And stupidly, the only thing Sirius could think of at the moment was what in all seven hells his little brother—who'd slept with a stuffed dragon 'til fifteen—was doing here with a werewolf…because it would have been an understatement to say that Regulus Black was terrified of werewolves, and as a child often had nightmares of them gnawing him in half.

Sirius set his beer down, and punched him.

Regulus' head jerked sideways, and he raised his hand to touch his face, so Sirius took advantage of the opening and hit him in the gut, too. Reg doubled over, gasping, Moony rushed forward to steady him, and Sirius picked up his beer and took a seat on the other side of the table, hands shaking so badly that he worried he’d spill his drink, so he set it down again, and put them in his lap instead.

"A letter wouldn't have hurt," he said, by way of apology, though he wasn't sure to whom. Hands recovering slowly, he sipped his ale, and watched as Regulus lowered himself gently into the chair across. Remus hovered like a mother hen for a second or two before sitting down beside him.

"I meant to," Regulus answered after a moment. His voice sounded different—scratchier, maybe, rougher and calmer. Moony looked altogether too wretched to even string a sentence together. "But I waffled about what to say for a long while, and then it was…too late. They won't accept mail in gaol, you know."

Sirius shuddered. "I remember," he said shortly.

Remus cleared his throat, adjusted the collar of his jumper. "I thought you were dead," he said. "I saw you die—I…" here, he glanced at Regulus, looking both unsure and strangely heartbroken at the same time—"but then I came across Regulus, and I found out you weren't there, but I still—you were gone, and I thought you must’ve been really dead, and Regulus thought you were, too." Suddenly, he reached across the table and grabbed Sirius' hand, testing that he was real and alive. He pulled it back self-consciously after a second.

Sirius smirked, trying to look casual, but if his brother's silent, careful look was any indication, he failed miserably. He'd never been able to hide anything from Reg. "I owled you as soon as I got back in the country," he said instead. "Was the first owl I sent—but it came back, and then Snivelly warned me to…to fetch Harry, and everything was so busy that I couldn't—"

"What's wrong with Harry?" Regulus interrupted.

"Nothing," Sirius said, but he remembered his son's sorry state in May, and the hideous Muggles that did it to him, and clenched his fists together to keep from killing someone. He had spent the first month of their time together focusing only on Occluding the memories from his mind—to the point, in fact, that he'd regrettably been unable to focus on anything else. Harry was fine, he reminded himself constantly—and twelve more years in Azkaban for murder wouldn't help anyone. "He's fine."

"I saw him," Remus said, voice nervous. "With Hermione Granger. I don't know how it happened, but they were standing right next to," he paused to Muffliato their conversation, "to Voldemort and quite alright with the whole state of affairs. But I could only see them when He was touching me."

Sirius grimaced. "I know," he said. "Harry told me."

Reg narrowed his eyes. "Harry's consorting with the Dark Lord now?" he asked, sounding suspiciously like their Mum.

"Unfortunately," Sirius said. He shrugged, glanced down to watch his finger tracing the sweat-ring left on the table by his still-full mug of ale. "'Course I'd rather he make a deal with Voldemort than have to fight him. I'm sure you know all about that damned prophecy. It terrifies me to think of my son on the wrong end of an Unforgivable."

There was a stunned pause, and Sirius realised what he'd said a moment too late. Moony was the first to speak, saying, "It's true?"

"I suspected," Reg added, and Moony nodded thoughtfully. "He looked too much like Da for it to be a fluke." Then he grinned, and kicked Sirius's shin underneath the table. "You slag, you."

"It's true," Sirius agreed, eyes narrowed; that had hurt damn it. Then something occurred to him, and he couldn't help asking, "When did you meet Harry?"

But of course, he knew. He'd known all along, and he'd told this very theory to more than one person. Because the short of it was that he and Reg were so alike that Sirius could follow his scheming just as well as he could his own.

"You were me," he said instead. "You took my place when I was in America."

Regulus shrugged. "I needed something from the house."

"And ended up staying. All that time," Moony said, shaking his head ruefully. "He even smelled like you, Padfoot. I lived with him for a month, and didn't notice a thing."

"You were a bit suspicious when I didn't want to come with you for the full moon," Regulus offered.

"I thought you were miffed with me," Remus said, grinning. "You were so like Sirius, always stomping around in a strop."

Sirius rolled his eyes. He smiled at Moony, feeling happy, and for a second their old camaraderie was back, and everything was like being in fifth year again—before he nearly killed Snape for trying to kiss Lily, and Reg still spoke to him when Mum wasn't around. But then he remembered that there were Dementors out, and Lily was dead, and nothing would ever be the same again, even if he did have Harry now.

"I guess that's why I didn't smell it on you," Moony said a second later, and quite pointedly. "You were very good about covering your tracks."

Regulus ignored it, and haltingly, they began to relay the story to Sirius.

Moony started by telling of how Dumbledore sent him to ingratiate himself with the werewolves for information or leads, or anything really, and how he'd followed them aimlessly through three towns, accepted because he was a wolf, but completely uninteresting to them because he was English. They were looking for something, but they told him not what. It was in Calais that the pack ran across a second, and where he'd smelled Sirius all over them, but been unable to find him. So he joined with the second, and back at theirs, he'd found Regulus.

"He came right up to me and stabbed a finger into my chest like Mum used to when she caught us sneaking pasties before dinner," Reg said, laughing. He affected a high pitched voice and said, "'Who do you think you are!' he said to me."

"I don't sound like that," Remus laughed, and indeed he did not.

But then they became sombre, and Regulus was quiet for several moments before he continued. "I fooled everyone at Grimmauld because I was prepared. I knew a chap in America that was to alert me when you planned to come back to England, but before we left Hogwarts, I found that manky old book in the library at River House, and it had the blood rite that I used to become you after I…died.

"The truth is that I've been you for years, Sirius. I needed to die on the Tapestry, so I couldn't be Regulus Black anymore, and my first thought was that I'd rather be you, anyway." There was a moment where their eyes met and held, but it lasted only a moment, and then Regulus looked away, and Moony took several long swallows of his ale while staring at a lavender-hued Dementor photograph.

"Alright, Moony?" Sirius asked.

"Alright," he said. "I've just heard this all before, and I know how it ends." It wasn't a comforting statement. Regulus grimaced in agreement.

He said, "Lily Evans knew what I was planning, I think, because she'd made some sort of deal with Voldemort, but you knew that already, didn't you?"

Sirius shrugged, feeling profoundly guilty. "She did it to save you," he said hoarsely. He took a gulp of beer, but it did little to ease his strangled throat. "I was going to join to watch over you—because I thought you were stupid, and she knew that if I did, being surrounded by all the Old Magic would be the end of it, and I wouldn't even be able to save myself."

Reg's mouth opened in stunned surprise, and for a second, Sirius saw his own guilt mirrored on his little brother's face, and understood how Moony could have been fooled. "I never knew," he said. "I thought she was just being nice."

Even Remus gave him an incredulous look at that. "Nice?" he said.

"Well, whatever the case," Reg said—he paused and rubbed tiredly at his face. "I was past redemption—I guess I'll always be." He shook his head, looked at Sirius like he had a thousand things to say to him, and couldn't say them fast enough. "The thing is, I found something of the Dark Lord's that I shouldn't have found, and it was like a treasure map to something even more exciting, and I should have left well enough alone, but I didn't, and when the Dark Lord found out, he thought death would be too kind, so he came up with something better—something that would keep me with him, and remind me of my place."

Here, Remus shuddered visibly. "You're never going to tell me what it was that deserved such a terrible fate, are you?" he asked. It was obvious that he expected a 'no' and was quite resigned to it, though the slump of his shoulders suggested how heavily it weighed on him.

It all clicked into place quite suddenly for Sirius, and he now understood how Regulus was so at ease next to Moony—the truth of it hit him like a bludger to the head. He felt dizzy-sick with the thought of his terrified little brother, and how his heart must have beat like a snitch in fear.

"Werewolves," he murmured. Moony looked away; after a second, Reg nodded.

"I could smell the canine on him at Grimmauld Place," Moony said quietly. "If he hadn't been a werewolf, I might have noticed something because you've always smelled like canine. But then when I found him here in France, he still smelled just like you, but he looked like him."

"I've been taking a potion, trying to reverse the effects of the rite," Regulus explained. "It's not working though. I look more like I used to, but for all intents and purposes, I'm still you. I could even get into your Gringott's vault if I wanted to. Biologically, we're the same person—and sometimes I do regret it…my cock was bigger than yours."

Sirius gaped, Regulus smirked, and Remus looked away, face red. "It is not!" he said. "Mine's perfectly gargantuan."

Reg shrugged again. "Still smaller than mine."

Sirius threw several nearby coasters at him, though they tended to veer sharply before hitting his brother and most hit Moony in the nose, but it was okay, because everything was fine now—including the fact that his twice-dead brother was alive and Moony was, too.

“And I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Regulus continued when their laughter had subsided. He reached into his cloak and removed a pewter-grey Muggle cigarette lighter. “You remember these tacky old things?” he said, grinning. “Da gave them to us when we were lads. I don’t know where mine went, but I found Da’s a few weeks before I went to Grimmauld Place. His activates on being stunned! Can you believe the luck? I went to help Harry that night last year, and Bella was being such a hag that I couldn’t help taunting her—“

“You should’ve known better,” Sirius interrupted, heart pounding at the revelation he knew was coming. “She was always a better dueller than either of us.”

Regulus acknowledged the comment with a smile. He shrugged, and said, “You know me.” He flicked the lip of the lighter open and a tiny blue flame sprouted up. “Still, I’ll never say another word about Da making us look like fools carrying around Muggle nonsense. Bella’s stunner knocked me flat, and had Da’s port-key not activated right away, I would have flown right through that death-arch.”

He slipped the grey lighter, a perfect match to the two that Sirius and Harry carried, back in his pocket.

Sirius shook his head, grinning dumbly. He felt completely overwhelmed, and—how had he forgotten that there was a third port-key? But then—he turned to Remus, and said, “But if you knew that wasn’t me at the Department of Mysteries, and you knew no one went through the Veil, then why didn’t you come home once you found Reg? Or at least check in with Hestia at your last two rendezvous?

There was a heavy silence, filled only with the repetitive motion of Regulus’ finger as he traced the ring on the wooden table left by his mug, and Moony worried a loose thread on the hem of his sleeve. Finally, the silence was broken, but not by Remus. Regulus pursed his lips and gave Sirius a determined stare. “He doesn’t have to go back to England if he doesn’t want to. He’s fine here.”

“Here?” Sirius said dumbly.

“With me,” Regulus clarified.

Sirius’ eyebrows shot up. “With you,” he echoed hollowly. “...I didn’t know,” he said, then: “But both of you could come home to England. You were never charged with being a Death Eater, Regulus. There wasn’t even a huge fuss when—I mean, it wouldn’t be hard for you to just jump right back into society.”

Remus’ face was red, but he shook his head. “It’s not that simple,” he said.

“Of course it is,” Sirius said, happily latching onto the thought. “Harry and I are staying at River House; you stay there with us, both of you. Oh, and there’s even been some interesting things going on. You know the Smith family, right? Well Yasmin Smith is leading a crusade to have several day schools set up across Britain for magical children five to eleven, and the first one’s being built just across the Firth from River House. I donated the land to the school, and I think you and Remus, especially Remus, would—”

“No,” Remus interrupted. “No. I can’t come home, Sirius.” Without ceremony, he lifted the sleeve of his robe and held his arm out. The Dark Mark glared angrily back.

Apologetic and ashamed, he said, “It overrides the effects of the Change. It’s the bond. With the Dark Lord. It’s like Wolfsbane potion but without the pain. And it allows me to keep my own mind when I’m changed—I’m always aware of who I am now, and I won’t give that up.”

“You’re having me on,” Sirius said, after a moment. He glanced between the two of them, mouth twitching. “Remus, you? Never! Tell me, lads, what’s the real story?”

“That is the real story, Sirius,” Regulus said.

Moony looked away. “I was ashamed; that’s why I’ve stayed here with Regulus.”

“Is that the only reason?” Regulus muttered angrily.

“Of course not!” Remus said quickly. “You know it’s not.” He turned back to Sirius and said, “But I can’t come home, Padfoot. Not now—not yet.”

“No, I don’t want any of us to be anywhere near England when the Dementors set on it,” Regulus said.

“But you’ll be bait, wont you?”Sirius asked them. “Because of how werewolves can resist the effects of Dementors.”

“Not bait,” Regulus said, exasperated. “But who else would you suggest to corral them in the feeding chamber? Are you going to do it? What about Harry, can he do it? Or do you think Dumbledore has few enough fears to be able to handle a swarm of five hundred or more?”

“Someone has to do it,” Remus added. “The Dark Lord’s modelling his procedure after one they used in China a thousand years ago—it was their most successful method, so we’re hoping for the best, and the Dark Lord understands that it’s dangerous. He appreciates us, Sirius, and we’re willing to do it.”

“Of course you are,” Sirius muttered. “Obviously you’re both so important to the Dark Lord that he can’t spare you for a moment.”

Regulus rolled his eyes. “No, we’re not. No one is important to the Dark Lord like that, Sirius, but he does appreciate the severity of the situation, and we’re not just cannon fodder here. I, for one, have paid my dues many times over—many full moons over, whether the Mark saves me from the effects or not—and it has earned me the Dark Lord’s ear. In fact, Sirius, it was my idea, you know? I did the research and I suggested this solution, along with so many others you and the rest of the wizarding world have seen, like the orphans.”

“The orphans?” Sirius asked. “The muggle-borns?”

“Of course them, Padfoot,” Remus interjected. “Stay on track here.”

“I am on track, Moony, I am!” Sirius took a deep breath. “But I’m also overwhelmed, and shocked, and confused, and scared that my kid, my friend, my dead-brother and all the wizarding world are going to be limp, soulless shells, and I’m goddamned terrified of Dementors—so just shut up and let me fucking process it.”

“Process it,” Moony repeated slowly.

“Yeah,” Regulus said. “It’s a lot to take in.”

Sirius leaned his head in his hands. “I’d much rather take in a Quidditch game.”

Two gasps sounded from across the table, and he looked up. Moony and Regulus clutched their forearms and gritted their teeth, but it was a hard feeling to hide. Sirius had seen the call of the Dark Mark too many times to not know it.

 

ɤɣɤ

“No one’s going to be interested in Quidditch when the Prophet prints something like that,” Ginny said. She strapped on her shin guards and gave Dean a pitiful look. “Who’s going to watch our game when they’re thinking about the paper?”

“Bit morbid of you to rank Quidditch over Dementors swarming the countryside,” Seamus put in.

Ginny gave him a snarly look over her shoulder. “I’m not,” she said. “And the Dementor’s aren’t. It’s only that I’m always nervous before games, and knowing no one cares is making it worse.”

She pulled her hair roughly into a knot and pursed her lips. “And I was hoping the scouts would come today, too. They usually come to the last game before holidays to find talent for spring tryouts—but of course they won’t be here if some batty old Arithmancer has decided that the Dementors will breed in the spring.”

“It’s a bit scary, though,” Dean said, shivering. “My mum wrote last week about the weather being dreary at home—do you think it has anything to do with Dementors?”

Seamus rolled his eyes. “The weather’s always dreary in London,” he said.

Especially dreary,” Dean clarified. He turned to Harry. “Do you think it’s the Dementors, Harry?”

Harry looked up, distracted. “Hmm?”

“Of course he doesn’t think it’s the Dementors,” Ginny said. She glanced at him, and added, “Right, Harry?”

“Oh right,” Harry said. “No, I mean the Prophet said they wouldn’t start until the spring, right? So there’s nothing to worry about until then.”

“Well, then what’ll happen, d’you think?” Seamus asked.

Harry shrugged, but Ginny saw the tenseness of his shoulders. “Dumbledore’s got a plan, I’m sure. I mean really—just have to stay out of the way of them, I’d say. Let them go on with their creepy business and lock the doors ‘til they’re done.”

Luna’s voice cut through the air as she called for the attention of the spectators and welcomed them to the game. Ginny felt her stomach roil, and forced herself to take several deep breaths. Why she was so especially nervous today she couldn’t say, but she was used to being nervous and she would deal with it. “Well, that’s us,” she said, as Luna called for the teams to enter the pitch.

They filed out of the locker room into the glaring sun, with the sharp sting of winter wind bruising their faces. Ginny shielded her eyes against the sun and scanned the crowd for any sign of a Harpies scout. No luck. At least it had stopped snowing.

Alsace stepped up next to her, broom in hand and quiet as the grave. Ginny glanced at her as she adjusted the contrast on her Sunglare charm on her eyes. “You okay, Al?”

Alsace gave her a pinched smile. “I do not feel my best today,” she admitted. She glanced up towards the Ravenclaw stands where Ginny was able to quickly pick Lorraine from the crowd—she was looking just as sullen as her sister, though neither of the girls were ever overly chipper.

Ginny pressed her palm to Alsace’s forehead, just the same as her own mother did to her whenever she had the slightest headache. “You don’t feel warm,” she observed.

“In this weather, I do not see how I could,” Alsace said.

Ginny laughed, and mounted her broom. Madam Hooch’s whistle sounded and Luna’s Sonorus’d voice was already chattering. “Well just make sure you’re paying attention today—I watched Ravenclaw practising earlier this week and their Beaters are really on their game.”

Alsace gave her a small smile, and before Ginny knew it, they were both a hundred feet in the air falling into the time-tested Warrior formation as if it were instinct. Ravenclaw’s Chasers zoomed towards them and Ginny’s nervousness immediately fell away in the face of action. She always worked well under pressure.

She sped between the forefront Chasers with Alsace spinning through on the other side, and they easily separated the Ravenclaw Beaters, giving Dean and Seamus opportunity to steal the Bludgers and swipe at the Chaser with possession. The Quaffle fell into Ginny’s hand and she sped towards the goals, looking for an opening.

She noticed the Ravenclaw Keeper’s mistake right away and set up her shot, but as she pulled her arm back and tightened her muscles for the release, something hard and heavy slammed into her ribs just below her extended right arm. She sucked in a great gulp of breath and felt the momentum of the Bludger forcing her forward. The Quaffle fell from her shocked fingers, and her head slammed forward into her broom handle.

Everything went black.

But only for a moment, and then she opened her eyes—just in time to realise that she’d blacked out for a moment and it felt as though several ribs were broken, and she was feeling dizzy so she tightened her grip on her broom handle—and screamed.

Her eyes went wide and she began to panic because oh my God she was on a broom in the air and she didn’t know how to fly at all. To her right, a girl was flying in with a strange look on her face, but she didn’t have time to process it at all before the light-headedness overwhelmed her, and she fainted. Lily’s fingers loosened from the broom handle and she slipped from the seat with all the limp gracefulness of a doll.

ɤɣɤ

Severus saw it the moment it happened, and he knew.

He knew his friend, too, and that was the only reason he had been quick enough with a Slow Fall spell to keep Weasley’s body from splattering on the frosted grass. She floated down in a rocking twirl like a leaf from a tree and landed on the pitch softly. Still, she’d been battered with an enchanted ball that weighed two stone, at least—there were no doubt internal injuries. Snape forced his way through the stunned crowd and was bending over her within moments, checking for vital signs.

“Broken rib,” Rolanda Hooch was saying as she poked it with her finger. Weasley moaned at the touch, and Snape winced. No one else would be able to tell that wasn’t Weasley’s voice—they would attribute it to pain or breathlessness or wouldn’t consider it at all because there was no reason to expect it was anyone else, but he knew that voice.

Dumbledore pushed through at that moment and said, baffled, “What did she say? Were you singing Severus?”

“Of course not,” he replied tersely, and Hooch guffawed. “She didn’t say anything.”

“Could have sworn I heard a C minor as I approached, “Dumbledore continued. He flicked his wand and a wooden stretcher appeared beneath the girl. “Would you be so kind as to direct Ms Weasley to the Infirmary, Severus?”

Snape eyed her critically. She would be fine—nothing a little Skelegrow couldn’t help—but he was shaken, and he used the time pretending to check her breathing to calm himself. It wasn’t really Lily up there; it was a Weasley, and Lily was dead. She would always be dead, even if she could somehow reach the living world for long enough to possess a body. It wasn’t the same as life. She was a ghost, like the Baron, and that’s all she would ever be.

He took a deep breath, tried to accept it. “Of course, Headmaster.” He sliced his wand through the air in two quick bursts and the stretcher rose, and followed him to the school. As he exited the pitch he could hear Ms Lovegood announcing Gryffindor’s reserve who would be filling in, but it went in one ear and out the other.

Poppy was waiting by the door to the Infirmary when he arrived, no doubt alerted to the situation by Dumbledore. “Broken rib?” she called to him.

“At least two,” he replied. He guided the stretcher gently through the doors and over to an empty bed, where he lowered her and banished the stretcher. “My diagnostics revealed several contusions—both internal and external as well.”

“Hmph,” Poppy said, drawing a series of runes over Weasley’s body in red and white light. “Children are absolutely ridiculous, the nonsense they get themselves into…and this one!—second time this year she’s ended up here.”

Snape stood and watched, arms crossed over his chest. Several moments passed with Poppy performing her diagnostics before she paused, and glanced at him as though she’d forgotten he was there altogether. “Aren’t you getting back to the game, Severus?”

“It’s Gryffindor and Ravenclaw,” he replied blandly, eyes remaining on the girl.

She quirked a small smile at him; he saw it from the corner of his eye, though he pretended not to notice. “The games are rather dull when one’s own house isn’t playing, aren’t they? I do try to attend the Slytherin games every now and again, but it’s hard for me to watch the children get beat around, imaging what sorts of internal injuries they’re getting, and after so many years here, I hardly feel an association to it anymore,” she said.

“Indeed.”

“That Harry Potter, though,” she continued, “he’s the worst one to watch. I just know I’ll be fixing something after he plays.”

Severus rolled his eyes. To busy himself from having to respond, he spotted the daily paper on her desk, where she’d left off doing the crossword, and flipped through it. The gaping maw of a Dementor wavered in front of him in terrifying detail, and he sneered at the headline, which read: ENGLISH ARITHMANTIST CALCULATES DEMENTORS WILL BREED SOON, CHINESE KNEW. Severus scoffed.

The infirmary doors flew open and Minerva stepped quickly in, mouth tense. She said, “I do say, Poppy, that this child intends to put me in an early grave—twice this year she’s fallen from a broom, and I’m of a mind to bench her. Will you check her head as well? I’m concerned she may be having seizures mid-flight.” She stopped at the edge of the bed and placed her hands on her hips.

Severus looked up.

“I’m doing it now,” Poppy replied.

“Well, good,” Minerva said, nodding. She saw Severus across the room and gave him a quizzical look. “Severus, why are you still here and not at the game?”

He rolled his eyes again. “I need not remind you of my detestation of Quidditch in general, and your house in particular, Minerva.” He snapped the paper open to separate them further and added, “Given the choice, which I have been, I would choose to spend my time in the company of one unconscious Gryffindor over team full of those that are awake.”

She was not to be deterred. “It’s taken them long enough to report on the Dementors,” she said. Poppy, accustomed to impromptu Order of the Phoenix discussions in her Infirmary, cast a perfunctory security spell on the door without even breaking her stride. “How long ago was it,” Minerva continued, “that you reported it to the Prophet, Severus?”

“Before term started,” he said. “Mid-August, if memory serves.”

Minerva scoffed. “Our society is self-destructive,” she said.

Severus did not remove his eyes from the article he was reading on Minister Scrimgeour’s alleged love affair with his assistant, Priscilla Weatherby, ‘a lovely redhead with deep blue eyes and a svelte frame’. He said, blandly, “I’m sure they wanted to check their references to ensure accurate reporting.”

“I’m sure,” Minerva replied. Poppy giggled and Severus hid a smirk behind his newspaper. She sighed and added, “I’ve already received two dozen calls this morning from parents. ‘Is Hogwarts safe?’ they want to know, and of course I tell them it is, but there’s only so much we can do.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Poppy said, finally speaking up. “Hogwarts has a Hecatomb, as I recall.”

Snape glanced over his paper to see Minerva nodding. “It does,” she said. “Albus and I reinforced it this summer, actually.”

Poppy glanced up. “With what?”

“Sheep,” Severus said, recalling the ward-casting—it had provided him with ample stock of ram rumen for his second year potions classes. “One hundred Scottish Blackfaces. I believe the Domestic Magic class is using the wool for their term project.”

“And the mutton I had for dinner Thursday last?” Poppy asked.

“Provided to you in the name of the greater good,” Severus answered.

Poppy shook her head, smiling. “Well I suspect that Hogwarts is quite safe with a Hecatomb from that sheep—the mutton was very tough, so the wards would be as well.”

“I do hope so,” Minerva said. Snape felt her approaching, and knew that she was reading the other side of his newspaper, where the open mouth of the Dementor glared out from beneath the headline that had caused uproar across the country. Her finger trailed across the back of his paper as she read aloud, “It says here that this is an occurrence that has never happened before, and that it was with great skill that Mister Simon Effleberry, Certified Public Arithmancer, discovered the equation that foretold the breeding.”

“I didn’t know you were certified, Severus,” Poppy put in. She’d moved on from red and white spells and was now performing a delicate weave of blues above Weasley’s head.

Snape lowered the paper. It was now obvious that neither woman would let him enjoy his moment away from screaming, bratty children. “The Headmaster knows someone who was able to file something for me.”

“Effleberry, though?” Minerva asked, lips quirked.

“Obviously I didn’t choose the name, either,” he said. “I only worked out the information that the Dark Lord provided me with in a formal report for the Daily Prophet.”

“Provided?” Minerva asked. “Surely, he…?”

Severus lowered the paper and sneered at her. “As odd as it may seem, he is of a like mind on this particular situation. I only do as I am told, Minerva.”

She waved a hand dismissively. “I wasn’t implying,” she said, “only surprised.” She took a step back and surveyed Poppy’s spell-work with a sigh. “Well, Poppy, anything to call for a benching?”

Poppy sighed, and paused her diagnostic with an Interim Spell. “There is an anomaly about her aura, but nothing actually wrong with her that I can find. I’ll continue to look, but I don’t see any reason for her to be having seizures, faints, or blackouts of any kind—have you considered that maybe she’s just been stressed over classes and distracted?”

Minerva harrumphed. “That’s enough reason to bench her as any.”

Snape would have agreed, but he didn’t have the chance. Dumbldore’s phoenix patronus flew through the wall of the Infirmary and stopped before them. It said, “The Dementors have disappeared from Azkaban, Kiljoy and Nurmengard. Kingsley Shacklebolt reports that the Ministry began a full search three hours ago, and have found no Dementors anywhere in Britain. I will call a meeting later this evening, so please empty your calendars.” Message delivered, the phoenix disappeared.

Minerva turned to him quickly, the stunned look on her face surely matching his own. “Is Voldemort—?”

“No,” Severus said before she could even finish asking. “He didn’t do this.”

 

ɤɣɤ

Hermione never thought about what being called by the Dark Mark would feel like. It happened after Quidditch. After Ginny’s replacement, Ravenclaw trounced Gryffindor without batting an eyelash—and she was waiting in the charmed warmth of the Gryffindor locker rooms for Harry to finish showering so they could go visit Ginny when she felt it: a dull throb in the roof of her mouth that increased steadily for several minutes as she wracked her brain for what to do about it.

When the locker room was clear, save for Alsace and Harry in their respective showers, she could take it no more. She hurried over to the entrance to the boys’ shower and called for Harry as loudly as she dared. Tonguing the roof of her mouth only helped so much, and it was beginning to become unbearable.

“It is happening, isn’t it?” a soft voice called from behind her. She turned around and found Alsace toweling off her hair with a red and gold towel. “The Dementors are feeding?”

“I don’t know,” Hermione said.

Alsace sat down on the bench and began lacing up her boots. “They did say my parents would be dying soon; your face is very red and your arms are shaking—you are being called by the Dark Lord, are you not?”

Hermione hesitated; she wasn’t entirely sure what she was being told to do by Voldemort, but she needed to find out soon before she passed out from the ache of it. “Maybe,” she finally said. “I don’t know.”

Harry came out from the showers and took one look at her before swearing loudly. “You too?” he asked stupidly. His scar was an angry red underneath the fringe of his hair, and he looked as though he were in as much pain as she was. The throb of the Dark Mark intensified and she gasped—had it always felt like this for him? How had he borne it?

“What do I do?” Hermione asked?

By now, Harry had one hand pressed hard against his forehead while the other clumsily did up the buttons on his trousers. “This is about the time,” he gritted out, uncaring of Alsace’s presence, “where I pass out and go to him.” He glanced at her, brow sweating, “But you’re here now, and we’ll have to actually go, I think.”

“We will?” she squeaked.

The locker room door opened and three Slytherins entered with their hoods drawn up, ostensibly against the cold. Draco was the first to drop his cowl once he saw that the locker room was deserted. After a moment’s hesitation, Pansy Parkinson and Blaise Zabini followed. Their mouths were pursed tightly, but they looked otherwise composed.

“Pansy and Blaise were called as we were leaving the Pitch,” Malfoy said by way of greeting. Harry looked entirely too relieved to see him, but restrained himself from running to Malfoy in front of his friends.

“What about Theo?” she asked.

“He’s not Marked,” Malfoy replied.

“Neither are you,” she said.

He only shrugged, and nodded his head towards Harry, now fully dressed. “I go where he goes.”

“You can’t,” Harry began to say, but Hermione was not interested in their relationship’s strange dynamics.

“Do you know what it’s about?” she asked instead, directing the question to all of the Slytherins.

“The Dementors, I am sure,” Alsace put in.

Pansy Parkinson shook her head. “They aren’t feeding today,” she said, and her voice sounded strangely soft and careful as she addressed the Lestrange girl.

“Can we just go before Granger passes out?” Zabini cut in. “Look how blotchy her face is—she’s about to faint.” And indeed Hermione felt very near to it; near enough, in fact, that she didn’t wonder or care how Zabini knew of her own Marking, or why that suddenly made her someone worth caring about.

“He’s right, where’s your fetch-key?” Harry asked quickly. His pain appeared to have lessened dramatically since Malfoy’s arrival, and she noticed that while both Parkinson and Zabini were tense, they were not suffering as she was.

“In my rucksack,” she said, and Harry immediately tore it open to find the little metallic ball. “Get my notebook, too—the one with the research in it.” He did, and a moment later, the four of them were gathered around Hermione and her fetch-key, as she tried to remember, through the pain, what the activation word was.

Alsace stepped up quickly and handed Parkinson a tiny vial with a cork lid. She said, “If you see my parents—will you remember them for me?” Parkinson pocketed the vial and nodded. Alsace turned to Harry. “I’ll take her things to Gryffindor and say that I saw you both walking towards the Astronomy Tower, if anyone asks.”

Nausea rose in Hermione’s stomach. Her mouth was on fire, and her brain was becoming hazy. Four sets of hands were holding her upright, and she was so light-headed—

Malfoy snatched the fetch-key from her fingers. “Port!” he said, and the world flipped inside out.

She landed harshly on frozen grass, somewhere south of Hogwarts. The pain in her mouth subsided so quickly that her stomach roiled, and she leaned over, and vomited in the grass. Parkinson stepped back quickly with a sound of disgust, but Zabini was quick with a Banishing spell.

“You okay?” Harry asked, pulling her up. He and Malfoy were busy pulling her black winter cloak over her school robes to hide her from the other Death Eaters popping into the clearing.

“I panicked,” she admitted. “It’s never happened before.”

“Of course not,” Parkinson said, gazing away as if she were not paying attention, and had not, in fact, noticed that Hermione was in the midst of a Death Eater meeting.

“Being called, I meant; not panicking,” Hermione clarified with a glare. She took a deep breath and shook the two men off her. “I can put my own cloak on, thank you,” she said to Harry.

“Just put your hood up,” he said. She did, making sure that hers, like theirs, hung down over her eyes as far as possible. Zabini and Parkinson wore Death Eater masks, but she was not the only one without.

“I am afraid,” a voice drawled from behind her, “that you have already been seen.” They turned, and Snape stared at them with an appraising eye. “Not that I didn’t already know you would be here, Ms Granger, but I must remind you to be absolutely vigilant from now on.”

“What’s going on?” Harry asked.

Hermione tried not to notice how close he and Malfoy were standing, and tried even harder not to wish that Theo was here as well. Her stomach flipped over again, and she fought to restrain the nausea. What had she gotten herself into?

ɤɣɤ

Chapter Text

HIGH TREASON (n): treason against the sovereign or state.

ɤɣɤ

 

Harry’s fingers weren’t touching Malfoy’s, but he could feel the warmth radiating from the Slytherin’s body, and in the frigid winter air, it was enough to calm him down.

“The Dementors have disappeared,” Snape said.

“As in, completely gone?” Malfoy asked. He kept his eyes focused on the ground and made sure that none of his signature blond hair showed.

Snape nodded curtly. “As in that, yes, Mr Malfoy. Now please, let us move this delightful little group to the pitch—I believe that is where the Dark Lord said he would be establishing the arena, and hopefully the warming charms.”

Parkinson was the first to fall into step behind Snape. “A pitch?” she asked. “Are we at a Quidditch stadium, Professor Snape?”

Harry and Malfoy fell back to ensure Hermione was fine—he’d never seen her react so badly to a port-key. Her face was flushed underneath her cowl, but her breathing was regular again, and she didn’t appear to be shaking any longer. “You okay?” he asked again.

His fingers brushed against Malfoy’s and he grabbed them, squeezed, and let them go just as quickly. He could see Malfoy’s lips quirking at the edges beneath his hood, but he didn’t dare do anything else to draw attention to them in this place. Their relationship would be perfectly fine among Purebloods, but that he was Harry Potter might not be. Public displays asked to be noticed, and he did not want to be noticed tonight.

“Fine,” Hermione answered.

Ahead, Zabini and Parkinson were walking next to Snape, and they caught up in time to hear Snape’s, “No, we are at a school, Ms Parkinson.”

“Which school?” Zabini asked, looking around. The other Death Eaters, having just arrived, were doing the same. “Is this one of the vocational schools? It doesn’t seem very familiar.”

“It is not,” Snape replied. “It’s new.”

“The Firth College for Young Wizards and Witches,” Harry said, realizing. “It’s the new one the Ministry approved in November. Look—you can see the firth through those trees there. We’re near Edinburgh.”

They crossed the barrier into the future Quidditch pitch, and Harry sighed. The warmth from the charmed air was enough to drain the last of the anxiety from him, and he felt calm, as he lately did, when he was called to the presence of the Dark Lord.

He quickly realized that it wasn’t his usual level of calm, and in fact, he felt entirely care-free and happier than he’d ever been. He was near to giggling—Hermione and Pansy already were—and Malfoy was looking so lovely in the pale light of gloaming that he made to kiss him right there.

Snape stopped him not a moment too soon. His fingernails dug into Harry’s shoulder as he forcefully pulled him and Malfoy away from one another. “Another time, please, gentlemen,” Snape said. “And do realize that you have just walked into a very strongly charmed circle of happiness,” he added caustically.

“Cheering charm?” Zabini asked, voice muffled behind his mask.

Snape tapped them all on the head with his wand—more harshly than necessary, Harry thought—and muttered a counter-spell. Immediately, the delirium subsided, and he was left feeling quite restless again, if at least warm.

“It would have to be much stronger than those,” Malfoy said, adjusting his robes. He looked not at all as if he’d come very close to snogging Harry in public.

“An Elation Enchantment,” Snape supplied.

“Oh!” Hermione suddenly said. Her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes grew very large. Harry followed her gaze and stopped short; Malfoy walked into him, and Harry shivered, but not from the warmth he radiated or the firm planes of his athletic figure, but from the construction before them. It was the Dementor arena.

“Surely,” Hermione began carefully, “he hasn’t built one here as well, has he, Professor?”

“No,” Snape said, at the same time that Parkinson asked, “What is it, Granger?”

“I know what it is,” Malfoy said. Harry saw him swallow heavily, and knew that he was thinking of how easily it could have been his parents walking into that deadly cage. “That’s where they’re going to feed the inmates to the Dementors, isn’t it?”

Snape did not answer for several long seconds, but when he finally did, it was so quiet that Harry wasn’t sure he actually heard it. “Yes,” Snape said.

Parkinson and Zabini shivered, and shared whispered reassurances which Harry could only partly follow; they had no family in the lottery, he learned, though it had been a near thing for Zabini’s half-brother, who only barely received parole from some misdemeanour before the lottery was instated. He pressed closer to Malfoy, and was grateful when the Slytherin pressed back against him. Outside of their protective bubble within the arena, the snow was beginning to fall again, and with it, the last dregs of twilight.

There was a hushed murmur among the crowd as the tall, angular form of the Dark Lord moved forward, hands raised for silence. Death Eaters, both masked and unmasked, gathered in tense groups—at least three hundred in total. Voldemort ascended the steps to the dais surrounding the feeding cage, creating slow, blue flashes of protective magic beneath him with each footstep, like wakes left in water from skipping stones. At the top, he turned and faced his Death Eaters with a solemn gaze.

“My Death Eaters,” the Dark Lord began, voice even, “you are not accustomed to my summoning you unpredictably. I appreciate that you each have families, jobs, and commitments that require your time and that you need notice to attend to me. I would not have called you had it not have been of the greatest importance.”

He gestured behind him, and two dozen masked Death Eaters stepped forward. “Until now, apprisal to this situation has been on a need-to-know basis; it is now a need-to-know basis for all of you, so listen carefully. The Death Eaters you see behind me are the werewolves who volunteered to accept this assignment—one which will no doubt lead to at least a handful of Death Eater deaths.

“You have all seen the newspaper, and you are aware that the Dementors will breed soon; we have known this for some time, and with the help of the weres and a talented Arithmantist, we have built what we believe will prevent a massacre across the British Isles.

“Our calculations originally pointed us to a particular spot in France for this arena, but the recent disappearance of the Dementors has raised new questions, and created new problems that we were not prepared for. Earlier this afternoon, we made the decision to remove the arena to this spot—the future site of the Firth College for Young Wizards and Witches, with the permission of one of our own close to the project. This could not have been done without the extreme strength of our werewolf colleagues, and I thank them for it—you may step down,” he added to the figures behind him.

Their bulky forms walked sedately from the dais and dispersed into the crowd, but—there, yes, it was. Harry craned his head over Parkinson’s delicate figure and squinted. It was Remus Lupin, and the other masked man who walked with him could be no one but his father—the long black hair hanging from his hood, the gait of his walk and his hands gave it away.

Harry was half-set on going to them, on finding a face he could truly trust, and telling his father how much he couldn’t wait for hols so he could get away from all of this for a while, not even wondering why his father would have been dressed as a Death Eater and posing as a werewolf. He made an aborted step towards them and stopped. The two men approached another, and he was unmasked as Lupin was—it was his father. Who could the other man be, then?

“The purpose of the arena that I stand upon is two-fold,” Voldemort continued. Malfoy’s elbow dug sharply into his side and he gave Harry a fierce glare from his downcast eyes.

“Pay attention,” Malfoy muttered. “You’re being obvious.” He tilted his head towards Lupin, and then towards Snape, who was also watching the three men with great interest. Harry nodded, and set his focus back on Voldemort.

“It is assembled with a series of runes woven in with the wood, stone and mortar that will, we hope, protect those without from that within. Inside this protected area, you will have all noticed—and hopefully counter-spelled—there is a very strong Elation Enchantment. It is unfortunately necessary, as this will be the designated area for the Dementor feed expected to assuage their hunger enough to prevent a Kissing frenzy.

“If you have a family-member or friend currently incarcerated, and you have not received word that they were selected in the lottery, then you have nothing to worry about on that front; if you have received word, I am sorry for your loss, but there will be no reconsiderations on this matter.”

He stepped down from the platform with little fanfare and stared out at his audience, thoughtful. “The school being built is just on the other side of those trees,” he said. “Many families have already begun to pre-enrol their children—some of you may have done the same.

“I am told that the school will open for summer classes in June, so it is our hope that this situation will be resolved by that time. We need it to be resolved by that time. Use whatever connections you have, whatever resources you can feasibly access, whatever favours you may have allotted, and help us locate the Dementors so that we can lead them here to feed before it is too late. We are currently dialoguing with members of the Chinese department of corrections who have used this system once before, with success, trying to discover the reason for the Dementors’ disappearance.

“Until such a time, I am advising you to refrain from doing anything that would attract a rogue Dementor to you when alone. Do not engage in activities that make you…happy…alone.” There was a smattering of snickering, and even the Dark Lord’s lips twitched, but it died down quickly under the heaviness of the situation. “And by all means, do not start or become part of a public panic.” He took one, last look around the assembled Death Eaters, and his gaze settled on their little group. “Those of you with special skills we think may be useful will feel your Marks pulsing now; please wait for me inside the tent at the far end of the pitch for extended assignments. That is all.”

Snape stared at them with some amount of disdain, but it was hidden mostly by his overall air of exhaustion. “It appears that the Dark Lord wishes to speak to you, Black,” he said, nodding to the approaching man. “The Headmaster has called a meeting on this topic and awaits my report; I must return to the school. Are you and Granger capable of returning on your own?”

“Yes, sir,” Hermione said.

“I’m staying with him,” Malfoy added.

Snape rolled his eyes, but nodded. He was too tired to argue. He stepped forward and bowed perfunctorily to the Dark Lord, who waved him up. “Milord, I must return to Hogwarts to attend the Headmaster’s meeting.”

“And give him a full report, no doubt,” Voldemort said.

Snape smiled slightly. “Perhaps not as full as it once was.” Voldemort lifted an eyebrow with interest. Snape turned to the two remaining Sytherins and held out his hands. “Ms Parkinson, I do see your father over there but he appears to be engaged; shall I return you to school?”

“Yes, Professor,” she said, taking his hand. Zabini took the other without a word, and with a sharp crack, they were gone.

“Young Malfoy,” Voldemort said, nodding to him. “You may lift your head; I always know when unmarked wizards are near. So close to my friend Harry, and you could have been no one else.”

“Good evening, sir,” Malfoy said, dutifully lifting his eyes.

“Indeed,” the Dark Lord said, but his attention was focused on Hermione. “You’ve brought the research you told me of?” he asked.

She nodded, produced the notebook Harry had got from her rucksack. “Yes, Lord, but I’ve found another reference since I last contacted you on the fetch-key, and I think it may hold the answer.”

Voldemort took the notebook with interest, and Hermione moved to him, flipped the pages until she found the right one, as if they were long-time friends—as if he were her weird uncle and not a murderous madman instead.

“Please do practice your Occlumency, Harry,” Voldemort said, eyes not looking up from his readings with Hermione. “You broadcast when you’re stressed.”

Harry felt his cheeks flushing. “I’m not stressed,” he muttered, but made it a point not to think of Voldemort as a madman again. Malfoy snickered, and he decided that if he were stressed, then he would just have to get unstressed, and Malfoy, in his infinite wit, would be the one to do it.

“Harry,” Voldemort warned. He flipped a page, and Hermione’s finger went straight back to pointing out this and that.

“I know what you were thinking,” Malfoy whispered, smirking. “I was thinking it, too.”

“Then why aren’t you getting reprimanded?” Harry asked, annoyed.

Malfoy tapped his head. “I do practice my Occlumency.”

“And we thank you for it,” Hermione said pointedly, then went straight back to explaining the use of lightning to re-wire Squibs into Magic Users. Harry coughed, attempted to hide his embarrassment, but it did little to help. Finally, she and the Dark Lord were satisfied with their discussion, and she gave him the notebook to browse until they could meet again.

“It will keep my thoughts from focusing on our crisis,” Voldemort said wryly. Hermione was hesitant with her smile; she was still unaccustomed to his strange humour. “You three should return to the school now. I do not want you gone when Dumbledore ends his meeting. He rubbed his eyes—dark red, nearly black, nearly human, now—tiredly and added, “Three students expelled for cavorting with Death Eaters is the last thing I need right now—especially when one is Harry Potter, one is a Mudblood, and one’s father is stealing Muggles’ babies.”

Harry narrowed his eyes, but it was Hermione who kept him from speaking up. “It’s just a word, Harry,” she said. “He’s not talking about me.” She pulled the fetch-key from her pocket and held it out to them. “We need to check on Ginny anyway.”

Harry nodded, and he and Malfoy reached for the key. Voldemort grimaced, and snapped his fingers, calling for his house-elf. “Horvitz,” he said, “for the love of Merlin, find my headache potion,” and the elf disappeared.

Beside him, Malfoy stiffened suddenly. Harry followed his gaze, but it was Hermione who, shocked, said, “Is that Ginny?” And indeed it looked just like her, but there was no earthly way she could have been there. The Dark Lord turned to look and gasped in pain, pressing his palm harshly against his temple.

“Are you okay?” Harry asked. He let go of the fetch-key and made to help, but the Dark Lord put him off with a vicious look and a harsh, “Go to the school!”

Hermione did not need to be told twice. She grabbed Harry’s hand and activated the fetch-key, and he was gone.

ɤɣɤ

Malfoy pulled his pocket watch out as soon as they landed back at Hogwarts. “Have somewhere to be?” Harry asked. He tried to hide the interest in his voice, but his nerves were still rattled, and it was largely unsuccessful.

“My parents,” he muttered, squinting at the numbers. This particular corridor was, as the Dark Lord had once told Hermione, unused, and there were no candles on the walls to guide them. “They were going to try to deliver the muggle-borns to one of the nunneries tonight since the Aurors would be off chasing Dementors.”

Harry heard Hermione snort with derision, followed swiftly by a muttered incantation. The area around them filled with bluish light, and the shadows beneath her eyes grew dark and large; she looked nothing short of exhausted. “Not likely,” Hermione said. “The Ministry doesn’t have a strong record of logic and sensibility, much less where the public is concerned.”

“Unfortunately, you’re quite right,” Malfoy sighed. He craned his neck to peer down the hallway, but the light did not stretch far, and his preoccupation with his parents’ safety led him to abandon the mission fairly quickly. “Did the Dark Lord happen to programme the fetch-key to show us the bloody way out?” He looked at Hermione expectantly, features sharp and ghostly beneath his black hood.

“Well, no,” she said. “I guess we’ll just have to try one way and see where it takes us.”

“I’ve got the map, though,” Harry said. He pulled it from his cloak’s inside pocket and flicked it open.

“Oh, he has a map of Hogwarts,” Malfoy sneered. “How lovely—no wonder you were always able to show up where I least wanted you.”

Harry gave him a sly grin, and set the map to float in front of them with a well-placed hovering charm—he was quite pleased with it, actually; it had taken him a fortnight over the summer to get the spell right.

“Ah, here we are,” Hermione said, pointing. “We’re on the third floor near Professor Trelawney’s classroom.”

“Then we should just have to take the corridor south until we come to her office and take the left there to her classroom—and then we’ll be out,” Harry added. Hermione rolled her eyes, and he added, “What? Three years of Divination had to be good for something.”

“Merlin!” Draco exclaimed suddenly. “That’s us! We’re moving!”

“Yeah, the map does that,” Harry said, scanning. “It’s charmed.”

“That’s some fancy spell-work,” Malfoy said. “I can’t even imagine how you would begin…bet my mum would know, though. I’m going to write her and—there’s Filch.”

“Oh, no,” Hermione muttered. “He’s coming up behind us quick. We need to go—we absolutely cannot be caught tonight, dressed as suspiciously as we are.”

Harry folded the map with a snap of his wand and shoved it in his pocket. Somewhere behind them, Mrs Norris let out a warning yowl and he took off at a run. Hermione and Malfoy followed, feet thumping on the worn stone floor until Malfoy silenced their shoes with a questionable spell.

They sprinted past Professor Trelawney’s classroom—even outside of it smelled heavily of sandalwood—and cut a sharp left around the corner. The torches were lit up ahead, but there were no hiding places before them: only the vast five-storey entrance was before them with its gaping, echoing expanse of staircases and portraits. “We should split up, in case he sees us—keep your hoods up. He can’t chase all of us and if he doesn’t see our faces he might not know.”

“Which way?” Harry asked, as they neared the landings.

“I’ll go to the Infirmary, and pretend like I’m doing rounds,” she said. “You two go to the dungeons and go in through Theo’s room.”

“Right,” Malfoy said. He grabbed Harry’s hand quite suddenly, and jerked him towards the furthest staircase. Hermione darted off the other way, and they shuffled down the stairs as fast as possible, their breaths echoing in the empty gallery.

Above them, Filch shouted with excitement as he spotted their hooded forms. Hermione, at least, had not been seen. Finally, they made it to the bottom, and Harry stared up at the huge wooden doors sealing the entrance shut, at a loss. The staircases had moved, and he was completely turned around.

“This way,” Malfoy said, pulling him away. “The Head Boy’s room’s down that way.” They rushed down another, steeper flight of stone stairs into the dungeons, where the torches’ flickering barely lit their paths—not enough to keep them from stumbling on the stones that had been dislodged from centuries of settling.

Finally they came upon the painting guarding Nott’s door, and Malfoy banged on the canvas with his fist. “Nott!” he said, as loud as he dared, “Nott—let us in, Filch is coming!”

The door swung open with a startling abruptness, and Theodore Nott pulled them both inside. His room was not unlike what Harry would’ve expected a Slytherin’s dorm to look like: a four-poster bed—larger than the ones in Gryffindor—a wardrobe, desk, chair and shelf filled with books on potions, spell creation, Old Magic, Ancient Runes and even one on muggle lifestyles, with green upholstery over nearly everything. His trunk stood open with half its contents cluttered about the room. One of Hermione’s outdoor cloaks hung over the back of the chair, and Theodore rushed to fold it as Malfoy found himself a place to sit on the edge of the bed.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Did you go?”

“Of course we went,” Malfoy said. He was already nosing through Nott’s things, though Nott at least appeared as though it were not uncommon. “Granger went, too.”

Nott looked away briefly. “I know,” he said. “She would have had to—she’s back, though, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “She detoured to the Infirmary to avoid Filch; I’m sure she’ll be ‘round any minute now.”

“What happened to Weasley?” Nott asked. “Professor Snape took her off the pitch, and he never came back to the game. She’s alright, isn’t she?”

Harry shrugged, unsure what to say. “Probably broke a couple bones. Nothing a little skelegrow can’t help,” he added with a shiver. Malfoy picked a roll of cream parchment up from Nott’s bed, and Harry couldn’t help but watch him, frowning in concentration and biting his lip as he read it. Nott only rolled his eyes before snatching it away and closing it in his Muggle Studies textbook.

“Muggles really do that to their teeth?” Malfoy asked with some amount of concern.

Nott seemed to struggle hiding a smile. “Hermione’s parents do it for work,” he said.

“What, dentistry?” Harry asked, dubious. “That’s what your paper’s on?” Nott shrugged, lips pursed to hide his amusement; Malfoy wasn’t catching on, whatever the joke was. After a moment, Harry said, “Look, thanks for letting us in, Nott, but I need to be going. How do I get back from here?” There were doors on either side of the room and another near the wardrobe that led to the small en suite.

“You’re out of luck,” Nott said. “Filch patrols this corridor heavily until about two a.m., then the Hufflepuff 5th year prefect has it until three. Your best bet is to just take that door to the Slytherin common room and sleep in my old bed in the dorm. I doubt anyone will care, and from what I gather, Professor Snape knew where you were tonight so he isn’t likely to say anything when he does rounds in the morning.”

Malfoy gave him a speculative look. Harry studiously ignored it, but it was hard to continue doing so when Nott joined in as well. “Watch out for Blaise,” Nott said cryptically. Malfoy applied a strange smirk to his face, grabbed Harry’s hand, and sedately led him to the opposite door—the one that led to Slytherin, to hostile students, to young Death Eaters, to Malfoy’s bed, or certain doom.

The common room was relatively empty when they entered; a handful of upper classmen were still up studying or writing papers with the latest Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes No Cramps! Quills. They glanced up as he and Malfoy entered, but paid him no mind. He was utterly uninteresting to them, even in their own common room.

The room itself was much like he remembered it being in second year: dark and green, but the furniture, at least, he could now appreciate. It was all top quality spell-carpentry; the antique wood and fabric maintained with the highest attention to detail. Where Gryffindor was garish and worn, Slytherin was lavish and spotless.

The far wall was unnerving with its huge thick-glass window looking out into the bottom of the Black Lake. The water was dark; an eerie yellow-green light wavered in and out from somewhere below, and Harry did his best to avoid looking at it as they passed. He could not shake the threatening feeling the window caused in him, though, and wearily expected his dreams to be overrun with drowning in deep, black water for the next several weeks—at least, however, it would break the monotony from those confusing dreams of nothing but singing and swirls.

The dorms were even further below ground. They must have been another five stories below by now—surely the only thing preventing a cave in on top of all the sleeping Slytherins was two-thousand year old magic; Harry was not best pleased by that.

Malfoy pressed his palm to the wood of the last dorm room and it unlocked with a click. It was past eleven, and the rest of the school was retiring by now; Harry fully expected Malfoy’s dorm mates to be doing the same, but they were all wide awake. The room was fully lit and everyone’s curtains were opened. The fireplace was currently playing the Hobgoblins’ Reunion Tour—minus Stubby Boardman—on floo disk, and Zabini was sat on the floor watching it, attempting to play along on a didgeridoo, with varying degrees of success. Crabbe munched on a pork pie, dropping crumbs all over the essay he was drafting for Divination, and Goyle scanned the paper, compiling outliers in the Wizarding England Stock Exchange’s closing report. They paid him no mind.

Above Malfoy’s bed there was a very conspicuous poster of Blodwyn Bludd, of bloodsucking vampire fame. He grinned down at Harry with hooded come-hither eyes, and sang out an experimental note from one of his more famous ‘Please let me drink your blood’ serenades. Malfoy shushed him straight away and toed Zabini repeatedly until he Muffliato’d his musical nonsense. Nott’s abandoned bed was in the corner—far away from Malfoy’s and cold and dark in its stark neatness. Harry looked at it silently, and as the day’s events truly began to sink in, his heart began to beat madly in his chest, and the gaudy garnet ring on his finger strummed a hurried pulse against his skin in time. He shivered, strange fear running down his spine, and when Malfoy’s hand pressed gently against the small of his back, he leaned into it with unprecedented relief. Malfoy tilted his head towards the other side of the room, and Harry followed his gaze to the bed below Blodwyn Bludd.

They flopped on Malfoy’s bed. Harry exhaled, hugely relieved to be somewhere safe for the moment. Outside, the whole world was being stalked by starving Dementors; soon, muggles would start having unexplainable nightmares, and wizards would begin locking every happy thought behind layers of Occlumency while they did the same to their homes. He felt coldness down to his bones, and did not think he’d ever be warm again.

Once, not too terribly long ago, his biggest worry had been surviving an impossible fight against a prodigy wizard with nearly a century of horrifying, esoteric learning. Now, he had to worry about his soul, as well. Dumbledore was right: there are things worse than death, and though the panic was only forming in slow waves, it wouldn’t be long before the reality sunk in, and the whole wizarding world was quite literally paralyzed with fear.

They leaned against the headboard of the bed and watched Blaise playing his muted music, for lack of anything more comfortable to look at.

Blaise’s shirtsleeves were rolled up as he blew on his didgeridoo; the Dark Mark contrasted little with his dark skin, but he wore it unashamedly exposed. Each flex of his forearm undulated the tattoo like a wave, and he played on because he was okay.

After a while, Goyle finished his essay and Crabbe finished his finances, and they both drew their curtains to sleep. Harry remained propped against the headboard of Malfoy’s bed, unready to commit himself to the isolation offered by Nott’s abandoned one. There was only Zabini’s muffled music to keep him from focusing on the frightening thoughts racing through his brain now, and when he suddenly stopped playing and looked up at the two of them, it took Harry several seconds to notice the change.

The fire had been extinguished and Zabini sat staring at him, strangely without any sign of hostility. Harry blinked quickly. He furrowed his brows and said, “What?”

Zabini shrugged; his eyes flicked over to Harry’s other side where Malfoy sat, and Harry followed his gaze. He’d thought Malfoy had been watching Blaise’s strange performance, but Harry found that instead, Malfoy’s gaze was fixed upon a single point, and looked as though it had been for quite some time. That point was the Owl entrance of the room—a reasonably large, square abscess at the very top of the high ceiling that led, through a near vertical tunnel, to outside, and was used for delivering mail.

“Professor Snape would’ve come and said if anything had gone wrong,” Zabini said in his cultured accent.

“I know,” Malfoy replied, but his eyes remained focused on the Owl entrance. He shook himself and turned back to them, finally. “I know,” he said again.

Zabini turned to Harry. “Weasley was there today, did you see her?”

There was no need to clarify where, exactly, he meant. Harry nodded. “Only for a moment—I thought maybe it might not have been her.”

“It was,” Zabini said. “I recall her being taken to the Infirmary today. A very quick recovery.”

Harry said nothing, but Zabini didn’t need a second person to carry on a conversation. Slytherins were like that. “The Dark Lord seemed taken aback at her presence, but Professor Snape did not.”

Harry had not noticed this. He frowned, but Zabini wasn’t done yet.

“I did wonder what he’s enticed Granger with, however. I always suspected that you would crack, Black, but I never thought Granger would. What’s he promised her?”

“Lay off,” Malfoy muttered before Harry even had a change to become angry. It was hard to do so though since Blaise seemed completely unconcerned with whatever happened. It was not as if he were trying to bait Harry, but that he was only curious. Regardless, Zabini changed his approach.

He cocked his head to the side and studied Harry with slanted, dark eyes. “I can’t imagine a muggle-born aligning with the Dark Lord willingly—yet, neither can I see Granger being forced, or you not pitching a fit if she had been. So it was willingly, I would wager. Pansy thinks she’s up the duff and that Theo’s father won’t consent to an alignment without her taking the Mark, but I don’t agree.”

“He’s in Azkaban, anyway,” Malfoy added absently. “His grandmother’s in control of the estate and she’d probably let him marry a kneazle if it came down to it.”

Blaise rolled his eyes. “I did say it was Pansy’s idea. I think Granger’s got something the Dark Lord wants. He seemed particularly interested in her presence tonight. She’s found out how to do something he wants to do. To collaborate with a Mudblood barely old enough to apparate, it would have to be something outstanding; and for Granger to agree to work with him, not only tolerate your dalliances, it would have to be something she wanted, too.” Zabini leaned forward, interested. “She’s found out how to move magic, hasn’t she?”

“Move magic?” Harry asked.

Zabini scoffed, misinterpreting his ignorance. “What muggle-born wouldn’t want to be able to move magic?” he asked. “Granger’s not so different from the rest of us.”

“No, she’s not,” Malfoy said. “Potter just doesn’t know the term. You’re forgetting that he was raised like a heathen.”

“Muggles aren’t heathens, Malfoy,” Harry bit out. “What’s moving magic, though?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” Malfoy said. He lifted his eyebrows meaningfully.

“Giving magic to muggles, you mean,” Harry said. “So what if she has? What’s wrong with that?”

“So, she has!” Zabini said. It was the first time he’d ever seen any sort of excitement enter the Slytherin’s voice. “I suppose she means to give it to her parents first,” he mused, “but she deserves that much for the discovery.”

“Why is this a big deal? It’s just a theory,” Harry said.

Both Slytherins gave him matching looks of disbelief. “Potter, the story of moving magic has been part of wizarding lore since the beginning of wizards. Myths have Merlin as the first and last wizard to ever do it, but there’s no proof he ever even existed so likewise there is no proof that this magic ever existed either. It’s true that magic is usually passed down genetically, but it manifests spontaneously in muggle children, too, and we’ve been looking for the reason why, and how to replicate it, forever. This would be the biggest breakthrough in our history.”

“But it could also be our biggest setback,” Blaise added, and Malfoy nodded his agreement. “Everyone can’t have magic, no matter how much we might want to give it to all of our Squib family members.”

“Why not?” Harry asked.

“Because Arithmantical evidence exists that says there’s a finite amount of magical energy,” Malfoy said.

Blaise stood up and moved to his bed on the other side of Malfoy’s. “There is, however, Ghergen’s Theory.”

Malfoy scoffed. “Ghergen was batty.”

Zabini shrugged out of his shirt and slid into bed. “The stories have Merlin as pretty batty, too,” he said, waving his wand at the sconce above his bed. It flickered out, and they were left in darkness.

“Merlin wasn’t real,” Malfoy muttered. He jerked the curtains around his bed shut, and pulled his shirt off, tossing it to the floor somewhere outside them. He lit his wand and spelled it to hover above them. He flopped down, clearly agitated. “Are you sleeping here?” he asked curiously.

Harry stared at him, at his surprisingly wide shoulders, how unconcerned he was being near naked in front of him, his butterbeer-blond hair spread all over the pillow. Malfoy’s Lumos spell wasn’t perfect, and the light had a bluish tint; his chest gleamed pale and ethereal as if underwater, and the sharpness of his features was exaggerated with heavy blue shadows that made him look more dangerous than he really was. Harry’s breath caught in his throat and he cast his eyes away while he struggled to regain it.

“No,” he said quickly. “No—I should go sleep in Nott’s bed.”

Malfoy propped himself up on one elbow, and the muscles in his torso flexed in such a normal, usual way that it made Harry want very badly for this, too, to be a normal and usual thing. But that wasn’t possible with Malfoy because he was surely betrothed, or bound by some other archaic, Neanderthal-like stipulation placed upon him by generations of Malfoys who all had portraits in Malfoy Manor and expected an heir.

“Lay down,” Malfoy said, very normal and usual.

“I—,” Harry started again. Malfoy tugged his arm and Harry’s head fell to the pillow. He stared at Malfoy and wished he were anywhere but where he was. It had been only a couple of days since they’d got each other off, and he’d tried his best not to think of it, lest he find himself in conflicting states of terror and excitement. There was no way Malfoy would ever commit to him, and he could easily see himself falling for him given half a chance. That was a terrible idea.

Harry turned, and they stared at each other, noses mere inches apart. Malfoy’s half-arsed Lumos made his eyes look remarkably bright, and Harry squeezed his shut to avoid them. He was too upset, too frightened of the state of their world, to be strong enough to resist him now.

“Theo’s bed’s probably covered in leftover lube charms, anyway,” Malfoy said.

Harry laughed. “Nott? Yeah right. He probably never even orgasmed before Hermione.”

Malfoy grinned, all pointy white teeth and crinkled eyes. Harry couldn’t take it anymore. It had been hard enough holding out as long as he had. Malfoy would never make the first move again, and he would likely pretend it had never happened for